Tuesday, 31 January 2012

The short end of the stake

You and I are mostly fed unimaginative, reactionary tripe at the cinema. Hackwork is like a tumour: it really exists to no end than to leave you wanting more of the same - and more, and more - until it consumes all in its path. Hollywood now produces infinite iterations of the same basic concepts, frozen in a capitalist paradigm to which creativity and risk are synonyms.

Okay, so that's not true, or at least an unfair generalisation: while certain narratives and cinematic languages occupy a hegemonic position, alternative ways of doing cinema make it through all the time. They're marginalised, but they're there. That first paragraph, though, is precisely the sort of response Stake Land - a film of whose existence I would never have learnt were it not for idly clicking on cross-references at 2 a.m. - induces in the viewer.

Because you see, Stake Land is pretty great, an indie-horror film with guts and ideas and gorgeous cinematography; but after making the rounds at festivals in 2010 and receiving a limited release in a couple of countries, the film managed to scrape up a grand total of $18,469 domestically ($33,245 internationally). And I should mention Stake Land's director Jim Mickle was in a relatively privileged position: he managed to get a budget of $4 million, which is by no means bad when a lot of talented filmmakers can't get the funding to make feature-length films at all - or, you know, anything.

(Sure, these films often manage to cover their costs because fans seek them out on home video, and that's great. But it limits their audience to those who already know what they're looking for: the horror ghetto, a particularly insular and unfairly maligned community. The point is that you and I never get a chance to go to the cinema and say, 'What shall we watch? Hey, Stake Land sounds kind of cool, let's check it out!')

Anyway, Stake Land takes place in a world in which a mass outbreak of vampirism has turned most people into either blood-drinking night-dwellers or non-walking corpses. As the film begins, the family of Martin (Connor Paolo) are preparing to flee to a less densely populated area. They're slaughtered by a sudden vampire attack, but Martin is saved by Mister (Nick Damici), a gruff, taciturn vampire hunter. (Why yes, it did remind me of Wesley's brief stint as a 'rogue demon hunter' on Angel, but that's all the Buffyverse references we'll make here.) The two strike up an unlikely friendship as they travel north towards Canada, now referred to as 'New Eden', where legend has it no vampires exist.

Along the way they have to navigate the dangerous physical and political landscape of North America. While national governments have to all intents and purposes collapsed, many towns still hold out, armed to the teeth and suspicious of strangers. Global catastrophe has also allowed fiefdoms to be carved out by demagogues like Jebedia Loven (Michael Cerveris), whose Brotherhood believes that vampires are a punishment sent by God, and also, it seems, that one should be awful to everyone for no reason. (Post-doomsday cults are always called the Brotherhood. Remember that the next time you're in the wasteland stuck for something to do, and decide to start your own new religious movement. Also, child brides. Gotta have those.) For company and protection, Martin and Mister are eventually joined by a Catholic nun (Kelly McGillis), a pregnant singer (Danielle Harris), and an ex-marine (Sean Nelson).

The film's strongest element are the astonishing visuals. It's easy to compare Stake Land to Zombieland, another film about a ragtag bunch of strangers on a roadtrip through a post-apolyptic America swarming with hungry ex-people. But the films couldn't be more different. It's not just that Zombieland is a comedy. While not ugly, Z-Land is ultimately filmed in a fairly straightforward point-and-shoot way. Mickle and cinematographer Ryan Samul, by contrast, deliver one carefully composed image of striking gorgeousness after another:

Stake Land's vampires are magnificently ugly beasts. Largely unintelligent  - they hunt in packs, but are incapable of speech and easy to trap - they most closely resemble the nosferatu of Vampire: The Masquerade, or indeed their silent-film progenitor. Brutal killing machines, they share none of the deceptive simulation of human beings that usually makes vampire fascinating.

Well, there's a reason for that. The script, written by the director and co-star Nick Damici, is a bit undecided on what it wants to be, but either way isn't really interested in vampires. They exist primarily as a backdrop to explore how society would respond to near-total collapse of its structures, and what that tells us about human beings. It's ultimately hopeful: yes, some people do become homicidal fanatics, but most learn to take a pure joy in each other amid the utter horror that is Vampireland. (Proceeding purely from theme rather than what its monster is called, that makes Stake Land a zombie film, but let's not quibble.)

The simple plot - moving north, avoiding trouble - allows the filmmakers to take us through a variety of post-apocalyptic communities, showing new societies arising in the wake of disaster. Hence, I think, the beauty. As a wacky mixture of Zombieland and Badlands with a dash of Into the Wild, Stake Land is fundamentally introspective, even contemplative; and since Martin's voiceover narration is mostly used for exposition, the visuals have to do the heavy lifting. And that they do. The outdoors photography of the wilderness in the later part of the film is especially memorable.

Stake Land is unfortunately let down by a weak villain. I don't think that's Michael Cerveris's fault: with a script so eager to sell us on evil fundamentalists, he can't really do much. I'm always perplexed by the portrayal of fundamentalist Christians in films. See, I disagree with the loony fringe of my faith when I meet them, but it seems like Hollywood screenwriters have never met a Christian, fundamentalist or otherwise, and just sort of assume they must be mad and eat babies. So again, I could be offended by the way Mickle and Damici caricature Christianity, but really the Brotherhood does not resemble anything existing in the real world - and there's no reason it should: a catastrophe of the scale portrayed here would certainly change the contours of mainstream Christianity and spawn a plethora of cults.

Connor Paolo turns in a sensitive performance in a thankless role: as the audience substitute, his job is mostly to observe and react to Damici. Shorter than Taylor Momsen - who's three years his junior- during their Gossip Girl days, he looks too slight and adolescent to break into leading-man roles anytime soon, but he's a talented actor. Damici - a poor man's Josh Brolin by looks - is pretty much pure awesome, while Danielle Harris is left a bit stranded (she was originally to be Damici's love interest, but her youthful appearance scuppered that storyline).

With beautiful cinematography, engaging characters and a streak of humour (says one character of a vampire who regularly forages near her house: 'It's Walter again. I went to high school with him, and I haven't been able to get a clean shot. He's such an asshole.'), Stake Land is definitely worth your while. It's by no means purely original, but as a synthesis of concepts it brilliantly breaks some of the patterns we're used to in vampire films. It's ironic that there should be a real renaissance of creativity in the genre at the same time as Twilight is raking in the cash, but c'est la vie.

Sunday, 29 January 2012

Redemption day

There is a train that's heading straight
To heaven's gate, to heaven's gate
And on the way, child and man,
And woman wait, watch and wait
For redemption day

It's buried in the countryside

It's exploding in the shells at night
It's everywhere a baby cries
Sheryl Crow's 'Redemption Day' is one of the most beautiful poetic summaries of Christianity I've ever encountered. Being a Christian is living in the hope that one day, every tear will be wiped from every eye; and that hope is confirmed by Jesus' resurrection, proving that he prevailed over darkness and set the captives free.

And that's a hope far better than that of the Religious Right, who merely expect that their super-buddy Christ will come and kill everyone they dislike with fire. Why be satisfied with that?

Totally swamped

Hatchet wasn't really a horror film. It was horrible, but that's not the same thing. Tasteless, poorly written and indifferently shot, Hatchet thoroughly failed to be a loving throwback, unless accurately recreating the worst inanities of the Friday the 13th franchise counts as success. In boasting that it was not a sequel, a remake or based on a Japanese film, Hatchet only made us wish we were watching any one of those things instead.

It's something of a surprise, then, that Hatchet II is an improvement over its predecessor in almost every department. It's still not a good film, but it's an acceptable way to waste an hour and a half. That has nothing to do with director Adam Green's decision to release the film without a rating: the over-the-top gore remains the worst aspect of the franchise. No, Green gets the job done with old-fashioned good writing and casting. But we'll get to that.

The film opens where Hatchet ended, with Marybeth (Danielle Harris, replacing Tamara Feldman) being attacked by Victor Crowley (Kane Hodder). She escapes his undead grip by poking out his eye and flees the swamp, the only survivor of Crowley's murder spree. She's picked up by Jack Cracker (John Carl Buechler), who throws her out when he realises whose son she is, but tells her to see Reverend Zombie in New Orleans. After Marybeth is gone, Crowley attacks Cracker and strangles him with his own intestine.

After the credits, Green transports us back to New Orleans, where an incredibly tasteless establishing shot of someone vomiting on the pavement reminds us it's the day after Mardi Gras. Marybeth drops by the voodoo shop of Reverend Zombie (Tony Todd, promoted from a cameo in the first film), who eventually agrees to take her back to Crowley's cabin so she can retrieve the bodies of her father and brother. Zombie insists, though, that Marybeth bring a family member along, while he'll assemble a team to go into the swamp that same night.

The cast duly return to the swamp by boat. Once on land, they split up into several teams of expendable meat plus a central group of five. The former are nought but bodycount padding, and I shan't bother to list their names, personalities of varying obnoxiousness, or their gory deaths. The latter consist of Marybeth, Reverend Zombie, badass middle-aged biker Trent (R.A. Mihailoff), Marybeth's uncle Bob (Tom Holland) and Justin (Parry Shen), the twin brother of Shawn, the previous night's tour guide. Marybeth soon finds out that Reverend Zombie has a sinister plan. It turns out that the three children who killed Victor Crowley were Marybeth's father Sampson, her uncle, and Trent. Zombie hopes that by killing these three Crowley will at last complete his revenge and find peace, leaving the long-forbidden swamp to Zombie's control (or something).

This plot twist means that Hatchet II has far higher stakes than the first film, where Marybeth was merely looking for her father and brother (who we already knew were dead). The element of uncertainty and suspense - will Crowley kill Trent and Bob? will the curse be ended? what of Reverend Zombie's nefarious schemes? - makes the film much more emotionally satisfying than the original's simple-minded 'meat enter swamp & die' schema. It's still full of shameless padding, though: Victor Crowley begins carving the meat 54 minutes into an 85-minute film. Before that, it's mostly inane drama about characters we know will not live long.

Aside from the peripheral meat, the characters themselves are much better drawn and acted. Todd's venal, theatrical performance is one-note, but it's an enjoyable note, while Holland and Mihailoff take sketchily drawn characters and turn them into full human beings (well, full slasher archetypes, but you know what I mean). Harris is better than Feldman, but mostly it's just damn amazing to see Danielle Harris, one of the great scream queens of the modern era (she's done four Halloween films, remember, the same number as Jamie Lee Curtis), get an absolutely terrific final shot that threatens for the briefest of moments to elevate Hatchet II to 'good', before we remember what came before.

It looks better, too: Will Barratt's daytime cinematography is superior to the nighttime equivalent thereof, although the latter, too, is improved. It's ridiculously, implausibly gory, with far more actual hatcheting than the first film. I'm no gorehound, but I've seen enough slasher films to know that a master like Tom Savini would laugh at the practical effects in the Hatchet franchise. That, of course, still seems to be the intention: to make us laugh. As it is, Hatchet II still isn't all that enjoyable, although a greatly improved sequel. On the current trajectory, it almost makes you look forward to Hatchet III, coming out this year - almost.

In this series: Hatchet (2006) | Hatchet II (2010)

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Viva Bava, Part 5: Cutting-edge fashion

After pushing the boundaries of Gothic horror to new and disturbing places with Black Sabbath and The Whip and the Body, Mario Bava wasted no time in returning to the new subgenre he had created. Blood and Black Lace (Sei donne per l'assassino), though in several ways a worse film than The Girl Who Knew Too Much, distilled all the distinctive elements of the giallo into a single picture for the first time.

As so often, Bava's backers didn't expect or want the archetype of the ultra-stylish murder mysteries of the sixties and seventies: as an Italian-West German co-production, Blood and Black Lace was planned as a whodunit in the tradition of the countless German Edgar Wallace adaptations of the time. (These are still a mainstay on television in the Fatherland.) Like so much of Bava's career, the film was to be work for hire.

The director, though, was bored of that and chose to focus on lurid murders and cheap thrills at the expense of plot. Commercially, the gamble didn't quite work out: a box office bomb in Italy and a modest success in West Germany, Blood and Black Lace was passed over by AIP, who'd distributed Bava's earlier horror films in the United States. Instead, the film was picked up by the Woolner Brothers and released in a widely disliked English dub, to a cool reception.

Woolner Brothers did, however, bestow upon Blood and Black Lace its glorious English title, the first time that a Bava film title was improved by translation. Sei donne per l'assassino (Six Women for the Murderer) is serviceably lurid, making it perfectly clear we're about to watch a slice of exploitation; but Blood and Black Lace, ah! The alliteration, the structure of the vowels, the progression from relatively soft consonants to the hard /k/ and the hissed /s/ of the final words! And then there's the heady mix of high fashion, titillation and gore the words themselves promise. It is, in a word, a stunning title for an exploitation film that would not be surpassed until Twitch of the Death Nerve.

After extraordinarily stylish opening credits in which the actors are arranged like mannequins in a luridly lit fashion studio, we meet a man and a woman outside a mansion, discussing their current acute lack of cocaine; it turns out that Isabella, the man's still-girlfriend, is holding out on them, and they agree they'll ask her for the white stuff when she gets back. But when we cut to Isabella (Francesca Ungaro) walking through the woods, it isn't long before she's attacked and strangled to death by a masked killer wearing a trenchcoat and black gloves (actor and stuntman Goffredo Unger) in a pretty vicious sequence.

The next day, Inspector Silvestri (Thomas Reiner) turns up at the fashion house where Isabella worked as a model. The house is run by Massimo Morlacchi (Cameron Mitchell) and his lover, fashion designer Contessa Cristina Cuomo (Eva Bartok). The models become nervous as it is revealed that Isabella kept a diary in which the fashion house's various sins - abortion, cocaine, blackmail, you name it - are detailed. Nicole (Ariana Gorini) is murdered by the killer at the antique shop of her lover Franco Scalo (Dante Di Paolo), but the diary has already been nicked from her purse by Peggy (Mary Arden), and...

You know what? If the above sounds confusing, imagine what the film is like to watch. Blood and Black Lace has loads and loads of characters, most of whom never matter as more than cannon fodder and/or red herrings: half a dozen models, as many men employed in various capacities, and hangers-on. The narrative isn't so much flawed as downright broken: Inspector Silvestri, whose perspective we assume as he begins to unravel the house's dark secrets, all but disappears in the third act, when the screenplay's attention shifts radically to other characters. It's an illogical mess of a plot, and a thoroughly unsatisfying mystery.

But! That critique isn't just not the whole picture: it misses the point fundamentally, for Blood and Black Lace is style as substance, full of Bava's signature use of shadow, spare lighting, strong colours (a lot of red this time round) and quasi-psychotic zooms - which fit right in with the lurid subject matter, where they seemed out of place in The Whip and the Body. Carlo Rustichelli's string-heavy score is overwrought but extraordinarily atmospheric, while a shot of the killer appearing and disappearing in flickering light is so good it was ripped off as far down the ladder as Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers.

There's no doubt that unlike Bava's somewhat more artful earlier horror thrillers Blood and Black Lace is exploitation: the film revels in serving up scantily clad young women for the slaughter, and in the grand tradition of bodycount horror it's inventive when it comes to murder. There's a loving close-up of one model being stabbed to death with a spiked glove, for example; another is killed when her face is pressed against a burning furnace, while a third is drowned in the bath and then has her wrists slashed to suggest suicide, which gives us the above image of horrid loveliness.

It's quite shockingly violent for 1964, far more so than The Girl Who Knew Too Much, and sexually suggestive to boot: one girl is suffocated wearing her nightgown, and the way the scene is filmed and acted her death throes might as well be sexual ecstasy - which puts the viewer into an uncomfortable perspective, to say the least. The acting is, all in all, mostly functional, although Bartok knocks the rest of the cast into a hat.

At one point, Inspector Silvestri and his colleagues discuss what drives the killer. They turn out to be wrong, but the question is symptomatic of something Bava's films ask time and again: why murder? Because it's beautiful, the giallo answers disconcertingly. The look of the subgenre - black gloves, trenchcoats, gleaming blades, dead bodies draped in an aesthetic, even titillating fashion: the visual vocabulary that renders the viewer complicit in the horrors depicted first blossomed in Blood and Black Lace. If the film isn't perfect - not even, perhaps, good - it nonetheless proved sufficiently compelling to inspire legions of imitators.

Friday, 27 January 2012

The hard goodbye

In a fit of marketing genius, the powers that be decided to advertise Blue Valentine as 'a love story'. They're right. It's the story of a love: an account of Cindy and Dean meeting, striking up a relationship, having a baby and destroying their marriage beyond belief and hope. It is not, then, romantic in the usual sense, but neither am I prepared to call it nihilistic.

When we're introduced to Cindy (Michelle Williams), Dean (Ryan Gosling), it's pretty clear their marriage is on the rocks: during breakfast, Dean is goofing around with their daughter Frankie (Faith Wladyka) while Cindy does all the work, his childish behaviour a form of aggression against her by claiming Frankie. Later, Cindy finds the family dog dead after being hit by a car; Dean is unwilling to give her the comfort she needs, suggesting instead a night at a sleazy sex motel.

Blue Valentine goes back and forth between the present - just two days, in which the relationship suffers a final, catastrophic and irrevocable breakdown - and the story, over several months, of the beginnings of their love. Dean, working at a moving company, meets Cindy when she visits her grandmother at a retirement home, and she's eventually swayed by his happy-go-lucky ways.

Those chronologically early scenes are so much indie rom-com cliché, but of course there's a horrid twist. Watching the relationship blossom is gut-wrenching not just because we know it won't work out, but also because we realise that the very qualities that endear them to one another will end up tearing them apart. Both are recognisably the same people a few years later, but they're using their personalities - his ostentatious relaxed slackerdom, her controlled, anxious fretting - to attack each other.

Dean comes off as very much the worse of the two, not just because his romantic comedy antics cause trouble for Cindy, but because director Derek Cianfrance gives Gosling a number of traits that tend to scream 'bad guy', at least in the chronologically later portion of the picture: he's balding, wears wifebeaters and sunglasses, smokes, and is sliding into alcoholism. He seems responsible for most of their problems, his sense of inadequacy projected into aggressively twisting her words. Dean is, in a word, pretty much awful throughout.

Cianfrance's achievement lies in not making Blue Valentine a simple story of a long-suffering woman and her terrible husband. Thanks to the writing and Gosling's performance, Dean is never less than a complete human being, and so we empathise with him even in his worst moments: by pretending concern for Frankie's welfare, he instrumentalises their daughter to guilt-trip Cindy into staying with him, and it is despicable, but also pathetic - and I suppose quite a lot of people actually do this, which makes it sadder still.

The direction is increasingly inventive as the film moves along, using a lot of handheld camerawork for an unsettled aesthetic, and a number of shots that are cold, sad and brutal, but still beautiful: Cindy stepping over Dean, who's sleeping on the floor; or the two of them talking to each other through a window from an angle Cianfrance chooses to make sure we only see Cindy's reflection, so they seem not to be looking at each other.

As shot by Andrij Parekh, Blue Valentine looks exactly like old family photos - beautiful, sure, but it communicates visually that all this story is told in the past tense, doomed to an unhappy ending. The film's most heartbreaking scene is set in the back of a bus, when Dean ventures 'let's be a family' after the pregnant Cindy has decided not to have an abortion. It's a beginning, but it is also Janus-faced, pointing to that moment - inserted not soon after - when the family begun in tears and laughter falls apart forever.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

'Cut Ties' (Justified, Season 3, Episode 2)

From the beginning, Justified has struggled somewhat with integrating supporting players. I don't mean guest stars - virtually without exception, they've been exceedingly well-cast and thoroughly written. It's part of the regular cast that's been let down so far. The writers have gradually amended that - witness Ava's reincarnation as a badass crimelady - but there are still some weak spots: Winona first and foremost, but Raylan's colleagues are not far behind. By and large, they don't do much and we don't know much about them.

Well, 'Cut Ties' finally puts some meat on them bones. In the A-plot, Rachel and Art are both given a chance to shine after Bill Nichols (Michael Harding), a Marshal in charge of the Witness Protection programme in eastern Kentucky, is found murdered and Raylan's colleagues have to secure Nichols's charges. (Tim is for some reason not in the episode.) Raylan, meanwhile, teams up with his ex-girlfriend Karen Goodall (Carla Gugino), now a Deputy Director, to question a mob boss who may be involved in the murder. In the B-plot Boyd, still in prison, tries to get to Dickie Bennett to force the whereabouts of Mags's money out of him.

Art - a reliable presence on the show, but not seen in the field much so far - gets seriously dark this episode. After realising that the 'witness' he's supposed to protect murdered Nichols, Art goes medieval on his ass, beating information out of the suspect in a way that I found quite cringeworthy. I expect this sort of thing from Raylan - who is, after all, 'a lousy marshal but a good lawman' - but seeing the usually by-the-book Art cross the line in this way was shocking. Effective, but shocking. It helps that the perp is so unlikeable, but I like pretending that at least in TV-land, the authorities are there to help and protect us. Rachel, too, is improved as a character just by acting capably and professionally.

The addition of Gugino to the episode is a little strange: she's decidedly underused, which is a shame considering Carla Gugino is super-awesome. I don't just mean that I've seen Sin City, take from that what you will, but that Gugino is always a charismatic presence. It'd be a shame if Karen Goodall didn't return - her arc in this episode alone feels weirdly incomplete. As for Raylan, I really like his rekindled relationship with Winona. Not just because unlike a lot of people I don't feel Winona held on to the Idiot Ball throughout Season Two, but because it allows Raylan to develop as a character, as he has to think about becoming a father and steady partner. So I haven't at all got tired of the 'maybe we should find a new place' subplot yet.

Then there's Boyd, who provokes some African-American inmates in an amusing scene just to be put into solitary confinement, where he can get to Dickie. Boyd's menacing of Dickie - and his encounter with the newly-awesome Ava upon being released - clue us in that we're dealing with a more ruthless, less affable Boyd Crowder this season. But the revelation that Mags's money is held by Limehouse (Mykelti Williamson), a criminal who's revealed to be quite vicious in the episode's final scene, means they're facing quite a challenge.

All in all, I like how the pieces are falling into place. Season Three is more multipolar than Season Two - which rightly focused on the mesmerising Margo Martindale as Mags Bennett - but the larger number of players is shaping up to be a good thing. Bring on Episode 3.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Just Roman around

The ancient epic revived by Gladiator collapsed under its own weight after Alexander, Troy and Kingdom of Heaven bored, bothered and bewildered audiences in 2004-5. It's no coincidence that semi-legendary director Ridley Scott should have been the genre's father as well as its gravedigger: at its height it attracted talent and money of a kind otherwise only seen in comic-book adaptations.

To all appearances the ancient epic was dead, but green shoots soon appeared. 300 proved that classical antiquity could still sell tickets, and the film's basic ingredients - a middling budget, a relatively junior director, over-the-top masculinity - became the building blocks of the revived revived classical picture. No longer epics but mid-range action-adventure flicks, films like Pathfinder, Clash of the Titans and Conan the Barbarian have not yet stopped making money.

Excepting 300, there hasn't yet been a single good film in the subgenre. Sadly Centurion proves no exception to this rule, but the film's thorough failure is especially frustrating considering its potential. Let's quickly run through the factors that ought to make Centurion utterly awesome. It was directed by Neil Marshall, he of The Descent (which, to my enduring shame, I haven't seen); it stars a post-Hunger Michael Fassbender, one of the greatest actors on this earth, as well as Dominic West of The Wire; it's set along the spectacular Caledonian frontier of Roman Britain; and oh yeah, there's the little matter of Olga Kurylenko wearing warpaint. But instead of being great or even diverting, Centurion just flails around wasting its potential for an hour and a half, and then ends.

We open with credits, and what ugly credits they are! As we're treated to a long aerial shot of Scottish mountains (beautiful in themselves), the credits woosh towards us in the most aggressive way possible; and if you like hideous fonts you're in luck, because the monstrosity in which everyone's name is presented will later double as subtitles for the Picts' barbarian tongue. My jaw dropped at the sheer atonal artlessness of this sequence: it looks like a computer game trailer from 1996, and I first assumed Centurion must be designed to be viewed in 3D like those early 80s films in which the credits seem out to stab you in the eye. But no, it's all two dimensions.

Anyway, we now get a shot of a half-naked man running through the snow-covered Caledonian wilderness, hunted by barbarians; in voiceover, he introduces himself as Quintus Dias, a Roman centurion. And with that we're back to sometime earlier, when Dias's fort is overrun in a Pictish surprise attack, all the soldiers are killed and Dias himself is captured and brought before the Pictish king Gorlacon (Ulrich Thomsen). Some heated words are exchanged, and then Dias escapes offscreen. Got all that? Don't worry if not: everything I've just told you is irrelevant, and any information contained therein will shortly be repeated.

Anyway, Marshall cuts away to York, where General Titus Flavius Virilus (Dominic West) is ordered to take his Ninth Legion north of the border and defeat Gorlacon. He's assigned the mute British scout Etain (Olga Kurylenko) to guide him north of the border. During the expedition, Virilus saves the still-fleeing Dias from the Picts. The cheerful camaraderie does not last long, for like you and I Neil Marshall saw The Last of the Mohicans, wherefore Etain leads the Romans into an ambush where they're slaughtered by the Huron Picts. (On the plus side, West gets to shout 'It's a trap!'.)

All, that is, except for Dias himself and a ragtag bunch of misfit soldiers including Brick (Liam Cunningham). Dias leads these survivors to save their captured general, but their rescue operation is a fiasco: not only do they fail to rescue Virilus, but one of the Roman soldiers kills Gorlacon's son, leading the enraged Pict to swear blood vengeance on the fleeing legionaries. Before long, they're pursued across the harsh mountains of Caledonia by a posse led by the wrathful Etain.

Centurion's most crippling flaw is the absolutely wretched script, penned by Marshall himself. Let's not dwell for too long on the fact that it's relentlessly derivative, playing like a wacky mash-up of The Last of the Mohicans, Apocalypto, and Cold Mountain; nor will it do much good to groan at the plot holes, or the awkward way in which the mysterious disapperance of the Ninth is shoehorned in at the end. (And by 'mysterious disappearance', we of course mean 'failure to appear in the very patchy extant documents we have, although many of its officers do turn up in various places').

No, let's focus on the stuff that leaves the actors stranded. Fassbender's character, for example, has a backstory (his father was a gladiator) that's referred to exactly once and never impacts the plot; most other characters are not granted even that luxury. (Kurylenko gets an origin that opens the film's largest, most amusing plot hole.) As a result, Marshall is guilty of criminal negligence in wasting a very capable cast: I hesitate to use a phrase like 'career-worst performances all round', but anyone who's seen that already legendary dialogue scene between Fassbender and Cunningham in Hunger can only weep.

Surprisingly, Marshall's direction isn't much better than his script. He's so keen on Dutch angles one might think he was filming a Bizarro-World prequel to Battlefield Earth. His action scenes are best described as uninspired (they're shot and edited in the same choppy, disorienting way we see everywhere now). There is a stunningly tasteless zoom shot of Kurylenko screaming that lovingly shows off her tongueless mouth, too; and while this is a low point, it's not alone in this film.

The historical inaccuracies I complain about, but I can live with: I liked Gladiator, after all. I like the fact that the Picts are speaking Scottish Gaelic (although Arianne, played by Imogen Poots, goes for broad Scottish-accented English instead). Sure, it's not quite right: no-one knows for certain whether the Picts spoke a Celtic language, and if they did it was probably more closely related to the Brythonic languages of southern Britain rather than the Goidelic languages of Ireland and Dal Riada - from which Scottish Gaelic is descended - but I appreciate the effort.

That Roman soldiers in films forever use their gladii to slash away at their opponents, rather than viciously stab them in the gut as they should, is by now expected; that the Roman soldiers carry the wrong spears - hastae, thrusting spears used both in the early Republic and in the late Empire, rather than pila, heavy javelins - surprised me a little, but I'll take it as a bold attempt to draw attention to the fact that Roman equipment was not uniform throughout the empire. And I rather adore the film's earthy tone and the use of English regional accents to represent Vulgar Latin.

My tone has, I think, been somewhat harsher than Centurion really deserves: it's not totally incompetent. As a dully entertaining genre flick, it mostly works. The problem is that it's such a disappointment: filmed in the absolutely gorgeous outdoors of Scotland and northern England, the film should look amazing, but cinematographer Sam McCurdy can't hack it. Instead, its wintry landscapes quote the visual vocabulary of King Arthur, surely the most dire film ever made on similar subject matter. Its other flaws - strange fade cuts, the gruff growling that seems to be mandatory for male actors in these films - are forgivable; what makes Centurion especially appalling is the sheer sad, ruinous waste of talent and opportunity it presents.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Let the little children come unto me

When I was seventeen, I spent three weeks serving as a 'senior camper' at a Christian summer camp. The purpose of Iwerne Holidays was to present the gospel to teenagers from independent schools in a fun environment including sports, excursions, and all sorts of activities. It was just like being a 'camp counselor' across the pond, except we weren't hacked to pieces by machete-wielding madmen.*

It was, however, nothing at all like Jesus Camp. Therein lies much of what makes the film so fascinating and irritating.

Jesus Camp, released in 2006, is an artifact of the culture wars of the 2000s, that appalling time in history when 'religion' (whatever that means) was at the forefront of public debate in the Anglo-Saxon world. The days of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, James Dobson and Pat Robertson, all of them thankfully increasingly irrelevant in an age where culture war has dissolved into the naked class struggle whose halo it was from the beginning.

Anyway! The film follows evangelical culture around a Pentecostal children's camp called 'Kids on Fire' in North Dakota. There, pastor Becky Fischer 'equips' children to be 'warriors for Christ' to 'take America back' by evangelism as well as fighting abortion and other forms of ungodliness in the public sphere. Directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady focus on three of the children: twelve-year-old Levi, homeschooled by his mother, who teaches him that evolution is a hoax; nine-year-old Rachael, who regularly engages in evangelism towards strangers; and ten-year-old Tory, who breakdances to Christian metal.

At Kids on Fire, these and other children are taught to be wary because 'the devil goes after the young' and to distrust secular entertainment ('Had it been in the Old Testament, Harry Potter would've been put to death!'). Among themselves, the children discuss their feelings about films and books, revealing their struggles with what they're being taught. In a service that can in good conscience only be described as mass hysteria, the children break down weeping and pledge to end abortion by political activism and asking God for 'righteous judges'.

We meet Levi again at New Life Church in Colorado Springs. In an interview, Pastor Ted Haggard expresses his delight at evangelical Christians forming a decisive voting bloc against homosexuality, abortion and the teaching of evolution. This scene, of course, now has a potency the filmmakers couldn't be aware of at the time: just a few months later, Haggard fell from grace when it was revealed he'd indulged in adulterous gay sex and illegal drugs for years.

As you'll have guessed by now, Jesus Camp is a liberal message picture. Despite the lack of a narrator, Ewing and Grady clearly think the formation of a political evangelicalism focused on anti-abortion, anti-homosexual 'family values' is a very bad thing, and I agree with them. Even so, I didn't really need the constant scare music they lather on every scene of Pentecostal worship. The snippets of Mike Papantonio's radio show, in which he criticises the Religious Right, are editorialising I welcome: it's good to see a Christian offer an alternative view to the one pushed by the film's subjects.

Even while Jesus Camp sternly disapproves of its subject matter, it's a respectful, humane film. When Becky Fischer says, offhand, 'I get exhausted doing this' while preparing for another session, it's the rawest, truest moment in the film. While I don't think we learn enough about them (which isn't really excusable, given the film's short running time), the children are never treated as less than full human beings with dreams and ambitions. Levi's worldview may be a mess of cruel lies - if global warming is true, ye are yet in your sins - but we learn to rejoice and mourn with him.

As such, the film's ostensibly simple message constantly rebels against the much more complex response the film actually induces in the viewer - especially if that viewer, like me, is himself an evangelical Christian. Becky Fischer's ministry is horrifying: she's convinced children need to be indoctrinated because most people's Weltanschauung is fixed from a young age, so better get in early; and she's worried because 'the enemy' - Islam - is supposedly training young children to blow themselves up, an amount of dedication she seems to view with envy rather than horror. (It was 2006, remember.)

In Fischer's call that children should be 'warriors' the Christian concept of spiritual warfare thus comes worryingly close to real, physical warfare. The 'Christian pledge of allegiance' one of the families recites at home has nothing to do with the gospel but a lot with a brand of Christian nationalism - something I can't imagine Jesus approving of. Faith in radical, counter-cultural grace - following an executed criminal - does not sit comfortably with colonising the public sphere because 'our nation was founded on Judaeo-Christian values' (Fischer).

Although the film is unmistakeably a product of its time - witness the scene in which the children are invited to bless a cardboard cutout of George Bush by stretching out their hands towards it - it seems prescient in other ways. The language of 'taking back America', now secularised in the Republican Right's crusade against ostensible Marxists, socialists, and liberals, is used here in religious garb. This rhetoric of national rebirth in the face of an ungodly, totalitarian government - a narrative that is a pack of lies, remember, no matter what we might feel about Obama otherwise - has given rise to the uniquely American permutations of fascism that are now flourishing at the even-loonier end of the Tea Party.

Jesus Camp runs into problems in failing to notice that Fischer and her ilk are engaged in intra-evangelical point-scoring, too: Rachael believes that churches with ordered, sedate services are 'dead'. The raucous Pentecostal manifestations of Kids on Fire - dancing, weeping, speaking in tongues, the whole vocabulary of the charismatic movement - would be regarded with bemusement if not outright horror by many evangelicals; fundamentalists, who trace their tradition back to the Puritans and disapprove of both dancing and what Jonathan Edwards called 'enthusiasm', would be especially appalled.**

The filmmakers don't seem to realise that the Religious Right is less a terrifying monolith than a collection of increasingly disparate forces provisionally united around certain political issues: opposing homosexuality, abortion and secularism, championing the military and the death penalty. Just like Fischer herself, Ewing and Grady never investigate the loci of structural power and privilege among their subjects: the power of leaders over followers, adults over children, men over women. Jesus Camp would be a richer film for it, but it remains an eye-opening portrait of the Religious Right.

*What did you expect? Being a Christian summer camp, the experience lacked the weed-smoking and fornication necessary to enrage Norfolk's homicidal maniac population.
**Perhaps more embarrassingly, many evangelicals would not be comfortable with a female pastor.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

The earth a common treasury for all

I believe that the earth was created for all people, not just some. Not just the 'right' people. Not just the people with guns and money. When there is a conflict between the powerful and the disenfranchised, the oppressor and the oppressed - say, coal miners striking for better pay and conditions - there's only one side you can be on without losing your integrity, forever. To be neutral in such a situation is to side with injustice.

Forgive that grandiose introduction, gentle reader. You see, the only grounds on which anyone could criticise Harlan County U.S.A. - indeed, pretty much the film's only feature to have attracted condemnation - is that it refuses to even pretend neutrality in the manner of certain other documentaries: it stands squarely on the side of the miners. But that is a strength, not a weakness. A neutral film about the Harlan County War would be an immoral monstrosity.

Its passionate partisanship is a key part of Barbara Kopple's Oscar-winning 1976 documentary, but the film is also an artistic marvel. After a terrific sequence showing the everyday work routine of coal miners in Harlan County, Kentucky (Kevin Keating's cinematography in this scene alone would have made him a serious awards contender in a better world), the film's story begins with the miners at the Brookside Mine and Prep Plant affiliating to the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) in 1972. The miners demand the same contract other UMWA members enjoy, but Eastover Coal, owned by Duke Power, won't budge. Thus begins an extended strike.

The conflict escalates when the company uses Basil Collins and his hired thugs to keep the road open for scabs by setting up a machine gun and intimidating the pickets with clubs and firearms. Collins is the sort of character who'd have to be invented if he wasn't real: venal, brutish, egotistical and racist, he's exactly the man you want for your dirty work. As one reviewer noted, the film doesn't tell us what became of him: 'I don't say this because I worry about the man's welfare; I just want to know he’s dead so I can sleep at night.'

The sheriff and the courts are on the bosses' side, but the company scores an own goal when a young miner called Lawrence Jones is killed by a shotgun blast, leaving behind a sixteen-year-old wife and five-month-old daughter. (This leads to the film's most harrowing scene, in which a grieving and angry miner points out bits of Jones's brain matter on the asphalt.) Eventually the bosses fold and the Brookside miners get their UMWA contract.

Barbara Kopple and her team lived with miners' families for years, observing almost every aspect of their political organisation. In the cinéma vérité style the film adopts, the camera is not a neutral observer but an active participant; Kopple makes no effort to hide the numerous moments in which her presence affects events, leading, for example, to Collins attempting to conceal a pistol in his trouser pocket. In a celebrated scene, the pickets are attacked before dawn by the gun thugs, shots are fired, and Kopple is pushed to the ground with the camera.

'Know that nigger?', yells Collins in reference to an African-American picket. 'That "nigger" is a better man than you'll ever be', replies a miner. Traditional structures of marginalisation and domination among the strikers break down. 'We done make every colour when we went in; you all be look the same when you came out', says a black miner about the thick layer of coal dust and grime on their faces at the end of a shift. 'We's all brothers when we out', replies his white colleague, and the easy banter and obvious affection between the men gives the lie to the drivel Blue Labour and the Heil feed us about working-class racism.

Not, of course, that all's rosy among the workers. Kopple does not gloss over the internal conflicts and personal recriminations that break out when the going gets tough, but the community emerges strengthened as it is transformed by struggle. Patriarchy takes a back seat when women, who turn out to be more energetic than the men, begin to coordinate the strike. Chain-smoking Sudie Crusenberry, a mother of two whose husband is retired with black lung, reignites the flagging struggle; Lois Scott becomes the effective leader before long, brave enough to face down Collins and his thugs and with righteous wrath to spare.

Even though the strike is victorious, Kopple ends Harlan County U.S.A. on an ambiguous note. As the reform movement within the national leadership of the UMWA crumbles, the miners realise they may be banned from conducting future strikes without approval at the national level. But Kopple's point is that the struggle itself - the Luxemburgian dialectic of spontaneity and organisation we see operating throughout Harlan County U.S.A. - is crucial even when it is defeated. As one of my favourite passages in Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath puts it (forgive the gendered language and philosophical idiosyncrasy):
For man, unlike any other thing organic or inorganic in the universe, grows beyond his work, walks up the stairs of his concepts, emerges ahead of his accomplishments. This you may say of man - when theories change and crash, when schools, philosophies, when narrow dark alleys of thought, national, religious, economic, grow and disintegrate, man reaches, stumbles forward, painfully, mistakenly sometimes. Having stepped forward, he may slip back, but only half a step, never the full step back... This you may know when the bombs plummet out of the black planes on the market place, when prisoners are stuck like pigs, when the crushed bodies drain filthily in the dust. You may know it in this way. If the step were not being taken, if the stumbling-forward ache were not alive, the bombs would not fall, the throats would not be cut. Fear the time when the bombs stop falling while the bombers live - for every bomb is proof that the spirit has not died. And fear the time when the strikes stop while the great owners live - for every little beaten strike is proof that the step is being taken. And this you can know - fear the time when Manself will not suffer and die for a concept, for this one quality is the foundation of Manself, and this one quality is man, distinctive in the universe. (Ch. 14)
Kopple never once abandons her story's particularity for the great forward march of history, but she does focus on the miners' political organisation at the expense of their personal lives. Considering she lived with her subjects, it's remarkable how rarely we see children or the inside of people's homes. There are, instead, a lot of meetings and interviews with several generations of Harlan people, from veterans of the vicious struggles of the 1930s to the teenage wife. 'The union' and solidarity have been fought and died for, and as a result they're deeply embedded.

Life in Harlan was hard even in the 1970s, before Reaganomics took their toll; in the film, the county looks like a third-world enclave inside the West. The legacy of neoliberalism was to bring the Global South home, globalising sharp contrasts between the rich and the poor. Kopple's miners have no confidence in government: they're fully aware that they'll only get what they fight for themselves. Call it all things held in common; call it democracy. Call it freedom: the freedom countless people have fought and died for through the ages, their names forgotten because they robbed, evicted and bombed no-one.

Friday, 20 January 2012

'The Gunfighter' (Justified, Season 3, Episode 1)

(Contains spoilers.) It may have become obvious here and there that this blog is a massive fan of FX's Justified. The Season Two finale, 'Bloody Harlan', was not the best episode of a generally terrific season, but it was still an action-packed hour of television that boldly killed off several characters and removed others from the action for the foreseeable future by non-lethal means. As such, the first challenge Season Three set itself was to get the show's dynamic back together.

It's no surprise, then, that Tuesday's season premiere, 'The Gunfighter', mostly rearranged the pieces. The show, as you may know, is about old-school US Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant), who is forced to return to his native south-eastern Kentucky after publicly shooting a Miami gun thug in dubious circumstances. There, he must deal with crime both organised and disorganised and the family feuds he can't escape.

With the Bennetts taken out, Boyd Crowder's (Walton Goggins) reassembled Crowder clan has seized Mags's marijuana. After Boyd is arrested for attacking Raylan, his incompetent accomplices Devil (Kevin Rankin) and Raylan's father Arlo (Raymond J. Barry) try to sell the weed to a Tennessee dealer, but find that since they've failed to dry it it's now thoroughly mildew- and mould-infested and hence worthless. It seems that in the medium term, Boyd will definitely need to find some smarter underlings.

Meanwhile, Frankfort mobster Emmitt Arnett (Steven Flynn) finds himself beset by Robert Quarles (Neal McDonough), a man sent by certain people in Detroit who lent Arnett a lot of money. Turns out Arnett is behind on repaying a loan, and he sends Fletcher Nix (Desmond Harrington) to come up with the money by robbery and murder. Soon, Fletcher crosses paths with Raylan, who's still recovering from the gunshot wound he sustained in 'Bloody Harlan', and grumpy because he's been relegated to desk duty.

It's a somewhat ragged episode, but it sets up the season effectively and entertainingly. It's a shame that Harrington's mesmerising psycho doesn't make it out alive, but otherwise we know who our players will be. There's Raylan, who's thinking about getting a new place with his pregnant ex-wife/current girlfriend Winona (Natalie Zea); Boyd, now in prison; the new player from Chicago, who demonstrates his total ruthlessness at the end of the episode; and there's Wynn Duffy (Jere Burns), an ever-delightful minor player in previous seasons who looks to be moving to the centre.

And then, last but oh so definitely not least, there's Ava Crowder (Joelle Carter). Previously a weak character - primarily a damsel in distress in Season One, largely inactive in Season Two - Ava was previously not helped by Carter's uncertain, stereotypical performance. But it looks like with Boyd in prison, Ava will take over the business; she establishes her authority over Devil, who's unwilling to follow Boyd's orders in his absence, in a brutal and direct way that seems a statement of intent on the writers' part as much as anything else. And it's awesome. I'm already a fan of new Ava. It seems that the writers have decided to tackle the show's most persistent problem, its weak female characters, both by upgrading existing ones and by the addition of the legendary Carla Gugino in future episodes. It'll be excellent.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Viva Bava, Part 4: With his stripes

Italian horror developed at an astonishing pace in the early 1960s. I've previously referred to just how many films across a range of genres Mario Bava made during those years. But it's worth remembering that Bava and his collaborators barely had time to wait and see if Black Sabbath would be a success, for the maestro's next film was released on 29 August 1963, just twelve days after its predecessor. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Terence Malick.*

That The Whip and the Body (La frusta e il corpo) was a Mario Bava film may not have been obvious to audiences at the time, though (nor, I think, would they have cared very much: the age of the auteur was not yet at hand, excepting superstar directors like Alfred Hitchcock). For it was in The Whip and the Body that Bava first used the nom de plume John M. Old, and pretty much everyone else involved in the production also adopted Anglo-Saxon pseudonyms: having managed to hire Christopher Lee at the height of his stardom, they were trying to seem as non-Italian as they could. It's a pity, but at least we know who the very capable folks behind the scenes really were.

The Whip and the Body is set at a castle in the nineteenth century. Kurt (Christopher Lee), the violent, sadistic son of the elderly, invalid count (Gustavo de Nardo, sporting the ingenious nom de plume Dean Ardow), returns to claim his patrimony, having been exiled years before after driving the daughter of housekeeper Giorgia (Harriet Medin) to suicide. In the meantime, his former lover Nevenka (Israeli actress Daliah Lavi) has married his spineless brother Christian (Tony Kendall), frustrating his cousin Katia (Ida Galli), who'd had her sights set on Christian. Reluctantly, the count allows Kurt to stay.

It soon turns out, however, that the prodigal son hasn't changed. While Nevenka is at the beach alone, she is surprised by Kurt, who flogs her with a horsewhip before raping her, claiming that she is really enjoying the violence. Before long, Kurt is killed when he's stabbed in the neck by an unseen assailant. He's buried in the family crypt, but the family's relief soon turns to terror. A ghostly Kurt, apparently risen from the grave, appears to Nevenka during the night and brutally whips her again. Christian at first assumes his sister is hallucinating, but when the count is found murdered by being stabbed in the neck, he too accepts that his brother must be a revenant.

Besides its subject matter - which would be heavily censored when the film was released in the United States, under the title What! - it's the contrast, perhaps even conflict between Bava as director and as cinematographer that makes The Whip and the Body so fascinating. Bava's visual vocabulary was developing at a rapid pace, and in this, his fourth horror film, he's using a whole lot of sudden, violent zooms that seem to prefigure his later work (and the erratic direction of American horror directors like Tobe Hooper). Frankly, it doesn't work: Gothic horror calls for steadier camerawork than Bava was interested in at this point, and the film's most effective sequences are among the most conservatively staged.

As a cinematographer, though, Bava does extraordinary work here: together with longtime collaborator Ubaldo Terzano, he makes The Whip and the Body hands down his most gorgeous film so far. Italian cinema was fonder of vivid colours than Hollywood, and Bava doesn't disappoint with luscious blue, green and red lighting: a sequence of Kurt walking down a corridor is downright breathtakingly beautiful. If The Girl Who Knew Too Much proved anything, it's that nobody put ol' Mario in a corner when it came to lighting his leading ladies' faces, making the most of the interplay of light and shadow on pale skin. The shots of Lavi's frightened face are nothing short of brilliant.

The Whip and the Body is, of course, about sadomasochism. Villains with psychosexual hangups were nothing new at the time: the most famous was Norman Bates of Psycho, who had inspired countless knock-offs. Kurt is a more disturbing character even than Norman, though. Where the latter kills because he must destroy the objects of his desire, finding himself unable to mortify the desire within, Kurt inflicts pain to establish and maintain his dominance. He is totally egocentric, quite incapable of pangs of conscience.

What makes this more stomach-turning, of course, is that Kurt's insistence that deep down Nevenka enjoys and loves him for his violence is true. It doesn't take long for Nevenka's pain to turn into sexual ecstasy: Kurt's aggression provides something she misses with the weak-seeming Christian. She has internalised her patriarchal subjection to such an extent that she begins to crave it, and in several scenes she fetishises the welts Kurt has dealt her, and obviously enjoys being beaten:

Eventually, Nevenka accepts Kurt's 'love', sucking the thumb he extends to her in a scene straight out of L'âge d'or, and it seems inevitable that the sex act alluded to in a shockingly bald way is one so expressive of gender dominance. Lavi, whose attempt to base a career on her very considerable sex appeal eventually floundered despite her appearance in Casino Royale, isn't all that good. I'm suspecting Bava must have been unpleasant to his leading ladies: Michèle Mercier, in Black Sabbath, is the only actress in his films so far who really seems at ease. Christopher Lee, though, is a wonder to behold: his natural stage presence would hold the film together if Bava couldn't.

It will hopefully have become obvious by now - and if not, just wait for Blood and Black Lace, but please ignore the horror IMDB have chosen as the page image - that Bava's films usually have extraordinarily vivid, beautiful posters. I mention this because The Whip and the Body is the first Bava film whose poster is, as we say in the Fatherland, a little nullachtfünfzehn (08/15 - the serial number of a Great War machine gun, naturally): bog-standard, in other words. It wasn't in all markets: the demented French poster continues to delight. This was the first time, though, that I regretted being tied to the Italian poster. Enough said.

All in all, The Whip and the Body may be the most fully rounded and satisfying film of Bava's I've seen so far. As with most Italian genre films, story logic clearly ranked far below style in the director's list of priorities: but with a motion picture as gorgeous as this one, I shan't complain. The Whip and the Body perhaps marks Bava's peak as a master of Gothic horror, and clearly the man was in a roll. For the next film on our list is what is often called the greatest of the gialli, 1964's Blood and Black Lace. 

*This depends somewhat on what release date you accept for Black Sabbath, but the most widely reported is 17 August 1963.

Whom resist, steadfast in the faith

Twenty-odd years on, the satanic panic of the eighties - the days when a sinister cabal of devil-worshippers controlled the world through rock music and Dungeons & Dragons - seems almost quaint. Millions willing to believe obvious falsehoods that, if true, made the world a much worse place than it seems on the surface: ridiculous. Aren't you glad we've outgrown such silly superstitions?

While the panic originated in America's cloistered, hysteria-prone evangelical subculture, it spread to society at large - even across the pond: growing up in Germany in the 1990s, I remember our out-of-date textbooks referring to it. It produced cultural artifacts beyond Chick Tracts, and Hollywood played a big part in that. In the growing tide of retro-horror, it was only a question of time until someone revisited that more primitive age.

After this blog ran into a particularly dire example of abject failure in the realm of retro-horror, I was ready to dismiss the subgenre altogether. That would've been premature, though. 'If I find in horror one righteous among the directors', I thought to myself, 'I will reconsider all the genre for his sake.' And behold, Bryce Wilson arose as one crying in the wilderness, saying, 'Check out Ti West'.

Well, I'm darn glad I did. West's career hasn't been a smooth progression and isn't free of hackwork, but his best-loved film so far is nothing short of brilliant. The House of the Devil, made on a shoestring budget and never able to get more than a limited release, didn't exactly rake in the cash. Barely crossing the $100,000 mark domestically (fun fact: it made just £407 in Britain, being shown on exactly one screen), I'd be surprised if the film broke even. But it was critically acclaimed, and it really deserved to be.

The House of the Devil opens with text providing nonsensical tongue-in-cheek 'information' on the satanic panic and promising that '[t]he following is based on true unexplained events'. It's a lie (which, delightfully, they had to clarify in the final credits), but it's also a wonderful send-up of the old true story trope that originated, if I'm not mistaken, with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Ti West wastes no time establishing that we're watching a period piece set in the eighties.

As the film proper begins, sophomore college student Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) is closing the deal on a new place. She has trouble coming up with the money for the first month's rent, though, and decides to respond to a campus flyer advertising a position as a babysitter. After some complications, she eventually arranges to babysit the same night, and her friend Megan (Greta Gerwig) drives her out to her employer's spooky large house in the countryside. There, they meet mild-mannered, nervous Mr Ulman (Tom Noonan) and his wife (Mary Woronov).

Mr Ulman admits that the job isn't actually for a babysitter, but to watch over his elderly mother. Samantha is reluctant to stay, but they eventually settle on the exorbitant sum of $400. Megan leaves, as do the Ulmans, and Samantha is left in the house with precious little to do but order pizza and listen to her walkman. And from there, West is content to slowly ratchet up the tension, with precious little happening at all: Samantha wanders around the house, discovering clues as to their employers' weird nature, and becomes increasingly spooked.

It's not until twenty minutes from the end - 75 minutes into a 95-minute film - that our heroine finds herself in the hands of satanic baby killers at last. But even before that point the film is so goddamn terrifying that we don't much care that the details are satanic boilerplate (Buffy: 'It turns out everybody loves a good goat's tongue. Rock groups, covens and Greek cookbooks'). I'm not much of a scaredy-cat and watch a lot of horror films, and while I find many of them unsettling, it's been a while since a film has put me into the state of blind terror The House of the Devil manages just by little details and slow, slow tension-building. I was just about ready to give up the ghost even before the first Luciferian appears.

As Bryce notes, West achieves some of this suspense by breaking unwritten rules: there's one scene, for example, in which the camera suddenly wanders to the other side of a locked door Samantha can't open, to show us the terrors she is at this point totally unaware of. Another hugely important part of the film is Jeff Grace's excellent string-heavy score and the exceedingly authentic period music. If Machete pretends the grindhouse era never ended and Hatchet reminds us why it's a good thing it did, The House of the Devil is the first retro-exploitation film to really look, feel and sound like it might have been made in 1983.

Good casting has something to do with that: Donahue is beautiful in a decidedly old-fashioned way, reminding me of Olivia Hussey in Black Christmas. In a film that is so deliberate and low-key in building its tension, a lot rests on the actors, and Donahue acquits herself very well, although the standout performance is Noonan's, who is a mesmerisingly unusual horror villain. (His wife is much more conventional, which leaves West open to charges of misogyny - domineering woman dragging a weak husband to evil - that I'm not going to discuss here).

It looks great, too, shot by Eliot Rockett to resemble an early-eighties film as closely as possible without sacrificing beauty. After Bryce's review, though, the next thing that made me sit up and take notice was the atmospheric poster, which is great pastiche while not feeling old at all. It's gorgeous and spooky, and when you compare it to horror posters these days you do have to ask: why don't they make 'em like this anymore?

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Hatchet job

When a lazy filmmaker decides to make a pastiche or genre homage, he designs it to be critic-proof. 'Aha!', our savvy hack will exclaim when a keen-eyed reviewer savages plot, acting and direction, 'that's deliberate! I'm drawing attention to the badness of the works my film is based on!' The conceit seems to be that (a) you're being bold and iconoclastic, as if no-one had noticed those films were stupid before, and (b) making a bad film is an acceptable way of critiquing badness.

It is not; yet sadly Hatchet is such a picture, and writer-director Adam Green is that sort of filmmaker. Hotly anticipated by horror fans for its promise to be 'old school American horror' - unlike those remakes, sequels, and Japanese films - Hatchet failed spectacularly at the box office in 2006, debuting in thirty-ninth place and grossing a grand total of $175,281 domestically. (It later found a much larger audience on home video.)

Nor was it at all vindicated by critics: at 49%, Hatchet's Rotten Tomatoes rating could be called lukewarm at best. Yet I can't help feeling that the trajectory of heightened expectation followed by disillusionment actually represents a sort of weird victory for Green. Recall that the respectable (and a healthy proportion of the non-respectable) reviled slasher films in the eighties, so by being ignored and rejected Hatchet fits right in with the genre to which it's a declaration of love. Hatchet's richly deserved failure becomes unintentional performance art.

We open in a Louisiana swamp at night, where Sampson (Robert Englund) and his son Ainsley (Joshua Leonard) are sitting in a boat waiting for alligators. Englund, a great horror actor relegated to roles in 'all-star horror casts' of late, chews the scenery while telling Leonard he's a 'queer', and Ainsley gets off the boat to urinate. Upon returning he finds Sampson dead and disembowelled and is himself literally torn limb from limb by an unseen assailant a second later. This whole scene is very bad, just like in an old slasher film where you suffered through padding yearning for the inane characters to stop talking and start dying messily.

A pre-credits scene in which random people we'll never see again are eviscerated already gives us grounds to suspect Green really wanted to direct a Friday the 13th installment c. 1982, and we're about to have our misgivings confirmed as Green transports us to New Orleans, where it's always Mardi Gras. Ben (Joel David Moore) has recently been dumped by his girlfriend and isn't enjoying the festival, so he decides to go on a haunted swamp tour with his black best friend Marcus (Deon Richmond). The guy who usually does swamp tours, the Reverend Zombie (Tony Todd, obviously shoehorned in just because they realised they might be able to get him for a cameo), points them to another place where they run into...

... two young women doffing their tops for the camera of softcore producer Doug Shapiro (Joel Murray)! The girls are Jenna (Joleigh Fioravanti) and Misty (Mercedes McNab), and they'll periodically expose their breasts for the rest of the film as if Green had decided to be as brutally literal with the old formula as possible. McNab's recurring role on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel makes seeing her topless sort of cringeworthy and embarrassing, but hey. The haunted swamp tour is organised by Shawn (Parry Shen), whose Cajun accent is as overblown as his shifty manner. I suppose that's intentional, though. Fuck you, Adam Green.

The other tour guests are middle-aged couple Shannon (Patrika Darbo) and Jim (Richard Riehle), who are transparent bodycount padding, as well as Marybeth (Tamara Feldman), who we instantly know must be the Final Girl because (a) she seems tense, mature and mysterious and (b) she is the only young woman to not have exposed her breasts to the world at this point in the film. Do I even need to say that the best way to point out that eighties slasher casts were generally hateful, lazily written collections of stereotypes isn't to make your cast that, too? Thought not.

As the tour boat, steered by Shawn, prepares to enter the swamp, a homeless-looking man - let's call him, I don't know, Crazy Ralph (John Carl Buechler) - hollers warnings at them, but Shawn ignores him, and the meat depart into the swamps, where Shawn tries in vain to spook his guests with tales of Victor 'Hatchetface' Crowley, a deformed young man who lived in the swamps with his father (Kane Hodder). One Hallowe'en, ill-behaved children set the Crowley homestead on fire, and Mr Crowley accidentally killed his son with a hatchet while trying to break down the door that kept Victor trapped.

Soon the boat runs aground and begins to sink, and the meat have to go ashore, where they find themselves stranded in the middle of the swamp without knowing where they are. Marybeth, who reveals herself to be Sampson's daughter looking for her dad and brother, leads the group. Before long they're assaulted by a very much alive Victor Crowley (also portrayed by Kane Hodder in Grotesque makeup), who slaughters our meat at an astounding rate, and from there it's pretty much bog-standard slasher territory.

I don't feel comfortable even labelling Hatchet a horror film. It doesn't seem intended to frighten or disturb its audience. Green expects viewers to react with glee to the viscera on display. As someone who doesn't particularly enjoy gore, that doesn't quite work for me, but maybe you find limbs flying about the place hilarious and delightful, and who am I to judge? Green also tries to wring a lot of broad comedy from ethnic and gender stereotypes, forgetting that while subverting racism and misogyny may be funny, pandering to it generally isn't.

Among the actors Kane Hodder is the best by far, even if he and the script are both content to make Victor Crowley no more than Jason Voorhees in Louisiana! Speaking of, True Blood makes the swamps of the lower Mississippi more atmospheric than Green even attempts: as shot by the hack Will Barratt, Hatchet is uglier than the setting should allow, but I'm sure that's deliberate. More interestingly, Green totally eschews standard horror camerawork - the kind that gets close enough to the character to make sure we can fear but not quite see what's going on around them - in favour of a much simpler point-and-shoot aesthetic that robs the film of any suspense or terror; but again, Hatchet is not really a horror film.

I'm honestly unsure who or what Hatchet is for. It's an excellent facsimile of an early Friday the 13th film, before they tried to shake up the formula: young people go into wilderness, get naked, die. But haven't we had enough of those films? By 2006, American horror was far from dead: Rob Zombie had already entered the scene, and Marcus Nispel's Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake had been better than it had any right to be. There's a reason the eighties slasher died, and Hatchet mostly reminds us why it should stay dead.

In this series: Hatchet (2006) | Hatchet II (2010)

Monday, 16 January 2012

Viva Bava, Part 3: Figure in black which points at me

This series has repeatedly discussed the profound influence Mario Bava and his imitators would have on the American horror film of the 1970s and 1980s, but the flow of ideas went both ways. I've already referred to the importance of Psycho, but it is to the series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations by American International Pictures and Roger Corman, beginning with 1960's House of Usher, that Bava's next feature is most obviously a homage.

By 'homage', I only partly mean 'rip-off'. I tre volti della paura, released in August 1963, is not one of Bava's best films, but though not a masterpiece it's much more interesting than it appears on the surface. It's conducting a cinematic dialogue between Gothic horror and the emerging giallo, and points both to Bava's roots and to his future; not to mention that its importance in the development of exploitation horror is vastly underrated.

Oh, and when AIP released it in the English-speaking world they decided to give it a title reminding audiences of Bava's previous hit, Black Sunday; and thus a film whose original title means The Three Faces of Fear (translated literally for most European markets) became Black Sabbath, and as such a couple of Birmingham lads, members of a band called Earth, spotted the film's poster at a cinema across the street from band practice. They realised the occult theme attracted crowds, renamed themselves, and the world was given a great many awesome guitar riffs.

Black Sabbath is an anthology film composed of three horror stories unrelated by plot. They were put in a different order for release in America, and 'The Telephone' was butchered to remove a lesbian subplot, but thankfully it's the Italian original that has survived. In that version, the film opens with an absolutely delightful soliloquy by Boris Karloff - yes, that Boris Karloff - obviously having an amount of fun one can't usually obtain legally, standing in front of a vaguely scary-looking background while discussing whether creepy-crawlies attend cinemas (they do, apparently) and introducing the horrid tales we're about to see unfold.

We begin with 'The Telephone', the first Italian thriller film shot in colour, which is set entirely in the Paris apartment of Rosy (Michèle Mercier), a callgirl who receives phone calls in which a man threatens to kill her. Rosy realises the anonymous caller is likely to be Frank (an uncredited Milo Quesada), a recently escaped convict her testimony condemned to prison. Terrified, she asks her former lesbian lover Mary (Lydia Alfonsi) to come over so she'll feel safer, but unbeknownst to her it was Mary, masking her voice, who was making the calls all along just to be able to spend some time with Rosy. Unfortunately for both of them, the real Frank is out on the prowl too.

In the second segment, 'The Wurdalak', Vladimir, an aristocratic fop (Mark Damon, of House of Usher), rides through the wilderness of an unspecified region of eastern Europe (portrayed, as it was in Black Sunday, by Italy) when he discovers a headless body with a precious dagger in its back. He comes up to a house where Giorgio (Glauco Onorato) informs him that the dagger belongs to his father Gorca, meaning that the dead body must be the wurdalak, an undead monster Gorca had set out to hunt.

The household otherwise consists of Pietro (Massimo Righi), Giorgio's kid son Ivan (the actor's name isn't listed), as well as his wife Maria (Rica Dialina) and his sister Sdenka (Susy Andersen, the name adopted by Maria Antonietta Golgi - it was the sixties, remember, and Bava himself assumed an English nom de plume on occasion). These last two seem to cast a lot of longing glances at each other, or maybe I just want that to be true because, with due respect, they're both extraordinarily fit.

Anyway, Gorca (Boris Karloff) soon returns, but he seems changed, harsh and cruel while refusing food. His sons' suspicions that he has himself been turned into a wurdalak are confirmed when Gorca kills Pietro and drags off Ivan because, in the best idea the film takes from the Aleksey Tolstoy story this segment is based on, the wurdalak attacks those he loved in life. Vladimir, revealing himself as the hateful scumbag he seemed from the first, persuades Sdenka to run away with him because, he claims, he loves her, but will they manage to escape the growing wurdalak clan? (No.)

In 'The Drop of Water', set in Victorian London, a nurse (Jacqueline Pierreux) is called late at night to the home of an elderly medium who has just died. While preparing the dead body, she is tempted by the precious ring on the dead woman's finger and nicks it, when a glass of water tips over and drops of water fall to the floor; she's also annoyed by a fly. While at home, she is haunted by dripping water and supernatural occurrences all over her flat.

'The Drop of Water' is the weakest of the three segments by far, brought down by a boring, derivative story. The other two are excellent, but before we get to that we need to appreciate the glorious ending, in which the fourth wall is not so much broken as smashed down and danced upon. The closing soliloquy is delivered by Boris Karloff atop a horse; and before we know it Bava zooms out, the horse is revealed to be mechanical, and Karloff laughs maniacally while PAs run past him with branches on what we can now very clearly see is a film set. It is one of the most surreal, delirious, incredible scenes I've ever seen in a film, and I can't believe they cut it from the American release.

There's thus a lot of tongue-in-cheek self-referentiality to Black Sabbath that I like very much - and so did Karloff, who declared his segments the most fun he'd ever had in a film. The horror veteran's presence is one of Black Sabbath's greatest assets, not just in his demented soliloquies but also in his more serious turn as a blood-sucking grandfather (the only time Karloff played a vampire, incidentally).

The episodes pretty much stand or fall with the actors: 'The Telephone' is anchored by Mercier (alone for half the running time) and Alfonsi, 'The Wurdalak' can rely on Karloff, Onorato and Dialina even as Damon is an annoying, bland disappointment, while Pierreux's weak performance dooms 'The Drop of Water'.

'The Telephone' is the most obviously proto-giallo of the three segments. There's a shot of Rosy's stalker peering through the curtains that is very reminiscent of Norman Bates, with an attending focus on the eye that also marks Black Christmas a decade later and countless horror films since. It's also here that the fetishism of the gleaming knife, absent from The Girl Who Knew Too Much but characteristic of the later giallo, is developed, and a later stylish murder in which a character is strangled with a stocking is a sign of things to come.

The superficially less proto-anything 'Wurdalak' really points both to Italian Gothic horror and the gialli of the future. The scene in which Vladimir is introduced to Gorca's entire family is, let's face it, a 'meet the meat' scene. It's basically a bodycount picture in Gothic trappings: the killer does not have an aim in the pursuit of which he may kill people (as in Black Sunday, where Asa is trying to resurrect herself by draining Katia's life force) but the killing is itself the aim; and the way in which individuals are isolated and picked off one by one is distinctly slasherish. The idea of Boris Karloff as the original slasher villain, though inexact, is too tempting to just be dropped, even as the final scene is not at all in that later tradition but rather cribbed from Dracula:
And then insensibly there came the strange change which I had noticed in the night. Her breathing grew stertorous, the mouth opened, and the pale gums, drawn back, made the teeth look longer and sharper than ever. In a sort of sleep-waking, vague, unconscious way she opened her eyes, which were now dull and hard at once, and said in a soft, voluptuous voice, such as I had never heard from her lips, 'Arthur! Oh, my love, I am so glad you have come! Kiss me!'

Arthur bent eagerly over to kiss her, but at that instant Van Helsing, who, like me, had been startled by her voice, swooped upon him, and catching him by the neck with both hands, dragged him back with a fury of strength which I never thought he could have possessed, and actually hurled him almost across the room.

'Not on your life!' he said, 'not for your living soul and hers!' And he stood between them like a lion at bay...

I kept my eyes fixed on Lucy, as did Van Helsing, and we saw a spasm as of rage flit like a shadow over her face. The sharp teeth clamped together. Then her eyes closed, and she breathed heavily. (p. 116)

Even with such literary references, it's encouraging to see that Bava's exploitation instincts were being honed. There's a head prop, crafted once again by his father Eugenio, that is far better than anything they managed to create for Halloween: Resurrection almost forty years later, and in general the gore (of which there is little) is of the excellent quality one has come to expect. 'Exploitation' means something else too, though, and indeed Black Sabbath is quite desperate to emphasise its actresses' heaving bosoms; 'The Telephone', being a half-hour segment of the lovely Mercier in a nightgown, is pretty much just a delivery system for titillation.

It's a beautiful film, shot by Ubaldo Terzano and Bava himself to emphasise otherworldly indigoes and dark blues. I praised Bava's black-and-white cinematography in The Girl Who Knew Too Much, and I'm sad to see there'll be no more of the exquisite contrasts of that film; but his mastery of colour here almost makes up for it. It's an important film: transitional, certainly, 'lesser' Bava, perhaps, but no less entertaining for that.