REVIEW – The Island of Lost Souls (1932)

FilmJuice have my review of Erle C. Kenton’s much under-loved The Island of Lost Souls starring Charles Laughton and Bela Lugosi.

The film is a product of the 1930s Golden Age in American horror that produced many of the great American movie monsters. Based on H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau, The Island of Lost Souls was banned in the UK because of its tendency to deny God and play with the idea of inter-racial and inter-species sex. Indeed, to say that this film is racist would be something of an understatement as it represents an almost flawless articulation of White America’s fear that non-whites will someday rise-up and, in the immortal words of Hunter S. Thompson, savagely penetrate every orifice in their bodies with their throbbing, uncircumcised members:

The film’s use of the word ‘native’ to denote the man-beasts is hardly accidental as it panders to double-edged racist fantasies about non-white people being more animalistic than American Christians. I use the word ‘fantasies’ advisedly as this belief in the passionate nature of non-white people extends not just to their perceived capacity for violence but also to their atavistic sexualities. Thus, when Parker kisses Lota and recoils in disgust, his disgust is born not only of inter-racial and inter-species revulsion but also from the realisation that he enjoyed kissing the savage far more than he did his immaculate groomed white fiancée.

Interestingly, the film is currently considered to be out of copyright meaning that you can watch it for free on Youtube. However, the good folks at Eureka have done a fantastic job of packaging the film up with a series of interviews and essays and the print used for their release is fantastically clear so I definitely recommend picking up their edition rather than watching it for free on the internet.

The Book of Human Insects (1970) By Osamu Tezuka – The Horror of Limitless Potential and Unfettered Change

It is impossible to dangle one’s toes into the waters of Japanese sequential art without, sooner or later, encountering the name of Osamu Tezuka. Aside from being a hugely prolific and influential artist who inspired generations of authors, Tezuka was also one of the first Japanese comics artists to enjoy commercial success in the West with series including Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion. However, despite the child-friendliness of Tezuka’s greatest successes, many of his finest works are decidedly darker and a good deal more complex. An excellent example of this is Tezuka’s recently translated The Book of Human Insects. Set in 1970s Tokyo, the novel offers a darkly compelling portrait of a woman with a remarkable capacity for re-invention. Ostensibly a psychological thriller about a Mr Ripley-like femme fatale who feeds upon Japan’s predominantly male intelligentsia, The Book of Human Insects resonates most when read as a critique of post-War Japanese society.

 

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REVIEW: 3-D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy (2011)

THE ZONE has my review of Christopher Sun’s erotic fantasy film 3-D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy.

Incorrectly marketed as the world’s first work of erotic 3D cinema, Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy is a film that never quite manages to achieve the levels of inspired oddness that make for a decent cult following. Instead, the film has a few nice moments (including an intersexual vampire lifting cartwheels with her 8 foot-long prehensile penis) that ultimately wind up getting lost amidst a lot of puerile sniggering and some deeply unpleasant misogynistic sadism.

Right from the off, Sex And Zen 3D suffers from translation problems as British culture tends not to cope too well with attempts to combine sex with comedy. While most British people will happily acknowledge the fact that sex – as an activity – can sometimes be very funny, attempts to capture that comedy on screen generally do not fare too well, as ridicule was traditionally one of the means through which matters pertaining to sexuality was repressed. For example, while a case can be made for seeing the Carry On films as agents of social change, one could just as easily say that they helped to reinforce taboos about the human body by presenting sex as a laughing matter. 3D Sex And Zen‘s tendency to move between (rather un-stimulating) eroticism and childish humour is not only unsettling, it is also fiercely reminiscent of the jarring tonal shifts common to the kind of campy Bavarian softcore porn films that were made in the 1960s and 1970s and screened on British cable TV in the early-to-mid 1990s. Sex And Zen 3D ultimately fails as a film because its jokes are unfunny and its erotic content is nothing more than boobies and thrusting bottoms, but the constant shifting between these two registers makes for an experience which, I suspect; would translate better for people from cultures where laughter was not used to drain sex of its power.

I hate to say this but, watching 3-D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy actually made me want to read some Laurel K. Hamilton as while Hamilton writes with all the style and insight of a someone with a pick-axe embedded in their skull, she at least knows how to mine the sweet spot between titillation, repulsion and transgression.

REVIEW: Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010)

Just in time for Christmas, THE ZONE has my review of Jalmari Helander’s Evil Santa picture Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale.

Much like Dick Maas’s anti-clerical Saint, Rare Exports draws much of its humour and all of its horror from confronting children’s stories with the eyes of an adult. As with Maas’s take on the story of Saint Nicholas, Helander’s take on the more familiar story of Santa Claus finds something distinctly unsettling in the idea of an immortal being who hangs around children. Given the gimmicky nature of the subject matter, it would have been easy for Rare Exports to get away with being cheap and shoddy but instead, the project boasted quite a lavish budget that made it all the way to the screen thanks to some wonderful cinematography and a script that knows when to place tongue in cheek and when to allow the surreal horror of Santa Claus to speak for itself:

Rare Exports [repeatedly] toys with the idea of arrested development. Indeed, the head of the multinational corporation that are trying to unearth Santa is a man who dresses and acts in a manner that suggests that adulthood does not necessarily become him. Aside from spending an absolute fortune trying to meet the real Santa, the man also hands out a set of safety precautions in order to prevent his men from being seen as ‘bad boys’. These precautions include statements such as ‘no swearing’ and ‘no drinking’, precisely the kinds of rules that adults apply to their children. By attempting to ensure that his workmen are seen as ‘good boys’, the foreign businessman is effectively trying to envelop them in the same state of arrested development as him.

Regrettably underused, this character is fiercely reminiscent of both the collector character from Toy Story 2 (1999), and Michael Jackson, in that all three give off an image of adulthood that is just far-enough out of alignment to set people’s teeth on edge. Although Rare Exports never delves into the capitalist’s motivations, it is clear that there is something very wrong with a man who would destroy a mountain, risk dozens and lives and spend a fortune in order to meet Santa. The childlike glee displayed by the capitalist when he first encounters the reindeer herders’ old man is beautifully unclean; the way he strokes the old man’s filthy and matter beard speaks of a profoundly broken form of humanity.

Lovely, wrong and distinctly Finnish.

Red State (2011) – Nothing to Say and No Idea of How to Say it

It seems difficult to talk about a Kevin Smith film without also talking about Kevin Smith.  Since his debut Clerks (1994), Smith has excelled in the art of bundling himself up with his artistic output: When Smith made Clerks, he was making a film about himself, when Smith made Chasing Amy (1997), he was making a film about something that happened to him and when Smith made Dogma (1999), he was making a very personal statement about his own religious beliefs. Aside from a habit of making very personal and autobiographical films, Smith has also been very open about the experience of making films and the experience of… well… being Kevin Smith. When Peter Biskind wanted to write a book about the dark side of Miramax, Smith was there to provide him with quotes. When the critics sharpened their knives and leapt on Jersey Girl (2004) and Cop Out (2010), Smith made it quite clear what he thought about film critics and the industry as a whole. Smith is the logical consequence of the cult of the auteur: the director who makes every detail of his life available in the hope that this might somehow make his films seem more interesting. A habitual over-sharer, tantrum-thrower and general emotional incontinent, Smith is a wonderful figure to write about and when he announced that he would fund, make and distribute Red State alone, writers could not help but write about Smith’s latest project.  Which is somewhat odd given that this is arguably Smith’s least personal film to date. Red State finds Smith attempting to reboot his directorial career by moving into the thriller genre.

I adore thriller and horror films because, in my view, they come very close to being what Alfred Hitchcock once described as ‘pure cinema’. Thrillers are all about drawing upon plot, actors, dialogue, theme and cinematography to enclose the audience in a bubble of pure cinematic affect.  A good thriller drags you halfway out of your seat and keeps you crouching in the darkness, because of this, thrillers frequently demand a high standard of technical filmmaking. A thriller cannot hide behind lavish special effects, celebrated performances or noble themes… it has to work as a piece of art.  Despite containing some brilliantly realised elements, Red State is one of the most technically dysfunctional films that I have ever had the misfortune of seeing.

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REVIEW – Vanishing on 7th Street (2010)

THE ZONE have my review of Brad Anderson’s urban horror film Vanishing on 7th Street.

I say “urban” as the film takes place in the rapidly depopulating city of Detroit but it strikes me that a more accurate description of the film might be something like ‘marshy’. Vanishing on 7th Street is about a group of people struggling to survive in the ruins of a city plunged into darkness by a powercut. What makes their existence something of a struggle is the fact that, out in the darkness, people keep disappearing meaning that, in order to stay alive, you have to keep the lights on. Unfortunately, with the main power out, the survivors are forced to rely upon mysteriously dwindling supplies of fuel and batteries.  These situation is made even worse by the tendency of the survivors to get lost in their own memories and wander off into the darkness. As you can probably tell, this is a film that is full of interesting thematic hooks but Anderson somehow manages to avoid getting caught on any of them resulting in a film that is neither scary nor dramatic and neither tense nor thought-provoking.  Vanishing on 7th Street is a marsh of ideas and Anderson made the terrible mistake of stepping off the path…

Vanishing On 7th Street could have been a brilliant horror film, an intelligent allegory for urban collapse or a thoughtful character study, but its refusal to pick a dramatic register and stick with it means that the resulting film is nothing but a series of pretty but ultimately pointless exercises in low-budget atmospheric cinematography. This is a brilliant idea waiting for a competently written script.

Whatever happened to the man who directed such brilliantly off-beat psychological thrillers as Session 9 (2001) and The Machinist (2004)? Come home Brad Anderson!  All is forgiven!

REVIEW – Atrocious (2010)

THE ZONE have my review of Fernando Barreda Luna’s found footage horror film Atrocious.

One of the more bizarre quirks in the current cinematic landscape is the popularity of Spanish genre films. Seemingly inspired by the trailblazing success of such Guillermo del Tor-produced horror films as Guillem Morales’ Julia’s Eyes (2010) and J.A. Bayona’s The Orphanage (2007), British distributors seem to be falling over themselves to release every half-baked Spanish horror flick they can get their hands on. Given the marketplace’s current fondness for Spanish genre and the commercial re-invigoration of the found footage genre by Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity (2007), Atrocious must have seemed like money in the bank and while that may very well prove to be the case, the film itself is nothing short of disastrous:

Despite an opening act that promises an intense familial psychodrama, Atrocious soon devolves into endless footage of people running through mazes and basements. As Blair Witch demonstrated, the use of night-vision, shaky camerawork, sinister noises, shadowy figures and plenty of screaming, swearing, and terrified heavy breathing can be supremely effective in generating tension without the need for elaborate scoring or special effects. However, while Atrocious uses all the toys in the Blair Witch toy-box, it fails to realise that Blair Witch‘s effectiveness relied upon both a good deal of restraint and the effective use of exposition to prime the pumps. Blair Witch used its signature shaky cameras sparingly and always prefaced them with huge amounts of exposition so even if you couldn’t really tell what was going on, you knew what you were supposed to see and your mind simply filled in the blanks.

Lacking the post-cinematic reflexive intelligence of both Cannibal Holocaust and The Blair Witch Project, Atrocious is a case study in the death of a genre cycle. As I explain in my review, cycles emerge when a breakthrough hit creates a market for imitation. In the 70s, people simply could not watch enough slasher movies and in the 00s people simply couldn’t see enough zombie movies. Atrocious is one of the films that ends cycles because while it is clearly attempting to jump on the found footage bandwagon, it completely fails to recognise what it was about the found footage films that made them so interesting.

Clearly, Fernando Barreda Luna looked at The Blair Witch Project and concluded that what attracted audiences to that film was hand-held camera footage of people running around a wood. I have a lot of time for The Blair Witch Project both as a postmodern text and as a piece of techinically proficient filmmaking but to look at Myrick and Sanchez’s film and conclude that it was all about the woods really is to miss the point.

REVIEW – Cannibal Holocaust (1980)

THE ZONE have my review of Ruggero Deodato’s hugely influential found footage horror film Cannibal Holocaust.

Watching the film for the first time since my teens, I was struck both by how poorly it worked as a horror film and how brilliantly it worked as a piece of postmodern cinema. The most shocking thing about Cannibal Holocaust is not the casual use of rape, the deliberate cruelty to animals or the shameless pandering to ignorant prejudices regarding the developing world, it is the way in which Deodato uses the format of the film to point an accusatory directly at his audience. In fact, the film’s nested narration reminded me of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and its similarly mephitic critique of colonialism:

The point of Marlow’s tale is thus not his encounter with Kurtz but the context of his observations about the journey. By providing us with an extra layer of narration that draws us even further back from the events in the Congo, Conrad is inviting us to reflect upon the comparison between the Thames and the Congo itself. For while Conrad is clear that the heart of darkness resides in deepest Africa, the suggestion is that even the well-groomed hillsides of the Thames valley were once a place of impossible savagery. By providing us with an extra layer of narration, Deodato is not only drawing quite a clear comparison between the peerless Kurtz and the peerless documentary filmmakers, he is also inviting us to reflect upon the context in which their story is told. Indeed, the meat of Cannibal Holocaust lies not in the story of the filmmakers or even the academic’s encounters with the TV producers, but in our own willingness to look at the bigger picture and realise the similarities between the fictional events of the film and the real-world practices of filmmakers and journalists.

Arguably a classic, but for all the wrong reasons.

Some Thought On… Kill List (2011)

A little while ago, I was lucky enough to attend a British film festival designed to find foreign distributors for British films. While only a few of the festival’s films showed any promise, what they all demonstrated was the relative ease with which British thrillers were able to secure funding. Jean-luc Goddard once said that all you needed to make a film is a girl and a gun and low-budget British filmmakers seemed to be proving exactly that. Over the last couple of years, this financial trend has blossomed into a full-scale British genre revival including such works of psychological tension as J Blakeson’s The Disappearance of Alice Creed (2009), Matthew Hope’s The Veteran (2011) and Lynne Ramsay’s We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011). All of these films speak to the darkness of the human soul with a style and grace that elevate them above predictable exploitation narratives into something altogether more interesting.  Ben Wheatley’s Kill List is yet further proof of the intellectual vibrancy of the British thriller, it is one of the most effective films I have seen this year.

Wheatley began his feature-length directorial career with the micro-budgeted crime film Down Terrace (2009).  Grounded in dysfunctional human psychology, Down Terrace blurred the line between genre and traditional drama by embedding its narrative in a seemingly banal working-class environment. Wheatley’s desire to ground his films in the mundane details of everyday life continues with Kill List. Kill List opens by introducing us to Jay (Neil Maskell), a working-class man enjoying a comfortable middle-class life with his son and beautiful Swedish wife Shel (MyAnna Buring). Claiming to be suffering from back pain, Jay has not worked for eight months and the couple are now running in to the sorts of financial difficulties that put strains on even the most loving of marriages. Aware that Jay may not be completely ‘ready’ to go back to work, Shel invites Jay’s old partner Gal (Michael Smiley) over for dinner in the hope of luring her husband from retirement.

Having painted a scene of mundane domesticity in beautifully vibrant colour, Wheatley then sets about filling in the shadows. When Gal’s date for the evening pops to the loo, she turns the mirror over and carves a strange rune into the back of it.  Meanwhile, Gal and Jay chat about the old days in evasive terms until one of them pulls out an assault rifle.  Clearly, Jay and Gal’s mundane lower-middle class existence is supported thanks to a decidedly unusual career. The oddness of the boys’ day job is made all the more clear in an extraordinary sequence that transforms a mundane business meeting into an occult rite by having the boys sign their acceptance of the contract in blood. From there, the film becomes progressively more and more weird, and more and more disturbing.

As in Down Terrace, Wheatley breaks the action down into chapters by filling the screen with text.  Thus, the first hit on the kill list is ‘The Priest’ and then we move on to ‘The Librarian’ and ‘The M.P.’ before concluding with ‘The Hunchback’.  Ostensibly quite a crude piece of meta-narration, these inter-titles serve not only to anchor the narrative as the film’s narrative structures begin to fray, they also serve to heighten the sense of unreality surrounding Jay’s working life. What kind of professional to-do list features hunchbacks, priests and members of parliament? The further the film progresses, the more the fantastical encroaches upon the lives of the characters and the more the characters begin to crack under pressure with cinematography, sound-design and narrative working in unison to present a powerful and psychotropic voyage into the outer darkness.

Looking at the critical coverage this film has received, it is clear that critics have struggled to pin down the argument behind Kill List. Though beautifully realised and almost insanely tense, the film’s profligate use of familiar themes and images make interpreting it something of an uphill battle.  Is the film about Jay’s nervous breakdown (fore-shadowed by early trips to the supermarket and the doctor)? Is it a tale of morality set against an ink-black British underworld filled with mercurial figures?  Or is it simply a beautifully made thriller that borrows from the crime and horror genres to produce a cinematic experience that pushes all of the audience’s buttons at once? Obviously, Kill List is all of these things (and none) but my impression was of a film that ventures onto the same territory as the work of Thomas Ligotti.

Thomas Ligotti is one of the finest American horror writers of the last fifty years. Unfairly overshadowed by ancestors such as Lovecraft and more commercial contemporaries such as Stephen King, Ligotti’s collections of short fiction are seldom in print and seldom easy to write about. However, one of the recurring motifs in Ligotti’s work is the horror of the workplace. Short stories such as “The Town Manager” and “Our Temporary Supervisor” as well as longer pieces such as the novella My Work is Not Yet Done, reflect upon the surreal brutality of an institution that consumes most of your waking life whilst humiliating and dehumanising you from dawn till dusk. Kill List vocalises the same sense of surreal disconnection as the work of Ligotti; Jay is called upon to carry out tasks that he does not comprehend (his employer calls him “a cog”) and these tasks carry a heavy psychological burden.  Ideally, Jay would not have to work at all but in order to feed his family and keep them in the style to which they have become accustomed, Jay must return to work and do what it is that he has to do. Even when Jay wants to quit and go home, work follows him to his door.  There is simply no escaping the workplace. The film’s final denouement offers Jay the possibility of escape but makes it abundantly clear what price he will be expected to pay for his freedom.

Kill List’s denouement encompasses all of the strengths and weaknesses of Wheatley’s film: beautifully shot and powerfully scored, Kill List’s final scenes are a master class in pure cinematic tension. However, the impressionistic quality of the direction and the embarrassment of symbolic riches also create a distinct sense of directorial profligacy. Rather than restrain himself and pin Jay’s experiences down to a singular precise meaning, Wheatley ends his film in the broadest way imaginable: we know that Jay is unhappy, we know that his unhappiness is linked to issues of sanity, morality and family but beyond that the film’s emotional and psychological content is vague and elusive. Kill List makes its point with considerable style and power but as the smoke clears and the credits roll, it is by no means clear that that point might have been.

 

Final Destination 5 (2011) – The Last Laugh is On Us

The literary critic Paul Bleton argues that the difference between genre and non-genre pieces is that genre pieces have a structure resembling that of a string of pearls.  What Bleton means is that genre (whether erotic, sensational or criminal) is all about big dramatic set pieces.  These dazzling moments of spectacle attract the eyes, stimulate the brain and distract you from the fact that the plots and characters they involve frequently serve no purpose other than to tie the set-pieces together into something broadly resembling a story.

Interesting though it may be, Bleton’s conception of genre is now seriously out of date.  Firstly, a generation of writers and directors with interests in character and subtext have worked at reclaiming genre devices so as to blur the distinction between pearl and string.  Secondly, a generation of directors including Michael Bay (Transformers), Gore Verbinsky (Pirates of the Caribbean), and Mark Neveldene and Brian Taylor (Crank) have stripped away the fig leaf of plot and character to produce films that are nothing more than series of set-pieces held together by implication and the fact that they are packaged and sold as a single artistic unit.

With the difference between genre and non-genre under continuous assault on multiple sides, there is something pure and elegant in a film that is unapologetic in its string of pearls-like structure.  The Final Destination series has never been anything other than a series of lavish set-pieces held together by weak plots and terrible characters but in that terrible predictability lies real profundity.

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