Sunday, 19 November 2017
Fish N’ Blood
The Lure (aka Córki Dancingu)
Poland 2015 Directed by Agnieszka Smoczynska
Criterion Collection - available in US & UK as appropriate zone.
What if I told you that here is a film which tells the story of two flesh eating mermaid sisters who work with their mother in a strip club? What if I further told you that it’s a musical? And how about if I told you it’s an adaptation of The Little Mermaid, complete with nudity and gory violence?
Honestly, it only took knowing the first of those three propositions to hook me into The Lure. The musical numbers scattered prolifically about this movie are just the icing on the cake. As for The Little Mermaid? Well I don’t know the story and I haven’t seen any of the cinematic iterations of it over the years, except this one. I can’t imagine the Disney version ends the same way as the original story does, however and, it would be true to say that I suspect, in terms of its end game, this one echoes the source material a little closer... although without the end coda of hope and reward that the original story kinda drops into the mix as a spoonful of sugar to make the bitter pill of that original ending go down a little smoother.
However, I was blissfully unaware of the original story when I started watching this so... all the better when the characters here start talking about eating a certain character before one of them turns into sea foam and such forth, I guess. But I’m ahead of myself.
It’s been a while since I was properly looking at Polish cinema, I think. I’ve probably not seen any since the death of one of my favourite directors, Krzysztof Kieslowski, back in 1996. This one could well get me back into it though because it’s a meticulously crafted and beautiful film and I have to stop and give credit here to fellow tweeter and movie/art blogger Alex Kittle for giving me the ‘heads up’ on this one (and you can read her review of this film here).
I knew I was onto a good thing from the opening logo to the picture. It’s obviously a company that’s been put together to make this particular film, I would guess, as the animated logo shows two mermaids swimming in the sky around a long, phallic tower which starts ejaculating fireworks. It was possibly worth the price of the considerably expensive Criterion Collection CD for just this few seconds of imagery but, honestly, this is one of those films that doesn’t stop giving.
The opening credits are equally beautiful with some nice, minimalist animated work depicting the mermaid sister protagonists of the film in some kind of aquatic cave... the skulls and skeletons of their dead human victims piled up around their natural environment or bobbing on the surface of the water.
We then have a strange prologue which I didn’t quite understand, where the two sisters swim to the bank of a canal and, as I originally thought, ate two men. However, these men seem to be the same two characters who dominate the male cast in the movie and this scene definitely wasn’t a flashback. Since they just disappear through a jump cut to the mermaid’s mum screaming, I can only assume that they definitely didn’t get eaten after all and that this is why the two sisters end up in the strip club with their mother and the two men in the next sequence... which shows a singer belting out an old, I think, Bronski Beat (?) song. While this music continues, the manager is trying to track down a fishy smell and, as he goes through the different rooms in his strip club while the guests are being entertained, the various people such as the cook and the waiters are all in beat with the rhythm of the music. This was my first inkling that this really was going to turn into a ‘hard musical’ at some point soon. The manager tracks the smell down to the two mermaids in their mother’s dressing room and his main bouncer (played by Andrzej Konopka) shows the mermaids off to him. They are stripped down and they have no body hair at all and, it has to be said, rather curious looking vaginal lips (it might be the way it’s been shot, though). A cup of water is then poured onto their legs and their fish tails grow into place, with their real vaginas half way down their incredibly long and beautiful fish tails.
The two mermaids are called Silver (played truly joyfully by an amazing young actress called Marta Mazurek) and Gold (played truly sinisterly by another amazingly talented actress called Michalina Olszanska) and they are instantly given jobs as singers/strippers working with their mum. It’s to the credit of writer Robert Bolesto and director Agnieszka Smoczynska that they don’t try to explain the existence of mermaids and that all the characters who encounter them in the film in no way question that they must, in fact, be mermaids. This would only take time and get in the way of what is, after all, an adult fairytale with a simplistic purity to it. That being said, they are not the only ‘unusual creatures’ in the movie and there is a hint of a background world to the phenomena which is nicely done here without dominating the story. When the manager tells the others to take the girls out shopping for clothes, the film then goes full on into musical territory with a song and dance number set in a big clothes store and, by this point, I was completely hooked on the thing.
Now I’m not going to detail the rest of the story because I don’t want to spoil anything for you but I will say that the film doesn’t drag and I never once got bored with it. The style of the camerawork is pretty cool and almost shouldn't work, one might think. After all, various sequences are put together with smooth, slowish moving camera work with different angles being shot at different speeds of movement and edited together but, I have to tell you, the editor somehow gets away with it here and nothing detracts from the flow of the way you perceive the movie. It’s quite amazing.
The film is also very colourful with some wonderful combinations and also, occasionally, a logical colour coding system to some of the sequences. For instance, when one of the girls start singing in isolation with lyrics which are only for the ears of the people watching the film and not anyone actually in the scene, like a kind of musical narrative to the innermost thoughts of those characters, the lighting kind of suddenly takes on a turquoise shade, reflective of the sea, and everyone else but the character singing is frozen in time... which happens more than once.
There are also some lovely moments made by the director utilising the verticals of the environment as a big design feature in some of the shots. Sometimes she uses them like many directors have done historically, to highlight certain characters in their own delineated space and, at other times, she uses them to conceal things in the frame... such as when two layers of tiled wall are placed parallel to each other in front of the camera and the front plane is only revealed by a character walking out of view behind it... it’s cool stuff here.
Another nice touch is that the girls talk to each other telepathically. We get to hear what they are saying to each other through the subtitles but that’s obviously how it works on the original, non-subtitled Polish prints too because all that is heard on the soundtrack when the girls secretly communicate with each other is a kind of high pitched whale sound... and it works really effectively and is not out of place in a rather cute and fun, mostly light hearted film... albeit one that hides a dark and violent heart, as seen in various scenes as men become the bloody victims of one of the sisters. This is, after all, something of a comedy too and that’s more than amply demonstrated when the two sisters, in their fish forms, are being photographed naked but for stockings and suspenders awkwardly fitted over their fish tails. It’s a nice throwaway touch but it made me crack a smile, for sure.
And it’s a really great film which will stay in my mind for a long time. If I had any complaints it comes not from the film itself but from the translation. Song lyrics and rhyming poems are not the easiest thing to translate at the best of times, especially if you elect to keep the lines rhyming. So it would be true to say that the translations on the subtitles in some of the musical sections are... well, they’re a little but of a push with lyrics translated like...
“As fatal as hara-kiri,
My emotions make me silly.”
I couldn’t help but think of that old Simon & Garfunkel lyric from Kathy’s Song in this respect with their “words that tear and strain to rhyme”. However, credit to the translators for giving this a good go and, like I said, the films is very much a comedy piece too so the ridiculous lyrics here and there only add to the fun of the film.
And that’s me done on this one. The Criterion Collection release of The Lure is a sure fire tip to the hat on the quality of this production and readers based, like I, in Zone B needn’t worry about its availability. If you don’t yet have a multi-zone Blu Ray player then you’ll be fine because Criterion have also released this on their new Criterion UK label. Admittedly, it’s expensive and currently retailing at £18 here but, if you know the label then you know that you will be getting the absolute best transfer with some marvellous extras and that’s just what you get here. I haven’t watched those yet but included in the package are two short movie by Agnieszka Smoczynska so, yeah, this film is a bargain at this price. Especially when it’s such a great movie. If you are a fan of cinema in any capacity then you’ll want to give this one a look, I would think. I’m really pleased that this film dropped into my life and, as you can guess, it’s a definite recommendation from me.
Thursday, 16 November 2017
Curtain (aka The Gateway)
USA 2015 Directed by Jaron Henrie-McCrea
Fright Fest Presents DVD Region 2
Warning: Some light spoilerage in terms of the basic premise in this.
While I can understand, to some extent, that Curtain is now called The Gateway (according to the IMDB), I have to say that the new title doesn’t live up to the promise of the mystery at the heart of this movie, even if it is technically more accurate, in some ways. I know that if it wasn’t for the provocative hook embodied by the title on the DVD, which in the UK is Curtain, then I would probably have not bothered picking it up and looking beyond the cover in the first place. As it was, this is one of a slew of cheaply priced films which I grabbed at the Frightfest in the last quarter of last year and which a friend recommended to me.
The film is very much an independent film in terms of the production values but it’s a lot better than many I’ve seen going under that label and it’s quite quirky and fun but, also, contains some very nice visual moments that puts it above some of the duller stuff floating around in the independent horror market.
It starts off with an arresting shot of a point of view ascent towards some light from something which I, at first, assumed was the interior of a well (although it’s presumably meant to be a portal... as the narrative makes clear later). It’s a fast and rotating climb to a halfway point, then a brief pause before finishing the fast, rotating POV where the centre of the light becomes a person’s eyeball as a guy wakes up from his slumber on a subway train. The guy is obviously living in fear of something and when he gets to the flat, he removes all the duct tape from the door of the bathroom he’s put to stop... something... from getting out but after he has a few more swirly vortex visions he slashes his own throat.
With that initial set up out of the way, we follow on the rest of the story with a burnt out ex-nurse called Danni, played by Danni Smith, as she moves into the very same flat. To make ends meet she is working as one of those people who stop you on the street with their clipboard and seek donations, in her case for a Save The Whales organisation. However, as she moves into her new flat for her first night and hangs the shower curtain in the bathroom... that’s when her problems begin because, when she awakens the next morning, the shower curtain has gone. Did someone get in the night and steal it? The doors were locked so it’s unlikely. So what happened to it? A classic, locked room mystery, of sorts.
So, of course, she goes and buys another shower curtain and, yep, once the bathroom door is shut and she turns her back on it,well... the next time she checks on it the curtain is gone. So she buys another shower curtain and sets up her mobile phone camera to take a video of what’s happening to it when she vacates the bathroom and, when she plays it back, she finds that the curtain is being sucked through an invisible vortex in the shower wall. Which is nicely done and pretty much mind boggling to anyone who happens to find themselves in this kind of situation. And so, to prove to herself that she’s not going mad, she shows the video to her obsessive and irritating coworker Tim, played by Tim Lueke and, rather than go to the police, the two of them try to solve the matter on their own.
After all... this is a horror movie.
So anyway, it’s not long before they have the bright idea of scrawling an “if found, please ring this number” style message on the next shower curtain they send through the mysterious portal and, funnily enough, they do actually find out that the curtains are ending up somewhere very specific... but that’s all I’m saying about the storyline on this one. I don’t want to give away too much.
The thing that makes the film stand out from many others of this ilk... asides from the fairly unusual idea of a bunch of shower curtains that are pulled magically through a portal, of course... is just how well thought out the shot design, cinematography and editing is in certain areas. For instance, the opening sequence of the man walking home to his flat includes a nice shot of him coming towards the camera on the right of the screen while the other three quarters of the shot are taken up with the blurred surface of a wall. Another inventive moment is when Danni goes on a shopping spree for shower curtains in the local supermarket where the camera is mounted on her shopping trolley in various places and the footage sped up to push the idea that she’s had enough and will do what it takes to sort this problem out.
There’s another really interesting moment where Tim is driving a car and the camera takes the point of view of Danni sitting in the driver’s seat. As Tim is talking to Danni (or us) we see the traffic going by from right to left as he passes it out of the driver side window behind him in frame. And then a moving wipe goes from right to left to show a time transition but we are still on a view of traffic, albeit from a different situation, travelling in the same direction. A lorry follows the wipe at the same place and speed and the illusion this creates for a second is of the lorry actually creating the wipe on the frame, although, of course, it’s only actually in the new footage that is being transitioned too. This was a nice bit of filmmaking and would almost have been worth the price of the DVD alone.
My favourite moment of the movie, though, was also another transition piece. This involves dialogue overlapping from the next scene which, okay, is something which is done a lot in cinema. However, the starting shot is of Danni reading and when the dialogue of a lady talking to her from the next scene infringes upon the shot, she looks up from her book from the first scene to listen to her... we then cut the actual scene where she finishes the motion of her head and looks round to the lady who actually is talking to her in the latter scene. This was another really cool moment in a film which has a lot of nice little things going for it.
My only real complaint is that the kind of horror film this ends up as is a bit of a cop out in terms of actually explaining why, for instance, the shower curtains are being pulled through the void. There’s a big emphasis on some kind of vague demonology in the film and there’s also a ‘birth cycle’ of one of the horror elements in the movie involving these curtains... but no real logic behind them. When the film ended I was a little disappointed in this but at the same time, it reminded me of the excellent fiction of H. P. Lovecraft in a way. Almost always in a Lovecraft tale, the main protagonists would descend into madness or death with no real explanation in the scientific world as to what terrors they have been facing and none is likely to be forthcoming.
While I was a little muddled on one issue in the film, though, the last newspaper headline of Curtain does at least give a certain, very bizarre, kind of redemption to one of the characters and I couldn’t help but think of Lovecraft’s novella The Shadow Over Innsmouth at this point. I’m not sure whether the director was putting a nod in to that story but I certainly think the guy knows his stuff when it comes to these kinds of genres. There’s even a nod to, or at least a vague similarity to be found, in one scene where Danni is attacking the tiled wall of the bathroom to find out what mystery is beneath which reminded me of David Hemmings attacking the wall in Dario Argento’s Profondo Rosso (aka Deep Red and reviewed by me here) and I, again, had to wonder if this was a deliberate nod or a case of serendipity.
What I do know for sure is that, for a fiver, Curtain was money well spent and, though the intense horror elements of the last third maybe don’t live up to the clever mystery of the film’s initial premise, I was certainly glad I saw this one... and also glad the DVD wasn’t labelled up The Gateway, that’s for sure. Certainly a film I’d recommend to fans of gory horror movies as opposed to a straight science fiction audience but, in my experience, there’s a huge crossover there so if you are into either kind of genre I would maybe give this one a go anyway. This one’s definitely worth a visit, just... stay away from the shower.
Tuesday, 14 November 2017
Q (aka Desire aka Q Desire)
France 2011 Directed by Laurent Bouhnik
Warner Brothers Blu Ray Zone B
Q is a film by Laurent Bouhnik which seems to have a few titles depending on where you watch it. For example, over here in the UK it is sold as Q while in some countries it is known as Desire and in some, even as Q Desire. Having watched this movie, which doesn’t really have a story in all honesty, I’d have to say I’d personally favour the title Desire because I’ve got absolutely no idea what the letter Q is supposed to denote in the context of this film.
I first came across this movie as an Amazon recommendation. Now I have no remembrance of why I actually clicked and purchased this movie but I suspect, knowing the way my mind turns, that it was something to do with the inclusion of graphic, non-simulated sex within the genetic make up of the movie. Also, it was quite cheaply priced so those two elements combined is why you may see a few of these types of films creeping into my blog for the next year or so. I’ve got no idea what I must have purchased, however, to have had this as an Amazon recommendation in the first place.
Okay, so getting back to it... I said that the movie doesn’t have much in the way of story and that’s true. However, if you’re a regular reader of mine and have been paying attention, you’ll know I’m not the absolute biggest fan of having a storyline in a film anyway, I can take it or leave it and, in the case of this movie, it certainly doesn’t harm it. In fact, Q is a pretty cool film and I can’t help but think the now old (and in some cases dead) guard of what was once the Nouvelle Vague would be quite happy with the way this one has been shot and presented.
The film has a great opening which is almost monochromatic (apart from a slight blue tinge), of a public shower and changing room. We see a woman’s naked backside and general chatter amongst a number of girls before the lady in question turns around, still in fairly tight shot (no faces are revealed in this scene) so we can see her sex. Various other women’s crotches and back sides wander to and fro in the shot as the sexual gossip on the soundtrack continues. The very stark lighting and slight suggestion of blue give this sequence a feel, almost, of an old hand-tinted monochrome movie of the 1920s or earlier. Then, all of a sudden, we go into the first main establishing shot of the movie as we cut to a long, panoramic shot of green cliffs, beach and sea which is almost like a visceral punch in the eyeballs in its placement next to that opening. We see a car driving along the road, it’s almost a detail because it’s so tiny in the shot and then we cut to the main protagonist of the film... well actually, I don’t know if anybody in this ensemble movie can be said to be the main protagonist but, certainly, the lady in question called Cecilé and played with absolute abandon by Déborah Révy, is definitely the character that most of the other characters have in common and it is her manipulation of the people around her that define the shape of the movie.
In the car, Cecilé is with a stranger who she has picked up in a bar and who she has talked into driving down to the beach where she will try to have sex with him. However, when the two get to it in a public loo, the specific nature of her desires and his lack of respect for what she wants means they don’t quite get things on. Cecilé was in the bar originally to find a plastic container for her father’s ashes so she can scatter them but she has had no luck.
The character of Cecilé hurtles through the plotless movie hooking up with various people and reveling in her seemingly carefree attitude to the pursuit of love, life and liberty but rather than concentrate on her character all the time, the film builds up small pictures of her friends and kind of rubs all the different interconnected characters together. That being said, it’s not a movie which doesn’t have a certain pay off and that is found within the sexual relationships and the way people regard each other throughout the duration.
Visually the movie is lovely. There are a lot of interesting, coloured lighting set ups within the movie so that, for example, the first sex scene between Cecilé and her boyfriend has a blue tint to it... thus highlighting this as a blue movie in more ways than one, I would guess. There are some great little frame compositions too.
For example, a shot near the start of the movie has two friends talking while one of them is working on his car. The car is face on to us with the bonnet up, filling the centre of the frame with one of the two players with his back to us, sorting out what’s under the hood, so to speak. His friend wanders in and out of the shot on the right hand side of the frame by going into the middle of the frame behind the car, only to reappear again a few seconds later. It’s nice stuff and just one of a fair few interesting compositions in the film which mark this director out as someone to pay attention to.
Another scene where Cecilé is alone on her bed and masturbating herself while a storm rages outside is also lit in blue but further shows that the character is not always so good at reaching an orgasm. As she fails and starts crying, the faces of the dolls in her room, cut to in close up, bear silent witness to her failure to climax. It’s almost subliminal the way little throw away shots like this creep into the broader action of the film but it’s good stuff and helps keep you riveted to the screen.
There’s also a very interesting shot which I think is a key sequence of the movie in that the director almost highlights his lack of a constant, narrative thrust. It’s all set in a small portion of a town, possibly a square and... the camera wanders fluidly around following one of our central characters after another and kinda eavesdropping on their mobile phone conversations and then finding another passing character to latch onto as the various people move in and out of the area or, in some cases, remain seated. Some of these characters enter and exit more than once and it’s like the director is just casually dipping into things which are happening as if to say, “look this film is following random characters and just being a fly on the wall.” However, this also belies the fact that there is a constant thread slowly building and that thread is Cecilé... as we watch her seduce various men and women, steal someone’s phone, cause upheaval and generally act like an unstoppable tidal wave on everybody who comes in contact with her. She drifts in and out of everyone’s lives, sexing them up in much the same way the directors camera drifts in and out of the lives of the various characters who inhabit this movie.
However, as we see by the end of the piece, there is some method in Cecilé’s seeming lack of responsibility and personal madness. At least four of the characters are manipulated into taking part in scenarios staged by Cecilé which are absolutely beneficial to their lives and, it would seem, this isn’t an unplanned series of coincidences. Cecilé is doing unexpected, good deeds behind the scenes, as it were. Sexually themed good deeds, for sure but, people seem to end up with a lot to thank her for by the finish of the film and she even, in some uncertain way, reaches a kind of ‘moving on’ stage herself as the film finishes.
And then there’s that opening sequence. The shower scene is actually an anchor point scene and the director returns to it four more times in the movie and, each time the camera is a little further away from the people in the shot, exposing a tiny bit more of their bodies little by little and leaving the reveal of their faces (which really doesn’t’ come as much of a surprise, to be honest) until the last of these scenes. So the second one is a little further off and so is the third in which we also see various ladies’ torsos. By the time we get the fourth of these scenes, the camera is sufficiently far back for us to see that the shower room is through an opening directly in front of us and we are now in a ladies changing room, where the various characters in question are all in various stages of undress and putting on lingerie. The director maintains the near monochromatic nature of the shots except for one girl who puts on bright orangy brown knickers and, by the time of the fifth and final of these sequences, before the camera drifts up to reveal the faces of the people chatting in the room, also her brightly coloured garter belt. The identity of the various characters in the scene will certainly come as no surprise by this point but, again, the reason for the sexy underwear in the changing room once again becomes apparent as something Cecilé has organised and, once again, it seems likely that some good will come out of it.
There are things in the movie which I didn’t expect to make it past the censor in this country. The film is full of various male and female genitalia in various states of erection and includes hand jobs and blow jobs as part of the performance (although the film doesn’t quite go as far as some mainstream releases I’ve seen... some of the scenes in Michael Winterbottom’s Nine Songs come to mind). However, while the sex is quite full on (thus, once again exposing the terrible hypocrisy of the British Censors) it never once threatens to dominate the main characters or the way the narrative, such as it is, is shaped. Which is a good thing and means I possibly take this film more seriously than certain others.
And that’s pretty much all I have to say on Q other than the fact that I had a really good time with it and that the performances throughout by the various actors and actresses were flawless and engaging, for the most part. It’s nice to have a film which isn’t demanding a rigid, narrative understanding from the audience and allows you to be caught up in it without necessarily having to have any expectations as to where a storyline might have been leading you. It definitely makes for an unpredictable movie and, for me certainly, that’s half the battle. A good one to put on when you’re alone in the house with a bottle of whisky and when you want to just chill out and let the medium of film absorb you. Definitely a recommendation from me on this one.
Sunday, 12 November 2017
Taste The Vlad Of Dracula
Directed by Gary Shore
Universal Blu Ray Zone 2
Warning: I guess this is technically somewhat spoilery.
Okay so, after seeing the recent version of The Mummy (reviewed here) I was reminded that the new Universal Dark Universe* monster movies were originally to have begun with this one, Dracula Untold. However, I don’t think this one did very well at the box office and so, even though it would fit like a glove, hand in hand with the new version of The Mummy, Universal have stated that this is not part of that new cycle.
Now, this is a film I totally ignored at the cinema (like a fair few people, as it turns out) because the trailer looked truly dismal and more about Vlad The Impaler, the real life figure whom Bram Stoker’s Dracula was said to be inspired by, rather than actually treating him in his more common version of a contemporary, womanising vampire. And, strangely enough, that’s actually a fairly accurate portrayal of what this film is about, although the main character, played here by Luke Evans, does take possession of various vampiric and demonic powers fairly promptly in the course of the story. However, I’d noticed that, just lately, this film has been getting some good word of mouth from people on Twitter and so, when my local Computer Exchange had a Blu Ray of the movie going for only £3... I figured I’d give it a look.
Well... you have to give the cast and crew some brownie points for trying.
The acting is all pretty good from Luke Evan’s Vlad to his lover played by Sarah Gadon and, of course, Dominic Cooper as Mehmed. We even have Charles Dance on hand as a sort of ‘almost but not quite’ Nosferatu style, old vampire geezah who strikes a bargain with Vlad when he is in desperate trouble. Added to this is the really quite nice cinematography and for anything else negative you might want to lay at the feet of the movie makers here, you have to give it credit for being really nice to look at, at the very least.
However, while it’s certainly a ‘far from terrible’ movie, it’s hardly a great one and I personally believe that its chief problem is that the script and dialogue is just not that great and the fairly dull structure of the film is really not doing it any favours... especially when it comes to the sensibilities of a modern audience. To say it’s singular in its storytelling would be pretty accurate and the structure is like something out of an old Universal or Republic serial... just without the variance in locations and inventiveness which was often on hand in the best of those.
So the story structure is... Vlad comes back from his wars and discovers the source of the power he will use later in the film. Vlad is threatened with something horrible and, when he attempts to comply, his strong moral centre (seriously... this is Vlad The Impaler?) means he refuses and brings the full wrath of his enemies on him. So he strikes a deal for ‘supernatural vampire powers’ and fights the armies, moves his people somewhere else, fights the armies all over again... then loses both his motivating spirit and becomes a full fledged vampire... so he creates a vampire army to finish the war off once and for all. And.. that’s more or less it.
The film has some pretty major flaws other than the trite dialogue and singular structure, however. I mean the writers are on a losing battle trying to make Vlad Tepes somehow a bit of a family man who all his army and close friends love... without denying the fact that he went around impaling his enemies in truly horrible ways. Um... yeah, it doesn’t quite work does it? Especially when he continues to do that rubbish later in the film and everyone is still all... “Alright geezah! How’s it going? We all missed you.” Luke Evans, who is a pretty good actor (see him in Professor Marston And The Wonder Women as soon as possible, reviewed here), does his best with the material but it’s a seriously conflicted kind of script to be honest.
Another stupid thing is that, while I would never have predicted that the film was going to go off and do something interesting at some point, there’s a whole thing where the head vampire played by Charlie Dance strikes a bargain with Vlad. With great vampire power comes great vampire responsibility and Dance wants to lose his vampire powers forever and pas them onto somebody else (an outcome which is clearly contradicted in the final scene of the movie, by the way). So Vlad has the useful, army crushing vampire powers for only three days unless he gives into his unnatural thirst and drinks blood before then... in which case he’s cursed forever and is bound to walk the countryside only at night because sunlight is lethal to him (something else which is totally contradicted by the last scene, by the way). So I guess it’s a case of Vlad-u-added Tax in terms of his unearthly powers. And, since you know this is a Dracula origin story... you know he’s going to have to drink blood at some point before the end so, well, it’s not going to be that surprising is it?
Oh yeah... and about those vamped up, ramped up powers. After discovering that if he runs through the forest fast enough he can become a swarm of bats (there might be some unintentional humour in this scene... just saying), he starts doing it a lot more and that’s how he defeats thousands of men in an army single handedly... by becoming bats and, presumably, batting them to death. The fight scenes are not that great or clear, to be honest. Oh, and there’s a scene where he faces off against the villain of the piece, who worked out he’s a vampire (the bat swarming must have given it away) and somehow deduced he’s got a somewhat powerful allergy to silver. So, you know, he fights him in a tent standing in loads of silver coins and thus weakening Vlad in the final battle to, presumably, build up tension in the audience in case they think he somehow can’t win. Which is ridiculous because, you know, he’s Dracula now. And, yes, there is a bit where the villain throws silver coins at our hero in much the same way as somebody might throw sand in the face of an opponent. There might have been vague, smiling disbelief at the silliness of it all at this point... from this member of the audience, anyway.
Now, all the above taken into account, it really isn’t a terrible movie... just not a good one. The film features an epilogue scene set in the modern day featuring our vampish hero encountering Mina Harker for the first time and the presence of Charles Dance as a voyeuristic background figure... thus setting it up to possibly be the first past of that Dark Universe sequence. Now, all things being equal, I really wouldn’t mind if Luke Evans returns as Dracula in one of the new Universal Monster movies because, as completely ludicrous as this film gets in some places... it’s fine as a basis for a character which could be better written. So, yeah, bit of a wasted opportunity here but we’ll see how it goes.
In the meantime, I end this review by saying that, unless you have a lot more than just a casual investment in the Dracula character and his history, then Dracula Untold is probably not going to ring your bell very much. If you’re into historical horror, there might be some bright spots for you but, for the most part... I was certainly Vlad when it was all over.
*It looks like the Dark Universe franchise at Universal has, since the time the first draft of this review was written, stalled somewhat... possibly for good. I hope it comes back to our screens soon though.
Thursday, 9 November 2017
They Void With
Their Boots On
Directed by Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski
Signature Blu Ray Zone B
Warning: Some spoilers in this one, I guess.
Especially in terms of the ending.
So the low budget, crowd funded film The Void is one I was especially wanting to see earlier in the year but, like The Love Witch (reviewed here), it only got a very limited screening of a few performances at hardly any cinemas in London and the DVD and Blu Ray editions were hot on the heels of that release. Probably within a few weeks of those initial cinema screenings.
I’d seen only good word of mouth about this one but my own response is much less favourable than I'd imagined it would be. However, there are still some nice little moments in there.
The film starts with a badly wounded man and a woman trying to escape a property in the woods. Two men give chase but the man manages to get away from them. They do, though, manage to wound the woman and stop her progress before they pour gasoline on her and set her alight. One would assume these two are the villains of the piece but, despite the simplicity of the plot, it isn’t quite that black and white. After the opening credits, our main policeman protagonist Daniel Carter, played by Aaron Poole, finds the wounded man from the opening sequence and he is losing a lot of blood. Carter drives him to the nearest hospital and that’s when his troubles start. He finds himself having to shoot a woman who comes at him with a knife, after she's stabbed the eye out of a fellow patient, before back up arrives in the form of another cop. However, not long after the second cop's arrival, the phone lines at the hospital go dead and the radio link to police headquarters is mysteriously cut off. There are also a bunch of strange figures who look like members of the Klu Klux Clan but with big triangles reminiscent of a pyramid emblazoned on the front of their hoods, wandering around outside the building. One of them attacks Carter, who manages to get back inside and away from the mob of... quite iconic looking cultists.
At this point the cult members don’t enter the hospital and are happy to place it under siege while the two pursuing men from the start of the film also come into the building and start causing trouble for the two police officers... who also have a pregnant woman and her father to attend to, in addition to the regular medical staff. Sides and allegiances are soon forged, however, when they are all attacked by some kind of Lovecraftian Cthulhu creature with tentacle power... one of a few monstrosities which are being born from people after death has finished with them.
And that’s the basic plot set up and I’m not going to say much more about that aspect of the film. I was trying to figure out, however, why I wasn’t responding as positively as I might to a film which, frankly, seems to have my name written all over it as something I should be watching.
Now I had a problem with some of the acting performances, for sure. I don’t think the cast were necessarily bad, though... just maybe doing their best with a script which was a little too clichéd and obvious, is my best guess. Some of the dialogue was very bad but, although certain other elements of the film pointed towards a terrific parody of the kinds of ‘straight-to-video’ rental and sell through horror and exploitation titles of the 1980s, it felt just a little too 'dead on' in some ways and I could have done with the dialogue and story line being less poe-faced in certain areas because... well... it could have done with just a little dose of irony lacing the material, I think.
That is to say... it could have been maybe just a little more over-the-top in pushing the exploitation angle of the movie rather than replicating it so well. When Tarantino and Rodriguez brought out Grindhouse, I thought very much the same thing in reference to the two directors’ different approaches to their feature films which made up half of that double bill release. Rodriguez’ Planet Terror really played up the exploitation angle and had fun with it... injecting it with a sense of tongue-in-cheek irony which sat very well with the modern sensibilities of the intended audience. At least, I thought so. Tarantino’s contribution, however... Deathproof... seemed a dead spit imitation of exactly the films it was trying to recall. It had nothing much extra added and felt like an authentic grindhouse movie... with all the negative implications that might carry too. Primarily, for me, being that I thought it was a little dull and reminded me of why I didn’t watch a lot of films of that oeuvre when I was a teen anyway (although it could be said I’m possibly making up for it nowadays).
The Void strikes me as being in very much a similar situation, of the film being maybe a little too authentic, in some ways, to the 1980s video rental market (as it was over here in the UK) that I feel it’s trying to go for. The monsters and main antagonist are all very much what you’d expect as something some of those old directors would have created as an homage to the literature of H. P. Lovecraft and there are also very strong tones of a Lucio Fulci influence thrown into the mix... especially with the ending of this movie which, while almost being a non-sequitur to the events we have been watching throughout the running time, seems to be a direct play for recreating the famous final shots of Fulci’s movie The Beyond (reviewed by me here).
There seems to be lots of practical effect gore and an enormous amount of simultaneous mayhem thrown into the mix... all of which is admirably handled by the director. I personally felt the film needed a bit more of a sense of the 'over the top' element in other areas. Some nudity thrown into the mix, for example, or a much more 1980s horror vibe on the soundtrack, as opposed to some transparent writing lapsing into very modern, atonal sound design style stuff (don’t get me wrong... I’d love it if they released a CD soundtrack of the score by Blitz//Berlin, Joseph Murray, Menalon Music and Lodewijk Vos... I just don’t think it serves the film in a great way).
A special shout out, though, to both actor Kenneth Welsh as Dr. Richard Powell, who manages to capture the style of mad, bad guy from those kinds of movies perfectly (maybe because he’s been around so long and perhaps because he was known to everyone as the face of Wyndom Earle in Twin Peaks back in the day) and also to the team doing the make up effects because, at some point, his character looks like he walked straight out of a Fulci movie. There’s a beautiful extra on the Blu Ray disc which is a gallery of pre-production art from the film and it’s a really nice thing to have on there. Would love to have seen it printed in a proper book instead of it being a digitised bonus thing, though.
I don’t want to trash this movie because it did hold my attention and it’s obviously a labour of love for the team who brought it alive. There’s some nice stuff for genre fans to sift through including those truly iconic and simply designed ‘cultists’ and even a TV showing the opening sequence of Romero’s original Night Of The Living Dead in the background... foreshadowing the siege situation the characters inhabiting the hospital will soon find themselves in (and now I come to think of it... didn’t a fair part of Fulci’s The Beyond, which I mentioned earlier, take part in a hospital?). I think there’s enough here to keep most modern horror fans happy with the movie... especially if it was a middle section of a triple (or more) bill midnight movie screening. I think those of you uninterested in the genre at all would probably struggle with a way into this one but, at the same time, I don’t think the film was made for that kind of audience anyway. Probably not a film I would personally watch again unless I was doing an all night movie screening with some mates and some alcohol but it’s a nice stab at trying to make a product in a way which hasn’t been done un-ironically in a while so... you know... if you’re into horror then maybe give it some of your time at some point.
Tuesday, 7 November 2017
Try Everything Once Except Incest
And Morris Dancing - The autobiography of a dangerous lady
by Linzi Drew
I remember spotting this book back in the mid 1990s in a pleasingly dubious shop in Charing Cross Road. The shop had an upstairs full of ‘book bargains’ and a downstairs which was a cornucopia of eye watering and manhood popping pornography, should you brave your way past the age restriction warning on the staircase leading down... which might just have well been a height restriction to be honest (you must be this tall to ride the sexy magazines). I’d heard of Linzi Drew at the time and was kinda interested in reading that but, alas, had no cash on me to grab a copy. When I finally remembered I wanted to read it ten or more years later, the thing was no longer in print and fetching vast sums of money, well into three figures, if you wanted to order a rare copy of this tome. Nowadays it seems completely unavailable but I kept hitting the Amazon search annually and... sometime last year I got lucky when I saw a reseller listing a copy for just a few quid.
Now, my partial obsession with Linzi Drew began long after the first time I’d actually seen her in a movie (I’ll get to that in a minute). For me, it all started in the 1990s when my small suburb was ‘cabled up’ and then everyone given a ‘good deal’ to have holes drilled into their various window frames for a couple of cable TV boxes... before the prices were jacked up and the aforementioned cable company withdrew their boxes when everyone decided it wasn’t worth paying for a service which continuously changed the goal posts in terms of which channels we were and were not allowed to watch without paying some kind of costly premium. Anyway, I digress...
So I started flicking around and I found a channel called HVC, which only came on after about 9pm at night and which, for the most part, showed soft porn versions of movies and adult videos... my accidental introduction to ‘easy to pipe into my bedroom soft pornography’ was complete and it was there that I first became aware of Linzi, hosting a series of Electric Blue videos with her friend Marie Harper and basically entrancing me with her ‘very English’ accent, her captivating face and scintillating body.
However, it wasn’t, in actual fact, the first time I’d seen Linzi Drew at all and, I suspect, even if you are reading this now and don’t share a similar reminiscence about the kinds of movies and shows she made, then I suspect you may still recognise her. That’s because she was also crossing into mainstream movies and TV on occasion, albeit in highly sexualised roles, more often than not. Certainly a large portion of the public will recognise her as Brenda Bristols from An American Werewolf In London (playing in the ‘film within the film’ See You Next Wednesday). Or she might be recognised from appearing in various Ken Russell productions such as Salome’s Last Dance, The Lair Of The White Worm or his Nessun Dorma segment to the multi-directed Aria. Some might even recognise her in the generically titled role of ‘stripper’ in random episodes of beloved British TV shows such as Dempsey And Makepeace and, one of my personal favourite shows of the 1980s, C.A.T.S Eyes.
This autobiography, focusing on the author's happy intention that the title of the book is pretty good advice (can’t argue too much with that) starts off on her early life in Bristol, leading up to a quite spectacular (if that’s the right word) milestone in her life. She grows up fairly quickly in the early pages and she takes the reader on a whirlwind tour of her life as a groupie as she slept with members of various pop groups at weekends (Did I mention she is also the famous cover girl on the Roger Waters album The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking?) and... it’s actually pretty well written. The style is quite informal and it breezes along through her world of hard work and sex, taking us through the decisions and outcomes of deciding to be an ‘adult model’ and, more often than not, letting us in on just who she slept with and giving us just a little taste of their ‘personality’ before going onto the next set of adventures... some with very famous people and some... not. I don’t want to mention any names here because, if you’re interested, you should track down the book but she certainly had a ‘howling’ good time with a certain director, got ‘hunted’ in the bedroom by a very famous racing driver and had some interesting times all around.
This book was written at a time when she was still in a relationship with Lindsay Honey (whom some of you might even know by one of his ‘porn names’, Ben Dover) but before the birth of their child Tyger Drew-Honey, who subsequently grew up to become famous as playing Jake in the popular BBC comedy Outnumbered. It’s actually quite a refreshing account of her life up until a certain point because you get a really interesting snap shot of what it’s like growing up somewhere like Bristol and then seeing someone applying their personal work ethic to the pursuit of a career in a much underrated profession... and making a good success of it in the face of the horrendous British censorship laws and prevailing attitudes. All this while going up against the bizarrely twisted ethics of people like Mary Whitehouse and coming off as, by far, the more intelligent and well adjusted person.
The last part of the book is where everything goes dark. After a successful run as the editor of the UK edition of Penthouse magazine (where she presumably honed the writing skills which shine so brightly here), she and Lindsay Honey were, quite wrongly I think (judging by the evidence as highlighted in this book), sentenced to go to prison for making and distributing pornography. She had to go for something like four months and you get a real idea of just how daunting it can be waiting a year or more for a trial and how it affects you as a person. It also then, quite fascinatingly, goes on to tell how she survived and just what it was like to be in a woman’s open prison at the time. I mean, she’s no Alexander Solzhenitsyn but she is pretty good at turning a phrase and, more importantly, conveying how something feels so, anyone interested in such things, might want to check this out.
And once she is free and awaiting the release of her partner, the book more or less ends and I was left wanting to know about the next stage of her career (which I understand included being an agent for her son). I believe she has, fairly recently, turned to writing again as, a couple of years ago, she had an erotic novel published under the name Linzi Drew-Honey called Every Shade Of Blue... which I suspect was an attempt to cash in on a series of books about another shade of a certain colour and which, I suspect, she’s eminently more qualified to write about than the writer of those particular novels. I might actually give that one a go myself, although I don’t tend to read that much erotica these days (I’ll review it on here if I do).
And, if you didn’t already guess, Try Everything Once Except Incest And Morris Dancing is a ‘reading recommendation’ from me, if you like discovering the warm, beating heart and sly intelligence of such highly sexualised personalities. It probably won’t appeal to everybody and it’s certainly a hard one to track down these days but, if you want a snapshot of life at a certain time in Great Britain of the 1970s and 80s then it’s a really good one to take a look at. Maybe give this book a try... at least once.
Sunday, 5 November 2017
2017 USA Directed by Alexandre O. Philippe
UK cinema release print.
78/52 is an unusual documentary in that it spends an hour and a half examining what is, after all, a scene which last less than a minute in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho... the (in)famous shower scene. Of course, the power and initial shock (on first viewing) of this sequence more than justifies the importance and influence it has had on cinema history and modern pop culture but... well, if anything I could have done with a slightly longer movie on the subject (but I’ll come to why I think that in a minute or two).
The film is certainly interesting and the writer/director Alexandre O. Philippe has obviously put in a lot of time and effort piecing together small pieces of footage from a wealth of interesting people from both behind and in front of the camera... giving us a kind of collective ‘expert witness’ of the quality and visceral effectiveness of this effective short sequence. This includes some interesting little moments from Janet Leigh’s body double, who spent a lot of the time filming the scene... her body is in the majority of the short scene, which took seven days to film. Basically, if you see any shots without her face in clear view in the shower scene in Psycho (including the dead body in the clean up following the murder), you’re almost certainly looking at actress/model Marli Renfro, playing the part of the ‘cut down before her time’ character of Marion Crane.
And there are some interesting nuggets to be found during the vivisection of the sequence, some of which I actually didn’t know and some of which are, if you watch the film, self evident. For example, the awkward cut back one last time to the shower head in the pan away from Marion’s body before you get to the money is picked up on by one of the people being interviewed and then explained by another as a mistake in that it was later found that Janet Leigh had taken a visible breath. So that moment had to be eviscerated from the movie as quickly as Norman Bate’s knife made short work of the red herring of a character whose demise is depicted in the scene in question.
There is also a great little moment where the relevance of the painting that Norman Bates (played in Psycho by Anthony Perkins) moves out of the way to reveal the ‘spy hole’ is explained, in terms of both its relevance in the world of art but also its purpose in its placement in the film. I won’t go into it here because... you know... you can watch the film and find out for yourself but, basically, the voyeur is removing a famous interpretaion of a voyeuristic scene to be a participant in the very act that the painting is depicting. And this is all very interesting and revealing, to be fair.
That being said, I did find the documentary to be lacking in many ways, too.
For instance, the long list of people included, most of them extremely briefly, like Mick Garris, Walter Murch, Danny Elfman, Guillermo Del Toro, Neil Marshall and Peter Bogdanovich... are people you would trust to make an observation on this movie but there are others in here who, while very enthusiastic, well... you have to wonder what warranted their inclusion. Presumably, for instance, Elijah Wood is here mostly to comment on the acting in the parlour scene (which is also discussed here) since he’s played a notable psycho or two on screen himself (such as in the recent remake of Maniac or as Kevin in Sin City). Some of the others, however, you have to wonder about.
The biggest problem with the people interviewed, however, is that most of them have such a limited amount of screen time that I would have liked to have seen and heard more from all of them and I reckon the film could have done with being another half an hour longer, in all honesty.
Another fairly large problem with the movie are the re-enactments of certain scenes in Psycho which make you wonder why the director bothered with that when he could have just tracked in scenes from the original. Similarly, the film has a lovely string soundtrack by Jon Hegel (which I really wish was on CD so I could listen to it out of context) and it’s playing over everything, including clips from Psycho and... well you just have to wonder why they chose to go with an original score for this when Bernard Herrmann’s powerful score to Psycho, which the score to 78/52 is obviously trying to invoke in some way, was surely available. I also think that Bernard Herrmann’s astonishing contribution to the film could have been covered a little more in depth, especially since the story of Hitchcock’s insistence that the shower scene needed no music on it until Herrmann proved him wrong is nowhere in evidence in this documentary.
Another thing which is absent here is the very obvious ‘elephant in the room’ of the fact that, as far as I can tell from sorting out various bits of second hand testimony and evidence in books and interviews over the years, Hitchcock didn’t actually direct the shower scene himself but, instead, left it up to the scene’s designer, Saul Bass (one of my hero’s). Now there seems to be a lot of contrary evidence to both support and disregard the claims of both Hitchcock and Bass that they directed the scene and this film doesn’t mention this to weigh in on either version of events. It simply ignores it although, to be fair, it does take a little time to show a few of the many gazillions of story boards that Bass designed for his shoot... I know who I believe but I guess that’s an argument for a different time, especially since, as I said, the auteurial ownership of the scene does not come up in this piece. In fact, it would also have been nice to see the original shower scene actually played out before us in one piece as a reminder of the visceral power of it too, it seems to me. It’s surely been a while since a lot of movie goers watched Psycho.
Another thing which might have been made clearer... and I don’t remember it coming up in the film itself although it might have been so quick that I somehow missed it, is the reason for the title of this film. Apparently, according to the IMDB, it’s because the short scene under scrutiny here, is made up of 78 different camera set ups and 52 edits... which could have done with a little clarification, I think. I suspect some people are going to be walking away from the screenings on this one puzzled about it.
Something else which would have been nice to have been touched upon, since Marli Renfro, the cover girl of the September 1960 Playboy bunny girl, was on hand... was the mysterious and bizarre story of her apparent murder and the confusion of a killer who actually murdered the wrong ‘girl in the shower’ stand in... or some such. I actually don’t know the ins and outs of that story myself (the book on the subject is in one of my many ‘to be read’ piles) but it seems like it might be, at the very least, of passing relevance here.
All in all, I quite enjoyed certain parts of 78/52, such as the sequence showing the stabbing of different kinds of melons to establish the perfect sound of a knife passing through human flesh and it was nice to hear Jamie Lee Curtis’s own thoughts on her mother’s demise in the scene in question. It’s something which fans of the movie should probably take a look at sometime but I did come out of the cinema feeling fairly unsatisfied with the production. On the other hand, it did provoke some discussion between me and a friend who I saw it with in the pub afterwards... so that was a good thing. This won’t be making any of my top ten lists this year but, as I say, if you are a Hitchcock or Psycho fan, then you might want to give this one a go.
Thursday, 2 November 2017
Am Mad Butterfly
Before I Wake
USA 2016 Directed by Mike Flanagan
Intrepid Pictures German Blu Ray Zone B
I don’t know how I managed to miss this one last year.
I first became aware of Before I Wake earlier in the year when Varese Sarabande released a very limited pressing of the score on CD. Since it was by The Newton Brothers and had themes by Danny Elfman, I figured I’d pick it up in advance of the inevitable cinema release of the film. However, I then started wandering the internet and realised that it had already been out at the cinema in this country... according to the IMDB it got released in the UK in April of 2016 so, since I like the odd horror movie or two, I am surprised I totally missed this one when it came out. Especially since it was written and directed by Mike Flanagan.
Flanagan is someone who I have a weak track record with at the moment. I saw his Occulus movie with Karen Gillan (which also had a cool score by The Newton Brothers) and I wasn’t much impressed. Nor was I tempted to go and see his prequel to the US version of Ouija after the original movie had been so dire (although I’m told Flanagan’s movie is pretty good). I did, however, love one of his first features, Absentia (which I reviewed here) and so once I’d found out this was by him, I felt on more familiar territory than when I watched the trailer... which makes the film look like a glorified version of that old tale, The Monkey’s Paw. Which it kinda is, actually, with just a little more window dressing.
I ordered a German Blu Ray for the princely sum of £6 because the UK doesn’t have a Blu Ray release of this yet and, if the marketing of this movie continues in the way it has, I doubt if we could expect one anytime soon, either.
The film itself stars Kate Bosworth as Jessie and Thomas Jane as Mark, a bereaved mother and father who have lost their only child, a son, in a freak drowning accident in their bathtub. So they have decided to adopt a child, which is where their new foster son Cody, played by Jacob Tremblay, enters the picture. Cody has had a number of troubled placements with previous families and we already get more than a hint of just how troubled they were from a pre-credits sequence showing one of the previous foster fathers going to shoot Cody dead in bed.
Now, one of the nice things about this movie is that there are no twists around the corner for you to puzzle over and, inevitably, be disappointed in when you get them an hour before the end of the piece. Instead, everything is up front and out in the open so it’s not that long before Cody, who tries to stay up without falling asleep every day and night, falls asleep and the things of his dreams are manifested to those closest to him, in this case his new foster parents. At the start this seems a benign gift rather than the curse it appears to be later... he dreams of beautifully colourful butterflies and they appear to Jessie and Mark until he wakes up. After a few more nights of this strange behaviour where he gets more surreal in his dreaming of the butterflies as his impression of them grows (there’s a nice scene with brightly coloured ‘light bulb butterflies’, for example), things start to get a little out of hand as he dreams up Jessie and Mark’s dead son. Rather than report all this, though, in a stunning display of unbelievable stupidity from the central protagonists, the couple decide to accept these occurrences as fairly normal, rather than go through the obvious denial and evidence gathering stage.
Mark realises, after a few visitations, that it’s not really his dead son but Cody’s imagination toppling out of his mind. Jessie, however, wants to carry on with theses manifestations so she gets a doctor to prescribe her child some sleeping pills for the evening. Alas, what she doesn’t know is that Cody also has a monster that eats people living in his head and it's this which brings the peril right into Jessie and Mark’s house....
And that’s as far as I going with the story set up, other than it’s got no twist ending (as I said earlier) and it’s a fairly straight forward arc to the end, especially when it strays away from that Monkey’s Paw angle a little. Another thing that’s nice about it in terms of the story is that, although it’s not particularly twisted or unpredictable, it does do a couple of things at certain points which are not the usual things you would see in a cosy, American horror movie. There are genuine sacrifices made by the characters at specific moments and that gives the film a lift in certain places where, honestly, it sometimes needs them.
The only weakness I could find was the muffled and unrealistic reaction the main adult protagonists have on finding out their new foster son dreams things alive but if you are okay with this, then some of the surreal imagery, like the two light bulb butterflies who swarm together with many others and become the demonic eyes of some nightmare creature, are quite rewarding. Also, the director resists the usual Hollywood horror fetish of constantly moving the camera around like you’re on a roller coaster ride. There are loads of static or extremely slow tracked/panned/zoomed shots in this and it gives the film a nice leisurely pace. Whether that’s necessarily a good thing for a horror movie to possess is something which is perhaps better left for another discussion but it makes a change from some of the other stuff you see in modern horror movies so I felt this was a good move.
And yes, the score by The Newton Brothers and Danny Elfman is pretty good as a stand alone lesson and certainly appropriate as you get into the movie. Again, it’s not ‘quite’ your typical horror movie scoring sessions here although, as I’ve said a few times above, it does have its moments.
Before I Wake is not the best Mike Flanagan movie I’ve seen, for sure. Absentia still takes my number one spot in terms of that. It is, however, fairly good fun and if you like low key horror movies with not too many scares (it has to be said) but a nice tone and some inventive creations thrown in, then this is probably a film you’ll be okay with. I’m now wondering if it’s time I tried to find this director’s other feature that I haven’t seen before, Hush. Maybe I’ll try to catch up with that one next.
Tuesday, 31 October 2017
Tod Browning’s Ghoul Days
Directed by Tod Browning
Original and also rescored version.
Dracula (Spanish audience version)
Directed by George Melford & Enrique Tovar Ávalos
Blu Ray Zone B
Okay, it's about time I got around to writing about my beloved Universal Horror films for this site. The time seems about right what with Universal launching their shared universe movies which they have rechristened their Dark Universe franchise, albeit with a somewhat shaky start with their new version of The Mummy (reviewed here). Of course, their intended first film in this series was Dracula Untold (reviewed by me soon on this very blog) but the box office on that film meant that it was pretty much a false start for them, though it would be very easy to add the Dracula character from that production into the 'modern times' mix, given the last scenes in that film.
Of course, it's pretty obvious with these first, recent attempts at stand alone movies that the company is wanting to cash in on what I shall call the ‘Marvel Effect’ in terms of box office. The teaming up of established cinematic characters to grab a large, almost unhealthy dose of box office cash. They're certainly not the only company to be doing this (DC's Justice League will be with us in November) but of all the companies going for the gold in this manner at the moment... and this is something I've said before in an earlier review... it’s Universal who can perhaps be forgiven for jumping on the multiple monster bandwagon when you take into account that they already started doing this in the early 1940s (although not, interestingly, with their established Mummy character).
And, though this cross pollinating idea doesn't quite start with their 1931 production of Dracula (pretty much the first horror talkie and a big influence on the output of their competitors at the time)... it actually kinda does, in a way. The monster rallies to come just over a decade later were very much incorporating this character in their cinematic DNA. This marks pretty much the first 'official' version of Dracula on screen... not including the very famous, unauthorised German Expressionist classic Nosferatu, which Bram Stoker’s widow had won a legal case against and for which all the prints were supposed to have been destroyed as a consequence of this legal action (fortunately for us, a couple survived).
The film itself is not based on Stoker's novel as such... and neither are very many of the film versions of it either, it has to be said. Instead it is based on his somewhat simplified stage version which he wrote for his boss Henry Irving. I say “somewhat” because it was filtered through a couple of other writer's versions before it was adapted for Universal... the Hamilton Dean version and the John L. Balderstone version, which he subsequently revised for the screenplay here.
The casting was always supposed to be very different. Various actors had been bandied about for the role until the dream team of director Tod Browning and "man of a thousand faces" Lon Chaney as Dracula were signed. Unfortunately, Chaney died of cancer before the production was due to start shooting and, when there was no one left to cast, Universal snapped up Bela Lugosi... who was really lobbying for the part... for an insultingly small salary. We are fortunate that they chose him though (eventually), because he knew exactly what he was doing with the role since he'd been playing the Count to good reviews in the Balderstone play for an astonishingly large number of performances and, indeed, was instrumental to Universal in acquiring the film rights to the play from Mrs. Stoker in the first place.
Joining him from the phenomenally long run of the stage play were Herbert Bunston as Dr. Seward and the inimitable Edward Van Sloan as Dracula's famous nemesis Van Helsing (easily my favourite screen rendition of Van Helsing and I couldn't imagine this film without his amazing presence as much as I couldn't imagine it without Lugosi's Dracula). Like Lugosi, Van Sloane would play his character for a second outing but, whereas Lugosi had to wait until 1949's Abbot And Costello Meet Frankenstein before he had another crack at his most famous role, Van Sloan would reprise his role of Van Helsing in the first direct sequel to Dracula, the 1936 film Dracula's Daughter. That being said, Van Sloan also turns up in Frankenstein in the same year as this movie and also has a very similar, 'Van Helsingish' role in the 1932 production of The Mummy.
Rounding out the most important members of the cast were Helen Chandler as Mina, Frances Dade as Lucy, David Manners as Jonathan Harker and the absolutely fantastic Dwight Frye as everyone's favourite fly eater, Renfield. Frye's dialogue delivery in this, like that of Lugosi and Van Helsing's, seems almost deliberately slow and stilted, even considering talking pictures had only been going for two years (a silent, intertitled version of Dracula was also released for theatres that hadn't yet had audio equipment put in). This might put off some modern viewers to a certain extent but, if you can get used to the line delivery, it makes for a very rewarding viewing experience totally appropriate to the subject matter and it’s worth giving it a second look to if you couldn't get into it the first time around.
Considering it's the first talking vampire picture (with the lead vampire in question being a very different 'beast' from Stoker's disgusting old man of the novel who was closer, perhaps, to the Nosferatu version of the character) the film never shows the vampires possessing the fangs they are now known for and it never once, in this version shot for English speaking audiences where censorship restrictions were a little more rigid, shows the double puncture marks left in the vampire's victims... although it does, at least, describe them in the dialogue so the audience can get the idea.
There is, of course, no music in this save for the opening titles and the diegetic music (source music from on screen instruments) due to the belief in this period that it would distract from the dialogue. It wasn't until Max Steiner's score for King Kong in 1933 that producers realised the power of the film score in regards to talking pictures (please see my review of King Kong here for the 'strings attached' part of that statement). This, coupled with the unusually pronounced dialogue gives the film a certain eerie quality which it might not otherwise have (and I'll say a little more about 'underscore' in regards to this motion picture in a little while).
In terms of the richness of the visual design of the film, this version has always been viewed as second best when compared to the Spanish language edition shot with a different cast and crew on the same sets and with the same shooting script, through night time shoots when the first production had gone home for the day. I used to adhere to this opinion too but, looking at the two films side by side now, I think they are just very different and the Browning version, shot by cinematographer Karl Freund, is every bit as rich at a visual level, if not more so in some places. I'll get around to talking a bit more about the simultaneously shot Spanish version in a little while.
There's not as much moving camera as in the Spanish version here (as was typical for sound film at this period, the camera was still learning how to be free again and mask the equipment noise) but even where there is fluid camera movement, the Browning version will often cut to a more staged, not quite matching close up version of a character (often Lugosi himself) in much the same way that Sergei Eisenstein used to single out static shots of a character rather than zoom in on them in films such as his classic Battleship Potemkin.
There are many little visual gems in this movie and here are a few of them that I noticed on this viewing:
There's a wonderful scene in the early stages of the film where Dwight Frye's Renfield is standing framed in front of some full length windows in roughly the centre of the screen with his back to us as he looks out. This is intercut with a shot of 'the brides of Dracula' framed in a big open doorway directly opposite that position, echoing the shots both proceeding and succeeding it.
Later on, as Renfield is seen in the hold of the good ship Vesta (actually the Demeter in Stoker's original novel), there is a kind of slightly moving spotlight in the background to give dramatic lighting as he speaks to Dracula in his coffin/crate. This is clearly meant to be the light shining through from an unseen porthole magnified onto the background and utilised for stylistic effect.
There's a particularly beautiful composition in Lucy's bedroom where Lucy and Mina, who is some distance behind Lucy, are sitting in front of a large mirror. In the reverse shot we see Lucy sitting on the left with her back to us, her reflection facing us in the mirror as she talks, slightly taller because of the angle and distance captured in the mirror... and then Mina's relection a little higher still facing us, again due to distance and angle from the reflecting glass. The three bodies in space make an upward diagonal line from left to right, framed by two lamps on either side of the upward frames of the mirror. It’s a pretty amazing composition, as it goes.
In addition to some startling visual designs, there's also the odd moment or two when the editing is just as poetic. My favourite example would be a scene when the main characters are discussing what could have made the two puncture marks on Mina's neck. One of them says, "What could have caused them, Professor?" Suddenly the housekeeper exclaims "Count Dracula!" as if in response to the question but, in actual fact, she's announcing Dracula’s arrival at the house and Lugosi enters in the next shot. It's a nice little touch and it's just these little, electrically charged juxtapositions of interacting elements that make films worth watching in the first place.
The 1998 re-release of the film with a specifically commissioned score composed by Philip Glass is not my preferred choice of viewing, although I have long been an admirer of the music of Glass and, if nothing else, this version serves to illustrate the benefits that having a score can bring to a movie. For instance, the soundtrack detracts greatly from the stilted feel of the dialogue and makes it maybe a little more palatable for audiences not used to such a degree of aural stylisation. Also, the leitmotif quality of the orchestral textures (rather than the melodies, in this instance), clue the audience in to things which the non-scored film was arguably lacking.
As an example of this, there's the shadow of an unrevealed character on a wall intercut in one scene a little before he enters and it’s revealed to be Renfield when he walks on but I don't really think the intention of this shot was to surprise or wrong foot the audience in any way. I suspect it was literally just an insert shot to clue the viewer in to the fact that Renfield has been listening in for a while. The addition of Glass' score makes it a little more implicit that it's Renfield's silhouette because the 'plucking' style of the orchestration which the viewer will have subconsciously associated with the character is used when it appears. This is exactly the kind of thing music in film is good at and Glass demonstrates it very well here.
When I first saw the score performed live against the screen it was in the same orchestration used here, performed as then by the much celebrated Kronos Quartet. However, when I saw it performed a few years later it was reorchestrated for four different instruments (not just strings) and I remember thinking it was a far superior version of Glass' score than the original one issued for home video and on CD. Alas, I've never been able to track down a recording of that version of the Glass Dracula score.
Okay, so the Spanish version, although using the same sets as the English language version, is very differently shot and staged... in some places it's far superior and in others... not so much. It also includes a scene or two not present in the other but, by a similar token, has other key scenes missing. Of the cast of this version, which still uses footage of Lugosi for some long shots to save money, the only three actors really worth looking at are Carlos Villarías as the Count himself, Lupita Tova as Eva (aka Mina) and Pablo Álvarez Ribio as a Renfield who certainly gives Dwight Frye a run for his money but in a much different style (and really, nobody does it better than Frye). The Spanish version of Van Helsing, for example, doesn't possess the same electrical presence as Van Sloane's delivery of the same role, who's stern visual style with the harsh, blonde widow's peak and the thick, milk bottle glasses adds another level of weight to the role which makes his Spanish counterpart seem a much softer, less satisfying variation of the character.
There are a great many differences, far too numerous to mention in an article of this size, in the Spanish movie. Indeed, apart from the same sets and mostly similar dialogue, it's like watching a completely different movie which, in fairness, it is. However, I'll highlight a few of the more interesting comparisons I’ve noticed next.
In the US version you never really see Lugosi rising from his coffin. Instead, the camera moves away and it's implied that’s what’s happened before it either returns or cuts back to a shot of Lugosi standing next to said coffin. Presumably the sight of Dracula groping his way out of his coffin in shot and messing up his immaculate cape was not seen as a desirable element of the film. I can see that. However, all the 'coffin release' shots of the Spanish version are a lot more interestingly handled. Here you see the, usually already half risen, lid of the coffin opening with a mist floating up from within. Then, when the lid is fully raised, Carlos Villarías pops up from behind the coffin lid (which presumably puts no strain on his cloak) and there you have it. Job done and it's much more effective than the English language version in this respect.
There's also much more made of the supernatural manipulation of objects, such as the self opening and closing doors which gave Dwight Frye so much concern in Castle Dracula. In the Spanish version, even the doors on the second coach that carries Renfield to his Transylvanian rendezvous open and close at will with a disturbingly loud groaning. Similarly, there is more emphasis on the title character flying into people’s rooms as a bat before changing into human form. Although you still don’t see the actual transformation, it’s much more heavily reinforced as an idea whereas, in the other one, you may be forgiven for thinking this is not really covered all that well at all.
In the scene where, in the US version, the brides of Dracula go to attack the feinted Renfield but are waved back by Dracula so he can claim him for himself (in a strangely homoerotic subtext found within the trappings of the vampire genre quite often), the Spanish version shows the brides themselves going down to 'vamp Renfield up'.
The differences continue but, some of them are quite odd.
A little more is made of the implied violence as Dracula eats his way through the crew of the Vesta while he journeys to London. However, these sequences include a little less dialogue from Renfield but include a quite incredible, memorable shot of him laughing his head off maniacally as he is framed by the circle of a porthole. A quite menacingly disconcerting shot, as it happens.
That being said, the following scene of Dracula murdering/drinking the Covent Garden flower girl is completely absent from the Spanish version, which is kind of strange. It says a lot about the difference in pacing of more or less the same scenes in the two versions when you consider that the Spanish edition is a full half an hour longer than the US counterpart. However, although the implied violence of this scene has been left out entirely in this version, the twin puncture wounds in the necks of the victims in this are very much a visual presence whereas, as I stated earlier, they were absent in all but dialogue references in the US version. Of course, the costumes on the ladies in question are a lot more racier and low cut than in the US movie so their necks are pretty easily visible all the time (not to mention other bosomy details which their almost transparent attire reveals in certain scenes).
That being said, the scene in Lucy’s bedroom which still does technically take place in a mirror is, while less static, a much more mundane affair in this Spanish version and doesn’t match the visual poetry created in the counterpart scene in Tod Browning’s daytime shoot. Neither is the scene where Renfield crawling across the floor to the unconscious maid as interesting as the version performed by Dwight Frye, which is more dementedly focused as he comes from the back of the shot to the front, rather than what Renfield does in the Spanish version, which just has him crawling in from the right hand side of the frame.
There also seems to be an incredible amount of expository dialogue coming from Van Helsing’s character towards the end of the picture. Much more than the English language version. This is not really a good thing although the ‘hypnotic confrontation’ scene between Van Helsing and Dracula seems a little more elabourate and is intercut with the scene where 'vamped up Eva' is trying to bite Jonathan Harker (or Juan Harker as he is known in this one) and get him to take Van Helsing’s crucifix away from him. Both scenes play out as single scenes in the US daytime shoot version. Likewise, the scene where Van Helsing confronts Dracula with the reflecting box has a much more embellished reaction on the Spanish version of the Count. Bela Lugosi is content to knock the cigarette box out of Van Helsing’s hand but Carlos Villarías uses his cane to smash the box from Van Helsing’s hands here.
Another highlight of the different places the directors took their respective versions to includes the final death scene of Renfield. In the Browning version, he is silently strangled to death and then rolls down the big, circular staircase (which would be reused again in films like Frankenstein) to drop off the last bit out of sight behind a chest. In this version, Renfield is screaming as he is half choked to death before being tossed off the same stairs from the top. He’s also not forgotten by Van Helsing as the movie closes, either... his body is still very much visible and the focus of the Professor's attention in the last moments of the film.
A very important difference, to my mind, would be a scene in the Spanish version which follows the story in which we are treated to a conversation between Van Helsing and Juan that makes it quite clear that the former has driven a stake through the resurrected Lucy’s heart. In the US version, her menacing figure is left undealt with by our heroes. So that’s very interesting because one imagines that these scenes were in the script to be filmed by the other crew... they just chose to omit them, for some reason.
The ‘new’ Universal Legacy Dracula Blu Ray collection contains almost all of the extras from the similarly titled US DVD release of over a decade ago. The films look as spectacular as ever and, in the case of Dracula, have a lot of supporting material including film and Universal Horror historian David J. Skaal’s commentary track for the US version, the alternate Glass soundtrack and the Spanish version of the film... although this last item is as annoying as the previously mentioned set as, if your Blu Ray played doesn’t have a subtitle toggle, there are a lot of shenanigans to be performed to get the English subs up for this. It also doesn’t help that, if you pause it for five minutes and the disc’s screensaver kicks in, it resets the default to stop playing the subtitles when you resume. So that’s not good. However, it is a lovely set with these films looking pretty much better than they ever did before. If you’ve never seen the first authorised versions of Dracula before then this Blu Ray set is a great place to start. Not all the films in the interpenetrating sequence are there (you’ll need the Frankenstein and The Wolfman legacy sets for that) but these are relatively inexpensive sets for the amount of content on them and, unlike the previous Universal Legacy versions, also include Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein (and Abbot and Costello Meet The Mummy on the The Mummy legacy set). It’s a great release and it comes highly recommended from this particular audience member, I can tell you that... give them a go while they’re still out there. Besides, where else can you see a Dracula film where the title character actually has Armadillo’s running around his castle? Not that many, that’s for sure.
Sunday, 29 October 2017
Ragnarok N’ Roll
Thor - Ragnarok
2017 USA Directed by Taika Waititi
UK cinema release print.
Warning: Very minor ‘ish’ story spoilers, I suppose.
So here we go again with Thor - Ragnarok. It's yet another, fairly impressive, entry into Marvel’s strand of MCU films (Marvel Cinematic Universe) which all take place in a shared universe and have interlocking characters, themes and situations which build on and support each other. So, essentially, this is yet another sequel to Iron Man, even though Robert Downey Jr’s version of Tony Stark is only mentioned here and doesn’t actually appear in the flesh. Although there have been a few misses along the way... Iron Man 2 and the two Guardians Of The Galaxy films really didn’t do much for me, it has to be said (although I do like the characters in the GOTG films... just not the story ideas surrounding them)... the films are mostly solid and, musical continuity aside, the Marvel films in this sequence seem to have a knack for good casting (both in front of and behind the cameras). This latest installment is no exception to that rule. Sure, it’s certainly not the best of them but it’s definitely somewhere in the upper half of fun Marvel movies, I would say.
The previous two Thor ‘solo’ movies (if you can call this a solo adventure) were different in tone to each other and this third entry again changes the look and feel of the stories. Starting off with Thor imprisoned and talking to the a captive audience abut how he got in this predicament, I at first thought the majority of the running time was going to be one long flashback telling us how Thor got to this point and that the conclusion would lead on from here. Not so, though, and in the first of many surprises, we have a typical James Bondian ‘end of a mission’ moment when Thor talks to a big fiery devil creature and gains an inkling about the duplicity of Loki’s last trick, when it was revealed to the audience but not to Thor that Loki had replaced Zeus and was impersonating him to rule Asgard (at the end of Thor - The Dark World reviewed here). Thor then does battle with the monster and, when he finally gets back to Asgard, uncovers Loki tricksterism (in a nice scene which spoofs Loki’s fake death from Thor - The Dark World). After the two go to find Zeus, played once again by Anthony Hopkins and helped in their quest by a recent addition to the Marvel Universe, they learn that they have an older sister, Hela (played by the wonderful Cate Blanchett), who was banished by Zeus in days gone by. She is the Goddess of Death and she’s pretty powerful.
In a mini showdown, Hela destroy’s Thor’s hammer and, while he and Loki are fleeing to Asgard, she follows them up the Bifrost and both Thor and Loki are thrown from that mode of transport into a random part of the Universe where Thor is taken prisoner by Jeff Goldblum’s ‘Grandmaster’ and forced to fight in the arena against... The Incredible Hulk. However, he has to find a way back to Asgard and so he teams up with Loki, Valkyrie and Hulk/Banner to try to make things right. And that’s the plot set up and that’s all I’m saying about it here... which is pretty much what you can gather from the trailer anyway.
So we have Chris Hemsworth back as Thor and Tom Hiddleston back as Loki and, frankly, the chemistry between them is great. We also have one of my favourite modern actors, Mark Ruffalo, back as Bruce Banner/Hulk and he’s always a fun watch but he’s mostly back as Hulk here, rather than in his human form. The Hulk character has, as you will have seen from the trailers, finally ‘found his voice’, so to speak and is more in keeping with the original comics in this way. I think the character also looks a lot more like Ruffalo here and, maybe I’m wrong here but his head seems to have grown smaller in size too? Seems to have been redesigned. We also have Tessa Thompson who seems miscast, racially, as the blonde haired, Wagnerian styled Valkyrie from the 1970s comics, although I don’t know if she’s been revamped in recent comics like the Nick Fury character was so I might just be showing my age here. Away from the ‘look’ of the character, though, she does do pretty well here and creates an entertaining screen personae but, again, she seems far removed from being The Enchantress as she ‘kinda/also’ was in the early 70s comics.
Idris Elba returns as Heimdall, partaking in some nice heroics and there are also a couple of special cameos here from Sam Neil and Luke ‘brother of Chris’ Hemsworth which provide a great moment when Thor gets back to Asgard. Karl Urban also turns up (although I didn’t actually recognise him, which shows just how good of an actor he is) as a... well he’s definitely someone you have to keep an eye on. He’s not a black and white character by any means, even though he’s still a quick sketch of one... in terms of the film moving at a very fast pace. My favourite new character here, though, was easily a rock creature called Korg who definitely gets all the best laughs in the movie... so I was surprised to learn later that he’d been played by the director, Taika Waititi.
And when I say he got the best laughs...
Thor - Ragnarok shouldn’t really work as well as it does here and this is due to the tone of this one. I mentioned earlier that the previous Thor movies seemed to have a slightly different tone but this one is a complete ‘about face’ to the way in which the characters were presented in the previous Thor adventures. In fact, this one is pretty much written as a comedy all the way through. The scripting pretty much consists of a load of jokes and one liners thrown together and, although a lot of it was apparently improvised on set for this particular film, it really works quite well for most of the time.
Now, you’d think that such an out and out comedy treatment of the subject matter might trivialise the story arc of the ‘big picture’ the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been building towards completing over the next two years but it really doesn’t fall into any of the traps it could have been tripped up with and the tone of the piece never really interferes with the tone and credibility of the established characters (for the most part... I’ll get to my one big complaint in a minute). Furthermore, although comedy is the order of the day in this one, you never really feel like it’s watering down the stakes which are quite high here. It’s also quite edgy in something it does to one of the characters and I realised at one point in the film that one of the scenes used in the trailers must have been shot twice (once with and once without... something) or at least had some heavy CGI work done on it in order to not reveal something which will be a permanent change to one of the regular characters in the MCU.
My one big problem here was the Banner/Hulk character... not in terms of acting but in terms of scripting. For starters, Banner’s few scenes in the movie seem to be really ‘out of character’ to me and it’s like he’s gone completely mad. I understand that after being ‘imprisoned’ in the Hulk’s body for two years the character might return a little dazed and confused but something about the writing here just didn’t seem to ring true to the excellent work Ruffalo has done with Bruce Banner in previous films in the series. Also... and I may be completely wrong about this... but isn’t the continuity completely wrong here. I thought the jet that Hulk used to escape in Avengers - Age Of Ultron (reviewed here) was found or tracked to a specific place on Earth, although Hulk was not found. Or did I remember that wrong because... that’s not in the back story here. The jet seems to have ended up somewhere completely different and ‘off world’. Also, the character makes reference to having been on another planet other than Earth and the one he’s currently on here and Thor seems to remember this too. Well, I don’t. When the heck did this happen in the intervening movies? So I was finding myself very puzzled during some scenes here.
Also, while I'm on the subject of continuity. If Thor was in a happy relationship with Natalie Portman's character still when he left Earth in Avengers - Age Of Ultron... how can they have had any time to 'split up', as is stated here, when he hasn't been back to Earth since then until a certain scene in this film? That makes no sense. Honestly Marvel, if you find yourself in the position where you have to write a character out because they don't want to do anymore, you could at least make it a little more credible.
However, this is all just minor stuff and, in terms of broad strokes, Thor - Ragnarok is definitely one of the better entries in the MCU. Mark Mothersbaugh’s score is nicely done too (although I would have liked to have heard what Brian Tyler might have done with this one) and there’s even a nice musical cameo from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, if I’m not much mistaken. If you’re a fan/follower’/true believer’ of the Marvel movies then you really need to see this... especially since it helps set up (as do they all, I guess), next year’s Avengers - Infinity War. It’s perhaps more married, in terms of the kind of comedy action style it has here, to the two Guardians Of The Galaxy movies but it doesn’t seem to make the same mistakes that those two did (for me) and this one was a much more positive experience. And, like I said, the stakes are high in this one and, by the end of the story, you definitely feel that various things have been changed forever in the wake of this movie. Things which certainly, in some ways, live up to the movie’s subtitle of Ragnarok. My big question of the writers, though, is this... where the heck is Lady Sif these days?