Tuesday 8 November 2022

Eve's Bayou

Eve's Bayou [Kasi Lemmons, 1997]:

A tremendous feature debut from actor turned writer and director Kasi Lemmons. The mood here is slow and sombre, perfectly evoking the sense of an endless, oppressive summer, which feels conjured from a half-remembered childhood, where parental disillusionment and the shadow of death have become distorted by superstition and the supernatural. One of the key films about the home, about family, and about how the foundations of both can be rocked by circumstances. The scene where Debi Morgan’s character re-lives the murder of her first husband as it plays out in the reflection of a mirror, then turns, physically entering the memory itself, is Tarkovsky-level directing. Morgan throughout is incredible and imbues the moments of the supernatural with a genuine emotional plausibility.

Friday the 13th

Friday the 13th [Sean S. Cunningham, 1980]:

While not a great piece of cinema in the conventional sense, the stature of Cunningham's film is really elevated above other the icons of the slasher sub-genre by virtue of its third act reveal. The psychological and sociological implications of the killer's identity provide an emotional weight and dramatic complexity too often missing from films of this nature. Further, the appropriation of influences, from Mario Bava to John Boorman's film of Deliverance (1972), are applied incredibly well.

What’s fascinating about Friday the 13th, perhaps more so than films like Halloween (1978), Prom Night (1980) or My Bloody Valentine (1981) is that it almost becomes a cinematic Rorschach test. If you’re a liberal, you might see it as a film about youth being punished by the older generation for the perceived sin of enjoying themselves. If you’re a conservative, then you might see it as a retribution against the amoral, out-of-control youth debasing themselves and American family values. It's a film that taps into the politics of the late 1970s and early 1980s, as well as the cultural mood of the era.

Friday the 13th [Sean S. Cunningham, 1980]:

The context is vague and indirect, but still apparent enough that it can be read into the development of the characters and the themes of the film: i.e. loss of innocence, parental responsibility and wayward youth (as well as the usual horror film connotations to voyeurism and objectification, sex and death, which are all apparent themes.) Similarly, the isolation of the setting as both a physical and metaphysical space, the nightmare of the final girl, the way fear creates wounds, the rebirth of the character “Jason” as he emerges from his watery grave to wreak havoc across further sequels, all seem (intentionally or not) self-reflexive.

More than anything the film also provides something of a reminder that early slasher films were essentially "a vibe." Later, there was an expectation that someone had to die on every third page of the screenplay, but here, as in Halloween, or something like Bava's proto-slasher film A Bay of Blood (1971), the film is content to luxuriate in the atmosphere of its lakeside setting, in the dumb teen preoccupations and concerns of its characters, and in the comings and goings of the staff attempting to get the summer camp up and running. 

The Man Who Wasn't There

The Man Who Wasn't There [Joel & Ethan Coen, 2001]:

Melding a 1940s noir stylisation with a distant 1950s sense of atomic-age paranoia, this much underrated and underseen effort is not just the most imaginative of the Coen brothers' nihilistic investigations into the theme of accountability, but a subjective character study about a man seemingly content to drift through his own existence. Like the similarly underrated A Serious Man (2009), apathy is presented as a kind of hidden bliss here; the characters in both films only smited when they finally attempt to control their own destiny. A masterwork of dark irony, black comedy, and a peerless period aesthetic.

Over the Garden Wall

Over the Garden Wall [Various, 2014]:

Featuring beautifully crafted animation, endearing characters and a storybook narrative, Over the Garden Wall is a little masterpiece of perfectly balanced content and form. Created by Patrick McHale, the dark and often absurd sense of humour, the witty songs, the emotional maturity and the episodes of genuine surrealism (to say nothing of the thematically rich narrative, with its allusions to Dante's Inferno) all result in something that could almost be described as Twin Peaks for children.

Funeral in Berlin

Funeral in Berlin [Guy Hamilton, 1966]:

Director Guy Hamilton is both an underrated master and an underrated master of mise-en-scène, constantly enlivening every terse exchange or moment of surveillance with unique shot compositions and a remarkable use of location. The acerbic wit of Michael Caine's reluctant spy is a huge part of what makes the character so compelling here, as his “anti-Bond” Harry Palmer plays various sides off against one another, while seemingly doing nothing at all.

The Palmer films aren’t merely the “anti-Bond” because they present espionage without action or pyrotechnics, but because they have a greater cynicism about politics and the machinations and manipulations of world events. The titular setting here – grey Berlin, where the ravaged scars of the Second World War stand in contrast against the construction of concrete modernity – is a world away from Bond’s exotic islands and luxury manor houses, but it’s a fitting location for a story that pits the Israeli secret service against former Nazi war criminals, while agents from both sides of the Iron Curtain attempt to manipulate events to their own benefit.

The divided setting suggests the divided loyalty of characters and the people they work for, as interpersonal conflicts are given the same focus as political ones. The sequence where the coffin is transported across the border, and the play on perception and deceptions, seems a precursor to another of Hamilton's films, Live and Let Die (1971) and a reminder of an earlier one, The Party's Over (1964). A quietly complex espionage classic.

Prom Night

Prom Night [Paul Lynch, 1980]:

The last vestiges of the 1970s are all over this, with the constant soundtrack of disco floor fillers and phantasmagoria of star lights and saturated color seen during the titular prom. It's an aesthetic that shows an obvious debt of influence to Brian De Palma's earlier, hugely successful Stephen King adaptation, Carrie (1976). Like Carrie, there's also a tracking shot through a girls’ locker room here, but it's more chaste and less shocking in this context than the markedly more sensationalist take by De Palma. The thrum of the soundtrack and cross-cutting between dance and terror might also make this as much a precursor to Lucio Fulci's similarly disco themed slasher Murder Rock (1984) as it is to the more analogous likes of My Bloody Valentine (1981), Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981) or Terror Train (1980).

Slow and for a large part bloodless, many see this as bottom of the barrel stuff compared to Halloween (1978) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), but I had a lot of fun with it. The third act especially is masterfully directed. A reminder that before the blockbuster boom of ‘80s slasher cinema (which focused more on elaborate deaths and gratuitous violence), many early slasher films were more concerned with themes of suppressed trauma and moral retribution. This is one of the saddest films of the sub-genre, haunted from the earliest scenes by the death of a child, and brought full circle with the eventual reveal of the killer's painful motives.

Saturday 5 November 2022


Prison [Renny Harlin, 1987]:

Part of a brief wave of horror films about murderers coming back from the dead after being executed in the electric chair, the blandly titled Prison, which has the distinction of being director Renny Harlin's first feature film produced in America, stands head and shoulders above its similarly themed competition, Destroyer (1988), Shocker (1989) and House III (aka The Horror Show, 1989), but that isn't itself much of an endorsement. Harlin's preferred brand of horror, at least as far as his later films, such as Deep Blue Sea (1999) and Mindhunters (2004) might suggest, tends to be of the old dark house tradition, albeit with the house transposed to an uncharacteristic setting, so in many ways this type of film is well within the director's wheelhouse.

To his credit, Harlin does well with the material. A lot of the supernatural sequences and the general tone of dreamlike unreality makes the film feel like the director's audition reel for the subsequent A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988), but certainly the casting of a young Viggo Mortensen, veteran Lane Smith and a pre-fame Tommy Lister give Prison a bit of a pedigree. Tonally, the film certainly has some issues, being both too serious and grim in its violence and setting, but too hokey and often silly to take seriously as anything other than supernatural shlock.

Eve's Bayou

Eve's Bayou [Kasi Lemmons, 1997]: A tremendous feature debut from actor turned writer and director Kasi Lemmons. The mood here is slow a...