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Posts Tagged ‘horror’

One major religion tells us that when we die, we are summoned before a senior spiritual personage and asked to justify our existence – what did we contribute to the common good? Did we leave the world a better place than we found it? The cynical suggest that this is just a myth made up to encourage the oppressed and down-trodden to lead lives of dubious virtue, keeping their noses clean and generally being obedient in the hope of receiving a reward in the next life.

The question, of course, is one of how you justify your existence, and surely this doesn’t just apply to people. The simple and reductive answer, as far as films go anyway, is to say that a film’s purpose is to make money for its producers. I’m not so sure about that. Possibly my prejudices are showing but I don’t think the fact that the various Transformers films have added umpty-tump million dollars to the bank accounts of their makers comes close to making up for all the misery and horror they are responsible for. Conversely, though – could it be possible for a film not to do all that well at the box office yet still have made a worthwhile contribution to the sum total of human happiness, irrespective of how good it is?

Which basically brings us to John McTiernan’s 1986 film Nomads, one which seems to be promising a lot but ends up delivering… Well. The film is set in Los Angeles, where we initially encounter young ER doctor Eileen Flax (Lesley-Ann Down), recently moved to the city. In the ward one night she meets another new arrival, Jean-Charles Pommier (Pierce Brosnan), although this is not immediately apparent, mainly because Pommier is a frothing, raving nutcase, who whispers in a mysteriously French manner in her ear before trying to bite her and then dropping dead. Zut alors.

Well, Flax is bemused by Pommier’s case, learning he was a distinguished and much-travelled anthropologist who recently settled in LA to teach in a university there. So what’s he doing turning up in ER, off his head and about to cark it? The answers, when they come, mainly take the form of strange visions which afflict Flax, allowing her to relive Pommier’s last few days and the strange mystery he uncovered that ultimately led to his death.

As everyone knows, you can’t trust estate agents and the house Pommier and his wife (Anna-Maria Monticelli) have bought was previously the scene of a horrific murder. As a result it seems to have become something of a magnet for the local weirdos, who dress like punks and goths and drive around in a big black van, never stopping anywhere for long. (One of them is played by Adam Ant, another by the cult actress Mary Woronov.) In the flashback, Pommier becomes fascinated by them (not, it must be said, for any particularly compelling reason) and ends up following them around the city. He witnesses them casually committing a murder and various other antisocial acts, and is disturbed to discover they don’t show up on film when he attempts to photograph them.

The answer is logical and obvious – it’s the 80s! They’re punks! They drive around in a van! They don’t photograph! They’re obviously vampires! Reader, mais non. (Although this might have been a better film were the answer mais oui.) Pommier eventually figures out, with the aid of a handy exposition-nun, that the gang of weirdos are actually evil Eskimo desert-spirits, infesting Los Angeles. Well, of course they are. It turns out you can have an Eskimo desert-spirit, you just have to be a bit flexible with your definition of a desert. And a spirit. And possibly an Eskimo.

The problem is that Pommier has now attracted the attention of the evil spirits (known as Einwetok, apparently), they are keen to claim his soul in order to maintain the secret of their existence. Can he and his wife escape them? (Anyone who’s been paying attention should already know the answer.) And will Flax’s own investigation imperil her life?

Nomads is, it must be said, a not especially good and honestly rather silly film, but it is clearly a second cousin to rather more impressive fare – it’s not a million miles away from other 80s fantasy-horror films, especially those with a James Cameron connection. There are various elements of this film which do recall The Terminator and especially Near Dark, even though it’s not anywhere close to the same standard. Elsewhere, it does incorporate all the things you would associate with a certain kind of laboriously stylish 80s movie – heavy use of drum machines and synth music, and indiscriminate slo-mo when you’re not expecting it.

All this, of course, is less noticeable to the average viewer than the fact that the film stars a fairly young Pierce Brosnan (this was his first lead movie role), playing a Frenchman. It is not entirely clear why McTiernan decided to make his protagonist French, but it certainly gives Brosnan a chance to have a go at an allo-mon-amee-ah-am-from-Paree accent. Now, I like Pierce Brosnan a lot; he was a very good James Bond and I find him to be a very likeable screen presence in general. But he does a convincing French accent about as well as he can sing. (And one has to wonder why the two French characters appear to spend most of their time speaking English to each other.) It is quite hard to get past the accent and assess the rest of the performance (one notes Brosnan was still young and keen enough to say yes to a nude scene, though it is tactfully lit and framed).

He kind of drops out of sight in the closing stages of the film, anyway, as the focus of the story switches more to Flax and Pommier’s widow. Again, one has to wonder what the merit is of the rather complicated flashback structure which McTiernan has opted to give the film – it doesn’t seem to be contributing much, cluttering the narrative rather than deepening it. I suppose it does enable the final twist of the movie (although this is using the word ‘twist’ very generously), but I’m not sure this is enough.

Nomads starts off showing signs of promise but unravels into incoherent silliness long before the end. You have to admire its attempts to be a gore-free piece of stylish, atmospheric horror-fantasy, but it just ends up being bemusing; it’s certainly not frightening in any way. Nor is it quite bad enough to be a fun slice of shock. However – it got Pierce Brosnan started in movies, and that’s no bad thing, and apparently Arnie was sufficiently impressed by it to hire John McTiernan to  direct Predator (which in turn led to him doing Die Hard and other rather distinguished films). So while this may be a bad movie, it did eventually lead to some rather good ones.

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It is surely very heartening to see that, even in times as dark as the present, society still offers a chance for success to people who are clearly a little bit weird (especially heartening for those of us who are weird ourselves). Currently I am thinking of Peter Strickland, whom I may be jumping to conclusions about. Never having met the gentleman, I may be taking liberties by labelling him as weird, but the two films of his that I’ve seen have both been, well, weird. Weird in a very interesting and entertaining way, I hasten to add. But they’re still weird.

I saw Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio towards the end of 2012 and came out feeling rather well-disposed towards it (certainly more so than the gentleman who stood up at the end of the screening and shouted ‘Utter rubbish!’ to no-one in particular). His follow-up, The Duke of Burgundy, didn’t trouble the cinemas around here so far as I can recall, but his latest film did – albeit not in a very conspicuous way. Another victim of the great Disney squeeze, one might suggest.

The new movie is In Fabric, which is a fairly odd title and thus rather undersells the film, which is extremely eccentric, to say the least. The setting is the UK in what looks like the late 1970s or possibly early 80s (one character has a misleadingly contemporary hairstyle, but it soon becomes obvious that email and mobile phones don’t exist yet). Marianne Jean-Baptiste plays Sheila, a recently-separated bank clerk with a teenage son who is a bit thrown to discover that her ex-husband has already found himself a new girlfriend. As an odd form of passive-aggressive retaliation, she decides to join a lonely hearts dating service, but only after refreshing her look a bit. And so she goes out and buys a new dress.

This proves to be a choice of questionable merit, as the department store she visits is a rather unusual one which appears to be run by witches, or possibly devil-worshippers. Even the sales assistants are rather peculiar, such as the one she encounters (an uproarious turn from Fatma Mohamed). However, the ‘artery red’ dress she ends up buying is something else again, as it is apparently cursed and possessed of a malevolent sentience, and is determined to do her ill. This initially just takes the form of giving her a nasty rash and destroying her washing machine (the dress doesn’t like being machine-washed), but soon its activities become absolutely murderous…

There is a camp ridiculousness to the premise of In Fabric which clearly owes a debt to some of the sillier horror movie premises of years gone by – I’m thinking of the homicidal vine from Dr Terror’s House of Horrors or the man-eating furniture in Death Bed – although, come to think of it, Stephen King did a book about a haunted car and no-one called that silly. Certainly this resonance doesn’t seem to be a matter of chance, for the film also has a quasi-portmanteau structure which inevitably recalls Dr Terror and the various other portmanteau horrors of decades ago.

It isn’t quite as simple as this film simply being a spoof of that particular genre, though. Strickland’s fondness for Italian giallo horror was evident in Berbarian Sound Studio and this film has that same kind of visual artfulness and richness. The combination of arty continental horror stylings and everyday naturalism which  makes In Fabric so distinctive is almost enough to make one suggest that this is what it would look like if Dario Argento and Mike Leigh ever worked together on a project (or if such a project were lovingly pastiched by the League of Gentlemen).

The most impressive thing about In Fabric is the way in which it takes such a richly over-the-top premise, and such a seemingly-incongruous set of clashing influences, and still manages to be a coherent and cohesive movie rather than a mess of clashing styles and tones. This, it seems to me, is the sign of a very fine film-maker – the ability to turn a film on a dime and shift between tones so effortlessly is exceptionally difficult. And there are lots of different things going on here. As I said, this isn’t exactly a horror parody – it is knowing and tongue-in-cheek, and the audience is expected to recognise this, but at the same time it is a genuine horror film, intent on unnerving and rattling its audience. It is attempting to be weird and creepy rather than actually scary, and there are some extremely odd and rather graphic sequences that certainly won’t be to everyone’s cup of tea.

And then Strickland will smoothly go into another encounter with the bizarre shopworker Miss Luckmoore and her preposterous turn of phrase (this is a woman who says ‘I have reached the dimension of regret’ when she means ‘I’m sorry’), or a scene where one of the characters is dragged in for a nightmarish encounter with Julian Barratt and Steve Oram’s useless managers, or even a genuinely moving scene filled with real pathos. It shouldn’t work; it certainly shouldn’t look as easy as Strickland manages to make it appear.

I shouldn’t neglect to say that this is a genuinely funny film, albeit often in a highly surreal way (at one point Barratt and Oram are reduced to a priapic stupor by someone describing washing-machine faults to them). You find yourself wondering if you’re actually supposed to be laughing at this or if you haven’t quite understood what kind of film you’re watching. In the end I did conclude that very little in this movie has been left to chance.

For all that it is an unusual and rather intoxicating concoction, I would still say In Fabric has the odd flaw – primarily that the opening segment of the film is stronger than the rest, which is unfortunate if nothing else. Marianne Jean-Baptiste’s performance is a bit more rounded than those of Leo Bill and Hayley Squires, who carry the later parts of the movie. I might even suggest that the portmanteau structure of the story isn’t signposted at all and is a bit wrong-footing when it manifests itself.

Nevertheless, this is a film made with obvious confidence and skill and a definite sense of visual style (the soundtrack, from the splendidly-named combo Cavern of Anti-Matter, only adds to the hypnotic effect). It is distinctive and highly unusual (and probably not very mainstream, to be perfectly honest), but also very funny and always interesting. I liked it very much.

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If you had asked me to come up with a list of actors I would expect to see pump-actioning and machete-swinging their way through a mob of zombies this year, I think it would be reasonable to say that neither Adam Driver or Bill Murray would have been particularly near the top of it, and yet this is what we find ourselves seeing during Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die. Is it therefore the case that this film is a particularly odd one, or simply the case that zombie films have become so ubiquitous everyone is bound to end up in one?

Well, I’m not sure about the latter part – it’s starting to feel a bit silly talking about ‘the current boom in zombie movies’, considering it’s been in progress for the vast majority of the current century, but on the other hand there hasn’t been a major English-language entry in the genre for a bit. The Dead Don’t Die is a fairly odd movie, though. Here is where I make one of my occasional confessions and admit that, feted independent American film-maker though he is, I have never seen a Jarmusch movie before. I think I came fairly close to seeing Ghost Dog and Only Lovers Left Alive, but seeing films isn’t like playing horseshoes – ‘fairly close’ means nothing in this context.

Therefore I have no idea how representative the new film is of Jarmusch’s output, although I can at least be confident about saying that, up to a point, it does a reasonable job of looking and sounding like a movie by the late George A Romero (who is duly acknowledged in the credits). We find ourselves in the small country town of Centerville, apparently ‘a nice place to live’ according to its own publicity, in the company of police chief Cliff (Murray) and his deputy Ronnie (Driver). Something odd seems to be in the air – the times of the sunrise and sunset are a bit off, and Ronnie’s watch and cellphone have packed up too. Could it be connected to worrying news reports that fracking at both poles have accidentally thrown the Earth off its axis? (Shades of The Day The Earth Caught Fire.)

Well, it doesn’t come as much of a surprise when the dead start clawing their way out of their graves and attacking the living. One of the first to do so is Iggy Pop, who makes a predictably convincing zombie given that he has looked rather cadaverous for many years. The cops, along with various other town residents and visitors, find themselves taking cover from the shambling horde, wondering what to do next (Ronnie repeatedly opines that it’s all going to end badly). Could salvation lie with the town’s eccentric sword-swinging undertaker (Tilda Swinton)?

There are many perplexing and distracting things about The Dead Don’t Die, but the most perplexing and distracting one of the lot is Swinton and her character. Given that most of the film is a tongue-in-cheek cruise through B-movie tropes and other Americana, one has to wonder about the inclusion of a funeral director with a samurai sword, not really a stock character in this kind of film. But wait! It gets even more whimsical – Swinton doesn’t just play a samurai-sword-wielding undertaker battling the undead, she does it while deploying a Highland Scots accent somewhat reminiscent of Maggie Smith in the Harry Potter films, and a peculiarly formal mode of speech reminiscent of no person ever. And Tilda Swinton’s character is named Zelda Winston. It is enough to make one scratch one’s head at some length.

Still, if nothing else, it does reveal Jarmusch’s ability to get a good cast for this movie. Quite apart from Swinton, Murray and Driver, it also includes Chloe Sevigny as another cop, Steve Buscemi as a Trump-supporting racist farmer, Danny Glover as the local store owner, Rosie Perez as a news reporter (her character is named ‘Posie Juarez’), Selena Gomez as a visiting hipster, and Tom Waits as ‘Hermit Bob’, an unhinged fellow who lives in the woods.

So, a good cast, and the zombie apocalypse is one of those scenarios which will always have potential provided you approach it with a new spin in mind. However, quite what Jarmusch had in mind when he came to make this film is difficult to discern – given the background of many of the actors, and some of the character names, you’d be forgiven for assuming it’s meant to be a parody of the classic Romero zombie film – it certainly cleaves particularly closely to the formula, virtually paraphrasing dialogue about how the risen dead are compelled to seek out the things that mattered to them when they were alive – thus we get the spectacle of zombies shuffling about muttering about coffee and wi-fi.

The thing is that if so, it’s a comedy where it feels like they’ve forgotten to include most of the jokes. There’s the odd good invariably deadpan moment, but the film mostly just trundles along being neither particularly funny nor really trying very hard to be frightening. Everyone knows how this story goes, and it unfurls here pretty much as you’d expect (the odd apparent nod to Plan Nine from Outer Space notwithstanding). It’s more like a pastiche than a parody or spoof – a technically competent one, but one with serious issues in the script department. There’s a lot of cross-cutting between the different characters, which ends up more or less going nowhere – they tend to get the odd good moment, before the film seems to run out of things to do with them. One group of characters dies off-screen, another seem to get completely forgotten about. The film also seriously underperforms when it comes to the climax and ending.

The sense that this is a movie which has just been slapped together is only heightened by the inclusion of a bunch of jokes I can only describe as seeming lazy. There’s an in-joke about Adam Driver being in the stellar conflict movies. At one point the film’s theme song plays on the radio, and Murray’s character wonders why it sounds so familiar – Driver’s character tells him it’s because it’s the theme song of the movie. At one point Murray wonders about Driver’s weird prescience and is told it is because he has read the whole script of the movie, not just the scenes he is in. If this is supposed to feel knowing and witty, it does not; it just feels rather tired.

As I say, this is not a complete disaster, but the odd good moment and a generally well-staged zombipocalypse do not make up for a film which often feels stilted and self-conscious, narratively baggy and no real sense of what it’s supposed to be and why it’s here. I am assuming most Jim Jarmusch movies are better than this one; it’s certainly a disappointment as a zombie film.

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‘I want to see all the horror movies,’ declared Olinka as we sat through the selection being trailed ahead of our latest choice of film. These included Annabelle Comes Home, Crawl, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, and It Chapter Two. I am a bit more discriminating than she is and most of these films are not on my list of things I definitely want to see.

Yet here we were about to watch Ari Aster’s Midsommar, despite the fact that we were united in our underwhelmedness (and that’s putting it mildly) when we went to see his previous movie Hereditary – although I should say that Olinka has, on reflection, revised her opinion upward to a fairly significant degree. Certainly from the moment we saw the first trailer for Midsommar, we agreed this was a movie we wanted to watch. Why should this be? Well, in my case, the first point in the film’s favour was that there were more than enough positives about Hereditary to make me willing to give Aster another chance as a director, and the second was the involvement of the fabulous Florence Pugh, who has the talent to lift any film to which she is allowed to make a substantial contribution.

Midsommar is one of those films which opens with a significant first-act event which is not referenced at all in the trailer and thus presumably qualifies as a bit of a spoiler. So I must perforce be somewhat circumspect when it comes to my usual synoptical activities. Florence Pugh plays Dani, a young woman in a long-term relationship with a guy named Christian (Jack Reynor), although it is clear to all around them that said relationship is effectively moribund – she is worried about seeming clinging and needy, he is obviously unenthusiastic about spending more than minimal time with her, their discussions are full of low-level pedantry and almost-wilful petty misunderstandings of each other. But she at least is determined to keep the relationship intact.

Christian is so indifferent to Dani he has even agreed to go on a trip to Sweden with his college buddies without initially telling her. Most of them are anthropology post-grads and a Swedish friend (Vilhelm Blomgren) has invited them back to his home community in a remote part of the country for an important festival. The eventual news that Dani will be coming along is not met with universal delight from the other guys, especially Christian’s crass friend Mark (Will Poulter).

Off they fly to lovely Sweden, soon arriving in Halsingland (which, on the face of it at least, looks absolutely beautiful). They are greeted with great warmth by the members of their friend’s community, and prepare for various mind-broadening (if not outright expanding) experiences. However, this being an R or 18-rated horror movie, it could well turn out to be the case that this is the kind of festival where you probably shouldn’t touch the meat pies, and the educational value is mostly limited to a demonstration of what the term ‘blood eagle’ actually refers to.

Scholars of horrific cinema will no doubt already be aware of the fact that Midsommar is not just an unusual American entry into that subgenre known as ‘folk horror’, but one with a substantial and explicit debt to Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man, a film which long-term readers will be well aware I have the greatest respect for. (I have seen some critics attempting to argue that Midsommar is not really a horror movie, but a metaphorical fantasy about the demise of a relationship. To which I can only say: come on. That’s pushing disingenuity to the point where it becomes absurd.) As a Swedish-set spiritual descendant of The Wicker Man (possibly The IKEA Man would have been a good title), Midsommar does not discredit its forebear, and indeed possesses some of the same ghastly power, albeit in a rather different key.

The thing is that you basically know going in how this story is going to turn out: the beaming, friendly, white-clad Swedes who are so welcoming to the American characters obviously have some sort of hidden agenda, which is going to involve terrible Pagan practices. The points of engagement for the audience are thus a sense of suspense – what exactly is going to happen, and to who, and when, and just how grisly is it going to turn out to be? – and also, hopefully, a deeper sense of resonance in terms of how the events of the film function as an emotional or personal metaphor.

Well, one of the elements of Midsommar I’m not sure about is the running time, which is not much shy of two and a half hours, but this does allow Aster to execute an extremely slow burn in the way he creates an insidious atmosphere of creeping, queasy wrongness. This is the film’s real achievement and strength. You begin fully aware that something is not quite right in the story, and then through the drip-drip-drip of incidental detail, you’re suddenly aware that Everything Feels Horribly Wrong even though the events on screen are frequently relatively innocuous. There are some extremely graphic moments in this film – at one point we were both hunched down in our seats, instinctively contorting our limbs to try and block out as much of the screen as possible, simply because we didn’t want to see what was happening – but it’s the atmosphere of the movie which is the most pervasively upsetting thing about it. Various characters do take mind-altering substances in the course of the film, seldom with positive outcomes, and it is as if Aster is trying to communicate to the audience the sensation of being on the world’s worst acid trip. He does so with great success: imagery from this film has shown up in nightmares I have had since watching it. (Ari Aster has apparently announced he has now done everything he cares to within the horror genre and will be moving on to do different kinds of film in future. To which I can only say, I will believe it when I see it: this man has a natural talent to screw with people’s heads.)

That said, I am not sure the film really qualifies as a complete success – The Wicker Man, for example, is on some level about moral relativism and the clash of different ethical systems. There’s no sense of that here – if the film is about anything more than just Aster trying to put his audience into therapy, it’s not clear to make out what that is – at least, not to me. Clearly, there are resonances between Dani and Christian’s disintegrating relationship and some of the things that happen to them at the festival (one also assumes there is some symbolism in Christian’s name), but if there’s a single big idea here then it’s not particularly well articulated. At one point I thought there was a subtext going on about the Swedes not being actively malevolent towards the visitors, but only reacting to the crassness, shallowness and self-interestedness of the Americans, but this turns out not to be the case. You do find yourself searching for some kind of deeper subtext to Midsommar, which to me suggests the script isn’t quite there in this department.

Of course, I should present an alternate view, given there is one available, and in this case Olinka found the film to be very interesting and symbolically powerful. On the way to the bus stop she gave me an ad hoc lecture about existentialism, loss, the grieving process, empathy, the role of the community in the foregoing, Midsummer as a symbol of a ‘frozen’ moment with no change or progress being possible, and so on. (I did ask her to write all this down and send it to me so I could include it in the review, but no joy so far.) So it may well be that your mileage may differ when it comes to this film, just as much as it did with Hereditary.

I’m not sure I’d say that I actually enjoyed Midsommar, but that’s only because it’s such a gruelling and traumatic experience to watch this film. Certainly I am highly impressed by the skill involved in making it – I haven’t even touched on how good Florence Pugh’s performance is. And it is a remarkably subtle film in many ways, not afraid to even be slightly camp in the way it plays with national stereotypes about Swedish people. It retains most of the strengths of Hereditary while dispensing with the most egregious of that film’s weaknesses. Viewers of a delicate disposition should think several times before watching it, but this is a very impressive film.

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Werner Herzog is such a distinctive and idiosyncratic figure that it’s easy to sometimes lose track of everything that he’s done. Certainly, his is a CV of dizzying variety as an actor and director – documentary about cave art? Check! Role as villain in a Tom Cruise thriller? Check! Drama about a man dragging a steamboat over a mountain? Check! Studio Ghibli US dub voice role? Check! It almost comes as a shock to recall he ever did anything as straightforward as a serious adaptation of Bram Stoker’s famous novel Dracula.

Then again, to describe the genesis of Herzog’s 1979 film Nosferatu the Vampyre as ‘straightforward’ is probably somewhat disingenuous. Nosferatu isn’t just an adaptation of Dracula, but a remake of Murnau’s 1922 film Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens. Here things begin to get a little more tangled, as the Stoker estate refused Murnau permission to adapt Dracula for the big screen. Murnau went ahead and made his movie anyway, changing some of the character names in a rather feeble attempt to disguise what he was up to – Count Dracula became Graf Orlok, Harker became Hutter, Renfield became Knock, and so on. Unsurprisingly, this fooled no-one and Florence Stoker attempted to have Symphonie des Grauens destroyed (luckily, this did not happen, as it is a superb movie).

By 1979, Dracula was out of copyright and so Herzog was able to use the ‘proper’ names for the characters, but still retained Murnau’s version of the plot and the title Nosferatu (an etymologically problematic word which has effectively become a synonym for vampire; Nosferatu the Vampyre is rather tautologous). The movie is openly another take on the much-told story of Dracula; however, it is just as distinctive and idiosyncratic as its director.

As noted, Herzog sticks with Murnau and dispenses with the English-set portion of the story; instead, the tale opens in Wismar, in north-eastern Germany, where estate-agent’s wife Lucy Harker (Isabelle Adjani) is troubled by disturbing, bat-filled dreams. Maybe she is right to be concerned, for her husband Jonathan (Bruno Ganz) is given the unexpected assignment of going to Transylvania to conclude a deal with the mysterious and reclusive Count Dracula.

It soon turns out that the only people wanting Harker to go are his boss Renfield (Roland Topor) and possibly Dracula himself; Lucy doesn’t want him to go, the Transylvanian gypsies he encounters don’t want him going anywhere near Castle Dracula, and neither do the local peasants. Harker ends up having to walk most of the last stretch of his journey, mist-wrapped mountains rising around him and the half-ruined castle creeping into view. (The journey from the ‘normal world’ to the place of horror is obviously something of a staple in movies of this genre, but Nosferatu handles it unusually well.) Soon enough he arrives at the castle and meets his host.

Dracula (Klaus Kinski) is delighted to meet him. Actually, delighted may not be the right word, as Dracula seems to exist in a permanent state of existential anguish, bordering on actual despair. Chalk-skinned, with rat teeth and ears like a bat, one wonders just how badly Harker needs his commission if he’s willing to contemplate staying at this guy’s castle. This is before Dracula starts musing on the horrors of eternal existence and how there are far worse things than death.

Well, eventually Harker puts zwei and zwei together and figures out that there’s something not quite right about his host. The sight of Dracula loading coffins onto a wagon preparatory to taking up residence in his new property may have something to do with this, to say nothing of Dracula’s nocturnal visits to Harker’s room, when the estate agent discovers that the price of staying at Castle Dracula really can be a pain in the neck.

Dracula eventually departs for Wismar, leaving Harker a prisoner in the castle. He escapes, weak and feverish, desperate to get home and warn everyone of the terror soon to be in their midst – but is it already too late…?

This wasn’t the only Dracula of 1979, of course: the same year saw John Badham’s version, with Frank Langella and Laurence Olivier. Both are recognisably adaptations of Bram Stoker’s novel, but they have almost nothing in common with each other beyond a few character names and the basics of the plot. Badham’s Dracula is set entirely in England, dispensing with the Transylvanian section of the plot (the two films almost mirror each other in this way), and Langella’s Count is a suave, romantic anti-hero. The American film is a vivid one about passion and desire. Herzog’s film, on the other hand, opens with a series of shots depicting mummified human corpses, establishing from the start that this is to be a much bleaker and more morbid film about the boundaries between life and death.

Romantic is the last word you would choose to describe Kinski’s Dracula: quite apart from the fact he is physically hideous, he seems to exist in a state of existential torment. He is cursed as much as he is a curse, much given to doleful complaints about the terrible loneliness of immortality; Lucy Harker may dream about bats and the film may mention the vampire’s affinity with wolves, but for most of the movie Dracula is associated most closely with rats, which swarm around his various resting places and provide a visual symbol for the Black Death which he propagates wherever he goes. (Animal-lovers may wish to steer clear of behind-the-scenes accounts of the making of this movie, as the rats were apparently very poorly treated indeed.)

Kinski actually manages to find the pathos in this conception of Dracula as a miserable, rodent-like parasite, and he is never entirely unsympathetic at any point in the film – then again, most of the characters manage to retain a degree of sympathy, not least because they are all trapped in such an obviously bleak and horrible world. My researches have not revealed whether Herzog and Kinski’s collaboration on this occasion resulted in one of the director’s various attempts to murder his troublesome star, but it is a eerily powerful performance and easily one of the most striking screen Draculas. Herzog and Murnau’s amendments to the story also produce some interesting effects – Harker is never normally a plum role in Dracula, but Bruno Ganz ends up with some interesting things to do as the film goes on, not least during the twist at the end of the story. Likewise, Lucy is not just a passive, ornamental victim of the vampire’s lust, but a character with real agency and strength; Isabelle Adjani’s performance is as eye-catching as her ethereal beauty. Most of this comes, however, at the expense of Van Helsing, who normally gets all the best lines in any version of Dracula. Here, Van Helsing is a closed-minded, sceptical materialist, played by Walter Ladengast – his contributions to the story are minimal. The same can probably be said for Renfield – Roland Topor isn’t afraid to go way out there with his performance as a giggling madman, but one wonders what the character really adds to this version of the story.

You can tell this isn’t a movie which has been made on the biggest of budgets, and some of the scenes do lack the kind of atmosphere you get in the better Hammer horrors. It must also be said that this is not a film in which the plot moves along like a bat out of hell (or from anywhere else, for that matter). However, the pervasive atmosphere which Herzog generates has considerable power, especially as the film goes on and the scenes of a plague-stricken Wismar acquire a hallucinatory, nightmarish quality. At one point the soundtrack seems to include an excerpt from a Kate Bush album that would not be made until six years after the film’s release, and this does not feel entirely surprising (Herzog and Bush both decided to employ a snatch of the same Georgian folk song, apparently).

As I mentioned, this is not the most lavish Dracula, and it may lack some of the set-piece moments some may be expecting. But the strength and consistency of the film’s vision of the story is considerable, and matched by its execution. It is a bleak and morbid version of the story, entirely bereft of most of the comforting moments and touches found in other retellings of the novel. Nevertheless, Nosferatu the Vampyre is hugely impressive for its atmosphere and for Kinski’s performance; this is definitely one of the best versions of Dracula on film, and a worthy updating of Murnau.

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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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