Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Werewolves through the ages

Happy Halloween! Today is a very special day because Night Visions Maximum Halloween Film Festival officially starts today. We've had two special occasions for the visits of directors John Waters and Paul Verhoeven, but the main programme starts today. Whether intentional or not, this year's films feature a small retrospective of Werewolf movies with three films to be displayed, including Joe Dante's The Howling.

Doing a special post celebrating a type of monster on Halloween is beginning to be sort of a tradition here, so what better time to look at our lycanthropic friends. After all, there was a magnificent full moon yesterday.

A werewolf is a creature from ancient legends and has originally been involved in the fear of unknown in nature and the feel that ancient spirits can live on in animals and even possess them. When we fear werewolves, we to some extent fear nature. Thus, the archetype is surprisingly common characters appear all over the world (as do vampires). So it makes sense that this vein has been mined for cinema for years and years. Though there hasn't been a definitive take on the monster (although The Howling, and another werewolf picture made on the same year, come close), they more or less follow similar formulas: A goody two-shoes main character starts to get strange urges, spurts hair and goes out to kill. These werewolf films may not be the best, but they are chosen to reflect on the times on which they were made, which is why they gave weight to different things.

The puberty metaphore is quite clear, which is also why so many werewolf pictures have been made for teenagers. But through the decades there has also been various social changes that have made people doubt whether they are really as civilized as they claim to be. So grab your beast within, wer'e going in.

Werewolf of London (1935)
Director: Stuart Walker

The first major werewolf picture followed on the heels of other 30's Universal horror classics such as Frankenstein, Dracula and The Invisible Man. Yet it didn't become as big a classic as them. Why not? Well, for one, the star Henry Hull lacked the charisma of your Bela Lugosis, Claude Rainses and Boris Karloffs. Add that to the fact that he decided not to wear the make up assigned to create a believable werewolf, rather choosing a more modest approach. While that might have been as creepy, it didn't really look all that wolf-like or iconic. Luckily the make up had a chance for another run later on.
The American attitude of the 30's was to isolate themselves from all the war and carnage going on elsewhere in the world, largely because the Great Depression ensured there was enough problems back home. As such, the film reflects isolational views to stay out of foreign places and their businesses. The werewolf curse is caught by a scientist attacked studying flowers in the mountains of Tibet. The beastly ways of the foreigners are contrasted by, what else than Victorian stuck-up British people, that are sickeningly polite and down-to-earth, not giving any space to superstition or fantasy in their lives whatsoever.

The tragedy of the story is that the werewolf's condition keeps him away from his wife, while he stays locked up in rooms in an attempt to control his blossoming rage. This can also be seen as a sort of sexual frustration. The film is not too shabby, although quite theatrical in style, but it's central themes have also been done better multiple times since, which is why it's a little more obscure than some of its peers.

The Wolf Man (1941)
Director: George Waggner

It seems Universal itself wasn't that happy with how The Werewolf of London turned out (although it was a moderate hit). They made another film, this time set on a countryside villa and its dark forests rather than in an urban setting such as London. The themes are more along questioning the power of heritage, and family. Can a son bent on violent outbursts and losing control of his personality be considered a proper heir?Screenwriter Curt Siodmak was a Nazi concentration camp survivor, and his cynical outlook on people and their underlying brutality is reflected on his work. Jack Pierce's original make up designs are unleashed this time with wonderful results.

Lon Chaney Jr. brings great tragedy to the title role, and he is supported by the likes of Claude Rains, Bela Lugosi and Ralph Bellamy. This time the lycantrophy is a curse much like a disease, spreading from one person until the next until the owner is killed. Symbols and various iconic items are emphasized in the story and in the cinematography. The eerie music choices also underline the strange athmosphere and poetic imagery. Poems are in an important role in the storyline as well:

"Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright."

While the film runs quite predictably, the true and tested Universal style keeps the film afloat. 

I Was A Teenage Werewolf (1957)

When teenagers started to spend more and more of their allowance on pop culture, also going to the cinemas, some wise guy had the bright idea to develop popular monster films by adding some teenaged drama into the mix. This film was the first of its kind, and the clear werewolfism metaphor ensures it's well remembered even today. as for the quality, oh brother.
Like many teen pictures at that time, this one is designed to lecture first and bore second. The star Michael Landon is a trouble-making teen, who gets experimental hypnotic treatment. This unleashes the wolf-manners in him, without him knowing it at first. The film builds very slowly and slowly. There's precious few werewolf action and quite a lot more of Landon trying to get answers from authority figures such as parents and doctors on what's happening to his body. The society being prudish, he is of course denied valuable information before it's too late.

Quite boring, but an interesting curiosity of the time. You'll find this is a common theme in this post.

Curse of the Werewolf (1961)
Director: Terence Fisher

The British Hammer productions jumped at the chance to do new adaptations of all classic horror tropes from Universal's back lot. But sadly not every film could be their Dracula, and many of their monster films were aggressively average. Among these is the production company's foray into werewolf pictures, which had the good idea of having Oliver Reed play the main role. Sadly, although the role would be one the actor would seem to be born to play, he can do little to salvage the film. For starters, the werewolf looks like this:

Run! It's the sideburns monster!

Hammer's approach was to bring back some of the conservatist themes acquainted with the old horror films, yet up the gore and nudity at the same time. This is a story of a boy who more or less grows up to be a werewolf, and thus can be seen as a metaphor for alcoholism / puberty / sex addiction. Bad habits go in the family, you know. Yet the film is stuffy, too slow unraveling its thin story and has little to be frightened or even feel a bit uneasy with. The transformation effects are of course better than in Universal's films but still look dated today. But the sets, costumes and music are all top-notch. This could've worked better as a no-nonsense costume drama set in the old Spain, than as a werewolf picture.

Werewolves on Wheels (1971)

However, Hammer's classical approach still fares a lot better than the more liberal approach. WWOW is another werewolf movie that seems great on paper is this exploitation pic that had the bright idea to combine then-popular biker flicks to horror movies. Yet rather than to have the goofy fun with the subject the magnificently silly poster implies, the resulting film is a mess in every sense of the word.

The hippie era came to a screeching halt with the Manson murders, and people started to get frightened about Satanist views and youth gangs, such as bikers. At the same time the outsider imago of these groups drew youngsters to cinema seats which explains why a film called Werewolves on Wheels is more about Satanism than lycanthropes.

These bikers are trouble but not enough trouble to lend their shared girlfriend into Satanic sacrifices. But evil monks have set a demon loose, which possesses the lady and turns her into a werewolf whenever it's dark enough that the audience can't see shit happening on screen. On their run from the law across America, the Satanic monster wipes the freewheelers out one by one. No wonder the hippies lost the War for Peace On Earth.

An American Werewolf in London (1981)
Director: John Landis

The later 70's and early 80's are a sort of a silver age of genre filmmaking. Visionary directors found funding more easily and vastly improved physical effects look stunning even today. John Landis's horror-comedy is one of a rare breed that works equally good in both categories. Since the werewolf curse plagues a young man (David Naughton) and happens parallel to him getting acquainted and interested in a nurse (Jenny Agutter), it's not hard to read sexual undertones into this. Hell, one of the key transformational scenes takes place in a porno theater.

Landis has the good sense of showing very little of his central monster until the very final minutes. The goofy wolf-mask isn't near as scary as the bone-breaking and twisting transformational scenes, or the scene where a terrified British gentleman flees the monster in empty and endless subway tunnels, which barely shows the beast.

Today, the film is best known for its painful-looking transformatinal scenes.
Yet at the same time Landis isn't above the surprise nazi zombie attack, undead mauled bodies of best friends past asking for a piece of toast, or a superbly dumb sex film called "I'll call you next wednesday". The final few minutes revel in destruction and explosions, but lack in impact. If they were a little better this would be a full-fledged horror classic. Now it's just a stellar performance and still one of the best werewolf movies ever made.

Wolf (1994)

The 90's saw a boom of "erotic" thrillers. And at that time that usually meant an even more sex- and violence-obsessed American films with perhaps even a quick flash of a nipple. This was due, of course, the scare of AIDS and various other STD's killing straight and gay people alike, as well as the tabloidisized news looking for juicy sex scandals and drowning the media revelling in them anyway. Wolf also followed revisionist horror films such as Bram Stoker's Dracula and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, attempting to update classic stories to scare Generation Xers. As one can see looking at the films today, to little avail. They now seem a bit ludicrous, and clearly products of their time. Jack Nicholson, for instance, still was considered young and virile.

Actually this might just be a more boring, werewolf version of Nicolas Cage's Kiss of the Vampire. Another white-collar worker (played by Nicholson) has a supernatural run-in and his worsening condition makes him act more and more crazy at work. But as a thin yuppie culture parody, it works and he's doing fine. At the same time he fantasizes about sex with about every woman he runs into. He soon gets his wish because his beastlike qualities make women fall for him, but the attraction just may be too fatal for them (see what I did there?).

Cursed (2005)
Director: Wes Craven

Horror director Wes Craven had such a big hit with Scream in 1996 that he has more or less spent his entire career since to try to recapture lightning in the bottle. The same goes (even more strongly) for screenwriter Kevin Williamson, who never really was nearly as clever as he himself thought. He merely put horror movie nerd's thoughts and gripes into his thin screenplays. The hook gets thin after a while. One example is this update with teenaged siblings sharing a deadly crime of hitting a man while driving around at night. But it's OK since he didn't die and was in fact a werewolf. But it's not OK since he attacks them and runs away, giving them all the curse of lycantrophism.

So these teenagers must do the most forbidden thing in their lives to get rid of the curse, which is to kill an adult. Which is all they dream about! Well that and having sex with each other. Which they do, too! Isn't Williamson a hoot? To be fair, there are a few decent jokes scattered here and there to not make this a total waste of time. But it all seems so played out it's a wonder a man as talented as Craven ever bothered.

As for the creation of werewolves it's bad. Horrible, even. With computer effects, all the elegance had completely vanished from horror films. Since you could do transformational scenes in full daylight, there was little of the poetism that worked around the limits of what old technology could achieve. as such, it's also harder and harder to get sucked in the movie's world and care for the protagonists. Since they are chased by bad CGI or rubber wolves all the time, with sound turned UP, there is little suspense. This what horror films have come to. Bad movies have been made in every decade but rarely has the whole genre been so overwhelmed with mediocrity.

Well, actually there is this new Spanish werewolf movie called A Game of Werewolves. But I'll tell you all about it some other time.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

HIFF 2012: Horrors For Halloween

Although this wasn't the best year for genre cinema, Love & Anarchy still managed to show several films worthy of your ravenous hunger for Halloween-related films. Hell, the film's poster had a ghost in it. Woo-oo-oooo.

Grabbers (Ireland)
Director: Jon Wright

If there's something the Irish can do it's take the piss. Ahem, in more ways then one. But the occupants of the Green Island are known not only by their high alcohol consumption, but also their good-natured sense of humor and willingness to laugh at themselves. thus, it makes sense that the following high concept would stem from these people: vampiric aliens attack a small village. While they feed on human blood, they are allergic to alcohol, so everyone must start drinking to stay alive through the night. A concept can't get much better than that.

But let's look at the film a bit more closely. Having a strong affection to 80's comedic genre films such as Gremlins, An American Werewolf in London and The Evil Dead, Jon Wright's film's style heavily reminds viewers of last year's Attack The Block. In both an alien invasion makes unexpected heroes of an archetype you'd believe to be as unsuitable for the role as they come. Rather than pre-teen gangsters, however, this time our hero is the bored and alcoholic Erin island policeman Ciarán O'Shea (Richard Coyle)

As in numerous buddy cop movies before, O'Shea is on the edge and gets a new no-nonsense, by-the-book partner. This time it's Dubliner Lisa Nolan (Ruth Bradley). Unsurprisingly, extreme conditions make both of them smoothen the edges of their personas and they meet in the middle ground. But rather than with the leads, the film shines more brightly when concerning its bit-characters. They are also somewhat stock characters from countryside TV dramedys, but since you don't often get to see the vicar getting pissed in a pub, they work wonders here.

As for the aliens themselves, they are suitably icky creatures, a little bit like blue octopuses or starfishes with suitable grabbing tentacles. They provide a good enough threat to create some suspense into this thing, and it often seems our heroic Gardas are battling overwhelming odds. While the film can't be called a splatter by any means, the sudden bursts of violence have much more effect.

All in all, the film is silly, but doesn't overemphasize its ridiculousness. It's a bit more clearly a comedy than Attack the Block, but still not really a laugh-riot. Since that film (which I could have given more stars to, BTW) was as urban as they come, it feels apt that this one has a clear countryside vibe. All in all, it feels authentic and considering it's a quite stupid genre piece, it's quite an achievement.

★★★ 1/2

Shopping Tour (шопинг-тур, Russia)
Director: Mikhail Brashinsky

A lot of Russian tourists do short shopping trips to Finland, although I've never quite understood why. Our shops are not even near anything you'd call cheap and I'd figure most of everything we have is also available in Russia. Perhaps the shoppers are looking for some sort of status symbols, expensive luxury items to brag to their friends. Anyway, a horror film featuring a Russian shopping team coming to Finland for bargains but finding only carnage sounded like another great idea on paper.

Shopping Tour is another one of the handheld camera footage boom. A middle-aged woman (Tatyana Kolganova) takes her teenaged son (Timofei Eletsky) to a fateful one-night tour to Finland. The pair have their own quarrels, and we learn that it's not been long since the family's father has deceased. In Finland, the tourists are informed that they get to be the very first ones to shop at a brand new electronics supermarket, which is open all night. But once the Russians are packed in the store, the doors are locked. The cannibal feeding frenzy of ravenous Finns can begin.

This is quite a cheap film, and it shows. While the two lead actors are quite good in their roles, it becomes apparent (to a native Finnish speaker at least), that all the extras have been hired on a pittance. Nothing else could explain the horrendous acting in Finnish on display here. The script isn't too sharp, either. Exposition and back story is spurted at very unlikely moments when people should be fighting for their lives. Still, this is a one-joke movie and at least I find that joke funny. To delve into it deeper is to SPOIL so look away for the last chapter, sensitive ones.

There's no big reason for the Finns to start eating Russians. They aren't worshipping Satan, or secret vampires or zombies or anything. Rather, it is just a tradition, and one which we Finns hold as dear as a Sauna and a cottage on Midsummer's Eve. Some light fun is poked at the fact that Finland tends to come on top of all the lists of the best societies and best places to live, yet our people are sad and suicide-prone. Mean humor is often the best humor.


Crawl (Australia)
Director: Paul China

The dubious honor of being the only Love & Anarchy film I wished I would've skipped goes to this Australian shocker. I mean, I probably would've walked out but I had some time to pass before the next screening. As it is, Crawl is a dire attempt to capture some of the slow-building tension and macabre bloodshed of several new wave horror films (such as Ti West's House Of The Devil, and from non-horror, The Coen Brothers' No Country For Old Men). It attempts to make some sort of statement about gender politics, but comes off just misogynistic. And not in a fun way.

The sleazy bar owner Slim Walding (Paul Holmes) is tired of an accomplice that hasn't paid back a shady loan. Thus, he turns to a quiet Croatian hitman, known only as The Stranger (George Shevtsov) to finish the guy off. But The Stranger has plans of his own, and plans to turn the tables on Slim. The young waitress Marilyn (Georgina Haig), who has plans to quit working for Slim gets caught in the battle of wills. She is soon taken hostage and must fight for her life to survive.

True to its name, Crawl moves very, very slowly forward. Director Paul China, a former cinematographer, likes to keep things quiet and THEN SHOCK SCARE YOU WITH LOUD NOISES. The imagery is OK, but can't hide how cheap this has been made. The sets in particular look like they have been recovered from a failed stage play. Shevtsov's performance is a bit ominous, yet it takes a bit more than long shots of a quiet drowsy-eyed hitman to make up a good performance. As a contrast, ost of the other cast are just abysmal. The film feels like it has been dropped from teh cliché tree and hit every branch on the way down. It makes a lot more sense to just stay home and watch Blood Simple on DVD. There's nothing on display here that that movie wouldn't have done 10 times better already.

★ 1/2

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Review: Skyfall

Probably more than any other franchise, the James Bond series has a clear-cut, familiar formula which most of its movies follow. For a series that has run for 50 years, not very many films have dared to do something different. In the late 90's, early 00's at least, a director suggesting to do so was laughed out of the offices of Albert Broccoli's EON Productions. Thank heavens times have changed enough for us to get Daniel Craig's version of the character that goes a little deeper than to be just sheer escapism and male power fantasy.

Skyfall is very, very good. It's a worthy successor to 2006's Casino Royale. Whereas that film pondered how exactly did Bond become such a ruthless killing machine and a cold lover/sex-addict, this one writes the circle to the end and finds the reason behind several of basic elements of Bond. Casino Royale looked at Bond's tendency to get the bad end of relationships and his need to stay unattached to women. Quantum of Solace was how he in principle is a selfish character that being in the pressure points of world politics does help change the world (I think).

Skyfall has two main themes: the first is to ponder whether James Bond and his methods have ran out of their course in the modern world. The second theme is about his loyalty to authorities and higher-ups, and his troubled relationship with his foster-parent character M. These issues have been dealt with previously, most clearly in Goldeneye. But whereas the past Bond movies (particularly in Pierce Brosnan's era) just threw a bunch of ideas into a canvas and didn't mind what stuck and what not, in Sam Mendes's direction these themes are ambitiously and thoroughly followed from start to finish.

To get to the bottom of the main themes, Skyfall delves into Bond's past and present, find out the demons that worst haunt him, and hit him where it hurts. Craig's Bond goes to hell and back in this one - several times.

And his love for classic cars, which causes the film's best reaction shot.

While on a mission in Turkey with his fellow agent Eve (Naomie Harris), Bond attempts to track down a stolen file which contains the names of every NATO agent undercover in terrorist organizations around the world. While Bond is battling the thief on top of a train roof, Bond's chief of operations M (Dame Judi Dench) orders Eve to snipe the villain. But this bullet misfires and hits Bond, while the thief escapes. Our hero goes missing, presumed dead.

M has to answer for the loss of the top secret file to the British government and her job is at stake. At the same time a mysterious mastermind behind the whole plot targets the whole MI6 organization and M herself in a terrorist attack. Bond must return from hiding and stop the madman before it's too late. He finds out that the culprit is a disgruntled ex-agent Silva (Javier Bardem) who has a bone to pick with M. Bond must go to great lengths to protect his mother figure, who may be the only person he truly cares for.

Is M worthy of 007's loyalty? Or 007 of M allowing his flaws to slip through the radar?

I thought the making of M to a mother-figure to Bond (which, granted, puts Bond's rebelliousness to a whole new light) went to a bit of an overkill in the last movie. But here, although dealt with it even deeper, it service the story and is a clear focus point. His relationship to M is truly the right place to dig to find new sides to reveal about everyone's favorite agent. As I've said before, Judi Dench and Daniel Craig just have a great chemistry, bickering away like an old married couple or buddy cops. It's also nice to have M get a lot more screen time, and early to halfway through the movie she is almost more of a protagonist of the film than Bond is.

But the Bond universe gets expanded with also the introduction of the new Q (Ben Whishaw). He is shown to be the antithesis of Bond, a modern young hacker that can do a lot more espionage with his set of skills than Bond with his. These rivaling agents learn to cooperate towards the end and both of them are seen to not be invincible or flawless. Whishaw's cold approach to his character makes his dry humor and snappy bickering work even better.

Javier Bardem as the main villain of the story seems to get a lot of praise all around. His Silva does have some interesting homosexual tendencies, almost a North Korean style sadism, and manages to be totally ruthless and a bit cheeky at the same time. He is pretty great, although his always-one-step-ahead, years-in-planning terrorist mastermind type starts to feel a bit outdated the more time has passed since 9/11. As Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace were heavily influenced by the Jason Bourne series, this one has a clear Dark Knight vibe to it.

The greatest collaborator of the movie just has to be cinematographer Roger Deakins. The man who has shot most of the Coen Brothers' films just does tremendous work, and just makes one wonder why on earth don't more multi-million dollar blockbusters hire the best Directors of Photography available? I mean, look at how horrible a film like The Expendables 2 looks! Deakins on the other hand never misses on an action, and his stunning photography keeps things interesting (and beautiful) even when there isn't an explosion or a fist fight on sight. He also deserves praise for simply the most beautiful exploding helicopter scene I've ever witnessed in my life. I literally dropped my jaw.

Director Sam Mendes has done a film heavy with plot and themes, but delivers on the action too. Particularly great is an assassination scene in a Shanghai glass skyscraper, where Bond hides by turning the reflection of glass doors opposite his opponent. Mendes has also brought back the hands-on brutality in the brawls, and when people get punched, it really packs a wallop. And when things explode, hoo-boy, do you feel that too! The stunning finale, that goes to some quite unexpected paths, is one of the most effective ones in Bond history.

I'm starting to ramble on like a fan boy, but today, the day after seeing this, I feel like this just might be the best Bond film ever made. It feels like it one-ups even the heights of Casino Royale, and has the sort of escapism inherent in films like Goldfinger and The Spy Who Loved Me. For those who think Bond has grown too serious, there's a scene in a casino, where Bond and his opponent drop into an open cage of Komodo dragons. Bond manages to leap out by getting a leg up from the back of a giant lizard while his opponent is devoured alive. Happy 50th birthday, Mr. Bond! You sure made it a memorable one!

★★★★ (while reflecting on other Bond films, ★★★★★)

UK/USA, 2012
Language: English
Director: Sam Mendes

Screenplay: Neal Purvis, Roger Wade
Cinamatography: Roger Deakins
Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris

Monday, 22 October 2012

Three Houses of Horror

You would think that with a generic name like "House", one could make essentially any kind of movie one can imagine. But then you'd think wrong, because the title "House" has only ever been used to make horror films. Because they are about very specific houses... of evil! Oh, and I guess you could make a doctor show or something with that title, but you'd have to throw in "Dr." or "M.D." to not confuse viewers. But let's take a tour of cinematic houses and see if they are really horrific at all or just misunderstood pieces of real estate. 

House (Hausu, Japan 1977)
Director: Nobuhiko Ôbayashi

Easily the best film called House, this Japanese classic is a rare arthouse / avant garde horror film. More than from the thrills, most people who have seen it remember it for the WTF -scenes and very odd visuals. When considering this one's country of origin, it's actually not that odd. Like vampires and werewolves in the western countries, this just utilizes monsters and terrors from the depths of old Japanese mythology. But it has to be said that it does so in a wholly unique way.


Seven Japanese schoolgirls visit the countryside house of the aunt of the one called Gorgeous. Gorgeous (Kimiko Ikegami) herself has ventured on the summer vacation trip since she couldn't stomach her father having another woman after her mother's death. Her friends all have some signature feature after which they are named. Fanta (Kumiko Ohba) is a daydreamer and likes to take pictures, Kung Fuu (Miki Jinbo) is athletic and has cat-like reflexes, Prof (Ai Matsubara) is smart but geeky, Melody (Eriko Tanaka) is musical and eager to play, Sweet (Masayo Miyako) is very friendly and eager to please, and Mac (Mieko Sato) is always hungry and loves to eat.

Too many characters!

The gang soon learns that the house is actually haunted and that Gorgeous's aunt is actually an undead witch. Like in any Scooby-Doo episode, they get separated and spooked out, each according to their own personal gimmicks. Mac is the first to get killed due to her greed, and her severed head flies around haunting the others and causing mischief and bite marks. The girls must solve the mystery of the Aunt's house before each of them gets killed and turned into the witch's servants.

And the villain of course says her evil plans aloud to one of her minions.
This is the sort of film with a very functional set, as many objects and features are ones that come to service the story later on. In addition there are some weird and wonderful things such as a living skeleton, a piano that eats people and a cat that can grow into a grotesque giant. The theme of the film is the clash between the adult world and the world of pre-pubescent girls. This is also why the film has a sort of mundane, almost theatrical setting at first, but as the film progresses, it leaves any sort of convention behind. One can easily believe anything can happen at any time. Various animated techniques are used among the film to create truly strange transformational effects.

On the verge of womanhood, much like in, for instance, Suspiria.

For a post-war Japanese film, it also deals with several of the ideas of loss and bitterness so often displayed in post-WWII Japanese movies. The openness of young girls, to whom world has no limits and the laws of physics can be bent are attacked by a soul that's lonely and grieving and has no way of connecting with the world any more. Thus, the film can also be included in the canon of tragic monster movies. The film is a bit uneven and a tad too long, but as stated, they very rarely come up with something so inventive and original within the genre.


House (1986)
Director: Steve Miner

Back in the 80's, Stephen King was so popular in horror fiction that even the few horror films not based on his books tended to copy his signature style. While therein could be a good mine for a merciless parody, mocking the conventional formula King based most of his books to, the 80's House had the unfortune of being the kind of horror-comedy that works in neither of the genres.

Horror writer Roger Cobb (William Katt) is suffering from a nervous breakdown due to the vanishing of his young son. He settles for his late aunt's house in a suburban neighborhood to get some writing done. But he is fed up with made-up horrors and plans to write about his traumatic experiences at Vietnam, which still haunt his dreams. His cheerful but nosy new neighbor (George Wendt) tries to keep his sunny side up, but Cobb's past isn't the only thing haunting in his house.

Cobb is a man looking for closure, but the uncharismatic Katt in the lead role torpedoes any sense of likability. It's not much of a spoiler to tell that the ghosts have captured his son and attempt to get him by using him as bait. However, the child actor is such an annoying and fugly case, audience figures Cobb would be better off just letting them have him and moving to some place where there isn't so much paranormal activity. There isn't much frightfully funny or twistedly horrifying in the film, save for a few neato rubber monsters towards the end.

The poster is better than the movie, and rest assured there are actually no severed hands going around crank calling people's doorbells. That would be the kind of novel idea the film's writer (Sean S. Cunningham of Friday the 13th fame) couldn't do. Somehow, this was still popular enough to warrant no fewer than 3 sequels. I'm actually a little curious of them, because this would have some ingredients for an interesting film, even if it uses them too sloppily to develop anything of much interest from them.

★ 1/2

House (2008)
Director: Robby Hensen

For a lesson in how generic and bland one can make a horror film, one should not look any further. Figures that a film with such unimaginative title would be as bad. This shamelessly plunders from films miles better than this is, such as The Shining, Don't Look Now, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and... Rocky Horror Picture Show? Albeit with no sense of irony or any fun at all.

A quarreling couple (Reynando Rosales and Heidi Dippold) is off to see a marriage counselor in rural Alabama. They get pulled over by a cop (Michael Madsen) that acts strangely and a bit threatening. After the couple takes off, they soon have trouble with the car, which may have been caused by the police. They take shelter from the rain at a nearby mansion and find another couple, and a strange man and his mother who claim to own the house. But it soon dawns on them that the owners are hostile and in cahoots with "The Tin Man", a demon which had previously taken the form of the weird cop. The two couples have to kill one among themselves to survive the night and at the same time come into terms of their past failures and horrors.

There isn't much to note here, the film's as generic as they come, right down to a little girl haunting the premises, a promise of occult religious services being done in the house (as in Satanism), war flashbacks (I'm not sure whether it's meant to be Vietnam) and an awkward dinner scene. The characters are so boring it's hard to remember anything about them a day after watching the film, and that even includes the bad guys. Madsen growls his way into another paycheck and uses his demonic powers to point a shotgun at a lot of people. The color scheme is greenish brown all the time, and not even trippy flashback scenes manage to arise any interest in this whatsoever. I'd tell you to avoid this, but you've probably already forgotten as much about this as I have. Which is probably for the best.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

HIFF 2012: Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?

Not that it matters much, but I'll try to pick up on Love & Anarchy reporting for this year. After all, I'm not even halfway through all the films I saw in there. But no matter, plenty of them were good enough to digest for a while and to report through a longer stretch of a time allows for a deeper look into them. This post focuses on the films that lingered on somewhere between reality ond pure fantasy, whatever that may mean.

Beasts of the Southern Wild (USA)
Director: Benh Zeitlin

This year's Love & Anarchy opening film gathered a lot of buzz at Cannes this year, and was praised from Earth to Heaven. With such an overkill on praise, it's easy to be disappointed in the end result. It's a very good film and more than suitable for the choice of opening film of the festival. But while it was praised for being a wholly original piece of filmmaking, it's more or less the same story as Terry Gilliam's Tideland had a few years back, albeit with with more grace and with subtler mentally handicapped people.

In a fictional Deep Southern village of Washtub, lives the six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) in a run-down shack. Her mother has long since left so she attempts to bond with her father Wink (Dwight Henry). Unfortunately, Wink has severe mental and heath problems, and isn't too happy about them and is prone to bursts of anger. Hushpuppy has learned to more or less take care of herself, with the help of the other villagers. Hushpuppy has an active imagination and gets lost inside it from time to time. When a tornado threatens the village, Wink and Hushpuppy rekindle their relationship, but the desperate situation also calls for desperate acts. Hushpuppy also ventures on an adventure to find her mother.

The film is visually very inventive, with some amazing sets that look like they've been lying around for years having actually been created from scratch. The overwhelming flood of striking imagery makes the viewer feel like a six-year-old him- or herself, being amazed of the vastness of the world and all the things in it. That's probably why the film had such a strong response.

But this in turn also brings with it a sense of helplessness. We can't do anything to hold Hushpuppy's family together, or even to make her act sensibly to grow up to be a proper adult in time. Basically the characters are archetypes, but have enough flaws within them to make them somewhat well-rounded and interesting. The main problem however, seems to be that it throws so many things in the air and quickly ties up the knots at the end. For instance, there isn't enough on he community and it's coping by the end, although it seemed like a major element in the beginning.

But nevertheless, for a first-time director, Benh Zeitlin has created an amazingly confident piece of work. It has been helping that the director and the crew form a strong creative collective that have supported each other with their decisions and visions. I'm looking forward on what this group creates next.

★★★ 1/2

Love or Anarchy: Mostly Love, but with a big dose of Anarchy thrown in for good measure

Chicken with Plums (Poulet aux prunes, France/Germany/Belgium)
Directors: Marjane Satrapi, Vincent Paronnaud

This film was first screened at Espoo Ciné, and after Love & Anarchy it was chosen as Film theater Orion's Movie of the month, so there have been plenty of times to see Marjane Satrapi's adaptation of her own comic book. I'm a bit ashamed I haven't read the comic this is based on, although even the film version is unmistakably of the comic artist's signature style.

The film tells the story of the final days of the famed violinist Nasser Ali Khan (Mathieu Amalric).  He decides to die when he can't find pleasure in life any more. Initially, it appears that his reasons are purely due to him hating his family and his displeasure of getting a new violin after his old one is destroyed. But cut scenes to the future, to the past and to Iran's mysterious legends reveal new sides to Ali's character and his story.

The film opens a bit slowly, but once it gets going it grows on the viewer more and more. It's easy to symphatize with Nasser Ali, since he hates his own obnoxious kids. This is basically a romantic film masqueraded as a fairy tale. For all the imaginary characters, basically this is a story about a broken heart and an unrequited love, much in the same way as, say The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Since I'm a totally cynical bastard, this is the sort of romance I like.  The little comic touches and segments are just the plums to sweeten the already tasty dish of chicken.The film sells itself well as unpredictable and a little anarchistic in that most anything can happen at any given time.

There are several cool animated sequences thrown in for good measure.

The hilarious parody of American sitcoms is of course the easiest possible target, alike to shooting fish in the barrel, but it still made me laugh to my tears. The mythological side is also well-realized, with a suitably mixed style of comic book art and reality. The most memorable of these scenes is wonderful Angel of Death, Azraël, played with curiosity and mellowness by Edouard Baer. But make no mistake, this is Amalric's time to shine. At times, it feels like he's in every French film made these days, but watching his subtle performance here, one can't help but to admire the sheer skill and nuance he brings to his best performances.

★★★ 1/2

Love or Anarchy: 50-50 on this.

Holy Motors (France/Germany)
Director: Leos Carax

Cranky old French auteur Carax has crawled back from the sewer he has dwelled for at least four years (it's been 13 years since his last feature film). And his new film has created a lot of buzz, for it is something not often seen. A purely art house film consisting of mostly sketches and sequences with only a very loose thread tying them together. It does seem the director would be more comfortable with short films and segments in anthology films today.

Stating the plot of Holy Motors is to do an interpretation of sorts, so here's how I see it. Monsieur Oscar (Denis Levant) is a prolific, rich man going to work on a limo one day. His job requires him to wear masks and make up and to do odd tasks around Paris. His first job requires him to dress up as a beggar, and his second as a degenerate sewer-dweller, eating flowers at a graveyard, and to disrupt a fashion photo shoot. He kidnaps the model (Eva Mendés) and takes her to his lair in the sewers.

She'll sing a lullaby to him.

But he still hasn't lost it and is soon back to business. We begin to get the hang of what's going on as he does movements in a motion capture suit, and proceeds to have sex with a woman walking in in a similar suit. Riding inside the limo, it is revealed that invisible cameras are following him around the day. His jobs get more and more intensive, and he is, for instance, required to brutally murder a few people. Truth and fiction are at all times hard to separate, even when M. Oscar goes to pick up his daughter at a friend's party. Finally, he settles home with a bunch of chimpanzees. But what does his limo think about all of this?

Carax is commenting on the state of cinema today, looking for a realistic digital shooting style, while aiming for more and more extreme situations and preposterous stories. Every time the audience is able to grasp an even small strand of plot, Carax destroys it by reminding we are watching a movie. This bitter love letter is at times hysterically funny, but it gets repetitive and pretentious towards the end. There's no good reason half an hour couldn't be trimmed from this.

It's basically a development of some of the ideas Carax has already done. For instance, the monsieur Merde sequence is a clear development of the director's segment in Tokyo! That doesn't make it any less funny, although this is a comedy clearly aimed at high-brow cinema buffs that can reflect their own disgust with modern films through this anarchic piece. Carax doesn't solve any of the problems he posits, and certainly doesn't save cinema with this work, although some of the more eager critics have suggested such.


Love or Anarchy: Pure Anarchy

Himizu (Japan)
Director: Sion Sono

Sion Sono's new film has become an annual event as much as Takashi Miike's at Love & Anarchy. The prolific director is always able to comment on Japan's recent events, national psyche and culture in surprising, shocking and innovative ways. After two darker psychological thrillers, Sono returns (in a way) to the twisted teenage romance of Love Exposure with his latest film. It brings a welcome emphasis on his wicked black humor, but overlays the melodrama by the end.

At another village ravaged by natural disasters, this time in shantytown in the seaside Tokyo suburbs, lives the only child of a family disintegrating. The teenaged Yuichi (Shota Sometani) finds he has to support himself since his mother is whoring around, and his father has disappeared since becoming seriously indebted to yakuza. He begins a string of shady businesses and lending out his beach house, but he's having trouble collecting money fast enough for the yakuza still feels he owes them for his father's loans. Back at school, quirky girl Keiko (Fumi Nikado) has grown an obsession on Yuichi, and notices his absence from school. She will stop at no ends in following him around and attempting to help him cope in his ever-growing desperation.

Whereas most American post-apocalyptic (that is to say, post-9/11) films had an uplifting theme of uniting people to cope with their losses, Sono has a lot more cynical outlook on human nature here. He argues that our so-called civilization hangs by a threat and a strong enough catastrophy may bring out desperation that allows violent impulses to take over people. The desperation tears us even further apart from our already disconnected lives. Yuichi becomes tangled in a web of violence, murder and vigilantism.

But Sono does believe in certain goodness in people nevertheless. He is a firm believer on love for redemption of people. In the end, Yuichi can't manage his situation by himself, he realizes he needs Keiko and his foster-father figure Shozo (Tetsu Watanabe). Shozo is the film's most interesting character, a self-claimed former millionaire eccentric, who has lost everything. But his love for his friend Yuichi makes him go behind his back and risk his very life to save him from yakuza. It's really a shame the end half of the film focuses so much on Keiko's and Yuichi's relationship, with Shozo being sidelined.

As I mentioned, the teary-eyed melodrama and weltschmertz of the final scenes of this film fall a bit flat and leave a bad aftertaste in the mouth. Otherwise the film features many of Sono's great strengths - great characters, shocking brutality, surprising story developments, the satirizing of Japanese culture and a pitch black sense of humor. I'm particularly enamored by the scene of literal gallows humor - Keiko's parents building gallows in her room for her to kill herself and spare them from the high cost of her living.

★★★ 1/2

Love or Anarchy: Even though at the surface it may seem like an Anarchy-heavy piece, the heavy melodrama puts it firmly in the Love corner.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...