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Posts Tagged ‘horror’

Since the heyday of Roger Corman there has been a pleasing synergy to the fact that horror movies have traditionally offered a reasonably safe route to decent box-office returns on a relatively small budget, thus allowing writers and directors near the beginnings of their careers the chance to make movies about quite challenging and sophisticated ideas, provided they respect the conventions of the genre. The early films of George Romero and David Cronenberg are full of social commentary and metaphorical power, it’s just that this is to some extent obscured by the fact they are apparently just exploitation movies about zombies and parasitic infection.

The question is to what degree the same is true of Julia Ducournau’s Raw, which appears to be an entry into one of horror’s least respectable sub-genres, but clearly has other things to say for itself. Garance Marillier gives a remarkable performance as Justine, a bright young student off to university for the first time. She is studying to be a vet, as is her older sister Alex (Ella Rumpf), who’s at the same college as her. Justine has been raised as a staunch vegetarian by her parents, but she is unsettled to discover that Alex seems to have lapsed a little into the ways of meat-eating.

The initiation rituals for new students at the college are extreme and debauched, and include the newcomers having to eat a raw rabbit kidney. Justine demurs, as you would, but without anyone to support her principled stance, and the threat of social ostracism looming, goes ahead and swallows the bunny bits anyway.

Her attempts to come to terms with the new opportunities, threats, and temptations of college life are somewhat complicated by the unexpected way in which her body reacts to eating raw flesh. Initially there is a rather grisly rash, and after this fades Justine finds herself gripped by a strange hunger that drives her to steal meat from the canteen, gnaw on raw chicken straight from the fridge, and even contemplate much darker sources of sustenance…

So, yes, this is the French-language feminist cannibal movie of which you may have heard, and (wait for it) fairly strong meat it is too. Cannibalism may not be your thing at the cinema; I can understand that, I’m not an unconditional fan of this sort of thing myself. It almost goes without saying that this is not a film for the faint-hearted or weak-stomached – there is gore aplenty, and while it is not spectacular it is certainly intense. That said, the film is uncompromising on all fronts – quite graphic sex and other bodily functions also feature – and, to be honest, the sequence which made me squirm the most involved one character giving another a not entirely competent bikini wax.

The fact the film isn’t just about bloody flesh is an indicator that at heart it isn’t, as I had feared, just some piece of heavy-handed agitprop on behalf of militant vegans. There seems to be a lot of this sort of thing doing the rounds at present and I’m not sure I really need to see more of it; I’m aware that from a certain point of view eating meat is ethically indefensible (certainly if you have any dealings with the mainstream meat industry), but, well, I’m told that the human capacity to simultaneously hold numerous mutually incompatible beliefs at the same time is one of the keys to our success as a species, so why not make use of it: animal welfare is a significant issue, but some animals do taste delicious. Inasmuch as the film is actually about vegetarianism, it’s because this is something which initially marks Justine as an outsider and thus makes her socially vulnerable. One of the things the film is about is the demands on young women to conform to certain standards of behaviour, whether they want to or not, and the ugly double standards that are often involved if they try too hard to fit in.

Cannibalism as a metaphor for peer pressure is an interesting approach to take, but Ducournau makes it work, and also makes it clear what a tightrope young women are on at this time in their lives – transgression of any kind can see them ostracised, ridiculed on social media, or worse. The urge to try and disappear must be strong. The director doesn’t hold back in making the student culture of the college just as repellent as anything that Justine’s little eating disorder drives her to (her cannibalistic tendencies are implicitly compared to bulimia at one point), and makes it very clear just how vulnerable an unworldly young woman like her is, surrounded by so many new temptations.

One thing that possibly weakens the film is the way that Ducournau attempts to insert another layer of metaphor, making Justine’s desire for flesh figurative as well as literal: the new world she is plunged into finds her having to contend with feelings for her room-mate (Rabah Nait Oufella) – she becomes jealous, possessive of him, finds these powerful new emotions difficult to deal with. But what does she really want to do to him? Suffice to say the ensuing scenes are powerfully sensual, if not completely comfortable viewing, and the film is strong enough to survive this slightly split focus. It also manages to accommodate a closing scene which largely seems to be there to provide a startling and memorable twist ending, which while not quite feeling like a complete cheat, does feel somewhat like it’s drifted in from a film which is much more of a black comedy than this one.

I wasn’t sure quite what to expect from Raw, but I was impressed with what I got – in an odd way it does have that clinical, queasy feeling of a very early Cronenberg movie, but the skill with which the director handled picture and soundtrack (Jim Williams’ score is also highly impressive) almost put me in mind of… well, I almost hesitate to say this, but in some ways Raw resembles the cannibal horror film that Stanley Kubrick never made. If you only go and see one feminist cannibal horror movie in French this year, Raw should be your choice – always assuming you have the stomach for it.

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I know I go on a lot about the various evils of predictable films, lack of new ideas in mainstream cinema, fear of innovation, and so on, and it does occur to me that perhaps I am making just a little bit too much fuss about this. Perhaps there is something to be said after all for movies which don’t set out to up-end expectations, mash genres beyond all recognition, or carve out a bold new niche for themselves. Familiarity isn’t always a necessarily ugly word.

I have been moved to this thought by Daniel Espinosa’s Life, which lends itself more readily than most recent films to the ‘it’s X meets Y’ game (one that I usually try not to play as a point of principle) and its numerous variations. Hey, let’s indulge ourselves for once: it’s The Quatermass Experiment meets Gravity, or The Thing set in low orbit – either of those capsule descriptions strikes me as largely accurate and highly informative as to the kind of movie this is.

Life is set in and around the International Space Station in a fairly near future (the film is intentionally vague about this). The six-person crew is very excited as the first sample of soil samples from Mars are about to arrive, and there are indications that the probe has located something truly exceptional on the Red Planet – preserved microbial life!

Well, work on the Martian cells gets under way, with appropriately strict precautions in place, and soon enough the chief boffin (Ariyon Bakare) has cultured himself a cute little Martian blobby thing. You can almost certainly guess what happens next, but anyway: there is a mishap, resulting in the organism turning aggressively hostile, and before you can say ‘Fendahl Core’ the crew are doing battle with a rapidly-growing lifeform (alien monsters, especially ones you get trapped in a confined space with, are always rapidly-growing, as any fule kno) that has already laid waste to Mars. Can they survive? And, more importantly, can they ensure that the Martian creature never reaches the planet below…?

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction suggests that at least half of all SF movies also fall into the horror category, and while I’m not sure Life contains quite enough grisliness to satisfy the most dedicated gorehounds, I suspect there’s quite enough unpleasantness here to make the average person go ‘Ewwww,’ and think about looking away. There’s a gripping sequence illustrating why you should never shake hands with an unknown alien, someone has a very unpleasant experience in a broken space-suit (this appears to have been inspired by a real-life incident from 2013), there are scenes involving flame-throwers and defibrillators (these strike me as being a knowing tip of the hat to some of Life‘s more celebrated progenitors), and so on.

The odd thing about Life is not the fact that, from the very beginning until the very end of the movie, you are never really in any doubt as to what’s going to happen next, because this is a well-worn tale, to say the least. The odd thing is that it really doesn’t matter, and in a strange way it may even add to the fun of the film – anyone with a working knowledge of how this kind of movie is structured, and why people get billed in the order they do on movie posters, probably has a very good chance of being able to work out exactly what order the various characters are going to get picked off in.

Quite apart from the gribbly alien horror elements of the story (the Martian ends up looking rather cephalopodic, which, all things considered, probably qualifies this film as being on some level Lovecraftian), the most obvious influence on Life is obviously Gravity. The new movie doesn’t have quite the same breath-taking technical virtuosity, but the fact remains that this is another film set almost entirely in zero-G, using (almost wholly) credible technology – the fact it’s so close to reality is one of the things that makes the film such fun. I’m pretty sure this film wasn’t shot on location on the ISS, but it nevertheless does a good job of first conning you into thinking that it could have been, and then making you take for granted that everyone’s casually floating around. Only at a few key moments does the film get ostentatious about its zero-G effects – at one point someone sheds a tear, and it bobbles off their face and floats away, but to be honest, most of these involve great clusters of globs of blood drifting about the place.

Lest you think this is just reheated splatter on a space station, some proper actors are participating and seem to be having fun doing so. Ryan Reynolds is the mission’s pilot and engineer, and you are reminded what an able and amiable screen presence Reynolds is; hopefully he’s not going to spend half his time playing Deadpool from now on. Rebecca Fergusson is the quarantine officer in charge of keeping the Martian from reaching Earth, although she is British, she is also part of the (US-based) Centre for Disease Control, which struck me as a little odd – alien monsters are admittedly outside the remit of Public Health England, but there’s always the WHO… Playing the station doctor is Jake Gyllenhaal, who gives a typically thought-through performance, although you can’t quite shake the impression he’s only here because his agent said ‘You know what, Jake, it’s time you did something a bit more fun for a change.’

There’s nothing tremendously exceptional about Life in any department, but it is a thoroughly competent and entertaining film. You could possibly argue that the climax of the story has rather more energy than elegance, but, once again, this hardly spoils the fun at all. If you don’t like space movies, or horror movies, or indeed horror movies set in space, then this is definitely not one for you. If this sort of thing is your cup of tea, on the other hand, this is a safe bet for a solid trip to the movies. A worthy addition to an honourable tradition.

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It would be impossible to write the history of American genre film-making without devoting a hefty section to American International Pictures and its founders Samuel Z Arkoff and James H Nicholson (also known as Jack’s dad). These are the guys who made the original version of The Fast and the Furious, and a bunch of other movies which have brilliant titles even if they’re (perhaps deservedly) obscure: The Astounding She-Monster, Frankenstein Conquers The World, I Was A Teenage Werewolf, The Brain That Wouldn’t Die… those films alone sound like a long weekend of bliss to me, and there are hundreds more.

Not that AIP didn’t aspire to a touch of class sometimes, perhaps most famously with their cycle of Poe adaptations overseen by Roger Corman and starring Vincent Price. Those films came out in the late 1950s and early 60s, and nearly ten years later Price was back with the company for another well-remembered and reasonably classy outing, in Robert Fuest’s The Abominable Dr Phibes.

The film is set in 1920s England (not that this is immediately apparent). Inspector Trout (Peter Jeffrey) is investigating a series of bizarre and grisly murders: one man has been stung to death by bees, another savaged by bats, a third has had his head crushed by a rigged fancy-dress mask, and so on. It turns out that all the victims were doctors, and a further connection is that they all worked on the same case, an operation overseen by Dr Vesalius (Joseph Cotten). The patient died, and Trout begins to suspect that her husband, who was believed dead, may in fact be nothing of the sort.

He is right, of course, for the outraged widower, Dr Anton Phibes (Vincent Price, of course), brilliant organist, theologian, and inventive genius, is back on the scene and intent on extracting revenge on the men he holds responsible for the death of his beautiful young wife (I suppose this qualifies as another ‘Vincent Price Broods Over His Dead Wife’s Portrait’ movie – Mrs Phibes is played by the delectable Caroline Munro, only adding to the movie’s cult credentials). Can Trout anticipate Phibes’ plans and stop him from completing the nine murders he has planned?

Stripped back to its absolute bare bones, The Abominable Dr Phibes sounds relatively straightforward – an unhinged killer sets out to take revenge on a group of men he holds responsible for a loved one’s death. What elevates the film from being a relatively routine suspense or horror movie into its own special realm is the bizarre, whimsical, baroque detail the film indulges in throughout. The film could have just opened with Dr Phibes emerging from his inner sanctum and setting off to orchestrate another murder. However, what actually happens is that Price emerges through the floor while playing a pipe organ (rather in the manner of Reginald Dixon), performing a piece by Mendelssohn. Having completed this important part of his plan, he goes on to engage in a little ball-room dancing with his enigmatic sidekick (Virginia North), the music being played by a band composed of life-sized clockwork automatons. Then he goes off to murder someone.

I don’t say this as a criticism of the movie, far from it – for it is the absurd excess of the film, and its darkly comic overtones, that give it so much of its charm and entertainment value. Is there a particularly plausible reason for Phibes to theme his revenge scheme around the biblical plagues of Egypt? Well, no, of course not: but it would be a much duller film without this. You could argue it is part of a great tradition of extravagant, somewhat gothic horror – and the film is surely partly inspired by The Phantom of the Opera – where odd details are actually very important. Things like the way that Phibes can only speak by plugging a gramophone into the side of his neck, and only eat and drink in a similar manner, may not be terribly important to the plot, but they add enormously to the atmosphere and style of the film.

Now, seasoned Price-watchers will of course be aware that the structure of this film is not unique in the actor’s canon: embittered maniac, aided by a mysterious young woman, embarks upon a series of elaborate themed murders against those he perceives as having done him wrong. That is, of course, the outline synopsis not just of The Abominable Dr Phibes but also Douglas Hickox’s Theatre of Blood, which came out a couple of years later. The Abominable Dr Phibes is an entertaining and well-made movie, but it can’t help but come across as a dry run for Hickox’s movie, which is arguably superior: the theme is more coherent, and it’s not afraid to really put the pedal to the metal when it comes to including elements of black comedy.

And, of course, it gives Price an unparalleled opportunity to show off his range. In The Abominable Dr Phibes, he’s playing a character who is effectively permanently masked and largely mute, thus drastically limiting the options for Price’s performance. That the actor still gives a striking and memorable performance says much about his class, but the thing that distinguishes Vincent Price from peers like Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee is his capacity for outrageous, operatic, over-the-top performances, and it’s this that’s missing from The Abominable Dr Phibes.

This is a fun film, which feels very much like a product of the British film industry in the 1970s – various distinguished figures show up for brief cameo roles (Terry-Thomas, John Laurie, Hugh Griffith) – for all that you can, perhaps, if you squint, see how it may have had some kind of influence on a later generation of horror movies (one element of the climax seems to me to anticipate Saw). Its ostentatious wackiness may not be to everyone’s taste, nor does it really make ideal use of its biggest asset (Price himself), and so for me the real significance of this movie comes from the fact it represents a first attempt at the formula which Theatre of Blood later perfected so wonderfully. Still highly entertaining in its own right, though, of course.

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You know, I try to be a positive, upbeat, and generally forgiving person (admittedly more out of a need to counteract my natural inclination to be extremely bitter, cynical, and vengeful than for any deeply felt moral or philosophical reasons). Despite this, some things retain the power to move me to a dark and terrible fury, and one of these is having films spoiled for me, especially by the websites of newspapers that I trust. And just such a thing happened the other day: in the wake of the release of the trailer for the latest iteration of a well-loved (and perhaps very slightly overrated) franchise that’s been around for nearly 40 years, I clicked onto an article promising to discuss a very specific sub-genre of horror, only to find myself being informed of, well, fairly crucial plot details of Jordan Peele’s Get Out, literally about an hour before I watched the movie.

Get Out isn’t a movie which is wholly dependent on its twist to function, but there is a definite element of mystery built into the story, and knowing the twist going in almost certainly affected my response to the movie – what might have seemed genuinely startling and unexpected, encountered without warning in the unsettling darkness of a movie theatre, inevitably had less impact communicated via text on a laptop. Maybe this is why I am somewhat less impressed with Get Out than many others; I don’t know. I just mention this in the interests of full disclosure an’ all that.

Daniel Kaluuya plays Chris, a young photographer happily entangled with his girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams), and about to embark on a trip to meet her parents for the first time. Despite everything, he is a little nervous: will they really be okay with their daughter having a relationship with an African-American man?

Nevertheless, off they go, eventually receiving a warm welcome from her father and mother (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener). Gradually, though, there is an accretion of tiny details that put Chris just a little bit on edge – Rose’s parents have black servants, who behave extremely strangely, and the attitude of the rest of their friends, when they descend for a party, is also slightly strange. The only African-American in the community acts very oddly indeed, attacking Chris and whispering ‘Get out!’ when startled by the flash on his phone camera, and Chris’ transport cop friend Rod (Lil Rel Howery) is startled when he sees the picture – this is a man who disappeared months earlier…

Now, there’s a couple of things we need to keep in mind about Get Out, the first one being that – as mentioned – I had the revelation as to what’s really going in this movie spoiled for me in advance, and it is also – as you may have surmised – fundamentally about the African-American experience in the contemporary United States, something I am supremely under-equipped to presume to discuss in any meaningful way.

However, this movie is also presenting itself as a horror movie, and that at least is something I do feel qualified to comment on. Its closest antecedent, I would suggest, is The Stepford Wives, Ira Levin’s famous tale of… well, I’ve gone to great extremes in the past to avoid spoiling The Stepford Wives for anyone (see, this stuff matters to me), and I’m not going to change that now. Get Out is slightly more of a genre movie, slightly happier to wheel on the third-act violence and gore, but there’s still a distinct family resemblance, in that they are both horror films, to some extent paranoid fantasies, seeking to engage in social commentary and satire.

If we’re going to discuss the horror movie as a vehicle for social comment, then of course we should start with George A Romero and consider Dawn of the Dead: the story of a group of people struggling to survive a zombie apocalypse and the accompanying collapse of society, but also on some level a commentary on consumerism in the modern world. Slightly more pertinently, Night of the Living Dead, also the story of a group of people trying to survive a zombie apocalypse, but also (thanks to the casting of Duane Jones) obliquely about the civil rights struggle occurring in America when it was made.

Get Out, on the other hand, is the story of a group of privileged white people seeking to do horrific things to African-Americans, which also functions as, um, a story about a group of privileged white people seeking to do horrific things to African-Americans. There’s not really enough space here for the film to function on a metaphorical level in the same way as the films that clearly inspired it – what happens in the film is grisly and terrifying, to be sure, and obviously represents an attempt to control and destroy black identity, but even if it’s meant be a symbol of something in the real world, it’s not at all clear what that is.

I mean, some people have suggested the film is a satire on the corrosive and ultimately unhelpful effects of white liberalism – and some of the film’s wittiest moments concern Chris’s deadpan reactions to meeting a bunch of old white people who all assure him how much they love Obama and Tiger Woods – but this doesn’t seem to me to connect to the central notion of the film. I suppose you could argue the film is on some level about cultural appropriation, but again the horror aspect isn’t really a metaphor for this, unless you do some serious stretching. I’m not saying the film never touches on liberalism, or cultural appropriation, or indeed the realities of being a young black man in the USA today, it’s just that there are all these aspects of the film, and then there’s its central idea, which seems to be its own thing, not particularly related to any of them. (Film-making being what it is, Get Out was made before the Great Disaster of last November, and as a result is unable to comment on the implications of the Insane Clown President’s reign. Fertile ground for a future movie, perhaps.)

Not that it isn’t an effective piece of film-making, with a bunch of strong performances from virtually everyone in the cast, and Peele handles the shift from social comedy with darker undertones to full-on horror rather adroitly. However, it deploys a lot of very familiar horror tropes just a bit too knowingly, and some of the time you’re left wondering if this is genuinely meant to be a horror movie, or just some kind of witty pastiche of the genre. In the end I would say this is a well-made and very well-played film, clearly highly intelligent, but one which works much better in its earlier stages than in its final act, throughout which it sort of goes onto autopilot, and also one which never quite reaches the standard of the best of the films which inspired it. Still more fun than Moonlight, though, of course.

 

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You’ve been there, I’ve been there, we’ve all been there: you wake up in the morning, head throbbing, vision blurred, tongue like a cinema carpet, and you stagger over to the mirror and say to yourself, ‘I’m never watching another M Night Shyamalan movie ever again.’ For me, the last straw was 2013’s After Earth, in which Will Smith and his son encounter a stupid alien monster which can only be defeated if they stop even attempting to act. Or so I thought. I was lured back by the assurances of a friend that Shyamalan’s new movie Split really was worth paying attention to. (The identity of the Professor-of-Mathematics-at-a-prominent-university-in-the-centre-of-South-Carolina in question must remain secret in order to protect his identity.)

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After Earth seems to have marked the end of Shyamalan’s association with the major studios, and these days he seems to be ploughing a lower-profile furrow as a maker of mini-budget horror films. I have to say that this appears to be doing the chap no end of good, as Split is the most thoroughly enjoyable film I’ve seen from him in well over a decade.

Things get underway with the kidnapping of a trio of young women (Anya Taylor-Joy, Hayley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula) as they leave a party. They find themselves in, well, a dungeon, at the not especially tender mercies of a rather peculiar man (James McAvoy), who has the habit of talking to himself in different voices, occasionally cross-dressing, and confiscating various items of their clothing.

Running alongside this is a series of scenes concerned with Dr Fletcher (Betty Buckley), a psychologist specialising in dealing with people suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder (multiple-personality syndrome to the likes of you and me), and the kidnapper is one of her patients. Or, to be more precise, some of the 23 different personalities of one of her patients have conspired to carry out this kidnapping. But why are they doing this? And is there any truth to their talk of a terrifying new 24th persona…?

Split starts off looking like a rather suspect piece of fem jeop horror, not a million miles away from films I would usually run a mile rather than actually pay to watch (I still shudder at the memory of Captivity, a Larry Cohen/Rowan Joffe movie I unwisely saw nearly ten years ago – in my defence, I was in Osaka and it was the only English-language movie showing that I hadn’t already seen). And not even a particularly distinguished example of a genre where the bar is traditionally depressingly low – the three girls are not especially well-written characters and two of them end up as more actively irritating than sympathetic.

However, the scenes with Buckley’s character are much more interesting and do intrigue, even if the film’s approach to multiple-personality disorder rather tends towards being portentous cobblers. (Or is it? Insert your own joke about being in two minds on the subject at this point, should you wish.) There’s also a series of flashbacks, the relevance of which to proceedings do not become clear until very late on.

There’s a very decent performance from Taylor-Joy as the Final Girl, and the same is true of Buckley, also. I note that Shyamalan hasn’t lost his habit of casting himself in minor roles in his own movies, despite his having no particular screen presence – doesn’t the man realise that actors have to eat too? However, the plum job in any movie about multiple-personality disorder is that of the sufferer, of course, as it offers a magnificent opportunity to indulge in some ostentatious actorliness as the performer involved shows their full range (or not, as the case may be). James McAvoy grabs his opportunity and has a full-blooded go at it, and is very good – is his performance alone worth the price of admission, though? Well, hmmm…

Luckily it doesn’t quite come down to that, for the rest of the movie is enjoyable and well-made too, in a modestly-budgeted sort of way, though not without all sorts of incidental implausibilities. It never quite becomes as awkwardly sleazy as it seems to be threatening near the start (I think this is an impressively subtle bit of sleight-of-hand on the part of the director), nor does it quite turn into an outright gore-fest (still, I would say this is neither a movie for granny nor your infant god-daughter to enjoy). It’s also, for what it’s worth, the first 15-rated movie I’ve seen in an absolute age which doesn’t drop a single F-bomb, as far as I can recall.

That said, what starts off looking like a straightforward psychological horror movie slowly develops into something rather different, as it slowly becomes apparent that the condition which McAvoy is suffering from is the variant best-known to students of unlikely fictional health problems as Banner-Blonsky syndrome, albeit in a relatively mild form. This wasn’t an issue for me at all, but I can see how it might lead to some people throwing their arms in the air and making annoyed sounds.

Shyamalan initially rose to prominence as the master of the twist ending, then quite rapidly became known as the guy whose movies tended to be over-reliant on half-baked examples of the same storytelling trick: everyone started expecting the twist and even looking for it, which is the last thing any decent twist ending needs if it’s going to work properly.

So – what about the end of Split, then? Well, all I will say is that there is a gag/revelation at the very end of this film that meant I left the theatre amused and surprised in a way I wouldn’t have been, had it not been there. It works on a number of levels, acting as a bit of a treat for long-term followers of the director, providing a context for some of the film’s more improbable elements, and – perhaps most excitingly – setting up an irresistibly gonzo follow-up movie, the chances for which are surely good. Split still has elements that strike me as a bit suspect and improbable, but on the whole it operates somewhere on the border between Good Movie and Very Good Bad Movie, and that’s no bad place to be if you’re a genre director, I would say. Fingers crossed that M Night Shyamalan can continue his trek out of the wilderness with his next project.

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Not that long ago, I found myself moved to commend the good sense of Roger Corman, producer of Battle Beyond The Stars (and many other exploitation and genre movies). Now I find myself about to say fairly positive things about Corman as a director, for the latest DVD (younger readers: ask your parents) to plop through my letterbox (younger readers: ditto) is one of Corman’s celebrated series of what are known as ‘Poe pictures’ – in this case, 1962’s Tales of Terror.

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I suppose I was rather lucky in my cultural education – the BBC introduced me to Hammer with a lengthy retrospective running for most of the summer of 1987, and then in 1990 they showed all the Corman-helmed Edgar Allen Poe adaptations in prime time on BBC2, usually with an introduction by Corman himself. (Bliss it was in that dawn, etc.) I’m still not quite as fond of the Corman films as I am of Hammer’s 60s output – although The Masque of the Red Death is an exceptional movie – and now I find myself wondering just why this should be, for the Corman films do seem to represent a calculated attempt by an American company to exploit the same formula Hammer stumbled upon a few years earlier.

Both are basically attempts to make the horror movie respectable, both by basing the films on classic literature (Shelley, Stoker, Stevenson, etc, for Hammer, exclusively Poe for Corman), and by employing very distinguished and capable actors in the leading roles (mainly Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee for the British company, Vincent Price – of course! – for the American one). The production values are equally classy.

Tales of Terror is perhaps a bit of an exception, in that it’s in some ways reminiscent of an Amicus movie as much as a Hammer production. By this I mean that it’s a portmanteau film, composed of three individual adaptations – essentially, a short story collection. The anthology format has obvious attractions for makers of horror films – multiple money shots, which you can get to with a significant reduction in faffing about – with the drawback being a loss in characterisation and atmosphere.

With reference to Tales of Terror, this is perhaps most apparent in the first segment, Morella. I had a guide to disreputable cinema a few years ago which broke films down into useful, if slightly idiosyncratic categories like ‘Underwater Nazi Zombies’, ‘I Dismember Mama’, and so on, and one of these was ‘Vincent Price Broods Over His Dead Wife’s Portrait’. (Every film in this category was directed by Roger Corman, now I think on it.) Morella certainly qualifies, for it deals with a young woman returning to the family home from which she was removed as a very small infant. The house is decrepit and cobwebbed, her father (Price, of course) a wreck of a man not at all pleased to see her.

What follows is a rather over-ripe melodrama concerning guilt and impending death and a ghastly spectral visitation from beyond the grave. It all feels a bit rushed through at less than 30 minutes long, with hammy performances from all concerned, but on the other hand there are very few things more reliably enjoyable than watching Vincent Price melodramatically ham it up. Nevertheless, the slightest element of the movie and you can see why it’s presented as the entree.

The main course, if we’re going to stick with this metaphor, is subtitled The Black Cat, but it’s an amalgamation of that story and The Cask of Amontillado. The lead role in this installment is played by Peter Lorre, who plays the unpleasant drunkard Montresor Herringbone. Montresor makes the acquaintance of the ludicrously foppish bon vivant Fortunato (Price again) at a preposterous wine-tasting contest, and doesn’t realise for some time that he has unwittingly been facilitating an affair between Fortunato and his young wife (Joyce Jameson). When he does figure out what’s been going on, he plots a terrible revenge, but reckons without his wife’s beloved pet…

This segment marks a bit of an innovation for the Poe cycle, partly because it sees another big name brought in to co-star with Price, but mainly because it’s played absolutely for laughs – a droll black farce, with an outrageous performance by Price and a very dry one by Lorre. And it’s very funny, bringing to mind in places the fruitier moments of Theatre of Blood (surely Vincent Price’s magnum opus). Perhaps it goes on a bit too long, and the scene transitions are intrusively ostentatious, but it’s still very entertaining.

Another big-name signing appears in the final segment, The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar. This time Price plays the decent Valdemar, a wealthy man dying of an incurable and painful disease. He strikes a deal with the mesmerist Carmichael (Basil Rathbone), whereby Carmichael will alleviate his suffering in return for Valdemar’s participation in a strange experiment, where he will be hypnotised at the moment of death, basically just to see what happens as a result.

Well, once again Price is generous enough a performer to let Rathbone really do his thing and dominate the story, prior to a memorably icky climax. Again, it’s hard to shake the impression that it feels a little bit rushed through, but on the other hand it’s hard to imagine how this same story could have been expanded to form the basis of a whole movie without it feeling rather stretched. It probably works better as a short film, and provides a memory climax to the whole film.

I’m not sure any anthology movie is a completely satisfying experience, because there are always issues of pacing and quality control and so on, but Tales of Terror is a pretty good one, mainly because of the performances and the fact that the three stories have just enough variation in tone to be distinctive. I think you can detect its influence on the later cycle of portmanteau horrors from Amicus (Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horror, and so on), certainly in the use of comic horror. Amicus’ innovation was the introduction of a frame story, usually providing a memorable (if usually predictable) ‘twist’ ending to the film. The lack of a frame does make Tales of Terror feel a bit odd, more like three short films just cobbled together than a cohesive whole, but this is still an engaging piece of old-school horror.

 

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Christmas means different things to different people. This is practically a truism, of course, but it has been brought home to me in recent weeks by the local art house cinema’s selection for their films for Christmas season. Some of the usual suspects were in there, like Scrooge, but on the whole there was a rather different and unexpected flavour to the proceedings: as regular visitors may recall, things kicked off with a very welcome revival of The Blood on Satan’s Claw, and went on to include Night of the Demon and Under the Shadow, before concluding with Hideo Nakata’s 2002 film Dark Water. A fairly sustained assault by supernatural forces of darkness upon the innocent and unwary, then – in the words of Thea Gilmore, that’ll be Christmas.

I wanted to take my Anglo-Iranian affairs correspondent along to see Under the Shadow again, to see if he could identify any of the cultural subtexts which I suspected had eluded me the first time I saw it. But we couldn’t make that date so we ended up going to see Dark Water instead, which was the first time for both of us.

dark-water

The original title of this movie, Honogurai Mizu no soko kara, translates as From the Depths of Dark Water, which is perhaps a bit more florid than the English version but still tells you everything that you need to know – it gets very dark and there’s water by the bucketful. Hitomi Kuroki plays Yoshimi, a Japanese housewife in the midst of very acrimonious divorce proceedings, central to which is the custody settlement for her young daughter Ikuko (Rio Kanno). Things are, frankly, starting to get to Yoshimi, and she is very relieved when she manages to find an apartment for the two of them to live in. The building is old and slightly decrepit, and there’s a bit of a damp patch on the ceiling in Ikuko’s bedroom, but you can’t have everything, can you, and how bad can things actually get?

Well, pretty bad, to be perfectly honest: Ikuko finds a child’s bag on the roof, which absolutely refuses to be thrown away no matter how many times Yoshimi tries to get of it. The damp gets more and more pervasive. Yoshimi begins to glimpse a small, raincoated figure around the building, and it seems to be closing in on the pair of them. Then she hears the story of how a young girl disappeared from the same building a few years earlier and begins to suspect her daughter may be in much greater peril than she previously suspected…

In the end, I confided to my Anglo-Iranian affairs correspondent that missing Under the Shadow in favour of Dark Water was probably for the best, not just because Dark Water is a rather more effective and subtle film, but also because it clearly inspired and had a huge influence upon the more recent movie. Both concern an effectively single mother and her daughter, trapped in an almost derelict and partly deserted residential building, surrounded by useless and unhelpful individuals, with a relentless supernatural force encroaching into their lives. Even one of the key images of Dark Water, the spreading damp, is sort-of replicated in the form of the bomb-damaged ceiling of Under the Shadow.

It’s perfectly understandable that other directors should feel moved to draw upon the work of Hideo Nakata, for he is one the leading exponents of the cinematic ghost story of the modern era – as well as Dark Water, he also originated the seemingly-endless Ringu franchise – and Dark Water is unquestionably a very unsettling film to watch. Well, more than unsettling, in places it’s downright scary.

There’s a slightly odd thing going on here where you know well in advance that Nakata is going to be using certain devices to achieve his effects – you just know there’s going to be some business involving mysterious figures appearing on the antiquated CCTV system of the apartment block, and so it proves, and also some fun and games with the decrepit old lift, and once again this comes to pass – and yet when the moments come you are as rattled as if it was a complete surprise to you. It may just be down to the sheer virtuosity of the director, and perhaps also the way in which he conjures up such an oppressive atmosphere from virtually the first moment of the film. The relentless rain and puddles quickly acquire a greater significance and their own set of associations – by the end of the film a leaky tap has basically become a portent of utter dread.

That said, I feel I have to say that my companion didn’t find the film quite as effective as I did, and we had a lively discussion about the film’s employment of various horror movie and ghost story tropes – was it really necessary, we discussed, for Yoshimi to be quite so psychologically fragile and prone to alarm? In a way it helps to drive the story along, because people who make bad decisions are worth their weight in gold to the writers of horror movies, and perhaps Nakata is also trying to leave a little bit of ambiguity as to what exactly is going on – to paraphrase Peter Bradshaw’s comment when discussing the US remake of this film, just exactly what kind of help does Yoshimi need – a psychiatrist, an exorcist, or a plumber?

Nevertheless, this film does have some properly spooky moments, even if I might also suggest it has a few issues with pacing – having ramped up the tension in the second act, Nakata perhaps lets it slack off just a bit too much before the climax, while the concluding sequence which acts as a coda perhaps goes on just a little too long to be completely effective. Despite all this, I would still say Dark Water is a hugely accomplished and very potent ghost story, with some superbly effective surreal flourishes as it reaches its climax, and just enough depth and ambiguity to linger in the memory once concluded. Certainly a modern classic, and a very influential film.

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