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Posts Tagged ‘horror’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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‘It’s pronounced Pet Seh-MET-a-ree,’ I said.

Olinka tutted and rolled her eyes. ‘No it’s not. It’s Pet Seh-met-AH-ree,’ she said.

I thought about this for a moment. ‘Are you sure it’s not Pet Seh-met-AIR-ee?’

‘Whatever. I think we should just get on and buy the tickets,’ she said.

We both turned and looked at the Odeon staff member responsible for seeing to our requirements. Her eyes seemed to have widened appreciably while we were having our discussion and there appeared to be signs of alarm in them. ‘I think you just pronounce it the usual way,’ she said, in a slightly quavery voice. Oh well: you live and learn, I suppose.

Stephen King has been a famous and successful writer for about forty-five years now, so perhaps it’s not surprising that some of his books are coming to the screen for the second time. The original movie of Pet Sematary came out in 1989, and all I remember about it is one UK reviewer complaining he couldn’t take it seriously because the spooky old man character was played by Fred Gwynne from The Munsters. It’s actually something of a rare pleasure for me to turn up to a movie never having seen the trailer and not knowing much about the plot, so from that point of view I was looking forward to Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmeyer’s take on the novel (I do like King, but this is one book I’ve never read). Of course, there is also the fabled Curse of King to consider – the fact that no matter how good his books are, they don’t have the greatest track record on the big screen.

Kolsch and Widmeyer’s movie gets underway in time-honoured fashion, with a wholesome young family moving from the ugly stresses of big-city life to an idyllic new home deep in the countryside. Of course, it is an iron law of cinema that whenever anyone does this, it proves to be an extraordinarily bad idea and they are shortly afterwards besieged by killer spiders, misogynistic android replicas, pagan cultists, or what-have-you. Naturally, neither husband and father Louis (Jason Clarke) nor wife and mother Rachel (Amy Seimetz) appears to have ever seen a horror movie, and are just looking forward to de-stressing a bit. Their young daughter Ellie (Jete Laurence) isn’t stressed at all, to begin with, and is looking forward to playing with her beloved cat in the great outdoors.

Well, everyone settles in and Louis starts his job as a local doctor. Back at home, however, Rachel is a little put out to discover that their new property incorporates the town’s traditional resting place for deceased domestic animals, which is apparently run by members of the remedial spelling class. Ellie bumps into their neighbour, Jud (John Lithgow), who is the area’s Creepy Exposition Yokel, although this early in the story he is only permitted to make vague general statements about not going too deeply into the forest. Well, anyway, the discovery of the animal graveyard occasions an opportunity for Louis and Rachel to have serious conversation with Ellie about life and death and what happens to people (or indeed animals) after they die; on the surface it is all innocuous enough, but your ears don’t have to be that keen in order to detect the sounds of heavy-duty foreshadowing equipment hard at work.

And so it proves; following a tragic accident, Louis is assailed by visions of a reasonably benign spectre who warns him that the boundary between the living and the dead must be respected, which seems quite sensible until Ellie’s cat is run over. It is at this point that Jud reveals that on the other side of the forest is a site of ancient supernatural power (suffice to say that Louis and Rachel have unwittingly entered into a time-share with Ithaqua) with the ability to resurrect the dead bodies of anyone interred there. They don’t come back quite the same as they left, of course, but that’s what you get for mucking about with fundamental cosmic principles. Louis resolves to make use of this unexpected amenity, but only this once, to restore the cat. Yes, definitely just the one time, there’s absolutely nothing that could ever impel him to go there again… is there?

Well, I may not have been familiar with either the book or the 1989 film version of this particular story, but the way this film turned out was in no way a surprise to me: one of the things I quite enjoyed about Pet Sematary was that once the story had properly got going, I was never in any doubt as to how it was going to turn out – in a way, the film is the best kind of predictable, because the characters are introduced, their flaws established, and then they move towards their inevitable dooms, as circumstances compel them into making very bad choices. It also helps that the story itself is also rather familiar – it now seems to me that the Nu-Hammer movie Wake Wood is very substantially derived from Pet Sematary, which itself owes a large debt to W.W. Jacobs’ much-adapted tale The Monkey’s Paw.

Given the character-based nature of this story, the film does well in casting Jason Clarke, a very able and versatile actor, in the lead role. This is a character who goes on a bit of a journey in the course of the story, to put it mildly, and Clarke is never less than totally convincing as he moves from mild-mannered rationalism to unhinged mania. It feels like the script favours Clarke and John Lithgow (also very good in what could have been a deeply hammy part) over Amy Seimetz, but she also gives a fine performance – as, come to that, does Jete Laurence, although given there have been a number of memorable child performances in horror films recently, I’m not sure she does quite enough to stand out.

One of those other recent horror films was Hereditary, which many people still rate quite highly (my opinion hasn’t changed, although Olinka now believes it is less rubbish than she initially did), which also strikes some similar notes to Pet Sematary – both are on some level films about the effect that grief can have on people (and perhaps also the corrosive effects of guilt). Pet Sematary doesn’t have the freakily unsettling atmosphere of the first half of Hereditary, but then it doesn’t turn into absurd cobblers in the second, either, and on the whole I found it a more satisfying and entertaining movie. I should say, though, that while I thought this movie was borderline-nasty good fun, Olinka found parts of it genuinely upsetting to watch, simply because of the subject matter. I expect this is a personal thing, though, and it is interesting that while the film contains both distressing ideas and genuine grisliness, they seldom appear at the same time.

Apparently this adaptation has come in for some stick for being less than entirely faithful to King’s novel (the 1989 version was written by King himself). I have to say the film in its existing form is entirely satisfactory – although, having since checked out the synopsis of the novel, there is at least one moment where the film appears to be playing games with anyone familiar with previous versions of the story, suggesting it’s going to stay faithful to the novel before heading off on a new course. I’m not normally a fan of films getting all meta in this way, but on this occasion it works, feeling justified in terms of the story beats that it allows rather than simply being done as a cheap trick. One thing I would say, though, is that the film very properly takes its time establishing characters and atmosphere, but then seems to feel compelled to rush things to their conclusion within 105 minutes – it’s a very busy, slightly frantic home stretch. Nevertheless, the ending does work, with some very memorable closing images.

This is a mid-budget mainstream horror movie, so it was never going to contain anything too extreme or innovative, but it has style and polish and is very respect towards Stephen King’s style, if not every detail of his story. I didn’t find it particularly scary or unsettling, but I still enjoyed the ride the film gave me, mainly due to the craft of the script and the performances. Ultimately, this is schlock, but quality schlock.

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At one point during the recent trip to New York, Significant Other and I found ourselves enjoying the truly spectacular views available to visitors to Roosevelt Island, looking south and east towards Manhattan and the bay. I was particularly impressed by the fact that so many iconic buildings were in such close proximity to each other, and – feeling, as ever, that knowledge is best shared – thought I would pass on a few pertinent facts about their history.

‘There’s the UN building, which was demolished by Godzilla in Destroy All Monsters in 1968. Just behind it you can see the Empire State Building, which was vandalised by King Kong in 1931. And there’s the Chrysler Building, which was decapitated by the army while fighting Godzilla again in 1998, and also where Q the Winged Serpent was roosting in 1982…’

That tell-tale glazed quality which people so often develop when talking to me about not-entirely-mainstream movies had crept into Significant Other’s eyes, and it occurred to me that while nearly everyone knows what’s what if you mention Godzilla or King Kong, when it comes to a movie like Q (aka Q – The Winged Serpent), you have kind of gone down the rabbit hole a bit. If the movie has attracted a bit more attention recently, it is for the lamentable reason that its creator, Larry Cohen, recently passed away.

Cohen was the kind of film-maker who never really achieved anything more than a kind of cult status, even though his name was frequently on films and TV shows that most people have heard of: he created and wrote the first episode of The Invaders, but moved on when the producers decided to focus more on sci-fi action adventure than the paranoid thriller he had envisaged; he also wrote episodes of Columbo, The Fugitive and NYPD Blue, and a lot of exploitation movies, such as It’s Alive – possibly the greatest killer mutant baby film ever made – Phone Booth, and Captivity. Cohen’s favourite of his own movies was apparently Q, though, and it is easy to see why:  put together in under a week after Cohen was fired from another film but left with a pre-booked hotel room in New York, the film has a kind of mad energy about it which is very engaging.

Q opens with a cheerful scene of a man cleaning the windows of the Empire State Building, forty floors up: apparently this role was played by the building’s actual window cleaner, presumably because no-one else would go out in the harness. Anyway, the man’s attempts to flirt with an office worker run into trouble when something swoops down on him. His decapitated corpse slumps against the window, gorily. Hard-bitten cops Shepard (David Carradine) and Powell (Richard Roundtree) are soon on the case, but find themselves baffled by the absence of the key body part. ‘I don’t know! Maybe his head got loose and came off by itself!’ cries Shepard.

Meanwhile, small-time crook, would-be jazz pianist and all-around craven coward Jimmy Quinn finds himself pressured into participating in a diamond robbery by his underworld associates (the target of the heist is a company named ‘Neil Diamonds’), but things go awry and he finds himself on the run from both the police and his former colleagues. While attempting to visit his lawyer, whose offices are in the Chrysler Building in midtown Manhattan, he finds himself up in the building’s iconic art-deco spire – but he is not alone there, as he discovers a number of bloody skeletons and a large nest containing an even bigger egg…

People are continuing to vanish from the tops of high buildings – we are treated to various scenes of people in the street reacting unconvincingly to fake blood and viscera raining down on them from the sky – and Shepard’s investigation has linked up with another case: that of various people turning up mutilated (skin flayed off, heart cut out, and so on). He comes to the conclusion that an Aztec death cult is operating in New York and has summoned an avatar of the god Quetzalcoatl into existence – it is this dragon-bird-god which is chewing its way through the city’s high-altitude populace. But can he persuade his superiors of this? And just what is it going to take to persuade Jimmy to give up his information about the location of the monster’s lair? (A heap of money, the copyright on all the photos of the creature, and having his picture taken with Rupert Murdoch, apparently.)

A movie like Q should, obviously, be a disaster: the story sounds like a rejected Kolchak script written by someone who’s eaten too much cheese, while the film’s central conceit – an enormous monster flying around present-day New York without anyone noticing, snatching people off rooftops and devouring them – is clearly far beyond the scope of a budget of only $1 million. However, the monster itself, while used very sparingly on screen, is a pretty good one – if there are problems, they arise more from the iffy back projection than the stop-motion special effects themselves.

More important to the film’s success is the way that it is clearly meant to be a tongue-in-cheek, deadpan comedy as much as a serious film. I don’t think anyone, himself included, would ever have described David Carradine as one of the world’s greatest actors, but his chilled-out demeanour and laconic line-readings are exactly right for some of the dialogue he has to deliver – he goes from the stock arguing-with-his-pen-pushing-boss scenes to discussions about deeply unorthodox theology and somehow his performance is pitched just right for both. Carradine is superficially taking it seriously while really not taking it seriously at all, which is basically this film in a nutshell: the script does just the barest minimum possible to explain why millions of people haven’t noticed a dragon flying around New York (apparently the monster makes sure people are blinded by the sun when they look in its direction: hmmm), but you buy into it because you don’t really have any other choice.

On the other hand, the extraordinary thing about Q is that Michael Moriarty seems to be taking the whole thing so seriously it almost becomes ridiculous in an entirely different way. This is, as noted, a tongue-in-cheek horror movie about window cleaners and high steel workers being snatched by a huge flying monster, and yet Moriarty turns in the kind of performance that – in a different genre – could well have attracted awards nominations. He seems to think he’s in a John Cassavetes movie or something like that, obviously giving his absolute all to make Quinn a plausible character. The clash of acting styles between him and Carradine should be very ugly, but again somehow it works.

Now, there are some elements of Q which are great because they work so well, and there are some elements of it which are great because they’re so knowingly cheesy, but this does not quite result in an entirely great movie. The two main plot threads, about the monster’s reign of terror and Quinn’s various travails, are both fine, but there’s an additional storyline about an Aztec cult carrying out human sacrifices which never quite feels fully fleshed out; the way this plot line is resolved also feels like a bit of an afterthought.

This is fairly small potatoes compared to the sheer entertainment value the rest of the film provides. It is gory, sometimes crude, and unashamedly an exploitation movie, but also enormously fun. This isn’t really a message movie, but the plot is obviously tied up with the power of prayer – and it really does seem to me that the existence of the film, especially given its sheer quality, is some kind of miracle.

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I think I have mentioned in the past the curious relationship between comedy and horror as genres, and the peculiar way in which they reflect each other. A bad comedy film can be one of the most horrible experiences imaginable; few things are more laughable than a bad horror movie. It seems to me that they are also quite unforgiving genres to work in: whether or not a drama or action movie really works is to some extent subjective, but it’s much easier to tell with the two in question – unless it makes you laugh, a comedy’s not working. Unless it’s making you scared (or at least uneasy in your seat) the same is true of a horror movie.

Perhaps this has something to do with why Jordan Peele, until a few years ago really best known as a comedian, has suddenly managed to establish himself as a sort of horror-weird fiction impressario in the American media. Mostly this has been off the back of Get Out, a movie which I have to confess impressed me less than many other people. As a result of that movie’s success Peele has been handed the arguably poisoned chalice of the curatorship of The Twilight Zone (one assumes that some day people will eventually figure out that it’s not 1960 any more, but it clearly hasn’t happened yet), and seems to have been given absolute carte blanche with his new movie, Us.

The new film concerns a nice, affluent American family who as things get under way are heading to their holiday home near Santa Cruz. The father (Winston Duke) is looking forward to the break, his wife (Lupita Nyong’o) seems to troubled by an odd sense of foreboding. Their kids (Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex) don’t seem to have particularly strong feelings either way.

Well, the holiday proceeds along the lines you would expect: father goofs about, mother worries, the kids annoy each other and their parents. But as the audience is already starting to realise that Nyong’o’s character had a (to put it mildly) traumatic experience at this same resort as a child, all this is to be expected.

What comes a little out of the blue, if you haven’t seen any of the publicity for this film at least, is the appearance in the driveway one night of another family, all clad in identical red jumpsuits and wielding fearsome-looking pairs of scissors. Soon they find themselves under siege from what seem to be their own bestial doppelgangers…

Well, you may be thinking, that sounds like an interesting premise for a horror movie, to which my response is: well, ye-es, as the kernel of an idea it has its merits, the real challenge lies in expanding it to form the basis of a whole 90 minute movie (Us, by the way, lasts a shade under two hours), especially one with a bit of heft and proper subtext to it. That was really my issue with Get Out, which I enjoyed rather less than most legitimate critics: a nicely made film, and I got the point and most of the references, but what was it actually about? What was the central metaphor? I have never seen an explanation that struck me as especially convincing.

On the other hand, it is relatively straightforward to work out the train of thought which led to Us being made. One imagines Jordan Peele in a room with big film industry types, being clapped on the back and given cigars, as is only proper when your film has just made back about fifty-seven times its admittedly modest budget, as well as doing unexpectedly well at the Oscars. So, they say, toying idly with the handle of a huge valise full of money, we loved the last one. Got any other ideas? Peele thinks desperately. Well, he says, I had this kind of scary dream last week… Terrific! cry the backers. Here’s $20 million dollars. Can’t wait to see it.

Us does has that sense of a movie which Peele has made primarily because someone wanted Peele to make a movie: if the film has a burning message, or is even about something in particular, it is not readily apparent. The opening segment of the film sets up a fairly ominous atmosphere quite effectively, and the sequence of the family being terrorised by their doubles also contains some quite effective material.

But then, unexpectedly, this part of the film ends, and I for one was left scratching my head: it’s made pretty clear from the start that there’s something else going on here, and due to be paid off before the credits roll, but it’s impossible to guess what that it is. This is largely, I would say, because the film becomes increasingly incoherent as it goes on, with the narrative proceeding in a series of startling and unpredictable leaps rather than having any real logical progression to it.

This isn’t immediately apparent, of course, and I did initially try to decipher what the inner meaning of Us might be: the title obviously serves double-duty as US, and at one point, when asked who they are, one of the killer duplicates responds ‘Americans’. But if there is a particular point Peele is trying to make, whether about racial, social or economic unease, it is by no means readily discernible.

However, this is not to say that watching Us is a frustrating or unsatisfactory experience: if nothing else, the nature of the film is such that, en route to the bus stop, Olinka and I had a very animated discussion of what the hell it was we’d just seen, much more than most of the films of our recent experience. I did enjoy the audacity of the film very much; once one accepts the way that the latter stages of the film in particular have the fractured logic of an escalating nightmare, there is a lot to enjoy here. The performances from the main quartet are also excellent, particularly Lupita Nyong’o. It is not what I would honestly call a genuinely scary film, but it is an engaging and entertaining one, with some nicely-handled moments of black comedy in the latter stages and also some impressive set pieces.

But in the end, does it really mean anything beyond a series of superficially scary images and unsettling moments? I tend to think not. This is the horror movie as a theme park ride, something to make you go whooo! while you’re watching it, not to give you something to dwell upon (much) once it’s over. This isn’t really my preferred flavour of horror film, but I was still quite impressed by elements of Us, and I think I did enjoy it more than Get Out (others may disagree). I still don’t think he’s the new Rod Serling, but I’ll be interested to see what Jordan Peele does next.

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You can’t beat a really good, really dodgy knock-off of a hit movie, especially one which is quite haphazardly thrown together in a spirit of mercenary opportunism. The various Bond pastiches of the mid sixties are the sort of thing I’m thinking of, also the Jaws rip-offs of the late seventies, not to mention the various excursions into dubious sci-fi the big studios embarked upon a couple of years later. A few years earlier, The Exorcist had gone a long way towards making the horror movie a respectable genre, something only consolidated by the success of The Omen in 1976 – to be fair, The Omen is schlock, but it’s classy, entertaining schlock.

You can’t say quite as much about Jack Gold’s The Medusa Touch, which emerged in 1978 – the schlock part is certain, but the rest is highly debatable. Things get underway in a sombre London – a jumbo jet has recently crashed into a tower block, causing massive devastation, while an American space mission has also just ended in disaster. Watching all this on the telly is writer and general grumpy-boots John Morlar (Richard Burton), who seems to be expecting company in his flat. Someone does indeed turn up, but rather than share a drink with Morlar they do their best to bash his skull in.

The police are soon on the scene, led by Inspector Brunel (Lino Ventura), who is on an exchange visit from Paris. (The Frenchness of the character is not actually relevant to the plot, but – given this is an international co-production – highly relevant to the budget.) Morlar’s body is still in situ, but his head is hidden from the audience by a felicitously-positioned coffee table, though whether this is to spare the audience the sight of his shocking injuries or just conceal the fact that Burton has gone off on the lash and this is a different actor is another debatable point. Brunel discovers that, almost miraculously, Morlar is still alive, and he is rushed off to hospital where his head is almost entirely swathed in bandages, although not quite enough to conceal the fact that it definitely isn’t Burton in these scenes.

Brunel sets about investigating Morlar’s life, reading his journal and talking to his shrink, Dr Zonfeld (Lee Remick). It turns out that Morlar was a successful writer, obsessed with the notions of power and evil, but also a man who left those who met him deeply unsettled. Various people who got on the wrong side of him ended up dead in freak accidents of different kinds. It slowly becomes clear that Morlar believed he had a form of telekinesis which caused disasters (this may not have come as a great shock to the audience, considering it’s basically explained on the poster). His parents died in a freak car accident, a schoolteacher who punished him was killed in a fire, his about-to-leave-him wife was in another car crash, and so on. Given Morlar’s proximity to so many unfortunate events, the list of people with a reason to wish him harm is lengthy, but Brunel and Zonfeld have another concern – it looks like Morlar’s power is operating to keep him alive, despite injuries that should have been fatal, but is there more to this than simple self-preservation?

The presence of Remick is only the most obvious sign of the debt that The Medusa Touch owes to The Omen; this is a film that aspires to be a classy, London-set supernatural thriller, with an A-list cast, various set-piece deaths, and a plotline about an initially-sceptical establishment figure slowly coming to believe in the powers of darkness. The climax of both films concerns an attempted execution which, on the face of it, looks like an awful act of brutality; there is also a final plot twist (although in the case of The Medusa Touch, this is almost drowned in bathos).

However, The Medusa Touch is badly hobbled by a number of factors – first of all, this is clearly not as big-budget a big-budget movie as it really needs to  be, with some of the model work (crashing jets and Bristol Cathedral falling down on people’s heads) really not up to scratch. It’s also notable how many of the distinguished actors featured in the credits only turn up for a single scene or two – it seems very unlikely that Derek Jacobi or Michael Hordern worked on the film for more than a couple of days each. Even Burton, the ostensible star, only appears in flashback once the opening scene of the movie is out of the way. This peculiar structure is also arguably a problem for the film – there are nested flashbacks, which is never a good way to go, and it means that once the film makes an awkward gear-change from being an ominous mystery to a stop-the-disaster thriller, Burton never actually appears.

This is a problem, as Richard Burton’s performance is probably the main reason to watch the film. The actor is issued with various scabrous and excoriating rants to deliver against the hypocrisy and corruption he sees all around him in modern society, and despite occasionally resembling a man waiting for the pubs to open, Burton gives most of them everything he’s got. It is a textbook case of an actor’s sheer presence and charisma lifting some rather suspect material. Practically everyone else in the movie is blasted off the screen by Burton, the only one coming close to matching him is Jeremy Brett (another of the film’s one-scene wonders).

The problems with The Medusa Touch‘s script and production are rather a shame, for this is a film with an interesting idea at its heart. If this kind of baleful telekinesis were real, and operated at least partly beyond the conscious control of the one possessing it, then the results would be nightmarish: Morlar initially suggests that the power is not something under his volition, but an instinctive thing which reflexively strikes down anyone who gets on his bad side. As the film goes on, they sort of move away from this, and the indications are that Morlar is a thorough-going misanthrope deliberately striking out at the symbols of the society he despises. It also almost seems to play with the idea that some so-called precognition is nothing of the sort – people who claim to see the future are simply just subconsciously shaping the events telekinetically (a notion which was in vogue with some psychic researchers for a while). Of course, the credibility of the film rather depends on how credible you find the notion of psychic powers; the film tries to ground itself by including footage of ‘real’ telekinetics doing their thing – no Uri Geller, but they do feature the Russian psychic Nina Kulagina interfering with compasses and so on.

In the end The Medusa Touch‘s combination of big, doomy ideas and slightly ramshackle production values means it is mostly just silly, and certainly not particularly frightening. As I say, Burton is the main reason to give it time of day, but even though it is derivative, it still has an odd originality of concept and structure – ‘odd’ in a not especially distinguished way, of course, but even undistinguished oddness can still make a film watchable. As such, The Medusa Touch just about qualifies.

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Is there a dodgier proposition in the whole of movie-dom than the double-duty sequel? I speak of when film-makers, usually to prop up flagging franchises, decide to continue the ongoing story from two or more previous films in a single new movie, often with ‘Meets’ or ‘Vs’ in the title. As far as I can work out, this sort of thing got started with Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man and the genre (if that’s the right word) has gone on to include such dubious recent pleasures as Freddy Vs Jason and Alien Vs Predator.

It would be wrong of me to suggest that the double-duty concept is synonymous with worthless film-making, for interesting and entertaining films can result – many of the better Godzilla films certainly qualify, if you bear in mind that some of the Toho monsters started off by headlining their own movies and then meeting Godzilla in a later instalment. And you could certainly argue that Marvel Studios’ whole success has been built on the principle of this kind of shared fictional world.

Whether M Night Shyamalan’s Glass is more inspired by the old-school horror mash-ups or the Marvel project is not immediately clear, but this is certainly one of the more intriguing double-duty sequels of recent years. Shyamalan’s 2016 film Split seemed like a perfectly competent horror-fantasy movie until an electrifying final twist revealed it took place in the same world as his 2000 movie Unbreakable. The implication – that a confrontation between the main characters of the two films was inevitable – was an undeniably exciting one, certainly enough to make most people overlook just how spotty Shyamalan’s record has been as a writer-director.

Well, anyway, here we are: things are more or less how they stood at the end of Split, with a serial killer known as the Horde (James McAvoy) on the loose – so known because of his multiple personality disorder, one of those personalities being the superhuman Beast – and terrorising cheerleaders like it’s going out of style. However, on the lookout for him is David Dunn (Bruce Willis), the near-invulnerable hero of Unbreakable, who has apparently spent the last 19 years working as a vigilante with his now-grown son (Spencer Treat Clark). (Even after all this time Dunn has yet to land himself a proper superhero code-name, usually being referred to as the Overseer – which hardly pops – or the Green Guard, which is just rubbish.)

Sure enough, Dunn manages to track the Horde down, but the confrontation between them remains unresolved as the authorities, led by psychiatrist Dr Staple (Sarah Paulson), swoop in and rush them both off to the local laughing academy, where they are held in conditions designed to neutralise their so-called super-powers. Staple announces that her mission is to convince them that they are not superhuman but simply disturbed – and her patients include not just Dunn and the Horde, but also Dunn’s former friend Elijah Price (Samuel L Jackson), better known as the brittle-boned mass murderer Mister Glass…

There’s obviously a certain amount of fun to had with a premise like this and to begin with Shyamalan mines the potential well, setting up the encounter between Willis and McAvoy and reintroducing various characters from both the previous films (perhaps the first warning sign in the movie is when it becomes obvious that the director has yet to break his habit of giving himself pointless and ostentatious cameo parts). At least you know what’s at stake here and how the movie seems likely to play out.

Once everybody is in the mental hospital, however, the movie collapses into a saggy and self-regarding mess in the classic manner familiar to anyone who’s sat through the collected works of M Night Shyamalan. Shyamalan seems to assume that everyone else will find his characters as intrinsically fascinating as he does, and the result is many windy scenes that don’t go anywhere as the director meditates on the situation he has created. Scenes outside the hospital with Dunn’s son and the last girl from Split (Anya Taylor-Joy) don’t add much, and basically the story loses most of its momentum. Sarah Paulson has the thankless task of playing a character who initially seems to be stupid, as she keeps declaring that superhuman beings don’t exist (we as the audience obviously know otherwise, or this film would not have been made), and the fact that Samuel L Jackson barely appears in the first half of the film is also an issue given it’s supposedly about him. The actor certainly carves himself a thick slice of ham when he does eventually show up in earnest, while James McAvoy turns in another bravura performance as the Horde’s various identities – but, again, the result of this is that Bruce Willis (never the most demonstrative of actors) kind of vanishes into the background as a result. (The film also has the issue that Jackson is visibly and distractingly older than Charlayne Woodard, the actress supposedly playing his mother.)

The whole film is stricken with this awkwardness and lack of balance, suggesting one thing and then actually delivering another. And the tone of it is odd: by most metrics it certainly qualifies as some sort of superhero fantasy – Jackson’s character is obsessed by the tropes of the genre and ends up trying to orchestrate a return engagement between Willis and McAvoy – but it is filmed and directed like a horror film. For all the film’s lofty ideas about human potential and gods walking amongst us, it’s the grittier, more downbeat style that wins out – we are teased with the prospect of a cinematic superhero battle, but what we end up with is a clumsily-choreographed wrestling match between two men in a car park. The substance is weirdly at odds with the portentous way in which it is presented.

So, very much a return to form for M Night Shyamalan, by which I mean it is wildly and frustratingly uneven. Just to confirm he’s sticking to his usual playbook, Shyamalan wraps the film up with not one, not two, but three half-assed plot twists. In theory that should equate to a satisfactory one-and-a-half-assed plot twist, but apparently these things are not cumulative. (If nothing else, at least the director appears to have discovered an interesting new field of mathematical enquiry.)

I couldn’t help feeling that Glass was a huge missed opportunity, but Olinka – who came to see it despite not having seen either of the prior films – found it to have some interesting ideas about the tyranny of normalcy. I still think she is being too generous about it. It does seem to lend weight to the idea that it’s M Night Shyamalan’s good films which are the anomalies, not the ropey fare he usually seems to produce. This film, certainly, is a waste of talent and potential.

 

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