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.


FeardotCom [William Malone, 20002]:

I have a real soft spot for director William Malone's earlier remake of House on Haunted Hill (1999) and that first run of films produced by Dark Castle Entertainment; the company set-up by producers Joel Silver, Robert Zemeckis and Gilbert Adler to release horror films with a distinctly old-fashioned flavor and lots of ornate style. Later films from the same company, such as Thirteen Ghosts (2001), Ghost Ship (2002) and House of Wax (2005), have a lot of nostalgic value attached to them for me, and Malone's subsequent film, this derided J-horror knock off, hits a lot of those same notes. This was a period when horror cinema was largely dismissed by critics, with few reviewers willing to look beyond the sensationalist violence and generic plots of these films to offer much in the way of serious analysis. Twenty years later and horror movies are now "elevated," with even the schlockiest of stuff being approached as if it's carrying some deep and rich social commentary.

FeardotCom certainly isn't rich in social commentary, but for me it does a lot of things that elevate it above it's mostly dismal reputation. Essentially both a gloomy serial killer procedural in the spirit of the superior Seven (1995) by David Fincher and a revenge tale about a haunted website (with more than a few hints to similarly better films like Ring (1998) and Pulse (2001) respectively), FeardotCom is a film that survives on the strength of aesthetics. The retro-futurist production design by Jérôme Latour and noir-ish cinematography by Christian Sebaldt give the film a look of authentic expressionism, which more than compensates for some of the ludicrous plotting and derivative psycho-shlock. The surprisingly talented cast includes Stephen Dorff and Natascha McElhone as the main protagonists investigating these strange deaths and their links to the titular website, while the often scenery-chewing support comes from Stephen Rea as a mad doctor, with Nigel Terry, Amelia Curtis, Jeffrey Combs and Udo Kier all appearing in extended cameos.

Thursday, 3 November 2022

The Crow: City of Angels

The Crow: City of Angels [Tim Pope, 1996]:

A famously contentious and much derided sequel to the popular but ill-fated comic book revenge film The Crow (1994). Noted post-production interference and re-cutting from the always problematic Harvey Weinstein and brother Bob may have played some part in the film's many narrative shortcomings, but there's no escaping that this is fundamentally a derivative and inferior copy of the first film in both plot and theme. Visually, it's sometimes striking – the hyper-saturated colors, urban hellscape and vibrant ‘Day of the Dead’ pageantry of the final third, is a contrast to the first film's goth monochrome – but this is a definite case of diminished returns. Tim Pope, a music video pioneer of the early 1980s, has proven himself a great filmmaker many times across his numerous videos for artists as varied as The Cure, Talk Talk, The The, Soft Cell, Neil Young and The Style Council, and should've been a great match for the material. A real tragedy then that he ended up tangled up with such a compromised effort.

The Sea Shall Not Have Them

The Sea Shall Not Have Them [Lewis Gilbert, 1954]:

A rousing, men on a mission survival drama, which essentially cross-cuts two stories of wartime bravery, one involving the crew of an RAF Air Sea Rescue boat, the other involving the crew of a downed bomber stranded in a dinghy in the North Sea. Director Lewis Gilbert, who co-wrote the screenplay with Vernon Harris, uses the inherent conflicts and contrasts of the situation to document the minutiae of the RAF crew (the ranks and hierarchies) while engaging in scenes of intimate human drama. It's a great ensemble piece with some never-gratuitous gallows humor.

Death Becomes Her

Death Becomes Her [Robert Zemeckis, 1992]:

More so than the excessively deconstructive and indulgent Back to the Future Part II (1989), this macabre screwball fantasy occupies the same place in the filmography of director Robert Zemeckis that the similar unhinged and aggressively non-commercial Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) did for his friend Steven Spielberg. It's an example of an otherwise fairly "safe" or mainstream filmmaker abandoning good taste and sensibility to instead indulge in the unbridled quirks and eccentric influences that had been suppressed from his previous efforts. Tonally, Death Becomes Her isn't a million miles removed from the director's earlier Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), but it's pitched at a markedly more adult audience potentially attuned to its specific influences.

The screenplay by Martin Donovan and David Koepp is referential to everything from old dark house horror serials of the 1930s (with its mysterious female antagonist, its hints of exoticism, its elixir of life and its scenes of Bruce Willis evoking something of a Dr. Frankenstein-like mad scientist) to the camp melodrama and toxic sparring of All About Eve (1950) or What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). There's a barnstorming musical number which begins the film (again, as in in Temple of Doom), a lot of allusions to film noir and the works of Alfred Hitchcock, a sequence modeled on the film One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) and a general tone that feels very much akin to a series Zemeckis was producing during this period, Tales from the Crypt (1989-1996). It's also a kind of farcical body horror about death and the deterioration of the human body, making it almost a zombie movie, though no character ever uses the word.

The special effects, which were groundbreaking at the time of the film's release, are still exceptional, but it is that morbid, Tales from the Crypt style humor and the willingness of the entire cast to commit to these wild tonal shifts that really impresses. Meryl Streep and the aforementioned Willis in particular are fantastic and deliver some of the funniest exchanges, but they're well supported by Goldie Hawn and an enchanting Isabella Rossellini. There's also a very funny cameo from film director Sydney Pollack as an emergency room doctor. Zemeckis can be an odd filmmaker to grapple with given the many faces and facets of his career, and Death Becomes Her is an odd fit even for him. It doesn't quite connect to his run of 1980s blockbusters, nor to his subsequent turn to serious dramas with Forrest Gump (1994), Contact (1997) and Cast Away (2000). In some respects it feels closer to a film he produced but didn't direct; another horror/comedy: The Frighteners (1996) from Peter Jackson.