I slept with all the lights on last night. The Spanish language fantasy renaissance continues with ‘El Orfanato‘, the debut of director Juan Antonio Bayona who under the tutelage and support of Guillermo Del Toro has crafted a superbly terrifying movie with a number of twists, chills and thrills.
Our heroine is Laura who with her doctor husband Carlos and adopted eight year old son return to take over the dilapidated orphanage she grew up in some thirty years ago. Simón is unaware that Laura is not his real mother and has a number of imaginary friends that he talks to whose numbers swell once he is ensconced in the orphanage with his family. Of course, they are imaginary aren’t they? After a visit from a mysterious social worker enquiring into Laura’s motivation in restoring and reopening the orphanage, Simón goes missing and events start to turn spooky…
After a somewhat uneven first half hour or so the film beds down and slowly unfurls its story, history and plot revealed layer by layer compounded with a series of very effective supernatural scenes. As always with these films there is a certain suspension of disbelief – I’m sorry but after the first ‘spooky’ incident I would exit the premises at Mach Three never to return – but this is pulled off by the film being just so goddamn creepy and atmospheric. There are quite a few big fucking jumps and one sequence toward the end which is absolutely outstanding in its building of tension and a sense of the uncanny. You’ve got to love seeing properly constructed scary movies like this at the cinema where the tension in the whole audience is palpable as characters tentatively wander down dimly lit corridors and then BANG everyone jumps out of their seats, popcorn flying as a loud crash reverberates around the auditorium. Heh, I love it….
I shouldn’t neglect to mention Geraldine Chaplin (yes, the daughter of Charlie) who gives a short but effective performance as a medium who at Laura’s request visits the site and in a trance reveals some of the terrible history of the institution. This is a new starring member of the genuinely scary, genuinely frightening film brotherhood, films with very little violence or gore which is an approach which always was and always will be infinity more effective in manipulating and affecting an audience. It nestles up with Robert Wise’s ‘The Haunting‘, Jack Clayton’s ‘The Innocents’ (which it shares many, many similarities), ‘The Shining’, and ‘The Others’ to name but a few.
Watch out for the ambulance.
So, my first NFT Q&A of 2008. This was a last minute addition to the programme, flagged by the NFT’s new improved e-mail notification tool. I’ve even taken the time to fill in their on-line market research study ’cause they have some nifty prizes up for grabs such as NFT DVD’s, not to mention an all expenses VIP trip to LA for some film festival.
Jonathan Demme will no doubt go down in film history as the director of ‘The Silence of the Lambs‘ and guiding Tom Hanks to his first best actor Oscar in ‘Philadelphia’ but film nerds such as yours truly can also admire him for some of his earlier pictures such as the Hitchcock-lite ‘Last Embrace‘ which still turns up occasionally the late night BBC1 schedules, the seminal live concert film ‘Stop Making Sense’ and this curio with one of my favourite all time actors, Jason Robards. Demme is one of the guys who like Scorsese and Coppola cut his teeth with Roger Corman, earning his stripes on early exploitation pictures before being trusted with slightly larger budgets and more idiosyncratic projects.
The documentary reflects on the life and career of Jimmy Carter, the 39th President of the good ole U S of A. It takes as its starting point a book tour that the 83 year old took in 2005 to promote his book ‘Palestine – Peace not Apartheid‘ which as you can imagine stirred a hornets nest of controversy in the states with charges anti-Semitism and supporting of Arabic terrorism being levelled at Carter because you know, if you so much as criticise Israel then the logical conclusion is that you’re an anti-Semite. Fucking ridiculous. On the other hand when appearing on Al-Jazeera he blasts the Palestinians for all acts of violence, in particular the cult of martyrdom that coalesces around suicide bombers.
I quite enjoyed the documentary – it’s a bit too long at two hours but is genuinely inspiring to see an American statesman using his prestige and influence to actually effect positive change, be it humanitarian efforts in Africa or building shelters in post Katrina New Orleans. There is one sequence which I think defines exactly who Carter is – some redneck loony calls in to a Radio debate that Carter is involved in and makes the quite absurd observation that it was Carter’s handling of the Iranian hostage crisis in the late 1970′s that has precipitated the current geo-political situation in the Middle East – being soft and not nuking the area has led to the murderous instability that currently afflicts the area. Carter, calmly and coolly responds by stating ‘Yes I negotiated with Iran. I could have used the most powerful weapons in the world and wiped that part of Iran off the map. But the 52 hostages would have been killed immediately and we would have killed 15,000 to 20,000 innocent Iranians. I got them back, got them all back unharmed and not one Iranian was killed’. Nuff said.
The other moving portion was how Carter brokered the peace between Israel and Egypt in 1978. The talks at Camp David had failed and both delegations were preparing to leave. Carter had his researchers find out the names of Sadat’s and Rabin’s grandchildren and he produced signed photographs of himself with a personal dedication to the grandchildren. That sounds quite clinical but I believe the man when he said it was a genuine, heartfelt gesture not emotional blackmail. After receiving the photos both delegates paused, returned to the table and agreed to the peace accords. I’m a cold hearted cynic at the best of times but that really affected me and the footage of the signing of the treaty is quite remarkable.
It really throws into sharp relief exactly what America can do when it is led by genuine statesmen with the will and passion to direct their influence and power on the world stage. As Demme depressingly said ‘It’s really unimaginable now isn’t it, that my country would do something as ‘bizarre’ as host a summit to progress a peace plan? We seem to have moved much further away from that…’ For me as well as a raging atheist it’s quite challenging to see someone like Carter who is a deeply religious man, someone who uses that faith and belief to drive his actions and directly help others without forcing his own ideology and opinions upon people.
The Q&A wasn’t particularly gripping unfortunately as it centred on Demme’s documentaries and live performance films. Demme was quite engaging, bursting with energy and passion but not a single word was mentioned about his movies more’s the pity. Still, it’s exceptionaly rare that I see a documentary on the big screen so it wasn’t a total waste of time.
Given recent releases and the fun I’ve had with research in the more gruesome catacombs of the internet I thought I’d retain the vague horror thread running through the blog and focus on four movies by the Italian godfather of the macabre, Mario Bava.
OK, full disclosure of something I’m deeply ashamed to admit – <big breath> – I only saw my first Mario Bava film last year. Yes I know, for a self confessed horror film fan this is a glaring omission but I’m sure you can forgive me? I’m not sure why, but I always mentally categorised Bava in the same vein as notorious Italian splatter meister’s such as Lucio Fulci, Lamberto Bava (Bava’s son) and Umberto Lenzi whose films have certain dubious merits but never appealed to me in the same way as American or UK horror films from the 1950′s onward. These Italian efforts always seemed even tackier than some of the Hammer efforts and were usually so inept and amateurishly produced that something like ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ would appear to be a masterpiece of style and subtlety in comparison.
I was wrong, I admit it. He’s certainly made enough forgettable exploitation films in many different genres but his fantastical films, his horror and SF genre pieces reveal a talent that is able to transcend the genre and its inherent budgetary limitations in order to produce some memorable and vivid imagery that clearly has gone on to influence the likes of Scorsese and Lynch as well as paving the way for the likes of Dario Argento, Sergio Martino and early Peter Jackson.
So, I kicked off with ‘The Mask of Satan‘, also known as ‘Black Sunday’. The plot is nothing new – in the 17th century Princess Asa is declared a Witch and executed in a most gruesome fashion – a spiked mask with the spikes on the inside is nailed to her face. Cursing her killers, Asa swears a terrible retribution and revenge on her killers and their ancestors. 200 years later some doctors, lost in the Prussian wilderness inadvertently stumble across the Asa family tomb and its decaying crypt, fortuitously as the anniversary of her death approaches….
This is a great place to start with Bava with its wonderful baroque atmosphere of cobweb choked castle ruins, mist shrouded graveyards and all the other visual trappings of gothic horror. It was released in 1960 and the Hammer film comparisons are inevitable I guess but I think they complement each other nicely with Bava going for the atmosphere rather than cleavage and vivid stage blood. It’s also notable for being the first major appearance of the great Barbara Steele who became something of a real cult actress in the 1960′s and beyond, with her proto-goth demeanour I’m not surprised.
‘Black Sabbath‘ – This film is reminiscent of those old Hammer triumvirate anthologies in which a selection of short tales are strung together with obligatory spooky commentary, in this case from the legendary Boris Karloff who also appears in a couple of the stories.
Films composed of different tales are rarely pulled off I think, for every ‘Dead of Night’ or ‘Tales of Terror’ there are dozens of ‘The House that Dripped Blood’, ‘Asylum’ and its ilk released by the like of Amicus. This has its moments, mostly due to Bava’s colour palette and moody lighting, the second instalment ‘The Wurdulak’ actually has a freaky moment but most memorable is the opening tale ‘The Telephone’ which I suspect Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson ripped off wholesale for the opening movement of the first ‘Scream‘ – in both attractive women are terrorised by a sequence of chilling phone calls which inevitably escalate into murder. Oh and yes, this is the film that Ozzy used as the inspiration for his new satanic metal band, changing their name from the hippyish ‘Earth’.
‘The Girl Who Knew Too Much‘ – The first giallo film ever made. Holidaying in Rome, beautiful young Nora Davis is assaulted and begins to see hallucinatory images and events that may or may not be real, and may be related to the gruesome alphabet murders a decade ago. The giallo films, at least the successful ones are clearly hybrids of Hitchcockian suspense, lurid mystery and murder derived plots with a healthy dose of nudity and bloody violence. The usually have a displaced central protagonist, a foreigner abroad (the result of casting US actors in leading roles I suspect for foreign market sales – think John Saxon in this film, David Hemmings in ‘Profondo Rosso‘, Karl Malden in ‘Cat o’ Nine Tails‘ etc), decadent middles class surroundings and deceptive characters who are not what they seem.
This was OK, it’s interesting to see the faltering steps of an influential genre but to be honest giallo movies leave me a little cold. They are a little too misogynistic and lurid for even my perverted tastes, give me a good old fashioned homicidal maniac butchering sexually promiscuous teens any day, even if they both employ generous portions of black gloved lunatic POV shots, discordant soundtracks and twist endings.
‘Kill Baby Kill‘ – Ah, that old horror staple – the fear of children - think of ’The Others’, ‘The Omen’, ’Village of the Damned’ and the upcoming ‘The Orphanage’ spring to mind, this ankle biter is set in the staple Transylvanian village where a certain Dr. Eswai arrives to undertake an autopsy on a young woman. The suspicious locals (aren’t they always?) interfere with curious Eswai’s investigations as he unearths an ancient curse afflicting the village, the pallid apparition of a child that appears prior to a growing number of ‘unusual’ suicides leads him to believe that something is amiss…
Speaking as someone who can’t stand children, (they can’t hold a conversation, they talk nonsense about imaginary people, they have no edifying frames of reference and their preferred cultural artefacts – films, music, literature, art, well they’re frankly juvenile) this isn’t exactly scary but certainly has its creepy moments (That bouncing ball reminds me of ‘The Shining‘ as well….)
If like me you’re a fan of the sixties Roger Corman Edgar Allen Poe adaptations then I’m sure you’ll find much to enjoy in certain Bava movies. It would be criminal of me to close the post without referencing another one of Bava’s better known pictures, the lurid ‘Planet of the Vampires‘ which it is claimed was a major influence on the first ‘Alien’ and it appears the costume design on the first ‘X-Men’ picture.
Finally you must admire the dedication of Tim Lucas in finally producing this, a book thirty two years in gestation. Yes, you read that right – 32 years. Can’t say I’ll be picking it up, I don’t have the space or inclination to spend £200 on a film book that I would never read in its entirety. Still, 10/10 for obsessive compulsion…
I’ve been musing all last night and this morning about how to tackle this sad news and decided that its probably best for the great man to speak for himself (pilfered unashamedly from a comment on Metafilter);
’Held there by curiosity, and a growing fear of the long loneliness that lay before him, that which had once been David Bowman, Commander of the United States spacecraft Discovery, watched as [its] hull boiled stubbornly away. For a long time, the ship retained its approximate shape; then the bearings of the carousel seized up, releasing instantly the stored momentum of the huge, spinning flywheel. In a soundless detonation, the incandescent fragments went their myriad separate ways. Hello, Dave. What has happened? Where am I?” …
I grew up reading the big three of SF, a love I inherited from my Dad as my family home was littered with books by Clarke and Asimov in particular. I’ve already discussed my relationship with 2001: A Space Odyssey, suffice to say I will be having a tribute viewing over the Easter weekend, I was planning to watch the commentary on the new 2001 DVD release but I think its more fitting to watch it ‘properly’.
I was never much of a ‘hard’ science fiction fan, give me Ray Bradbury, William Gibson or Philip K Dick any day (truth be told with the exception of Gibson and a bit of Iain Banks I don’t read any SF these days) but what I did like about Clarke was his ability to evoke the universe as quite staggeringly beautiful in its enormity, hows it’s mysteries and wonders are almost spiritual in their vastness.
I hope someone’s keeping an eye on Bradbury. Final word from Clarke which I have published here before, but it bears repeating;
‘Sometimes I think we’re alone in the universe and sometimes I think we aren’t. Either way the implications are staggering’….
Zoot alors!! Ah, 1980′s French movies. I’m guessing that like me, you had a friend with a ‘Betty Blue‘ poster on their wall and a massive crush on Beatrice Dalle or Isabelle Adjani, or indeed both in my case. Predominant of the period was the so called ‘Cinema du look’ movement which critics at the time complained were visually arresting but empty and pointless texts, with films such as ‘Nikita‘, ‘Subway‘, ‘Diva‘ and ‘The Big Blue‘ tarnishing France’s proud cinema history. I seem to recall similar allegations that were aimed at the likes of Ridley Scott and Michael Mann, no doubt by the same cadre of critics who see cinema as more of a literary, theatrical model than a purely visual, aesthetic tool.
‘Diva‘ is the second movie I’ve seen as part of the South Banks European ‘Twilight & Treachery’ noir season and I was pleasantly surprised. I hadn’t seen the film for something like twenty years and whilst it occasionally merited some unintended laughter, it was good fun with a strong climax. The story centres on an opera-mad postal messenger, Jules who surreptitiously bootlegs a performance by his idol Cynthia Hawkins, an African-American soprano on tour in Paris. This cassette soon gets confused with another which is secretly pressed in Jules possession by a hooker on the run from a pair of assassins, a tape which details a major police controlled drug and smuggling ring. The tapes place Jules and his two unusual friends, a female Vietnamese photography student and, well some sort of weird Parisian philosopher into a noirish quagmire of treachery and homicide…
Considering its generation, it stands up quite well and doesn’t look too terribly dated like some films of the 1980′s. It displays many of the accoutrements of the era - generous use of neon strip lighting, plenty of reflections in chrome and mirrored sunglasses, pseudo pop-art painting murals. There is a cringe worthy scene with Jules and Cynthia wondering around a park which looks like a mid-eighties perfume or car advert but I reminded myself that the film came first, not the advert. Always remember that advertising ‘creatives’ are nothing more than cultural vandals, stripping and appropriating the visions of others from the visual (and other) arts, repackaging them into their ‘artistic vision’ to hawk their products. Fucking thieving scum, each and every one of ‘em.
Picked this up from the BFI bookstore, a book I’ve been meaning to read for quite a while. It’s Biskind’s follow-up to the seminal ‘Easy Rider’s, Raging Bulls‘ which is one of the most informative, entertaining and interesting film books I’ve read. Already ‘Down & Dirty is proving to be just as gripping - Biskind in the first twenty pages has set out the environment for the early 90′s indie movie explosion by summarising the ‘primordial swamp of alternative cinema that emerged in the 80′s, an era where the likes of Hal Hartley, Jim Jarmush, Alison Anders, Jonathan Demme (whom I’m seeing at a BFI event next week), Spike Lee and the great John Sayles’ all emerged to build the foundations for the Tarantino’s, Soderburgh’s, Rodriquiz’s, Ang Lee’s, Todd Solondz, PT Anderson’s, Darren Aronofsky etc. of this world. It’s quite rightly focusing on the twin strands of Miramax and Sundance, the two most critical facets of the film ‘movement’. Terrific, addictive stuff with some fantastic behind the scenes gossip and production stories coupled with a feeling for the industry and culture in which it developed.
You can’t keep a good horde down. Yes that’s right, the fifth in George A Romero’s zombie quintet finally shambles onto UK shores. Old school gorehounds like yours truly get jolly excited at the prospect of a new zombie flick, raised as we were on a charming diet of exploding heads, gore-strewn guts and eviscerated soldiers. Lovely <drools uncontrolably>….
Once again the dead rise to roam the earth due to an unspecified scientific accident, or perhaps as the man says, ‘when there’s no more room in hell…‘. Romero returns much more to the feel of his early low-budget, guerrilla filmmaking roots with the undead armageddon being captured on video-cameras by a group of student film-makers who just happen to be making a low budget horror film of their own. The footage is predicitably uplifted to the web as the carnage unfolds and the body counts starts to rise…..
To be honest after the disappointing ‘Land of the Dead‘, a new Romero zombie film doesn’t fill me with the quivering fanboy anticipation that it would have a few years ago. I will of course still catch a new zombie picture on the big screen as I am a massive fan of the original trilogy – a combination of films which are amongst the best horror flicks ever made, up there with all the old Universal pictures of the 1930′s, the Italian giallos (isn’t this one of the best film titles you’ve ever heard?), the occult films of the 1970′s (The Omen, The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby) and many of the better slasher films of the 1980′s and 1990′s. I’ve been hearing great things about a cycle of explotation & horror films from Indonesia of all places which I will start to track down, although I’m not confident about their availability on any format.
Unfortunately, the film is a goner and lacks any real bite. Ha, can you see what I did there? It becomes a bit of a road movie as the students travel back to their homes to find their families and is all so formulaic – drive, zombie encounter, death. Drive, zombie encounter, death. Romero usually has some interesting, unusual characters in his films not a bunch of witless students some of whom, it has to be said, really cannot act. There is never any sense of the global epidemic, of society itself disintegrating into anarchy and hysteria, no aura of terror or horror. It has a few moments, when they get to the Amish farm for example the film ratchets up a notch and you get a sense of real threat as the place becomes surrounded by the ghouls. In this sequence there are actually some amusing moments, (my favourite being the footage of the zombie clown at a children’s party which is quite perversely amusing), but these are the rare pearls in this major disappointment.
I’m getting a bit exasperated at the continual use of youtube and laptops, facebook and myspace being employed in movies in an effort to generate some vague ‘cutting edge’ kudos. If you look back at some of the films I’ve reviewed this year – ‘Cloverfield’, ‘Be Kind Rewind’ – you can see this being repeated ad nauseum. ‘Diary’ is even being referred to as a ‘reboot’ of the series, and uses the found footage technique which I’ve already discussed in my ‘Cloverfield’ review. Give. It. A. Rest. It’s all a bit like watching your Grandad dance to the Arctic Monkeys – embarrassing and just not right. It’s not edgy, it’s not hip, it’s mainstream and boring now.
Chronologically, Romero’s zombie films have examined racism, consumerism, vivisection and slavery, the War on Terror and ideological insanity and I suppose there is some sort of message about contemporary USA hidden amongst the corpses. It makes much of the fact that the authorities are suppressing details about the outbreak and only through social networking sites can the truth be revealed – so, governments lie to their populace? Well hell, I’ve got a newsflash for you - this is not news. It all ends on a terrible line of dialogue, much to the effect of ‘but hey, who are the real monsters? Do we really deserve to be saved?’ Sixth form stuff Mr. Romero, grade D-….
Probably the one thing I can thank for the film was the enormous fun I had researching the links. I stumbled across this gem which is a series of programmes that was essential viewing for a budding cult film fan back in 1980′s. Due to an almighty trademark cock-up the original ‘Night’ is in the public domain and can be seen here - ‘they’re coming to get you Barbara….look, there’s one of them now’ is a great moment. I should also recommend this which takes much the same premise as ‘Diary’, a zombie outbreak, student film makers and a verite approach, except this time set in the UK. It was released last year and is OK, worth a look. One horror film I am looking forward to this year is ‘The Orphanage‘, a spooky Spanish little number that has already been getting strong reviews.
The BFI are hosting a European Film Noir season at the moment, the centrepiece of which is an extended run and new print of ‘The Conformist‘, Bernardo Bertolucci’s influential 1970′s Italian thriller. I’ve heard the film referred to as ‘The Velvet Underground of film’ in that whilst it was not a big hit at the box office or with audiences, it influenced dozens of aspiring film-makers to take the plunge with their own movies in much the same way that the Velvets kick-started and influenced many great bands. The film went down a storm with the 70′s Hollywood Brats, Coppola even hired Vittorio Storaro as his camera man on ‘Apocalypse Now’ on the strength of ‘The Conformist’. So, what’s it like on the big screen?
In a murky late 1930′s Italy we are introduced to Clerici, an aspiring fascist who has a desperate need to be accepted, to conform. He marries not for love or lust, but merely because it is the ‘done’ thing and lets him blend into veneer of respectable society. As the film begins he is despatched to Paris to assassinate his former teacher, a communist whose academic damnation of the fascist movement is becoming problematic. Using his honeymoon to cloak his murderous intent, we soon learn that Clerici’s troubles stem from an unfortunate sexual incident in his youth, an experience that still haunts the adult Clerici and dictates his psychological failings and political corruption.
I have seen the film a couple of times on video and admired the look and style of the film, if not the plot and story. Seeing it on the big screen has not changed my views, I can see why it was so influential but it just doesn’t grab me in any emotional way. It’s like ‘Citizen Kane‘ a film whose technical achievements are immense, a true turning point in the development of film, but you don’t in any way feel anything for Kane, you don’t have any emotional investment that you have in the protagonists and heroes in films like ‘Vertigo’, ‘The 400 Blows’, ‘Bicycle Thieves’, ‘A Matter of Life and Death’, well, I could go on. Nevertheless, the design and photography is stunning and it is quite a bleak character portrait with no comfort, no consolation.
It does have one of those almost cliched 60/70′s art house cinema moments – Clerici is confronted by a female character who has guessed at the true nature of his mission and she yells at him, calling him ‘A worm, a traitor, a Judas’. She then turns quiet, strips naked to the waist, walks toward him and whispers ‘Kiss me’. I mean, what the fuck? What’s all that about? I mean, unless Bertolucci’s trying to say something about women being mental or he’s….ah…actually I think we’ve just cracked that one.