Saturday, October 29, 2011

"It's in the trees... it's coming!"

More for Halloween...

Curse of the Demon (Jacques Tourneur)

For Curse of the Demon Jacques Tourneur was totally against showing the actual demon (he claimed it was added to the completed film without his direction or consent). He preferred suggestion when it came to horror; allowing for our imagination to fill in the gaps. His films for Val Lewton were all about atmosphere and the unease of ambiguity instead of the cheap thrills and obvious shocks of an actual monster (I Walked With a Zombie and Cat People most especially are great examples). And some do see the creature as a little creaky and may snigger (especially when viewed out of context on a YouTube video clip on some twittering blog... hoho).
Pah... I don't agree. I love the demon and seeing it has always made perfect sense to me.
Curse of the Demon is proof that you can sometimes have the big pay-offs without dissipating the atmosphere or the scares.

Halloween handfuls

Halloween is nearly upon us and so, in the spirit (ho-ho) of things, here are some recommendations:

Dead of Night (Basil Dearden, Alberto Cavalcanti, Robert Hamer, Charles Crichton, Michael Balcon)
"What sort of dummy do you think I am?"
and the portmanteau horrors it spawned.

Amicus are the most prolific and most famous exponents of the portmanteau horrors but Ealing got there first with the chilling compendium Dead of Night. The idea of sandwiching a handful of scary stories into one whole is a notoriously hit & miss affair (stinkers alongside classics) so the viewer will always have their favourites.
Here are some of mine.

'Frozen Fear' from Asylum is hysterical as well as being scary stuff (a film maker at Amicus usually had his bloody tongue poking through his cheek). Adulterous husband (Richard Todd) kills off his unwanted wife (Sylvia Sims) while she stands cooing over the chest freezer he's just bought her. He then chops up the corpse, wraps it all in brown paper and dumps the bits in the freezer. As he closes the freezer door he quips "rest in pieces". Well, as it happens, she doesn't. And how the cheating husband and his mistress (Barbara Parkins) get their just deserts is truly gobsmacking. Once seen, never forgotten.

'...And All Through the House' from Tales from the Crypt, is a little bit rubbish if truth be told. But Joan Collins, after dispatching of her husband with a poker while her young daughter plays upstairs, being tormented by a psychotic dressed as Santa is as much fun as it sounds. Marvelous!

The genuinely shocking outcome of 'Blind Alleys' from Tales From the Crypt is fantastic. The slow drip, drip pace expertly builds up the dread factor and Nigel Patrick pays the price for his cruel treatment of the blind veterans in his care. Nasty
Not one for animal lovers!

'Gatecrasher' from From Beyond the Grave takes its cue from the mirror story from Dead of Night but takes a step further into the abyss with a very dark and bloody bit of gothic nastiness. "Feed meeee... bloood"

Trilogy of Terror, based on stories by Richard Matheson, is not an Amicus film of course (surprisingly it was made for American TV). The highlight of this threesome is Karen Black being chased about her apartment by a pint-sized voodoo doll. I remember watching this one as a teenager with my mom and although we were absolutely terrified we were also in fits of laughter. I also remember dad never shared a taste for gallows humour ("Why are you watching it if you think it's funny?").
Seeing it again more recently proved that it still is pretty scary stuff and still is very, very funny.
Mmm... can I smell dinner??

But, best of all of course, is the forerunner Dead of Night. True to form, it has its misfire - lovely Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne (unofficially doing their Charters & Caldicot shtick), in the 'Golfing Story' segment, is fun, but the whimsical tale is quite out of place and dissipates the chilly atmosphere that's been built up so far with the preceding two tales: of ghostly apparitions at a Christmas party and a man possessed by a haunted mirror.
Luckily the chills return because they've kept the best till last. The last story, a psychological horror of an unhinged ventriloquist being driven insane by his dummy, is one of the most terrifying in all of British cinema. Under Cavalcanti's direction Michael Redgrave is absolutely mesmerising as the ventriloquist, helping to invest his character with enough pathos and horror for us to empathise as well as draw back. A deeply human performance.
As the story unfolds, the dread we feel is palpable (it actually brings a lump to my throat) so that by the final moments, when Max 'kills' Hugo, the brutality of the scene - Hugo's terrified screams, the kicks and the final shot of his caved in scull - is profoundly disturbing. Just as Cavalcanti managed to get away with a surprising amount of shocking violence in the superb WWII drama Went the Day Well? simply because it was a propaganda piece, so he manages it again here because it's only a doll getting it's head bashed in. After all, the flesh and bone of a human head is gonna look pretty much the same in black & white as the wood and sawdust of a doll's head.
Of course, as this segment ends, we're not let off the hook here. We still have the nightmarish finale to deal with (complete with the return of Hugo)... round and round it goes...

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Fanboys and show-offs need restraining sometimes

Drive (Nicolas Winding refn)

A film that tries a little too hard to have its cake and bash the fuck out of it too - it wants to be both Michael Mann and Jim Thompson. Personally I think they are poles apart (the sheen of director Mann is somewhat at odds with the grubby immorality of pulp's greatest exponent Thompson) and I find it depressing that so many film-makers are more than happy to blur the distinction in the bid to be cool.
It still is a great piece of cinema - dialogue is spare and judicious; the camera loving the city. And there is exciting screen presence to behold. Carey Mulligan isn't given much to do beyond adore Gosling and/or look disappointed when expected, but she does do it effectively. And Albert Brooks should be commended in a part that, if it had been played by a bigger star, would have made things feel more showy and indulgent. As is he's incredible and terrifying.
But even Brooks is upstaged by Bryan Cranston totally stealing every scene he's in - Shannon is gruff, world weary, chain-smoking, grounded and a bit tragic. In Cranston's hands he is by far the most likable and interesting character.
However, everyone will tell you (and they won't be far off the mark) that this is the kid's film(Gosling's character is a man with no name and when he is referred to as the kid in the film it feels like a subtle joke on more than one level). But, as the fetishising of 'homme du jour' Gosling shows no signs of abating (thank the good Lord) far be it from me to comment too deeply on a film that loves his curves so much while still managing to uglify those of Christina Hendricks (saggy denim and cruelly dispatched in a somewhat thankless role).

Insidious (James Wan)

It's behind you!...  pity he didn't stay there  
The makers prove they know how to make a really scary film - things begin as a kind of homage to both The Haunting and The Exorcist as they expertly crank up the suspense so tight I thought I would crack my knuckles. I was more than a little impressed.
Then they throw it all away in gleeful horror fanboy abandon. I suppose I should have known better than to trust in 'the makers of Saw' - James Wan and Leigh Whannell (how old are these guys anyway???).
It all starts to go wrong when the 'ghost hunters' turn up and the sillier aspects of Poltergeist are evoked. But in a pastiche overload we get them all - we've already had The Haunting, The Omen, The Exorcist and Poltergeist, now we have Sam Raimi in all his obviousness, John Landis, Argento and even Jeepers Creepers?!
By the end of this mess I half expected the marshmallow man from Ghostbusters to appear!
Coming to Insidious, I didn't expect much really and so I was pleasantly surprised by the first 20 minutes or so of expertly wound tension. It's just a shame the elastic snapped so early. Still, If you thought Drag Me to Hell was the scariest film you've ever seen then you might enjoy this a lot. Long before the end I was feeling a tad deflated and was pining for the chills of Hill House.