REVIEW — The Forgotten (2014)

FilmJuice have my review of Oliver Frampton’s debut film, a low-budget British horror film named The Forgotten.

The film is set in Central London where a troubled teenager has returned from holiday to find his mother gone and his father living in an abandoned council estate. By day, the teenager helps his father break into flats and strip out copper wiring. By night, he worries about the noises coming up through the floor and the people who seem to be following his father home at night.

The Forgotten was maybe one major script revision away from being a genuinely excellent modern ghost story. It would be interesting to see what a more experienced and worldly Frampton might be able to produce as Britain really could do with a few more genre directors who were willing to make films about the harshness of normal lives.

Though not to be confused with the identically-named Christian Slater-fronted TV series about a group of amateur detectives piecing together the lives of unnamed murder victims, both Forgottens share a desire for social relevance and a belief that pop culture can serve to increase our understanding of the world rather than simply distracting us from it.

However, despite some admirable aims and some real technical skill yielding some really effective scares, The Forgotten is ultimately little more than one of those disposable low-budget horror flicks that wind up on supermarket shelves.

Ghost Story (1981) – I Spit on Your Town

It is easy to see why people might hate this film. After all, it is not and could never be a book by Peter Straub.

The origin story behind Straub’s novel has been extensively documented: Straub has repeatedly stated that Ghost Story was inspired by Stephen King’s early vampire novel Salem’s Lot, a tip of the hat that was later acknowledged by King in his non-fiction collection Danse Macabre where Ghost Story was written up as one of the most influential and structurally effective novels in 20th Century horror. This much we know.

For my part, Straub’s acknowledgement came as something of a surprise as Straub’s approach to fiction has always struck me as quite different to the plodding accessibility of King’s Victorian realism in which the world is just as real and fixed as the characters uncovering it. In Straub’s books, the boundary between world and character is far more mutable, its nuances coaxed into existence by structural complexities and stylistic flourishes designed to keep readers off-balance until a trap is sprung and a particular impression is lodged deep inside the reader’s vulnerable skull. Cocteau famously said that style was a way of saying very complicated things in a very simple manner and Straub is an author who is mostly in the business of using style to coax his readers into receiving certain — often wordless — impressions.

Had Ghost Story been written by Stephen King then one might have described it as the story of a group of old men who are being haunted. As the story unfolds, the men are revealed as having shared a disastrous encounter with a single woman. This encounter not only fills them with guilt, it also seems to account for a litany of emotional crises that have defined their adult lives. Assuming that both world and characters are fixed and real entities, Ghost Story is all about a haunting the grows with the passage of time, consuming not only the lives of the guilty but also the town in which they live. This is the story that John Irvin tried and failed to adapt but the result was a cinematic Ghost Story that is a lot closer to that of Peter Straub than that of Stephen King.

 

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REVIEW – White Dog (1982)

WhiteDogFilmJuice have my review of the recent Masters of Cinema release of Samuel Fuller’s racially-themed horror film White Dog.

Cutting to the chase, I really enjoyed this film. Set on the margins of Hollywood, the film tells of an actress who happens to run over a beautiful white Alsatian dog. Forced to take responsibility to the animal after taking it to the vet, the actress nurses it back to health and has all of her care and attention redeemed when the animal protects her from a rapist who breaks into her home. Fuller shoots the dog at night using spotlights that reflect against the whiteness of the fur but not the background meaning that the dog appears to glow in an almost spectral fashion. The otherwordliness of the dog is put to brilliant use when it escapes the actress’s yard and begins attacking black people: The pure white dog devouring black people and covering itself in blood is as striking and troubling an image of racism as you could possibly imagine. Part of what makes these images so troubling is the fact that they could just as easily have been inserted into a film about a heroic white dog that eats evil black people. However, to look upon these scenes as racist or problematic is to ignore the wider context of the film and how the film is really about trying to cure racism:

Fuller intends the dog (tellingly referred to as ‘Mr Hyde’) to serve as a metaphorical representation of human racism and, to a certain extent, he does: One point the film repeatedly makes is that there is nothing ‘natural’ about the dog’s hatred of black people; his fear and hatred were deliberately engineered by people who wanted to use his savagery as a tool of racial segregation and oppression. Another point the film makes is that the techniques required to train a racist dog were pioneered in the days of slavery when plantation owners had a vested interest in keeping vicious attack dogs that would happily kill a black person but never think to harm a white person. These two ideas certainly mesh with contemporary thoughts on social justice and they make a very interesting point about how the racist attitudes that continue to be perpetuated today originated in a time when extreme and dehumanising patterns of racist thought underpinned an entire economic system. Fuller’s metaphorical racist dog also represents how difficult it can be to wean oneself away from racist thought and how some attitudes can be so deeply engrained that unravelling them is tantamount to unravelling an entire personality. However, Fuller’s metaphor only goes so far.

While I think that Fuller’s position is somewhat outdated (one of the first things you learn about social justice is that it’s a white person’s duty to educate themselves and not to be ‘saved’ by black and minority ethnic people) I don’t think it’s racist. In fact, I think that White Dog is a thoughtful and intellectually intense film that tries to grapple with a huge and incredibly different problem. What I don’t understand is the logic of using an intensely problematic piece of fiction as a springboard for that engagement.

White Dog is based on a book by the French novelist Romain Gary which tells the semi-autobiographical story of a dog who has been trained to attack black people on sight. As in the film, a black animal trainer steps in and tries to cure the animal but rather than getting rid of the animal’s murderous urges entirely, the trainer simply reprograms the animal to attack white people instead. As I explain in the review, Gary intended this as a critique of civil rights activists who, in his opinion, were training people to be ‘intolerant of intolerance’. From J. Hoberman’s interesting piece about the film:

Gary and his then wife, actress Jean Seberg, find a stray German shepherd that, they soon discover, has been raised to attack black people on sight. Although told that the dog is too old to be deconditioned, they turn him over to an animal trainer who turns out to be a Black Muslim and vengefully reprograms the creature to maul whites—including, at the book’s climax, Gary himself. (Some of the vengeance in this “found” allegory belongs to the author: Gary disapproved of his wife’s public support of the Black Panther Party, a political stance that put her under FBI investigation.)

This attempt to set up an equivalence between systemic white racism and angry reaction to that racist system will be familiar to anyone who remembers the much-lamented Derailing For Dummies site as the ‘You’re As Bad as They Are!’ defence:

Because they’re angry about the treatment they undergo and because they are aggressive and persistent in wanting to see change happen, you can target this behaviour (remembering that it is unseemly for Marginalised People™ – they’re supposed to set an example at all times by being humble and long suffering) by suggesting it puts them on a par with the people and system that stigmatise, ostracise and target them every second of every day of their lives. This also suggests that reacting to such discrimination is totally unreasonable and out of proportion (they should just take their knocks!) and that has the benefit of indicating your ignorance to just how pervasive and constant this discrimination truly is.

Thankfully, Fuller does not follow Gary down that particular political rabbit hole but it I can’t imagine anyone wanting to base a contemporary critique of racism on a book that suggests black civil rights activists are morally equivalent to people who train their animals to attack black people on sight.

 

 

REVIEW – The Banshee Chapter (2012)

the-banshee-chapterFilmJuice have my review of Blair Erickson’s bizarrely incompetent horror movie The Banshee Chapter.

When I say “bizarrely incompetent”, I mean that while some of the set-pieces are incredibly effective and the opening vignette is incredibly eye-catching, the film has one of the most poorly-constructed narratives that I have ever encountered. People spit a lot of bile at the likes of Uwe Boll but despite making cheap, shoddy and astonishingly boring films, Boll is at least able to construct a cinematic world that makes some sort of sense.

Every style of storytelling has rules. Though some would argue that these rules are hard-wired into the human brain, a less Darwinian theory is that we are socialised into expecting certain kinds of story from certain kinds of work. Consider, for example, the way that Ruggero Deodata’s Cannibal Holocaust borrows techniques from documentary filmmaking and uses them to make his otherwise quite conventional horror film seem more terrifying. Another fine example of a work that transgresses the boundaries between genres is Stephen Volk’s Ghostwatch, which terrified Britain by using the tropes and faces of British TV to tell a fictional ghost story. Blair Erickson’s film also moves between a number of different genres and borrows from different cinematic traditions but rather than blurring the boundaries to create a particular effect, Erickson muddles the boundaries in a way that suggests he was incapable of telling the difference between them:

This is particularly glaring when Erickson continues to use found footage techniques despite the fact that the journalist is no longer keeping a video diary. It is one thing for the picture to go fuzzy and the camera to dart around in a panicky fashion when a terrified character is holding it, but why would there be interference and panicky camera movements when none of the characters are holding a camera? What is that interference supposed to represent? Erickson’s confusion of first-person and third-person perspectives on his cinematic world results in a world so broken and incoherent that it comes dangerously close to collapsing in a puddle of beautifully-edited gibberish.

Frequent visitors to this here site will doubtless have noticed that one of my most common complaints is that while a film may be beautifully made, it has absolutely nothing to say. This is undoubtedly a result of the fact that people can now go to film school, learn how to be a competent director, acquire the funds to make their own film and then realise that they have no particular message to convey or story to tell. While Auteur theory stresses the importance of vision and of having the freedom to fully realise that vision, it struggles when forced to content with neophyte directors who are still trying to find their feet. Undoubtedly a talented editor and a filmmaker with some potential, Erickson should have been reigned in by both a working script and a producer willing to ask uncomfortable questions but instead he seems to have been given free reign resulting in a film so stylistically incoherent that it is frequently impossible to tell what it is that we are supposed to be seeing.

Banshee Chapter could have been an atmospheric return to paths already well-trodden by the X-Files but instead it is an incoherent mess. While my review blames Erickson for his inability to tell a story, a more likely set of culprits are the producers who either failed to spot a foundering director or refused to throw him a life raft. Hollywood is now quite fond of marketing films on the basis of who produced them and the PR bullshit for this particular film listed Zachary Quinto’s involvement no less than three times. Based on Banshee Chapter alone, I’d say that ‘…from the dude who plays Spock in those terrible Star Trek movies’ is more of a bug than a feature.

The Sight of the Hunted: German Expressionism and Night of the Hunter

night of the hunter poster

FilmJuice have published a lengthy piece written in celebration of the recent re-release of Charles Laughton’s legendary Night of the Hunter.

This piece was a real joy as it gave me an excuse to not only rewatch the film for the first time in a while, but also to do some research into Laughton’s life and refamiliarise myself with some of the better works of German Expressionist cinema. I wrote quite a lengthy piece about German Expressionism for Videovista a few years but my understanding of that particular cinematic milieu has solidified somewhat and hooked up with some much larger thoughts I’ve been having about the relationship between psychological realism and fantasy in the psychological thriller genre. In my original Videovista article, I spoke about Expressionism in terms of:

Expressionism emerged as a reaction to impressionism. Impressionism, as practised by the artists Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir attempted to break down the boundaries between subject and background in order to produce paintings that were almost like snapshots: images that were exacting reflections of the world itself. Expressionism reacted against impressionism by rejecting the call to represent the world ‘as it is’. Instead, expressionists favoured representations of the world that ‘expressed’ the artists’ attitudes towards the subject matter. They did not reflect the world, they abstracted from it. A key work in the development of expressionism is Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream (1893), in which the insane flowing colours of the background, the pale featureless visage of the screamer and the dark figures in the background express not merely a person screaming but rather a state of inner turmoil, paranoia, alienation and insanity.

Now I say far more straightforwardly:

The most influential work of German Expressionist cinema is undoubtedly The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Told entirely in flashback by a man who turns out to be an inmate in an insane asylum, Robert Wiene’s film is a hypnotic mess of light, shadow and unsettling angles. Too fantastical to be real and yet too raw to be fictitious, Caligari’s story of love, murder and sinister sleepwalkers is best understood as an emotional landscape, a realistic portrayal of what the real world feels like to the person telling the story. The light and darkness of Caligari’s world are absolute because they are absolute in the mind of the madman just as they might be in the mind of a child. This is the exact same idea that lurks behind the myriad eccentricities of Laughton’s Night of the Hunter.

Rather than seeing the film through the gauze of southern gothic, I view it as a quite explicitly psychological piece: The fantastical nature of many sequences and effects are not reflections of a world that is in itself fantastical but rather a reflection of how that world feels to the children and how children (and everyone else for that matter) use the culture they have consumed in order to make sense of the world around them. It is only natural that the world should resemble a fairy tale when the only time you have heard of evil priests and murderous ogres is in the pages of just such a children’s story. Far from being limited to the children’s worldview, Night of the Hunter occasionally switches to other worldviews such as those of the mother, a friendly drunk and a horny teenaged girl. This is a film that not only reaches back to a cinematic vocabulary that was largely unknown to 1950s American audiences, it also takes those Expressionistic techniques and takes them to the next level. Night of the Hunter is a film that is literally decades ahead of its time.

Mother

REVIEW – Creepshow (1982)

creepshowFilmJuice have my review of George A. Romero’s infamous horror/comedy Creepshow. Infamous… not because it’s particularly funny or scary, but rather because it features the film’s writer Stephen King playing a dungaree-clad redneck simpleton who slowly turns into a hedge. Creepshow is something of an odd cultural artifact as, despite having an incredibly famous writer and an incredibly famous director, the film is actually quite shit. Indeed, re-watching the film and scowling my way through its terrible gags and ineffectual scares, I was struck by the fact that this film’s fame owes less to the film itself than it does to its impeccable geek heritage. As I put it in my review:

Nostalgia only ever functions within the confines of a single generation and expecting contemporary audiences to feel nostalgic for comics produced in the 1950s is a fool’s errand.  Creepshow may well have struck a nerve with audiences when it first appeared but uneven writing and questionable direction mean that this film is now of little more than historical interest.

The nostalgia I speak of is nostalgia for a range of oddball horror comics published in the 1950s by a company called EC. As I explain in my review, before being wound down into a rump publishing little more than Mad Magazine, EC acquired a huge following by pioneering the combination of comedy and horror at a time when comics were being broken on the rack of public opinion for their supposed role in creating juvenile delinquents. Despite being something of a flash in the pan, the sensibility pioneered by EC was immensely influential on American babyboomers and traces of EC heritage can be found not only in the work of George A. Romero and Stephen King but also people like Stephen Spielberg, Sam Raimi and anyone from that generation who took it upon themselves to direct a horror/comedy. The problem is that, while the ‘boomers clearly loved their EC comics, they drank so deeply from the wellspring and returned to it so often that the idea explored by the EC comics themselves now seem incredibly dated and dull. We’ve seen it before and we’ve seen it better because everyone who ever read an EC comic decided to borrow the idea and make a film about it.

At the time, Creepshow must have seemed like a great idea and given how many 1980s film critics must have read EC comics as children, I’m sure the sense of shared love and nostalgia was universal. However, while nostalgia is an incredibly potent force that excuses many great cultural ills, it doesn’t transfer between generations meaning that while EC comics might have meant a lot to ‘boomers, they don’t mean anything to people like me. In fact, I’m more like to be nostalgic for the work of Romero and King than I am for the work that inspired them. Stripped of its shield of nostalgic good will, Creepshow reveals itself as poorly conceived, poorly written and poorly made.

I got into this question when I reviewed Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell back in 2009:

What most struck me as I sat watching Drag Me To Hell is its quite overt racism.  The film’s depiction of the Roma people is straight out of the darkest dreams of the Daily Mail and a tradition of racial prejudice, fear and scape-goating that stretches back at least as far as the Dark Ages.  Mrs. Ganush is physically disgusting, replete with disease and foul habits.  A vindictive and dishonest creature who needs little provocation before lashing out at honest white middle class people using her sinister gypsy powers.  Her family are presented in a similar tone as a pack of ugly, sinister and unsympathetic people playing weird violin music in the basement of a tumbledown old house.  I would have some sympathy for the idea that the Raimi brothers – as Americans – have little awareness of the spectre of genocide that still hangs over the European treatment and depiction of gypsies except that, even accepting that this kind of gross ignorance is acceptable, it does not explain why the same kind of racially-inspired, type-based characterisation also applies to other non-White characters.

At which point, Patrick Hudson appeared in the comments and mentioned not only Creepshow, but also nostalgia for EC comics. At the time, I was unimpressed by the suggestion that nostalgia somehow made Sam Raimi’s antitziganism acceptable but since then, my position has hardened even further: Nostalgia does not travel between generations and any attempt to force the issue (as in the case of Olivier Assayas’ recent love letter to the 1960s) is likely to result in a film that makes its creator look either sentimental, simple-minded or politically reactionary.

REVIEW – Citadel (2012)

Citadel_2FilmJuice have my review of Ciaran Foy’s debut horror movie Citadel.

Set on a council estate that might be in Ireland or possibly Scotland, Citadel revolves around a single father attempting to escape from a decaying council estate that is over-run with faceless hoodies. When the hoodies break into his council house in a bid to abduct his daughter, the young man turns to a psychotic Catholic priest who urges him to abandon all fear and compassion. Turns out the feral underclass are the inbred “dog children” of a pair of junkies and the only way to ‘save’ them is to murder them in an enormous gas explosion that will not only wipe the streets clear of impoverished scum but also allow the young man to become a real father.

The problem with Citadel is that, rather than seeking to examine middle class fears of a feral underclass, Foy treats these fears as entirely rational thanks to a backstory that deploys not only the language of class warfare as found in the pages of the Daily Mail but also fears of miscegenation, violence and unreasoning carnality that are common to pretty much every racial panic in recorded history. Much like Velt Harlan’s Jew Süss and D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, Ciaran Foy’s Citadel uses crude stereotypes to dehumanise and degrade whilst equating personal fulfilment and moral clarity with an act of grotesque violence against the dehumanised group. This makes Citadel not just ugly and reactionary, but downright fascistic in both its imagery and argument. To produce a film like this at a time when poor people are disproportionately subject to government funding cuts is nothing short of reprehensible.

As distasteful as it may be to make a film that dehumanises the poor at a time when they are being disproportionately targeted by government cuts, Citadel somehow manages to be even more offensive by virtue of receiving funding from government bodies such as the Irish Film Board and Creative Scotland. What this means is that while the Scottish and Irish governments may well have cut back on the amount of money they use to help poor people, they still found money to help produce a film that demonises the poor and advocates killing them all in an enormous gas explosion. How’s that for a slice of class warfare?