Tuesday 30 September 2014

Eveline (2014)

Director: Travis Mills
Stars: Stacie Stocker, Maria Patti, Susan Rienzo, Dillard Taylor and Jesse Michael-Geronimo Valencia
By week twelve, Travis Mills was getting into his stride and feeling confident. 'Every week I feel us getting better at telling these stories,' he noted in the webseries episode shot alongside this. It's understandable, as he'd cleared some notable obstacles in previous weeks and found this one easy running. 'We got done in one day what I had scheduled for two,' he explained. Then again, this was a relatively simple film, with a tiny crew and a cast that wasn't much bigger; only three locations, none of which were outdoors; and a source story that tries to do a lot with very little, much like many Running Wild short films. It's the next in James Joyce's Dubliners and it has to do with a young lady who wants out of the life she has and into one that's different in every way: exotic, romantic and alive. Her ticket to this new life, literally, is a sailor who has 'fallen on his feet in Buenos Ayres'. He wants her to be his wife and he has a house ready for her to move into. Of course, this is a Joyce story, so pessimism ensues.

It's easy to see Eveline as yet another of Joyce's short stories that has a huge build but no payoff and it's easy to leave it empty and unfulfilled. However, there's a real truth here that I've witnessed myself often and I've personally gone through what Eveline finds that she can't. Everything in the story exists to lead up to her decision and it's the sum of it that makes the difference rather than any one piece. Eveline has a miserable life, one she dearly wants to leave behind, but that miserable life is all she knows. In the end, it'll always be better the devil you know even if the grass isn't as green, or some other mangled pair of proverbs. There are a lot of them that speak to this situation, because it's such a common one. I grew up in England, where I thankfully wasn't miserable like Eveline, but I left my family, country and life to move to another continent and get married. Ten years on, I haven't once regretted my decision, however much I miss the food, but I know many others who dream of doing the same thing but absolutely never will.

Mills's adaptation to the screen is an anorexic one indeed. I was surprised to find that it ran six minutes, as it feels like half that. Much of Joyce's story is built of memories and to adapt it faithfully would require a much more substantial shoot than was viable. I like what Mills brought in to replace them, a miserable pair of women from Eveline's work moaning about how she's leaving and talking down her chances. I'm familiar with bleating women like this (of both sexes) because I've had to listen to conversations just like this one while I was fixing their computers and they couldn't work in the meantime. They're the sort who are happy being unhappy and the best way to do that is to be jealous about someone else who might do what they know they never will. Maria Patti and Susan Rienzo are frustrating to watch because I've seen this so often, but they do it well. Unfortunately, the flipside of ditching all those memories is that Stacie Stocker has to find a way for Eveline to explain everything she's leaving with facial expressions.
And that's frankly impossible, so she's up against it from moment one. She's a really odd choice for this role and I wonder why Michael Hanelin cast her as Eveline. For a start, she's a long way from nineteen, however good she looks, so the whole dynamic of a young woman wondering if she can really leave the only home she's known is completely lost. This Eveline has a whole lot more experience behind her than Joyce's Eveline, so her decision is completely different. Perhaps that's why Mills ended his story a little sooner than Joyce ended his. Stocker's also a very strong woman, which makes this part a tough one for her to sell. The scene where she summons up the strength to leave her father behind in their RV without making his breakfast first is exactly what she does best, but most of her part calls for weakness instead, whether it's through fear of her father or fear of the unknown. With a lot more screen time, I'm sure she could nail the part, but she doesn't have that luxury and it really shows.

While Dillard Taylor is a much more natural casting choice and he does very well with his few moments on screen, Jesse Michael-Geronimo Valencia has an even tougher task than Stocker. While Joyce had his Eveline fall for a sailor who's back in his home country for a holiday and wants her to sail away with him, Mills's contemporary version has an internet romance that leads to her driving out to Sky Harbor. It's the right update, but we only hear the object of Eveline's affections through a computer screen as we watch her face and that's a really tough set up to generate shared charisma. In the end, Valencia merely has to settle for matching Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio's record in my mind as the actor with the most syllables in their name. I'm unsure as to what Mills could have done with this story, as a faithful adaptation would have been ten minutes of narrated montage leading up to a brief and unsatisfying ending. He tries for a better film than that but only manages to give us the bones, not the flesh.

Monday 29 September 2014

They Live (1988)

Director: John Carpenter
Stars: Roddy Piper, Keith David, Meg Foster, George 'Buck' Flower, Peter Jason and Raymond St Jacques
This film was an official selection at the 9th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.
Back in the eighties, when I found the money to go out and discover a wider variety of movies than were broadcast on the four TV channels we had in England at the time, John Carpenter was surely the biggest name in genre cinema. He seemed to be most highly regarded for two hits, Halloween and Escape from New York, both of which did very well at the box office and strongly resonated down the years. Yet today, it's his less heralded features that stand up best, especially Big Trouble in Little China, which lost money at the box office, and They Live, which made a profit but hardly a spectacular one. If I had to pick a third place, it would be Assault on Precinct 13, Carpenter's update to Rio Bravo, as Halloween feels simplistic now and Escape from New York wears some of its more convenient scenes on its sleeve. By comparison, They Live feels more and more relevant with each year that passes. It's horrifying to realise that it often feels like we're living in this world that Carpenter created in 1988. How do we shut down the source?

At the time, They Live was quintessentially about the eighties, perhaps why many critics didn't see much value in its message; they needed to skip forward a few decades to see how it would all evolve. In truth, Carpenter was railing against a number of things, one reason why They Live doesn't feel like a one note message, but at its heart, it's anti-consumerism. He told Starlog that he'd started to watch TV again and that he realised that everything was designed to sell us something, but he also noticed the reflection of this in the thriving yuppie movement, which tied success specifically to money, and the Reaganomics of the time. Carpenter naturally polarised this in his script to become a 'them and us' scenario, but as he phrased 'them' as alien free enterprisers and 'us' as the human race, he tapped into a set of wider truths about modern America that have become more obvious with each year that passes, a recognition that the class system of the British is present in the United States too, merely manifested in a different form.

Today, yuppies and Reaganomics have gone by the wayside, but They Live feels more contemporary than ever because it's phrased vaguely enough to be universally applicable. When I rewatched it in 2012 and again in 2013 at the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival, it felt like Carpenter was writing specifically about the Occupy movement, the 99% and venture capital firms like Bain Capital. Watching again for this review, it's suddenly reminiscent of Ferguson, MO, police brutality and the erosion of the middle class. I'm sure Carpenter looked backwards for references to McCarthy's communist witchhunts and the civil rights movement, but he also presaged climate change, subliminal advertising and modern corporate America. He certainly adapted one of the most telling lines in the film, 'We all sell out every day' from an executive at Universal. Since then, Universal has not incidentally sold out to a whole string of global multinationals and is currently owned by Comcast.
I first saw They Live on British TV as a presentation of Moviedrome, in which Alex Cox introduced me to a stunning range of films and, in many ways, placed me on the road to Apocalypse Later. I remember that Cox highlighted that the primary character is homeless, hardly a common scenario for a lead in an action movie. He's also never named, his credited name of Nada meaning 'nothing' in Spanish', and the product of a broken home, from which he ran away at the age of thirteen. The movie's title is sourced from graffiti within it, initially underneath a bridge, and it opens with Nada walking past it, literally travelling from the other side of the tracks in search of work; he ends up in a shanty town for the homeless quite a distance away. However, he's not phrased as a victim. While the government's job centres have nothing for him, he's an able bodied man with his own tools and he finds work on a construction site himself. 'I believe in America,' he tells a bitter co-worker. 'Everybody's got their own hard times these days.'

His optimism isn't reflected in anything else we see or hear, as hammered home in the early scenes. The lady he meets at the job centre doesn't care and doesn't want to listen; the loudspeakers explain that the food stamp programme has been suspended; a man in a wheelchair rolls past him, shaking his head. Out in the streets, a preacher asks, 'Why do we worship greed?' before a cop shows up to shut off his words. Frank, that bitter co-worker, hasn't seen his wife and kids in six months; they're back home in Detroit, but he had to leave because the steel mills closed down. Nada came from Denver where 'things just seemed to dry up.' In other words, it's not just here, it's everywhere. The only way out is through television, where you can watch and dream, even if it's in a shop window. It doesn't address the problems of society, but it serves as a temporary escape from them. On television, you'll never, never grow old and you'll never die. No wonder people stop trying, even in the shanty town; it's much easier to escape than to try.

But breaking into that signal comes an old bearded hacker, ironically because he's using 'their' medium, to rail at the complacence of the people. He isn't received well, partially because his message is nowhere near commercial (how about zingers like, 'We are living in an artificially induced state of consciousness that resembles sleep' or 'their intention to rule rests with the annihilation of consciousness') and partially because the interference literally gives them headaches. The truth hurts, right? His more effective words are very familiar, but here's where the setup ends and our story really begins. Clearly something is going on at the African Methodist Episcopal Free Church over the road from the homeless town and our hero is an inquisitive soul. He wanders in to find that it's a front for a group of scientists who discovered the truth behind all the proselytising and want to wake up the populace. Talking at them doesn't help, but what has a chance are the sunglasses they're manufacturing that show things as they really are.
Given that They Live is now over a quarter of a century old, that the point at which Nada puts on a pair of these sunglasses is only half an hour into the movie and that what he sees has passed into pop culture to the degree that street artist Shepard Fairey's Obey campaign was deliberately inspired by it and arguably his iconic Obama Hope poster was too, it seems fair to talk about it. When wearing these sunglasses, the world of colour that we know is transformed into black and white, partly because it works metaphorically and partly because Ted Turner was prominently colorising classic movies at the time and it seemed like a good way to make him out to be 'a monster from outer space'. Images and words vanish too, replaced by simple subliminal slogans on every advertising hoarding, every page of every magazine, every sign in a window. Many contain only a single word: 'Obey', 'Consume' or 'Conform', while others are more complex, such as 'Do Not Question Authority' or 'No Independent Thought'. Paper money reads 'This is Your God'.

What's more, while some people look identical, others are utterly different, like a mass of bruises without skin. That's because they're the aliens who own us and the message becomes crystal clear. The first alien we see is an affluent white businessman but the first human is a black newspaper seller; in this world, we call them 'sir'. Masters are alien, but their servants are human. Aliens get promoted, while humans don't. Some cops are human but most aren't, something that echoes today in the maxim that good cops protect bad cops. Stumbling around town in a daze as he can see the truth, Nada decides that he'll do something about it and the rest of the story falls easily into place, the social comment stronger early on but not lost as the film turns into an action piece. The most telling moments arrive late, such as the transformation of Buck Flower's character, a lazy nobody from the shanty town now gussied up in a suit and bow tie as the epitome of the nouveau riche. 'We all sell out every day,' he says. 'Might as well be on the winning team.'

For a movie that carries a whopper of a message, much better constructed than the hacker's diatribe that is primarily received as 'just that idiot licking his nuts again,' it's a highly enjoyable piece. The source was a story called Eight O'Clock in the Morning by Ray Nelson, published in Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1963 and it's surprisingly close to Carpenter's adaptation to the big screen. George Nada wakes up to a similar revelation after being hypnotised on stage, finding that our world is ruled by Fascinators who breed us for food but control us through subliminals. It ends with an extra twist that isn't in the film, surprisingly given that it's even shorter than this review, under two thousand words, but Carpenter does a magnificent job of turning them into 94 minutes of visualisation and social analogy, not least through how he phrased the characters. Nada is far from the only unusual primary character and, even a quarter of a century on, this stands surprisingly alone in its varied heroes, right down to the heavily tattooed biker with a long beard.
Playing the homeless, nameless hero is Roddy Piper, who is a better actor today than he was in 1988 but is perfectly cast nonetheless as the everyman; as Carpenter told Starlog: 'Unlike most Hollywood actors, Roddy has life written all over him.' At the time he was best known for his career as a WWF wrestler, but he was starting to dabble in movies, first being noticed in this and the much lower budget Hell Comes to Frogtown in 1988. Playing opposite the white guy is a black guy, Keith David, clearly a much better actor, who had impressed Carpenter during the making of The Thing. He wrote the part of Frank for him, as he 'wouldn't be a traditional sidekick, but could hold his own.' Just as prominent in a smaller role as a blind, black street preacher is Raymond St Jacques, who had broken down a boundary on his own, becoming in 1965 the first black actor to become a regular on a western series on television, as cattle drover Simon Blake on Rawhide. It's appropriate that he was a noted civil rights activist in real life. He sells his role.

Buck Flower is perfectly cast as the drifter who finds his way up the food chain by selling out. It's notable that unlike most of the homeless folk in the shanty town, he never seems to do anything except sit back and watch television. His creaky voice is perfect for the role, as are his unkempt looks. As Gilbert, whose part in running the shanty town is mostly a front for his more subversive operations in the underground, Peter Jason is strong too, even if he's one of those actors who we remember visually without ever letting his name sink into our skulls. He was also in Carpenter's previous picture, Prince of Darkness, another of his underrated gems. And that leaves Meg Foster, whose unique blue eyes have never been more overt. She has an odd role, in that she doesn't show up until almost halfway through the film and does so as a hostage. She plays Holly Thompson as cool, composed and conciliatory. 'You have two guns,' she tells Nada. 'You're not sorry. You're in charge.' Yet the moment she can act, she does, quickly and powerfully.

There's so much to discuss in They Live that a review can easily run away and become a book of its own, something impossible to even conceive with most eighties action movies, which are often looked back at as guilty pleasures, the nostalgia overriding the cheese. That cheese isn't entirely absent though, as we can't forget the film's most famous line and most famous scene, both of which are remembered far more than the substance and depth that pervades They Live. The line, of course, is Nada's oft quoted, 'I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and I'm all out of bubblegum.' Piper apparently ad libbed the line, but he certainly didn't ad lib the long alley fight he worked with Keith David, all to get him to put on sunglasses. Carpenter had them watch The Quiet Man, with John Wayne battling Victor McLaglen, then they built up the choreography over weeks. It's arguable that fight credibility is lost whenever a suplex is added into it, but if it's bringing new people to They Live after 26 years, it's well worth it.

Sunday 28 September 2014

Saw (2004)

Stars: Cary Elwes, Danny Glover, Monica Potter, Michael Emerson, Tobin Bell, Ken Leung, Makenzie Vega, Shawnee Smith, Dina Meyer, Benito Martinez and Leigh Whannell
This film was an official selection at the 9th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.
It had been quite a while since I last saw Saw. It was released in 2004, while I saw it in 2005, probably as the word of mouth that quickly built around it had become substantial. While it cost a little over a million dollars to make, it grossed a hundred times that and its six sequels gradually built the franchise into the most successful at the box office of any such horror series. I was impressed, though the sequels gradually fed on each other incestuously and I haven't yet made it all the way through to the latest, Saw 3D, the seventh and currently final film in the series which was released in 2010. I hadn't revisited it since, until doing so around the time of its screening at the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in 2013, which had executive producer and CEO of FearNet Peter Block in attendance. Eight years was long enough that plot details had either faded from memory or become blurred with the sequels. I remembered the final, particularly vicious twist, but I didn't remember the many others that preceded it.

What I discovered was that it remains an impressive film, notably better than the sequels I've seen thus far, though it hasn't entirely stood the test of time. The fundamental concept still stands up well, a neatly twisted one that has a couple of men wake up in a bathroom, chained to separate walls with hacksaws provided to free themselves, not ones strong enough to sever their chains but ones that will cut through their legs. This is only the first sadistic torment with which they're faced as they gradually discover why they're there, how they're connected and what else might be going on that they can't yet see from their perspective. This concept stands up today, even if it served to introduce the world to the modern torture porn genre. This first film isn't as gory as its sequels and the complexity isn't overwhelming, remaining close enough to the simple vision of its twisted mastermind to ring true. I agree with creators James Wan and Leigh Whannell that it wasn't torture porn yet, even if I don't agree that it didn't get there later.

This one tells two stories that gradually become one. The first revolves around the bathroom, with its two questioning captives and its bloody corpse in the middle of the floor between them that they can't reach. It's a intriguing puzzle, not merely for Dr Lawrence Gordon and Adam Stanheight, the two men inside it, but for us as well. Of course, Lawrence and Adam have more motivation than cinematic inquisitiveness pushing them to figure out why they're there but their actions are cleverly tailored not only to drive their story forward but to draw us into the picture. There are two quick notes that do this very well indeed. Dr Gordon realises that there's a purpose behind their kidnapping and captivity. After all, they could easily have been killed too, but they weren't. 'They must want something from us,' he points out, prompting us to wonder about where the story will take us. Then he notices that the clock on the wall of this wrecked room is brand new, meaning not only that time is important but also that we need to look as much as think.
The other half ties to a police investigation, in which a couple of detectives try to find the Jigsaw Killer, an odd serial killer because he doesn't actually kill anyone, merely places them into darkly ironic situations where they die more often than not. Paul, a man who had attempted suicide by cutting his wrists, was put into a cage of razorwire and given two hours to tunnel a way through it to escape. Mark pretends to be ill to get other people's money, so wakes up with a poison running through his veins that he can counter by taking the antidote that's merely feet away in a safe. There are catches, of course: the combination is on the wall, but there are a heck of a lot of numbers to work through, the floor is covered in broken glass and he's doused in a flammable substance but has to use a candle to read what's on the walls. There has only been one survivor: Amanda, a drug addict, who could only escape the reverse bear trap attached to her head by carving the key out of the stomach of the paralysed man in her makeshift cell.

We soon find that there's already a tie between the two stories, beyond the obvious fact that this pair of captives are clearly going through the latest of the Jigsaw Killer's ironic setups. By this point, we've been let in on how it will work: Lawrence has been given until six o'clock to kill Adam or his wife and daughter will be murdered in his stead. The tie is that Dr Gordon was a former suspect in the police investigation. Sure, he was quickly cleared of being the Jigsaw Killer without any doubt, but the real mastermind behind these cruel acts of irony still chose to set him up. Certainly putting his family on the line is ironic because the alibi that cleared his name also exposed his infidelity; the wife he now has to commit murder to save is the wife he's been cheating on. And so we watch Lawrence and Adam try to figure out a way to escape while hoping that former Det David Tapp, now clearly obsessed with the case, will find them first. And we try to figure out the connections before Wan and Whannell show us their finished puzzle.

However much they reject the suggestion that this film is torture porn, it's impossible to talk about Saw without talking about the sadistically intricate but ingenious traps that the Jigsaw Killer constructs. They dominate the film far more than its stars, the acting or any other cinematic angle. For a start, it's an odd hybrid of horror and thriller that's never entirely comfortable in either genre. It's more gory and sadistic than thrillers tend to be, which has led to frequent and fair comparisons to David Fincher's Seven, and it doesn't play up the tension as a thriller would; we rarely see the clock, for instance. However, it's not a conventional horror movie either. It's not scary, for a start, even if the jump scares are clearly supposed to catch us unawares. It's better as a thriller than a horror movie, especially as it plays it straight, even if a couple of elements threaten to send it into camp horror territory: mostly Adam's occasional attempts at poor humour and a freaky puppet unnamed in this film but known outside it as Billy.
There are major actors in the cast, but nobody really shines on the acting front. I appreciated the choice to tell this predominantly from the victims' point of view, an unusual but highly successful angle, but that means that as Dr Gordon, Cary Elwes is the closest thing we have to a lead and he's done far better work elsewhere. Critics have lambasted him for overdoing it here, but it isn't really that. Dr Gordon is a notably flawed character, a cheat and a liar who isn't particularly good at lying, which makes him seem deceptive all the time. No wonder Det Tapp never buys into him not being the Jigsaw Killer, even though he isn't, as his cop's instinct would be to distrust him. Sure, Elwes doesn't appear to be endowing this role with what we know he can do, but then he's playing a duplicitous character whose every action is a performance. If Dr Gordon was a better actor, then I might buy into Elwes not doing his job. As it stands, I'm unsure as to whether he doesn't do his job or whether he does it too well.

Leigh Whannell's acting isn't up to his writing, as his script is much more successful than his performance as Adam. He was the first actor cast, having played the lead of David in the 2003 short, also titled Saw, in the role that became Amanda in this feature. Much of the reason that the film stayed independent is that director James Wan wasn't willing to lose Whannell as Adam; while another actor might have been better in the role, that choice indirectly led to many of the successes of the film. With Wan unable to do much of what he wanted because of the restrictions of budget, cast and time, he found himself gradually forced to use his imagination to make everything work. Unusable shots became still photographs or footage from a surveillance camera. The end result ws something that's 'more gritty and rough around the edges', which helped it feel real. No wonder the underlying theme is one of control; Wan and Whannell were constantly fighting to keep control of their project and then the film that they wanted to make.

If Cary Elwes got the opportunity to depict a man who believes he has control over his life, even though it isn't deserved, and who rails the most against the Jigsaw Killer taking that control away from him, the rest of the cast didn't get those chances. Danny Glover shot all his scenes as Det Tapp in two days; while he's far from bad in the role, it deserved to be more substantial. I like that Tapp isn't the lead character, as he would have been in most takes on this story, but he deserved better than he got. Dina Meyer is hardly in the movie as another detective and neither is Tobin Bell, who would soon dominate the franchise. Michael Emerson is far too overt as Zep Hindle, one of Gordon's orderlies who gets hauled into the mix too. It's Shawnee Smith and Ken Leung who impress most in smaller roles as Amanda and Det Sing respectively. Each of these characters returned in future films, though sometimes only tangentially. Bell is in all seven pictures; Smith, Meyer and Emerson four each, Glover and Leung three and Elwes in two.
One sure reason why the film did so well is its ending, which is one of the great twists of the modern era. It's been torn apart by many critics and with possible good reason, but I believe that it's easy to explain it without venturing into the dubious logic of conspiracy theorists. Then again, if I'm right, it would counter the general tone of control that pervades the picture. There are other things I'd complain about first. One is how it's impossible to figure everything out ourselves from what we're given early on; we're reliant on a steady stream of information throughout to fill in gaps. Another is the complexity of the film's structure which unfolds in an overly complex set of flashbacks, mostly to keep the stream of information flowing. It leads to the next, which is that the script is effectively playing with us just as much as the Jigsaw Killer is playing with his victims. Most annoying to me was how Wan and Whannell task us with figuring out their puzzle but deem us incapable of reading the periodic notes. In fact, that's not just annoying, it's insulting.

I stand by my rating of Saw as a capable and original thriller, especially considering its budget, even if its varied issues become more and more apparent with repeat viewings. I'm hardly going to complain much about a movie that spurs us to think earning close to a hundred times what it cost to produce. It certainly deserves to be judged on its own merits and not merely as part of a franchise which soon came to value the cruel ingenuity of its traps over clear stories and its characters, which are less believable as the films ran on. It also can't be judged on its legacy, which directly led to more overt examples of the torture porn genre. I firmly believe that it's been mostly forgotten in favour of its even more successful sequels and I wonder how it'll be received when it's re-released in theatres this Hallowe'en for its tenth anniversary. It may bring some respect back to the franchise, which is far more successful commercially than critically, but it may disappoint people used to the more extreme material in the sequels.

Saturday 27 September 2014

Gamera vs Guiron (1969)

Director: Noriaki Yuasa
Stars: Nobuhiro Kajima, Miyuki Akiyama and Christopher Murphy
This film was an official selection at the 9th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.
Tonight we went to the drive in for free movie night, but we left after Guardians of the Galaxy as the other half of the double bill was the reboot of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Once through that mess of a movie is enough for me, so I avoided a second viewing by heading home instead to watch a memorable turtle picture, Gamera vs Guiron, the fifth movie in Daiei's original Gamera series which was released Stateside by American International Pictures as Attack of the Monsters. Even in their television print, in a full screen ratio with an English dub and notably faded colour, it's still a great deal more fun than that latest Michael Bay debacle. Seen as it should be seen, in the widescreen version issued by Shout! Factory on DVD in the original Japanese and with crisp colour, it's a real treat. It's also a wilder ride because it restores the fight scene between Guiron and Space Gyaos to its full glory, one of those gloriously inappropriate moments in Japanese children's entertainment that make us wonder if we're watching a movie or dreaming one.

Now, let's be clear before we begin. This is an awful movie by most standards and it's not surprising that Mystery Science Theater 3000 riffed on no less than five of the eight Showa era Gamera movies. In fact, it did so twice, firstly with a five episode marathon during its initial run on KTMA in Minneapolis, currently the earliest surviving episodes of the show, then again in episodes scattered throughout season three of the regular syndicated show, its debut season on Comedy Central. They riffed on another version of this film, dubbed into English by Sandy Frank Entertainment so poorly that its voice acting became a running joke in itself. However awful the film is, we shouldn't forget that this was a movie for children, with a pair of boys in the lead roles, and, kaiju fans aside, it's easy to see how it would play much better to a young audience. Akio and Tom go on a great adventure, flying a spaceship to an alien planet, where they watch monsters fight, meet strange ladies, get saved by Gamera and return home safely. What glorious fun!

Bizarrely, it starts out in a completely boring fashion, especially for kids, with no less than three sections before we can finally be introduced to Akio and Tom and get down to business. First up is an introduction that effectively lets us on in the scientific secret that space is big, before pointing out to us that a star is in trouble. Then we get the opening credits, which unfold over some sort of lava flow, which I hope isn't supposed to be the star in trouble. Finally, we meet Dr Shiga, in the form of Eiji Funakoshi, who returns to the series after playing the lead, Dr Hidaka, in the first Gamera movie. He's supposedly here to explain to the assembled press that the strange waves from space they're receiving aren't the same ones the Brits are getting. We hear delightfully squeaky space age sound effects, courtesy of some delightfully squeaky analogue technology. Really he's in the movie to explain to the kids watching why none of the planets in our solar system are viable candidates for the source, which is nonetheless somewhere nearby!
Fortunately, we have Akio and Tom on the case. They've been trying to figure out where the waves have been coming from too, using the portable telescope they keep on Akio's balcony. Akio is a believable boy scientist, as Nobuhiro Kajima ably captures a magic combination of knowledge, optimism and discovery. Surprisingly, this was his only film. Tom, on the other hand, who is as Japanese as the name suggests, is very much stuck in the role of Akio's sidekick, Christopher Murphy proving endearing but apparently not capable of actually displaying emotion on screen. He does appear to be fluent in the Japanese language; if he was dubbed, it wasn't by Sandy Frank Entertainment! The kawaii factor is reserved for little Tomoko, Akio's younger sister, left behind when the boys embark on their adventure for no reason other than to be disbelieved when she explains to mum that they tracked a spaceship on their telescope to the vacant lot where they play, cycled over in the morning and promptly flew away in it. That's every day in Japan!

The spaceship is an obvious model, of course, but it's a cool one with huge fins and a revolving top. It's designed in a minimalist style with a few abstract wall designs and a preponderence of triangles, but few actual controls. Then again, it is flown by apparent remote control, even if we're supposed to believe for a moment or two that the kids successfully launched it themselves. We are asked to buy into a great deal here. Given that they're hurtling into space at ludicrous speed, the sparkly meteor that quickly threatens to fly into them must really have been flying backwards at just less than ludicrous speed. Either that or the laws of physics don't apply and we don't want to go there yet, given the early emphasis on science. Fortunately for them, Gamera is apparently cruising in their immediate vicinity and he promptly steps in to save them, before flying in convoy for a while so that we can sing along with the Gamera theme song. Sure, this is a kids' movie, but these plot conveniences aren't just ridiculous, they're blatant too.
Then again, we can't argue too much about little details like this when we're watching a movie featuring a giant, jet-propelled, spacefaring turtle, hardly the most grounded character in Japanese cinema; even Godzilla seems completely believable by comparison. However Gamera was one of the major box office successes of Daiei, one of a half dozen great studios of postwar Japan. They produced Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon, the first Japanese film to win an international award, both the Golden Bear at the Venice Film Festival and an honorary Academy Award (the Best Foreign Language Film award hadn't been introduced yet). They produced Teinosuke Kinugasa's Gate of Hell, the first Japanese film to screen internationally in colour; it also won an honorary Oscar and the Palme d'Or at Cannes. They also produced such legendary Japanese films as Kenji Mizoguchi's Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff, Yasujiro Ozu's Floating Weeds and the long running Shintaro Katsu series, Zatoichi the Blind Swordsman. Gamera was in good company.

Akio and Tom soon find themselves in bad company. Landing on an alien planet, the first thing they see is Space Gyaos, an alien version of Gamera's most popular enemy painted silver. Gyaos is a giant airborne monster with a triangular head who had been introduced in the third movie, Gamera vs Gyaos, and would return later in the first Heisei era movie, Gamera: Guardian of the Universe, and the Millennium era film, Gamera the Brave. These eras don't denote period Japanese settings, by the way, just the different series that Gamera has appeared in so far: seven Showa films from 1965 to 1971 and an eighth in 1980 as the studio was facing bankruptcy, three Heisei titles in the late nineties and one Millennium picture in 2006. Gamera is portrayed differently in each of these eras, with a different design and different powers. The Showa era saw him released by a nuclear explosion from natural cryogenic storage in the Arctic circle to apparently fly around and save children. He retracts his legs to ignite his jets and is able to breathe fire.

Here's where we get that amazing fight scene that was censored for Attack of the Monsters. It's not a long battle, as the very first blow is a self inflicted injury, with a laser from the eyes of Space Gyaos bouncing off Guiron and severing its own leg. Guiron is an odd monster, not only in how it looks but also in how it fights. Space Gyaos looks like the standard Japanese actor in a big rubber suit, but Guiron mostly restricts itself to crouching on all fours, its huge knife shaped head apparently weighing it down. Then it leaps into the air when the time is right to slice something off its enemy, like the wing it neatly removes from Space Gyaos's body in mid-air, sending it into a spin and a crash landing. Then it jumps again to sever the other wing on the ground, leaving the monster with only one of its four limbs left. Our eyes are already wide as we're not used to seeing severed kaiju limbs wriggling on the ground or spurting purple kaiju blood, but it continues. Guiron decapitates his rival, then proceeds to chop off more slices. Remember, kids' movie!
Of course, we're going to end up with Gamera battling Guiron as the title has to mean something, but it'll take a while before we get there. First, we need to watch Akio and Tom explore the nearby alien city until they run into the only two inhabitants left on the planet. Naturally, they're cute Japanese ladies, but that's amazingly explained, as is their ability to speak fluent Japanese. It isn't explained well, but it is explained! They're Barbella and Florbella, names which ironically translate to Sweet as a Bird and Pretty as a Flower, given that they're planning to eat our heroes' brains and invade the planet Earth with the advanced tech from their dying civilisation. They have teleportation wigwams, a remote control spaceship and a device that allows them to change their speech into any language, really useful when you're the only two people left on the entire planet. Guiron is their watchdog, who protects them from other giant monsters; beyond a giant knife shaped head, he can also hurl shuriken through telekinesis. Remember, kids' movie!

I don't know about you, but when I was six, I'd have fallen in love with a movie where kids accompany a jet propelled turtle to an alien planet in their hijacked spaceship, teleport around an alien city, narrowly avoid having their brains eaten by cute alien women and yet still get home in time for supper. Having a set of monsters like Gamera, Guiron and Space Gyaos is just icing on the cake, especially as it's notably gory icing. You just don't see bizarre monsters counting down to the moment where they decapitate an enemy on Teletubbies or Bob the Builder and they don't feature a single drop of spurting alien monster blood. I could argue that the western world might be a much more interesting place if they did. Don't get me started on Japanese TV shows where child actors get to shoot guns in the holy name of saving their country, their world and their universe. Sure, Japanese children get to spend way more hours at school cramming for exams, but they get wildly imaginative wish fulfilment television, so that's a fair trade off.'

Now that I'm much older than six, it's impossible not to see the wild flaws, leaps and conveniences that pervade this movie, and frankly I'm sure that my grandchildren would see them too. Perhaps I need to introduce them to Gamera movies like this one to see if they find the magic or the stupidity. It would be worth it to hear them singing the Gamera theme song instead of Carly Jepsen or Justin Bieber. I have no idea why Gamera vs Guiron was screened at the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival, as it didn't tie to anyone attending or any apparent theme. It merely followed another out of the blue classic selection at the 2012 festival, The Brain That Wouldn't Die. That slot didn't exist in the much smaller 2011 event and it wasn't continued into 2014, when the showcase features had plenty of interesting new movies to screen instead. The only classic shown in 2014 was Cujo, with Dee Wallace-Stone there to give a Q&A. Now, I'd have gone to Gamera vs Guiron if Christopher Murphy had been there to talk about it!

Wednesday 24 September 2014

The New Janitor (1914)

Director: Charles Chaplin
Star: Charlie Chaplin, Jess Dandy, Jack Dillon and Peggy Page
I'm reviewing each of the 36 films Charlie Chaplin made for Keystone Studios in 1914 on the centennial of their original releases. Here's an index to these reviews.
From the distance of a century, we can mostly only guess at what went through Chaplin's mind during his last few months at Keystone but we do know some things for sure and others seem like safe guesses. For a start, he was clearly both an ambitious man and a perfectionist, attributes which led his drive to direct his own films. At this point, he had no less than 27 pictures already behind him that had generally done better than regular Keystone product. He had also been his only director for a couple of months and was enjoying the learning process. Each new short during this period seems to highlight how he nailed down a new technique, to build on with the next. The Masquerader, three pictures earlier, was by far the most ambitious film he'd made, allowing him to tell more than one story. With His New Profession, he told his story in more than one location, bouncing around rapidly. The Rounders was an experiment in pacing and The New Janitor combines all those techniques to great effect within the best sets he'd worked on yet.

So Chaplin was moving relentlessly forward, to the degree that this doesn't even feel like a Keystone film or one from 1914. He must have been very aware that he was closing in on the end of his year's contract at the studio too and, as he says in his autobiography, he 'knew the ephemera of it'. In other words, even as his films got better, grander and more consistent, he wasn't counting on any lasting fame, so he asked Mack Sennett for a thousand dollars a week, which his boss pointed out was more than he earned himself as the owner of the studio. Chaplin merely replied that 'the public doesn't line up outside the box-office when your name appears as they do for mine.' Of course, he didn't get it, but Essanay offered him more: $1,250 per week, along with a $10,000 signing bonus, so naturally he jumped ship. This discussion with Sennett appears to have been somewhere in August, meaning that while he was making The New Janitor late in that month, he already knew that he was leaving, even if he didn't know where he was going.

My interpretation of his late 1914 work is that he was learning all he could in preparation for his move to a new studio, whichever it would be. He slowed down to a less frantic and more consistent pace than he had kept throughout the year; both June and August had seen five new Chaplin pictures in theatres, with only one in July, but from this point forward it was two shorts each month, with only one extra in October. Generally speaking, he took longer to make them too, presumably because he could, with a gap between each of them. He still kept a busy schedule, but he was averaging a new picture every two weeks rather than every one, and he wasn't overlapping productions any more. Clearly he wasn't only experimenting with the cinematic toolbox, he was also learning how to produce a picture in a sustainable, professional manner. This progression usually takes new fish years to achieve, but it's somehow appropriate that the madcap factory that was Keystone gave Chaplin the opportunity to do it in only one.
While he devotes little space in his autobiography to his time at Keystone, merely a lone chapter, he does take time to explain something he learned specifically while shooting The New Janitor. As the character of the title, he finds himself at one point fired by the president of the company for which he works, hardly a surprising act given that he's just dumped a bucket of soapy water on him from a dozen floors up in the company skyscraper. 'In pleading with him to take pity on me and let me retain my job,' he explained, 'I started to pantomime appealingly that I had a large family of little children. Although I was enacting mock sentiment, Dorothy Davenport, an old actress, was on the sidelines watching the scene, and during rehearsal I looked up and to my surprise found her in tears. 'I know it's supposed to be funny,' she said, 'but you just make me weep.' She confirmed something I already felt: I had the ability to evoke tears as well as laughter.'' This pantomiming didn't make it into the resulting film, but the feeling did.

What struck me immediately with The New Janitor was the sets, which seem to be much roomier and far more ambitious than I'm used to seeing in Chaplin's Keystone shorts. We start out in the company lobby, with its chequered floor, marble stairs and apparently working lift. The elevator boy, Al St John, is cheeky enough to avoid letting him in, so he walks the twelve flights up to the top floor, which could be the very same set from a slightly different angle, but with the stairs changed. He quickly moves down the corridor outside the executives' offices, with its panelled walls and window to the outside world, then enters one of those offices, with another window and a wall covered with the little drawers that hold cards. Another blink and we're in the president's office, with its prominent safe and a third window. That's five locations in less than two minutes, with different floors, walls and props. That might not seem like much to us, but some of Chaplin's early films never left a single square room.

Of course, these are still clearly sets, the work of the Keystone carpenters commendable but not strong enough for us to buy that we're in a real skyscraper, at least until Charlie almost falls out of the one real window, the one in the president's office. The others are painted, as are the drawers, the panelling and the marbling on the staircases, but it took more work to put it all together, both mentally and physically, than Keystone usually took. The shots of the outside of the building are real, with Chaplin really hanging out of that window; Jeffrey Vance identified it as the Marsh-Strong Building at 9th & Main in Los Angeles, built only a year earlier. John Bengtson, 'the great detective of silent film locations', highlights how close this building is to other locations Chaplin used in other Keystone films, such as His Musical Career, only four films away. This scene is what Vance calls a 'high and dizzy' scene, a couple of years before Harold Lloyd and others would make them popular in comedy films as thrilling as they were comedic.
Once the sets are established, what leaps out are the characters and how they all have a purpose within the script. It's long been suggested that Keystone pictures didn't have scripts at all, just starting points from which to improvise a succession of gags, but that belief was firmly debunked by Simon Louvish's book, Keystone: The Life and Clowns of Mack Sennett, which reprints many of Sennett's scripts. They're hardly traditional scripts with stage directions and dialogue, but they do show how much thought often went into the progression of the stories. I raise this here because I can't remember another picture made at Keystone that screamed so loudly that it had a firmly defined script. Each of the characters is defined, with their own motivations and their own story arcs. Novelist Gini Koch once told me that a writer should be able to imagine their story from the perspective of any of its characters and it's clear that Chaplin set his script up with that sort of idea in mind. He's the lead, but everyone else has their place too.

And there are a few such characters, even if we discount St John's elevator boy, whose part is restricted to forcing Chaplin to use the stairs. There's a villain, one of the company's managers who might work in the office opposite the president's but still owes a lot of money to a bookie. His story arc is established quickly, as the debt is being called in and he only has a day to raise the funds or he'll be exposed. With a safe on the other side of the hallway, it's clear what his direction will be. The president gets to show two sides too, initially a negative one as Charlie accidentally drenches him with the water he's using to wash his windows, but a positive one later on when Charlie comes good during the big holdup scene. Stuck in between is the president's secretary, whose honesty proves to be Charlie's salvation, albeit not because he absentmindedly dusts her backside after the safe. The story couldn't exist without all four characters, but she's the glue that keeps them and their scenes tied together.
Of course, as tends to be the case with the ladies in Keystone pictures, her identity is unclear. IMDb says it's Peggy Page, who Charlie manhandled in His New Profession, and certainly the two actresses look a lot alike. Wikipedia suggests that it's Helen Carruthers, as it did in His New Profession, perhaps because she appeared in so many of Chaplin's Keystone shorts. The BFI claims that Minta Durfee played the part, but it's clearly not her so we can discount that suggestion. Whoever it is, she does her job capably, showing some elegance and charm even before being choked out by the villain, even though she's a second rank player at Keystone like most of the rest of the cast. Her boss and Charlie's is Jess Dandy, who appears in most of Chaplin's films at this point, while the massively experienced Jack Dillon is the thieving manager. He started out in film as early as 1908 and had over a hundred films to his name by this point, albeit with few left to go. So many of these silent actors didn't even get to fail to make the transition to sound.

While The New Janitor can hardly be said to be a sophisticated piece of work today, it was at this point in Chaplin's career. It's less funny than many of his prior films, mostly because the gags refuse to stand in the way of the story and exist to serve it instead. There are some neat ones, such as when Chaplin holds the would be thief at gunpoint by pointing the gun through his own legs while he's bent over double, or when he clambers over his broom when entering the president's office because he apparently can't turn it round; the moments where he nearly falls out of the window are notable too. However, it's much more consistent than his pictures had been up until this moment, lavishly outfitted (at least for Keystone) and thoughtfully constructed. It serves as yet another step forward for Chaplin, in what feels like his cleanest and most progressive picture thus far with one of his more likeable parts. While historically important, it's occasionally difficult to enjoy Chaplin's more primitive pictures, but this one is an easy one to like.

Important Sources:
John Bengtson - Rare Chaplin Scenes in Downtown Los Angeles
Charlie Chaplin - My Autobiography (1964)
Simon Louvish - Keystone: The Life and Clowns of Mack Sennett (2003)
Jeffrey Vance - Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema (2003)

The New Janitor can be watched for free at YouTube.

To see the restored versions of Chaplin's Keystone films in all their glory, it's highly recommended that you pick up the Flicker Alley box set, Chaplin at Keystone. It omits only Her Friend the Bandit, which is considered a lost film, and half of A Thief Catcher, which was previously thought lost but now recovered. The full version debuted in The Mack Sennett Collection Vol 1.

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Kiss of the Damned (2012)

Director: Xan Cassavetes
Stars: Josephine de la Baume, Roxane Mesquida, Milo Ventimiglia, Anna Mouglalis, Michael Rapaport and Riley Keough
This film was an official selection at the 9th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.
When you're the daughter of pioneering American indie filmmaker John Cassavetes and his wife, actress Gena Rowlands, anything you do in film is going to bring up that connection. Surely one reason why Xan Cassavetes wrote and directed Kiss of the Damned as her feature debut is because it's as far away from anything her father made as could be imagined. John made exceptionally personal pictures, usually in a cinéma vérité style, that were often uncomfortably realistic, constructed out of grit and sweat and sheer acting ability. This is nothing of the sort, instead being a throwback to the sort of arthouse horror movies that only the Europeans made, auteurs like Jean Rollin, Dario Argento or Jess Franco. Like so many of the films Rollin made, this is mostly style over substance, telling its simple story mostly through visual style, building a dreamy atmosphere out of blood, sex and architecture. Casting mostly European actors helps ensure that it sounds authentic to that approach too.

That's not to say that this would be mistaken for a Rollin picture. While a great deal of care and attention is given to make the film feel older than it is, not through artificial aging but through stylistic choices, the anomalies can't be accidental. The very first shot of Djuna has her firmly occupying two eras, watching a Vittorio de Sica movie from 1953 while working on a modern Apple laptop. Before long, she visits a video rental store apparently entirely stocked with VHS tapes, but she's returning DVDs. Clearly, the message is that the movie is contemporary but consciously made in an old fashioned style. This style is everywhere as the film begins, immediately and deliberately setting down its goalposts. The font used for the title is one borrowed from Rollin's 1979 feature, Fascination, in decadent purple. We're shown still shots of the countryside, as we listen to a calmly pulsing soundtrack that quickly gives way to some Italian prog rock beats, a soft flute and soon just the wind. Whatever else this is, there's no false advertising to be found.

It's also notably sparse on dialogue, as Rollin's movies usually were, like a silent movie with speech, if that apparent contradiction makes sense. When Djuna catches sight of Paolo in the video store, she says nothing but runs outside as if to escape his charm; of course he follows. Forced to a stop as it's pouring with rain, they swap names and we leap forward to a bar. In a rare talky scene, they swap more in depth introductions: he's in isolation to write a script, while she's staying at a friend's house, translating poetry and literature into different languages, as quintessentially European as her French accent suggests. She also explains that she has a skin condition that prevents her from experiencing sunlight. Then it's to her house, where they watch Viridiana silently and get close. This unfolds without a word until she says 'no'. She makes him leave, even though she clearly doesn't want him to go, then cries in the huge bathtub as the camera backs away to leave her be. All the dialogue could have been told in intertitles.
The biggest problem the movie has is the way that we're supposed to buy into pretty much any aspect of Paolo's character. Initially it was his naïveté which annoyed me but soon it became his motivation. All the poor moments early on tie to the characters, who are poorly written, while all the great ones are visual. I loved the look of the piece: the very deliberate lighting choices, whether they're to make a scene lush or stark; the composition of frame, some shots looking rather like old paintings; the fluid camera motion, such as when Djuna floats down the stairs; the choice of camera angles, like when we look down on the pair of prospective lovers devouring themselves through a chained door. Yet I hated the characters: the way that Djuna and Paolo fall both in love and lust with each other at literally first glance; her weakness and his one track mind; the way he refuses to leave, even when every fibre of his being must have been telling him to get the hell away from this lunatic woman.

She even tells him that she's a vampire fifteen minutes into the picture; he doesn't believe her, of course, so she lets him chain her onto the bed so she can't hurt him. We're enjoying the choice of camera angles and motion even as we completely fail to buy into either character's motivations. Naturally, she changes, fangs and bright contacts betraying who she really is. Yet he doesn't leave; he unchains her instead and walks around in slow motion, exuding alpha male power even as he sets himself up completely to be her victim. He pretty clearly bares his throat for her too as they're reaching the moment. 'I would have done anything to be with you,' he tells her, 'however insane.' I presume we're supposed to be feeling the love and the fantasy and the romance of it all, but we're really just trying to figure out why he'd be so foolish. There's thinking with your pecker and there's not walking away from an admittedly gorgeous young lady when you've known her five minutes and she's shedding tears over how she's going to kill you.

What follows is as clichéd as it is stylish. To underline Paolo's naïveté, he apparently has no clue what a vampire is, so Djuna explains it all with not a single surprise on our part. I can appreciate that they don't sparkle, but everything is so utterly traditional that we wonder what Cassavetes is going to bring to the table. Even here, everything we appreciate is visual, like the way we're given scenes so colour saturated that they could be hand tinted black and white. I actually wondered here if none of this was real and we were watching a visualisation of Paolo's writing process, all extrapolated from that one glimpse of Djuna in the video store. Maybe he's writing a vampire movie but doesn't have the imagination for it. I do like the idea that a vampire and a human can fall in love, but you know, maybe there should be a little more build to it than, 'You're cute, please bite me.' There must be a way for them to do lunch first, maybe out under the stars with her conspicuously only drinking a rare vintage of red wine.
Given how cloying and clichéd it had already become, I found myself aching for something new and not just the abstract blur of Paolo's first kill. I wondered if it was finally going to arrive when a new character drives up to the house 27 minutes into the picture. She's Mimi, another French vampire all dressed up in the Sunglasses After Dark aesthetic, in from Amsterdam to stay for a week on her way to a sort of rehab ranch for vampires in Phoenix. 'She's a disturbed creature,' Djuna tells Paolo, 'a crazy freak'. We're ready for the cutesy stuff to get completely shaken up, because if Djuna is the epitome of a romantic vampire, Mimi is clearly the animalistic flipside of the race and there's no chance that they'll peacefully share the same roof for long. While Djuna is elegance, poise and control, Mimi is wild, emotionless and nihilistic. It does bode well for improvement, but sadly, we're only inflicted with an acute bout of bitchy vampire self loathing, which doesn't help the story in the slightest.

There are good moments to come, but bizarrely none of them are tied to any of the characters to which we've been introduced thus far. We've spent half an hour, almost a third of the running time, watching a pair of characters we don't care about wonder if another character we care about even less will cause a problem for them. At this point, I was mostly wondering if I could ask the projectionist to switch to French language and English subtitles. Most of the good moments revolve around Xenia, a vampire actress who owns the house that everyone else is staying in. At least with her we get something new, a neat vampire take on Alcoholics Anonymous because Xenia, like Djuna, feeds on animals rather than people. It's been forty years without a taste of human blood for Xenia and Mimi's 'a disturbed creature', remember? I like that whole sequence, which is as capably and enticingly written as the rest is cheap and clichéd. Up to then, the best part is that Irene, the housekeeper, is safe because she has a rare blood disorder.

The reason I keep harping on about the writing is that it quickly jeopardises the film and eventually sinks it, the ending proving even more dissatisfying than the beginning. What's so frustrating about the writing is that everything else around it is strong, especially the visual aesthetic which nails its goal to replicate the old Rollin feel. It's telling that even the vampire threesome is boring, not because it isn't shot well but because we have so little connection to anything except the camerawork at this point that we just don't care. Mimi is apparently a centuries old creature of the night, a talented predator, but she acts more like a pouty little thirteen year old girl. At points I seriously wondered if I'd blinked during her sparkling scene. If the primary goal Xan Cassavetes had with this film was to make something so utterly unlike her father's work, so as to establish herself as a filmmaker of her own, she succeeded magnificently. He avoided style and delivered substance; here, with Kiss of the Damned, she did the exact opposite.

Monday 22 September 2014

Play Dead (2012)

Directors: Shade Rupe & Teller
Star: Todd Robbins
This film was an official selection at the 9th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.
Play Dead is an odd film to see at a film festival, given that it's not really a film at all, it's a filmed record of a stage performance. Now, you might be imagining a teacher sitting at the back of a school hall with a camera on a tripod documenting kids performing their summer play, but this is much more imaginative than that, both as a stage performance and a recording of it. That's not too surprising, given that Teller (of Penn and Teller fame) directed the stage show and co-directed this film version of it with Shade Rupe. However, the same flaw applies equally to this and the school play, namely that we can't interact with a recording. That's by far the biggest problem with this picture, as this stage show featuring magician and carnival showman, Todd Robbins is emphatically a participatory one. It sets up all sorts of gimmickry that is surely a riot for those attending in person, but we're stuck on the other side of the fourth wall so get to merely watch the reactions of those who attended. We can't experience a rollercoaster on television.

Teller is a magician, of course, well known for performances where he explains his tricks at the very same time that he's bamboozling us with them. He's also known for his TV show, Penn & Teller: Bullshit! which allowed the duo to debunk dishonesty wherever they could find it, including in such fields as professional mediums. It's therefore no surprise to find him interested in Robbins's interactive throwback to the 'spook shows of the 1940s' where he does both of those things at once, setting up apparent connections to the spirit world that he then debunks as a carnival trick. Robbins's own background strongly fits the material too. He discovered magic at the age of ten and gradually progressed up through the ranks, but because it wasn't paying the bills he sidestepped into the carnival scene, working in a Coney Island sideshow doing all the old time acts: swallowing swords, hammering nails into his nostrils and eating fire and light bulbs. He kicks off this show by chewing up a light bulb with gusto.

Well, technically he kicks off the show by building up the theatricality of the performance, because we're unable to forget that this is a stage event. His first act is to plunge the entire theatre into darkness, right down to switching off the exit signs. Needless to say, there are young ladies in the audience who scream. Then, to introduce 'an evening of spooky entertainment', he gives audience members the opportunity to leave by turning over an hourglass. Once that runs out, the doors are locked. He wasn't kidding: if you're in, you're in; you don't get to skip out halfway through, whatever happens. We recognise gimmickry like this from William Castle, but he only brought it to cinema from the same spook shows that Robbins took influence from here. The sold out audience at the Players Theatre in Greenwich Village in the last days of the show's run in New York weren't passive observers, they were part of the show itself and locking them in merely ensured that they couldn't forget it.
At this point, Robbins was almost a year into the show. After a couple of weeks of workshop performances in Las Vegas and preview shows in New York, it officially opened off Broadway on 21st October, 2010 and ran until 24th July, 2011. However, it felt like he'd been working it for decades, stalking the stage and the theatre floor like a Satanic car salesman, in complete control of everyone in the audience and everything that might happen either to them or around them. He's a massively talented storyteller, which allows him to keep his audience captivated as he selects an apparently random file box from the stacks of them that provide the stage's backdrop and make it look like a bizarre underground museum. He then explores the history of the character whose effects are kept within it, a character with a strong association with death: child murderers, carnival geeks, fake mediums at society sex parties. Of course, that exploration isn't in the form of merely a lecture, it's a full on participatory experience.

The obvious success of what Robbins does here makes me wonder why these shows no longer pepper the landscape, but that's a wider subject than this review should cover. Sure, the elements that he brings to the stage are time honoured ones: Grand Guignol effects, spook show shenanigans, carnival magic tricks and spiritualistic explorations. Robbins approaches them all from a modern framework though, one that's reminiscent of Penn & Teller but with less of the technical aspect and more of the human connection. The material leaps all over the place in tone, but that only serves to keep the audience on the hop, unsure of where it's going to go next. One moment they're subjected to broad slapstick haunted house humour, the next focused in on poignant remembrance, only for nudity to appear out of nowhere. In less able hands, this would have been problematic, but with Robbins in charge, it's merely another way to emphasise how showmen can manipulate emotion. He does it impeccably even while he's talking about it.

Of course, it can't hurt that he talks about it with a clear voice that doesn't merely cajole and command, it even ventures into Vincent Price impersonation as he introduces some of the dead folk who inhabit his file boxes. Perhaps my favourite part arrives when he adds a new one, an audience member called Alan who writes his names and dates onto one of the boxes. I won't spoil how he bites the big one, because it deserves to wait for you to experience it yourself, so let's just say that it's a brutal and bloody act. What I appreciated most was how Robbins harangues the audience afterwards for their reaction to this heinous murder, given their rather different reaction to an earlier trick in which he apparently devoured a live rat. Everything in this show revolves around faith and how it can be manipulated by people with the will and the talent to do so. This is a show; everyone in the audience knows that Alan is alive somewhere, waiting to be reintroduced, but maybe the rat wasn't a trick. The light bulb wasn't, was it? How about the rat?
I won't spoil the other stories either, because they're also worthy of being experienced, but I will highlight that to do that properly, you really need to go to the show rather than find a way to see this recording of one. If anything, it might be worth seeing the show live, then following up with this film, because there are a few aspects included in this recording that you won't get from the live experience. Most obviously, there are a number of points where the theatre is plunged into complete darkness, not only to allow for Robbins's team to scare the crap out of the audience by cleverly exploiting their fears, but to allow us to witness what's really going on through the use of infra-red cameras. Shade Rupe recorded the show with panache before sending the footage on to Teller who edited it into its final form with the comedian and professional athiest, Emery Emery. Clearly video wouldn't work too well with scenes of utter darkness, so the infra-red approach was a key one to make the project possible.

There is a DVD for Play Dead, because I watched one as a film festival submission but, to the best of my knowledge, it isn't available for sale. I wonder if the goal is to restrict screenings to the festival circuit as an advert for the ongoing live show, perhaps suggesting that this will be released as and when the show ceases to be performed live. It would seem viable that it could be sold after the shows as a souvenir that adds a little extra insight to the experience people had just been through. It would seem that there's not just a show here, there's a message too, one that Harry Houdini gave a century ago. Robbins wants us to know that anyone who claims to communicate with the dead is a liar and a cheat; this show helps him to debunk their tricks by repeating and then exposing them in front of a live audience. That message is one that deserves to be shouted from the hilltops and a DVD would reach a lot more people than would eight shows a week. Given the choice, go see the show rather than the film, but this is a good follow up.

Sunday 21 September 2014

Necromentia (2009)

Director: Pearry Teo
Stars: Chad Grimes, Layton Matthews, Santiago Craig, Zelieann Rivera, Zach Cumer and Cole Braxton

Here's a feature that I've been aching to rewatch because, I have to confess, I slept through much of it at the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in 2009. I've fought sleep often at film festivals, where I'm in front of a screen for fifteen hours a day and talking outside for much of the rest, but this is the only time I really succumbed and, finally watching Necromentia afresh, I understand why. This is not a boring movie, by any means, and the sheer freakiness of it has stayed with me; even walking out of the theatre, I knew that this was a film I wanted to watch properly. Yet it's a hallucinatory dream of a picture that unfolds out of order and refuses to let us engage with it directly, preferring us to sit back and let it infiltrate all of our senses at once. Maybe I wasn't asleep, I was in a trance state. Even watching awake, it's tough to grasp everything that's going on until the end credits roll and then it's worth a discussion afterwards to make sure we got it all. I'm still unsure of a few details, but it won't be a hardship to revisit it once more.

Clearly, Pearry Teo wanted to deluge us with nightmarish hallucinations, a more consistent vision of what Clive Barker's work could have been in Hellraiser, if eventually a safer one too. He begins immediately, as the opening credits unfold in a gothic font to the accompaniment of enticing and often forbidden imagery and agreeably layered sound. As the film proper begins, we see much of the same with further montages blistered at us with editing that's so fast that it comes close to shifting into subliminals. Merely blink and you'll miss things you won't see again. The visuals are notably edited in synchronisation with the music, emphasising the experience of it all over the detail. We're shown a monster immediately, flashing in and out so we can't quite take everything in at once, just some conglomeration of muscles, chains and bulk. A man wakes up in an industrial setting, his back covered in bloody symbols, to be harangued by a weird monochrome figure in a gas mask and vaguely medical antique cagework.

We aren't introduced to this strange figure, but the man is Hagen, initially called to by a whispering girl's voice but then harangued in a barrage of words which echo the visual montages, spoken like a demonic throat singer in tones that are both deep and high pitched, as if they're being issued from more than one mouth. 'Elizabeth is dead,' he's informed. 'You were given a choice.' 'Tormented for all eternity.' 'Instead you chose Hell.' By the time we reach, 'You will be punished,' we're shown only blackness. Then we back up to see some of why he's here. Hagen is a strange one too, talking soothingly to a corpse in a bathtub. His glasses are cracked and taped; she has a rictus grin and her hair is starting to fall out. He bathes her anyway and waits patiently for her to return to him. She promised to come back from death, apparently, so only time sits between them now and with it, a routine of 'daily maintenance' to ensure that when she does return, it's as comfortably as possible. Oh yeah, he's more than a few cards short of a full deck.
Now, if this scene wasn't freaky enough, there's a lot going on here to emphasise to us how freaky it's all supposed to be. For a start, it unfolds with a curious colour palette, more yellow and green than it should but with that gangrenous feel somehow appropriate. The metal framework in which he encases her could easily be a home made torture device as much as an amalgam of medical equipment. The camera is an ever-moving thing, rarely staying still even when it's static, as if there's something alive in the air around them. Playing in the background, a little deeper than we expect, is Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, but it sounds more like a music box than a piano and perhaps not entirely at the right speed. Even Hagen, the only active character on screen, squints continually through the attachments that hide his full face and talks his crazy talk in a really quiet, clearly obsessive, voice. The set design here is magnificent and the choices on the technical side are no less, everything tilting us just away from the familiar.

You'll notice that I haven't said anything about the story yet and that's for a very good reason. We really don't have much idea what the story is until at least two thirds of the way into the movie. For now, Teo is content with drenching us in weirdness until the freaky tone that pervades the film is firmly established, enough that we occasionally wonder if it's about to escape it into reality. It's by far the greatest success of the film, because it's notably woven out of each of the elements that might contribute: the sound and the score (which here are often indistinguishable); the camerawork, framing and colour palette; the sets and the props that fill them; the way that everything normal in the script is translated instead into fetish or deviant equivalents; and the effects work, which feels entirely practical and analogue, right down to body painting as minimalist costuming. Everything is designed very carefully so that we recognise each detail that then grows into something else, something outlandish and surreal. We can bathe in it.

As to the story, it's almost impossible to detail any of it without venturing into spoiler territory, because it revolves around four different people, possibly five, who are connected in ways that we don't initially see, but whose connections are eventually revealed. For the most part, the story unfolds backwards, so that if I tell you the basics, which is doable in as few as a couple of lines, it will bypass that process of discovery and affect how you're supposed to experience it. Let me introduce the characters as you'll meet them, so you can attempt to figure it out anyway. Hagen is one, of course, as is the corpse which he's preserving in such a creepily loving manner. We have no idea what he does, but he might be the janitor for a barber's shop. We have no idea what she does either, but she's the Elizabeth we were told about in the first scene with the grey painted gas masked throat singer dude. The other two key players are Morbius and Travis, with the fifth being Travis's little brother, Thomas, who may or may not be even more important still.
We meet Travis early in the film, so there's no spoiler there. He comes to see Hagen, who he shaves with a straight razor forcefully. He's been watching him and what he does with the corpse, so has a proposition for him, one that could bring Elizabeth back to him. He has maps to the borders of the other side; he can find the doors, but he needs a key to get through them and that's where Hagen comes in. As Travis, Chad Grimes is tasked with grounding the acting side of the film. We may have met Hagen first, but he's more of a pawn than a first rank piece; while Hagen is best when he's under someone else's thumb, the actor playing him, Santiago Craig, is best when he isn't, because he can believably veer away from reality into his own freaky mindset. Travis is a more interesting character, because he's dominant over some but the plaything of others. Grimes does well in both aspects, carving people up for a living, caring for his little brother or being talked into things within hallucinations while high on ketamine.

I won't say what part Morbius has to play, but Layton Matthews puts on a magnetic show in this film, both in costume and out of it. If Grimes often resembles Chuck Norris, partly through his facial hair and partly through his demeanour, Matthews more obviously channels Alexander Skarsgård, if you can imagine him as an angel. All the actors deliver here, except Zelieann Rivera, who looks and moves great, but whose delivery is terrible. Fortunately she has the smallest part to play of the key characters, so it's not hard to look past that. Zach Cumer has the toughest role to play as Thomas, a mentally retarded young man who is confined to a wheelchair and contemplates suicide with the assistance of The Mr Skinny Show, which I assume isn't on the weird television that can't tune in visuals but is conjured up instead out of his broken brain. Whichever, the half giant pig, half sumo wrestler who's wrapped in barbed wire and plays carnival music is a genius creation, a notch up the freaky scale from the rest of the freakiness in this movie.

I'm tempted to say that the story is a downside, not because it's bad but because it's given a much lower level of importance than the feel. I adored the feel, but wanted the story to have a little more substance and a little less obscurity. The picture could still function as a dark hallucinatory experience even with an underlying story that makes complete sense or reveals more of itself earlier in the running time. I did like the way that some of the freakiest settings weren't really explained, such as Travis's day job. I've no idea how he'd detail his job description, but it's edgy enough to fit the story and the aesthetic both. When he brings in a babysitter to keep Thomas from finding a way to commit suicide while he's working, he finds another freak who just wants to read his Abasiophilia magazine. Given that abasiophilia is a fascination, often a sexual one, for people with physical disablities, and that the issue of the magazine the babysitter brings is the wheelchair fetish issue, he's hardly a great choice. I like that this is left in the background.
What I would say is a downside is the lack of follow through. Writer Stephanie Joyce fleshes out a story by Teo with panache, presumably responsible for the majority of the agreeable deviancy that populates this picture. However, while Teo conjures up an aesthetic to match that deviancy, with the able assistance of Timothy Andrew Edwards (music), Darin Meyer (cinematography), Damian Drago (editing), Clifton Dance (production design) and Catherine Joyce (art direction), among others, he doesn't seem willing to follow through and show it. For a picture so relentlessly outré, we see a lot less of it than we might think, much of it conjured up through suggestion and clever filmmaking rather than through actually putting it on the screen. The abasiophilia is kept just a freaky background detail just as Hagen's necrophilia is restricted to dialogue, The gorgeous cenobite-inspired monster does little and the gore effects aren't used remotely as often as our minds might remember.

And I wonder why. If Joyce and Teo wanted to be this edgy, why would they stay this polite about it? That to me is the biggest mistake of the film. If they'd have shown everything that they raise, this ought to be a notable cult hit, potentially a thing of legend in underground cinema. Certainly I've never seen a movie with such a consistently out there aesthetic. Hellraiser gets there at points, such as the design of the box and the cenobites (and the soundtrack by Coil that Barker wanted but wasn't used), but it isn't remotely as consistent with its look and feel. It talks about a journey to Hell, while Necromentia firmly suggests we were there all along. In the end, one of its strongest points turns out to also be one of its weakest, that it remains a true horror movie, unwilling to pander to any potential audience and telling precisely the story it wants to tell. This is the one film I wish had lost its restraint and pulled out all the stops. With restraint, it's a powerful immersion into nightmare; without it, it could have been a milestone.