Downrange (2017)

Ryûhei Kitamura has had a pretty interesting and varied career. After directing his first films more than 20 years ago, the Japanese filmmaker really broke through with 2000’s action horror crossover Versus.  A few years and a few movies later (2004’s Godzilla: Final Wars among them), he headed stateside. Alas, despite the kinetic energy and gleefully excessive bloodshed of 2008’s Clive Barker adaptation Midnight Meat Train and 2012 WWE production No One Lives, both films wound up box office bombs. As such, it’s no great surprise to see that Kitamura’s latest US production Downrange was clearly made on a much lower budget. Of course, a cut price approach needn’t be too great an impediment so long as the key elements are covered: a strong script, and compelling actors to bring it to life. Alas, these are areas in which Downrange is somewhat lacking, and they rather keep the film from ever really taking off, despite a promising central idea and the odd stylistic flourish recalling the director’s earlier work.

We open on a scene that could have come directly from any horror movie since The Hills Have Eyes: a family-sized vehicle on a deserted stretch of country road suddenly gets a flat. The driver and five passengers climb out and set about changing the tyre, and as they talk among themselves we learn that very few of them know one another; they’re carpooling as they head off to their respective destinations miles away. Despite being virtual strangers, they’re all almost painfully nice to one another, very concerned about getting everyone where they need to be on time. As the men change the tyre, the women wander around trying to get signals on their phones – and, surprise surprise, they struggle to do so. Playing out more or less in real time, it’s a slow, uneventful opening, presumably designed to lull us into a false sense of security – but given we all know we’re sitting down for a horror movie, it’s more likely to leave viewers a trifle impatient. Still, while it may take the best part of 15 minutes for the shit to hit the fan, once it does it’s certainly messy: within moments of digging a bullet out of the burst tyre, more bullets burst open some members of our party. Darting to shelter on the opposite side of the car, the survivors realise to their terror that a sniper is hiding in the trees across the road, and they are trapped in the harsh sun without much food or water, and even less chance of escape.

So, as you may have ascertained, Downrange is a throwback to those single location survivalist films which were all the range back around 2010: 127 Hours, Buried, Adam Green’s Frozen and the like (last year’s shark movie The Shallows felt like a bit of a throwback to that format). Any time such a film arrives, the same question immediately arises: how are they going to maintain tension and interest for the full length of a feature? Unfortunately, in a great many instances the answer is, they can’t, and Downrange is no exception, for the classic reason of there being no characters worth caring about. This is the first feature for a good few of the unknown cast, and it shows; and although there are a fair few more credits on the CV of default lead Stephanie Pearson (here playing an ‘army brat’ who knows a lot about shooting, and as such becomes chief provider of plans and exposition), she lacks the gravitas to carry it off. Of course, a lot of the blame also has to fall on the shoulders of Joey O’Bryan’s script; while it’s commendable that he and Kitamura didn’t want to pile on extraneous character detail, and it’s certainly refreshing to see a total absence of the stock slasher characterisations (no jock, slut, stoner or nerd here), they haven’t given us a great deal to connect with in the meantime.

Tone is another key problem. Kitamura’s known for his Raimi-esque energetic camerawork and self-consciously over the top gore, and while Downrange does veer in this direction during the more heightened moments, in the long lulls between it takes a far more grounded and sober approach. Again, this may have been an attempt to break with convention, keep us on our toes and take us by surprise now and then, but if so it’s not a great success. While, as established, the quiet stretches often get deathly dull, the more OTT moments stick out like a sore thumb and just feel absurd. The odd splash of black humour may raise a smile here and there, but such moments jar given it’s all played so straight elsewhere; and while it does boast stunt work that goes far beyond what you’d typically expect from an ultra-low budget movie, the lack of budget would appear to have hurt the make-up FX, with some pretty unconvincing fake blood and injury detail rather undermining attempts at harsh realism.

Were it an early feature from an up-and-comer, this might feel like a decent calling card from a director with great potential, but as the latest from a long-established filmmaker with experience working at a higher budgetary level, Downrange is a pretty big disappointment. I certainly hope this doesn’t mean we’ll never get to see Kitamura tackle anything bigger than this again, as we’ve seen before that he is capable of more.

Downrange premiered earlier this week at the Toronto International Film Festival; our thanks to the festival staff for letting us get an early look at the film.  

Official poster released for Abertoir Horror Festival 2017

Festival passes are now on sale for Abertoir, the annual horror festival based in the Aberystwyth Arts Centre in Wales every November – and, in a festival tradition, the team have now released this year’s official poster from artist Pete Stevenson. If you hadn’t known that this year’s festival has a bit of giallo theme, this might be apparent from a quick look at the eye-catching artwork – and if you know your Italian genre fare, you’re likely to pick up on some of the films set to screen at this year’s event.

As we reported a while back, the Italian angle of this year’s Abertoir goes right down to the dual guests of honour, famed directors Sergio Martino and Lamberto Bava. Martino’s Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have The Key (a loose adaptation of Poe’s The Black Cat, which may account for at least some of the kitties in the artwork above) opens the festival on Tuesday 14th November – and from the picture, we get the sneaky suspicion that at least one film of Bava’s will also be shown…

While the full festival programme has not yet been revealed, Abertoir have announced what will be shown in their short films showcase. Scroll down for the details on that direct from the Abertoir site – and to book a festival pass, call 01970 623232 or, if you’re local, visit the box office at the Aberystwyth Arts Centre.

As part of Abertor’s role in the European Fantastic Film Festivals Federation, our short films competition will award a Short Film Méliès d’Argent. This is an internationally recognised prize specific to the European Federation and is a testimony to the talented filmmakers in Europe. The winner of our Short Film Méliès d’Argent will go forward to the final lineup at one of the major European festivals for the prestigious Méliès d’Or Award for the Best European Fantastic Short Film. All our European short films are eligible.

A Father’s Day (Mat Johns, UK 2016, 10 mins)

Unexpectedly reunited with his daughter amongst the ruins of the world as they knew it, a father is determined to make this day special, even if they are already dead.

Devil Town (Nick Barrett, UK 2016, 15 mins)

Patrick Creedle, one of London’s rudest letting agents, is told it’s the end of the world by a homeless street-preacher; Patrick is sceptical of course – but today he’s about to be shown the proof.

Event Horizon (Joséfa Celestin, France/Scotland 2017, 11 mins)

Summer 1997, in a small village of Scotland where nothing ever happens and the days all resemble themselves, a strange cosmic event comes to disrupt Julianne’s boring everyday life.

Flow (Shelagh Rowan-Legg, UK 2017, 6 mins)

On the battlefield, blood will flow….

Holy F__k (Chris Chalklen, UK 2017, 9 mins)

A darkly erotic and comedic short film about a demon and an exorcist’s deadly sexual tangle towards release.

L’ora del buio (Domenico de Feudis, Italy 2017, 11 mins)

A little girl is captive to a mysterious abductor. There is only one way to save herself: call for help.

Mab (Katie Bonham, UK 2017, 15 mins)

A magical realism short that uncovers the sacrifices people make to take control of their lives and the evil that lurks in the darkness of desperation.

Roake (Joan Cobos, UK/Spain 2017, 11 mins)

Roake is a prolific yet abrasive photographer. One picture by him will catapult you to the top of the ‘A’ list, but at a terrible cost.

Twinky Doo’s Magic World (Alessandro Izzo, Italy 2017, 11 mins)

Four robbers take refuge in a warehouse, after a heist gone bad at Twinky Doo’s Magic World, a theme park for families. The police have surrounded the place, but the real threat is not outside.

We Summoned a Demon (Chris McInroy, USA 2017, 6 mins)

They just wanted to be cool but instead they got a demon.

A mother! of a debate, with Keri and Ben

Warped Perspective editors Keri O’Shea and Ben Bussey both went out to see Darren Aronofsky’s mother! in recent days, and given it’s a film custom designed to prompt debate they decided to chat it out – and, by contrast with many earlier discussion pieces of this nature, the two come to it from opposite points of view.

Be warned that this piece discusses mother! at length with heavy spoilers throughout. If you want a spoiler-free take on the film, see Ben’s review. Otherwise, read on…

Keri: So, we both went to see the incomprehensibly-lower case mother! this weekend (though I can accept the exclamation mark), and it seems to be a rare case when we are on opposite ends of the spectrum in our feelings about it.

Ben: Guess so; I quite liked it, and I gather you really didn’t.

Keri: My first impressions, on looking around at reviews, people opining on Twitter etc. was that I was alone in my antipathy; further investigation seems to show that it’s a love or hate thing. There are, actually, a lot of people who felt like me. So I guess we represent both of those takes.

Ben: I suppose so, yeah. And it’s clear that is a film that’s going out of its way to polarise opinion.

Keri: I think I read Aronofsky stating that anyone who doesn’t feel some sort of emotional response at the end is lacking in feeling, or words to that extent. I did have an emotional response to mother! It’s just that by the end credits, that response was irritation.

Ben: That may be a slightly crass thing for a director to say; it’s not up to them how an audience reacts to their work. But I guess being profoundly pissed off is still an emotional response.

Keri: To be balanced here – I’m happy to talk about the film’s strengths. I acknowledge there are lots of them; Ed Harris and Michelle Pfieffer were great, Pfieffer especially; the film sounded good; it was ambitious.

Ben: Yes, I don’t think I gave enough credit to either of them in my review, they were both excellent.

Keri: And I think I was more or less on board during the ‘first act’, to be fair. As a completely new kind of home invasion movie, I could appreciate the powerlessness of the female lead with all these incredibly oddball, entitled dickheads roaming her beloved home.

Ben: Yes, it feels like the ultimate home invasion movie at first – attack of the seemingly innocuous friends and relations who rapidly come to outnumber you. I know I’ve hosted gatherings at which we, the homeowners, wound up feeling practically kicked out of our own home.

Keri: Yeah. I’ve had houseguests who texted their food demands ahead of arriving, but perhaps that’s not for here… Point is, many people would have been drawn into that domestic aspect of mother!

Ben: Which, I guess, is why the film starts out on that note, with material more people can relate to.

Keri: Which brings me to a question: did you immediately identify the religious allegory aspect which many people are glibly announcing was ‘totally obvious’? I have to say, it wasn’t what I first took from the film at all.

Ben: This would be the whole thing about how Jennifer Lawrence is Mother Earth, Javier Bardem is God, Ed Harris and Michelle Pfieffer are Adam and Eve, his writing room is the forbidden tree of knowledge and smashing the crystal is original sin. No, I didn’t pick up on that at first, but once the sons arrived and did their Cain and Abel routine I started to make that connection. Calling it obvious would be an overstatement; as with most things that are allegorical, a slew of possible readings present themselves.

Keri: I saw it all as a comment on the creative process – with her as a muse/embodiment of the creative ability, him as a creative type who just can’t keep himself away from the darker side of adulation – as embodied first by the invasive guests, and then later with the mob rule of the second act. So the pregnancy/baby motif is the culmination of the process, but it’s dragged apart by unthinking, base fans, so that he has to sacrifice one idea to begin on another. That’s how it grabbed me, anyway. All of this stuff about religion – it seems Aronofsky said something about ‘scripture’ when he introduced the first showing of the film. Which no doubt helped people to see it as ‘obvious’.

Ben: Yeah, that was very much how I took at it first, a comment on the destructive nature of the cult of celebrity. That’s clearly the most readily apparent meaning in the first half at least, as it’s made clear that Ed & Michelle are ‘fans.’ For myself, I think the religious connection may have initially come to mind as it’s something that has come up in Aronofsky’s other films, particularly the Kabbalah stuff in Pi. Plus of course he made a Biblical epic, Noah, although that’s the only one of his I haven’t seen – have you? Or, I dunno, it may be the old Joseph Campbell stuff coming back to me. Any time a story is presented in this kind of slightly abstract, clearly not-quite-real way, I’m instinctively looking out for the monomyth.

Keri: No I haven’t [seen Noah]. And I really can’t comment on Kabbalah; I’m not knowledgeable enough.

Ben: Neither am I, most of what I’ve garnered about it came from Pi. And, y’know, Madonna.

Keri: However, the whole real-not-real thing really alienates me as a viewer. This is one of the reasons I’m not a fan of allegorical cinema. Events are either unbelievable in order to accommodate the allegorical aspects, or else the allegorical aspects are rather tenuous because the story is still the most important thing. The second act in mother! – I mean, the whole realism of the first half got kicked into the weeds in favour of infanticide and people getting blown up. I also feel rather that saying “oh, it’s an allegory” is a get out of jail free card for some. How did you respond to Part 2: They’re Even Taking the Sinks?

Ben: I think from about the time when the wake turned into a raucous piss-up, I struggled to envisage where things were going, and I found that I rather enjoyed that. I also felt, from about that point on, it became more of a black comedy. It all becomes literally absurd, and I quite liked that. With the whole religious fanaticism angle, which I think becomes pretty clear by the final scenes, I found myself reminded of Life of Brian: the obsessive, utterly irrational behavior of the fanatics. But unlike Brian, smiling Javier seems to love it. Yet it’s disturbing at the same time; mother Jennifer being caught in an angry mob definitely ticked some of my boxes, as I have a real problem with crowds.

Keri: Yeah, sure, affixing loads of images of Bardem’s character, them getting anointed, and so on. I confess that I went from sympathy with the female lead – despite in my humble opinion the fact that the best-paid actress of our generation has two facial expressions, ‘bland benignity’ and ‘screaming’ – to muttering inwardly ‘just pack a bag and fuck off,’ and from there, ‘oh, it’s not real, is it? It’s not bloody real. Oh, I don’t care any more.’ Not sure about the humour aspect, again because I think I’d disengaged somewhat by then. Not liking the character who has a camera up her nose for most of the film will do that to you…

Ben: Yeah, I can appreciate that would be a huge problem; if you can’t empathise with the lead at all, virtually 2 hours of her in extreme close up isn’t going to be enjoyable. For myself, I’ve never really had strong feelings either way when it comes to Jennifer Lawrence. But I liked her performance. I could relate to her eagerness to please, her difficulty at speaking up. That said, I agree, I did wonder at various points why she didn’t just get the hell out of the house. But I suppose that’s part of the trickery, much as how when you first watch The Sixth Sense it doesn’t really register that Bruce Willis isn’t talking to anyone but the kid. So other than Jennifer Lawrence, was the main problem for you the contrast between, as you mention, the comparative naturalism of the first half by contrast with the theatrical abandon of the finale? Do you think it would have worked better had it been more clear that it was not the real world from the very beginning?

Keri: Possibly. As I say, the first half I think worked well; the allegorical elements (assuming it *was* to do with fame and creativity, not Mother Nature and God and such) could have come to the fore more organically, had this tone and pace continued. Coming back to Aronofsky, he’s also said something along the lines of ‘people might not get this film, but then people moan about boring cinema, so what do you want?’ and again, as much as I can see that he’s protective over his work and its reception, I think he has a bit of a nerve. Black Swan covered a lot of the same ground, far more effectively in my opinion. I feel that mother! was a cut-and-shut, two different films which didn’t come together, and the final act was unnecessarily disjointed and OTT, which unpicked all of the things which had come before. You can want innovative cinema without accepting anything weird which then comes along.

Ben: I see where you’re coming from, and under different circumstances I’ve no doubt I’d agree. The early scenes do feel like an entirely different film from the one we’re left with, even with the finale bringing things full circle perhaps a little too neatly. But in this instance, for whatever reason it worked for me. I enjoyed its weirdness. Still, it’s not like I’d make any claims for it being a masterpiece; I agree that Black Swan is the better film. In a weird way I’m almost more reminded of Tusk; I admire it for its audacity more than anything else, even if not everything entirely works. End of the day, I liked it, though I doubt I’ll have any great desire to see it again.

Keri: Well, it’s certainly a film which invites analysis – rather as we’ve been doing. In fact, it seems to ask for analysis before anything else. Clearly it’s dividing audiences, so if it does nothing else, then it’s certainly generating strong responses from people like us.

mother! (2017)

If you’ll pardon me starting off in didactic mode, there is a clear distinction between a film review and film analysis. A review, as I understand it (and I should bloody well hope I do, given I’ve written hundreds of the things over the past eight years or so), should give a reasonably succinct overview of the work, establishing a general sense of its tone and content and at least a little insight into its themes, but leaving enough unspoken so that the reader may still find plenty of surprises to enjoy when they sit down to watch it for themselves. Film analysis, by contrast, pretty much hinges on divulging all the secrets, going over all the key plot points, breaking down any apparent symbolism, and presenting a well thought-out hypothesis on exactly what the film is saying based on all of this. Given that I chose to start out on this note, you may have already surmised that mother! is a film that is absolutely screaming to be analysed. There are so many questions to be asked, so many possible conclusions to be drawn – and almost none of this can be done without giving away more or less everything. It isn’t so much that writer-director Darren Aronofsky’s latest defies simple explanation, rather that to explain it simply would be to ruin things for the uninitiated; and even if I were to present such an explanation, there’s not a doubt in my mind that most if not all viewers will come out with an altogether different interpretation than myself.

Yes, it’s fair to say that mother! is challenging viewing, almost certain to intrigue, bamboozle, frustrate, overwhelm, and quite likely appal. However, there can of course be great reward in all that.

Jennifer Lawrence is the unnamed wife of Javier Bardem’s unnamed older man, a poet struggling to produce his latest work. The two live alone, childless and neighbourless, in his childhood home, a remote, idyllic country house in the middle of a forest; and while he has sought inspiration to no avail, she has rebuilt the house from the ground up, following a fire sometime in the past. It may be a quiet, even lonely life, but she seems content just to be with her husband; but then the equilibrium is broken with the unexpected arrival of a stranger (Ed Harris). The husband warms to this enigmatic visitor, even inviting him to stay in their home; the wife, though clearly taken aback, does not object. The next thing she knows, the stranger’s wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) has shown up, and is also accepted into the house without question. While the wife is clearly unhappy, the husband enjoys having the guests around, feeling that it may give him the inspiration he has been in need of. She begrudgingly accepts this, because she loves him – and really, who can blame her, Javier Bardem is pretty damn lovable. But of course, yet more strangers arrive soon enough, and tensions soon reach boiling point. Still, this surge of activity in their usually quiet space does seem to have the desired effect for her husband’s creativity – but these new creative acts lead to developments which make what came before look like a walk in the proverbial park.

This is the seventh feature Aronofsky has directed in his to-date nineteen year career, and it’s little surprise that it’s a bizarre head-fucker of a movie given that bizarre head-fuckery has largely been his stock-in-trade, ever since the writer-director announced himself with 1998’s low budget math/Kabbalah/paranoia-driven psychological thriller Pi; the fact that someone as averse to mathematics as myself was captivated speaks volumes. His second, 2000’s Requiem for a Dream, ranks among the most unsettling cinematic experiences of my life, to such an extent that I’ve never seen it a second time. 2006’s The Fountain was an epic head-scratcher, hopping timelines, interlacing the scientific and the spiritual and alienating all the regular folk who just came to see Wolverine. And even 2008’s The Wrestler, ostensibly his most grounded and accessible work, challenged viewers with a conclusion that left much unanswered, whilst ultimately telling us all we needed to know.

Of course, the key Aronofsky film that mother! invites comparison with is 2010’s Black Swan. Much like that surreal ballet psychodrama which landed Natalie Portman a well-deserved Oscar, mother! plays out almost exclusively from the perspective of its young female lead, presents a world which initially seems more or less in line with our own, then bit by bit pulls the rug out from under us with increasingly surreal, nightmarish elements that throw everything we’re seeing into question. However, where Black Swan’s dark and weird goings-on were primarily a reflection of the protagonist’s deteriorating mental state, the weirdness of mother! is not quite so easy to wrap up as all that – but in both instances, it serves to say something about how the world treats women, and how women may react to the pressures put upon them.

(Brief interlude: Aronofsky completists will note that I haven’t said anything about his sixth film, Noah… because I haven’t seen it. Sorry. As you were.)

Now, if you’re thinking to yourself, “what the hell, Ben? You’ve spent the last two paragraphs rabbiting on about Aronofky’s old films just to avoid telling us anything about the new one”… well, then, you’re pretty much correct there. I’m reluctant to go into much more detail on mother! for fear of giving too much away. I’m also aware that it can be a bit reductive to discuss a filmmaker’s latest work purely with regard to how it relates to their existing filmography. That having been said… if you take the feminist leanings of Black Swan, the overwhelming intensity and bleakness of Requiem for a Dream, and the religious overtones of more-or-less everything Aronofsky’s ever done, you may get some sense of what mother! is all about. You might also want to slap a massive dollop of jet-black humour on top as well.

Plus we can hardly fail to note that the focal point of mother! for just about the entirety of its two hour running time is Jennifer Lawrence, and as such, one’s enjoyment of mother! may hinge on how they feel about the actress. It bears mentioning, though, that the film does in some respects play on Lawrence’s public persona, with many moments that feel like a sly commentary on her outspoken feminism and the fall-out from her photo hack scandal. Above and beyond all this, though, it’s almost impossible not to read her treatment in mother! as a lament on the treatment of woman overall: she is depended on, expected to behave in particular ways and perform particular tasks (one of which may be self-evident from the title); she is lusted after and propositioned, despised and reviled, taken advantage of and abused, and all the while her own feelings are never taken into consideration. Lawrence has a lot to convey, typically with the camera very close to her face (in a recent interview Aronofsky estimated half the film is in close-up on her), and with fairly minimal dialogue along the way. All things considered it’s tremendous work, and a whole different flavour of descent into madness than Portman’s turn in Black Swan.

Obviously not everyone who sees mother! is going to like it, but it’s even more obvious that this is entirely intentional. It’s surprising and encouraging to see a major studio like Paramount backing something as patently non-mainstream friendly as this and putting serious marketing money behind it, and this combined with the star power of Lawrence and the also-brilliant Bardem pretty much guarantees that mother! will be seen and discussed by people who would generally never go see something as utterly unhinged as this. Still, even those with a vested interest in unconventional cinema are likely to find mother! a most agreeably strange, thought-provoking and often deeply uncomfortable viewing experience.

mother! is in cinemas now.

The Howling (1981)

As every horror fan under the sun (or silvery moon) will bore you to death explaining if you let them, the 1980s were the greatest decade for practical creature FX work in the movies; indeed, it was the era in which the term ‘special make-up effects’ really entered the vernacular. Small wonder, then, that the decade also saw a boom in werewolf movies. We tend not to see werewolves as the central monster quite so often as vampires or zombies, and the most likely reason for this is that they’re a lot harder to get right; so often they just wind up looking like vintage Toho man-in-suit monsters, as opposed to the truly terrifying beasts the filmmakers would doubtless prefer. But with the technical advances of the 80s, genuinely lifelike and scary wolfmen suddenly seemed in reach – and, notoriously, a whole bunch of filmmakers got that same idea at the same time, as 1981 kick-started a new wave of werewolf horror with the release of three key films: John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London, Michael Wadleigh’s Wolfen – and, of course, the film we’re here to talk about, Joe Dante’s The Howling, getting a brand spanking new home entertainment release from Studiocanal just in time for Halloween. While I should expect the bulk of us will agree that Landis’ film had the greatest impact, it was Dante’s which spawned a lengthy, albeit tenuously-linked franchise, as well as launching its director into the big leagues. So, how does it hold up 36 years later?

Dee Wallace (pre-ET) is TV news anchorwoman Tits McGee – sorry, Karen White – and, seemingly willing to go to any lengths for a good story, she has agreed to a meeting with serial killer Eddie Quist (Dante regular Robert Picardo). While she’s supposed to be under surveillance from both her team and the police the whole time, things naturally go wrong, and Karen finds herself trapped in a backroom booth of a porn store with a murderer who, to her understandable shock, seems to be quite literally inhuman. Saved at the last second by a trigger-happy cop, Karen is naturally traumatised by the events and unable to return to work. However, her station is very friendly with Dr George Waggner (The Avengers legend Patrick Macnee, playing a character so named for the director of 1941’s The Wolf Man), an influential psychiatrist and author who promotes a philosophy of embracing our inner animal nature. He invites Karen, along with her husband Bill (Christopher Stone), to his country retreat populated by those who subscribe to his unleash-the-beast philosophy. Sounds like a cult, right? But, given all this preceding talk about werewolves, we all know there’s a whole lot more to it than that.

In the context of Dante’s broader filmography, The Howling does seem something of an anomaly given that, for the most part, it’s outwardly played straight. The script from John Sayles and Terence Winkless – by all accounts an extremely loose adaptation of Gary Brandner’s novel, on which the film is officially based – seems to be aiming quite high for much of the time, taking stabs at the post-hippy trend for gurus, alternative therapy and pop occultism. Efforts are also made toward a realistic portrayal of a marriage in breakdown, via Karen and Bill’s strained relationship. However, it seems clear that the director is far less interested in the psychodrama and any pretence of social commentary than he is in making a simple, fun B-movie; which, as we know, has always been Dante’s strength. While the anarchic humour that typically permeates his work is more understated here, it’s far from absent, and plenty of Dante’s key motifs pop up: scenes from vintage monster movies (in this case The Wolf Man, of course) on TV; a supporting role for Dick Miller, plus a small role for aged horror icon John Carradine and Hitchcock-ish cameos for Roger Corman and Forry Ackerman (holding a pile of Famous Monster mags, no less). Better to focus on this and have fun than get too worried about a script which tends to get a little bogged down with dull subplots, the worst offender being the investigation thread back in the city, with Dennis Dugan and Belinda Balaski’s characters.

Given that The Howling largely hinges on the notion of the beast as the embodiment of our underlying carnal nature, it would be easy to class it is a conservative-leaning film, which literally demonises those that break the sanctity of marriage; but watching the film, there’s really no question which group the director really sympathises with. Look no further than the femme fatale role, brought so brilliantly to life by the late Elisabeth Brooks, one of The Howling’s greatest strengths. Oozing dark humour as much as sex appeal, the sadly short-lived actress will always be remembered for this role, and in particular for what has to be one of the most memorable sex scenes in horror.

As for the werewolves themselves… well, it was of course inevitable that any other representation of the beast arriving in the same year as An American Werewolf in London was going to look pretty weak by comparison. Sure, the metamorphosis sex scene is striking, but more on account of its audacity than anything else, with Rob Bottin’s transformation FX paling in comparison to those of his mentor Rick Baker on John Landis’ film. But even if we try to put those comparisons to one side, there’s no denying that the fully transformed werewolves look a little awkward, as do some of the brief uses of animation (both traditional 2D and stop-motion). Even so, a little goofiness is more often than not part of the fun with any good monster movie; let’s face it, Jack Pierce’s Wolf Man make-up for Lon Chaney Jr always looked pretty ridiculous, didn’t it? In any case, there are still some genuinely quite sinister moments – notably the opening and closing sequences – which rank among the scariest scenes Dante has ever put to film.

Indeed, when you look back over Joe Dante CV and see just how few bona fide scary movies he’s made, his enduring status as a horror master may seem curious. As such, The Howling is perhaps the key film in earning him that title, and – even if it’s not as good as American Werewolf in London – it surely warrants a spot on the top 10 werewolf films of all time. This is the film’s real legacy, and certainly not the largely subpar string of increasingly far-removed sequels that came after without Dante’s involvement.

This fine-looking edition will be welcome on the shelf of any horror fan, and boasts extras from an existing Scream Factory edition: interviews with series producer Steven A Lane, editor Mark Goldblatt, co-writer Terence Winkless and stop-motion animator David Allen, plus a look at the film’s locations.

The Howling is released to Blu-ray, DVD and digital download on 9th October, from Studiocanal.

Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1959)

We sometimes like to think that overblown, overpriced high-concept blockbusters with tacked-on love stories, two-dimensional bad guys and awkwardly inserted comic relief are an entirely modern phenomenon. Not so much, as this 1959 take on Jules Verne’s classic science fiction adventure stands to demonstrate. Decades before the Pirates of the Caribbean set sail, the Transformers, er, transformed, or indeed Brendan Fraser went on his own Verne-inspired hollow earth expedition, James Mason and Pat Boone portrayed a geology professor and his most overzealous student, whose chance discovery of a rock that should not be sets them off on a voyage of discovery which leads… well, the clue’s in the title. Of course, given Verne’s novel centres almost exclusively on three men and their journey, this lavish 20th Century Fox production from director Henry Levin adds a boatload of subplot and new characters including some love interest, a hissable villain, and… a duck. The results are, naturally, dated as all hell, but in many respects a good precursor for the demographic-fixated populist spectaculars that routinely fill up the multiplexes. (And I might note that I say all this as someone who routinely enjoys such films; hell, I seem to be among the few to have quite liked this year’s The Mummy.)

So, it’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth, and as such we all know James Mason will be embarking on said journey, and that’s certainly enough to warrant audience interest. Unfortunately, we’re the better part of an hour in before the journey really gets underway, and in the meantime things are stretched out with a lot of inconsequential waffle that takes no time to get tedious. As the student Alec McEwan, Pat Boone – whose attempt at a Scottish accent makes Richard Attenborough in Jurassic Park look like Rab C Nesbitt – sings a few songs, as that’s what he was famous for at the time, and in that oh-so-chaste old Hollywood manner woos Miss Jenny (Diane Baker), niece of his esteemed teacher Professor Lindenbrook (Mason, who unsurprisingly makes for a more credible Scotsman, although I’m one of those who can never hear his voice without thinking of Eddie Izzard). After Alec’s chance gift to his teacher of an unusual-looking rock from an old curiosity shop turns out to be the most unique geological find of the century (admittedly, I don’t recall how they made the discovery in Verne’s novel, but was that really the best they could come up with?!), a race to be the first to the earth’s core begins, and so the film embellishes Verne further with rival scientists trying to capitalise on Lindenbrook’s discovery, resulting in a murder plot that eventually saddles Lindenbrook and Alec with a third party, Arlene Dahl’s widow Carla Göteborg. From that point she and Lindenbrook have a proto-Moonlighting antagonistic relationship which soon gives way to romantic tension – alarmingly quickly, really, considering the woman’s husband hasn’t even been buried yet.

Oh, and then there’s the duck. Really, I’m struggling to remember what the hell the duck was doing there, although the simple answer, as Kim Newman suggests in his appreciation in the extras, is that Disney’s earlier Verne adaptation 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea teamed up Kirk Douglas with a cute seal, so Fox, looking to replicate that success, wanted Mason’s team to have a cute animal sidekick too.

I realise I’m being a bit mean about Journey to the Centre of the Earth, but it’s not as if the film doesn’t have its strengths; it’s just that, to my mind, they’re by far outweighed by the weaknesses. Still, we do have some nice underground adventure sequences, including a scene with a rolling boulder which we can safely assume inspired Lucas and Spielberg on Raiders of the Lost Ark; and, as is most fondly remembered, we have iguanas with fins strapped on their backs standing in for dinosaurs. There’s no denying such moments have a goofy charm, even if they’re nowhere near as cool as Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion creations which elevated similar films to a higher level, and might have been advantageous here; as Newman also notes, the film actually omits some of the monster action from Verne’s novel, so it’s hard not to feel a bit short-changed on that front.

As you’ve no doubt surmised by now, Journey to the Centre of the Earth is a big thumbs down for me, and it gives me no pleasure to say this given how much I usually enjoy old-fashioned adventure yarns. It has moments, but at 2 hours 10 minutes it’s just too long and too padded out with gratuitous fluff for my liking. Still, if you’re not such a sourpuss and do have a liking for this movie, you’ll definitely want Eureka’s Blu-ray in your collection, as it looks and sounds terrific.

Journey to the Centre of the Earth is out on dual format DVD and Blu-ray on 18th September, from Eureka.

Talking ‘IT’ over with Keri and Ben

With the big screen adaptation of IT in cinemas now, and well on its way to becoming one of the most commercially successful horror movies of all time (not to mention a very good horror movie in its own right – read Keri’s review here), Warped Perspective editors Keri O’Shea and Ben Bussey sit down to discuss the impact of the film, and that of its iconic creator, Stephen King…

Ben: So, to paraphrase In The Mouth of Madness (or rather, say what they meant to say anyway) – do you read Stephen King?

Keri: I certainly haven’t read IT. I have seen far more adaptations than I’ve read; the last King I read was Dolores Claiborne about 12 years ago. You? Are you familiar with the novel behind IT?

Ben: I’m actually just tackling it now for the first time. I’m a bit of a weedy reader, and excessively long books tend to put me off – hence I’ve never read The Stand all the way to the end (once got about 350 pages in, then put it down for a few days and just struggled to get back into it). But yes, I’ve read a small portion of his extensive library: Christine, Carrie, Salem’s Lot, The Shining, Pet Sematary, Night Shift, Gerald’s Game, a few others. But I certainly wouldn’t consider myself a King scholar, there are loads I’ve yet to pick up. And like yourself, I’m ultimately more familiar with the screen adaptations; read a few articles recently ranking the King-based movies and TV shows, and calculated I’d seen about 27 of the 70-something in existence.

Keri: As I said in my review, it says a great deal that so many King books have made it that far. Why do you think that is, when, say, Richard Laymon, James Herbert, Shaun Hutson et al are rarely considered?

Ben: It is fascinating how quickly he was swept to Hollywood’s bosom. Carrie was published in 1974, Brian De Palma’s movie came out two years later, and in no time at all you had every director worth their salt adapting King: Hooper doing Salem’s Lot, Kubrick’s The Shining, Cronenberg’s Dead Zone, Carpenter’s Christine. A lot of it, I’m sure, was purely business: they knew his name alone sold. But at the same time, I guess his writing tapped into something, particularly in the American consciousness, that these filmmakers connected to. No other horror writer could capture the zeitgeist the same way, no matter how they might have tried.

Keri: I guess that brings us neatly to IT, then. What is so particular about IT that has seen it re-emerge now? Something about American childhood – hence bringing it up to date so many viewers are looking at a film where they recognise their own childhoods?

Ben: Indeed. It’s fascinating that the film adaptation of a 31 year old book, which was already adapted to TV fairly successfully 27 years ago, could capture the public imagination in a way no new horror movie has in I don’t know how long. The decision to update the kids’ scenes to the 80s is a curious one. Like you say, it would seem to be about presenting a world today’s 30-40 year olds can identify as the one they grew up in. That said, I didn’t feel they weighed it down too heavily with period-specific references, New Kids on the Block jokes notwithstanding.

Keri: It got under my skin to a certain extent as I recognised little things like the clothes kids were wearing, though I think it would have worked as well had they left the time period alone. So much of the film is about those universal fears of childhood which come to us via storybooks and urban myths. These change a little but not very rapidly – remember the clown craze last year?

Ben: I certainly do; there was a sighting near my kids’ school, which was enough to bring local TV news down! Nice to see that this has since given way to people tying up red balloons over sewer grates. I agree though, the whole point is that the terrors of childhood are timeless; they take different shapes, but it all comes down to the same thing.

Keri: You have to wonder which came first – did Pennywise filter into people’s consciousness or was he created out of the same fear! People loathe clowns it seems, even if they’ve never seen one! So, how effective do you think the new version of IT was at creating that terror? Were there any particular scenes which you thought nailed it?

Ben: Well, it wouldn’t be too hard to accuse it of being a bit over-reliant on jump-scares, but in this context I thought those moments worked really well; It is trying to elicit a response of outright terror, so naturally he’d behave that way. The slide projector scene was pretty damn freaky, if more than a little Ring-esque (of course, having not read the book I don’t know if that scene existed beforehand), and for some reason the moment when Beverley sees him dancing in the machine weirded me out a bit. I’ll have to be predictable and say that I wish they hadn’t relied so much on CG, though; I have to wonder if the leper and the woman from the painting would have been more effective as practical creatures. On which note – how do you feel Bill Skarsgård measures up to Tim Curry (the one thing everyone can agree worked in the miniseries)?

Keri: The new IT, whether for creative reasons or time constraints, had a fast pace and moved through its scare scenes in the same way. The projector scene was great (though reminded me of Insidious to an extent) and I think the first scene, with Pennywise peering out of the sewer, landed a hit really well considering it’s probably the best-known scene from the miniseries (and a scene which launched a thousand memes.) As for the CGI, I actually didn’t mind it. As it’s a host of things relative to kids’ terrors, it made sense to me that they looked a bit unreal. They sort of were! Bill Skarsgård did a fine job. The slightly boss-eyed thing was a small touch which worked well. For a lad in his twenties, he does stellar work as a timeless, shapeshifting demon! Though, Tim Curry will always own that role regardless, I’d say. The shock factor of that initial performance changed *everything*.

Ben: Just learned recently that the other two actors in contention for the role in the miniseries were Malcolm McDowell and Roddy McDowall. A couple of fascinating what-ifs! But even beyond It, King does seem to be having a bit of a big screen resurgence, with The Dark Tower coming out last month (which I didn’t see), Mike Flanagan’s Gerald’s Game coming to Netflix soon, and The Stand in development. And it’s almost inconceivable that more new movies, even based on his books that have already been adapted to the screen, won’t follow now. Do you have any particular favourites from the existing Stephen King movies/TV adaptations?

Keri: I liked Salem’s Lot, both film and series; I like The Shining, though I think King himself didn’t? Pet Sematary had a big impact on me as a kid. Some I think have been sadly abysmal (Langoliers!) but it’s interesting to see so many new versions of his work lined up. Oh, and 1408. I loved that. Do you have favourites? Or indeed any ‘dear God no’ adaptations?

Ben: Yeah, The Shining was a big deal to me when I was younger; interesting how it seems to be a more divisive film now, I think primarily because of how far it diverges from the novel. I can understand why King and his more purist fans might not like it, but a film has to stand apart on its own, and I think what Kubrick did with it was iconic. Beyond that, Carrie made an impact on my adolescent self – that tracking shot in the shower alone, obviously – and I’ve always loved Creepshow. And, say what you will, I absolutely adore Maximum Overdrive.

Keri: I’d like to talk about the reception of IT, if I may…

Ben: Certainly. Could this be anything to do with the bizarre spate of comments suggesting it somehow isn’t a horror movie?

Keri: Indeed!

Ben: I mean, WHAT THE FUCK.

Keri: I’ve only seen a little of this – could you elaborate? Even a tentative glance at this stuff is just bizarre…

Ben: Well, I don’t want to name and shame any specific Twitter users, but there’s a whole bunch of people saying things like “actually, it’s more of a psychological thriller, just like the book was,” and declaring that it’s “reductive” to call it a horror movie. Basically it all boils down to the moronic argument that something can’t be horror if it’s anything more than a guy in a mask stabbing cheerleaders. How ANYONE can say a film, or novel, centred on a shape-shifting demon which feeds on the fear and the flesh of children is anything other than horror is completely beyond me.

Keri: Ah, the old ‘I enjoyed it, and I am an intellectually complex being – horror isn’t, so it can’t be horror’ tangle. I’d say it covers pretty much everything I’d expect of a horror film! Newsflash: horror causes psychological thrills. It’s what it does. Whether this be input-output simple scares or deep-rooted anxieties about life. It’s so odd that we live in a world where horror is still something to distance oneself from.

Ben: Absolutely, and I daresay that’s why It has seized the collective consciousness in such a way: King seemed to be going out of his way to tell the quintessential horror story, with the quintessential monster; the embodiment of fear itself. And he may have succeeded. And as regards the real-life resonances of horror – history, I’ve no doubt, will find it notable that It conquered the box office the same weekend that Hurricane Irma hit. (Side note: did you know The Monster Mash was the US number one during the Cuban Missile Crisis?)

Keri: I didn’t know that, and I suspect we could look further into this and find many other examples of horror being made more and doing better in times of real-life problems… Certainly it’s no great surprise to see a horror riffing on the generation gap, powerlessness, surveillance and fear in the current climate.

Ben: There’s always arguments to be made there, like how the extreme horror wave of the 70s echoed the social upheavals of the time, or how torture porn was born out of 9/11 and the war on terror. But as we’ve also acknowledged, fear itself is timeless, death and pain are always inevitable, and as such there’s never a time that horror isn’t relevant. Cheery.

Keri: So did you feel that the reframing of the film as just the childhood sequences worked? And what do you hope for in Chapter 2?

Ben: Again, my lack of familiarity with the novel probably helps there; been a while since I watched the miniseries, but I seem to remember it being fairly clear-cut between the 50s scenes and the 80s scenes. I do wonder if they might have given some clearer indications as to the otherworldly nature of It, and the whole scenario; did feel a bit of a cop-out to have Beverley tell us that she’d seen a vision of the future, without us actually seeing it for ourselves. But fair play, they went into production on this knowing that the sequel was by no means guaranteed, so maybe they didn’t want to commit to anything they couldn’t deliver on. In the miniseries, I remember finding the adult section a hell of a lot less effective than the kids’ section. So I just hope they cast it right. As some people have noted, it may be strange when the new actors are all 40ish, and they’re still running in terror from 20something Skarsgård. (That said, people 20 years younger than me still freak me out a lot of the time.)

Keri: Well, it will be interesting to see. And the success of the first one means it seems likely to run to a second film…

Ben: Yeah, it’s pretty much a given. Think they announced by Saturday that they were going ahead with It Chapter Two (if that’s the title the end up going with).

Keri: I guess horror fans of our age spend a lot of time chasing the sort of imaginative fears we had as children. So I’m hopeful that the next film can raise something engaging on that theme. All told, although It feels very modern and made for horror fans who expect the jump scares to an extent, I’m pretty gratified to see a supernatural horror (HORROR!) doing so well.

Ben: Absolutely. Hand in hand with the success of Get Out earlier this year, I think It bodes well for the genre; audiences flocking to films which deliver intelligent storytelling, characters and themes, on top of the standard scares. But yes, for the love of all that is holy, call It what it is, and that’s bloody well horror.

Capture Kill Release (2016)

Has any two-word alliterative descriptor inspired so much abject despair in the past two decades as ‘found footage?’ (Don’t answer that, I’m sure there are plenty worse if I put my mind to it.) While the handheld, shakey-cam, first-person perspective mock-real approach has produced a good few gems – say, the REC movies, Cloverfield, Troll Hunter, Chronicle – it may also have resulted in more abysmal, braindead garbage than arguably any horror subgenre before it, and yes, I realise that’s saying a hell of a lot. This being the case, a great many horror fans like myself will approach any new release made in the found footage style with a great deal of trepidation. It is with some relief, then, that Capture Kill Release – a Canadian production from directors Brian Allan Stewart and Nick McAnulty – proves to be a cut above most films made in this manner. It still has a great many of the same problems, with massive lapses in logic, protagonists who aren’t always easy to like, an overabundance of needless filler scenes, and a premise which isn’t necessarily anything too new. However, in this instance the whole endeavour is put together competently enough, with clear skill on both sides of the camera and a good quota of gallows humour, for the end result to stand tall as a bona fide piece of filmmaking, as opposed to many of the barely-thought out pieces of schlock we so often see from found footage. (Sorry, but that distinction really does need to be made.)

Capture Kill Release centres on a young married couple played by Jennifer Fraser and Farhang Ghajar, both of whom use their own first names in the film, and are also credited as screenwriters alongside McAnulty (it seems safe to assume the dialogue is largely improvised). They seem to be a happy, normal, well-adjusted, well to-do couple, settled down comfortably in the suburbs, living the dream. We meet them as Jennifer presses record on her brand new video camera, bought specifically for some personal project the two of them are working on, the nature of which is initially unclear, but from the early scenes you’d assume it’s a simple video diary, perhaps with a little amateur porn thrown in. However, it’s only once they film themselves visiting a local hardware store, loading up on rope, hammers, saws, axes – many of which Jennifer picks up and mimes testing in mid-air – that we realise they are in fact documenting their plan of a perfect murder. Their reasons for doing this are never made entirely clear; while they’d prefer to kill someone who would seem to have it coming, ultimately Jennifer and Farhang just want to do it for the sake of doing it. They know their victim can’t be anyone that could be linked to them, and they know that when it comes down to it, the murder itself will probably be the easiest part, with the real work going into disposing of the corpse afterwards. Ah, the crazy shit young couples will do, eh? Of course, once they reach the point of actually going through with it, their relationship dynamic takes a perhaps inevitable turn for the worse.

The key thing that immediately places Capture Kill Release on a higher level than most found footage horror is the cast. Fraser in particular is either on, or just behind the camera for more or less the duration, and I was genuinely surprised to learn afterwards that this is her very first screen credit, as there are plenty of seasoned microbudget horror actors who could learn a lot from her; nor is Ghajar any slouch. The two of them are entirely convincing as newlyweds on just the wrong side of the honeymoon period, and much of the film’s black comedy value comes from the fact that the seem to be approaching their homicidal enterprise in much the same way that others might treat remodelling the house; witness one moment when, whilst mopping up blood, they ponder whether it’s a good an excuse as any to re-tile the downstairs bathroom. The fact that Capture Kill Release is for the most part a character-based affair, brought to life by skilled actors, with hysterics and shakeycam kept to a minimum – indeed, I don’t recall a single instance of the dreaded “running with the camera” trope (the fact that the main protagonists are also the killers is of course a help there) – makes the bulk of the old found footage complaints easy to overlook.

Even so, complaints can still be made. While it would seem the lack of any real motive for their murderous scheme is entirely the point, it does rather defy logic that the couple choose to record absolutely everything, particularly given that so much of their plan centres on getting rid of the evidence afterwards. There are also a fair few of those inevitable moments when you have to wonder why they would continue recording under the circumstances, and more than a few of those dead air scenes which add nothing beyond some vague sense of verisimilitude; indeed, one such moment sees them even remarking that the boring conversation they’re having won’t wind up in their final movie. Yet there it is; and yes, their plan also included editing the footage down into a feature length film… and quite what they intended to do with that film is another head-scratcher. On top of which, it’s a mite unconvincing that, once the plan starts getting serious, one half of the couple starts to get cold feet, given that in the early scenes both appeared to be entirely on the same page about it all. Common sense also goes out the window somewhat by the final scenes, with a number of developments that strain credibility and a climax that feels a little too easy and unsatisfying.

Even so, Capture Kill Release certainly warrants a mention among the better examples of found footage horror, and indeed microbudget indie horror overall, from recent years. It may not be too hard to poke holes in, but it does venture into interesting areas with a great deal more skill and creativity than other films of this nature; and again, Jennifer Fraser in particular is a remarkable discovery who I hope we’ll see plenty more of in the future.

Capture Kill Release is available on region 2 DVD on 25th September, from Eureka Entertainment.

Abertoir Horror Festival 2017 hosting Italian genre legends

In the wake of FrightFest, the UK horror film festival season really begins in earnest, and at Warped Perspective one of our favourites is Abertoir, the international horror festival of Wales. (Full disclosure for those who don’t already know: our writer Nia Edwards-Behi is the festival’s co-director.) Abertoir is always a celebration of horror cinema new and old, and they’ve always had a particular fondness for the genre output of Italy – so it’s very exciting to see that they will be hosting two bona fide Italian legends as their guests of honour at this year’s event.

As was announced today at the festival’s official website, “it is with great pleasure that we can reveal the festival’s two guests of honour this year – directors Lamberto Bava and Sergio Martino!

“Opening the festival on Tuesday, November 14th is Sergio Martino’s stylish and sensual thriller, Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key.  With its mesmerising visuals and intricate plot, Your Vice is a definitive example of the classic Italian murder mystery, and a prominent entry in the career of our first guest.

“Sergio Martino will join us afterwards for an in-depth discussion about his incredible body of work, particularly his career as the man responsible for some of cinema’s most iconic gialli, including Torso, All the Colours of the Dark and The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh.

“Over the weekend we’ll also be joined by Lamberto Bava, son of the father of the giallo himself, Mario Bava, and filmmaker in his own right. Lamberto will join us in conversation with expert Stephen Thrower to celebrate the genre and the magnificent contribution both Bavas have given to Italian horror cinema – and of course, you’ll be seeing plenty of examples from both!”

Martino and Bava are in good company, as previous guests of honour at Abertoir have included the late Richard Johnson (The Haunting, Zombie Flesh Eaters), composer Fabio Frizzi, Catriona MacColl (The Beyond, City of the Living Dead) and Lynn Lowry (Shivers).

Abertoir 2017 runs from 14th-19th November at the Aberystwyth Arts Centre. Tickets and passes are not yet on sale, but you can keep track of things at the Abertoir site and by following them on Twitter and Facebook.

RIP Tobe Hooper

Not entirely unlike finding yourself bound and gagged at the head of a dinner table with a family of psychopaths leering at you, the news of Tobe Hooper’s death was the last thing any of us wanted to wake up to on this late August Sunday morning.

Born in Austin, Texas on 25th January 1943, the renowned filmmaker reportedly passed away on 26th August 2017 in Sherman Oaks, California at the age of 74, from causes as yet unrevealed. He leaves behind more than 30 films, but his name has always been and will always be synonymous with his second feature, one of those rare films which can truly be said to have changed the course of cinema history: 1974’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

I don’t wish to rehash any of the innumerable treatises that have been penned on the subject, nor am I generally too keen on making sweeping authoritative statements when it comes to the clearly subjective arena of film – and yet, I am happy to say, without hesitation, that I consider The Texas Chain Saw Massacre to be the single greatest horror movie ever made. From beginning to end, its visceral energy and haunting imagery jab the subconscious, churn the stomach, sear themselves into the viewer’s memory in a manner that, for a great many of us, leaves us permanently changed. And I say this as someone who didn’t get to see it until comparatively late in my horror education (age 20, if I remember correctly), as in my home of the United Kingdom, the film was banned by the British Board of Film Classification until the resignation of their notoriously controlling leader James Ferman in 1999. While at the time the BBFC were infamously scissor-happy, cutting out offending content left and right with little concern for the filmmaker’s vision, the story goes that with Chain Saw they realised there was no amount of editing they could do that would lessen the film’s impact. All this despite the fact that the film contains no graphic bloodshed. Put simply, it was banned because it was good filmmaking, and one need only cast a cursory eye over the face of horror in the 43 years since to see how influential it remains.

The remainder of Hooper’s career, alas, was never so great a story. While many of us have a soft spot for his TV movie adaptation of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, sideshow slasher The Funhouse, camp classic Lifeforce and the blackly comedic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, there’s really no denying that his overall body of work never lived up to his beginnings. It didn’t help that his biggest box office hit Poltergeist has always been plagued with controversy over whether or not it was Hooper or writer-producer Steven Spielberg who really directed it. Either way, looking at his later work from the 90s and 2000s, it’s hard not to feel he was simply going through the motions.

For myself and doubtless many others here in the UK, there’s a particular poignancy to the fact that Hooper’s death coincides with FrightFest 2017, exactly seven years after he was guest of honour at the London horror film festival. I was there that year (indeed, Hooper’s presence, plus screenings of TCM and his rarely-seen debut Eggshells, was one of the main things that sold me on the event), and I must admit finding it rather sad seeing Hooper sitting on the stage, not seeming to enjoy the spotlight, frequently struggling to find much to say about his life’s work. It all seemed to underline that, while the director had given us some great work, his overall filmography was not all it could have been.

With Hooper’s passing coming so soon after that of George Romero, another game-changing legend who didn’t necessarily get all he deserved in his career, and almost precisely two years after the death of Wes Craven (who passed away 30th August 2015), there’s no avoiding a sense that a curtain is being drawn over a great era of horror cinema. The filmmakers who gave us Night of the Living Dead, The Last House on the Left and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre – three films which changed the horror genre forever – are now gone. But of course, that’s the wonder of film: those heartfelt, nightmarish visions they left behind will truly never leave us.

Within (2016)

It’s a sadly familiar story for horror fans everywhere: an ostensibly new release pops up on your radar with a generic title and premise, and shortly after picking it up you learn it’s in fact a few years old already and has been sat gathering dust on the distributor’s shelf this whole time, none of which ever bodes well. It’s with an almost total lack of surprise, then, that I found Within (released stateside last year, but shot in 2014) to be one of the blandest, least interesting horror movies I’ve sat down to in 2017. While it may play with expectations in some faintly curious ways, throwing up some big red herrings as to the nature of the central threat, the film from director Phil Claydon and writer Gary Dauberman ultimately fails to do anything genuinely innovative or surprising with their rehashed genre tropes, and only succeeds in being creepy in all the wrong ways.

Like so many horror movies before it and doubtless innumerable more in years to come, Within opens on a family moving into a new home. The family dynamic, in this instance, is a slight break from the norm, as we have fortysomething blue collar dad John (Michael Vartan) settling into the suburbs with his new wife Melanie (Nadine Velazquez), and the daughter of his first marriage, Hannah (Erin Moriarty); the official synopsis describes John as a widower, although I don’t recall any direct reference to the fate of Hannah’s mother. In any case, this happily isn’t one of those moody-teen-versus-evil-stepmother routines; Hannah’s a moody teen, for sure, but it’s a more classically adolescent generalised contempt for everything. The main thorn in her side is being dragged to a new place miles away from her old friends, most importantly her boyfriend Tommy (Blake Jenner, the disarmingly pretty young man from Everybody Wants Some!!), whilst at the same time being on paternally-enforced house arrest for the summer after an alcohol-fuelled party at the previous family abode landed the underage drinker a night in the cells. Of course, Hannah’s resentment of her new lot in life slowly but surely gives way to a sense of genuine unease, as weird things keep happening; various items not staying in the place she left them, her cat getting stuck outside with no one having let it out, and – with particular frequency – her sheets slipping off the bed completely in the night. Could all this be the handiwork of their sleazy new neighbour Ray (Ronnie Gene Blevins), a greasy locksmith who may as well have the words ‘bad guy’ tattooed on his forehead – or is something more mysterious going on, possibly related to the previous tenants?

Again, to give Within some credit, the precise nature of the threat does remain enigmatic for some time, leaving the audience unsure as to whether we’re watching a home invasion movie, a haunted house movie, or something a little different. However, this all winds up something of a moot point as it quite quickly becomes clear that, whatever’s meant to be going on, Within is ultimately a very by-the-numbers exercise in voyeurism. A writer who’s more well-versed than I am in feminist film theory and Laura Mulvey’s ‘male gaze’ would doubtless find plenty to say about the film, but you don’t have to be an academic to recognise the unpleasantly leering nature of the whole endeavour, all particularly icky as it hinges on the objectification of a character who, although her age is never directly specified, would seem to be only on the cusp of the age of consent.

It’s curious that the DVD art puts Michael Vartan’s name front-and-centre and emphasises only the creepy house aspect of the film, because this is one instance in which a lascivious cover emphasising the body of a young woman (as was used so inappropriately on The Witch) would be entirely fitting. Erin Moriarty’s Hannah is the clear focal point from early on, constantly dressed in short-shorts, knee-length socks and crop tops, and shot from low angles; I was having flashbacks to Hannah Tointon in The Children in no time. The problem is, because Vartan’s father and Velazquez’s stepmother largely remain on the sidelines, the abundance of overtly sexualised shots of the young lead soon feels relentless and inescapably sleazy. One might hope the fact that she’s never actually shown naked would dilute the sleaziness, but somehow that only seems to intensify it; the whole thing feels like an extended tease designed to work up the audience into a frenzy of anticipation. Of course, none of this would necessarily be a problem if it felt like Within was in some way offering up a commentary on voyeurism, but this never seems to be the case; the camera does not critique, it simply indulges, and it leaves the viewer feeling the worst kind of dirty. 

Once more, to give just a little credit where it’s due, I will confess that the final act of Within did take me a little by surprise; while the bulk of the film is fairly tame in the horror stakes, things take a darker, more brutal turn in the last scenes which I did not anticipate, and there are a number of relatively pleasing nods to a few genre classics (most notably a direct lift from The Silence of the Lambs). However, this is all too little too late in my book. Within exemplifies so much of what is wrong with contemporary studio horror: all the effort seems to have gone into ensuring it’s handsomely shot and handsomely cast, with very little concern given for generating real atmosphere, taking real chances, or building characters which the audience, not to mention the cast, can actually give a shit about: beyond Ronnie Gene Blevins as the amusingly OTT nasty neighbour, almost none of the cast – Vartan in particular – look like they actually want to be there. This, sadly, extends to JoBeth Williams in her cameo as the obligatory kind old lady down the street; clearly it was hoped that casting the Poltergeist star might bring a bit of that horror classic spirit to Within. No such luck.

Within is available on DVD and on-demand platforms now, from Warner Bros.

Kills on Wheels (2016)

For those of us who are constantly on the lookout for movies which offer something we haven’t seen before, a Hungarian hitman thriller in which the central protagonists are disabled is most definitely a novel proposition. Writer-director Attila Till’s Kills on Wheels (AKA Tiszta Szívvel) offers up just this, and – as was perhaps inevitable – it’s one of the most unique black comedy thrillers you’re likely to see in this year or any other. It’s rare indeed that the disabled are made the focal point of a relatively mainstream-friendly film, and in those rare instances it’s always with the caveat of being a worthy, sensitive, thought-provoking drama, more often than not with able-bodied actors putting on affectations. Here, we have two genuinely disabled, and genuinely talented lead actors in  Zoltán Fenyvesi and Ádám Fekete – and while the ensuing film certainly isn’t without its sensitive and thought-provoking elements, it’s also refreshingly hard-edged. Our protagonists are all very much sick and tired of being on the receiving end of everyone’s pity, and Kills on Wheels isn’t afraid to present them as flawed, angry, and often unsympathetic; simply put, presenting them as – well – human beings. Gasp.

Zolika (Fenyvesi) and Barba Papa (Fekete) are two young friends living an unfulfilling life in a rehabilitation centre. Both talented artists, they have dreams of breaking into the comics business, but little prospect of changing their lot on life. Zoli in particular faces a grim future, as a life-threatening condition requires expensive surgery – but he steadfastly refuses to accept the money for the procedure from the father who walked out on him and his mother years earlier. However, things change dramatically when a newcomer arrives at their clinic, Rupaszov (Szabolcs Thuróczy). A former firefighter who suffered a paralysing injury in the line of duty several years previous, Rupaszov hasn’t necessarily adapted all that well to life in a wheelchair, having spent some time behind bars. While his take-no-shit attitude initially sees him come to blows with our young leads, he soon warms to the duo and takes them under his wing – but things take a somewhat sinister turn when Zoli and Barba inadvertently cross paths with Rupaszov while he’s at work, doing hits for a local Serbian crime boss. Soon enough, Zoli and Barba are earning some cash on the side helping Rupaszov out on his assignments, but it doesn’t take long for the perils of a life of crime catch up with them.

Ostensibly, Kills on Wheels would seem to merge issue-based kitchen sink drama with the low budget gangster movie; two genres which, as a general rule of thumb, I tend not to be particularly interested in. However, I was won over by its frankness and lack of sentimentality. Fenyvesi, who I’ve since come to understand is something of an Instagram celebrity, is really quite a compelling lead, whose disability does nothing to diminish his obvious charisma and classic good looks. There’s a fascinating scene in which he takes a selfie to post on a dating site which only shows himself from the waist up; one of many moments in the film dedicated to confronting the hardships and challenging preconceptions about those living with handicaps. And Kills on Wheels keeps things almost exclusively from the perspective of the disabled leads, with the able bodied characters – most notably Zoli’s mother (Monika Balsai) and Rupaszov’s ex-girlfriend (Lidia Danis)- very much there in a supporting capacity.

Of course it’s an odd blend, but that was always a given. While the crime thriller aspects up the odds of mass appeal, in truth these are for the most part secondary to the character-based drama, but even so there are a number of surprisingly thrilling set-pieces, offset with a macabre sense of humour; witness Rupaszov single-handedly gunning down a roomful of gangsters, then struggling to escape up a moderate slope. No, the film doesn’t make fun of its protagonists’ ailments, but it doesn’t deny the inherent absurdity of the scenario.

Sad to say, a lot of this is perhaps undermined by a curious climactic twist which, naturally, I’m not about to reveal; though it is clearly signposted throughout, it’s a final reveal which strikes me as a little misguided. Even so, Kills on Wheels is is well worth a look, and serves as a decent reminder that providing entertainment and promoting a worthy message are by no means mutually exclusive impulses in film (although Get Out already hammered that home pretty well earlier this year).

Kills on Wheels is in select cinemas in the UK and Ireland on 15th September, from Eureka Entertainment.