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Posts Tagged ‘horror’

What can one say about David Yarovesky’s Brightburn? I can only pass on my response to seeing the first trailer for the film, which was to paraphrase what Rudyard Kipling said after first encountering a particularly startling story by Arthur Machen – all I could think of was the sheer audacity of the thing. This is one of those films built around a single breathtakingly good idea, the kind of thing that makes one wonder why no-one came up with it earlier. That said, it is strange to consider how a film which is by its very nature almost totally derivative can feel so fresh and original.

The film is set in Brightburn, a small town in rural Kansas. Almost at once we meet Tori and Kyle Breyer (Elizabeth Banks and David Denman), a farming couple whose dearest wish is to have a child. But all is fruitless, until one night when a strange meteorite lands in the woods near their home. Investigation reveals that it is not really a meteorite, but some kind of wreckage, and within it they find a baby boy, miraculously unharmed. Their prayers have been answered!

Well, ten years or so skip by and the baby has grown up to be Brandon (Jackson A Dunn), an extremely bright young lad, who ends up taking flak from his peers as a result, as is so often the case. But all is good until something flickers into activity in the wreckage buried under the Breyers’ barn. Brandon begins to become surly and uncommunicative, which his adoptive parents naturally assume is due to the onset of puberty. Kyle takes him off to the woods on a hunting trip and explains how it is perfectly natural to feel certain urges and impulses, and that Brandon shouldn’t be afraid to act on those now and then. This is advice he probably comes to regret.

Tori in particular is as devoted to Brandon as ever, even though his erratic behaviour continues: a girl who has rejected his awkward romantic overtures ends up with a pulverised hand. The sheriff is called, but no charges are proferred – and the sheriff soon has other things on his plate to worry about, anyway, such as a string of mysterious disappearances and deaths (coincidentally amongst people who have ticked Brandon off, funnily enough). But how are the forces of truth, justice and the American way supposed to contend with a killer capable of throwing trucks, melting holes in steel doors and moving too fast to be seen…?

The film makes no real attempt to disguise what it’s doing, which seems sensible because what would be the point? The whole raison d’etre of the film is to subvert one particular story, which even though it’s only about 80 years old has already achieved the stature almost of folklore. For very good legal reasons, Brightburn is very careful about just how closely and particularly it references its source material. It seems slightly perverse that the first organisation listed in the ‘Thanks To’ section of the credits is Marvel Studios, while Warner Brothers (legal owners of that source material) are not even mentioned.

Then again, the producer of Brightburn is James Gunn, and a perverse sense of very dark humour is exactly what we would all have expected from him up until about five years ago. These days Gunn is famous for his work on Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy movies, but before that he wrote and directed twisted genre films like Slither and Super (an extremely obscure reference to which duly appears in Brightburn). Brightburn is cut very much from the same cloth, because for all of its SF trappings and the references to the superhero genre, this is at heart a gleefully gory and brutal horror movie.

Well, that’s what happens when you couple the almost limitless power of an alien demigod with the psyche of a messed-up boy on the cusp of adolescence, I suppose. This is, obviously, a nightmarish prospect, and the film is energetically inventive in finding ways of illustrating this. It’s only a brisk ninety minutes or so in length, and doesn’t hang about worrying too much about things like establishing atmosphere or deep characterisations; the fact that most of these characters are thinly tweaked versions of well-known archetypes helps in this respect.

Even so, I still feel the film really misses a trick – a particularly brutal twist of the knife, as it were – by suggesting that Brandon is effectively the victim of brainwashing or possession by something from his place of origin. There’s no sense of his inner conflict, of him fighting a losing battle with the temptations presented by his burgeoning powers and finally succumbing to corruption and evil. The film just seems to want to get on with the set-piece horror sequences. As a result he emerges as something of a stock figure from paedophobic horror cinema, obviously a spiritual descendant of Damien from The Omen as well as (possibly) the biological offspring of someone from a planet named after a noble gas.

However, this isn’t an entirely superficial piece of storytelling, either: front and centre for most of the film is Elizabeth Banks, one of those people you underestimate at your peril – I know she is probably best-known as the one with the crazy hair from the Hunger Games films, but she has a CV filled with smart choices (she was in Slither, which may explain her connection with Gunn). Banks gives the film some real heart and a sense of angst, as Tori initially flatly refuses to believe that there is anything amiss with her son, only to slowly realise it may be a mistake to take undocumented space refugees into your family, no matter how cute they may initially appear. David Denman has a slightly less flashy role as the father, but still gets some good moments and really makes you feel them.

It’s also quite impressive that the film manages to stay focused on its concept as carefully as it does, and never seems in danger of turning into an obvious spoof or exercise in tongue-in-cheek humour. This is all done in deadly earnest, which, ironically, is one of the things which makes it feel so fresh and fun. This is not a perfect movie, but (provided you can take the grisly moments) it is a very impressive and entertaining one. It may sound like dark burlesque or subversion of its source material, but in an admittedly strange fashion it honours that source material at least as well as any of the most recent adaptations of it.

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In the UK we are used to genre movies being given distinction and a touch of gravitas by the presence of classy actors who you wouldn’t automatically associate with low-budget horror and fantasy – the most famous examples being, of course, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. This famous duo top a list of first-rate performers which includes people like Andre Morell, Oliver Reed, George Sanders, Ralph Richardson, Patrick Troughton, and many more. When it comes to American films, however, it feels like this doesn’t happen nearly so much. The blazingly obvious exception is Vincent Price, of course (an actor who also made films in Britain, of course), but apart from him, who else is there? Mostly just people at the very beginnings (Jack Nicholson) or ends (Boris Karloff, Basil Rathbone) of their careers.

And then there is Ray Milland, an A-list star for many years, and Paramount’s highest paid performer as well. In his later years Milland turned up in various made-for-TV fare, some of which got theatrical releases over here (he is in the first Battlestar Galactica movie, for example), but in the 1960s he followed in Vincent Price’s footsteps and made a handful of films with Roger Corman. One of these was an entry into Corman’s cycle of Poe adaptations; the other, X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, is slightly trickier to pin down when it comes to its pedigree.

The film was released in 1963. Milland plays James Xavier, a scientist and surgeon who is brilliant to the point of actual arrogance. The particular bee in Xavier’s bonnet is his dissatisfaction with the fact that the human eye can only perceive 10% or so of the spectrum. Feeling we should do better, he has obtained funding to develop some hormonal eyedrops to expand the range of human vision, and happily demonstrates them to a representative of the funding body, Diane Fairfax (Diana van der Vlis), by testing them on a monkey. The monkey indeed appears to briefly acquire the ability to see through sheets of card, which is good, but then it appears to die of shock, which is not. Having skipped the same class on hubris and nemesis as Dr Frankenstein, Seth Brundle, and every other SF-horror movie scientist you care to mention, Xavier cheerfully ignores the deceased simian and, facing a review from the money men, takes the eyedrops himself.

Well, the results are mixed, as his funding is suspended as the committee holding the purse strings have grave doubts about his work – but looking on the bright side, he can now achieve miracles of surgery, and also see everyone naked at parties (of course, as the movie was made in 1963, so this is all presented very innocently). However, an uneasy colleague, disturbed by Xavier’s arrogance, assures him he will be tried for malpractice, and a friend’s attempt to make an intervention results in the friend falling out of a window many stories up (this bit is not fantastically well presented).

Xavier is forced to drop out of sight (no pun intended), taking up residence first as a theme park novelty act, and later as a kind of faith healer, encouraged in both of these by an unscrupulous associate, Crane (a really nice performance by Don Rickles) – it’s the only way he can make any money to fund further research, for his sight is continuing to change. But when Diane finds him, he resolves to use his special faculties to fund his research – by going to Las Vegas and taking on the casinos. However, his vision is continuing to expand, causing him no small psychological stress, as reality itself literally unravels before his eyes…

So, on one level this is obviously another of those cautionary tales about Misguided Scientists Meddling In Things Of Which Man Was Not Meant To Know, although some commentators have found more interesting and subtle elements to it – Stephen King, in Danse Macabre, suggests that it is one of the few American horror films to conjure up an authentically Lovecraftian sense of dreadful cosmic horror, which I suppose is arguably the case: Xavier gibbers of catching sight of a great, all-seeing eye at the heart of the universe, which certainly sounds like the sort of thing Lovecraft would have come up with. (King also writes of a supposedly lost ‘original ending’, in which Xavier despairingly wails ‘I can still see!’, even after [spoilers redacted]. Roger Corman denies this ever existed, but acknowledges it is a better conclusion than the one in the film.)

Whatever you think of the story – and personally, I find it to be just a bit too linear and obvious, and by no means rushed even at less than 80 minutes in duration – the film works as well as it does mostly because of Milland’s terrific central performance. You can see why this guy was a major star for decades – in the early part of the film in particular, it’s like watching Cary Grant making a sci-fi B-movie: Milland has the same effortless suave charisma, he even sounds a bit like Grant. As the film goes on, he handles Xavier’s descent into haunted despair and then mania equally well, wringing every drop from a script, which (naked party scenes aside) handles its subject matter with commendable seriousness. With the possible exception of Rickles, no-one else really gets a look in.

Of course, you can pretty much guarantee that a film subtitled The Man with the X-Ray Eyes is going to include some ambitious point-of-view shots, and for a film of its time this one produces some interesting effects as it goes on. They are striking and lurid, for the most part, especially the psychedelic cityscapes that Xavier witnesses towards the end of the film. On the other hand, they are to some degree expressionistic – Corman has spoken of updating the film with more modern optical effects, and you can understand why. Whether this would include taking a second look at the final shot of the film, which for me doesn’t really work, I don’t know.

In any case, this is a solid, well-scripted film, interesting to look at and with a clear sense of what it wants to be. It’s Ray Milland’s performance, though, which really makes it memorable and distinctive.

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As Shinichiro Ueda’s One Cut of the Dead gets underway, we find ourselves in very familiar (perhaps dispiritingly familiar) territory: a young woman (Yuzuki Akiyama) in blood-spattered vest and shorts recoils from the ominous figure (Kazuaki Nagaya) of a looming, grey-faced walking corpse. There is pathos as well as terror, as it transpires these two were romantically involved, before he became, er, vitally challenged. The camerawork is a bit clumsy, and the zombie make-up a bit primitive, but we have been drowning in zombie films ever since 28 Days Later came out, nearly 17 years ago, and much worse work has made it onto cinema screens in this time.

However, not all is as it initially appears, for as the zombie attacks his victim, a voice screams ‘Cut!’, the camera pulls back, and it is revealed that this is not a low-budget zombie movie, but a film about the making of a low-budget zombie movie, and one which is not going well: the director (Takayuki Hamatsu) is revealing despotic tendencies, and they are currently on the forty-second take of this particular scene. After expressing his dissatisfaction with the actors’ performances in deafening terms, he goes off in a huff, leaving the make-up woman (Harumi Shuhama) to tell the young performers the eerie tale of the history of the abandoned industrial site they are filming in, with rumours of weird experiments on human bodies. We are back in the realm of the slightly hokey here, and then there is a rather odd interlude as the make-up woman demonstrates her hobby of self-defence. But then, it seems that there may be some substance to the rumours of the site’s dark past, as what appear to be genuine zombies appear and start attacking the cast and crew. Everyone is shocked and horrified – well, nearly everyone, as the director is delighted at this opportunity to use a bit of method-acting in his zombie spectacular…

Yes, this is a film about zombies attacking people who are making a film about zombies attacking people. My first thought when I heard about it was that it sounded very much in the (lacerated) vein of George Romero’s Diary of the Dead (one of the master’s less impressive latter-day films), in which people making a horror movie find themselves caught up in a genuine zombie apocalypse. This is not quite the same as that, however. I know we were talking the other day about how this is a good time for niche films to be released: well, once again, you don’t get much more niche than self-referential Japanese zombie horror comedy films. I knew very little about One Cut of the Dead before I went to see it, its Wikipedia entry is (perhaps intentionally) misleading, and I feel it would almost be spoiling the film to talk about it in any detail. On the other hand, I feel I have to say something, as this is one of the best films I have seen at the cinema this year (I should mention it’s taken its time arriving on UK screens, as its Japanese premiere was in 2017). So, this is one of the rare occasions where I will say Spoilers Incoming, but also that this film fully deserves the glowing notices it’s been getting pretty much everywhere, not to mention its enormous success (apparently this is the first film in history to make a thousand times its budget at the box office).

Why, you may be wondering, is this film called One Cut of the Dead? Well, I think this may be another case of our old friend the slightly dodgy translation making an appearance – One Take of the Dead would be a slightly more appropriate title, as you slowly become aware that the action of the film is unfolding in front of a single camera without any breaks – supposedly the camera filming the film-within-the-film, if you’re with me so far (thus explaining the film’s original title, Kamera o Tomeru na!, which translates as Don’t Stop the Camera!). Are you with me? I hope so, because we’re not quite to the heart of the matter yet.

After 37 blood-splattered minutes of hilariously over-the-top chaos, there is, finally, a cut, and a caption reading ‘One Month Earlier’ comes up. Suddenly the film adopts a much more conventional style. We meet Takayuki (Hamatsu again), a journeyman director of karaoke videos and the like (his motto is ‘fast and cheap, but average’) who is given a potential career opportunity – the backers of the soon-to-launch Zombie Channel (it’s only a matter of time before this really happens) want to kick off their new network with something special, and have decided to start with the live broadcast of a thirty-minute zombie movie, One Cut of the Dead, filmed in real time in a single take. Takayuki initially thinks this is a joke, but rapidly says yes when he realises they are serious.

Slowly it becomes apparent that this isn’t a horror film about zombies attacking people making a horror film about zombies attacking people. This isn’t even a horror film at all, in the strictest sense. This is a comedy film about people making a film about zombies attacking people making a film about zombies attacking people. What could be simpler? We are introduced to all the actors who play the characters in the film-within-the-film, and of course much humour is derived from the differences between their screen personae and real-life personalities. It is true that this section of the film is slower and less obviously funny than the bravura opening segment, but at the same time it is crucial to the film’s ultimate triumph, which is yet to come.

One Cut of the Dead is, I suppose, the equivalent of one of those Penn and Teller routines where they show you a hugely impressive and entertaining trick, then – in breach of all the magician’s union guide-lines – purport to show you exactly how they did it, which somehow manages to make it seem even funnier and more impressive than it was the first time around. The final third of the film is essentially a reprise of the beginning, but this time we are privy to all the desperate antics going on behind the camera in order to make the thing work – two of the actors haven’t turned up, which is why Takayuki and his wife (Shuhama) have been forced to step in and appear in the film, the bizarre performance of one of the zombies is revealed to be because the actor has drunk himself almost into a stupor, and so on. All the bizarre details and weird non sequiturs in the opening sequence are revealed to have a hilarious behind-the-scenes explanation; the stream of jokes is relentless and all of them hit their target. I have not laughed as much or as hard at any film in as long as I can remember as I have at One Cut of the Dead.

The film’s energy and invention are irresistible, and it enjoys two brilliant comic performances from Hamatsu and Shuhuma (Shuhuma’s transformation from mild-mannered make-up lady to axe-wielding berserker is funny the first time round, but even better when the reasons for it become apparent). And by the end it becomes a genuinely uplifting and joyous experience: you find yourself really rooting for these people as they desperately struggle to get to the end of the film despite all the problems it is beset by. In addition to being a truly great comedy, this is a loving tribute not just to bad horror films, but also to the craft and art of film-making itself. A fake-gore-splattered delight, and a wonderful surprise.

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A little bit less than a year ago I was approached at work by a former student of mine. It was obvious he had something on his mind and that there was a burning question he was dying to ask me. Although we no longer had a formal relationship of any kind, I am always honoured and happy to help out in this sort of situation, and mentally prepared myself for what would very likely be a perceptive and thoughtful question concerning rarefied details of linguistics, culture and social behaviour. As I suspected, he got straight to the point and asked me the question uppermost in his mind.

‘Why did Dr Strange give Thanos the Time Stone? It’s stupid, it didn’t make any sense.’

Well, we discussed the answer for some time, as you would, but even as we talked I found myself feeling a great sense of pride that my former student still had his priorities straight and that I had placed his feet so firmly on the path of virtue. And so it felt entirely appropriate that we went to the cinema together, this week of all weeks, to enjoy – well, actually, we went to see Neil Jordan’s Greta, as the other film you may be thinking of only opened at midnight and there’s no way I can stay up until 4am on a work night and still function the next day. So it goes.

Still, we had a pretty good time watching Greta, because Neil Jordan is never less than competent as a director – that said, you’re never quite sure what you’re going to get from him, as the description ‘eclectic’ barely begins to do justice to his filmography – he’s done fantasy films, thrillers of various stripes, and comedies. His last film, Byzantium, was about pole-dancing vampires, and I still regret not actually going to see it. Hey ho.

Greta is set in New York City and concerns Frances (Chloe Grace Moretz), a young woman working as a waitress in one of the metropolis’ swankier restaurants. She has recently lost her mother and has a somewhat fractious relationship with her pa, both of which are relevant to the plot, as is the fact she is sharing an apartment with her best friend (Maika Monroe). The best friend is brash and somewhat self-interested; Frances is kind and thoughtful. The wisdom of this as a lifestyle choice is thrown into doubt after Frances finds an expensive handbag on the metro one day and resolves to return it to the original owner. This turns out to be Greta (Isabelle Huppert), a pleasant but lonely lady of a certain age. Great’s husband has passed away, her daughter is living abroad, and she doesn’t even have a dog any more. Frances’ sympathies are stirred, to say nothing of the fact she is missing a maternal influence in her life, and the two quickly become close.

And then, of course, because it’s fairly obvious from the start what kind of movie this is and how it’s all going to go, there is the big moment of revelation: while round at Greta’s house, Frances looks in the wrong cupboard and comes across a whole pile of handbags of the same kind she found, each one labelled with the name and phone number of the person who returned it to Greta. But where are these thoughtful people now? What exactly is Greta up to?

I think you would have to be pretty wet behind the ears yourself not to have some idea which way this movie goes, for it is apparent from quite close to the start that this is one of your old-fashioned obsession-themed psycho thrillers, not all that different from the likes of Fatal Attraction, Single White Female or The Resident. Greta doesn’t seem particularly interested in moving the genre on at all; its main innovations are that the traditional bit with a kitchen knife is reimagined to make use of a biscuit cutter, and that it is completely, ravenously, roaringly bonkers. Not particularly in the story, which is standard stuff as I have noted, but in the treatment of it. I was really anticipating something subtle and classy, given Jordan’s involvement, with a long build-up before the onset of the screaming ab-dabs, but the film has other ideas and is really, really keen to get to the proper psycho killer meat of the story. The ominous strings and twitchy smash-cuts are introduced rather abruptly, not to mention quite early on, which means the film has to go further and further out there to maintain its momentum as it continues. I have to say I found the results to be highly entertaining, but the film is preposterous rather than any kind of scary.

Which leads one, of course, to wonder exactly what an actress with the stellar reputation of Isabelle Huppert is doing in this kind of tosh. Huppert is in majestic form and carries off the whole movie effortlessly, bringing a lovely lightness of touch to her role as a frothing maniac: she barely needs to get out of first gear to dominate the film. But still, why is she in it at all? The only explanation is that she feels she needs to raise her Hollywood profile a bit so she can compete for good parts in American films; this is the reason why Nigel Hawthorne made an equally unlikely appearance in Demolition Man, after all. Then again, I suppose there may also be a financial component involved – Laurence Olivier, during that point at the end of his career when he routinely turned up in things like The Boys from Brazil, The Jazz Singer, Dracula, and Clash of the Titans, responded testily to questions as to why he did so many lousy movies with the reply that artistic merit wasn’t the only consideration. Anyway, Huppert is very far from the first class act to slum it in dodgy genre fare, and it’s not as if she’s alone here – Chloe Grace Moretz is also a feted performer (not so much for her recent work, admittedly), and she does good work here too. Also, just to make sure everyone is certain this is a Neil Jordan film, his regular collaborator Stephen Rea turns up in a small role; students of film history will understand what I mean when I say that Rea is in the Martin Balsam part.

As I say, I enjoyed the ridiculous extremity of Greta more than anything else, because there’s little substantially new about this film, and Jordan really only does a workmanlike job as the director – there’s an interesting sequence where the boundaries between reality and fantasy seem to start breaking down, but this doesn’t really go anywhere. But the movie is worth seeing even if it’s just for the sight of classy actors having fun; by that same token, of course, I have to say that if this film had been made with a less distinguished cast, it would almost certainly have gone straight to DVD.

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Every now and then one comes across something which is a coincidence, or a sign that there are things going on in the world which one would not have expected: to wit, someone in the scheduling department at a high-numbers TV channel having either a fairly black sense of humour or fringe political views. These are the only two possible explanations for the decision to show Franklin J Schaffner’s 1978 movie The Boys from Brazil on April 20th; for this is a movie about Nazism and the date is the most significant one on any observant Nazi’s calendar. I enjoy a dubious gag as much as anyone, and probably more than most, but I find I am still crossing my fingers and hoping this was a coincidence.

Based on one of Ira Levin’s pulpy shockers, The Boys from Brazil is Lew Grade and ITC Entertainment’s answer to The Omen, which came out a couple of years earlier. One should add the important proviso that in this case the answer is close but not quite right, but at least the film-makers’ working-out is fairly obvious: take a somewhat ludicrous conspiracy thriller, prominently featuring ominous children, add Gregory Peck, various other distinguished actors, and a lavish budget, season with a little spectacular gore here and there, and away you go.

Did I say distinguished actors? One of the first well-known faces to make an appearance is that of Steve Guttenberg, who was still a semi-serious actor at this point in time (he was only 20). Guttenberg plays Barry Kohler, a young Jewish Nazi-hunter who as the story starts is monitoring the activities of various war criminals in Paraguay (James Mason and various character actors play the roles of the Nazis; Portugal plays the role of Paraguay). Who should turn up to preside over the get-together but Dr Josef Mengele (Gregory Peck), Auschwitz’s own Angel of Death? (Yeah, yeah, I know; we’re going to talk about this, I promise.) Mengele is here to launch the next stage of a project which has been long in the works, and dispatches a squad of ruthless Nazi killers to assassinate 94 men across Europe and America; all of them are 65-year-old civil servants of different kinds (and, based on the ones we see, most of them are other well-known character actors: there’s Michael Gough, not to mention Richard Marner from Allo Allo! and Alternative 3).

Well, it turns out that Steve Guttenberg is not yet old or famous enough to make it out of the opening section of the film in one piece, and so he passes on his notes to a more distinguished Nazi hunter who provides the necessary investigating and moral outrage for the rest of the film. Yes, it’s Lord Olivier, not exactly underplaying it as relentless sleuth Ezra Lieberman (Larry seems to be practising for his Razzie Award-winning turn in The Jazz Singer), who persuades an old friend in the media (Denholm Elliott, another of those cameos that these ITC movies tend to be stuffed with) to send him details of any 65-year-old men who meet an untimely death in Europe or America. Verily, the mind doth boggle, but I suppose things were like that in the days before search engines. Credulity is stretched to its absolute limit as this actually leads Olivier to the families of three of Peck’s victims, who seem to have little in common beyond their ages, jobs, much younger wives, and freakishly identical adopted teenage sons – hang on just a cotton-picking minute here…!

There’s probably a productive discussion to be had about which is in more dubious taste, The Omen or The Boys from Brazil – I suppose it depends on whether you’re more prone to be offended by theological horror or real-world extremism. Beyond-hope materialist that I am, I’m always inclined to dismiss the various Omen films as knockabout camp of varying quality, whereas this one, for all that I do find it rather enjoyable, is arguably well over the border and into the realms of the deeply questionable. I’ve written in the past about the mini-boom in the mid-to-late 1970s for films and TV episodes concerning some kind of Nazi revival, usually centred on a resuscitated Hitler, and on that level there’s nothing particularly unusual about Boys from Brazil‘s scheme to bring back the Fuhrer. What really topples the film over into the realms of the arguably suspect is the decision to make the antagonist Mengele himself. Mengele, it is worth considering, was a real historical figure, responsible for appalling atrocities carried out in the name of science, and – and here it is only right to switch into italics – he was still alive when this movie was made. He could potentially have seen this film; God knows what he would have made of it. Regardless, turning him into a supervillain for a slightly cartoony thriller is arguably a horrible misstep, regardless of what kind of performance Gregory Peck gives (suffice to say that Peck, like Olivier, appears to have carved himself off a thick slice of ham).

The odd thing is that for an arguably nasty schlock horror-thriller, The Boys from Brazil has got some interesting ideas going on under the surface. Whatever else you want to say about it, this was one of the first mainstream movies to be based on the premise of human cloning, which may be why the sequence explaining what cloning – or ‘mononuclear reproduction’ – is goes into such detail. (It is perhaps slightly ironic that the role of the scientist who has to explain the origin of the film’s legion of cloned Hitlers is given to Bruno Ganz, who later played the dictator in Downfall.) The film even has some interesting notions about the whole nature versus nurture debate: the plot is predicated on the idea that the second-generation Hitlers won’t automatically grow up with the same sparkling personality and interesting political views as their progenitor, and so Mengele is attempting to recreate the circumstances of Hitler’s own life and family background. It makes marginally more sense than your typical SF film about clones, I suppose, as duplicates normally grow up indistinguishable from the original without any intervention whatsoever (that, or they’re irredeemably evil) – but how exactly is this going to work? How is Mengele going to give the Hitler clones the experience of fighting in and losing the First World War when they hit their late twenties? What’s the objective here? Wouldn’t it be easier just to have a dozen or so young Hitlers and have them specially educated – indoctrinated, if you like – in secret, for whatever role Mengele and his associates have in mind? Unless the idea is for a crop of new young extremist demagogues from ordinary backgrounds to appear and revolutionise the politics of the west in the early 21st century? Won’t people notice they all look the same? Especially if any of them decides that a moustache would be a good look…

Of course, this is not the only Levin tale with a plot that doesn’t really stand up to serious scrutiny, and as usual the film keeps it together, mainly thanks to the febrile outrageousness of its ideas, put across with a mostly straight face. This is a preposterous story, not just because of the cloning idea but also the contrivances required to make it function, but Peck and Olivier really go for it. One could regret the fact that the film doesn’t explore some of the more intriguing ideas arising from its premise as much as it could – are the clones really destined to become as monstrously evil as their forebear? To what extent can they be held morally culpable for the original Hitler’s actions? – and there is no genuine doubt that this is a Bad Movie, and a bad movie in really suspect taste, too. But nevertheless, I kind of enjoy it for its sheer demented conviction, the fact it makes so many barely-credible errors of judgement, and – more seriously – the way it does manage to smuggle high-concept SF ideas into an apparently mainstream thriller. This film is surely a guilty pleasure at best, but the pleasure is as genuine as the guilt.

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Every time I think the internet has lost its capacity to startle me, something comes along to – well, startle me. The nature of the world’s most popular video sharing website being what it is, I’m never especially surprised to find obscure old movies posted there in its quiet corners – were this not the case, I might never have seen The Deadly Mantis or Night of the Lepus. Even the least distinguished films have a habit of turning up on budget DVD, such is the nature of the medium, but when it comes to old TV shows… well, even today I would imagine there are hundreds of thousands of hours of material which has never been licensed for commercial release; there are whole series which have slipped out of the collective memory. For example, I’d never heard of an ITV play strand entitled Against the Crowd, which apparently ran for one series in 1975 – until I came across a complete episode available for viewing. How did this even happen?!

Of course, it turns out that my initial surprise may have been a bit premature, for the episode in question has the unique distinction: unlike the rest of the run, it has enjoyed a DVD release, having been included as a special feature on the box set of Beasts when that came out. This, I suspect, is the source of the copy which is available to watch. The reason Murrain got added to Beasts is that it was written by Nigel Kneale, effectively acting as an unofficial pilot for the later series, and I suppose part of my surprise at discovering this play is that I thought I was familiar with virtually everything Kneale wrote for TV, certainly in the 1960s and 1970s.

Certainly Murrain resembles an episode of Beasts, clearly being made on a low budget – shot on videotape and on location. The play is set somewhere in the north of England. David Simeon (one of those actors who isn’t famous by any stretch of the imagination, but is still one of those faces you kind of recognise if you’re anything like me) plays Alan Crich, an idealistic young veterinary officer with the local council, who as the story begins arrives at the pig farm of a man named Beeley (Bernard Lee, best known for appearing in the first dozen or so Bond films). Beeley’s pigs are suffering from an unidentified sickness which Crich’s ministrations have so far been unable to cure; Beeley is not impressed, to put it mildly, and the atmosphere between the two men is soon tense.

Then Beeley announces he’s going to show Crich a few other points of interest, and marches him off to where the pipeline drawing from the local spring has completely dried up, for no apparent reason. Finally, Crich is taken to the local shop, where the owner’s child is also ill, again with an unidentified sickness. Crich can’t make out what Beeley and his men are driving at until they make it absolutely clear to him: it is their sincere belief that the old woman who lives up the hill is a witch, and has placed what they refer to as a murrain (in other words, a curse) on the pigs and other things.

So far in the play, Kneale has been working diligently to draw the contrasts between Crich and Beeley (who do most of the talking between them) – Crich is young, well-spoken, college-educated, polite, while Beeley is older, rough around the edges, practical. What follows at this point is a decent enough articulation of differing views when it comes to witchcraft and the supernatural, with Beeley rehearsing the argument that what may seem weird and miraculous now could easily be explained by science at some point in the future, and that Crich has no right to dismiss their concerns out of hand. But Crich just dismisses their concerns out of hand, thus – you would think – setting him up for a touch of nemesis before the end of the play.

The locals want Crich to visit the supposed witch (played by Una Brandon-Hill – the woman is supposedly ‘very old’ but Brandon-Hill was under sixty at the time) and perform a ritual that will break her power over them. He makes the visit, but refuses to play exorcist, and instead finds what he expects to find – an old, lonely, slightly pathetic woman, who is apparently being bullied by her neighbours. He resolves to make amends…

There’s very little wrong with the narrative carpentry in Murrain, except for the fact that it becomes very obvious early on just how the thing is going to play out: Crich is so openly contemptuous of the superstitions of Beeley and the others that the only way this can possibly end is for there to be just a suggestion that the villagers have been right all along, and he has been unwittingly assisting the forces of darkness. And so it proves, but if anything Kneale plays it too safe, as the ending is just a bit flat. The only point of ambiguity is that of whether the old woman genuinely does have access to some kind of Power with a capital P, or whether she and the other locals share the same delusion (the special effects budget of Murrain is approximately no-money-whatsoever, so everything is left very ambiguous).

Of course, this being a Nigel Kneale script, Murrain is also notable for its thorough-going, indiscriminate misanthropy. As I may well have said in the past, Nigel Kneale doesn’t have prejudices – he treats everyone with equal disdain and contempt, whether that’s for being idealistic and naïve, or ignorant and crude. This is a fairly bleak play in every respect, but it’s also a very solidly written one, let down slightly by its predictability and also by the low production values involved. There’s obviously a sort of family resemblance to Beasts, but one suspects that series came about more due to Kneale’s reputation than because of the quality of this particular play.

Watching Murrain now, it isn’t an outstanding piece of work in any respect, but it still represents something that we have lost in modern TV – who does low-budget single dramas any more? No-one at all in the UK, not on free to air TV at least. There is no place for this kind of drama any more, and I can’t help thinking that’s a shame.

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Film-making is not an exact science, and the exact length of the Minimal Acceptable Period Before Remake is one of those subjective things: it used to be at least twenty years, but recent developments have seen this being cut down quite considerably – Dino de Laurentiis took considerable stick for making two versions of Red Dragon only fifteen years apart, but the response to Sony doing Spider-Man’s origin twice in barely more than a decade received much more muted grumbling. Equally open to debate is that other cinematic figure, Optimum Period Before Sequel, although here there seems to be more of a consensus – two or three years is generally considered to be the ideal, although Disney have taken up something of an outlying position here, what with the 54 year wait between films about their supernatural dominatrix.

All of which brings us, more or less, to Neil Marshall’s Hellboy, which began its development as a sequel to the two films about Mike Mignola’s hell-spawned superhero made by Guillermo del Toro in the mid 2000s. The producers eventually decided not to ask del Toro back to complete his planned trilogy (good move, guys, I mean – it’s not like he’s done anything worth mentioning in the last couple of years, is it?), at which point the film was switched to being a remake, or relaunch, or reimagining, or whatever the buzzy word for doing a new version of something well-known is these days.

It almost instantly becomes obvious that del Toro’s studiously subtle and quirkily atmospheric sensibility has not survived into the new film, as we are plunged into a flashback to the Dark Ages – known as such for a ‘****ing good reason’, according to the narration – where King Arthur is battling an army of demons and monsters, led by the sorceress Nimue (Milla Jovovich – ignore that sound you think you can hear, it’s just alarm bells starting to ring). The film’s extravagant fondness for lavish CGI gore becomes apparent as King Arthur dismembers his opponent and has the various bits entombed in secret locations across the British isles – ‘this isn’t over!’ cries Jovovich’s severed head as it is thrust into a box, and as we haven’t even reached the opening credits yet, it’s hard to argue with that. (Suggestions that the new Hellboy shares a fair chunk of its plot with The Kid Who Would Be King seem to me to have some truth to them.)

Then we’re back in the present day, where Hellboy (David Harbour) is taking part in a Mexican wrestling match with a luchador who’s actually a vampire, which sets up various plot and character points. Any thought that this might actually be a continuation of the del Toro films is finally put to rest, as Hellboy’s adopted father is alive again, and this time played by Ian McShane. For no particularly credible reason, McShane decides to fill Hellboy in on his origins, as he has apparently not bothered to do so in the previous 75 years and Hellboy has seemingly never thought to ask. With this flagrant slab of exposition out of the way, Hellboy is packed off to the UK to assist an aristocratic bunch of British occultists deal with an infestation of man-eating giants. But there is more afoot than the giant feet of the giants! Someone is gathering together the various bits of Milla Jovovich, and if they can complete the set, she will rise again and unleash a terrible plague upon the world, possibly even worse than the Resident Evil movie series…

Apparently the main idea that Neil Marshall brought to this project was the idea that it would straddle the horror and superhero boundaries. (This may explain the weird mish-mash of superhero, fantasy and horror trailers running before Hellboy, which included the same trailer for The Curse of La Llorona twice.) Well, hmmm. I have to say that I have always felt rather indulgent towards Neil Marshall, as his films tend to have a great sense of fun and energy, even if they are often wildly OTT gorefests. And he has made one genuinely great horror film, 2005’s The Descent, a wrenchingly tense and scary movie. Generally speaking, though, he just doesn’t seem to have the patience involved in creating the right kind of atmosphere to properly frighten an audience, and settles for just grossing them out with blood and guts spraying across the screen. This is certainly the route that his version of Hellboy takes, and I’m not really sure how it helps the project much: it doesn’t exactly broaden the appeal of the movie, just reinforces the impression that it is primarily aimed at heavy metal fans.

Of course, this was the movie that drew controversy before production even began because of some of its casting choices were considered to be ethnically inappropriate – the actor initially cast as Hellboy was not actually a demon, thus depriving representation to performers who were genuinely from the abyssal realm. Then everybody sat down and had a good think and realised that a) you’re never going to please everyone when it comes to this sort of thing and b) once someone’s in the Hellboy make-up, you can’t really tell who they are anyway, so it’s best not to get stressed out about it. So they went with David Harbour anyway. Harbour is okay at playing the sulky teenager elements of the role, but struggles to do much more with it; his great good fortune is to be acting opposite Milla Jovovich, who makes most people look good in comparison. Jovovich’s contribution sets the tone for most of the acting in this film, by which I mean it is by and large quite lousy; McShane phones in a decent performance, though, and there is some amusing voice work from Stephen Graham as a fairy with the head of a pig.

Then again, I suppose you could argue that the actors can only work with what they’re given, which in this case is a fairly ropy script seemingly more concerned with lurching from one gory CGI set-piece to the next, with clunky exposition and iffy dialogue filling in the gaps. The saving grace of the new Hellboy is not that it brings us an important message or makes a great deal of sense, or even a small amount of sense, or even any sense whatsoever; it is that Marshall is clearly having a whale of a time smashing all these very disparate ideas together, doing so with great energy and even the occasional shaft of genuine wit (to pass the time before she is constituted, Nimue’s henchman piles her various body parts on a sofa, where she passes the time watching reality TV – it certainly provides motivation for her desiring the apocalypse).

The new Hellboy is not in the same league as either of the del Toro films, lacking their charm, subtlety or attention to detail; as mentioned, the actors are not well-served by the script, either. But I would be lying if I said it does not provide a certain kind of entertainment value. You really do have to indulge it a bit, though, and it may be that many people just won’t be prepared to do that. Which is fair enough. I don’t think any sane observer would claim that Hellboy is a great movie, but it’s a reasonably fun bad movie.

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