Hooray for Holly-Łódź: Cinema 4 – Silver Screen, Movie 4 – Margin Call (5/6)

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18:15pm Silver Screen, Aleja Marszałka Józefa Piłsudskiego 5

The Silver Screen multiplex located in the high-rise 'Manhattan' area in the centre of Łódź.

For the fourth film of the Day I cantered up the remainder of the pedestrianised section of Piotrkowska and slipped through the underpass on Al. Piłsudskiego to hook up with Marta, once more, at the Silver Screen cinema and casino complex. Silver Screen was one of the pioneer multiplex companies in Poland until it was bought out by MultiKino in 2008. Shortly before I arrived in Łódź in 2001 Silver Screen’s flagship complex was opened, which immediately redrew the cinema landscape in the city. With 10 screens on a five-storey, purpose-built, city centre site, Silver Screen was a glamorous addition to the city’s film theatres, a position further enhanced by the small-scale casino operation and ‘sky-bar’ that allowed for essential views of the city skyline, as well as serving up a pretty mean Cuba Libre.

Since the opening of the Cinema City complex in Manafaktura, Silver Screen has lost a little of its new kid on the block allure. Oddly Multikino resisted the urge to alter the Silver Screen brand in Łódź, something that is partly explainable as a result of the multiplex’s unique position within the Multikino family of cinemas as a theatre that profits from screening less obviously commercial cinema. Unlike Multikino’s other Polish cinema’s Silver Screen tends to have a roster of films that aren’t entirely dominated by the latest big-budget Hollywood offerings, which is not to say that Silver Screen is art house, but rather a little more refined than your regular run-of-the-mill multiplex.

One of the annoying characteristics about Silver Screen is the extremely authoritarian approach to screening that the cinema demonstrates. Although seating location is optional, people tend to be corralled into the same seating zones by ticketing staff, whose attitude tends toward the Polish bureaucratic. On top of that the multi-tiered structure of the complex means that exits and entrances are much more regimented than in any of the other city cinema’s, making the whole process of getting in and out of the movie, or making your way to the bar, all the more awkward and confusing.

With screen space at a premium Silver Screen sprawls out over five storeys of a purpose-built entertainment complex.

The screens vary in size from fairly large Cinema City style ‘premier’ screens, to smaller and less well organised auditoria, such as Screen 6 in which we watched the stockmarket horror Margin Call. As with almost all modern cinema chains Silver Screen tend to have very comfortable and cushioned seating, although unlike with Cinema City and the Helios group, they have skimped a little on leg room. The biggest problem that Silver Screen has is to do with the position of seating, with many auditoria having staircases running down the centre, or close to the centre, of the audience area. This means that there are far more seats in the theatre that have awkward, fringe views of the screen, which might leave a number of people disappointed on busy nights – and Silver Screen tends to still have a sizable traffic in terms of audience numbers. Also the auditoria tend to have seating that is very close to the screen, which forces viewers located in these seats to crane their heads upward toward the film projection.

In terms of the projection itself, the image was crisp and clear, with sound at a good level and theatre lighting dropped to near blackness. Unlike Cinema City the film was screened in the correct format ratio and also featured by far the longest trailer reel of any of the cinema chains (a whopping five full previews). The premium price of Silver Screen tickets is 22zł making it rather prohibitive in comparison with most of the other cinema chains visited. That said, in terms of concessions, promotional material and film range it is hard to compete with this venue, which is serviced by a downstairs food court, two cafes, an arcade and the aforementioned ‘sky bar’, as well as the usual sweet counters and popcorn dispensers.

Cinema Experience: 7.5/10

 

Margin Call was a movie I’d heard so little advance information about, which probably made its effect all the more powerful. Producer/star Zachary Quinto was particularly superb as the canary in the corporate counting house, but then a cast which featured such sterling performers as Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Paul Bettany and Stanley Tucci was uniformly excellent throughout. Demi Moore also continued her career resurgence with a tight-lipped, clench-jawed performance as the woman left holding the baby carriage as the bomb goes off. This film was writer-director J.C. Chandor’s debut feature and the signs are that Hollywood has another talent on their hands in the Tony Gilroy mode.

This fictional movie about the origins of the current financial crisis feels aesthetically very similar to two recent Clooney efforts Michael Clayton (written and helmed by the aforementioned Gilroy) and the chilly romance of Up in the Air. In an early sequence the movie actually uses the same employee severance interview structure as the latter of those films. What is remarkable about Chandor’s direction is the way in which it utilises many of the tricks of effective horror cinema, with: slightly out-of-focus shots, mysterious things occurring off-camera or partially obscured within the shot, steadily escalating tension and a methodical use of reaction shots to maximise the perception of fear. This is in essence a horror movie, where the evil villain is the amorphous and wholly nebulous force of chaos. Rather than simply plotting an easy route to condemning the finance industry for getting the world into this latest monetary crisis, Chandor’s script is savvy enough to see that the markets go through cycles of decline and expansion that can be influenced by the behaviour of those operating within them, but can never be wholly controlled or predicted.

It would be easy to criticise the film for taking a too superficial approach to its subject matter, particularly in the way it frequently avoids going into the specifics of the failed projections. Yet this would be to ignore the fact that the lack of knowledge is what is truly terrifying in the movie, with the absence of significant understanding even on the part of mathematicians and analysts hired by the financial sector only adding to the ‘fear factor’. Also it has to be acknowledged that few audience members would be willing to sit through a hardcore dissection of the vagaries of recently created financial investment packages and stock options. In this regard Chandor and Quinto have done an admirable job of approximating the panic of the early stages of a financial crisis, whilst going some of the way to humanising the faceless ‘fat-cat’ villains that so many people now seem to blame.

Another marvellous aspect of the film is the way in which it seems to turn the hustling-bustling New York metropolis into a bizarre ghost town, seemingly on the verge of yet another profound psychic trauma. This effect is established through the impressive way in which Chandor demonstrates the disconnection and remoteness between the people in the glass-panelled offices and the city they nominally inhabit. Kevin Spacey seems to embody the moral outrage, however muted, at the objectionable behaviour of Jeremy Irons’ ruthless corporate head, yet ultimately both characters are doing what they have to do in their own best interests. In this world money talks and its value is the sole arbiter of action. Irons’ character is right to suggest that if his company didn’t dump these assets then another company would. All that they are really guilty of, it would seem, is following a mass social delusion of wealth and having the vision to come to their senses before reality becomes a nightmare.

By far the most interesting and haunting moment in the whole movie is when Paul Bettany visits Stanley Tucci’s sacked risk analyst. Tucci, one of the very best character actors out there, tells an anecdote about his previous work as a civil engineer and the bridge he helped build that actually contributed something to the communities it served. What goes unspoken here is that Tucci’s work for the corporation has none of this tangible value, or meaning, a concern for which brings Tucci broadly in line with Pitt’s Billy Beane from Moneyball.

Film Rating: 7.5/10

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Film Review:- Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)

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Dir:- Jack Clayton

Starr:- Jason Robards, Jonathan Pryce, Diane Ladd, Pam Grier, Ellen Geer, Vidal Peterson, Shawn Carson

Between 1976 and 1984 Disney attempted to diversify from their patented brand of wholesome family fare. During this period a raft of movies were released that although still aimed primarily at children were clearly much darker in both tone and content. The 1983 adaptation of Raymond Bradbury’s classic Shakespeare-referencing, carny horrorshow novel Something Wicked This Way Comes, sits alongside the likes of Escape from the Dark, Return from Witch Mountain, The Black Hole, The Watcher in the Woods, Return to Oz and The Black Cauldron as emblematic of this awkward collision between traditional Disney family entertainment and a more ambiguous conception of childhood, laced with horror, mystery and more challenging philosophical concerns. At the time Disney was not alone in this trend toward the maturation of kids films. The early eighties, in particular, saw bleak works like The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, E.T. and The Neverending Story brought to the big screen during holiday season. Whilst blockbuster fare like The Goonies and Ghostbusters (as well as the essentially adult Gremlins) pushed the envelope in terms of what constituted family entertainment. This made growing up in this period akin to a late-Victorian childhood, where a moral education appeared most effectively conveyed through the restrained use of horror and pathos (think Dickens, Le Fanu, M.R. James, M.P. Shiel and the later Edwardians like Algernon Blackwood).

Ray Bradbury’s source novel is a remarkably dense and allusive work, that deals primarily with the mutability of good and evil. It was inspired by Bradbury’s own youthful encounters with a travelling carnival and has much of a child’s curiosity and wonder at its core. Bradbury had initially conceived of the novel as a film script for his good friend Gene Kelly, but failure to attract the necessary studio backing led Bradbury to flesh out his narrative idea into a novel-length work. Disney bought up the rights to the novel from Bradbury in the mid-seventies and commissioned the author to work upon his own adaptation. They also gave Bradbury a degree of artistic control on the project, that saw the producer/director Jack Clayton (who famously directed the eerily compelling The Turn of the Screw adaptation The Innocents) employed to helm the movie. Clayton was hired on Bradbury’s recommendation, as a result of having developed a good working relationship during their time together on the 1976 adaptation of Moby Dick. With this in mind it seems odd then that one of the biggest difficulties that Something Wicked This Way Comes faced, during production, was Bradbury and Clayton’s increasingly divergent conceptions of how the finished film should look. For Bradbury it was essential that the movie retained the core of the novel’s moral incertitude. Clayton, however, was much more pragmatically focused upon making the material accessible enough to as wide an age group as possible. As a result of this creative conflict the finished film has an unevenness of tone that somehow manages to capture the essence of the novel, without staying all that faithful to it.

The film is set in a bygone forties-era, small town America of barbershops and soda fountains. Two teenage boys Will Halloway (Vidal Peterson) and Jim Nightshade (Shawn Carson), one blonde-haired and one black-haired, bond over their frustrated affections for their fathers. In Will’s case his father Charles (Jason Robards) is a world-weary, bookish and fearful man, riven with regret, who cannot bear to spend time with his son since he embarrassingly failed to save him from drowning in a fast-flowing river. Will was rescued, but by Jim’s father Harry, something that Charles seemingly cannot forgive himself for. Jim has an equally problematic relationship with his own father, as Harry has absented himself from the family home and has not been seen by wife, nor son, since. These withdrawn, or absent, paternal figures seem to have defined their own children’s adventurousness and strength of character. Will embraces action to almost the same degree that his father recoils from it, whilst Jim has the kind of reckless courage that stems from his father’s own example.

The town they inhabit is the very definition of idyllic, as it is a place where little of consequence seems to break the sweet slumber that has fallen over its residents. The adults of the town all seem to be somnambulists. From the barber Mr. Crosetti (Richard Davalos) to the matronly school teacher Miss Foley (Mary Grace Canfield), they seem incapable of effecting change in themselves and initially repress their desires for a different life under the prevailing benign contentedness that pervades the community. It is this deep-rooted and unacknowledged dissatisfaction that brings Mr. Dark (Jonathan Pryce) and his Pandemonium Carnival to town. Dark is a demon, if not the devil, who animates a beguiling Dust Witch (Pam Grier) and sets about giving the townsfolk what they truly desire. Yet these acts are by no means altruistic, as they are simply cunning illusions engineered to enslave the townsfolk within the diabolical carnival, allowing Dark to feast upon the marrow of human misery and despair. Both Will and Jim stand in Dark’s way, as they are self-possessed youths who have yet to feel the crippling doubts and fears of their elders. Their curiosity, their vitality is the very thing that Dark most fears, as it contains the potential for lightning and love, the powers that can destroy the dour and depressing illusions of the carnival. In this way a crucial ancillary role is that of Tom Fury (Royal Dano), the lightning man, who goes around selling conductor rods that channel lightning away from buildings. Fury manages to sell one of his rods to Jim, which acts as a vital defence against the very worst that Dark can do and ultimately brings about the storm which is Dark’s downfall.

The devilled eggs chase the bacon round the frying pan.

Such, almost allegorical, narrative ideas can seem more than a little muddled when transferred from book to big screen and in fact Bradbury (and an uncredited John Mortimer) jettison much of the novel’s explanatory material, making the film all the harder to follow. Yet one thing that Clayton and Bradbury have been able to capture and transport from page to screen almost perfectly is the rather intense atmosphere of dread and fear that runs through the core of the source material. James Horner’s wonderfully chilling soundtrack supplies much of this intoxicating mood. However, there is also some impressive visual horror that seems all the more authentic in light of modern CGI blandness. One particularly horrific sequence involves an invasion of tarantulas that is up their with the insect infestation sequence in Creepshow for the sheer, visceral repulsion it evokes. Pam Grier’s silent performance as the malevolent Dust Witch is also queasily evocative of Poe’s best work, her veiled beauty occasionally morphing into a Munch like personification of evil and anguish. The carnival set features two extraordinary elements. The first of these is the Mirror Maze, that ultimately serves as the scene of the final encounter between the Charles, the boys, the Dust Witch and Mr. Dark. The second is the Merry-go-round, upon which people either grow rapidly younger or older. In the Mirror Maze Bradbury seems to combine elements from Hesse and Snow White, that Clayton then reproduces in a similarly disorienting manner to the famous closing sequence of Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon. On the Merry-go-round, when Bruce M. Fischer’s Mr. Cooger is reduced to a small child, the film uses an impressive hallucinatory visual trick that harks all the way back to the very origins of cinema.

Despite the film’s plot failings it is a striking work of cinema because of this focus upon the origins and defining characteristics of the medium, namely as a source of illusion. The opening sequence that has a train approaching the screen in the dead of night, plumes of steam billowing from the engine stack, a bright white light piercing the darkness, is a direct reference to that most exhilarating of cinematic moments L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat, seeming to act as the blackened mirror image of that moment of technological magic. Later on in the movie various visual effects are deployed that make the viewer all too aware of the artifice and illusion of the film itself, most impressively in a stippled lightning effect, toward the end of the film, that seems to convert an empty field into a threatening alien landscape. When these moments of visual virtuosity are allied to the disturbing spectacle of a carnival promenading down the town’s main street, Jonathan Pryce marching at its front decked out in black top hat and tails, cane in hand, then the film appears to be self-consciously using the form as a means of examining ‘strangeness’.

There are familiar elements in the movie that hark back to works like Tod Browning’s Freaks and Clayton’s own earlier effort The Innocents. Yet, the most striking aspect of the film is the way in which it seems to serve as a visual blueprint for the far more sophisticated Hungarian work Werckmeister Harmonies, from the legendary cinematic auteur Béla Tarr. Perhaps, it points up an unrecognised, or unacknowledged, Bradbury influence upon the novelist, and Tarr collaborator, László Krasznahorkai. In another cultural crossover, the singer Tom Waits also seems to be pilfering a little of Pryce’s devilish magnetism in his promo video for the song ‘In the Neighbourhood’, from his career-changing album Swordfishtrombones. There are also parallels to be drawn between the smooth visual darkness of the film and later ghostly eighties works such as Tim Burton’s uproarious Beetlejuice and Frank LaLoggia’s sombre fable Lady in White.

As well as the unique look of the film, Clayton also manages to elicit some incredibly strong performances from the likes of Pryce, Robards and Grier. Robards was always most impressive when playing characters who combined a mixture of stoic resolve with resigned world-weariness. His turn here as the emotionally stunted librarian and father Charles Halloway, is one that manages to work out almost every imaginable permutation of despair and regret, without engaging in the fanciful histrionics of a born-again Hamlet. Robards’ still central performance could have allowed Jonathan Pryce to run amok in the hammiest of ways in the role of Mr. Dark (maybe Stephen King was thinking of Pryce’s performance when he wrote the character of Leland Gaunt in Needful Things). However, Pryce is far too subtle an actor to grandstand Pacino-style. His performance is remarkable for the way in which it suggests menace whilst exhibiting so much restraint. Perhaps the most insidious of all images in the film is that of the seductive Pam Grier. Her performance as the Dust Witch is one that is so powerfully effective precisely because she does so very little. The slight gesture of her hand, or faint nod of her head become quiet little moments of horror, that force the viewer to watch on whilst all the time indicating that indeed something wicked this way comes.   

The Female of the Species is More Deadly Than the Male: Pam Grier as the beguiling Dust Witch.

Note:- Thank you to Abby Olcese of the No More Popcorn Blog, who wrote an excellent article on the movie back in October which can be accessed at the following link. I recommend to all readers that you check out her work.

Film Review:- Black Water (2007)

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Dir:- David Nerlich & Andrew Traucki

Starr:- Diana Glenn, Maeve Dermody, Andy Rodoreda, Ben Oxenbould, Fiona Press

 

Back when new digital video technology was just beginning to impact upon the film industry, and in particular the way in which independent movies were produced, a small American drama called Open Water took upwards of $50 million worldwide, off of a budget of barely $500,000. It was written, directed, filmed and edited by Chris Kentis, who went on to direct this year’s Silent House. In much the same way that The Blair Witch Project had done before it, the film redefined cinematic minimalism and also highlighted how audiences seem to respond favourably to low-key tales of human endurance even in the most imperiled of situations. The first of the Paranormal Activity movies did something similar with a more obviously horrific and fantastical narrative, also reaping financial rewards at the global boxoffice. Open Water also came kitted out with a ‘based on’ tag, something that has been used in an increasingly flexible manner by a number of recent films (think of the particularly audacious usage in The Strangers). It is almost as if the promise of ‘authentic’ chills and the voyeuristic thrill of watching another human suffer, and endure, has become a guarantee of public interest, just as wholly unhealthy and coldly calculated sadism has turned the Saw franchise into a global cinematic brand.

 

The writing and directing team of David Nerlich and Andrew Traucki have clearly digested a few of these recent low-budget cinematic lessons, thus their 2007 debut feature Black Water comes with one of those dubious ‘based on’ tags. Traucki has since gone on to direct another similarly themed drama-horror The Reef, whilst Nerlich has returned to work on visual effects. Clearly it is Traucki who has an eye for impressive visuals, with Nerlich bringing some highly impressive monster magic to this classy creature-feature. However, what is perhaps most disarming about Black Water is how the movie manages to generate so much tension from so little action. The 90 minute running time is an extended demonstration of how little is needed to genuinely frighten an audience.

 

The plot is as minimalistic as the cast and the action. It revolves around a young couple, Grace (Diana Glenn) and Adam (Andy Rodoreda), who take Grace’s younger sister Lee (Maeve Dermody) on a tour of the Northern Territories of Australia with them. In a nicely constructed opening credit sequence the events of this trip are presented in a montage of holiday snapshots, that helps to immediately set up a strong relationship between the audience and the protagonists. On the final day of the holiday Adam suggests that they go and do a spot of fishing and check out the mangrove swamps. Prior to this they swing by a crocodile farm and the audience is given its first indication of what is likely to lay in store for the trio. Traucki and Nerlich manage to cram almost all of this subtle exposition into the opening ten minutes, priming the audience with the necessary information to appreciate the true extent of the danger Grace, Lee and Adam are about to find themselves in. It’s an impressively confident start to proceedings and the movie does little to diminish it.

 

Having opted to go on a tour of the mangrove swamps with a guide called ‘Backwater Bill’ the trio arrive at a small jetty, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, only to discover that Bill has already taken a tour out. Jim (Ben Oxenbould) sees an opportunity to make a quick buck and says that he’ll take them out in his small tin motorboat. Although a little reluctant, Grace, Lee and Adam nonetheless opt to go on the trip. Before they head out on the water Lee figures out that Grace is in fact pregnant (but hasn’t yet told Adam), and she also witnesses Jim holstering a pistol. These two details will play intrinsic roles in the development of the movie, particularly toward its final third.

 

Out in the swamps Traucki manages to capture some truly stunning natural landscape shots, with the mangrove trees in particular forming a hauntingly skeletal and eerily hypnotic backdrop to proceedings. Jim spends a large part of the time travelling through the swamp explaining to the trio what kind of tides they have, where areas are flooded, what good spots to look out for and where the best fish might be caught. Whereas other films might have exploited the potential threat of such a skilled outdoorsman, like in Deliverance or The River Wild, here Traucki and Nerlich keep things simple and plausible, a choice which pays dividends in the final thirty minutes of the film. With barely twenty minutes gone the group hear something bash against the underside of the boat and for a moment they nervously look around to see if anything is moving in the water. It is Jim who finally pulls something into the boat, but it is no real cause concern, just a bit of flotsam. However, moments later another knock is heard and this time it’s something far more threatening.

 

At first it is hard to see where Traucki and Nerlich can take the film, as within the opening 25 minutes, they have dispatched of one cast member and marooned the rest of the cast up a tree in the middle of a mangrove swamp. Yet this is also the genius of the movie, as Traucki and Nerlich literally focus all the dramatic tension in little details, tiny shifts in the protagonists situation. Unlike comparable creature features, such as Jaws or Alligator, the menacing beast that hems the trio in, is far more convincingly constructed, at times appearing to be a real crocodile (thanks to some clever use of a blend of puppetry, live-action footage and CGI). Impressively the creative team attempt absolutely nothing that would seem preposterous, with the sole exception of the final confrontation sequence. Grace, Lee and Adam, spend most of the first day applying mosquito repellent and trying to work up the courage to approach the now overturned boat. The women feel it is better to wait for help to arrive, particularly as their mobiles having been soaked during the unexpected plunge into the swamp. However, Adam points out the troubling fact that nobody else knows where they are, therefore assistance is unlikely to come along any time soon. What follows is a slow, but fascinating, dance of death with the ferocious predator that senses fresh meat. As time shifts on and no help is in sight, the trio become increasingly desperate, particularly as dehydration is beginning to take its toll.

 

It is rare to come across a horror film that is far more interested in the plight of the victims than the terror of the situation. Each of the character’s presented are neatly drawn and adequately detailed, so that as their predicament takes on the feel of an ordeal it is impossible not to feel a strong empathy for them. Most of the actual fear in the film’s increasingly languorous sequences is derived from the angled framing of shots, as if the camera were tilting upon the surface of the water, combined with the keen attention paid to the minutest splashing sounds, or the faintest trace of motion across the swamp. When eventually the crocodile attacks, it doesn’t consume its victims in a ridiculous manner, but rather wounds them, attempting to incapacitate them so that it can feed on them later. With little, or no, horror histrionics the film excels at capturing terror as it slowly unfolds in the minds of the protagonists, who are slowly realising they are unlikely to find a way out. The excellent performances from all three principal actors should keep an audience caring till the bitter end, with Dermody, in particular, looking every inch the next big Aussie star.

Film Review:- Cujo (1983)

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Dir:- Lewis Teague

Starr:-  Dee Wallace, Danny Pintauro, Daniel Hugh Kelly, Christopher Stone

Based on one of the best of Stephen King’s early novels Cujo is a creature-feature with a compelling difference. Whereas movies like Jaws, The Thing, or director Lewis Teague’s absurdist horror Alligator, find sources of fear in the fairly exotic, or downright bizarre, forms of great-white sharks, giant alligators and shape-shifting alien lifeforms, Cujo discovers  demonic potential in a rabid St. Bernard dog.

One of the stranger byproducts of modern cinema’s obsession with the smooth surfaces and steely veneers of CGI technology, is that the increasingly implausible action sequences within big-budget blockbusters have made otherwise dated films like Cujo appear far more visceral and ‘real’ than they perhaps had on their original release. It has to be wondered how Teague managed to actually produce much of this movie, as the seemingly docile, family St. Bernard is daubed in evermore layers of mud, blood and pus, until he resembles a Sphinx-like sandstone statue. Disturbingly, very little of the film’s violent action setpieces appear to feature a mechanical model of the St. Bernard (as with the shark in Jaws), with Teague choosing to employ numerous camera tricks to emphasise the realistic nature of the rabid dog’s crazed assaults. From the opening sequence in which Teague buries Cujo’s head in a tight cave opening, as the dog chases a rabbit, the film is startling for the way in which it deploys well-trained animals rather than puppets, or mock-ups. The medium shot of the cave, with a number of disturbed bats flying about it and Cujo still barking at a startled and recuperating rabbit, simply would not be filmed in this live-action manner any longer. Unlike in Alligator, Teague plays absolutely nothing for laughs in Cujo, making the film all the more unsettling and uncompromising.

Cujo’s deceptively simple premise – a rabid dog on the loose in smalltown America – belies the fact that the novel is an emotionally complex affair, primarily concerned with the destruction of family units and the resultant loss of innocence. Much of these plot and character subtleties are eliminated from the movie, in favour of a terse and lean narrative economy. Yet this focus on the fundamentals of the novel’s plot actually works really well, particularly in terms of creating unbearable dread and tension.

The Trenton family are under increasing external pressures at the start of the movie. Young Tad Trenton (Danny Pintauro) is plagued by a fear that monsters lurk in the dark, which can be read as a psychological manifestation of an intuited understanding of the marital difficulties between his mother and father. Donna Trenton (Dee Wallace) has been sleeping around with a man who is known to the family, called Steve Kemp (Christopher Stone). Her husband Vic (Daniel Hugh Kelly) has been trying to establish his own advertising agency and has thus been pouring most of his time into work. The few free moments Vic gets he spends with Tad, which is an unspoken source of tension between himself and Donna. Tad’s relationship with his father appears much stronger than with his mother, despite the fact that it is his mother that is always at home. At a late point in the movie Tad, desperately ill and trapped in the sweltering heat of his mother’s car, cries out for his absent father’s assistance, rather than the comfort of his mother (who is likewise trapped in the vehicle).

The other family that features fairly prominently in the movie are the Cambers, who are a rural group who have just struck it lucky on the lottery. Joe Camber (given the familiar features of Ed Lauter) is a surly motor-mechanic and farmer, who drinks too much and tends to take out his frustrations on his wife Charity (Kaiulani Lee). Their adolescent son Brett (Billy Jayne) has a free-roaming St. Bernard, the eponymous Cujo, who is kept out in the yard and seems to be somewhat neglected by both Brett and his father (who is oddly affectionate of the animal). It is this neglect, as a result of the various tensions within the Camber’s domestic lives that allows Cujo’s bat-bite to go unnoticed. Before long Cujo has developed a hatred of loud noises (impressively rendered through an amplification of certain sounds on the soundtrack) and is looking increasingly bedraggled and bewildered.

The Cambers and the Trentons are brought together by a quirk of fate. In need of a place to get Donna’s car fixed, Vic takes the advice of the local postman and heads out to the Cambers farmstead to see whether Joe can do the necessary repairs. Joe agrees to work on the car for the Trentons and asks Donna to return with the vehicle the following day. Later that day, Charity and Brett head off to visit family leaving Joe to party-hearty with his nasty drinking buddy Gary (Mills Watson), whilst all the time Cujo becomes increasingly demented.

Despite being a slickly constructed minimalist horror film, Cujo manages to avoid any deaths for the entire first half of it’s ninety minute running time. This does not stop Teague from creating some atmospheric sequences, such as the opening closet sequence involving young Tad and his invisible ‘boogeyman’ and the astonishingly effective fog sequence in which Brett strays from his house in the middle of the night and discovers a growling Cujo, appearing like a low-rent Hound of the Baskervilles. The slow, almost imperceptible, transformation of the dog from family pet to rabidly unpredictable predator adds a further patina of realism to proceedings, that makes the eventual descent of the dog into a murderous rampage all the more frightening. Teague here seems a master of the bizarrely threatening camera angle, finding obscure vantage points from which to view the dogs assaults, that simply heightens the extreme viciousness of these sequences. As Cujo is about to attack Gary in his home, the camera pulls upwards to an overhead shot looking down through the perfect framing of the stairwell. Likewise during one of the many attempts by the dog to get into Donna’s car, the camera positions itself at a low angle looking up, through the steering wheel, at a terrified Donna. Generally Teague utilises a number of low-to-the-ground POV shots that alternate between Cujo’s perspective and, potentially, that of young Tad.

Dee Wallace and the shrill child-star Danny Pintauro inhabit the entire second half of the film, with only minor cutaways to Vic’s gradual realisation that his family might be in danger. Isolated in the yard of the Cambers farmhouse, trapped within the hothouse prison of the car by the unremitting vigilance of the mad hound, Tad and Donna dehydrate, weaken and eventually fall dangerously ill. It is Tad’s lapse into a coma-state that prompts Donna to try and confront the desperately ill dog, determined, as only a mother can be, to rescue her child. The novel has perhaps one of the bleakest endings imaginable, that doesn’t allow the reader to forget that Cujo was a loyal member of a family also, whilst at the same time refusing to let the Trenton family off the hook. In the film a gimmicky, back-from-the-dead Halloween ending, is supplemented by a slightly incongruous upbeat closing image, that manages to unravel much of the excellent work of the preceding 85 minutes. As a result, Cujo goes from being one of the most convincing and effective adaptations of a King novel, to being simply a grossly underrated horror movie with obvious flaws and limitations.

The true mystery of Cujo is, whatever happened to Lewis Teague’s career in the 1990’s? A director with such bravura technical skills, that enabled the construction of truly unique shots, such as the ever-quicker  rotational pan of the inside of the car after Cujo’s most savage attack, has disappeared from Hollywood seemingly without a trace. May it be hoped thats some produer, out there, see fit to bring him in from the cold.

Film Review:- Firestarter (1984)

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Dir:- Mark L. Lester

Starr:- David Keith, Drew Barrymore, Martin Sheen, George C. Scott, Moses Gunn, Louise Fletcher

Back in the late seventies and early eighties various forms of psychokinesis were in vogue in the popular cinema of the time. From raging hormonal explosions in Brian de Palma’s The Fury to exploding heads in David Cronenberg’s Scanners, there was a clear and increasing interest in the potentially supernatural capacities of the mind. Perhaps the individual who appeared to have the most consistent curiosity in such strange powers was the horror novelist Stephen King. The author had burst onto the American literary scene in 1974 with his debut novel Carrie, a harrowing tale of a troubled teen trying to come to terms with a terrifying gift/affliction. Within two years this novel had been successfully transferred to the big screen by the aforementioned de Palma, which initiated a studio frenzy wherein King’s novels were no sooner off the press than they were being brought to the big screen. Being very much at the vanguard of the pop cultural zeitgeist it was difficult for King to ensure that the adaptations of his novels maintained a certain level of quality control. For every success, like Carrie  and the entirely bowdlerised Kubrick adaptation of The Shining, there were much more uneven offerings, like Christine and the television adaptation of ‘Salem’s Lot.

Firestarter is by no means a classic King adaptation, but at the same time it has managed to date a little better than some of its contemporaries, such as Christine or Children of the Corn. King has always had a fascination with viewing the horrific through the eyes of a child, or adolescent. Carrie is quite literally about a girl reluctantly becoming a woman, The Shining has Danny Torrance as the possessor of that strange gift, whilst ‘Salem’s Lot’s most grotesque moments revolve around Ralph and Danny Glick, two young brothers. The central character in Firestarter is a young girl called Charlene ‘Charlie’ McGee, who, as a result of a government experiment involving her parents, has the unusual ability of pyrokinesis, meaning that she can start fires using the power of her mind. At the start of the film Charlie is on the run with her father Andy (David Keith) from some shadowy government agents, belonging to a secret project known only as The Shop. Andy was involved in some scientific experiment called ‘Lot 6’, which wound up giving him the ability to hypnotise people by staring into their eyes. His wife Vicky (played in a brief cameo by Heather Locklear) was also part of this programme and wound up possessing telepathic abilities. As a result Charlie has both the capacity to read minds and wreak flaming havoc. Having failed to capture father and daughter, The Shop resorts to sending John Rainbird (played by George C. Scott) into the field. Rainbird is an assassin whose initial task is to bring the McGee’s in to The Shop, however over time he develops a twisted fascination with young Charlie and her gifts, which eventually leads to him working against orders.

Overall the film is a fairly faithful adaptation of the 1980 novel, managing to cover most of the main plot points. However, it fails to adequately make sense of the complex back story to ‘Lot 6’ and Vicky’s death, not to mention confusingly leaving out much of the background material on Rainbird’s Cherokee heritage and increasingly unhinged beliefs. As a result some elements of the plot refuse to cohere, as the sketchiness of the narrative detailing robs certain sequences of their awesome power. One thing Mark L. Lester (who would go on to box-office success with the Schwarzenegger vehicle Commando) gets absolutely right is the casting of ET starlet and Hollywood princess Drew Barrymore. In the role of Charlie, Barrymore brings the perfect combination of cuteness and unchecked malevolence. It is actually quite frightening to observe how quickly the diminutive Ms. Barrymore goes from gleefully happy little moppet, to sullen, ferociously scowling lethal weapon. Barrymore was barely even nine years of age at the time of filming Firestarter, but it is the intensity of her performance that makes the movie something more than a missed opportunity.

Lester wisely casts some heavyweight Hollywood talent in the supporting roles, including the long forgotten eighties star David Keith and the always dependable Martin Sheen. Sheen is the military chief that is presiding over the series of tests conducted into Charlie’s potential efficacy as a combat weapon. British actor Freddie Jones has a brief role as Dr. Wanless, the scientific head of The Shop, who believes that both of the McGee’s need to be analysed and then neutralised, before either can use their powers to devastating effect. The most important role other than Barrymore’s is that of John Rainbird, who is ably played by the seemingly miscast George C. Scott. Rainbird is a fevered fanatic, who has a whole load of bizarre notions about what he can do with the young Charlie and her powers. Much like Dr. Wanless he comes to believe it is essential to destroy the girl and deprive her of her powers, so that she cannot take them with her to the afterlife. Scott manages to mix the broodingly violent ruthlessness of his military role, with a convincingly child-friendly alterego – John the Janitor, that seems almost an echo of The Shining – winning Charlie’s trust and almost manipulating her into his treacherous clutches.

The frenetic pacing of the opening to the film, with its convoluted flashbacks, is nicely balanced against the test sequences in its middle third. These scenes, in which Barrymore sets fire to water, dry ice and cinderblock, have a deeply disturbing quality, as they revel in the ways in which young Charlie is forced to perform her feats for the benefit of The Shop, against her better judgement. Barrymore looks ridiculously vulnerable in these scenes, isolated in a sci-fi testing chamber, being voyeuristically spied upon by a cast of middle-aged men. Lester also manages to inject real passages of pathos into the film with some lovely visual juxtapositions, such as when Charlie and her father are shown to be asleep in the same pose in their bedrooms, desperately clutching at their bed-clothes. As with Carrie there is a deeper tragedy revealing itself here, the inability for these characters to even find a little solace in the only thing we all possess, namely ourselves. The startling pyrotechnic jamboree at the movies close is one of the more impressive pre-Jurassic Park visual effects feats. There is something bewitching and horrifying about seeing a small child walk through bullets and wreckage, whilst everything else around her burns to the ground. The great eighties electronica outfit Tangerine Dream provide yet another fantastically atmospheric soundtrack that helps to paint over some of the more drably realised visuals, whilst heightening the impact of this impressive ending. Of the early adaptations of King’s work Firestarter is perhaps most worthy of a solid re-evaluation, if only to wipe out the memory of the awful 2002 mini-series sequel, starring Malcom McDowell

Film Review:- American Gothic (1988)

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Dir:- John Hough

Starr:- Rod Steiger, Sarah Torgov, Yvonne de Carlo, Michael J. Pollard, Janet Wright, Fiona Hutchison, William Hootkins

This late 80’s British-Canadian horror, shot on location on, and around, Bowen Island, British Columbia, left as indelible an impression on my adolescent horror-movie imagination as similarly bizarre movies like Bob Balaban’s superb Parents, Bernard Rose’s haunting Paperhouse and Wes Craven’s ferocious The People Under the Stairs. On first viewing American Gothic I remember being almost unable to watch the films grim dénouement, due to the extraordinarily ‘weird’ atmosphere that British director John Hough (the man behind one of the best Richard Matheson adaptations The Legend of Hell House) had managed to conjure up. It was never that the movie was particularly gruesome, gory, or shocking, but rather that it evocatively examined parenting, guilt and alienation. Despite the script being really nothing more than a The Hills Have Eyes derivative (both Burt Wetanson and Michael Vines have less than glowing CV’s), Hough’s horrorcraft manages to create subtle emotional depth, where there should have only been hillbilly hokum. He is aided by the sterling work of Sarah Torgov and the ‘family’ cast members, with Rod Steiger (as Pa) and Janet Wright (as Fanny), in particular giving far more than other actors might have.

The movie begins with Torgov’s Cynthia being released from a Seattle institution where she has clearly been receiving some kind of counselling for depression, or PTS. Her boyfriend Jeff, has decided to take her away to the islands of British Columbia, alongside some of their friends. Within the opening exchange between Jeff, Cynthia and her Doctor, it is suggested that Cynthia may have lost her child, a fact that is confirmed by a tragic flashback in which we see Cynthia, distracted by the phone and her cooking, allowing her baby to drown in the bathtub (a particularly hot issue of the time, I seem to remember). Cynthia is clearly still haunted by the grief of this loss, and when Jeff’s private plane starts acting up and the group of friends have to touchdown on an unknown island, there is a real dread in Torgov’s visage, that allows the viewer to anticipate a nasty confrontation with her emotional demons.

Director Hough manages to keep the action taught and restrained for the opening forty minutes, or so. The group first of all explore the island individually, with the feisty Terri (Caroline Barclay) almost becoming the victim of a silly accident. Then after a first, unsettled, night upon the island, the group leave the rather annoying Paul (Stephen Shellen) to look after camp, while they go to find help. When the group come across an old New England-style property with pronounced Gothic gabling, they find the place seemingly deserted, with most of the furniture and household items belonging to the pre-WWII period. However, just like in the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, the friends’ presumption that the house they have entered is in fact empty has serious consequences.

Being a late-80’s movie it is a prerequisite that the film should have a touch of the ridiculous fashion of the times (mullet haircuts, pastel-coloured jumpsuits, extreme shoulder-padding). As much as I love a lot of great 80’s cinema, with its overabundance of synth music scores and poor-quality computer graphics obsessions, it is the decade, more than any other since the 60’s, that has dated particularly poorly. American Gothic initially looks very much of its time, with Cynthia, Jeff and their friends clearly stuck in the trends of the period (not to mention the truly awful opening credits sequence). Yet by the time the group stumble upon the house in the woods the movie has begun to strike out in a very different direction.

Even though the film has some grisly, and often rather daft, death scenes, it isn’t this aspect of the film that is horrifying. In fact it is an unusual horror feature as so much of what is actually frightening in the movie occurs in broad daylight. The family who own the house on the island are more than just a little eccentric. They at first appear to be an elderly couple, who refer to themselves as Ma (played by Lily Munster herself, Yvonne de Carlo) and Pa (an inscrutable Steiger). Being far older than Cynthia, Jeff and their friends, the couple are seen to be prudish and, in Steiger’s case more than a little religiose. However, the unsettling element of the film begins to creep in with little clues, such as the way both Ma and Pa patronisingly address the group as if they were children, or the children’s toys and games that are littered around a downstairs bedroom and in the backyard. This elderly couple aren’t revealing all to their unwanted guests, which makes their offer of help seem more than a little dubious.

Out of all the members of the group it is Cynthia who seems to delve into the strange world of the house and its occupants most completely. In the child’s bedroom she finds some sense of purpose that has obviously been lacking since that traumatic night in the past. When  the superb Janet Wright finally makes her belated appearance (followed by the always amusingly menacing Pollard and the physically imposing Hootkins) the film transcends it’s all too obvious script limitations and begins to sketch out one of the more disturbing final acts of any horror movie I’ve seen. Wright plays a girlish forty-something woman, called Fanny, who is dressed up to look like Shirley Temple, and whom Ma and Pa do not seem to have allowed to grow up (or possibly they have brainwashed her into believing she is a child in much the same way they eventually do with Cynthia). Pollard and Hootkins play her siblings, Woody and Teddy. Together these adults mimic childish behaviour and engage in kids games, subtly inverting the innocence of such ‘carrying-on’ and investing it with a perverse undercurrent, that is made all the more disturbing by the seeming normality with which the ‘parents’ treat their children. Before any of the murders begin there is already such an all-pervasive sense of weirdness about the island, that the family’s behaviour, particularly that of Steiger’s laconic, preacher-like patriarch, takes on the appearance of some bizarre cult or sect. Steiger clearly relishes lines like “I don’t believe in those kinds of contraptions” (when talking about television and telephones) and his final brief soliloquy is an oddly despairing Job-like rant, as he berates God for having taken his family. The strength of Steiger’s performance is matched by that of Torgov (in her last film role before a career-switch into publishing) who in the final moments of the movie, and with the help of some superb make-up, looks every inch a damaged and demented individual. Hough has to take heavy plaudits for the way in which he elicits such strong and increasingly unhinged performances from his cast. It is with the strength of these performances that the movie proves deserving of a certain cult cache and warrants rediscovery by a new generation of horror fan.

Film Review:- Insidious (2010)

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Dir:- James Wan

Starr:- Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Barbara Hershey, Lin Shaye, Leigh Whannell

The sheer volume of awful Jigsaw-obsessed sequels may well have distorted the relative merits of the original Saw movie in my imagination. Leigh Whannell and James Wan’s first movie together, wasn’t the technically proficient opening chapter in a hugely successful horror franchise, but rather the low-budget Australian horror Stygian, from which the core plot of Insidious is derived. Wan and Whannell as a writing/directing team (in Stygian Whannell was just an actor) have now come up with three horror movies that place a major emphasis upon the meticulously masked face (be it a doll’s head, a papier-mache mask, or a painted visage). With Insidious the movie actually opens up on a rather chilling and highly effective bedroom prelude, in which a young child is shown to be watched over by a rather hideous ghost-like figure. Wan and Whannell clearly aren’t one-trick ponies and for the first hour of this movie they show themselves to be potential modern masters of the tense horror narrative.

Aside from a particularly strong cast the most impressive aspect of Insidious is to do with Wan’s marshalling of his cinematographers Brewer and Leonetti. The film is yet another example of the technical ingenuity of the horror genre, as Wan and his cameramen create a wholly new way of seeing the horror shot, which relies predominantly upon decentering the focus of the lens in almost every non-close-up shot. Not only is each shot decentered, but Wan, Brewer and Leonetti then utilise a focal lens that appears to balance every aspect of the frame, so that no one detail is given greater weight than an other. This subtle transformation of visual space is actually very important as it allows Wan to populate not just the periphery of the shot with creepy visuals, but also the parts of the shot that would normally be in plain view and therefore usually ineffective and wasteful sites of suggestive and subtle horror. The extent to which this visual effect works can be felt in the inescapable sense, throughout the film, that there is stuff going on underneath the shot that is somehow eluding, and thus tantalisingly taunting, the audience.

The narrative is straight out of classic haunted house territory, with heavy references to recent Spanish-helmed efforts like The Orphanage and The Others. The central technical conceit, discussed above, is similar to that deployed by Robert Wise in the classic spine-tingler The Haunting, whilst the garishly baroque tone set by the hellishly red titles is reminiscent of Hammer Horror flicks from the late sixties. Finally, through the casting of Barbara Hershey in the supporting role of Patrick Wilson’s mother, the movie most obviously draws parallels with the 1982 demon-rape adaptation The Entity (even making an explicit appeal to that movie in the family chronology on display here). Despite however many Amityville’s there is still something inherently frightening about haunted houses and Wan and Whannell’s script takes the tried and tested approach of focusing most of the fear in the story upon the young children within the family. Patrick Wilson and the excellent Rose Byrne play Josh and Renai Lambert, who have just moved in to a new home at the start of the movie, an imposing tri-gabled structure that stops just short of Psycho and Amityville cliché. The couple have two young sons Dalton and Foster, as well as a baby daughter. Of the two boys Dalton appears the more adventurous and strong-willed, so it comes as no surprise when he ventures up into the attic space at the top of the house and has an accident that ends up putting him in a coma. With their son needing constant round-the-clock attention Josh and Renai become increasingly aware that something in the house clearly has a malevolent agenda that involves Dalton in some way.

The whole of the first half of the film is an intense exercise in steadily escalating dread. Rose Byrne’s Renai is a musician and is thus frequently at home when odd things begin to happen. First of all her box of music scores vanishes, only to reappear in the attic. Then the baby monitor begins to pick up the kind of whispering conversations that are never a good thing in horror movies. Most impressively Byrne’s character begins to be directly visited by strange interlopers, first of all a woman at a window, then a young giggling kid who seems to want to play hide and seek and finally a menacing male figure who seems to wish her harm. Unlike with other films of this ilk, the family don’t put up with the strange goings-on in their new home, but instead move back into the family property they stayed in prior to the big move.

One of the thoughts that surfaced in my mind whilst watching these middle sections of Insidious was just how expressive of anxiety the haunted house movie may well be. Nowadays one of the biggest financial commitments most families will make is to own their own property. As a result a significant pressure is put upon a couple to make the right choice of home, of neighbourhood, of district, in which to raise their children. If the bricks and mortar that you have sunk your savings into suddenly become the sight of horrific goings-on then it places an impossible burden upon the family unit, as most people can’t simply walk away from a financial loss of that magnitude. Thus the haunted house in some ways becomes a reflection, an outward manifestation, of all the doubts and tensions a couple might have over property ownership.

All the hard work expended on constructing a simply terrifying atmosphere is somewhat undone by the arrival on the scene of Lin Shaye’s mystic Elise Rainier (along with her Ghostbusters duo, one of whom is played by Whannell himself). In every good haunted house movie there comes a point where the director has to choose whether to reveal the bogeyman at the heart of the horror, or whether to stick with suggestions and allusions. Insidious actually has some genuinely scary imagery at its core, which deserves a little flaunting (particularly the demonic figure in full flow that looks a little like the beast from Jeepers Creepers crossed with Darth Maul), however the final thirty minutes of the film sees Wan and Whannell overplay their hand somewhat, whilst resorting to moments of parody that wouldn’t seem out-of-place on Most Haunted.

As in Stygian, the movie is in essence about two conflicting plains of reality, and how certain people can cross from one to the other. Such an idea is immensely appealing when you have a whole array of demons lined up on the other side of the divide ready to burst through. However, this underworld can also detract from the real strengths of the movie and it is notable that whereas the creepy presences of the early part of the film had been made all the more effective by not being sign-posted in the traditional horror score/POV shot manner, at the conclusion of the movie the demonic presences clearly adhere to this formula and are all the worse for it. By the time Lin Shaye wanders around in the gas mask from My Bloody Valentine, whilst Whannell and Angus Sampson (as the two ghost hunting assistants) get tossed around like human skittles, Insidious has drifted far away from the subtle powers of its title. It’s a great shame, as for long periods this is a superb horror film and even in the OTT light show at its climax there are moments of quite unique terror, such as the manic expressions on the ‘further’ family’s faces, or the almost entirely black wanderings Josh has to go on to try to find Dalton (never has darkness felt quite so oppressive and menacing). Insidious confirms that Wan and Whannell are technically proficient horror-film auteurs, who with a little more discipline may well be capable of the 21st century’s first truly frightening American horror movie, we horror enthusiasts can but hope.

NOTE:- I did enjoy the little chalk image of Jigsaw scrawled upon Josh’s blackboard in the classroom sequence.

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