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Posts Tagged ‘Gabriel Byrne’

Regular readers may recall my trip a couple of months ago to the excellent Ghost Stories, in the company of a couple of young Russian women who – in defiance of all logic – were unaware they were actually going to see a horror movie. Well, as they say in the more gothic-influenced parts of Switzerland, mein Gott, ich habe ein Monster erschaffen, for – while her friend Yekaterina returned to Russia alarmed and trembling – Olinka, it seems, has developed a real taste for this sort of thing. ‘Can we go and see Hereditary? Can we can we can we?’ ran the general tenor of her messages to me for quite some little while, until we, um, went to see Hereditary, directed by Ari Aster. Filling in for Yekaterina was me good mate and occasional contributor around here Next Desk Colleague, which if nothing else made me hope that there would be less jumping onto and grabbing at each other in the dark on this occasion.

We saw the trailer for Hereditary before Ghost Stories, of course, and were not unimpressed by its unsettling weirdness. Less positive was the response of another group of people who also saw the trailer, according to the media, but as they were a group of small children and their parents waiting to watch Peter Rabbit, this is not really surprising. Oh, the horror! Oh, the outraged screams! Oh, the parents desperately dragging their youngsters out of the theatre! Mind you, I don’t understand why this doesn’t happen during every screening of Peter Rabbit, regardless of which trailers precede it, but there you go – it’s a funny old world.

‘It’s a funny old world’ is not the prevailing ethos on display in Hereditary. ‘It’s a horrendous, bleak, nightmarish existence’ would probably be closer to the mark. The main character is Annie (Toni Collette), a successful artist, who lives with her husband (Gabriel Byrne), son (Alex Wolff), and daughter (Milly Shapiro). As the film opens they are preparing to bury Annie’s recently deceased mother, with whom she had a fraught relationship, to say the least. It soon becomes fairly clear that this is not exactly what you would call an entirely functional family: tensions and resentment, between mother and children at least, seem to be constantly simmering away not far from the surface. And as far as daughter Charlie is concerned – well, the kid just ain’t right, somehow, choosing to spend lots of time alone in a somewhat spooky treehouse, with hobbies that include scissoring the heads off dead birds. Hmmm.

And here we kind of run into a problem, which leads us back to the trailer to Hereditary. This is definitely one from the atmospheric, impressionistic end of the spectrum – it does a very good job of giving you an idea of how you’re going to feel while watching the movie, but in terms of telling you what the actual plot is, or even what the movie is really about… not so much. Let’s just say that something happens, the nature of which is significant, and the rest of the film is about the family’s response to this and the various ways in which things go awry as a result.

So what is Hereditary about? It’s not at all clear at first. If you’re watching a zombie movie, there’s a certain grammar and set of tropes in the storytelling that you know to expect; the same is true with werewolf movies, haunted house films, and all the other odd little subgenres. But for the first hour or so Hereditary offers no hints, at least not openly. The film really seems to be about the dysfunction of an affluent family – you only really know it’s a horror film because the soundtrack makes it clear that there is an ominous significance to many of the events on screen (lots of heavy cello and occasional outbursts of unsettling noise). This, together with the sheer darkness of what occurs on screen, results in a first half to the movie which is genuinely extremely uncomfortable – there is an almost chokingly oppressive sense of darkness and unease. It is not at all easy or pleasant to watch. I have to say it’s not actually very scary, either, as this is traditionally understood, and I did wonder if this was going to turn out to be another one of those post-horror movies we are having so many of currently.

Well, it turned out that Hereditary isn’t a post-horror movie after all, for it turns into a very different film in the second half and a rather more familiar one. Once again, there does seem to have been some deliberate obfuscation on the part of the film-makers as to what audiences should expect, so I don’t feel I can really go into too much detail except to say that it involves seances not going according to plan, conspiracies, the desecration of graves, one of the kings of Hell, a cult, numerous severed heads, spontaneous combustion, and quite possibly a demonically-possessed kitchen sink. In other words, we are very much back in mainstream horror territory, with the important caveat that it still isn’t particularly scary.

Oh, they manage a few mechanical jump scares, and there are bits which will make the average person go ‘eww’ and no mistake, but it won’t get into your head and mess you up in the way that a truly great horror film will. The best it can manage is some so-so gore and other old favourites: when a shot is composed so that the main character in it is off to one side in front of an open doorway, you don’t have to be Thelma Schoonmaker to figure out that something spooky will be ‘unexpectedly’ appearing in the frame behind them in the not too distant future. And the problem is that all this doesn’t even seem to be there in support of a story which makes sense. There are a lot of ominous red herrings which don’t seem to go anywhere: Next Desk Colleague observed that it looked like a film where they were making up the story as they went along. Maybe they were.

Not surprisingly, by the end people were openly laughing at Hereditary in the screening we attended, and not the nervous-tension-diffusing kind of laughter either. I myself found I was more inclined to look at my watch, but I did emit the odd derisory snort as things went on. As the credits rolled I looked around at the rest of the team, wondering if they would agree with my snap ‘what a load of cobblers’ judgement. Apparently so: ‘terrible,’ was NDC’s response, while all Olinka had to say was ‘I’m so sorry for making you watch that.’

This does seem to be one of those films which everyone loves apart from the audience, though – I note that Hereditary currently enjoys a 92% approval rating from your actual professional film critics, but only a D+ from paying audiences. I do have to say it would be remiss of me to give the impression that this is an entirely worthless experience – the way in which the atmosphere of the first half is created and maintained is extremely impressive, highly unpleasant though it is to experience. Also, while all the main actors are good, the film has a particular virtue in Toni Collette’s performance, which is often mesmerising, and manages to engage and affect the viewer even when the film is beginning to unravel. So there is lots of promise and potential here, but for this to be realised it would need a film which is more coherent and original. There are certainly things of interest in Hereditary, but if this is the future of the horror movie, we are looking at a genre heading into serious trouble.

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Everyone does things when they’re young that they look back on with a degree of regret and maybe even embarassment – I myself am still reluctant to talk about the time that I [redacted on legal advice], let alone those other occasions when I [redacted], [redacted], and then, to top it all off, [definitely redacted]. And film-makers are no exception. I’m sure that Steve McQueen didn’t appreciate being reminded of doing The Blob, just as Scarlett Johansson doesn’t do many retrospective interviews about Eight Legged Freaks. And when it comes to Michael Mann, celebrated creator of Miami Vice and director of Manhunter, Heat, and Collateral, I suspect talking about his 1983 movie The Keep is something he’d rather avoid.

keep

This is a shame as the film in question is interesting, if nothing else. It opens in the remote mountains of Romania at the height of the Second World War. The area is under German occupation with the senior officer in the area being Jurgen Prochnow – he is one of those honourable non-Nazi German soldiers whom it is acceptable to like. Prochnow seems to have accepted that the ultimate German triumph is inevitable and is resigned to his current assignment – occupying an ancient castle, which seems to be the object of superstitious dread on the part of the local peasants.

Prochnow is slightly bemused by the huge number of metal crosses embedded in the walls and the fact that the fortress seems to have been build to contain something from within, rather than keep external invaders out, but doesn’t realise he’s in a horror movie. Nor do two of his men, who proceed to try and loot the place, tearing one of the crosses from its fitting. Unfortunately, this opens a passageway to what appears to be an immense vault beneath the keep, and releases what is held within: a malevolent, initially incorporeal entity…

The spook proceeds to bloodily kill several of the occupying Germans, and Prochnow receives reinforcements in the shape of SS major Gabriel Byrne and his men (these guys are proper Nazis so it is okay to dislike them). The Germans all assume that local resistance fighters are responsible for the deaths, but the discovery of strange, arcane graffiti leads them to call in the only academic to have studied the site, Cuza (Ian McKellen). Cuza, a Jew, is quite glad to have been temporarily let out of a death camp, and assumes the graffiti is a ruse on the part of the villagers to help him escape. But it is not…

The entity rescues Cuza’s daughter from a bunch of Germans with ungallant thoughts on their mind and makes him a proposition: it needs someone to do the heavy lifting and carrying while it reacquires physical form and offers him the job. In return, it will not only use its supernatural powers to rejuvenate him but carry out a ghastly reign of terror amongst the Nazis Cura hates so much. But little does anyone realise that someone else is coming to the Keep, intent on putting an end to the creature permanently…

Well, I think you’ll agree that this is a movie which shows some promise in its premise – the prospect of a clash between a supernatural manifestation of absolute evil and a mob of Nazis – as close to ‘real’ historical evil as you’re likely to get – is inherently interesting. And some of this potential is realised, mainly through the treatment of Ian McKellen’s character, whose hatred of the Nazis is so great he is prepared to overlook the true nature of what he is allying himself with. Unfortunately most of the rest of it is good-looking, vacuous cobblers.

Michael Mann is a noted stylist as a director, and the film is stylish if nothing else, but too often this comes at the expense of coherency in the plot. This is the kind of film where two people meet for the first time and within two minutes are engaged in passionate, energetic sex – no real reason is given for this plunge towards carnal exuberance, and one suspects that it’s mainly just because Mann had some cool ideas about how to shoot such a sequence. At other points the film seems so preoccupied with striking, stylish visuals that actually explaining what’s going on gets forgotten about.

Mann doesn’t seem to have devoted much time to actually directing his actors, anyway – Scott Glenn is weirdly robotic as the putative hero of the piece, and almost impossible to empathise with, we learn so little about who and what he is. And at one point in the film, I found my jaw dropping open as Ian McKellen definitely seemed to be giving the worst performance of anyone involved, covered in ageing make-up (at this point I couldn’t figure out why – McKellen was only in his mid-40s when he made this) and giving us a dodgy and inappropriate American accent. McKellen improves considerably as the film goes on, by  the way, but I still doubt this film gets a prominent place on his showreel.

The Keep is not a terribly good film, its almost total lack of humour meaning it’s hard to enjoy even ironically. One can understand Mann’s decision not to risk inadvertantly reducing the whole thing to camp spectacle, but it does take itself very seriously and the (apparently well-regarded) soundtrack by Tangerine Dream almost comes across as pretentious.

On the other hand, it does seem to me to be pointing the way to a slew of other 80s fantasy and horror movies it sort of vaguely resembles. The over-stylishly-directed tale of a lone, mysterious hero on a barely-coherent mystical quest really anticipates Highlander (which, crucially, has a rather more crowd-pleasing set of tunes), while the story of a disembodied evil seeking an accomplice to assist in its resurrection surely prefigures Hellraiser. It’s certainly an example of a Hollywood horror film attempting to move beyond what I suppose we must call the Judeo-Christian settlement in terms of its mythology. This was made in the same year as the resolutely biblical Omen: The Final Conflict, after all (though I suppose The Keep does still have all those crosses in it).

This is another one of those 80s genre movies which my uncle really likes but I find it very difficult to get excited about (he also likes Highlander, Streets of Fire, and The Coca-Cola Kid, none of which I especially rate, but then again he’s the only other person I know who likes Trancers). It is, I suppose, just about interesting enough to be worth watching on its own merits – but I would only really recommend it to McKellen completists and lovers of early 80s synth music. The Keep? Thanks, but you can keep it.

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