About a third of the way through Kong: Skull Island, Warner Brothers latest bid to recapture the franchise crown from the house of mouse, marooned Second World War airman Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly) yells how happy he is that a military expedition has finally arrived to save him – ‘I heard you were coming, they told me you were here’ he feverishly exclaims. The problem with this exchange is that he is alone on the remote pacific atoll of Skull Island, exiled since he crash landed almost thirty years ago, apart from the standard issue deployment of a primitive tribe whom have also just discovered the expedition, mere moments before. His potential saviours are a reassigned Vietnam Marine unit – this film is set in the early 1970’s for no qualitatively discernible reason – captained by a standard issue Samuel L. Jackson blustering lazily through his usual blockbuster bricolage. That such a elemental disregard for narrative script logic has surpassed the studio QC test speaks volumes of this productions disregard for the audiences intelligence (who are they, exactly?), the incremental tip of an insulting iceberg, in what I am afraid to report is this year’s worst movie so far – and I’ve seen Hacksaw Ridge.
So let’s rewind a little and outline the plot, as much as there is a semblance of such things. Bill Randa (John Goodman) is the senior executive of the secretive government organisation codenamed Monarch, a unit charged with investigating the mysterious and clandestine caverns of the globe. Despite being enveloped in a mysterious, permanent storm which obscures any satellite penetration (not to mention defying the laws of physics) he has spent years lobbying for an expedition to Skull Island, a remote archipelago situated in the deeps of the Pacific Ocean, which due to its unique qualities has never been crawled over by scientists like a phalanx of curious climate attuned toddlers. So finally, despite being ignored by centuries of inquisitive homo-sapien exploration Randa finally convinces the powers that be to assemble a B-Movie battalion of character tropes to see what’s going on, and whom, or indeed what might be roaming around this Eukaryoteic eden.
Quite how you waste an ensemble cast of Tom Hiddleston, John Goodman, Brie Larson, Jing Tian, Toby Kebbell, John Ortiz, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchel, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann and Terry Notary is a gargantuan achievement, as no attention has been aimed at assembling any sliver of adventurous creation, Hiddleston in particular being spectacularly miscast as some roguish adventurer in a desperate grasp for Han Solo symbiosis. Second lead Larson as Mason Weaver, a self-proclaimed ‘anti-war’ photographer recruited to the mission also yields no internal instruction or arc, no political purchase or indeed personality, but she does get the ‘best’ line in the film when she reports for duty and a surprised military attaché exclaims ‘Mason Weaver? But (dramatic pause, scrolling through the ship deployment manifest)…but…you’re a woman?’…’Last time I checked!’ she retorts. Alas, I am not joking.
After half an hour of this tedious stumble through the labyrinth of lazy Hollywood engineering I recalibrated my expectations accordingly, as even if we can’t have anything resembling fun characters or dialogue, any graze of excitement or energy we can at least reel in some scintillating CGI and mirthful monster mayhem, right? Wrong. Blockbuster brawlers such as Guillermo and Jackson have consistently and correctly reasserted that an essential element of any monster movie is to invest your creations with some semblance of personality, a trait that is fully absent here, there’s just no there there beneath the CGI carapace. The main draw of the movie, the almighty Kong who squats atop the pinnacle of American monster movies since 1934 in this incarnation is simply boring to behold in all his supposed simian stupendousness – it’s all inertia, with no metaphoric gravity nor heft. That critical, fatal flaw is reinforced in the design of the perfunctory flora and fauna of Skull Island that assail our heroes, the supporting characters are picked off red-shirt style with no human dimension nor consequence, as we progress through a plot untroubled by interest or consequence. Sure, I am fully aware that you should perhaps check in any concerns of reason or logic at the ticket collection booth – this is a big, loud, brash blockbuster intended to deactivate the cerebellum – yet the flippant lack of quality or design in any other dimension of filmmaking, the set pieces, the SFX, any sense of exotic adventure or mysterious investigation, they all render this movie as mediocre par maximus.
Predictably the wider movie references are speared throughout the film like a postmodern skewer (including a nod to this), but the obvious antecedent is Apocalypse Now which I detected from the initial trailer and the colour palette, period soundtrack and those images of mosquito framed choppers shrouded against a blazing oriental sun. A cold opening of Marlow’s initial arrival on the atoll in 1944 is pinched from Boorman’s Hell In The Pacific when a Japanese airman is also marooned along with Marlow, a plot point which is suitably set up and then thoroughly abandoned. Gentle reader, given the deliberate historical locality I’m not necessarily expecting some squirming subtext of an arrogant battalion of Westerners invading an exotic oriental locale, raining napalm and ordinance on the denizens and arousing the wrath of some ancient, gargantuan, elemental wrath, but a movie on this scale has to be fun on its own genre terms, and on that front Skull Island fails abysmally. Once again the studios have drafted in a talented Indie director, Jordan Charles Vogt-Roberts (helmsman of 2013’s charming Kings Of Summer), and ruthlessly crushed any potential flourish or notable technique, as all must be in thrall to lowest common denominator blockbuster banality personified in the near ubiquitous and groan inducing post credits sting – see also Jurassic World. Doug McClure must be spinning in his volcanic grave, as taken as a franchise inceptor or mere creature feature Skull Island is a colossal disappointment;
New Edgar Wright, looks like he’s been gorging on a Walter Hill season. Some impressive looking stunts eh?
‘Snake Plisken? I’ve heard of you boy…(Pause)…I heard you was dead’ – Nothing has put a wider grin on my haggard face that writing the title of this beloved John Carpenter classic in the blog post title field above, a film I have waited roughly thirty god-damn years to finally see on the big screen. When it comes to Carpenter I think we can elect The Thing as his ultimate masterpiece, no doubt many fans would argue the case for Halloween which is obviously iconic and bloodily carved out an entirely new movie genre, but I think The Thing is where all his skills, collaborators and instincts synthesized to a perfect pitch, to craft a timelessly resonant work that matures with age – plus it has just assimilated it’s ultimate edition yet. For me the next tier down contains Assault On Precinct 13 (my personal favorite) and Escape From New York, a film I have seen somewhere in the region of fifty or sixty times, from my formative days of the £5.99 VHS sell-through copy I replayed to exhausted ribbons, through to the various DVD and Blu-Ray iterations that have followed since. Words alone cannot express just how excited I was, even in those fledgling internet days to learn that the infamous abandoned opening sequence was going to be a special feature on the then technological marvel of Digital Versatile Disks®. Then that was still very much the stuff of a cinematic El Dorado, a Carpenter curates cup of cinematic catnip, if you will. There has been, to the best of my limited knowledge, precisely one public screening of the film since I moved to London, as part of the reasonably regular Carpenter themed all-nighter’s hosted by the Prince Charles cinema. I was intrigued, I’ll admit it, but with the best will in the world I didn’t think waiting to see some Blu-Ray copy projected to a snoring crowd of fellow geeks at 2:00am in the morning was quite the optimum conditions to apprehend one of my all time, most cherished genre missions. My patience has finally yielded fruit, as when the film was announced as part of the BFI’s Cult of Carpenter I was certain of the conquering of a long mooted foe, and when I realized it was also going to be a 35mm print I nearly passed out, the perfect complement to my earlier efforts in the year which is pretty much warping into the year of the Carpenter.
‘You touch me… he dies. If you’re not in the air in thirty seconds… he dies. You come back in… he dies’ – The premise, of course, is completely ludicrous. In the then unheard of futuristic sounding 1997 the crime rate has recently risen 400%, inspiring the embittered fascist government to convert Manhattan into a self-contained prison, exiling all criminals to fend for themselves in the apocalyptic archipelago. Hubris has a sense of humor however, when the President (Donald Pleasence) finds himself jettisoned into the hockey-armored arms of those he has abandoned to rot, after Air Force One is hi-jacked by left-wing guerrillas and plunged into the skyscraper skyline – hmm, I have a bad omen about that. Enter our rasping anti-hero Snake Plisken (Kurt Russell, iconic), the ex-special forces legend, holder of two purple hearts from the intriguing sounding Leningrad and Siberia campaigns, whom has been is sentenced to the prison for the aforementioned opening sequence botched robbery. Fate it seems smiles warmly on our stoic anti-hero, as he is offered one chance at a pardon by Prison Warden Bob Hawke (snake eyed Lee Van Cleef) – to infiltrate the site and exfiltrate the president and the occupants of his top-secret briefcase, in order to attend a critical Soviet summit on which the possibility of World War III is hesitantly hovering.
‘Call me Snake’ – The film was the result of a deal Carpenter struck with Embassy pictures, still bathed in the financial glow of Halloween which was until that point the most successful independent film ever made, and although previous effort The Fog hadn’t performed exceptionally well he was still contractually tied to a two picture deal. Rifling through his papers he revisited his post-Watergate scribed 1976 script, allegedly inspired by the Harry Harrison novella Planet Of The Damned, I don’t know about you but having reviewed that synopsis I can’t really see the connections. So, a quick detour to a a fun fact – under the watch of AVCO Embassy’s then president the studio also produced The Howling, Phantasm and Scanners during this grisly epoch – three other cult classics which are all primed for reboots and lavish re-issues. So where to begin in my unyielding love for this picture? Let’s begin with the esoteric, as I adore opening design titles in his trademark Albertus font, and I’ll just repeat my usual point about films of this period taking their time with the titles, just giving us the cast details, as the score soothes and eases you into the cinema experience. The wire-frame filming technique, primitive by today’s standards (and not computer generated which was spectacularly expensive in 1981) are quite direct and explicit in their iconic simplicity, and overall this works as a very effective, two-minute precis of the world we are about to enter – a deft, compact, economic approach, typical of a Carpenter construction. Then of course we have the soundtrack, let’s get that out-of-the-way lest we risk repetition from my last post, as it is absolutely one of his best. Draping the film with the ticking timeline is a stroke of genius, not just the President’s world saving summit appearance but also the explosive charges placed into Snake’s veins. Sure, it’s a little implausible but it powers the film with an accelerating tempo, an audience guide track which drives the plot, a sense of urgency which when utilized effectively can make or break a project. Even though you see very little of the 1997 world beyond the Manhattan ruins it somehow feels like a living, breathing entity, presented in a comic book way of course, but still strangely convincing and compelling that genre movies with ten times this budget fail to manage these days with all their wide-vista cross cutting possibilities, all the digital bells and whistles which are available. Of course, by 2016 it is simply unthinkable that America could elect a right-wing, proto-fascist demagogue who rants of erecting walls and exiling undesirables to perish in their own slums now isn’t it?
‘When I get back, I’m going to kill you’ – The cast is a rogues gallery of Carpenter comrades and then popular character players, from musician Isaac Hayes as the bling bungled Duke to the streetwise Ernest Borgnine as Cabby, trading in his earthy drama and horse-opera appearances for another SF picture a couple of years after he’d fallen into a The Black Hole. JC regulars Adrienne Barbeau, Charles Cyphers and Tom Atkins are always a pleasure, while the heavyweights weigh in with Menagerie favorite Harry Dean Stanton as the weasely
Harold Hellman Brain, and the gimlet eyed Lee Van Cleef who underscores the movies Western credentials – more on that shortly. In terms of minutia and obsessive lore I’ve always had a test for the real Carpenter fanatics, as there are essentially two kinds of acolyte in my book – those who nod and smile when you urge them to name two Frank Doubleday* pictures, and those who tremble and burst into tears. Now, of course you wise purveyors of the Menagerie recognize him from Assault, right? He was the mute ganglord murderer of the girl and in this joint is another memorable and ghastly side character whom you can mentally spin an entire origin story around, purely on the strength of their demeanor, costume and attitude – in this case Keith Flint from The Prodigy crossed with a troll doll. The film, despite its modest $6 million budget also excels in world building which makes the alternate history breathe, courtesy of the exemplar talent of Joe CE3K, Jaws, Freejack Alves. He brought the sense of those ruined, debris strewn Manhattan streets to the actual location of St. Louis which had suffered a major urban fire in 1976, thus served as an ideal fulcrum to paint a portrait of a ravaged New York. Matched with cinematographer Dean Cundey’s deep ochre and cobalt Panavision framing this is a film which coils in the crepuscular details, the miniature oil derrick pumping gasoline in Harry Dean Stanton’s Public Library rat-hole, the black jack-boot fatigues and elongated obsidian blast masks of the fascist authorities, the now retro-futuristic signage decals, these all thread a quasi realistic world which hook the audience into the action.
‘The president of what?’ – So, narratively speaking Escape From New York is a Western of course, Carpenter’s specialism was always decanting the design and iconography of these narratives and placing them in new genre templates, with our grizzled anti-hero entering extremely hostile Comanche country in order to rescue a figure of civilizing authority, and assembling a rat-tag posse of ne’er-do-well’s during his escapades. But this is not that simple as Carpenter has always harbored an anti-authoritarian streak that runs like a virulent Occupy march through his work. In this script, written as America was still reeling from the Watergate souring of the political class and the remnants of the Vietnam insurrection the rescue of the figurehead of the republic strikes a deeply sour note, with an elite political class barely acknowledging the sacrifice of his minions – in such an environment what is a man of quiet principle to do? There are so many favorite little film moments that I can’t justify with any film theory gobbledygook, just the tracking shot of the equipment of our resourceful anti-hero makes me grin, or Plisken taking a moment to correct an upturned chair in order to have a sit and think by the burning wreckage of Air Force One, or the expertly choreographed final race against time – it’s just simple, unadulterated genre film nerd nirvana, and if anyone would like to gift me the ultra-rare film novelisation I’m all ears.
‘You’re the… Duke, (quietly) You’re… A-number one’ – Must I remind you of the presence of a certain James Cameron esquire as one of the matte technicians and model craftsmen on the film? I hear that he went on to work on some popular pictures throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s? It’s not possible to watch the film and the utilization of the twin towers as the site of Snake’s clandestine entry and potential egress without some grim internal reckoning, but that’s always the case when you see any movie with them still standing erect, even in the distant background. Technically speaking its unusual for the period to shoot in wide 2:35:1 Panavision which certainly graces his films of the era with a wider vista, a more ‘epic’ feel, it steroid enhances the experience and drama and distinguishes them with a little more class and prestige through a frame more favored by the art-house brigade. The 35mm print was a little ragged and jerky at some points, particularly, as always, around the reel changes, but that was part of the whole electrifying experience, like a revisit to some grind-house or drive-in which this print must have played back in the last century. Colour and balance wise it was as strong as a digital scan, and most importantly the sound was fantastic, roaring out of the BFI’s modern Dolby tweakers during the action scenes or prompting giggles when dialogue exchanges got tough-guy taut. I’m slightly ashamed of my initial apprehension of seeing the film in the NFT3, I don’t know if they have upgraded this venue recently but the screen was much larger than I remembered, with equal coverage and better seat pitch and sight-lines than NFT2 so my hostility to this room has now evaporated like a triffid in a thunderstorm. Overall this was one of the greatest screenings I’ve ever managed, just to finally see this beloved picture in full frame anamorphic as opposed to the criminal pan-and-scan atrocities of those early VHS releases and TV transmissions still blows my mind, and in a well-preserved 35mm print with good sound and a respectful crowd to boot – an undeniable pinnacle of the ten years of the Menagerie.
‘…..The names’s Plisken‘ – So we slither to ole Snake Plisken himself, arguably Kurt Russell’s finest couple of hour’s in front of the camera. It’s no surprise that the studio was somewhat reticent to cast a former Disney child star in this incarnation of a lethal nihilist bad-ass, instead they pushed Charles Bronson on Carpenter as a preferred choice (was he ever in a SF movie? I can’t picture it) and also the gruff landscape gardener Tommy Lee Jones, but Carpenter stuck to his guns and the rest, as they say, is machismo history. It’s important to reflect that the movie was released in 1981, before Stallone, Ahndolt and Van Damage fully launched their carnage strewn careers, before the sort of super-macho, ubermensch model of that particular phase of genre cinema had fully taken hold. You can draw a clear line from Eastwood, James Coburn and Lee Marvin in the 1970’s through to this stoic anti-hero, I see him as very much a linking figure, with his alternating catchphrase and indiscriminate disrespect for authority. As such he’s an early precursor of the protagonist with whom one does not fuck, who uses unconventional methods to get the job done, except Snake would never respect the conventions of any system in the first place. I’m sure he comes across as a laughable parody to contemporary audiences, especially with the pirate eye-patch and studious rasping voice and sneering coolness, but I love the whole cartoonish demeanor. The less said about Escape From L.A. the better, for my sins I used to defend it as having some moments of amusement, but having re-watched it again earlier this year I’m fighting a losing cause here, as frankly it is bloody atrocious. The saga of the potential remake of EFNY limps on and on, year by year, and let’s face it will be a bloody awful – I’m calling it now. If they cast someone with the star persona of Gerald Butler, appoint the team behind the likes of the White House Down then really what do we expect.
‘You gonna kill me now Snake?’ ‘Not now, I’m too tired’…..(Pause)…..’Maybe later’ – But we’ll always have
Paris New York, if you judge a genre film by the breadth and longevity of its imitators then this is one of the gems, with the American and in particular Italian schlock peddlers carving out an entire dystopian sub-genre of film throughout the 1980’s – Bronx Warriors, 2019: After The Fall Of New York, Battletruck Megaforce, The New Barbarians, and Neil Marshall’s most recent Doomsday, although to be fair some of those took equal cues from the companion piece Mad Max 2 and I’d cite The Warriors as the final piece in a perfect movie trilogy. The final word is this screening was a quasi-religious experience for me, similar to that fealty to Assault On Precinct 13 earlier in the year, and I’m so, so happy to have finally apprehended a film I’ve been agonizing to see for, well, something in the region of thirty fucking years – and there was me thinking that my bloated A.I. review was the longest piece I was going to publish this year. Carpenter is somewhat renown for utilizing open endings, we the story would continue in its own little parallel dimension, just thing of the final verbal confrontation in The Thing which still provokes spirited debate, or the dream-shock climax of Prince Of Darkness, which is somewhat less successful. Escape From New York however champions one of his best finales, we exit stage right, limping and dragging upon a defiant cigarette, as through the bleak nihilism we fade to black as a jazz score recedes in the distance, as some bad-asses just don’t care if the world burns….
* Holy fucking Christ in a sidecar, discoveries like this are why we keep this ridiculous blog going – through my research it turns out that Frank’s daughter Portia just happens to be in the phenomenally brilliant Angela in Mr. Robot, the series I consider the pinnacle of storytelling entertainment of 2016, what a beautiful connection….
I can’t remember the last time I went into a picture colder than a witches tit, just to thread through this years tenuous supernatural shenanigans, at least when it comes to horror movies. What I’m referring to is the deliberate and active avoidance of all marketing materials surrounding Don’t Breathe, as a little thought experiment I didn’t read a single social media tweet review, nor consumed the films trailer, in a vain attempt to go into this experience as virginal as possible. No matter how hard you try though the general chatter usually penetrates any measly spoiler defenses you can erect, and in fact it was the quiet praise for the film that convinced me to give the film a shot. Whilst I thought the 2013 Evil Dead remake was perfectly adequate I wasn’t necessarily clamoring to see director Fede Alvarez’s claustrophobic follow-up, until the murmuring consensus seemed to indicate that this was a darkly efficient and compact thriller, with a few perilous twists and turns which always appeals to my particular cinematic peccadilloes. Of course, this exercise puts a critic in something of an existential quandary, as I have to recommend this blackout approach if you wish to wallow in some genuine, unadulterated scares and surprises, so I should be demanding that you close this browser window and go see the movie, then come back latter, battered and bruised, to see what I have to say. There is a fine tradition of single set movies which utilize the most of their clamoring environments, Hitchcock’s Rope and Lifeboat immediately spring to mind, and there was the choking Buried from a few years ago, the Uruguayan La Casa Muda. and, well, a whole host of them here. Away from the single environment the genre backdrops to these projects emerge from the pulpy swamps of horror and suspense comics of the 1950’s and 1960’s, the likes of Eerie or Tales From The Crypt, simple, short, tensile tales with some sort of horrific premise, pulsing with some black moral manifesto. What we have in Don’t Breathe is an effective mixture of the two, a primarily single set remote house, which is infiltrated by a trio of hapless and morally questionable intruders, occupied by an easy ‘mark’ who may turn out to be more deadly than his sensory disabilities would suggest……
Our protagonists are hardly the heroes we usually see cluttered the multiplex screens. Alex (Jane Levy), Rocky (Dylan Minnette), and Money (Daniel Zovatto) are thieves pure and simple, cunningly using Rocky’s fathers security company insight to identify lucrative domiciles in a decaying Detroit, where entire cul-de-sacs and communities have been desolated by decades of economic decline. A pre-conflict context opening shows that their activities while inexcusable may be justified to their distorted eyes, Alex and her younger development disabled sister are suffering in a domestically abusive household, and she seeks the funding from the rich to flee to pastures new, while Alex sympathizes with her situation and obviously yearns for their friendship to develop to a more intimate baseline. One final, lucrative score ambles their way in the form of an isolated home on the outskirts of town, with the news of a denzien who has just been the recipient of a seven-figure settlement after his daughter was killed in a hit and run accident. Complications ensue when the gang discover that their target is also a service veteran (Stephen Lang) who was discharged after being struck blind by a rogue IED, although the prospect of robbing a recently bereaved, disabled war hero doesn’t appear to pose any particular moral conundrum for our aggressive anti-heroes. This sets the scene for a weaving tale of shifting audience empathy, with a host of twists and turns that would make Mephistopheles himself cackle with glee.
If I was magically transported to some hellish pitch session in Hollywood I’d cite Don’t Breathe as a delicious genre goulash baked with the ingredients of Panic Room and a dash of Cujo, sinisterly seasoned with the tense glass balancing set-piece of The Lost World and the grasping climax of Silence of The Lambs. When effectively executed single location thriller / horror movies can be fantastic experiences, trapping the camera in a claustrophobic cage, forcing the director and cinematographer into some unusual decisions and techniques to maintain a sense of apprehensive audience interest. Broadly speaking Don’t Breathe achieves an expert delineation and exploration of its cinematic space, drawing the cat-and-mouse game through the various levels and locales of theisdour and murky home, alongside some amusing plot contortions which might be increasingly absurd but retain a sense of creative and gleeful cruelty. One of the films quiet triumphs is navigating the oscillation of empathy between the intruders and the defender, it’s quite a clever method to challenge any notion of audience identification, expertly walking that fine line between not being too po-faced and severe, nor too flippant and absurd. When you realize you are holding your breath and gripping your palms in coiled apprehension while a repugnant thief is being hunted by a resourceful and brave blind dude it’s quite a disconcerting realization, as any normal decent person would want these swine apprehended as swiftly as possible, until some plot contortions completely pull the rug out from under your feet as the film shifts from urban thriller into pure, petrifying, scenario-specific horror.
That said these plot contortions run about ten minutes too long when a final round of conflict ensues, but thankfully Don’t Breathe doesn’t resort to some horror movie atrocity of cliches, preferring to follow a route which retains fidelity to the characters and their goals, an grip on the relation between character and genre trappings which would make John Carpenter proud. Ah, Carpenter you say? Well now, doesn’t that take me nicely into the recently announced BFI schedule for JC and while I’m unsurprised to see that no Q&A is forthcoming – a damn shame but no major shock given his cantankerous attitude and I’m seeing him live on the 31st anyway – I am simultaneously aggravated and excited. I’m frustrated that some of the films are only showing on the minuscule NFT3 screen which is very unfortunate, however the good news is all those I’ve selected to bolster my efforts earlier in the year for this Menagerie icon are in 35mm which might be some of the last chances to see some of these projected in that format given the way the industry is going – good luck ever seeing Halloween or The Thing in their original analogue format my learned friends. Still, this sets quite a challenging schedule for the next couple of months that moves directly from the week hence LFF into a trio of BFI, visits, with a few other surprises lurking on the horizon. But until then I heartily recommend Don’t Breathe for a compact, thumbscrew tightening tenseexperience, proving that alongside Hell & High Water there’s some life in the non-multiplex, franchise-free Hollywood sourced adoption of genre yet;
You all know the shivering story I’m sure, of how back in the shadowing eaves of the 20th century a couple of inventive film students improvised one of the most terrifying films of modern times? The original Blair Witch Project was quite the phenomenon of its time, an early beneficiary of viral market on the nascent net, and a clever fiction shrouding back-story that convinced the more ghoulish gullible that the footage was genuine. I liked the 1999 original a great deal, I found it genuinely unsettling with a killer final moment, all qualities which the detested Book Of Shadows sequel neglected to its forgettable reputation. Unlike contemporary post-modern and J-horror tropes of that period the picture had a genuine ferocity, a freshness which traded on elemental fears buried deep in our primitive brains, the numbing notion of being stalked and chased in the wilderness with no savior coming, of the unknown spectral lurking on the fringes of our rational civilization. Given it’s ratio of budget to profit it is no surprise that another crew would have a crack on establishing a new franchise, this long gestating sequel carefully shrouded in secrecy, engineered with a canny eye for modern marketing and internet appreciation by the cult movie team of director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett. Operating under the working title The Woods the real horror was revealed at the San Diego Comic-Con premiere a few months ago, and now the film has finally been unleashed to shriek through the multiplexes, alas for me this is several generations away from their clever genetic genre The Guest and much more in line with You’re Next, a project grasping for purchase far beyond its instinctive reach, with a fatal void of genuine terror or original thought.
Like its nefarious forebear the films opens with a grim title screen incantation – that the footage we are about to be exposed to was recovered from the Burksville woods, in the year 2014. Yes we’re back in shaky-cam found footage territory, the for some nauseous technique which abandons any primitive props such as a camera mounts or spirit levels, branded with a 21st century update – all the principals are equipped with ear mounted GoPros, lightweight digital palmcorders, multi-gadget GPS synchronization. In a further nod to modern filming techniques the inquisitive group have even brought along a camera-drone contraption in order to pierce the forest canopy, a clever plan to potentially locate the ruined dwelling that was the site of the doomed sortie’s last frantic frames of rushes. A contemporary connection is sparked through James (James Allen McCune) who is still haunted by the disappearance of his older sister Heather some fifteen years ago, and he seeks closure by travelling to the Burksville woods in order to retrace her final steps. Accompanying him is media student Lisa (Callie Hernandez) who naturally wants to make her own film of the experience, marshaling friends Peter (Brandon Scott) and Ashley (Corbin Reid) in order to stump up the slaughter shrieking numbers. After a brief contextual sequence the team stop briefly to recruit a couple of locals who are fascinated with the legend, enlisting the environmental and historical knowledge of the slightly sinister Lane (Wes Robinson) and his friend Talia (Valorie Curry) before they hesitantly hunch into the foreboding wilderness….
Your patience with Blair Witch will be largely dependent on your capacity to endure long, sustained shaky-cam footage of characters rushing through murky environments, all the while screaming and yelling for the preservation of their precious immortal souls. After a perfunctory context setting scene you have to admire Wingard for getting straight down to business in the increasingly eerie woods for the films remaining 75 minutes, but critically unfortunately any genuine chills are largely absent from this increasingly redundant sequel. Like may sequels it is a greatest hits revamp of the originals increasing desperation – the futile return to base camp after hours of hiking, the ghostly appearance of Wicca inspired charms and dreamcatchers, but there is almost nothing new here that is comprehensively and chillingly inducted. Some new concepts are inflicted – a sliver of body horror after a characters flesh wound starts to manifest necrotic qualities, sanity shredding time disruption and disorders seem to be pushing into our dimension through the porous location of the Burksville woods, a wider excavation of the Blair Witch mythos and origins are muttered between the increasing hysteria – but these strands are left fatally unmolested, as both director and screenwriter seem uncertain of where these strands will conclude and how they could match the fate of their characters. Instead once the crew find themselves adrift in the dark, dark woods the film is punctuated with a handful of cattle-prod scares, the usual ‘oh don’t sneak up on me’ cliches which are thoroughly unnecessary, while the film sorely lacks that lurking, coiling dread that the original mustered as the light began to fade and the night shadows started flickering, bringing with them another long and fearful period of cowering in your tents while something prowled around outside…..
After an interminable period of screeching, fumbling and overall stumbling our surviving prey arrives at the same decrepit domicile, deep in the delirious woods. Alas the enthusiasm has ebbed to such levels at this point that the prospect of some final glimpsed vision of the titular crone had long lost its lusture, and if I’m honest I was just patiently awaiting the pandemonium to end. Throughout the entirety of Blair Witch there was one singular moment which raised the hackles but it is merely an amplification of a story beat from the original film, a brief detour into building tension and apprehension before the plot diverted back to the same visual and cluttered incomprehension. There has been no empathy built as to the fate of these hapless souls, and its difficult to understand where or why characters are frantically careering through certain paths, whilst some of the young cast meet their fate in the most undramatic and perfunctory methods possible – this my learned friends is not how you make a horror movie linger and lurk in the memory. It’s a shame, a real missed opportunity with this setting the potential was there to really craft a 21st century update to a milestone genre film if they only had some supernatural inspiration and an eerie execution. For now the fate of the 2016 horror genre rests on a few possible shrieks at the LFF and Don’t Breathe which I’m going to see tomorrow, but as the cabal currently chants the only withered and accursed crone worth your time mounted her broomstick some two hundred and fifty years ago…..
Just another trailer to keep things moving while I finish up this weeks review, this is apparently a highly proficient genre picture with an unusual slant, potentially the worlds first Farsi language horror drama. Following on from A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night are we witnessing a slow emergence of an Middle Eastern horror movie movement? Well, that’s probably more than a little premature, but I like the idea of cultures mining their legends and fairy tale warnings for modern day interpretations, in this case unleashing the eerie djinn;
Faceless, remorseless phantoms screaming through the air with obliterating destructive power? I can’t just imagine the symbology……
Just checking in to say I’m immensely excited at some localised movie news this week, coinciding with the arrival of this months Sight & Sound and the programme for this years LFF which just peeked through the virtual letterbox. Firstly, we have a expansive article on JC which looks like a lot of fun, and more power to his raising stature in the critical firmament. From the postscript of this piece I have learned that the BFI are devoting a full two month retrospective to his work in the Autumn, no doubt timed to coincide with the live soundtrack gigs, although the prospect of a Southbank Q&A remains elusively unconfirmed – I’m sure they are working on it. In other news the LFF schedule is fairly interesting considering my self-enforced civilian status this year, I’m aiming at about ten films I want to see that I have churned into the ballot, I guess we’ll see how that goes. There is one specific event for which I am praying for tickets however – I’m not going to elaborate for fear of a jinx other than to say this. I’ll try to craft something a little more substantive on the whole LFF schedule after the weekend, but until then, this;
Some more gigantic monster fun that recently hatched in San Diego, this has a gargantuan strength cast, and enough visual references to have Francis Ford Coppola reaching for the litigation lawyer section of his rolodex;
There’s one every year isn’t there? One breakthrough horror film from the festival circuit which slithers into the imagination and injects some new blood into the purifying genre. Last year it was The Witch, the year before that It Follows, the year before that The Babadook. This year the chittering fiends of the on-line community have been cowering in terror of The Woods, directed by Adam Wingard who is forging quite a promising career after The Guest and You’re Next;
Apart from the obvious echoes of the Blair Witch and The Shining there’s not much to go on from the trailer, which is usually the best way to go. Consider my interest kindled…
Catchphrases can be funny things. They are an indicator of whether a film has made an indelible cultural mark, as just uttering a line conjures in the mind of the beholder the movie in all its affable glory – ‘I’ll be back‘, ‘I made him an offer he can’t refuse‘, ‘Phone Home’, ‘Nobody’s perfect’. As soon as the silents became talkies certain lines of dialogue encapsulated the film and its squawking star persona, from Garbo’s insistence of ‘vanting to be alone’ to Frankenstein shrieking ‘It’s alive’. Heck even when a bastardisation of the actual line enters the vernacular the remnants still resonate – ‘Play it again, Sam’ – the omission or addition of a single word echoing in ignorance throughout the ages. Sometimes, mischievous filmmakers take these tropes and playfully mock their prevalence, the cinematic equivalent of having your cake and eating it, simultaneously poking fun at the cliché while also flirting with their affection – after all ’it’s all in the reflexes’. This bring us to the wonder that is Big Trouble In Little China, a film which amusingly mocks the 1980’s fish-out-of-water action paradigm, while also predicting Hollywood’s assimilation of Oriental action and martial arts cinema by at least a decade. With his career suffering a flat-line after the fiscal flop of The Thing John Carpenter hesitantly moved toward the centre with safer projects, line-assembling the Stephen King adaption Christine (probably the least discussed of all his golden era films), and inverting the alien as outsider threat with Starman which can dismissively described as E.T. with adults. Out of the rising sun came his next project, reuniting with the Mifune to his Kurosawa Kurt Russell, their fourth collaboration which hardly reversed his barren box-office boon, barely recouping 50% of its then medium weighted budget.
Astoundingly this was not the first time I’ve seen Big Trouble at the cinema, as it may make you smirk to learn that I actually dragged two friends to see this on its general release back in 1986, and while both heretics dismissed the film as ‘stupid’ and ‘dumb’ I was of course enthralled, so who’s laughing now Darren Jiggins and Stuart Townsend? Well? Despite being widely dismissed during the 1990’s the film (alongside They Live) has been reassessed in the internet age, coalescing into a dedicated cult audience perhaps more attuned to cultural and genre meldings of an elixir of dumb-ass action movie, slapstick comedy, gravity defying wuxia acrobatics and mild San Francisco focused Orientalism. Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) is a macho lunkhead trucker who is unluckily drawn into a kidnapping plot when his friend Wang (Dennis Dun) new mail order Chinese bride is abducted by a cadre of black garbed goons at the airport. Unfortunately it turns out that his new bride is destined to fulfil an ancient prophecy, the power to invigorate ancient sorcerer Lo-Pan (a cackling James Hong) with a reinvigorating immortality, through a rather unfortunate bought of human sacrifice. With plucky investigative reporter Gracie (Kim Cattral) also embroiled in the imbroglio the stage is set for an agile adventure secreted behind the façade of reality, where deep in the bowels of San Francisco ancient powers battle mystical forces from beyond the mysterious orient……
Structurally Big Trouble In Little China is hardly a prototype of a new seething action cinema, but it was something of a trailblazer in bringing some of the mystical martial arts momentum to a less adventurous, silo separated Westernized audience – that’s what I think caused the film to fail thirty years ago. For the truly faithful we’ve always appreciated its odd mélange of styles and influences, it’s just so much dumb yet genuinely amusing fun, never taking its characters seriously but investing enough inciting mysticism and physics shredding choreography into the action sequences and internecine character banter. No doubt some could read the film slightly distastefully in 2016 with some broad archetypes of the inscrutable immigrant on display, but it’s not like it’s as immediately offensive as Mickey Rooney in Breakfast At Tiffany’s or Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles or anything, and the real hero is the dexterous Wang while Jack blunders around like a drunken oaf, intoxicated on a cheap combination of Sangria laced Sambucca. The style is comic book stylistics before the medium really began to gain traction over all blockbuster product, moving fast enough to obscure any narrative nuance, dazzling the audience with some cool stunt and editing work which papers over a rather perfunctory plot. Some of the special effects are a little on the dated side and the creature and prosthetics designs inelegantly express their 30 years, but when you get to my venerable age of cult movie fandom that’s part of the fun, the tactile, physical SFX as part of the films tensile temperature as the haircuts, costumes, or wider cultural references. If you want to really get into some of the minutiae then I’ve heard that the primary influence was Zu Warriors From The Magic Mountain which inspired the revolutionary wire work, both films barely containing characters who ricochet around the sets like Percocet powered pinballs, while Jack generally asks a lot of questions;
That’s as good a montage as you’re likely to get, and this wouldn’t be a Menagerie review of a John Carpenter film if we didn’t single out the synth pulsing score for a little love now would it? It’s a more playful and flippant choral mix than you’d normally expect from the usual sonic slithering, with regular collaborator Alan Howarth providing his usual, instructive support– I’m already getting excited for October. Visually you may identify the masterful eyes of Dean Cundey at work, one of the industries most respected artisans when it comes to disguising and melding live and SFX elements. After perfecting his art in the likes of Escape From New York and The Thing Spielberg selected him to lens a modest little picture called Jurassic Park just a trio of years later. Coincidently just this week I finally saw the notorious exploitation classic The Witch Who Came From The Sea and can you guess who photographed that? He crops up as interview subject in a few short DVD extras.
Before the arrival of Jackie Chan, before John Woo, before Ang Lee but after Bruce Lee, Hollywood of the late 1980’s was struggling for new hooks to hang its genre templates upon, casting their net wide to co-opt foreign genre successes which they could then mould into their classical narrative templates – a bit of romance with no actual sex, a three act structure complete with inciting incident and equilibrium restoring climax, some misguided yet not entirely stringent distrust of foreign customs and clients. Rumours persist that the film was rushed into production as some effort to slipstream in the success of Eddie Murphy’s The Golden Child, or maybe the whole interest in the orient as source material was just another of those zephyous passing studio executive fads. There is rather odd underlying philosophy lurking in the corner of these pictures, Carpenter does seem fascinated with the possibility of forces behind the fabric of reality, of the potential of permeable barriers between dimensions, personified in the sage-alike Obi Wan character Egg Shen (Victor Wong) which bleeds nicely into his next picture Prince Of Darkness and the final scream of his apocalypse trilogy In The Mouth Of Madness. I remember his enunciation of these interests during a fondly remembered BBC transmission called Horror Café, a late night discussion panel where he was joined by such gruesome luminaries as Clive Barker, Roger Corman and Ramsay Campbell, a rediscovery which I stumbled across like a menacing tree root in a fog shrouded graveyard, and you can exorcise it here.
Somehow the boisterous boffins at the Prince Charles have sourced a wonderful, pristine 70mm print which hung on the screen like an animated lìzhóu, the colours and combat popping like a delicious dish of sizzling szechuan chicken. Big Trouble isn’t the greatest action film ever made, it’s certainly not the most dazzling martial arts film ever made, but it is a confection of tightly coiled fun, unabashedly goofy and playful, and Russell’s perfectly calibrated performance goes a long way in maintaining that deliriously devoted cult audience as yet another personification of Carpenters cynical, wisecracking anti-heroes. There is evidently something in the water as after the January Kubrick season and this Carpenter programme what is coming up at the Prince Charles in May? Oh, only a blinking Michael Mann season which means I can finally see Menagerie favorite Thief and perhaps The Keep on the big screen, you’d think I’d brought shares in them or sold my soul to some sort of slithering celluloid cacodemon. But we’re not done with Mr. Carpenter just yet, as to infiltrate the bank holiday we must worship at a very special triple bill, which means I can finally get those tachyons pulsing and revisit the year one….nine….nine…..