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Posts Tagged ‘Michael Smiley’

A bit of a landmark for me recently, as for the first time ever I found myself watching a movie which was executive-produced by someone who once wrote me a letter. Hey, it’s not much, but it’s noteworthy for me at least. The person in question is the writer and critic Kim Newman, who – in addition to being a brilliant author and critic, a snappy dresser, and (according to Neil Gaiman, at least) the inspiration for Pinhead in Hellraiser – is a man who seems to be meticulous about replying to his fan mail. (An inspiration to us all.)

Given that Newman is an authority on the horror genre and has probably watched more bargain-basement films of that type than any other person in history, it should not come as a great surprise that the first movie he’s actually been involved in is… a rom-com. No, hah, it’s a horror movie, of course: Prano Bailey-Bond’s Censor.

The film is set in the early 1980s, with the UK in the grip of industrial unrest, the scourge of Thatcherism, and a moral panic about video nasties – the boom in VHS home entertainment also being underway. (There are various allusions to and recreations of notorious moments from legendary nasties like Cannibal Ferox, The Driller Killer and The Evil Dead: there is a lot here aimed at connoisseurs of classic gore.) Doing her bit to shield the public from the worst of this sort of thing is Enid (Niamh Algar), working – we are invited to assume – at the British Board of Film Classification, where her punctilious attitude and reserved demeanour has won her few friends amongst her colleagues.

Not all is ideal in Enid’s private life, however: she seems isolated and withdrawn, with no close friends or acquaintances. A clue comes when she has an awkward dinner with her parents – it transpires that, decades earlier, Enid’s sister disappeared in mysterious circumstances, and Enid’s own role in events is far from entirely clear. Her parents want to move on, but Enid is insistent her sister is still alive, somewhere, and refuses to countenance any other possibility.

The pressure on her builds as a video nasty she cleared for release is implicated in a grisly murder, and she is asked to view an older movie called Don’t Go in the Church!. But the events of the film are strangely resonant for Enid, almost seeming to be a recreation of her own memories of her sister’s disappearance. Could there be a connection? She sets out to investigate the film and its director, regardless of where this takes her…

American horror cinema currently feels like it’s going through one of its phases of retrenchment and consolidation, which is probably just another way of saying it’s sequel-a-go-go time at the moment (with the odd remake thrown in as well) – the trailers before Censor included one for a remake of Candyman and another for the latest Halloween episode, while follow-ups to The Purge, Don’t Breathe and A Quiet Place have also been out this year, along with yet another Conjuring movie.

Over here we don’t seem to be making nearly so many films of any kind, but at least our horror films seem to be a bit more original and interesting. One of the highlights of last year (not a vintage twelve months, of course, but still a hell of a movie) was Rose Glass’ Saint Maud, a film with which Censor has a few things in common with – apart from being low-budget British horror films starring and directed by women, they are both about protagonists undergoing a kind of psychological disintegration, which is reflected in the fabric of the film as the story unfolds.

The first thing to say about Censor is that this is not one of those films which will have the average person rocketing out of their seat in sudden fright every ten minutes (though there is certainly the occasional shocking moment) – the film achieves its effects slowly and carefully, through aggregation of detail and the creation of an unsettling atmosphere of uncertainty and unease. A convincingly grim and grotty 1980s is evoked, alongside the look and feel of many films from the era (archive footage, some featuring key players from the censorship debates of the time, is also included).

This is not to say it isn’t a very effectively creepy and unsettling film, built around a strong performance from Niamh Algar, who very effectively loses it in the course of the film – the movie occasionally makes quite big asks of the audience, and Algar does good work in keeping them on board. It’s almost wholly her movie, although Michael Smiley gets a ripe cameo and there’s an interesting turn from Adrian Schiller as an enigmatic horror director (this part feels like it was crying out for a more heavyweight piece of casting, but it seems that was not to be).

The film’s effectiveness as a piece of horror is closely tied up with its also being a rather tongue-in-cheek comment on the whole notion of censorship. The film apparently had its genesis when Bailey-Bond reflected on one of the chief principles of the censors: that certain images would be likely to provoke morally depraved behaviour from people viewing them, thus making it desirable to have them cut. But what about the censors who look at this depravity-inducing material more than anyone else? How come they are immune?

Of course, this is itself one of the main objections raised by the anti-censorship lobby, namely that one person shouldn’t have the right to decide what another is allowed to see or hear (assuming they are both adults and of sound mind) – it’s patronising, to say the least, and smacks of an implicit elitism (the idea that some people are better equipped to make this kind of judgement than others).

Censor’s stance on all of this is initially difficult to unpack, as the film’s protagonist – and Algar makes her more than sufficiently sympathetic – explicitly says that she sees her job as protecting the general public. The film seems to be suggesting that watching too much gory horror is indeed bad for you – but there’s also something very ironic about this, as well as the repeated dialogue that ‘evil is contagious!’. The film is partly about what the source of true horror is, and the film-makers clearly don’t think that the wellspring is VHS cassettes (or any other recording medium you care to mention).

Still, the film has playful fun recreating the atmosphere of dodgy old horror films, and there’s a lot of enjoyable knowingness in the film – early on, Enid comments critically on the poor quality of a special-effects dismemberment in a film she’s considering, only for an identical moment of on-screen splatter much later on to be (deliberately) equally unconvincing. The film deconstructs itself quite wittily towards the end, and it may be that its own intelligence and subtlety won’t necessarily help it find an audience amongst those looking for closure and certainty. But I enjoyed it very much; it doesn’t have the simplicity and startling power of a film like Saint Maud, but it’s a clever, vibrant, and very effective meditation on the nature of horror and horror films, as well as being a highly engaging (and rather gory) psychodrama. A very strong debut.

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It occurs to me that two of the most demanding forms of fiction to attempt are comedy and horror, mainly because the criteria for success are just so non-negotiable – it doesn’t matter how good the acting, dialogue, or direction are in a film, if people aren’t laughing at it, then it’s not a very good comedy. The same arguably applies in more general ways too – there’s a sense in which setting out to make a niche, art-housey kind of film is less challenging than attempting to make a whopping mainstream hit, simply because the former are primarily judged on their critical success (always subjective and open to dispute), whereas with the latter it’s just the case of the bottom line and the box office take, which you can attach a figure to.

And it’s not even as if going mainstream and commercial is necessarily easy – some people just aren’t built that way. The director John Singleton started his career making hard-edged issue-based dramas like Boyz N The Hood, which received acclaim and made him the youngest ever Oscar-nominated director, but his transformation into a maker of popcorn action movies just produced a stream of completely undistinguished films (the most notable probably being 2 Fast 2 Furious, and that’s only because it’s the only completely Diesel-free installment of the franchise).

Which brings us to Ben Wheatley’s new movie, Free Fire.  Wheatley’s career has been growing in prominence, if not commerciality, for a good few years now, and his latest project sees him working with Martin Scorsese (credited as exec on the new film) – now there’s a name with a bit of a cachet to it. The movie also features a rather strange juxtaposition of currently-hot star names with the more marginal type of performer Wheatley has made good use of in the past.

 

The setting is Boston, in the late 1970s, and criminality is afoot. A major arms deal is about to take place. On one side are Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley), two Northern Irish gentlemen with strong political views, intent on buying a load of M16s from South African arms dealer Vern (Sharlto Copley). Facilitating the deal are Ord (Armie Hammer) and Justine (Brie Larson). Everyone convenes in an abandoned warehouse and things proceed to get very tense indeed, not least because a couple of the participants are clearly somewhat unhinged. Trust is in short supply, and the fact that Vern has turned up with a van full of ArmaLites rather than M16s does not help matters much. Still, a deal of sorts is on the cards, until it transpires that one of Vern’s hired hands (Jack Reynor) has a serious bone to pick with one of the Irishmens’ (Sam Riley).

Things degenerate, shots are inevitably fired, and then… well, the rest of the movie depicts, essentially, an hour-long gun battle, moving between various different parts of the warehouse as the different participants try to outmanoeuvre each other or reach particular locations. Matters are complicated by the appearance of a mysterious third group of shooters, whose allegiance is unclear, and also by the fact that this isn’t the kind of film where it’s straightforward to just kill someone with a single shot.

There is something slightly computer-gamey about the set-up for Free Fire, in that virtually everyone in it gets shot multiple times and usually just carries on with what they were doing, albeit slightly more slowly and uncomfortably. I’ve played in team games of Quake and other first-person-shooters which were a little bit like this movie; it also feels a bit like a particularly weird game of the RPG Fiasco which has gotten completely out of hand. However, the cultural reference point a normal person is probably going to reach for is accompanied by the adjective ‘Tarantino-esque’ and I can see where they’re coming from.

This is, obviously, a very violent film – there’s a consistent ongoing level of violence through practically the entire last two thirds of it – and the language is not really that usually heard at the annual church picnic. When you add the criminal milieu, the generally foggy morality, and some interesting soundtrack-based gags, it does almost look like Ben Wheatley has decided to go commercial by making a Tarantino pastiche, albeit one with the kind of off-the-wall black comedy which has featured in his other films.

Does it really work, though? Well – the idea of a film mainly consisting of a roughly 60 minute gun battle, when I first heard of it, put me rather in mind of the Fast Show sketch The Long Big Punch up, in which Charlie Higson and Paul Whitehouse just take it in terms to thump each other at very great length. How can you possibly get a story out of something like that?

Well, the secret, of course, lies in the first act of the film, which features the characters standing up and talking to one another, rather than crouching behind cover, shouting, and trading gunfire: a lot of quite subtle set-up and establishment of characters and relationships goes on here, which provides the fuel for the rest of the movie. It helps that Wheatley has primarily cast performers who are character actors rather than juvenile leads – this always remains a film about individual characters interacting with each other, not just ciphers blazing away. It doesn’t hurt that the film is frequently very funny, too – Sharlto Copley produces another one of his comic grotesques in the form of his leisure-suited highlight-haired ‘former Rhodesian commando’ – ‘Africa’s no place for sissies,’ he declares at one point. But this is a great ensemble performance overall.

As I’ve been suggesting, it seems that Free Fire was intended to be Ben Wheatley’s ‘commercial’ movie after supposedly less-accessible works like Sightseers, High-Rise, and (especially) A Field in England, and yet it looks unlikely to match High-Rise‘s box office take despite hefty promotion and the appeal to Tarantino’s audience. Does this make it Wheatley’s first big failure as a director? (Not counting Into the Dalek, of course.)

Well… I still think this is an engaging, fun film, and the weird nature of the premise gives it a certain novelty value as a sort of formal experiment. You could argue the pace of the film flags a bit near the end, as Wheatley and his regular co-writer Amy Jump run out of complications to throw into the mix (‘I can’t remember which side I’m on!’ wails a minor character at one point), but it’s inevitably slightly static all the way through, and the nature of the piece really doesn’t lend itself to huge, kinetic action set-pieces. In the end this is a distinctly odd film, but by no means a bad one at all – inventively scripted, with moments of great black humour, and well-played throughout. I doubt it’s going to be Ben Wheatley’s ticket to the heart of the mainstream, though.

 

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There’s a website which I regularly visit, fairly admirable when it comes to news relating to all things in the horror, SF, and fantasy genres, but just a little bit taxing in some of its politics. How can I describe the ethos of the place? ‘Dogmatically progressive’? That makes it sound like I’m some kind of baleful reactionary, which I hope is not quite yet the case. But even so, the view that any story must necessarily be improved by making the characters more diverse is one I have trouble subscribing to. Look at, for instance, John Carpenter’s The Thing – I don’t think you can improve this movie, all you can do is make it different. Perhaps less accomplished, but equally distinctive and even less diverse is Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England, in which five straight white blokes wander about the countryside for about an hour and a half.

field

Well, there are obviously other things going on, but I don’t really want to commit to saying what any of them are. The movie opens with Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith), a cowardly astrologer, fleeing the carnage of the English Civil War. He finds himself in the company of various other ne’er-do-wells – deserters and idiots – heading for the dubious haven of an ale-house. However, through slightly obscure occult means – hallucinogenic mushrooms also appear to be involved – they find themselves in the ominous company of the magician O’Neill (Michael Smiley), who is intent on uncovering an obscure mystic treasure secreted in a nearby field…

At least, I think that’s what it’s about. This is not a film which feels the need to offer much in the way of easy answers, or indeed normal narrative coherence. ‘Non-naturalistic’ doesn’t begin to do justice to this film’s weirder sections, but then it does scream ‘experimental film-making’ too. Shot for well under half a million quid in less than a fortnight, it was also the recipient of an equally adventurous release strategy, being shown on TV the day of its cinema release (which, of course, was also the day it was released on DVD and for download).

Perhaps they would have been less unconventional with a less unconventional film, for A Field in England is deeply strange: Ben Wheatley specialises in a particular style of deeply ominous horror, occasionally married to a very black sense of humour, but even compared to something like Sightseers, this is an unashamedly unsettling film, by turns earthy, comic, graphic, and surreal: filmed in black and white, almost always an intentional distancing device nowadays, it also features strange posed tableaux of the various characters at key junctures, and at one point cuts to one character singing a folk song straight to camera.

If we’re going to talk about English Civil War horror movies, the inescapable thing-that-must-be-acknowledged is, of course, Witchfinder General, and the influence of Michael Reeves’ film is clear, if subtle. The main difference is that Witchfinder General, despite its title, is fundamentally about very mundane human evil and corruption – but there is a sense of darker forces being in play here, and the structure of the world breaking down.

Magic mushrooms are a recurring presence in the film, and it seems to be implied that whatever forces O’Neill commands are in some way connected to them – his character seemingly materialises out of thin air while most of the other characters are high on them. They also seem to fuel the deeply bizarre hallucinatory visions afflicting Whitehead at one point during the climax, but then the whole film has a skewed, nightmarish feel to it. People appear and disappear almost without reason, abruptly vomit up stones inscribed with strange markings, even rise from the dead without any explanation being given.

It’s quite possible the whole thing is intended to be allegorical on some level – the film is structured so it concludes practically in the same way it began, and you could interpret the whole thing as some sort of solipsistic psychological crisis undergone by one of the characters. Certainly the nature of the treasure everyone is after remains wilfully obscure, and there’s arguably a sense in which the story is about discovering your own inner strength, surely the greatest treasure of all. Then again, I could be completely wrong, of course.

What’s certain is that Ben Wheatley’s direction retains its usual dark magic, while Amy Jump’s script gets the balance between dreadful strangeness, earthy splatter, and identifiable characters just about right. Michael Smiley, resplendent in a rather magnificent hat and cloak, is revelatory, and Reece Shearsmith’s performance is also just about the best thing I can remember him doing. A Field in England is small and strange, but it always looks and feels like a proper movie, and one which has clearly been made with great skill. Despite all that, however, it’s more hypnotic to watch than it is genuinely enjoyable – or so I found it, anyway. The atmosphere of brooding, dislocated menace throughout it makes it slightly uncomfortable to watch, but still probably worthwhile. I was looking forward to Wheatley’s forthcoming adaptation of High-Rise already, but this has stoked up my expectations still further.

 

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