REVIEW – Basket Case (1982)

BasketCaseTHE ZONE have my review of Frank Henenlotter’s low-budget cult Horror movie Basket Case.

Basket Case is an odd little film whose eccentricities are clearly the product of an era when directors and producers were happy to try anything in the hope that it might attract an audience. In this case, what the director tries is to enliven what is an otherwise unimpressive monster movie with a series of Freudian motifs about the savagery within and the dangerous of hidden trauma:

The connection between the boy and the monster is also made clear at the film’s climax when the boy is forced to literally wrestle with his desire and hatred in order to save the woman he loves. Though somewhat unevenly handled, the suggestion that the monster represents the boy’s hidden desires transforms Basket Case from a poorly made monster movie to a poorly made psychodrama.

However, as I sat down to write this it occurred to me that my attempt to place Basket Case in some sort of historical context was actually validating what can now be thought of as something of a baby boomer origin myth.  Indeed, consider films like Corman’s World, Midnight Movies and Not Quite Hollywood all share this image of 1970s exploitation film-making as a sort of Wild West where ambitious young film makers broke rules and made reputations. While this vision of the 1970s as The-Darwinian-Swamp-from-which-Modern-Hollywood-Did-Crawl is quite evocative it does occur to me that it has emerged at a time when many of those ambitious kids are not only in positions of power but also nearing the end of their careers. After all, how better to lionise a fading Baby Boomer generation than to suggest that their rise to prominence came at a time when real talent was rewarded? Not like nowadays when it’s all about social connections and luck… ahem.

REVIEW – Wasted on the Young (2010)

THE ZONE has my review of an interesting Australian film by first-time director Ben C. Lucas. Wasted on the Young is stylishly shot high school mystery in very much the same tradition as Rian Johnson’s Brick. Aside from the intriguing plot and the deliciously chilly cinematography, what really grabbed me about this film was its attempt to get inside the head of contemporary teenagers whose every move is recorded by CCTV cameras and whose every thought is captured by social media:

 As William Gibson’s recent writings have suggested, there was a point when society changed and certain ideas ceased to be science fictional. Yesterday’s cyberpunk futurism is today’s kitchen sink realism. Similarly, many old realist touchstones appear to be little more than genre affectations tainted by reactionary nostalgia. We no longer live in a world where women can afford to be bored doctor’s wives. Virginia Wolfe once described George Elliott’s Middlemarch as one of the few British novels written for adults but when read today, the book appears about as realistic as a quest to destroy a magical ring. By borrowing elements from the hard-boiled and cyberpunk genres while simultaneously downplaying the fictional character of these elements, Lucas is attempting to capture what it feels like to grow up in a world with its own set of realist touchstones and its own set of worries and concerns.

Watching it I was reminded not only of the more recent works by William Gibson but also the short stories of Tim Maughan (some of which I reviewed a little while back). What unites these works is a realisation that, rather than simply adding to an already existing world, the internet and social media are changing the world by sculpting how young people learn to see and react to the world. Literary theorists have spent the last 100 years bemoaning the fact that we are now modern and as such have severed our ties to the gods of our forefathers. Similarly, transhumanists spend much of their time banging a drum for the change that will come with the arrival of the Singularity. The more I read and the more I think about today’s youth, the more I realise that there is no great Death of Pan or Birth of the Singularity… there’s just some old fucks dying and some young fucks taking their place. Society is in constant evolution and social media is one particular area of genetic drift. In 10 years (let alone 100), people will wander what it was like to live without the internet and so any work of art that does not engage with the social changes created by the internet must be seen as little more than a side-show.

Gibson’s decision to re-position himself as a mainstream writer rather than a genre writer is the product of two forms of change: Firstly, society has changed to the point where science-fictional ideas are now realistic ideas. Secondly, Gibson needed to leave genre because genre has no interest in writing about the world that we are currently making for ourselves. Wasted on the Young is yet more evidence that science fiction has run its course as both a literary tradition and a sub-culture as it is easily as cyberpunky as any of Gibson’s recent novels and yet it presents these scientific and social ideas as nothing more than grindingly mundane realism.

REVIEW – Crows Zero (2007)

In a recent review over at FilmJuice, I moaned about the tendency of Western distributors to only pick up the films that chimed with Takashi Miike’s reputation for producing horrifically violent cinema. However, Miike’s recent acquisition of mainstream respectability thanks to Thirteen Assassins (2010) and Hara-kiri: Death of a Samurai (2011) means that more and more of his lesser films are finding their way to US distribution. Yatterman (2009) is one example of this, Crows Zero (2007) is another.  THE ZONE has my review of the latter.

What I liked about the film is that it takes quite a traditional hero’s journey plot structure and neatly dovetails it with quite a melodramatic approach to characterisation meaning that despite being nothing more than a series of confrontations leading to a final battle, the film never feels overly episodic:

While the foreground of Crows Zero is dominated by the need to conquer the school, the subplots all revolve around the tensions between what the individual wants and what people expect of them. Thus, Ginji struggles with both the expectations of his father and the expectations of his followers while Serizawa tries to cope with the fact that his gang expects him to deal with Ginji despite the fact that he thinks the pair could probably be quite good friends. In true yakuza picture style, these tensions are explored in a highly stylised and melodramatic manner that owes more to opera than it does to gritty crime fiction. In fact, one subplot resolves itself by having someone bellowing their devotion into a rain-soaked sky while another subplot resolves itself through an epic all-day battle sequence. As the film progresses, this movement between genres proves itself to be remarkably effective as the melodrama distracts from the episodic structure of the plot while the humour and violence prevent the film from getting bogged down in self-indulgent teenaged angst. However, while Crows Zero neatly sidesteps the problems associated with both of its parent genres, the film does possess its own set of problems.

These problems are derived from the fact that, rather than constructing the series as one would a traditional cinematic trilogy, Miike directly imports the narrative conventions of shounen manga. Shounen manga narratives frequently span dozens and dozens of books and in order to support these astoundingly lengthy narratives, manga writers have developed their own set of techniques that are very different to those of cinematic series. While the techniques required to sustain lengthy cinematic series are evolving in light of franchises such as The Avengers, Miike’s use of narrative techniques derived from manga feels like too much change far too quickly resulting in some astonishingly awkward plotting. As I say in the review, I can imagine how these techniques might work in the context of an entire series, they are really quite distracting in the context of an individual film (indeed, given that the sequel exists and is now three years old, I think it was a major mistake not to release both films as a box set).

REVIEW – Manhunter (1986)

THE ZONE has my review of Michael Mann’s recently re-issued psychological thriller Manhunter.

To put it simply, I adore this film. I adore the moody electronic score, I adore Dante Spinotti’s ridiculously colourful cinematography and I adore the way that Michael Mann lines up his shots. However, what I particularly love about this film is the way that it treats the character of Hannibal Lecter as a painstakingly-repressed dark side rather than a scenery-chewing panto dame:

 When Graham visits Lecktor in the hospital, we are told it is because he is hoping to rekindle the creative fires that allow him to project himself into the mind of a killer. However, rather than simply visiting Lecktor in the hospital, Graham reaches out to the disgraced psychiatrist in the hope that his superior understanding of human nature might shed some new light on the case. This act of deference to Lecktor’s superior expertise is deeply troubling when considered alongside Mann’s cinematic blurring of the line between psychologist and psychopath. Indeed, by having Graham turn to Lecktor as part of his own creative process, Mann seems to be suggesting the existence of a symbiotic relationship between the two men. In fact, one could interpret the scene as a sort of vision quest in which the creatively frustrated Graham turns to his painstakingly repressed dark side in order to unblock the empathic powers that will allow him to solve the case.

Mann’s take on Lecter is particularly fascinating as this film was adapted from Thomas Harris’s novel Red Dragon (1981) before Harris even wrote The Silence of the Lambs. In other words, this is a vision of Red Dragon that is completely untainted by the decision to reinvent Lecter as some kind of brain-eating antihero. Released on an absolutely flawless Bluray that makes it look like a brand new film, this re-issue offers an excellent opportunity to rediscover one of the best and most under-rated psychological thrillers of all time.

REVIEW – Secret Behind The Door (1947)

THE ZONE have my review of Fritz Lang’s classic psychological thriller Secret Behind the Door starring Joan Bennett and Michael Redgrave.

Based upon Charles Perrault’s fable Bluebeard, Secret Behind the Door explores the process through which a couple get to know each other.  After a whirlwind romance, Bennett’s character marries Redgrave’s secretive and intense architect.  After a rudely interrupted honeymoon, Bennett’s character arrives at the architect’s home and finds him sharing it with two other women and a son from a previous marriage. As in the fable, Bennett’s character begins poking around in her husband’s background until she discovers something sinister.

Bluebeard is perhaps better known in its native France than it is in the Anglo-Saxon world. One reason for this is that it is one of those stories that paints women as a race of incessant and toxic meddlers whose refusal to follow simple male instructions result in the destruction of everything.  Think of Else to Lohengrin. Think of Eve to Adam. Because of the story’s misogynistic roots, generations of feminist authors have been quick to reclaim the role of interfering spouse and cast it in a more positive and transformative light such as the one that bathes Jane Eyre in Charlotte Bronte’s novel. Neither misogynistic nor feminist, Lang’s adaptation of Silvia Richards’ screenplay presents Bennett’s character as a wonderfully ambiguous figure who ‘fixes’ her husband for reasons all of her own. However, while the characters are engaging and the plot is fascinating, what really grabbed me was Lang’s decision to use a voice over as the primary means of communicating inner states:

Watching Secret Beyond The Door and noticing Lang’s tendency to simply pause the action and linger on his actor’s faces while their voiceovers are delivered, I was struck by how little has changed in the way that directors communicate interiority. Indeed, while directors of Lang’s generation paused so that voiceovers can be delivered, contemporary directors simply pause and allow audiences to fill in their own voiceovers. Doubtless many art house films could be transformed by using these little pauses and gazings into the middle distance to deliver short voiceovers in which characters speak directly to the audience. Clearly the basic grammar of cinema has not evolved that much since the days of Lang, it is just that nowadays art house directors tend to outsource exposition to audience speculation.

Secret Behind the Door is a flawed gem and its arrival on region-free DVD is long overdue. This is a must for anyone who enjoys psychological thrillers and an absolute necessity for anyone who loves Fritz Lang’s film noirs.

REVIEW – Don’t Look Now (1973)

I recently noticed a pattern in my choice of films to write about.  I tend to really enjoy the films I write about but the films I truly love tend to go unprocessed and un-deconstructed.  I did not write about Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love (2009) and I did not write about Nicolas Winding-Refn’s Drive (2011) despite loving both of these films to pieces. In an bid to force myself out of this unfortunate habit, I decided to take on the recent Blu-ray release of one of my favourite films: Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look NowTHE ZONE has my review.

The common thread binding these three films together is their unapologetic devotion to the grammar of film. Indeed, rather than relying upon such theatrical devices as three act structures or novelistic devices such as expositionary dialogue, Don’t Look Now, Driver and I Am Love tell their stories using mostly pictures and sounds. Don’t Look Now is particularly cinematic as Roeg uses cinematic grammar for force us into the head of Donald Sutherland’s reluctant psychic: Sutherland’s character is assailed by images and sounds that he struggles to comprehend and Roeg shares these fragments with us, placing us next to Sutherland’s character. Struggling to comprehend:

The opening scene of Don’t Look Now introduces us to a series of memorable images that Roeg returns to throughout the film. Everywhere the Baxters go, they encounter water, red hoods and shards of light. As people trained in the basic grammar of art house cinema, we know how to recognise recurring motifs and know that we are supposed to treat them as clues to the film’s hidden subtext. However, rather than allowing these clues to sit in the mind of the audience, Roeg uses the possibility of psychic powers to drag these clues into the foreground of the film.

Suddenly, those motifs and images that are normally just hints at hidden artistic meaning become evidence of hidden patterns in the life of John Baxter. Baxter’s hostility to the sisters betrays a deeper hostility to the idea that he too may be psychic and that the recurring images that plague his life might be evidence of future unpleasantness. Baxter foresaw the death of his daughter and now he sees signs that point to his own death. Everywhere he turns, Baxter is haunted by water, shards of light and the colour red. Everywhere he turns, Baxter sees proof that he too will soon be dead.

To suggest that John Baxter may be psychic is, somewhat predictably, to do Roeg a disservice as talk of mediums and psychic powers inevitably conjures up images of third eyes and supernatural powers. However, much of the power of Don’t Look Now resides in the fact that Baxter’s psychic gift is only a slight exaggeration of that very human addiction to pattern recognition, an addiction that forces the audience to hunt for subtexts and clues in Roeg’s repeated use of water, shards of light and the colour red. Indeed, Don’t Look Now is a deeply unsettling film as it forces the audience into the same position as the film’s protagonist: just like John Baxter, we know that something is coming; we know that it is not going to be good but we are powerless to avoid it. The audience are powerless to avoid it because Don’t Look Now is a film. John Baxter is powerless to avoid it because his life is like a film; it is pre-scripted with a beginning, middle and an inevitably grizzly end.

Don’t Look Now is not just a film of towering cinematic brilliance it is also, in its own way, a film about the process of taking a series of disconnected images and forcing them into a cohesive and comprehensible whole.

This review is based upon the Blu-ray special edition that was released in summer 2011.  Billed as a “Special Edition”, this Blu-ray release is pretty much indistinguishable from the 2006 DVD “Special Edition” release.  The extras are exactly the same.  According to the sticker on the cover of the box, the colour restoration was supervised by Roeg himself but, while there is no denying that the colours are crisp and the pictures are clean, I genuinely struggle to tell the difference between this and the DVD special edition. This begs the question as to the purpose and future of Blu-ray releases.

The UK benefits from a growing second hand market for DVDs that has the effect that DVDs lose most of their value within a few weeks of release. In fact, if you are paying full price for a DVD that is more than a week old then you are nothing more than a sucker.  Though Blu-ray has not yet supplanted DVD, the market for Blu-ray disks is pretty much the same as that for DVDs only with Blu-ray discs starting and remaining ever so slightly more expensive. The reason for this is that, UK consumers have largely accepted the idea that Blu-ray is a meaningful step up from DVD. Using this perception, Blu-ray distributors are re-releasing older films hoping that those of us with Blu-ray players (i.e. people who own a PS3) will replace our old DVDs with more expensive and ‘better quality’ Blu-ray editions. However, despite Blu-ray being touted as better quality, it is notable that hardly any Blu-ray releases come with any more extras than their equivalent DVD release. In short, the only difference between Blu-ray and DVD is that Blu-ray discs support HD playback meaning that if you do not possess an HD screen then there is absolutely no reason whatsoever for buying a film on Blu-ray. I bought the special edition DVD of Don’t Look Now when it was originally released and, despite clearly adoring the film, I cannot think why you would choose to replace the DVD with a Blu-ray.

The fate of Blu-ray is made all the more tenuous by changes in the US market.  In the US, the online video streaming service Netflix has not just popularised watching films online it has pretty much killed both DVD and Blu-ray stone dead with the latter-most nails in physical media’s coffin being provided by iTunes and the video-on-demand capacities of cable TV, Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network. Blu-ray was only ever supposed to be a stopgap measure between the latter days of DVD and the early days on online streaming that might allow technology companies to sell one final generation of media players before everyone started watching stuff through their home computer. This gap in the market has now effectively closed in the US and the UK is not that far behind.

Despite chaotically shuffling between business models in a way that has seen its share price plunge, Netflix recently announced that it is planning on bringing its subscription-based video-on-demand service to the UK. In short, Blu-ray is history in the US and the same will soon be true in the UK. If Netflix and Lovefilm do not kill UK DVD sales then Amazon, iTunes and cable TV will.

Of course, physical copies of films will continue to retain some value as people will always to want to ‘own’ the films they love rather than simply retain the capacity to access them online.  Similarly, AV nuts who invested small fortunes in home cinema installations will probably not be the first in line to start watching films on their laptops. I mention this not because I have anything in particular against either Blu-ray or DVD (I own loads myself) but simply as a warning: In a year’s time, Blu-rays and DVDs will be just as worthless as CDs meaning that you will be able to buy films like Don’t Look Now on Blu-ray for next to nothing.  So, instead of splashing out on one great Blu-ray, either save your money and stick with the DVD or wait a year and buy five films for the price of one. And thus the wheel doth turn…


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.

REVIEW – We Are What We Are (2010)

THE ZONE have my review of Jorge Michel Grau’s recent art house cannibal film We Are What We Are (a.k.a. Somos Lo Que Hay).

Though undeniably atmospheric and full of potential, the film never quite manages to get its ducks in a row.  Instead of developing a coherent line of thought, the film flirts with various ideas.  Cannibalism as a relationship with one’s family.  Cannibalism as living a GLBT lifestyle.  Cannibalism as living in a state with a corrupt police force.  All of these ideas drift through the script and the film’s imagery but none of them are ever fleshed out or pursued.

Watching the film I was reminded of the post-’68 vendetta waged by the Cahiers du Cinema against Costa-Gavras’ film Z (1969).  In her flawed but punchy history of the Cahiers, A Short History of Cahiers du Cinema(2010), Emilie Bickerton characterises the Cahiers reaction to the Serie-Z as :

With Z you had a film-maker who was addressing politics on the surface, but simultaneously banalizing it.  Costa-Gavras was thus perfectly attuned to the changes in public demand: he offered a film that was shot with panache, a lively score, a hint of experimentation (…) it was intelligent and committed but never revolutionary, in either narrative content or aesthetic form. — pp. 65

I think a similar failing can be identified in We Are What We Are.  It is a film that relies quite heavily upon an audience’s familiarity with genre tropes.  To make sense of the film, you have to be aware of serial killer narratives, zombie narratives and crime narratives.  It presents itself as a film that has taken on the ideas and imagery of genre only to project them forward into a more ‘grown up’ cinematic milieu and so it appeals to people who, though familiar with genre tropes, are wanting more from their cinematic experiences than explosions and special effects.  However, despite promising a deeper level of intellectual engagement than your average genre piece, We Are What We Are is empty and insubstantial.

This is a growing problem.

REVIEW – Heathen (2009)

THE ZONE has my review of Ross Shepherd’s no-budget psychological thriller Heathen.

It’s a very nicely directed little British film with an interestingly against-the-grain central performance but it is ultimately let down by a weak script that unravels in the final act.  Still, it’s impressive quite how much can be accomplished for no money at all.