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Posts Tagged ‘horror’

We seem to be going through a period in which many of the films on release, certainly the significant ones, seem to be suffering from elephantiasis of the run-time: the new Avatar is three and a quarter hours long, Babylon likewise cracks 180 minutes, critical darlings Tar and The Fabelmans are two and a half hours, and even the Whitney Houston biopic (a film about the life of a pop star), is longer than 2001: A Space Odyssey (a philosophical exploration of the nature of human intelligence and the ultimate destiny of the species. Without any singing in it).

It’s a relief to come across something a bit more digestible, length-wise at least, such as Mark Jenkin’s Enys Men. This is also a film with a very easy-to-grasp title, provided you speak Cornish (‘stone island’ is the answer to the question you may well be framing in your mind at this point). Most of the rest of the film is, to be fair, considerably less straightforward.

Jenkin, a long-time TV and film professional, caused a bit of a stir with his previous film, Bait, a striking tale of non-singing Cornish fishermen, and this film should only cement his reputation as British cinema’s leading chronicler of life in the south-west, although quite what Enys Men is saying about the region is not always apparent.

Mary Woodvine plays a woman, credited only as ‘the volunteer’, who is living on the small island of the title, somewhere off the coast of Cornwall. It is the late Spring or early Summer of 1973. She appears to be there to conduct some sort of botanical survey: every day, she leaves her small cottage, makes her way across the island to where a small clump of flowers is growing, makes some observations about them, and then returns home where she writes up her notes, normally detouring to drop a stone down a disused mineshaft. She is alone; contact with the outside world is by radio – this is how she arranges fresh supplies of food and petrol.

But is she quite alone? The whole question of what is real and what is happening solely in her mind is an important one, considering the audience has no way of being certain. A young woman occasionally seems to be in and around the cottage. Other figures – a preacher, a boatman, women in traditional clothing, miners – also appear from time to time on the island. There is a further rather peculiar and rather baleful presence: a distinctive rock formation, which is (usually) not far from the cottage. However, given the ongoing disintegration of the fabric of space and time which seems to be in progress, this is not always a given.

There are various signs that past and future are piling up on top of one another, and that the distinction between the island and herself is slowly becoming confused. Does the landscape itself have a strange sentience of its own, operating through the rock?

Naturally, the film is much stronger on questions than answers. Its effectiveness stems from the success it has in evoking the  same kind of atmosphere as some of the weirder short films, TV shows and public information broadcasts of the decade in which it is set – creepy and unsettling little things I barely remember from my own young childhood. (It’s helped by the fact it is filmed in 16mm, the same format so many of those things used.)

Other than a brief sequence of self-harm, there is no violence and relatively little blood in the movie, but it still achieves a profound sense of disquiet and inescapable wrongness, especially as it continues. The film has its own rhythm and structure, built around the pattern of the protagonist’s days, and it is the small intrusions into and deviations from this that tell the story. The repetition produces an almost mesmeric effect as the days go by (or is it just the same day, endlessly repeating?).

On the other hand, I can imagine many people more used to conventional horror films being profoundly unimpressed by a film with very little dialogue, the story of which the audience really has to figure out for themselves. Perhaps we are in the realm of the post-horror or the horror-adjacent here – though, perhaps inevitably, suggestions that Enys Men is really a new folk horror classic are already in circulation. (To be fair, the fact that the film appears to be set almost exactly at the same time as The Wicker Man is surely not a coincidence, and suggests Jenkin himself was thinking along these lines.)

You can’t really discuss a film like this without considering the contribution of the main performer, and Mary Woodvine gives a remarkable performance – obviously, there’s a tricky balance to be found between overplaying her reactions to what’s going on around her (which might topple the film into camp) and just being too deadpan (which would probably result in a baffling art piece). She gets it just about right and the film is, for the most part, engrossingly enigmatic, with moments of genuine shock. Most of the other cast are in non-speaking roles – though I feel obliged to mention the appearance of Woodvine’s father John in a small part, 93 years old and clearly still going strong (Woodvine was a familiar face on British TV in the 1970s and 80s, but his biggest movie role was probably playing the doctor in An American Werewolf in London).

I see that Enys Men is being billed in some places as an ‘experimental horror film’, which to be honest makes me suspect some caution on the part of the people publicising it – ‘experimental’ being a kind of shorthand for ‘don’t complain to us if it’s not what you were expecting and you don’t like it’. I suppose in the end this is an accurate description – it’s a movie with the odd definitely scary moment, but which has only one character, is fairly repetitive, and the role of the monster is played by a pile of rocks – and I can imagine a lot of people not really connecting with it. However, there is craft and imagination here, and in its own way it is a quietly rather rewarding film.

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If any TV series can claim to have entered the folklore, certainly on an international scale, it is probably The Twilight Zone (of course, it depends on how you define terms like TV series and folklore, and personally I can think of quite a few candidates that could credibly make such a claim). Maybe this is more the case in the US than over here, where the original series has not, to my knowledge, received anything like a complete re-run in well over thirty years, but even so – odd little instances of it keep bubbling up in quiet little corners of the TV spectrum. Once upon a time it was the after-dark small hours where you could find either the original show or the 1980s version, these days it is amongst the high-numbers channels where you are probably going to find a portal to the Zone quietly awaiting you. (On a related topic, Talking Pictures TV has been rerunning The Outer Limits for the last year, nearly, episodes of which have been quietly stockpiling on my tellybox recorder all that time. It’s almost enough to make one hope for a whole succession of rainy days.)

When I went to see the Twilight Zone stage show five years ago, one of the things I mentioned was the fact that a new incarnation of the series had just been announced, the main name attached being that of Jordan Peele (TV comedian turned great new horror director of our time, perhaps). I was, perhaps, just a bit too dismissive of the idea, but then I was hip deep in the Rod Serling version at the time, in all its inconsistency, occasional unsurpassed brilliance, and frequent pulp corniness. The new version of Zone finally turned up free-to-air over here in the summer and I finally got around to watching it recently.

If you’re not familiar with the concept, it can be difficult to explain exactly what The Twilight Zone – in any of its incarnations, all of which are essentially the same anyway – actually is. It’s an anthology series, that’s easy enough, so there are no recurring characters (unless Rod Serling himself counts as a character), no particular locations, no ongoing storylines. But what genre is it? Well, sometimes it’s sci-fi, sometimes it edges towards genuine horror, most commonly it’s fantasy of various different flavours (then again, there’s at least one episode with no fantastical elements at all). People stray out of their ordinary places into somewhere… different, where that which is usually immaterial becomes startlingly concrete. Allegory and metaphor gain flesh and bone and steel and wood. This is The Twilight Zone, always unsettling, occasionally hungry.

Lots of people have done Twilight Zone-style stories down the years, of course, not least Peele himself – Get Out could have been a Zone story, trimmed down quite a bit – and this is probably why he was tapped to get involved with the new show (other familiar names on the production team include Glen Wong (veteran X Files scribe) and Simon Kinberg (long-time influence on the X-Men movie franchise, if overseeing the slow demise of a film series counts as influencing it). The new show sticks quite close to the original format, which is sensible enough – The Twilight Zone is one of the most perfect vehicles for telling a series of stories that anyone has ever come up with, after all.

The new show ran for twenty episodes across two seasons before those involved decided to knock it on the head – a rare example of the network wanting more, but the creative personnel deciding they’d said their piece. The first season is made up of sixty-minute episodes (including adverts, etc); in the second a few forty-five minute instalments crop up, which helps with the sometimes over-stately pacing of many episodes from the first year.

So, is it any good or not? Is it a worthy successor? Well, it’s a tricky question, isn’t it, as the quality of any anthology series tends to be incredibly choppy, no matter who’s making it. Even Rod Serling owned up to the fact that, of the episodes in the original show, the percentage ratio of great/average/awful episodes ran pretty close to 33/33/33%. On a solely aesthetic level, the series is undeniably successful – the production values are excellent, with great sets, cinematography, and special effects.

Dramatically, there seems to me to be a distinct different between the first and second series. It feels like the first planning meeting included a segment where the writers sat down with a whiteboard and made a list of all the topics they wanted to make a pronouncement about: Social Media, Native American Rights, Toxic Masculinity, Gun Control, Donald Trump, and so on. You are certainly seldom in doubt about what any given episode is commenting upon, nor what the position taken by the writers is.

This can get a bit tiresomely didactic regardless of whether you agree with the script’s politics or not. The best of the first season episodes either come at their topic slightly askance, and feel more like genuine pieces of entertainment as a result, or attack their subject with such gusto they’re hard to resist. Amongst the first category is The Blue Scorpion, about a troubled academic (Chris O’Dowd) who inherits a rather strange and temperamental pistol, and Nightmare at 30,000 Feet, a riff on the famous original-series episode with William Shatner and the Gremlin,  in which Adam Scott discovers the plane he’s flying on is destined to disappear without a trace – this finds an interesting vein of post-September 11th disquiet and paranoia to mine. Other superior episodes include the opener, in which Kumail Nanjiani plays a struggling stand-up comedian who finds that drawing on his own life for material brings success, but at an alarming cost, while The Wunderkind is a bracingly impudent tale of an amoral political operator who sets out to show the world what he can really do by ensuring a spoilt child is elected to the White House (the satire here is hardly deeply buried). An exception to the didacticism of most of the episodes is the concluding one, Blurryman, a neat piece of metafiction taking place on the set of the series itself – Peele appears as himself, as does Seth Rogen. A passionate young writer on The Twilight Zone finds herself being haunted by the same enigmatic presence which has been turning up in the background of various other episodes. The revelation, when it comes, is winning, in an episode which deconstructs the series, or at least its raison d’etre.

The second year relaxes a bit and seems to be a bit less worried about sending all the right messages – the pacing picks up a bit too, in the shorter episodes at least. This isn’t to say there are no contemporary resonances or social commentary in the second year, it just seems to be growing organically out of the scripts, rather than being imposed on them. The second series as a whole is probably more consistent, but that really just means that while its worst episodes aren’t as cheesy, there are fewer really good ones. Most of them are fairly forgettable – some of them commit the regular Zone error of solely writing towards a twist, which only really works if it’s a really good twist (though this happens in the first year too).

Others have much more of a ‘classic’ Zone feeling to them – The Who of You (struggling-actor-turned-criminal discovers the power to switch bodies with other people) feels like it’s channelling the original episode The Four of Us are Dying, while A Small Town (handyman discovers a replica of his town, and changes to one are reflected in the other) feels like a remake, even though it isn’t. Less ‘classic’ but still striking is 8 (Antarctic expedition encounters a rather unusual octopus), an excursion into outright horror which unfortunately does feel constricted by a too-brief running time.

The best episodes come at the end – Try, Try is about a woman on a trip to the museum which takes a very odd turn, as the apparently-perfect man she befriends turns out to be nothing of the sort. It’s a devastating takedown of Groundhog Day, as it might appear from the Andie McDowell character’s point of view, with strong performances from Kylie Bunbury and Topher Grace. Possibly the best of all is You Might Also Like, a sort of spiritual successor to the original episode To Serve Man. It’s about advertising, and consumerism, and grief, and manages to be funny and poignant and weird and unsettling in a way none of the other episodes manage. You can see why they put it out last of all, though.

So, is the most recent incursion of Twilight Zone worth visiting? Well – much as with the original show, there is a fairly even mixture of good, okay, and bad episodes (perhaps not quite enough genuinely good episodes for comfort, though). If every episode was up to the same standard as Try, Try, The Blue Scorpion, and You Might Also Like this would be an extremely watchable and maybe even significant series. Sieving through the less-successful instalments could make watching this show more of a grind than it’s worth.

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As you may have noticed, it’s not very often that a film gets by me, especially one of the horror or SF persuasion. I can be a little bit obsessive about these things (although, to be fair, it’s been nearly ten years since one of my treks to the out-of-town multiplex – and if memory serves, those little jaunts were usually to see something involving Jason Statham and/or Sylvester Stallone, anyway). And yet: a bit more than four years ago, friends and colleagues were talking about what a great time they’d had watching John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place, and I gave it a miss. (When people recommended A Quiet Place to someone in my earshot, I seem to recall I made a point of counter-recommending Ghost Stories instead.) The last time but one I flew to Moscow (it was 2018, it was a different world – at least, it seemed different, anyway), A Quiet Place was available to watch as one of the in-flight movies. Did I watch it? I did not. (I spent the flight getting stuck into Iain Banks’ The Bridge, if you must know.)

Why was this? Aha! Well, there’s the story: my landlady at the time was, and there’s no easy way of putting this, a Mail reader (both the Daily and Sunday variants) and she would pass the cultural supplement over to me once she’d finished with it. And the film critic in said pestilential weekend rag led me to understand that if I actually went to see A Quiet Place, it was a dead cert that a slightly ridiculous phobia that I am afflicted with would be very severely triggered. So I gave the film a miss. Quite why I did so, considering that in the past I generally stiffened the sinew, manned up, and went along anyway, even when I knew my particular terror button was going to be pressed, I don’t know: maybe I’m getting even more craven as I grow older. (There’s still an episode of Black Mirror I haven’t been able to watch to the end, for the same reason.)

It turns out I needn’t have worried. Former Next Desk Colleague Now Manager (At A Different Establishment) suffers from the same phobia that I do – what do I go with here, ‘it’s a small world sometimes’ or ‘we’re just so well-matched’? – and he assured me that the monsters in A Quiet Place were not going to push my buttons. So, pausing only to contemplate the fact that not even the film reviews in the Mail on Sunday are to be remotely trusted, I caught A Quiet Place the next time it came on the telly.

A Quiet Place opens with scenes that have become a staple of a certain kind of horror film: the urban environment in the process of decay, something awful having overtaken civilisation. Nature is just starting the process of reclaiming everything that people have left behind, although a caption indicates that whatever is happening has only been doing so for about three months. And it seems as though not everybody is dead: the Abbott family (played by Krasinski, Emily Blunt, Noah Jupe, Milicent Simmonds and Cade Woodward) are in the process of resupplying themselves from an abandoned store – but doing so (and a theme will develop from hereon in) very, very quietly. You may ask yourself ‘What, come to think of it, is the quiet place in A Quiet Place?’, and the answer is, of course, everywhere the characters go. Clues here and there do suggest the apocalypse that has happened is, in some respect, sonic, but the truth is not revealed for a little while.

This is not really a spoiler, but: the youngest Abbott has availed himself of an electronic toy he wants to take home with him, but this is vetoed (via sign language) by his parents, on the grounds of excessive volume. Unbeknownst to them, his sister gives it back to him with the batteries taken out, and unbeknownst to her, he puts the batteries back in. On the way home, as he trails behind the rest of the group, there is a sudden blast of sound.  Almost at once, something rather horrible scuttles through the woods at astonishing speed and snatches the child away.

Killing off a toddler right at the start of your movie is a pretty ballsy move, as it’s not the kind of thing audiences like: infant mortality tends to be reserved for more sentimental, naturalistic dramas, or proper hard-core horror films (and while I hate to split hairs when it comes to genre, I think A Quiet Place is much more a piece of apocalyptic SF than it is a genuine horror film). Nevertheless, it sets the tone for the piece and establishes the central question of it – namely, can the senior Abbotts keep their children safe in these rather trying circumstances? What are they prepared to do to ensure that happens?

The film does a sound job of exploring these questions (sorry, genuinely no pun intended), and puts together some very proficient sequences in the course of doing so. It was only when I finally sat down to watch A Quiet Place that I fully appreciated just how big a cultural footprint the film had left – despite never having seen it or its sequel, I realised I was more or less familiar with not just the premise of the movie, but also most of the plot points and set-pieces involved (the bit with the nail, the bit with the bath-tub). Perhaps this is why this is one of those films which seems to have impressed everyone else much more than me. I can see the quality and proficiency of the piece, but I’m just not inclined to praise it in the same way as a lot of other people.

Then again, I suppose there are some films where you can know the rough outline of the story going in and still enjoy yourselves, there being other incidental pleasures like dialogue to divert you. As I said when I wrote about One Million Years BC, making a film without any dialogue – not even as intertitles – really does have an impact on your ability to tell a sophisticated, complex story: there’s only so much you can do just by using visual storytelling. What Krasinski manages is impressive, but for me much of the pleasure of the film came from its world-building, the obvious thought that had gone into working out how the family would survive without making any noise. (I am tempted to speculate rather caddishly on how Mr and Mrs Abbott managed to conceive in total silence the child which is born towards the end of the movie but that really would be a tacky line of thought.) Once the plot starts to speed up in the final third, I thought it became rather less interesting.

But it’s a good movie for what it is – it knows what it wants to be about and ends up being about that, the direction and performances are good, and if the monsters themselves somehow don’t seem terribly original, that’s not necessarily a terminal problem for the film – slimy black things with big teeth and no eyes have practically become an archetype, post-H.R. Giger. I’m not sure that being better than other similar films automatically means that this is a great film, even though this is the only reason I can figure out for the acclaim A Quiet Place has received. Then again, perhaps this is one of those ‘you had to be there at the time’-type deals. Sadly, of course, I was not there at the time; I was too busy paying attention to the Mail on Sunday. This was obviously a mistake. A life lesson for us all there.

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Context is very important, first impressions too. We have discussed in the past how Netflix’s attempts to copy the traditional Hollywood action blockbuster or special-effects extravaganza would probably benefit from being seen in a traditional movie theatre rather than on a small screen somewhere else, while it does seem to me that the first time you cross paths with a film kind of establishes your relationship with it in perpetuity – when it comes to the handful of films I first watched in a foreign language without the benefit of subtitles, no matter how many times I’ve watched them since in English, all seem to have been marked by the experience – a lingering sense of bafflement, frustration, and vague disappointment.

I still think the best place to watch movies is in a cinema, but there are so many old films I’ve only ever seen on a TV that this is usually less of a problem. The UK archive channel TPTV is currently doing a sterling job of cranking out old horror films, usually by American International, two or three times a week (which is why there’ve been quite a few AIP golden oldie reviews in the last few months). It is, as I say, an archive channel so there shouldn’t really be anything surprising about this. What is a bit unexpected is the appearance of something like Joshua Kennedy’s House of the Gorgon, which premiered in 2019.

The story is set in the late 19th century in the small, indeterminately European town of Carlsdadt (sic). Surprisingly Welsh-sounding local priest Father Llewellyn (Christopher Neame) is deeply concerned that some ancient, monstrous evil is about to descend on the town, mainly because of a recent wedding he officiated at where everyone but him turned to stone halfway through, in rather suspicious circumstances. Could the padre be onto something?

Making her way to the town is innocent young lady Isobel Banning (Georgina Dugdale), accompanied by her mother (Veronica Carlson) and friend Christina (Jamie Trevino). The reason for her trip is so she can finally marry her fiance, Julian (Kennedy himself – he also wrote the script and edited the film, this is that kind of movie). The place seems quite charming, although some of the locals treat them rather strangely, and there is the inevitable warning that they should get straight back on the train and leave. But why?

Well, Isobel and her party find themselves staying with Julian and his benefactor, Baroness Bartov (Caroline Munro), a strange and reclusive noblewoman who, just possibly, has a peculiar hold over Julian. (Shouldn’t she be Baroness Bartova? Probably – but, once again, it is that kind of movie.) Is it somehow connected to the priest’s fears? Might a strange rhyme about the blood of a virgin being required to unleash an ancient evil somehow be pertinent to whatever is happening?

Even if you’d never heard of this thing there is a fair chance, given that you visit this blog in the first place, that you’ve figured out what’s going on here – the fact that the Baroness’ sister is played by Martine Beswick will probably push you over the line. This is very much a film for the initiated – for the uninitiated, Caroline Munro was in Dracula AD 1972, Captain Kronos, At the Earth’s Core, and various other fondly-remembered genre movies. Martine Beswick was in One Million Years BC, Prehistoric Women, and Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde. Veronica Carlson was in Dracula Has Risen From The Grave and The Horror of Frankenstein. (All three also both had stints in the Bond franchise, although Carlson was only in the non-Eon version of Casino Royale.) Christopher Neame’s Bond film was Licence to Kill (though he had a less decorative role, obviously); prior to that he appeared in Lust for a Vampire and Dracula AD 1972. (He’s also one of the very few actors to have had roles in all four of Dr Who, Blake’s 7, Star Trek and Babylon 5.) In short, we’re in cult jamboree territory here; the only film I can really compare House of the Gorgon to is House of the Long Shadows (the similarity in titles may not be coincidental).

Regular readers (seek help) will recall that my verdict on House of the Long Shadows was that it is a terrible movie which makes very poor use of the legendary horror stars assembled for it. House of the Gorgon‘s horror-veteran cast isn’t quite as stellar – how could it be? – but it’s still pretty impressive; you get the sense that Kennedy would definitely have been on the phone to the agents of Ingrid Pitt and Julie Ege, if only they were still with us, just so he could get the full Hammer glamour set. In any case, the script here is probably better than that of the older film, and the cast are properly better served.

And yet, and yet… I really don’t want to be horrible about House of the Gorgon, as it is clearly a labour of love which everyone involved has approached with great enthusiasm. But: how did this production come about, you may be wondering. Well, Joshua Kennedy apparently got to know Martine Beswick on the American horror movie convention circuit, and through her also made the acquaintance of Munro (the two of them are apparently besties). When Munro suggested, jokingly, that they should all make a movie together, Kennedy sprang into action, writing the basic plot outline on the back of an airplane sick bag (sometimes it is necessary to make a joke, and sometimes it is not), and raising $13,000 via crowdfunding to make House of the Gorgon a reality.

I’m not sure if you’ve ever seen a film made on a budget of $13,000, so you may not know what it looks like. Well, the main thing that such a low-budget film doesn’t look like is – er – a film. Many films aren’t actually made on film any more, of course, they’re shot digitally and put through a process that gives them the look of traditional film. House of the Gorgon is just shot on videotape, which gives it the bright, occasionally garish look of – well, the wedding sequence at the beginning does actually resemble someone’s wedding video. The rest of it inescapably resembles a student film project.

Like I say, I don’t want to be nasty, but the limitations of the production are constantly visible, often jarringly so. Someone is clearly reading a contemporary newspaper in a scene supposedly set on a 19th century train; although this does distract a bit from the obvious back-projection of the train windows. A surprising number of people in ‘Carlsdadt’ (whether the use of this name is because Karlstadt, as featured in Dracula and The Evil of Frankenstein, is under copyright, or simply the result of a typo, is not clear) appear to be Hispanic. Tourist brochure photos of somewhere picturesque in central Europe take the place of establishing shots. The set dressing prominently features paintings (done to monkey-Jesus standards) of not just the main cast but various other horror icons – I think I spotted Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Michael Gough, and Vincent Price, but it’s sometimes not clear whom the artist has been trying to paint. It’s sometimes a bit painful to watch, like an am-dram production of a Hammer horror pastiche, albeit one mounted in a village where various actual Hammer stars live. (Most of the problems are down to the tiny budget, but even so – why does nobody in Carlsdadt have a remotely central-European sounding name?)

I should say that the veteran actors are doing their best, despite the terrible special effects and make-up they generally have to contend with; Martine Beswick’s quite arch and deliberately camp performance is the best thing in it. She certainly seems to have her tongue in her cheek and isn’t taking it entirely seriously – perhaps that’s the best way to approach House of the Gorgon. I know this project – I can’t quite bring myself to call it a movie – has been highly praised in some quarters, and advocates for it argue trenchantly that it’s unfair to hold the project to the same standards as better-resourced productions.

I get that. Really I do. And I suspect that if I’d come across it on the internet, I’d probably have been more inclined to give it a pass on some of its shortcomings, as with most of the Star Trek and Star Wars fan films I’ve come across. But finding it on an actual proper TV channel, it’s almost impossible not to be arrested by all the myriad ways in which even the worst professionally-produced movie outclasses a project like this one. This is the audio-visual equivalent of self-publishing, a fan-made Hammer horror pastiche (with a few famous faces roped in). There’s nothing actually wrong with that, and I can appreciate the impulses which led to it getting made. But by all the usual standards this is pretty thin stuff.

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I don’t usually like to get all navel-gazery, but when it comes to one of these things, I like to stick to a certain minimum level of quantity (quality, as regular readers will know, is another matter entirely). I’m aware you’re giving up some of your precious and limited lifetime to read and assimilate my thoughts (or, and all choices are equally valid, try to make sense of the pun in the title, skim the first paragraph, look at the picture and then leave) and I feel obliged to provide a certain degree of heft. Only in exceptional circumstances, these days, does anything of less than 1000 words get released here – the only exception I can think of is the showy-offy review for Victoria, which (for formal reasons) largely took the form of a single 600-word sentence.

This time, though… I’m not sure if I can find a grand of words to write about Drew Cullingham’s Shed of the Dead, to be honest. ‘Steer clear’ repeated five hundred times? It would have a certain bravura directness to it. Yes, this is not so much a review as a caution, for Shed of the Dead rests comfortably near the very bottom of the list of films I would willingly watch again. (The fact the film was shot in 2015 but didn’t get anything like a release until 2019 should tell you something, possibly that it’s not just the film that should have been shot.)

This is, as you’ve probably guessed, yet another addition to the glut of zombie films we have been bombarded with for twenty years now (if Danny Boyle ever does get back to the project which kick-started all of this, he’ll probably be able to accurately call it 28 Years Later). There is a bit more going on here, though, as we shall see – more proving to be less, on this occasion.

Spencer Brown plays Trevor, an everyman protagonist who is clearly meant to be a loveable loser. The loveable part they struggle with, but the fact he is a loser is coded by the fact that he is unemployed and spends most of his time in an allotment shed painting wargames figures (I imagine Games Workshop’s lawyers were swooping around this project on their winged fell beasts, sniffing for possible IP infringement, but the film-makers weren’t that dumb). When not doing this, he’s round at the house of his slovenly mate Graham (Ewen MacIntosh), actually playing wargames. Both of them are apparently emotionally retarded and incapable of engaging with the real world in any meaningful sense.

Well, where do you start here? Full disclosure: yes, I don’t just get obsessional about cult movies, I play Call of Cthulhu, and I play wargames too (though not as often as I’d really like to). Does this surprise you? Please refresh your memory as to what this blog is actually called. While it’s true that many people who enjoy RPGs and wargaming are living their lives some distance from what the consensus agrees to be the mainstream, they are still mostly nice, intelligent, well-adjusted people, albeit with occasionally questionable political views (hello there, Jock, if you’re reading this). So on one level this movie does seem to me to be an extended act of defamation.

Anyway, as the allotment is a mess, the other users attempt to get Trevor evicted. Their spokesman is a Canadian emigre named Mr Parsons. Why is he Canadian? Mainly because they wanted Kane Hodder to play the part. Kane Hodder, for the uninitiated, played Jason Voorhees in several instalments of Friday the 13th, in addition to a huge number of other culty roles. This is in-jokey stunt casting, and not the last instance of it in Shed of the Dead: other cult actors who turn up in small roles are William Moseley and Michael Berryman. Trevor is unhappy about this and in the ensuing argument Parsons falls onto a rake and brains himself. Trevor hides the corpse in his shed.

Meanwhile, of course, the dead are rising, and this extends to Parson’s corpse – which leads to a lengthy death-struggle in the confines of the shed itself. Trevor eventually finds himself holed-up in the home of his estranged wife (Lauren Socha) and her friend (Emily Booth). Can they survive the unfolding zombie apocalypse, and will you actually care?

Well, the answer to the second part of that question is ‘almost certainly not’. Just getting to the end of the film was a challenge, but you need to put yourself through the fire sometimes, right? It’s not just a cheap, unfunny, lazy film, it’s… well, come to think of it, calling it a cheap, unfunny, lazy film is probably accurate enough. What makes it particularly egregious is the fact it is cynically angling to cash in on the success of a much better film – 2004’s Shaun of the Dead, obviously. Wikipedia lists Shed of the Dead as an actual remake of Shaun of the Dead, and while Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg would probably be within rights to seek legal advice if the makers of Shed described it as such, you can see the similarities.

Apart from the total lack of anything resembling functional jokes, the difference is in the way the characters are depicted without any sympathy or warmth: none of them have any redeeming features, with the two female characters especially problematic – they are essentially sex objects, although Socha’s character also has a streak of vicious shrewishness in her. It all put me horribly in mind of… well, it’s not so much a remake of Shaun of the Dead as a mash-up of Shaun of the Dead with the horrendous Sex Lives of the Potato Men, widely considered one of the worst films ever made. Shed of the Dead would probably be challenging it for that position, if it were more widely known.

The participation of Booth is interesting, as she was for quite a few years the face of the largely-gone-but-not-entirely-forgotten Horror Channel in the UK. There was a degree of thrashing around for content on the old Horror Channel, during the twelve hours or so every day when it was actually allowed to show modern horror movies; some really dodgy films turned up in the small hours of the night just to keep the channel on the air. Emily Booth’s presence here seems to be a tacit acknowledgement that an obscure cable channel at 2am on a Wednesday morning is the natural home for a film like Shed of the Dead.  It really doesn’t deserve any better. Steer clear.

(What do you know, 1100 words. Who’d’ve thought it?)

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Nothing else you see at the cinema this year is likely to be a soul-shreddingly harrowing as the PETA commercial currently running in front of certain screenings in UK theatres. They say that modern commercials don’t advertise products, they advertise the lifestyle which the product being flogged supposedly enables you to have – well, PETA have gone further ahead of the curve on this one and have made an advert for a lifestyle itself (it is, not entirely surprisingly, Veganism). The commercial features a cartoony lovable young turkey, a van en route to the turkey farm, a very suggestive moment when chopped tomatoes spray reddish fluid everywhere, and… well, you get the idea. Subtle stuff, guys.

Then again, I saw it before Luca Guadagnino’s Bones and All, for which it seemed strangely appropriate, even though the two things – on the face of it – seem to be pulling in diametrically opposed directions. On the face of it this looks rather like another slightly soft-centred, wet-between-the-ears YA novel adaptation (the book is by Camille DeAngelis, who is, and this may prove even more pertinent as we continue, a certified Vegan lifestyle coach); what Guadagnino (director of Call Me By Your Name and A Bigger Splash) actually produces is something much more… well, something much more than that, anyway.

Taylor Russell plays Maren, a young woman living in the American midwest in the late 1980s; her mother is not on the scene, she and her father (Andre Holland) seem to on the fringes of poverty and are new in town to boot. One of the girls at high school invites Maren to a sleepover, even though she has to sneak out of their trailer to do so (her father locks her in at night: our first inkling that this story may be headed to uncomfortable places). All goes well until, in the midst of the trying on of different shades of nail varnish, Maren suddenly yields to an impulse, pops her friend’s finger in her mouth, and strips all the flesh off it with her teeth. Looking duly apologetic (then again, is it possible to look apologetic enough for trying to eat your hostess’ finger?) she flees into the night – what amplifies the sudden note of disquiet the film has acquired is that her father has clearly been anticipating something like this will happen.

They relocate, as you would. However, Maren shortly turns eighteen, at which point her father reasonably takes the position that he’s had enough of a pattern of behaviour going back to when Maren ate the babysitter, and that she’s old enough to take care of herself – so he exits the scene with alacrity, thoughtfully providing her with her birth certificate and some money. From the document she gleans some information about her mother, and sets off to try and learn more about her.

On the way, she encounters Sully (a monumentally creepy performance by Mark Rylance), a man subject to the same awkward dietary impulses that she is, and she learns something about herself and those like her (she and Sully share a meal, provided by an old lady they meet – if you get my meaning). They are Eaters, afflicted by the urge to eat human flesh from time to time – an urge that increases in strength and frequency as they age. (They don’t seem to get any special benefits from this, so it’s not like they’re vampires or anything; Eaters come across as pitiful as much as revolting.) Sully clearly has it in mind to be some sort of mentor to Maren, but she has different ideas: she bails as soon as she can and continues her journey.

But on the way she meets Lee (Timothee Chalamet), another Eater who is much younger and more handsome than Sully, something which seems to incline her to overlook the fact he goes around murdering and devouring people on a semi-regular basis (there’s a slightly spurious plot point where he claims to only eat bad people, but it doesn’t seem to take much to earn a place on Lee’s menu). Soon they are travelling together, and the spark of romance flickers between the pair of them…

Yes, it’s the cannibal romance roadtrip movie that you may have heard about. I can easily imagine many people reacting with disgust and moral outrage to a film like this, and maybe they have a point – but cinema normalises, maybe even glamourises, all sorts of socially-aberrant behaviour, so the crime here is really one of degree only. Nevertheless, there’s a sense in which the whole film is a rather fragile construction, falling apart on some levels if you think about it rigorously – so it’s to Guadagnino’s credit that you generally engage with the film on its own terms. It’s not as if he’s glamourising cannibalism as a way of life, anyway – the film’s use of gore is not sensational, but makes it very clear what a messy and gruesome process it is. The whole film has a kind of measured thoughtfulness to it that makes the horror fade somewhat into the background, almost lost amongst the great midwestern skies and granular Americana of the film.

Perhaps this is something akin to what Sergio Leone did with the western over fifty years ago: an outsider coming in, taking an arguably quintessential American genre, and recreating it as something wholly new and startling. Whether that genre is the road movie or the horror film is a good question, for Bones and All functions as both, but it’s the craft and beauty of the film’s atmosphere and imagery that lingers with you. This isn’t one of those quiet-quiet-quiet-LOUD horror films, but something more pervasive – it knows where your phobic pressure points are (to use Stephen King’s helpful phrase) and gently caresses them to create disquiet and unease, only very occasionally squeezing tight.

To be honest, there is something very much of Stephen King about this film, in its evocation of real-world horror and the careful detail of its world and characters. It reminded me rather of Doctor Sleep, but I think this is a better film, in almost every way.

Of course, if we’re going to discuss Bones and All as a horror film, then the question we should be asking is what it’s actually about, how does it function, what is it trying to say? That eating people is wrong, as the old line has it? Well, it seems to me that the device of the Eaters is a useful way of establishing the main characters as somehow apart and distanced from ‘normal’ society, an allegory for alienated youth, and the dispossessed generally (perhaps they are distant cousins to the redneck vampires of Near Dark). Feeling different and misunderstood is part of the deal when it comes to being a teenager, I suspect; being an Eater just legitimises this feeling. It’s significant that the cannibalistic urge in the film is depicted as uncontrollable, thus supposedly freeing Maren and Lee from much of the moral responsibility of their activities – the film pointedly includes a scene where they meet a ‘normal’ person who’s a cannibal simply because he enjoys it (played by David Gordon Green, director of the recent Halloween sequels), and Maren flees in horror and revulsion from him.

Is there more to it than this? Vampire films are about deviant sexual activity, werewolf films about the conflict between the Apollonian and Dionysiac aspects of human nature – so what’s going on here when Maren and Lee feel their stomachs start to rumble? It’s not entirely clear, although I think it may be something to do with the desperation arising from their social backgrounds – all the Eaters in the film seem to be part of the underclass, steeped in poverty, scrabbling to survive. Society so often treats the underclass as sub-human – perhaps that is the metaphor here, and we are nearly back to H.G. Wells’ morlocks.  Life on the fringes certainly feels like one of the themes of the film.

Guadagnino sustains the film’s atmosphere and credibility brilliantly, aided by some great, committed performances. The climax and ending are perhaps a little predictable and obscure, respectively, but – as is usually the case with road movies – it’s much more about the journey than the destination. Bones and All is a strong challenger to Raw for the title of the best horror movie about cannibalism ever made, but it’s much more than that – not just a great horror film, but a great film full stop.

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There are two reasons why the horror movie briefly became a respectable genre and the subject of ‘quality’ studio releases for a while in the late seventies; the first of these is The Exorcist and the second is Jaws. Most of the films I am thinking of stick pretty close to the template of one or the other – either Satanic forces are at work in the present day (see Gregory Peck in The Omen) or wild animals have grown unhappy with their lot in life and are staging an uprising (see Grizzly, Orca, Tentacles, etc). I suppose there is also a small but robust subgenre of paranoid suspense thrillers based on Ira Levin novels which are also horror-adjacent, too.

As ever, Hollywood studios love a formula and the more respectable cash-ins feature many of the more striking features of whichever film they are knocking off. Then again some of them are more original. Which category Arthur Hiller’s Nightwing falls into isn’t immediately apparent.

On the one hand, it opens with some rather striking landscapes of the American Southwest, depicting the Grand Canyon, what looks very like Montezuma’s Castle, Monument Valley, and so on. (I enjoyed a coach tour of this region a few years ago and this montage brought back some very pleasant memories, which may have predisposed me to like the film – to begin with anyway.) It’s all very atmospheric. Then we find ourselves in the company of police officer Youngman Duran (Nick Mancuso), a member of the Maski tribe (my extensive research – Googling and Wikipedia – indicates that the Maski may be a fictionalised version of the real-life Hopi people, but the evdiecne is oddly inconclusive on the topic). Duran is called to the scene of a dead cow, which is not usually police business except for the fact that the creature is covered in strange, inexplicable wounds and stinks of ammonia. (It is also quite obviously stuffed, a fact which started my opinion of Nightwing on a slow but irreversible decline.)

The plot kind of ambles around for a while after this not-unpromising opening, the most pertinent point being that one of Duran’s friends, a mad old shaman named Abner (George Clutesi), says he has grown sick of the corruption of the modern world and has basically cast a spell to bring about the apocalypse. Not long after he is found dead with his body drained of blood, which starts fewer alarm bells ringing than you might reasonably expect. Meanwhile the local tribal council leader, whose only character trait is sliminess, reveals he is selling mineral rights on sacred land and wants all strange events kept hushed up to avoid a backlash in the media. Duran also bumps into the obligatory British scientist, Philip Payne (the great David Warner, displaying his usual ability to be better than the movie around him), who has something of a mania for exterminating vampire bats. Payne is convinced that a swarm of vampire bats has moved into a cave somewhere in the region – and the news gets even better, for he believes the bats to be carrying plague, as well!

With all this suddenly kicking off, it is of course very unfortunate that a young doctor with whom Juran has a bit of a thing going on (she is played by Kathryn Harrold) is off in the desert with a group of missionaries (presumably they’re on holiday). Everyone is sitting around the campfire having a chat when one of the missionaries says words to the effect of, ‘Wait, did you hear that?’ as something flutters by in the darkness. Right on cue, a cloud of winged pests appear out of nowhere and commence sucking on the evangelical posse.

Up to this point the film has been essentially stolid, nothing very special, but not without points of interest. As soon as the bats turn up on screen, however… well, chief fake bat wrangler was the noted Italian technician Carlo Rambaldi, who is celebrated by those who know about special effects, mainly because he designed the animatronics for both Alien and E.T. the Extra-terrestrial. I should also point out that he did some decent monsters for bad films like the original version of Dune, and not-great monsters for films that only I seem to like (the 1976 version of King Kong being the obvious example). This, on the oher hand, is Rambaldi doing really bad monsters for a film which has largely been lost to history. It’s not just the bat puppets which kill the film, though – the whole array of techniques that Hiller wheels on to try and make this sequence work fall completely flat and render it comical rather than remotely scary. The back-projection is risible, the use of speeded-up film is obvious, and the actors understandably struggle to look convincingly frightened.

It may indeed have been the case that they edited one set-piece bat attack together, took one look at it, and then attempted to restructure their killer bat movie so the actual killer bats have the minimal possible time on screen. It makes you realise how lucky Spielberg was to be making a film about a shark – you can film a shark attack without actually putting the fish on screen, it just stays under the water and you get the actor to splash about and scream. This is not an option with an attack by a swarm of killer bats. You either leave the whole thing to the imagination and just show the aftermath, or it’s rubber bat time.

Certainly, the bats are used sparingly throughout the rest of the film. Juran shakes off the venal tribal leader and teams up with Warner’s character and his girlfriend to track down the bats and wipe them out. This is fairly pedestrian stuff, with set pieces that don’t quite pop – at one point the three of them are stuck in a chickenwire cage with the bats trying to gnaw their way in, while Warner tries to shoot a dart with a tracking device in it at a tiny little bat. Warner’s performance is one of the more memorable elements of the film, mainly because of the monomaniacal hatred he constantly displays towards desmodus rotundus: ‘they’re the quintessence of evil… the destruction of vampire bats is what I live for.’ I know that Jaws has drawn criticism for giving sharks a bad name, but Nightwing arguably misrepresents vampire bats (small, inoffensive, surprisingly altruistic creatures) even more severely.

The other mildly distinctive thing about Nightwing, within its subgenre at least, is the mystical angle, though this is left carefully ambiguous: have the bats been whistled up by the shaman’s curse, or is it just a coincidence? The question is left open. Juran does keep seeing the spirit of the dead man during the closing stages of the film, but as he is full of hallucinogenic roots by this point, this hardly constitutes a definitive answer to the question.

Nightwing hangs together as a narrative, and clearly has potential to be a competent movie, but commits the cardinal sin of being quite boring most of the way through. It’s a horror movie about nature in revolt where they barely show any revolting nature, and all the characters are stock figures whom the actors struggle to bring to life. The bats drag this down to the level of being a bad movie, but even without that crushing drawback it would still be an extremely tough film to recommend.

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Here’s a name that has rather unexpectedly drifted up out of the mists of the past: Mark Mylod, long-time film and TV director, whose first movie, 2002’s Ali G Indahouse, dates back even unto the pre-blog days when I was solely doing this on a weird appendage to the BBC website. As you can see if you click the link, I was distinctly unimpressed by the film at the time, but – it may shock you to learn – Mr Mylod has gone on to have a solid career in both the UK and the US. (He’s the kind of person that Former Next Desk Colleague Now Manager may have worked with in his previous life as a TV editor; I must check.)

That said, it’s been a few years since Mylod’s done a movie, and his new one certainly looks like a change of pace from his previous work: it is The Menu, which feels rather like a horror film made for people who are normally a bit sniffy about horror. Or is it a satire? I think it’s probably a satire, to be honest, but a satire which has decided to hedge its bets by looking a bit like a horror film. This strikes me as a sensible strategy and one which doesn’t do the film any harm.

The film opens with enthusiastic foodie Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) preparing for the experience of a lifetime: he and his companion Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) are paying $1250 apiece to spend the evening at Hawthorne, a very exclusive restaurant on a private island. Also attending are a pretentious food critic (Janet McTeer) and her editor, three nouveau rich bros with far more money than taste, a veteran politician and his wife, and a fading film star (John Leguizamo) and his PA, who is trying to quit but finding it a challenge.

Hawthorne is famous for its unique and enigmatic menus – every sitting is different, and specially prepared with great precision by its head chef, Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes). Having received a tour of the island from Slowik’s steely head waiter (Hong Chau), everyone settles down for what they fully expect to be the meal of a lifetime. This turns out to be exactly what they get, although their lifetimes turn out to be somewhat shorter than they had anticipated when they arrived on the island.

Perhaps you can see what I mean about the horror trappings of The Menu: a group of people arrive on a secluded private island and find that their host has more planned than they originally expected. They have, in fact, been specially selected according to a rather particular set of criteria, and the fact that one of the people who have turned up is not the one featured on the guest list turns out to be pivotal to the plot. It’s not a million miles distant from fairly recent films like The Hunt and the horror version of Fantasy Island, in its premise anyway. The trailer makes it quite clear that, before the end, there will be a sequence in which many of the guests will be pursued across country by burly members of the kitchen staff.

That said – and this really shouldn’t come as a surprise given Mylod’s involvement as director – while some of the events of the film may be horrific (there are various stabbings, dismemberments, immolations, a drowning and a suicide) these never feel like the raison d’etre of the film, which they possibly would if this were an out-and-out horror – the movie seldom dwells on the gore, it is more about the idea of the violence than the grisly details. It’s an arch confection, and never that visceral.

Instead, this really is more of a black comedy, and specifically a social satire. The most obvious target is the world of the celebrity chef and the ridiculous adulation they occasionally receive for dishes which no sensible restaurant would have on their menu – a few years ago an elite restaurant in the UK started serving things like snail-flavoured porridge and bacon ice cream, and of course it very quickly became a kind of gastronomic mecca. The sheer absurdity of some of the conceptual courses that Slowik serves up to his guests is genuinely very funny, as are their reactions to the food (not to mention the helpful captions detailing the precise ingredients of the dishes) – at one point he sends out empty plates dabbed with sauces, for rigorously logical and well-explained reasons. Later on, as the tone darkens and the guests begin to suspect what’s going on, they get individualised tortillas, each one laser-inscribed with incriminating images of them.

However, there’s something a little more general going on here too, which is why it isn’t a great surprise to find Adam McKay listed as one of the producers of the film – he may be best known as a comedy director, but – amongst other things – he made the incisive, socially-committed comedy-drama The Big Short. The joke here is on the filthy rich and the careless way they make use of their vast wealth. From early on the film is drawing attention to the different levels of social strata occupied by the serving staff and the guests – Tyler is startled when a junior chef knows his name, but (as Margot notes) it doesn’t occur to him to ask the man’s name in return. Later on the distinction between those who give and those who take proves to be of the deepest significance.

The satire becomes increasingly grotesque one as it continues. You do get the sense that the idea of doing the satire was the priority, and the rest of the plot was built around it – it gets a bit unravelled towards the end, and perhaps could do with losing a course or two – certainly some of the characters’ actions, and their motivations, never quite ring true as those of real people: these are mostly caricatures, arch grotesques.

Nevertheless the performances are excellent, particularly from Fiennes and Taylor-Joy – Fiennes has the tricky job of essentially acting as the MC for the whole movie, and does it rather well. Taylor-Joy has become something of a fixture in all kinds of films since her early roles in horror, but as ever she brings a touch of class along with that truly remarkable bone structure. Then again, this is a classy movie, well-made, witty, and with something to say. Not quite a horror film per se, but horror-adjacent in the best possible way.

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Jack Cardiff’s The Mutations (released in 1974) is not a film which appears to be overly concerned by the attention span of its audience, which in our age of hyperactive, attention-grabbing gimmickry l actually find rather refreshing. It opens with a series of very long, slow, static takes of plants sprouting and developing (courtesy of the magic of time-lapse photography), over which the credits play. Grab-you-by-the-throat stuff this is not. Even when the credits conclude and we are off into the story proper, it doesn’t exactly burst into life, for we are at a scientific lecture delivered by university boffin Professor Nolter (Donald Pleasence, who indicates that Nolter is a mad scientist by doing an ever-so-slightly Germanic accent). His talk is on the development of life, and in particular the key role played by mutants. He also seems very keen on talking about carnivorous plants (that old staple of the dodgy low-budget horror movie), and proceeds to do so in some detail.

Watching all this are a bunch of they’re-a-bit-too-old-to-be-students, amongst their number Scott Antony, Olga Anthony, Jill Haworth, and Julie Ege (who had already done at least one Hammer movie by this point and had another one either lined up or just finished). They all watch fairly attentively as Nolter lays in the plot and themes of the movie, culminating in his belief that induced mutation could be used to bring about the next step in human evolution – specifically, a plant-human hybrid – an idea he seems to have nicked off Michael Gough in Konga. (Yes, so we’re already cutting the movie some slack, for it absolutely beggars belief that any credible university would keep someone on the payroll who is so clearly as mad as a mongoose – not that British horror movies don’t have form in this department, of course.)

The students depart the lecture and head off into mid-70s London, where the movie is set. However, something alarming befalls Olga Anthony, as she finds herself pursued across a park by – what’s the term we’re supposed to use these days? Dwarves? Midgets? Persons of restricted growth? Anyway, there are a few of them in The Mutations. Anthony manages to outrun them, as you might expect, but is grabbed by a looming figure anyway. This is Lynch, the hideously deformed man the short people are employed by; when not kidnapping young starlets he runs a freak show. The most notable thing about Lynch is probably that he is played by Tom Baker in one of his last pre-Dr Who roles; possibly this was the film that led Baker to temporarily pack in acting and work on a building site until destiny came calling – you could certainly understand why.

Anyway, it turns out that Lynch has done a deal with Nolter – he kidnaps young starlets and drags them off to Nolter’s lab, where Nolter performs his fiendish experiments and transforms them into hybrid mutants. Once Nolter has perfected the science he will fix Lynch’s face for him, and possibly help out the other members of the freak show too. In the meantime he transforms Anthony into a half-alligator hybrid mutant (don’t get excited, we barely see this particular monster).

It takes a while for the other mature students to notice their friend has gone missing, but perhaps they are distracted by the arrival of visiting American scientist Brian Redford (Brad Harris) – in the finest traditions of this kind of movie, the imported foreign star is enormously wooden and playing the least interesting character in the film anyway. Quite by chance, while showing him the sights of London, they end up taking him to Lynch’s freak show (maybe Trafalgar Square was full or something). They’re not allowed in to see the alligator girl, but they do get the regular freak show – which features people with genuine anatomical and genetic anomalies, and as a result is distinctly uncomfortable to watch.

The odd thing about The Mutations is that while there’s always something going on, it doesn’t really feel like a movie with an actual plot – it just seems to go from one lurid and provocative set-piece to another, strung together by some rather pedestrian connective tissue. Nolter goes on with his experiments, Lynch torments and is tormented by the side-show performers (when not out kidnapping), and Julie Ege wonders why her friends keep dropping out of sight. You know where it’s going; the pleasure (if that’s the right word for it) comes from the incidental horrors of the movie.

Or, to put it slightly differently: Donald Pleasence plays a mad scientist who hires a deformed freak-show owner to kidnap young people and transform them into monsters for largely spurious pseudo-scientific reasons. It’s not the most outlandish premise for a horror movie, I suppose, but it’s getting there.

Or, to be even more reductive – it’s The Island of Doctor Moreau meets Freaks, set in mid-1970s London. You know, when you put it like that it actually sounds like this might be an interesting and even fun movie. But I have to report that the finished product, though possessed of a sort of grim capacity to fascinate, is actually quite hard work.

Mind you, the same could obviously be said of the original Freaks, which I have already written about. The link between the two films is obvious, and openly acknowledged – there’s a scene reprising the famous ‘we accept you – one of us’ sequence from the Todd Browning film, although Tom Baker is less than delighted to be accepted into the side-show fraternity. The curiosity of seeing one of these early Baker performances is possibly one reason for watching The Mutations, though I must insert a strong caveat here – not only does the heavy make-up he’s under render the great man almost unrecognisable, it also severely impairs his performance (he can barely open his mouth). Nevertheless, power and presence shine through, and he easily holds his own against Pleasence.

At the time Pleasence was in the process of carving out the horror niche that would eventually lead to his being cast in Halloween – he did this movie, Deathline, and Tales That Witness Madness in the space of a few years. This is actually a lot like Deathline, to be honest – it has the same nondescript group of youths in peril, takes place in a down-at-heel, seedy version of modern London, and seems to be trying harder to be disturbing rather than genuinely scary. This is the sillier film by some way – by the time Nolter’s half-man half-Venus fly trap creation starts rising from the Thames and bothering tramps, it’s quite quite clear that this is just exploitative schlock.

It’s an ignoble end to Jack Cardiff’s directorial career, and while it does exert a strange hold, this is mainly because it’s so determinedly grotesque and repulsive. To a modern viewer it looks unpleasant and exploitative on a dozen different levels, to say nothing of cheap and tacky. And yet in the 1970s you commonly found actors of note appearing in this sort of thing. The Mutations is not alone in this – but few low-budget horrors even of the 70s have such a sense of tawdriness about them.

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Here we are again for another episode of ‘Which McDonagh are we talking about anyway?’, even less forgivable than usual given that it’s only a couple of months since the other one – John Michael McDonagh – had a film out and we last went through all this rigmarole. Okay: so this week it’s Martin McDonagh and his new movie The Banshees of Inisherin, which (spoiler alert, perhaps) has already been getting rave reviews from proper film critics whose opinions are actually worth money.

This is a very congruent movie for the McDonagh canon, as I believe we touched on last time. If you lay a hand on one of the brothers’ films at random you are likely to strike one featuring either Brendan Gleeson (The Guard, Calvary) or Colin Farrell (Seven Psychopaths) – or possibly both (In Bruges), most likely a black comedy-drama (most of the foregoing), very possibly set in or around Ireland (The Guard and Calvary again). The other McDonagh film of this year was quite notable for not really scoring points in any of those categories; this one restores the averages by being more or less a clean sweep.

Colin Farrell plays Pádraic Súilleabháin, a middle-aged farmer on the small island of Inisherin off the coast of Ireland, which his better-read sister (Kerry Condon) accurately summarises as being full of bitterness and idiots. The setting is the 1920s and the Irish civil war is rumbling away off in the far background of the story. The film starts ordinarily enough as Pádraic calls for his friend Colm (Brendan Gleeson) on the way to the pub; Colm ignores him. When questioned Colm rather brusquely explains that he doesn’t want to be friends with Pádraic any more; Colm is feeling intimations of mortality and would much rather spend his time playing and composing music than having aimless and rather dull conversations with a man whose main distinguishing feature is the fact he thinks a donkey is an appropriate house pet.

Pádraic is understandably a bit wounded by this treatment from a man he called a friend, even if most people on the island seem to agree that he is a bit of a dullard and only spared the title of island idiot by the presence of a youth named Dominic (Barry Keoghan), who is an absolute dimwit. He insists that Colm be friends with him again, but Colm refuses – slowly it becomes clear to the audience, if not Pádraic himself, that Colm has his own profound issues to deal with, of which his apparent cruelty towards his former friend are only the outward sign. Eventually Colm is forced to issue an ultimatum: if Pádraic doesn’t stop bothering him, he will be forced to take very severe action in order to prove he is serious about wanting to be left alone…

As noted, The Banshees of Inisherin has been enjoying excellent reviews, with lots of positive words about how very funny it consistently is. I can’t argue with that: it’s a very amusing and enjoyable film, up to a point – McDonagh has a tremendous ear for the rhythms of Irish language and many of the scenes have a beautifully-judged structure where two or three characters consistently repeat each other, words and phrases bouncing around between them. It’s worth saying that the cinematography is also excellent, and the Irish landscape looks absolutely gorgeous. It almost goes without saying that the film is also extremely well-acted; the early buzz is that both Farrell and Gleeson may end up getting Oscar nominated (which I suspect may just mean that neither of them has any real chance of actually winning a gong).

However: a lovely pastoral Irish farce this is not. This is a film rooted deeply in despair and death and pain, even if it isn’t immediately apparent. Someone threatens to do something absurdly horrible and grotesque and it sounds like a joke, and in a sane world it would be a joke – but in this film they turn out to be in deadly earnest. By rejecting Pádraic’s friendship, Colm has impugned Pádraic’s idea of himself as a nice, sociable fellow, which he takes as a profound insult. Their relationship is consumed by a viciously bitter feud, with neither side prepared to call it quits.

Did I mention that Irish politics forms part of the backdrop to this movie? On the other hand, it almost seems too heavy-handed of McDonagh, for all that the pointless, apparently unresolvable conflict in the movie, one which lurches from one gratuitously horrible act to another in defiance of sanity or logic, certainly seems to have some parallels with the historical situation in Ulster. Both men start out with well-defined, quite reasonable positions – Colm wants more time for his musical endeavours, Pádraic simply wants to be acknowledged as a decent and agreeable human being – and by the end of the film it seems like their feud will rob both men of the very thing they are fighting for. It is profoundly bleak and sad, for all of the black comedy.

Parts of the film are so dark it almost becomes difficult to watch, but the craftsmanship of McDonagh and the cast keep the film engrossing, and while it may be bizarre and extreme, it also resonates in the way it addresses some fundamental questions – does the creation of great art excuse treating other people badly? Is the urge to want to leave something behind as a legacy always a selfish one? There’s a sense in which both men start out as understandable, sympathetic individuals, and the process by which they slowly transform, almost imperceptibly, into irrational zealots for their own causes is also beautifully done.

The Banshees of Inisherin is not quite the film it initially looks to be, but it has all the intelligence, wit, and craft of the best of Martin McDonagh’s past work. Quite apart from the issues it raises and the strength of the performances, it is quite simply a very beautiful thing to look at – most of the time at least. For a gentle comedy to slide as smoothly and satisfyingly into something almost akin to a horror movie is quite unusual, for it to be achieved so gracefully is exceptional.

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