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Sound and Fury

I am not the first person to notice that it sometimes seems like most of the internet is made up of lists. I’m not necessarily a huge fan of list-writing, and it’s not something I personally indulge in very often, but occasionally I’ll be browsing around one of these things and come across something that piques my interest. I think it was the BFI that were hosting a list of ten often-overlooked British horror classics of years gone by, and one of the films they recommended was Jerzy Skolimowski’s The Shout, originally released in 1978. One of the nice things about the internet, on the other hand, is that you can very often find these slightly obscure films from decades gone by lurking on free-to-view video sharing sites. This may require a slight tweak of one’s ethical subroutines, but it’s hardly in the same league as recording Black Panther on your phone camera in an actual theatre.

Should one be surprised at the obscurity of The Shout? Well, this is a movie which won the Grand Prix de Jury at Cannes, which is not the kind of distinction one normally associates with low-budget British horror movies; also, it features a rather impressive cast of genuinely distinguished performers. The producer suggested that they were attracted by the fact that the film is based on a short story by the acclaimed author Robert Graves (he of I, Claudius renown). (The fact that it’s derived from a short story may explain why this is a rather short film, clocking in well shy of ninety minutes.)

There are various stories within stories and potentially unreliable narrators in The Shout, but the film proper gets underway with a young man (Tim Curry), possibly intended to be Graves himself, arriving to participate in a cricket match at a mental institution. The head of the place (Robert Stephens) gives him the job of scoring, in the company of Crossley (Alan Bates), one of the patients. Crossley proves to be an unusual companion and offers to tell his story.

This proves to revolve around a well-heeled young couple living on the Devon coast, named Anthony (John Hurt) and Rachel (Susannah York). Anthony seems to be an avant-garde composer or radiophonic musician; Rachel doesn’t appear to do much of anything. One day Anthony encounters Crossley, an intense, mysterious stranger, and ends up inviting him home for Sunday lunch.

Over lunch Crossley reveals he has recently concluded an eighteen year sojourn in the Australian Outback, and regales his hosts with various hair-raising tales of his experiences. Anthony seems bemused more than anything else, but Rachel is not impressed by their visitor. However, Crossley claims to have been taken ill  and ends up staying the night with the couple. He also tells Anthony of the strange supernatural powers he has learned from the magicians of the Outback, and offers to give him a demonstration the next day – should he be brave enough…

The Shout was made in 1978, but the source material dates back to the 1920s, and this is one of those films where it kind of shows – it takes place in a very British landscape of cricket matches (suffice to say that rain stops play), lonely sand dunes, country churches, and quiet cottages where people live comfortably with no visible means of support. One would imagine that some of the story would have felt a little dubious in the seventies; it certainly feels that way now, especially when Bates announces that he has been trained in the use of the terrifying death-shout of the Australian Aborigines. It comes perilously close to resembling the kind of spoof you would expect to find on The Goon Show or possibly an episode of Ripping Yarns.

The money sequence of the film, obviously, comes midway through when Crossley takes Anthony out onto the dunes and unleashes the eponymous bellow. You’re kind of aware that this is either going to be an utterly awesome cinematic moment or something slightly absurd and rather embarrassing; in the end it really is on a knife-edge as to which turns out to be the case – the cinematography and sound design are up to the job, Hurt’s performance helps, and cutaways to local wildlife dropping dead also add to the effect. But on the other hand it is still just someone shouting on a beach, and the fact that the camera angle gives us a very good view of Alan Bates’ dental work is also slightly distracting.

It’s not even as if the shout is really that important to The Shout; it’s a big moment in the film, but not really in the story, which is much more about (it is implied) Crossley using rather subtler magic to displace Anthony and have his brooding way with Rachel (this being a serious, cultural movie, it is full of artistically-significant nudity, and I will leave you to guess which of the three leads is required to take her clothes off the most). In a way, it almost feels like an extra-long episode of Hammer House of Horror as written by Harold Pinter – although, to be honest, one would hope that would be a little more coherent as a story. This one is full of unanswered questions and people behaving in a way no normal, reasonable person would.

I suppose the film’s escape clause for this is the fact that, after all, the central narrative is a story being told by a mental patient, and one should therefore not expect it to be completely coherent – the script even quotes Macbeth’s line about ‘…a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’ On the other hand, the film does seem to suggest that there is a deeper truth to be teased out from close viewing of the film – Hurt and York both appear in the framing sequence set in and around the mental institution, but it’s not completely clear whether they are playing the same characters or not. It is certainly strongly implied that there is some truth to Crossley’s tales of the killer shout.

Perhaps one of the reasons why The Shout is so little known these days is because it is essentially a thing on its own – it comes from a point in time when all the big British horror studios of the 60s and 70s had essentially packed in their operations, it’s not quite part of the folk-horror tradition… in fact you could argue that it doesn’t really feel like a genuine horror movie at all, and only gets lumped into the genre because it’s the closest thing to a good fit. It feels like much more of an art movie than anything really intended to stir the emotions – although in places it has an effectively eerie and unsettling atmosphere. I wrote recently about the peculiar new phenomenon of the ‘post-horror’ movie, and were it to be made now The Shout would certainly be a candidate for this new sub-genre. As it is, perhaps we can call it a pre-post-horror movie?

The cast certainly work hard to give some heft and depth to a fairly unlikely tale, with John Hurt on particularly good form. Stephens and Curry aren’t in it that much, though. Making a very early appearance (and one unlikely to appear on his showreel, one suspects) is a 28-year-old Jim Broadbent, as a participant in the cricket match. To say this concludes with Broadbent showing a side of himself not often seen in his other movies is probably a significant understatement.

Even the producer of The Shout was quick to make clear that in 1978 the Cannes film festival is not the corporate juggernaut that it is today, which may explain why such an odd little film managed to win a major prize there. I would say this has cult movie written all over it, mainly due to its wilful obliqueness and peculiar atmosphere. But one of the great lost classics of British horror? I would say that is pushing it a bit.

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It’s Grim Down Under

I find myself once again on the threshold of a moment which feels self-indulgent and somewhat pointless, for I am about to devote time and energy to writing about a film which, on average, nobody in the world is likely going to see. What can I say; I like the physical act of going to the cinema, and at the moment the vast majority of films I have either paid to see or would have to be paid to see. So, after a thorough search of the Oxford listings, and having briefly contemplated going to see a revival of The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, I ended up trundling along to the one and only local screening of Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country (NB: title may be ironic).

This is a reasonable example of what I always think of as a Sou’western; which is to say that it does a very good job of having much of the atmosphere and imagery of a Western, but is actually set in Australia. Warwick Thornton is, apparently, a respected Australian film-maker, whose special area of concern is the treatment of the indigenous people of the continent. If this leads you to conclude that there are not a lot of laughs in Sweet Country, you are, as they say, bang on the money.

The film is set in the 1920s, in an outback so vividly presented you can almost taste the dust and smell the sweat. Sam Neill plays Fred Smith, a tolerant and pious landowner, who is asked a favour by his neighbour Harry March (Ewen Leslie). March is a troubled man, very likely suffering from PTSD following his experiences in France with (one presumes) the Anzacs – not that there was much understanding of such things at the time. Living alone is not helping him to cope, and he requests the assistance of Smith’s indigenous farmhand Sam (Hamilton Morris) for a day or so.

Well, let’s just say that March’s casual racism does not get in the way of some bad stuff going down between him and Sam’s wife, although Sam is not aware of this. But she is left in terror of March, which has serious consequences a few days later. Drunk and in pursuit of a young boy he suspects of stealing, an almost-unhinged March resorts to shooting up the cabin that Sam and his wife are in. Fearing for both their lives, Sam grabs a gun and shoots back, killing March.

It’s clearly justified self-defence, but Sam is wise enough to understand that he is very unlikely to get justice from the courts of the whitefella, and he and his wife take flight into the outback. Sure enough, an armed party is soon in pursuit of the duo, led by the local sergeant (Bryan Brown), with Smith along to try and ensure that some semblance of due process is observed…

As I say, you could quite easily rewrite this script so the story was relocated to somewhere in the wide open spaces of America in the late 19th century, instead of the Australian outback fifty years later. (I am aware that saying this will doubtless incense Warwick Thornton. Sorry.) There is the occasional moment which starkly reminds you of the location of the story, however – at one point the posse encounters a group of unwesternised indigenous Australians, who are not pleased to see them, and in a startling moment the film makes graphically clear that boomerangs are not toys or joke weapons. Later on there is a slightly surreal alfresco trial sequence, with most of the participants sitting in deckchairs. In the end, though, it is not really the subject matter of the story that keeps this from being a full-on western (or sou’western), but the way it is handled. It is a western in the same way that You Were Never Really Here is an action thriller: which is to say that it’s not, but it uses the raw material of this kind of story to create a much more considered, thoughtful and frequently non-naturalistic narrative.

The fact that this kind of film is getting any kind of major international release must be at least partly due to the presence in it of Bryan Brown and Sam Neill. Brown is one of those actors you’d probably recognise from somewhere, even if you didn’t remember his name, while it’s not that many years since Sam Neill was heading up genuine first-rank Hollywood blockbusters. These days his star has waned a bit, of course: quite apart from his cameo in The Commuter, we must speak of the last film to which both he and Brown contributed, the unspeakable you-know-what (Brown had a tiny voice part as Mr Rabbit). Both their performances here are sufficiently exemplary for me to be minded to forgive them their role in the lapine calamity, though: this is a solid enough movie, but those moments where it really sparks into life are mostly due to its two big names.

That said, this is a movie which seems to be content to keep its characters at arms’ length, presenting them dispassionately. We are not encouraged to identify with the well-meaning but ineffectual Smith, or the police sergeant. Sam in particular, whom you would most expect to be a sympathetic character, remains essentially inscrutable and enigmatic for most of the movie. The narrative remains engaging, and there is never any doubt as to where the director’s sympathies lie, but the nature of the story means that this is hardly light viewing, nor is it really intended as entertainment.

For the most part the film sticks to the truism that the kind of racist oppression suffered by the indigenous people of Australia debases and degrades the white boss-class as much as their victims (not that this in any way lets them off the hook). But there’s also interesting subtext about a kind of generational dysfunction. The film is filled with adults unwilling or unable to acknowledge their biological children, or at least have a proper parental relationship with them; the result is a kind of pervasive familial angst, born of the casual belief in the inequality of European colonists and indigenous people. It’s very difficult to find signs of optimism anywhere in Sweet Country: ‘What hope has this country got?’ cries a despairing Fred Smith in the closing moments of the film.

On one level Sweet Country is about the relationship between violence and justice, the stuff of many a conventional movie, but the uncompromising starkness of this movie, and its occasional more impressionistic touches – there are brief, soundless flash-backs and flash-forwards scattered throughout it – mean it is much more a piece of political art than something you would ever watch for pleasure. The skill with which it has been made, not to mention the incredible beauty of the Australian landscape, means it is a rewarding film on many levels, but conventionally enjoyable? I would strongly doubt it.

Cycle of Violence

A couple of weeks in and Ready Player One seems to be doing okay, although I suspect not quite as well as its producers might have hoped, all things considered. (Just to digress a little, the list of the best-performing films of the year so far is fascinating reading, with Chinese blockbusters unheard of in the west doing massive business, and the appalling you-know-what having made a soul-bleaching $275 million so far.) Maybe this is because wider audiences are indeed struggling a bit with the non-stop in-jokes and pop-culture references which are such an integral part of the film. You could probably get a good sense of a person’s age and background based on how many of Ready Player One‘s Easter Eggs they recognise; most people will get the Back to the Future DeLorean and the chestburster from Alien, probably rather fewer the glaive from Krull.

One of the things that is likely to separate the adults from the younglings (oh yeah, post-Weinstein my idioms are all going to be gender-neutral) is their response to Olivia Cooke’s ride during the race sequence: once again, the majority will, I suspect, limit themselves to something along the lines of ‘Cool motorcycle’ – for the rest of us, of course, it is instantly and obviously recognisable as The Bike From Akira.

It is a little strange and perhaps even unique that a single element of design should become quite as emblematic of the film it appears in as The Bike From Akira. If you google for Akira-related images then six of the first ten results are pictures of The Bike. This is despite the fact that The Bike has relatively limited screen-time and is really only tangentially significant to the plot of the film. Just goes to show the power of a really great piece of design, I suppose.

Hard to believe though it is, Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira is thirty years old this year, and its futuristic setting should be our here-and-now – thankfully, most of its predictions have turned out to be incorrect, with the amusing exception of the fact that Tokyo is indeed hosting the Olympics in 2020. I first saw it as a teenager, and hadn’t seen it again until very recently; it was a bit of shock to realise that if I leave it as long again before watching it for a third time, I’ll be in my seventies. However, time has not diminished the exceptional qualities of this film, while a little bit of distance has allowed the film’s cultural significance to become clearer.

There’s a fair of backstory to Akira, most of which the film quite sensibly parcels out in the course of the story. The essentials are as follows: in 1988, Tokyo was destroyed by a devastating, unexplained explosion, triggering a third world war. By 2019, it seems that civilisation has recovered, up to a point – the movie takes place entirely within the sprawling megacity of Neo-Tokyo. The city is beset by political tensions and random violent crime, with rival biker gangs battling for control of the streets.

Members of one such gang are Kaneda and Tetsuo – Kaneda is the owner of The Bike. (A number of versions of this film exist, with different actors voicing the characters.) They are both orphans and have been friends since childhood, although the more insecure Tetsuo is wont to chafe a bit in the face of Kaneda’s swaggering cockiness.

Things change for the duo one night, when a run-in with another gang takes an unexpected turn. Tetsuo encounters a very peculiar child who has recently been abducted from a government installation; when the forces of Colonel Shikishima take the child back into custody, Tetsuo is taken too.

Kaneda and the others are worried about their friend, and possibly with good reason: he is having visions of a mysterious boy calling himself Akira, and rapidly developing extremely potent psychic powers. The authorities already have a trio of psychics, trapped in a state of arrested development by the drugs they take to control their powers, and are using them to investigate the forces that Akira represents. They want to add Tetsuo to their programme, but have they underestimated his raw power?

Meanwhile, Kaneda has fallen in with an anti-government group (suffice to say there is a girl involved) determined to free Tetsuo. However, they too don’t quite appreciate just what they are up against, as events spiral out of control and Tetsuo attempts to waken the dormant power of Akira…

Animated Japanese cinema is experiencing a bit of a spike in its profile at the moment, following the recent passing of Isao Takahata and with the imminent release of the not-Studio Ghibli movie Mary and the Witch’s Flower. In the UK, of course, animated Japanese cinema is essentially synonymous with Studio Ghibli and those associated with it. Akira is the great exception to this, being the product of a bespoke coalition of companies, such as Toho, who came together specifically to make the film.

Nevertheless, the much-commented upon beauty and technical virtuosity of any Studio Ghibli film you care to mention is absolutely matched by Akira, which is a visually stunning film from start to finish. Every frame is filled with colour, energy and movement; the detail of every piece of design is breathtaking. I imagine one could watch the original Japanese version of Akira, not actually comprehending a single word of the dialogue, and still have a pretty good time with the movie.

Of course, even being able to speak Japanese, or have access to the English dub, doesn’t necessarily mean you will completely understand the movie the first time you encounter it; I know I struggled a bit, certainly. The fact that it’s called Akira and yet there isn’t really a character called Akira in it can be a bit wrong-footing; the sheer density of the film’s plot and ideas, which are concerned with themes of transhumanism, can also take the unwary by surprise. As well as being several flavours of SF film, there is a sense in which Akira is also a superhero movie and a political thriller, to name but two.

I don’t think anyone would honestly watch Akira and believe it was a Ghibli movie, of course, for – other than a few sequences of surreal grotesquery – it is clear that Otomo’s movie has an entirely different sensibility. Ghibli movies are, with the occasional famous exception, fairly soft-centred and ultimately quite gentle; there’s a sense in which Akira revels in its scenes of carnage and devastation. It is absolutely of a piece with a whole movement of dark SF from the 1980s, embodying a kind of dystopian urban alienation. You can draw lines between Akira and Robocop, Akira and Blade Runner, Akira and The Dark Knight Returns.

It’s not simply that Akira has clearly been influenced by these other things; it may in fact be the case that it influenced some of them. It’s that it is every bit as sophisticated and challenging as any of them. It may conclude on a guardedly hopeful note, perhaps somewhat inspired by 2001, but on the whole it is asking harder questions about the dehumanising effects of urban life, the real nature of progress, and – perhaps the quintessential SF theme – our ability to responsibly use our own potential. A great animation and a great SF movie, too.

Daikaiju Go America!

You would have to be a real curmudgeon, I submit, to object to the rise of genial Dwayne Johnson to his current position as the most world-bestriding movie star in the business. As it happens, Johnson started his movie career at round about the same time I started sticking my first bits of film-related writing on the internet. There have been a few missteps and quiet patches since the likes of The Scorpion King and The Rundown, of course, but since he joined the Fast and Furious circus in 2011 he really doesn’t seem to have looked back. (I, on the other hand, have steadily progressed from writing humorous film reviews on a fairly obscure website, to writing humorous film reviews on an entirely different and even more obscure website.)

They’re not doing a Fast and Furious film this year, thus freeing up genial Dwayne to make another film instead, and his choice has turned out to be Brad Peyton’s Rampage. While I was buying my ticket for this movie, I noticed one of the ticketeers struggling to deal with a young mother who’d brought her kids to the cinema.

‘I brought them to Peter Rabbit but this one says he’s already seen it,’ she complained, indicating a small child. (Another young life needlessly blighted.) ‘What’s Rampage about?’

Panic glittered in the ticketeer’s eyes. I felt it incumbent upon me to step in. ‘Dwayne Johnson plays a zookeeper,’ I said helpfully. ‘But there’s an accident and the animals get sprayed with magic chemicals that turn them into giant monsters. So he has to fight them all.’

The rictus mask of horror which settled upon the face of the young mum is not something I can easily describe, but I think it’s safe to say that Rampage did not receive her custom. This is a shame, for Rampage is pretty much the perfect Dwayne Johnson vehicle – big, slightly absurd, but essentially good-natured and very likeable.

I must confess to having simplified the plot a bit when I was pitching the movie to the lady in the cinema. It says something about Rampage that genial Dwayne plays a crack special forces soldier turned brilliant primatologist, and yet this is very far from the most preposterous thing that the film requires you to believe. Well, anyway, the film is predicated on the fact that ‘genetic editing’ technology exists allowing unprincipled scientists to basically mash up different kinds of animal.

Some experiments along these lines have been taking place on a space station, which as a result is experiencing an infestation of Rodents of Unusual Size (this sequence kind of resembles a gonzo remake of Gravity). Needless to say things go badly and cannisters of the (very vaguely defined) monster-animal-creating jollop fall to Earth in various locations across America.

The principal one of these, from our point of view, is the zoo to which Dr Davis Okoye (genial Dwayne) is attached. Davis likes animals more than people, on the whole, and his special friend is George, an albino gorilla. So he is as cross as two sticks when exposure to the falling space debris results in his pal growing two feet in height in a matter of hours and becoming uncharacteristically violent and aggressive.

Other people have more serious problems. The evil corporate types responsible for the whole mess, the Wydens (played with cartoon gusto by Malin Ackerman and Jake Lacy), need to get a sample of the jollop in order to shore up their stock price, so they pack a team of mercenaries off to Montana to find another one of the cannisters. But they all end up getting eaten by a wolf the size of a bus.

So, as you would expect from people who think that creating giant mutated near-indestructible monster animals makes good business sense, they hit upon an equally sensible plan B: sending a radio signal from the roof of their skyscraper in Chicago which will attract the monster animals to the city, thus allowing the armed forces to kill them all (and letting the Wydens get their sample).

In the meantime, Davis and a female scientist who is mainly there to be decorative and exposit (Naomie Harris, who is not, perhaps, over-stretched by this role) have been nabbed by the government, along with George the gorilla. Agent in charge Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan in scenery-devouring form) would quite like the whole mess clearing up, but with George and the wolf proving uncontainable, and a third even larger beastie swimming up the Chicago river, it’s clear that a lot of things are going to have to explode before it’s all sorted out…

Even by the standards of Hollywood blockbusters, there’s something fundamentally weird and off-kilter about the premise of Rampage – for example, why a wolf, a gorilla, and a crocodile, exactly? The answer may partly lie in the fact that this is yet another movie based on a computer game – in this case, however, one from the 1980s with minimal plot and depth. The barest essentials of this – monsters vaguely resembling an ape, a wolf and a crocodile tearing down buildings – are at the heart of the movie. (It’s perhaps somewhat ironic that this production was at one point sued by Uwe Boll, director of many terrible video game-based movies – not, as you might expect, for threatening to bring the genre into repute, but because he himself directed a series of movies called Rampage and felt he held the rights to the title.)

If I say they do a pretty good job with some unpromising material (it took four people to write this thing), this is not because I am claiming that Rampage is a film of great moment which will long be remembered as a significant contribution to world cinema. It is not. It is a film about Dwayne Johnson having a fight with a giant albino gorilla, a giant mutated crocodile, and a giant wolf-porcupine-flying-squirrel hybrid. But as such, the movie knows exactly when the audience will probably cut it some slack (yeah, so the monster animals can home in on radio signals…) and when it really has to deliver – namely, in the scenes of the monsters running amok in Chicago and fighting the armed forces.

I don’t know, maybe we’re living through a new golden age of the American monster movie and we didn’t even notice it start – in the last year or so, there’s been Skull Island, Pacific Rim: Uprising, and now this, all of which have captured the energy and fun of classic monster movies much more than things from even four or five years ago. The original Rampage game clearly owed a debt to King Kong and Godzilla, of course, so there’s a sense in which the circle is closed here – it also seemed to me that the croc in this movie bears something of a resemblence to a classic Toho monster. The shade of Ishiro Honda would surely approve of the various sequences of urban devastation which make up the bulk of the third act of the movie.

However, I think we are in danger of overlooking the contribution made by the actors to this film. It’s true that the villains are just there as plot devices, and they are essentially ciphers, and it’s equally true that no matter how hard New Line Cinema push for an Oscar nomination for genial Dwayne, he ain’t gonna get one for this movie – but he and Harris and Morgan do an essential job in putting a human face on all the CGI, and giving the film a bit of warmth and humour and even soul (Johnson’s range obviously has its limits, but within those limits he’s a very effective performer). Even when the film is at its most over-the-top, there will be a little moment of knowing humour, just to reassure you that the film is entirely aware of how preposterous it is, and I can’t describe how relaxing this feels.

It’s fair to say that the only award Rampage is likely to win is Popcorniest Popcorn Movie of the Year (emphasis on the corny) – unless they introduce an Oscar for best flying CGI wolf, anyway. I am also very sure that this is the kind of film that many people would run a mile rather than go anywhere near. But as a bonkers monster movie, it is simply a huge amount of fun. It is probably the most ridiculous thing that will appear in cinemas this year – but ridiculous doesn’t necessarily mean bad.

One of those tried-and-tested rules of cinemagoing that they keep going on about (whoever ‘they’ are) is that if you’re going to the cinema on a date, it’s best to make it a trip to a horror movie – mainly because the effect of watching a really scary movie is that it will move you on to the ‘clinging sweatily to each other’ stage much sooner than would otherwise be the case. All very well, I suppose, for those whose horizons extend so far, but – well, here’s what happened to me.

A couple of weeks ago I went to see Unsane with a friend of mine, whom I will be referring to as Olinka in order to save her blushes. She is a very good friend who I don’t feel I see nearly enough and so I suggested we do it again and see Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson’s Ghost Stories, which we caught the trailer for. Olinka was keen, provided she could bring her friend Yekaterina, who was in the UK for her very first visit. So down we settled in the theatre, with your correspondent the meat in a sandwich mostly comprised of young Russian womanhood.

As usual, the trailers were carefully selected, for the most part: we had the trailer for Truth or Dare, a grisly-looking imminent horror movie, and then the trailer for Hereditary, another scary movie which is on the way. And then a couple more in the same severed vein. ‘Why all movies here so horrible?’ Yekaterina whispered in the dark, sounding rather aghast.

‘This is a horror movie, so they are showing us adverts for other horror movies,’ I explained.

‘Horror movie?’ Yekaterina was turning even paler.

‘Relax, it’s not a horror movie, it’s a thriller,’ said Olinka, with her usual unflappable confidence.

‘Ol, you saw the trailer for this, of course it’s a horror movie,’ I said, rather incredulously. (I had forgotten this was a woman who watched Legend and thought it was meant to be a comedy film.)

Anyway, the film started and we soon found out just who had been paying attention best. Due to the kind of movie this is, there is a degree of narrative sleight-of-hand going on, but let’s try and keep this straightforward and spoiler-free: Nyman co-writes, co-directs, and stars as Professor Philip Goodman, a parapsychologist and professional debunker of supernatural phenomena – something he was inspired to do by a man who disappeared years ago.

But now his predecessor resurfaces, bearing details of three extraordinary cases which, Goodman is assured, will convince him of the existence of otherworldly forces, if he can summon the courage to investigate them properly.

A troubled security guard (Paul Whitehouse), alone in a derelict mental hospital in the middle of the night, begins to realise there may be something there in the dark with him. A nervous and fragile teenager (Alex Lawther), driving home through the woods one night, has a disturbing encounter which brings a whole new meaning to the word ‘roadkill’. And finally, a wealthy man (Martin Freeman), whose wife is in hospital with complications connected to her pregnancy, finds his home invaded by a malevolent force of some kind. But beyond all this, is there something even worse at work? Something with a personal connection to Goodman himself…?

Well, it may be very pleasant to go to the cinema with someone you’re in a relationship with and have them yelping and lunging at you in the dark, but when you are there with two young Russian women, neither of whom you are close to in that way, and one of whom you only met an hour earlier, and the pair of them are grabbing at you and clinging on and occasionally shrieking – well, you know, I found this somewhat challenging and was not entirely sure how to respond appropriately, not least because I was doing the odd spot of cringing and meeping myself. Which if nothing else should tell you that Ghost Stories really does work as a scary movie.

Andy Nyman is one of those people who seems to have been around for ages, doing lots of different things without ever really becoming well known: he was in Kick-Ass 2, for instance, and also Charlie Brooker’s Dead Set; he has also been a key collaborator of Derren Brown’s for many years. Jeremy Dyson, on the other hand, is famous as the lesser-spotted member of the League of Gentlemen, the one who occasionally looks like Michael Sheen.

If this, together with some of the casting, gives you the impression that Ghost Stories comes from League of Gentlemen/Black Mirror/Derren Brown-ish kind of territory, you’d be absolutely right. The League of Gentlemen practically drips with affection for and knowledge of a certain type of British horror movie of years gone by, but here the goal is pastiche much more than parody, and it is pastiche very effectively executed.

I’ve seen quite a few articles recently discussing the phenomenon of what they’re calling ‘post-horror’, a label they’re cheerfully sticking on films as diverse as Personal Shopper and It Comes By Night (also A Quiet Place, out at the moment, which I have a therapist’s note excusing me from seeing). The two schools of thought on post-horror are that either this is a movement using the raw material of genre horror to tell stories which aren’t constricted by the usual conventions and cliches, or just an empty new buzz-phrase concocted by journalists looking for a new angle. As usual, I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle – it occurs to me you could describe films like Under the Skin, Annihilation, and Upstream Color as post-SF with equal accuracy – but the thing about Ghost Stories is that it doesn’t muck about trying to second-guess or deconstruct itself. This is a proper horror movie.

That said, there is virtually no gore in this movie, and it does draw heavily on a very British tradition of portmanteau horror films that started with Dead of Night and includes the famous Amicus horror anthologies, amongst others. (It is perhaps ironic that the only obvious in-joke in the movie is a reference to Tigon, not Amicus.) But the influences on the movie extend further – there are surely traces of things like The Stone Tape and Ghostwatch, and even those genuinely terrifying public safety films from the 1970s. The film’s world is one of dismal housing estate pubs, seafront caravan parks, waste ground, all places with their own bleak and very British eeriness.

It may be that the Diversity Police turn up on Ghost Stories’ front steps, for this is primarily a film about white men, but on the other hand it is also a film with superb performances from all of the principal cast – Nyman is clearly a very skilled performer, but each of the other three manages to eclipse him completely in their segment of the film. It isn’t even as if any of these is blazingly original – Whitehouse’s segment just has him wandering about a dark building with a torch, for instance. And yet it builds and builds until you are frozen to your seat, unable to look away.

In the end, of course, there is a revelation of sorts – this doesn’t come as a complete surprise, not least because of the heavy prosthetic make-up one character is clearly wearing – and the leap into nightmarish surrealism this involves is also extremely adroitly handled. A dozen little seemingly-trivial details from earlier in the movie snap into focus, and you realise… well, no spoilers here.

It initially seems like Ghost Stories may be trying to say something about existential dread and guilt, but in the end I get the impression the film is mainly constructed the way it is to enable the bravura twists and reveals in its final few minutes. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, for this is a horror movie which succeeds completely in its first duty, which is to seriously put the wind up the audience. Maybe there is something old-fashioned and formal about it, but it’s still a terrifically alarming, entertaining experience. I very rarely use the words ‘instant classic’, but in this case I am minded to.

Ten Stops from Barking*

‘Are you a really big Wes Anderson fan?’ asked the ticketeer at the sweetshop, perkily. All at once I was gripped with shame, the same kind of senseless panic which grips me when everyone else starts talking about how great Blade Runner is and I have to admit I don’t rate it that much, or I have to confess I’ve never actually seen a Dario Argento film. Earlier that very day, I was pondering that very question. I was sure I must have seen a Wes Anderson film at some point, so I checked out his filmography on Wikipedia. Nope. We have managed to avoid each other entirely, with the exception of about ten minutes of Fantastic Mr Fox which came on TV while Film 4 was playing in the background. I know this sort of thing is unacceptable in polite society, but it is the truth: I had never seen a Wes Anderson movie in my life.

I mumbled words to this effect, casting my eyes floorward, trying to hide my burning cheeks, but rather to my surprise the ticketeer declared she was determined to give me an experience I would never forget. I was a bit worried about missing the movie for a moment, but it turned out this was what she was referring to, as she sorted me out with a free upgrade to one of the comfy seats in the imminent screening of Anderson’s new movie Isle of Dogs. So I suppose the message we can take away from this is not that ignorance is necessarily bliss, but that sometimes it can pay off in unexpected ways. It is a funny old world, after all.

 

An ignorant person would assume that any movie entitled Isle of Dogs must perforce be set on, or at least connected with, an alluvial peninsula in the east end of London. But apparently this is not the quirky way that legendary auteur Wes Anderson rolls: his movie is set in a somewhat dystopian near-future Japan, in and around the sprawling city of Megasaki (another fake Japanese city to go on the list with San Fransokyo from Big Hero 6 – does Neo-Tokyo from Akira also count, I wonder?). The evil mayor of Megasaki has a problem with man’s best friend, for (it is implied) long-standing ancestral reasons, and has hit upon a machiavellian plot to have all dogs deported from the city to Trash Island, a polluted wasteland just across the bay.

The plan goes like clockwork and soon enough packs of starving and disease-ridden dogs are roaming Trash Island, struggling to stay alive. One such pack consists of Rex, King, Duke, Boss, and Chief (voiced by Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, and Bryan Cranston respectively) but the dogs find themselves with a new problem when a twelve-year-old boy crash-lands his stolen plane on the island. It turns out he is the mayor’s ward and nephew Atari, and he has come in search of his dog/bodyguard, who has been exiled to Trash Island along with all the others.

Chief is apparently unmoved by the boy’s story, once the dogs figure it out (being dogs, they don’t speak Japanese and can’t actually understand what Atari is saying), but the others reason that the job of a dog is to take care of twelve-year-old boys and decide to help him with his quest.

Meanwhile, back in Megasaki, the principled members of the Science Party are doing their best to have the machinations of the mayor overturned, while an American exchange student (Greta Gerwig) is also trying to save the canine population. Could it be that the dogs’ lives are about to take a turn for the better?

There is, obviously, something deeply sentimental about Isle of Dogs, mainly in the way it depicts the dogs themselves. This is clear even to someone like me – I am hardly a dog person (not a cat person, either, come to that). And yet this element of the film is deeply buried under so many layers of mannered artifice and ironic detachment that it is far from obvious. Despite the sentimentality of the film’s message, and its frequently fantastical story, I can’t really imagine anyone mistaking this film for a more mainstream animation. There is all that artifice and irony, for one thing; the subject matter of the story, and occasional elements of its tone, for another – I wouldn’t call this a particularly violent movie, by any means, but it is still oddly graphic in places. If there is a thin line between wit and outright pretentiousness, then I suspect this film skates close to it at times – lending her vocal talents to a brief cameo is Yoko Ono, playing a character named – wait for it – Assistant Scientist Yoko Ono. (Not all the humour is quite so rarefied; there are some moments in this film which even made me laugh.)

Even at the moments when the film seems to be in danger of becoming just a bit too smug, it remains quite captivating to watch, simply because of the enormous skill and attention to detail with which it has been made. The puppets and scenery don’t have the warmth of Aardman-style clay figurines, but they are still very engaging and characterful, and the nature of the production – the dogs constantly seem to be twitching and bristling as a result of the animators’ fingers moving their fur – means they have a real sense of life and energy about them. And this film you get to see things like stop-motion taiko-drumming, and stop-motion sumo-wrestling, which doesn’t turn up on the big screen.

This is all to do with the film’s Japanese setting, naturally. There doesn’t seem to be any compelling reason for the film to be set in Japan, particularly, and it is a very emblematic kind of representation of the country; one assumes it is simply because Anderson is a fan of Japanese culture and movies (and why not). This becomes explicit at a couple of points, with one character looking rather like the iconic Japanese movie legend Toshiro Mifune, and the soundtrack featuring excerpts from Fumio Hayasaka’s magnificent score from Seven Samurai (in which Mifune of course starred). There are other Kurosawa references in the movie, too.

On the other hand, and I’m tempted to say ‘wouldn’t you just know it’, all this means that the film has come in for stick from some quarters for its supposed ‘cultural appropriation’ and unflattering depiction of many of its Japanese characters. Well, I suppose there may be grounds for criticism on the latter point, but for me the film’s sincere and encompassing affection for Japan and its culture was almost palpable, and adds enormously to the charm and atmosphere of the film. And it’s not as if this is the only movie borrowing from Japanese culture at the moment: if it weren’t for Godzilla, Ultraman, and the tokusatsu genre in general, there’d be no Pacific Rim, and Ready Player One would likely be unrecognisable with all the references to Japanese elements extracted. There’s also a criticism that the character voiced by Greta Gerwig is in some way an expression of the ‘white saviour’ trope – although as I have seen the label of ‘white saviour’ movie slapped on everything from The Matrix to La La Land, I’m honestly moved to wonder if this isn’t a concept which has been stripped of meaning through overuse (angry mobs with burning torches, please form a queue at the usual place).

I can’t honestly say that I’ll be rushing to catch up with the rest of Wes Anderson’s back catalogue, but Isle of Dogs certainly hasn’t put me off checking out more of his work. If nothing else, the obvious skill, intelligence, and talent which has gone into this film is impressive, and the results are always engaging and frequently very amusing. It’s good to see a film which is so obviously the product of a singular creative vision (because this movie certainly doesn’t scream crossover mainstream hit) getting such a wide release and attracting a significant audience. Dog lovers and Japanophiles will almost certainly have a good time with this movie, probably other people too.

(* To be clear – get on the c2c train in Barking, stay aboard for two stops until it reaches Limehouse, then switch to the Docklands Light Railway. The seventh stop from here is Crossharbour, from where it is a two minute walk to the Isle of Dogs. Simples.)

Definitely Articulated

I have commented in the past on the dangers of giving your movie a punchy, catchy one-word title: other people may have the same idea, which can be terribly confusing. Twilight, Steel, Roadkill: all of these titles have been round the block a few times and have wildly different movies squabbling over possession of them.

Short titles can be equally problematic: just now I noticed that The Black Hole was on TV, but rather than the 1979 Gary Nelson stellar-conflict knock-off, it turned out to be a Ken Badish Z-movie with Kristy Swanson. In a similar vein, I wonder how many people are going to check into their favourite streaming site and decide to watch The Darkest Hour, comfortably settling down to enjoy an Oscar-winning turn from Gary Oldman, oblivious to the fact that they have actually made a fairly significant mistake?

Not that this is likely to long remain the case, for I cannot imagine anyone watching much of Chris Gorak’s 2011 movie The Darkest Hour and long remaining under the impression it is Joe Wright’s 2017 movie Darkest Hour. One of these films has an embattled Winston Churchill trying to keep the cause of liberty and freedom alive. The other features attractive young people being chased around Moscow by invisible monsters. A definite article can make a big difference sometimes.

These days it’s a little hard to imagine a US-Russian co-production quite as brazenly commercial as this one, but there you go, the past is another country. (As is Russia. Presumably the past of Russia is several different countries simultaneously, but I’ve no idea how that would work.) Prime mover behind this enterprise appears to have been Timur Bekmambetov, reigning nutcase behind such family favourites as Wanted, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and the remake of Ben-Hur, and though someone else is left to do the actual directing, followers of the Bekmambetov oeuvre will know more or less what to expect.

Things get underway with aspiring young American entrepreneurs Sean (Emile Hirsch) and Ben (Max Minghella), who arrive in Moscow (everyone uses the American pronunciation, by the way) to try and find investors for their new website-stroke-app. But zounds! It turns out their perfidious Swedish business partner, Skyler – is this a common Swedish name? – has done the dirty on them and ripped off their idea. (The evil Swede is played by Joel Kinnaman, by the way.)

To drown their sorrows, Sean and Ben retire to a swanky nightclub where they meet feisty backpackers Natalie (Olivia Thirlby) and Anne (Rachael Taylor). You know, I wasn’t aware that Moscow was such a hub on the international backpacking scene, but it just goes to show you. Even Skyler ends up in the same club, where he is as objectionable as earlier.

But then! Following a mysterious power failure, everyone stumbles out into the street to see strange aurorae appearing over Moscow, and swirls of glowing light raining down onto the city. It all looks very pretty, until it becomes apparent that the swirly light things are all people can perceive of vicious alien gits intent on invading the city and disintegrating everyone in their path. There’s only one thing for an appealing young ensemble cast to do at a time like this – hide in the cellar for a day and a night!

Making their rather cautious return to the streets 36 hours later, our heroes discover that Moscow is largely deserted, with everyone either having fled or been eaten by the invisible alien monsters. Everyone decides to go to the US embassy (even the Australian and Swedish characters), but what hope is there, with aliens still on the prowl and no apparent hope of escape…?

Anyway, The Darkest Hour is an example of the kind of middle-of-the-road genre movie which occasionally slips past me at a busy time of the year: I didn’t see it back when it came out, and can’t remember a particular reason why not. Must just have been occupied with other stuff – this is certainly the kind of film I can imagine me going to see, what with it being an alien invasion SF-horror movie and all. I may have been persuaded to knock it down my list of priorities by the notices it drew at the time, which ran a fairly gamut from tepid to eviscerating.

This is understandable, as – and perhaps you have been able to glean this from the customary synopsis – The Darkest Hour is unlikely ever to win any awards for its blazing originality, in any department. The capsule description of this movie – ‘the one with the invisible monsters in Moscow’ – also contains every distinctive feature that it possesses, with the possible exception of the fact that it scores unexpectedly high on the ‘on their way to very slightly better things’ department – Olivia Thirlby went on to appear in Dredd (in addition to some TV stuff), Rachael Taylor has carved out a tiny niche for herself sort-of playing Hellcat in the Marvel TV shows, Joel Kinnaman later found work in the Robocop remake and Suicide Squad, and so on.

B-movies are not what they used to be. It used to be the case that in a B-movie you were more or less guaranteed substandard, or (let’s be charitable) overambitious special effects, but you kept your fingers crossed that the film-makers would do their best to make up for this by using their imagination and wits when it came to the script, and the actors would likewise try to compensate for giving interesting performances. These days, however, thanks to the development of cheap high-end computers, the one thing you are pretty much guaranteed in even a low-budget movie is that it will have good-looking special effects. On the other hand, your chances of happening upon a script which does more than hit the minimum benchmarks are much lower nowadays, and the cast often seem to be deliberately trying to be as anonymous as possible.

So it is with The Darkest Hour. It has one slightly curious quirk – the moss-cow setting – and one potentially interesting feature – the invasion of invisible energy beings – and while the scenes in a devastated Moscow are predictably well-staged in visual terms, the film has little else to offer beyond a formulaic runaround. It’s not that difficult to work out who amongst the original five is not going to make it to the closing credits, and in which order they’re going to get zapped, but the thing is that you don’t really care either, so thinly characterised are they. Only Olivia Thirlby demonstrates she has genuine chops as an actress by genuinely making you worry about her survival.

I’m not sure what to make of the fact that The Darkest Hour goes to all the trouble of being a Moscow-set SF movie, without including a single leading Russian character. It kind of reduces the setting to a painted backdrop, which I doubt was the intention of the Russian producers. I suppose you could argue that Gosha Kutsenko and Veronika Vernadskaya both appear in supporting roles and are very Russian indeed, almost to the point of stereotype, and that this makes up for a lot. Maybe.

In the end it doesn’t really make up for just how generic and forgettable The Darkest Hour is. Like a lot of movies at around this point in history, it was originally released in the odious 3D format, something which seems to have become slightly less common, but I doubt yet another gimmick would have helped its cause much. The thing about it is that this is one of those movies which doesn’t have a single element in it which you could genuinely call actively bad, but it’s so totally lacking in anything really distinctive and (apart from the effects and a single performance) actually accomplished that it simply fails to register in your head much. It’s not awful – being awful would actually make it more memorable. It just is, in that it exists – it just does very little more than that.