The Canterville Ghost (1996)

Any horror fan of a certain age can tell you that 1996 was a big year for Neve Campbell. Off the back of that year’s The Craft and (more pointedly) Scream, the then-23 year old Canadian actress was elevated from “one of the girls off Party of Five” to a genre movie star, a status she retains to this day thanks to the enduring popularity of both aforementioned films. However, many of us (including, until very recently, myself) may be unaware that Campbell made a third venture into spooky territory that same year, starring alongside Patrick Stewart in a modernisation of Oscar Wilde’s novella The Canterville Ghost. The comparative obscurity of this one isn’t too great a surprise; for one, it was made for television, and by stark contrast with Campbell’s other 1996 films it’s resolutely family-friendly. Yet while it may not carry the same status in the popular consciousness, and is by no means without its obvious problems, The Canterville Ghost is in its own way a very endearing, old-fashioned take on a traditional ghost story.

I will confess that, on top of having been hitherto unfamiliar with this film, I hadn’t read Wilde’s story until very recently either, and it’s fair to say that this adaptation by screenwriter Robert Benedetti plays pretty fast and loose with Wilde’s material, sadly losing a bit of the wit along the way (something the author was quite well known for, as you might have heard once or twice). Where the novella in many respects plays like a dry run for Beetlejuice, playing heavily on the ghost’s irritation at having to deal with modern Americans in his house – all of whom, parents included, accept his existence immediately – this version of events plays things in a more conventional kids’ movie fashion, with the children knowing the truth and being driven to overcome their parents’ scepticism.

Campbell is Ginny, a teenage girl who, because of her father’s work as a professor of physics, finds herself moved with her family from their native Indiana to a huge old country house in England, Canterville Hall. Being a teenager, Ginny is very sullen about it all, even if her parents and her little twin brothers seem thrilled. We might wonder how a simple physics professor can afford so grandiose an abode, yet it seems the rent on the property is unusually low as tenants tend not to last that long, as the property is said to be haunted. While Ginny’s parents naturally dismiss this as an old wive’s tale, she and her brothers encounter the ghost, Sir Simon de Canterville (Stewart), on their very first night. While at first their energies are focused on a) trying to convince their parents of his existence and b) get him to stop haunting them, Ginny’s explorations around Canterville Hall lead to a deeper understanding of Sir Simon’s tragic situation, and a resolve to help him find the eternal rest that has eluded him for over 400 years.

Given the U-rating and the gentle tone, it would seem quite the stretch to class The Canterville Ghost as a horror film. In a curious, and quite agreeable way, the film took me back to that wonderful video of Vincent Price and Peter Cushing in which they extol the virtues of traditional spooky storytelling for children (Price talking so memorably about “creeping doors!” and “London in the fog!”). That’s really what we’ve got here: an old dark house, replete with a hidden door in the library to a cobweb-strewn passageway, which can of course only be traversed with a candelabra in hand. As much as these environments can be utilised to build a sense of dread, they can just readily evoke a sense of magic and wonder, and that’s very much what we get here, even with the comparatively cut-price TV movie production values, and the somewhat perfunctory direction of Syd Macartney.

However, whilst The Canterville Ghost might not be so lavish as a theatrical production, much of the cast certainly lifts things up a few notches. Most vital, of course, is Patrick Stewart. Ever the Shakespearean, Stewart’s in full-on theatrical mode here, speaking in iambic pentameter, projecting to the back row at all times, and no doubt having a blast while doing so, even if the SFX utilised to convey his ghostliness are sometimes a bit slapdash. British viewers are also likely to thrill to the sight of Carry On veteran Joan Sims as the housekeeper, not to mention such other old national treasures as Donald Sinden and Leslie Philips. Indeed, according to Robert Benedetti’s interview in the extras, the entire cast and crew bar Campbell and himself was British; and unfortunately this proves to be one of the film’s main problems, as some of the American accents, notably those of the child actors playing the younger brothers, are a bit shaky.

The other key problem with The Canterville Ghost is that, beyond the central ghost story – which, again, is played rather more straight than Wilde’s prose would suggest (no Wilde/straight pun intended) – the other plot threads are just not that compelling. Campbell does her best with what’s given to her, but she’s laden with a pretty two-dimensional role, and the side thread of her burgeoning romance with a young Duke (Daniel Betts) is rather unconvincing, and not helped by a total lack of chemistry between the two would-be lovers. Similarly, her struggle to convince her sceptical father (Edward Wiley) of the ghost’s existence feels overdone, with the father coming off excessively mean-spirited in his refusal to listen to his daughter, and his haste to blame her for any wrong-doing.

Still, when all’s said and done, this take on The Canterville Ghost (one among a good many screen adaptations of the story) is an entirely agreeable serving of all-ages supernatural whimsy. If you’re after something mildly spooky and family-friendly, and don’t want to go with Hocus Pocus or The Nightmare Before Christmas for the umpteenth time, this is definitely one to look out for.

The Canterville Ghost is available now on DVD and Blu-ray, from Second Sight.

47 Metres Down (2016)

Johannes Roberts has long been a director we’ve held in high esteem around these parts. 2010’s F was one of the most attention-grabbing British horror movies of the past decade, and he’s been steadily on the ascent in the years since. 47 Metres Down would seem to be his highest profile film yet, with a somewhat chequered history as its arrival coincided with that of last year’s similarly-themed The Shallows, and – having been initially poised to go straight to DVD – it was granted a US theatrical release at the last minute, with an eye to cashing in on the relative commercial success of its rival. Sounds a bit cutthroat: but then, we probably ought to mention right away that this is a production of Dimension Films, i.e. the genre end of The Weinstein Company, who – even before the recent, horrible revelations – were always known for being ruthless and meddlesome. In the current climate, there will doubtless be some readers who, seeing the names Harvey and Bob Weinstein attached, will be inclined to give 47 Metres Down a wide berth straight away; although that would be to overlook the fact that it’s primarily the work of a talented British writer-director, against whom no such allegations have been made.

Still, the big question is, will viewers who choose to pass up 47 Metres Down because of the Weinstein connection be robbing themselves of something special? The answer – which may or may not be a good thing, dependant on your point of view – is, not really. While Roberts has delivered a perfectly efficient claustrophobic thriller, 47 Metres Down is unlikely to earn a spot in the shark movie hall of fame. It has a nice premise, and some effective sequences, but comes up lacking when it comes to giving the audience something to really linger in the memory.

Siblings Lisa (Mandy Moore) and Kate (Claire Holt) are vacationing together in Mexico. For Kate, a few days in an exotic locale isn’t anything too out of the ordinary, but apparently it’s quite the change of pace for the elder, more reserved Lisa, who reveals to her little sister midway through their holiday that she’s been dumped by her longtime boyfriend, and came to Mexico because she wanted to do something impulsive in the hopes of seeming like a more adventurous person. After a couple of days in the sun and nights at the club, Kate talks Lisa into something very adventurous indeed; a shark-spotting trip out at sea, where they’ll be lowered beneath the surface in a cage to see the majestic creatures up close. Sure, Lisa’s never scuba-dived before, the crew that take them out seem a little unprofessional, and the boat itself looks like it’s seen better days, even if it is captained by Matthew Modine. But what could go wrong, eh? The crew will bring them up at the first sign of trouble, and in any case, they’ll only be lowering the cage five metres. However – as you might possibly have ascertained from the title – something does go wrong, and the cage winds up going a whole lot lower than intended: all the way to the ocean floor, in fact.

As I remarked when The Shallows first opened, we are well overdue a return to properly scary shark movies, as for such a long time the terrifying sea-beasts have been the fodder of absurdist B-movie fare like the confoundingly durable Sharknado series. The Shallows was a definite step in the right direction, and all being well next year’s Meg (the Jason Statham-headlined adaptation of Steve Alten’s novel about a 70 foot prehistoric megaladon shark) might get the job done even better – but where does 47 Metres Down land? Well, it would be overstating things to say that the movie sinks to the bottom with a thud as heavily as the pivotal cage, but there’s no denying that it falls short in several capacities. For starters, while the film is handsomely shot, it’s quite clear that the bulk of the shark action has been added in digitally (although, to be fair, this was also true of The Shallows). This does undermine certain key moments, when otherwise the tension had been building effectively. Some may also bemoan the comparative lack of gore, given the film was shot for a PG-13; although, as if often the case, it still wound up with a 15 from the BBFC, and not unreasonably so as it would doubtless be a bit much for younger viewers.

However, the real problem with 47 Metres Down is the protagonists. While the first act is intended to establish the differing characters of the sisters, both wind up feeling utterly bland and two-dimensional, and the actresses themselves do little to elevate the material. Moore’s Lisa in particular as built up as such a wet blanket, it’s almost impossible to believe she’d agree to the dive in the first place, and her near-constant fretting and stating the obvious gets very tedious, very quickly. We need to really root for the characters for survivalist tales of this sort to succeed, but given Lisa’s rather weak motivation (she just wants her boyfriend to find her exciting again), and the fact that we barely get to know Katie at all, it is rather hard to get particularly invested in their struggle to stay alive. It doesn’t help that Modine, in his small but fairly significant supporting role, feels like he’s just going through the motions.

Things do brighten up a little with a final act that packs a few surprises, but all in all 47 Metres Down is a pretty bog-standard underwater thriller that doesn’t really deliver all it needs to. Disappointing, both for shark movie fans and Johannes Roberts fans; but here’s hoping it does nothing to impede the director’s progress, even if we’ll be seeing a great deal less from the aforementioned producers in the near future.

47 Metres Down is available to download in the UK from 20th November, then DVD on 27th November, from Entertainment One.

68 Kill (2017)

Hard to believe it’s been a full decade since Grindhouse, don’t you think? Even stranger to think that a film which was deemed a box office catastrophe proved to have such a legacy, inspiring scores of low-budget filmmakers to try their hand at vintage-flavoured exploitation, to such an extent that ten years on grindhouse is pretty firmly established as a genre (or subgenre) in its own right. A single image from such a movie tells you pretty much all you need to know; take, for example, the picture of 68 Kill actress AnnaLynne McCord to the left. She’s blonde, she’s beautiful, there’s blood on her face, she looks certifiably insane, and she’s driving a car. All of which makes it clear as day that 68 Kill is basically Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! for the post-torture porn crowd. I caught director Trent Haaga’s film at Celluloid Screams Horror Festival, where it screened at 12am Friday night; very wise scheduling, as this is prime midnight movie material that plays great with a crowd, and even better if at least mildly inebriated. Whether it would hold up quite so well stone cold sober in the harsh light of day, I’m not quite so sure, but I can safely say I had a lot of fun with this lurid, self-consciously nasty piece of work.

Still, while McCord and her fellow femme fatales Alisha Boe (Paranormal Activity 4) and Sheila Vand (A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night) may dominate the poster/DVD cover, the real central character in 68 Kill is a guy – who, wouldn’t you know it, has a major weakness for beautiful women. Matthew Gray Gubler (Suburban Gothic, TV’s Criminal Minds) is Chip, a trailer park resident who works part time in sanitation and has very little going for him, aside from his stunning girlfriend Liza (McCord). However, calling her ‘stunning’ doesn’t just apply to her looks: she’s an impulsive, aggressive character, enormously over-enthusiastic in the bedroom, and rather demanding of her more mild-mannered lover. When we meet Chip, he’s covered in bites, scratches and bruises from the night before, but it seems that not all of this is purely from rough sex. Though he seems unwilling to admit it to himself, Chip is trapped in an abusive relationship; but, believing himself to be in love with Liza and doubting he’ll ever get so lucky again, he can’t help but bend to her will. However, this reserve is pushed to breaking point when Liza bullies him into helping her rob the home of her wealthy landlord, who she has learned has $68,000 stashed in his bedroom safe. Naturally the heist doesn’t go quite as smoothly as planned, and Chip soon finds himself on the run from the woman he loves – but Liza isn’t the only beautiful and insane woman he’ll cross paths with in the long, eventful 24 hours ahead.

There are, of course, many grounds on which 68 Kill – adapted for the screen by Haaga, from a novel by Bryan Smith – might be regarded very timely at this point in 2017. The subject of sexual abuse, and women being forced into prostituting themselves, comes up more than once, with bloody retribution soon meted out at those responsible. However, as is no doubt readily apparent by now, not one of the women in 68 Kill would seem to fit the description of victim. These, again, are women in the Faster Pussycat mould, meaning they take no shit, drive as hard and punch as hard as any of the men they run into; indeed, significantly harder when the man in question is Gubler’s Chip, a man whose picture could appear in the dictionary alongside ‘pussy-whipped.’

Inevitably, any film that hinges so heavily on a man’s encounters with a succession of women will invite some discussion of its sexual politics, and in some moments these do leave a bad taste: while we’re quite reasonably invited to be outraged at young women being forced into sex slavery, the sexual abuse that Chip endures is more than once played for laughs. At the same time, given that much of the film centres on Chip getting payback on the women who have wronged him, there are doubtless some who might condemn 68 Kill as a misogynistic fantasy endorsing violence against women.

Of course, on the other hand we could just forget such concerns and go along for the ride. Unsavoury overtones are part and parcel to exploitation; if it was all in good taste, there’d be no damn point. And you’ll certainly need a taste for the unsavoury to get along with 68 Kill, as it does get pretty distasteful at times; but even so, in a curious way it never feels entirely mean-spirited, and I think this is again down to Gubler’s performance as Chip, who somehow remains an optimistic, kind-hearted soul even when the world seems determined to show him nothing but ugliness. I think it’s safe to say we could all use a touch of that spirit in the world today. But again, this really isn’t a movie you come to for life lessons. If you’re after some trashy fun, with energetic performances and direction, smirk-inducing dialogue, a toe-tapping soundtrack, and more than a few wince-inducing moments of oh-no-they-didn’t, you could do a great deal worse than this.

Following on from its festival screenings, 68 Kill will be released to DVD and Blu-ray on 27 November, from Studiocanal.

Full schedule released for Abertoir Horror Festival 2017

We hope Warped Perspective readers have been enjoying our coverage of Celluloid Screams 2017 (and there are still some more reviews to follow there), but the UK horror festival season is by no means over – and one of our favourites on the annual circuit, Abertoir Horror Festival, kicks off at the Aberystwyth Arts Centre in three weeks time. The full festival programme has now been released, and as anticipated it’s a good mix of new and old, with a particular emphasis on Giallo in honour of the two Italian legends attending as joint guests of honour: Sergio Martino and Lamberto Bava.

Here, direct from the Abertoir site, is the full line-up for the five day event:

Tuesday 14th November

1715: Drinks Reception
1800: Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key
2015: Sergio Martino in Conversation with Phillip Escott
2200: All the Colours of the Dark
0000: Meatball Machine Kodoku

Wednesday 15th November

1215: Vampire Clay UK PREMIERE
1400: All the Colours of the Giallo a presentation by Dr. Russ Hunter
1515: Blood and Black Lace
1715: Mon Mon Mon Monsters
2000: Tokyo Ghoul
2200: Pub Quiz
0030: Return to Return to Nuke ‘em High (AKA Vol. 2)

Thursday 16th November

1300: The Bloodstained Shadow
1530: Spaghetti and Splatter a presentation by Gavin Baddeley
1700: The Sleep Curse
1930: Better Watch Out
2130: Housewife + Q&A TBC
0000: What the Waters Left Behind UK PREMIERE

Friday 17th November

1230: Tales of Terror
1430: Peter Lorre: The Master of Menance a presentation by Dr. Sarah Thomas
1545: The Mimic
1800: Canaries + Q&A
2030: Offsite Screening: Opera & Demons at the Ceredigion Museum

Saturday 18th November

1145: Diani and Devine Meet the Apocalypse
1345: The Endless
1600: Nicko and Joe’s Bad Film Club
1830: A Blade in the Dark
2045: Lamberto Bava in Conversation with Stephen Thrower
2200: Five Dolls for an August Moon
2330: The Giallo Lounge with sounds by DJ Dellamorte

Sunday 19th November

1200: The Housemaid
1415: Short Films Competition
1645: The Lodgers UK PREMIERE + Q&A TBC
1915: Theatre Show: A Pandemonium of Poe live theatre show
2130: Top Knot Detective + closing ceremony

Screening in Sunday’s Short Films Competition:

A Father’s Day (Mat Johns, UK 2016, 10 mins); Devil Town (Nick Barrett, UK 2016, 15 mins); Event Horizon (Joséfa Celestin, France/Scotland 2017, 11 mins); Flow (Shelagh Rowan-Legg, UK 2017, 6 mins); Holy Fuck (Chris Chalklen, UK 2017, 9 mins); L’ora del buio (Domenico de Feudis, Italy 2017, 11 mins); Mab (Katie Bonham, UK 2017, 15 mins); Roake (Joan Cobos, UK/Spain 2017, 11 mins); Twinky Doo’s Magic World (Alessandro Izzo, Italy 2017, 11 mins); and We Summoned a Demon (Chris McInroy, USA 2017, 6 mins).

Abertoir festival passes and individual tickets can be ordered in person from the Aberystwyth Arts Centre box office, or by calling 01970 623232.

 

Tragedy Girls (2017)

For a great many years now, slasher movies have frequently done their best to subvert expectation, particularly when it comes to the young women who typically wind up on the end of the masked killer’s implement of choice. Why, it’s been almost 25 years since the first scene of Jason Goes To Hell pulled off that trick by having its screaming, mostly-naked would-be victim turn the tables and lead the Friday the 13th antagonist into a trap; and six years ago, Scream 4 did a climactic about-face on the character who seemed to have ‘final girl’ stamped on her forehead. Points due also to the criminally underseen 2008 Spanish horror comedy Sexy Killer, in which the pretty young woman is known to be the murderer from pretty much the beginning. Indeed, throw Sexy Killer in a blender with classic teen satire Heathers, and the resulting goop would look a lot like Tragedy Girls. That having been said, director Tyler McIntyre’s film would seem far more likely to draw comparison with more recent release The Babysitter, with which it does share some thematic and stylistic ground; but Tragedy Girls is an altogether darker, nastier affair, and all the more fun for it.

Sadie and McKayla (Brianna Hildebrand and Alexandra Shipp, both veterans of the X-Men series and as such likely to attract interest from a wider teen audience) seem at a glance to be the textbook high school popular girls – cheerleaders, prom committee – but their real passion is their vlog/social media enterprise called, you guessed it, Tragedy Girls: essentially an amateur true crime investigation site covering the recent spate of murders in their sleepy middle-American home town. However, you may by now have ascertained the twist, made clear within the first few minutes following a very standard slasher movie intro: Sadie and MK are the ones doing the murdering, pursuing their lifelong dream of becoming legendary serial killers, whilst using their online following to promote their heinous misdeeds. To this end, they capture a hulking slasher movie madman who’s been doing the rounds locally (okay, so the girls aren’t the only ones doing the killing) in the hopes that he can impart some good homicidal wisdom their way. However, high school life and social politics have an annoying habit of impeding their progress.

It was interesting watching this on the Saturday afternoon of Celluloid Screams, Sheffield’s annual horror festival, as if I remember correctly this time last year much the same slot was taken by Kevin Smith’s Yoga Hosers; another movie in which a duo of motor-mouthed, social media-addicted teens dive headfirst into a world of weirdness. In many respects, Tragedy Girls feels like the movie Yoga Hosers wanted to be, or should have been, in that it centres on two genuinely strong, smart, independent, driven female leads, who in this instance just happen to be homicidal maniacs. Plus the script from McIntyre and Chris Lee Hill (said to be based on an earlier script by Justin Olsen) gives its leads funny lines which don’t hinge on them saying “aboot” every thirty seconds. But perhaps best we don’t dwell on that connection, as there are plenty of far better teen movies that Tragedy Girls shares common ground with, most notably the aforementioned Heathers, Mean Girls, Drop Dead Gorgeous, maybe even Bring It On in a weird kind of way; okay, the cheerleader aspect is a minor detail indeed in Tragedy Girls (we see them practice 2 or 3 times at most), but there is a competition aspect at play, as the girls build up toward what they hope will be their grand finale to outdo all that came before.

Given we’re working broadly within the parameters of the slasher movie, I’ve no doubt academics are going to have a field day with how Tragedy Girls subverts Carol Clover; whilst Men, Women and Chainsaws convincingly argues that slasher audiences are compelled to identify with the women in peril rather than the killers (as is so often claimed by reactionaries), in this instance there can be no question that it is the killers we’re meant to identify with, and this lends Tragedy Girls a transgressive quality we might not anticipate from something that initially seems so glossy and mainstream-friendly. While, as with many slasher movies, the early victims are largely unsympathetic caricatures of whom the audience can feel comfortable laughing at their demise (notably – minor spoiler I suppose – some scene-stealing cameos from Josh Hutcherson and Craig Robinson), things do get a little closer to the bone as we reach the final act. There are moments when it looks as though some eleventh-hour moralising and forced remorse might pop up – but happily, Tragedy Girls has the good sense to avoid such sentimentality, never faltering from its joyfully morbid course. Hildebrand and Shipp are compelling, endearing, charismatic leads throughout, and even when they’re at their most diabolical we can’t help wanting to see them succeed.

There can be no doubt that this is a film custom designed to prompt outrage among the “ban this sick filth/think of the children” moralists, and to be fair they’d have a pretty easy ride condemning this one, as there’s very little sense of a redemptive message underneath it all. The clearest defence would be that the film is a satire on social media, and the lengths to which it users will go to cultivate the largest possible following, but I’m not sure that’s entirely true. The social media angle seems more like a way of garnering interest from a contemporary teen audience that’s every bit as devoted to it as our leads. Perhaps, as with so many slasher movies, the real message of Tragedy Girls is that not all stories need to have a conventional morality, and it’s perfectly okay to indulge the nihilistic, anti-social fantasies that so many of us have within the safe confines of a fantasy world, so long as we understand that none of it is meant to be taken seriously. Or something along those lines. Either way, anyone who says they’ve never rooted for the bad guy is lying through their back teeth, and in Tragedy Girls we have a pair of baddies who are very hard not to root for.

 

The Vikings (1958)

In a historical context, The Vikings might be deemed a bit of a curiosity, walking a tightrope between the grandiose historical epic and the B-movie swashbuckler. Given that its leading men Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis reunited two years later for Spartacus, it’s easy to dismiss The Vikings as little more than a dry run for Stanley Kubrick’s classic gladiator movie. Indeed, hold it up alongside the likes of Spartacus or Ben-Hur, and Richard Fleischer’s 116 minute film feels positively small-scale; and, despite reported efforts to make the film as historically accurate as possible in its depiction of the infamous Norse ravagers, it feels for the most part like a standard adventure yarn with all its seafaring, sword-swinging, bodice-ripping, mead-swigging frolics. This uneven tone by all accounts is rooted in conflicts between Fleischer and Douglas, producer as well as star; the director had favoured Dale Wasserman’s script (adapted from Edison Marshall’s novel The Viking) which took a more mythic, poetic approach to the dialogue, but Douglas – with the backing of his pal Kubrick – dismissed this as unreadable, and had Calder Willingham rewrite it in a more colloquial fashion. Not unreasonably, the director was not happy about being overruled in this fashion, and found the production a very stressful one.

Almost 60 years on, the director and every key cast member other than the 100 year-old Douglas are gone, but Fleischer (going by his words on the special features, and the excerpt from his book Just Tell Me When To Cry in this disc’s accompanying booklet) always felt that the original script would have been the superior film. To my mind, though, this is hardly a point worth dwelling on. Whether or not The Vikings is an entirely accurate reflection of the historical period it represents is of minimal significance next to the question of how successful it is as a rollicking adventure movie that stirs the blood; in this the film is an unequivocal success, and doubtless of huge influence on a great many swashbuckling adventure movies that have come in the decades since.

A short-haired and clean-shaven Douglas (what was all that about historical accuracy?) is Einar, son of Viking chieftain Ragnar (Ernest Borgnine – who, fun fact, was actually two months younger than Douglas). This particular Viking horde have been attacking England for decades, and have their sights set on a full-scale invasion; and to this end, Ragnar has found an English ally in Lord Egbert (James Donald), who promises to provide maps of England that will aid their efforts. There is good reason behind Egbert’s treason; he hopes to see the corrupt, unlawful king Aella (Frank Thring) overthrown. Then, in one of those remarkable feats of good fortune one only encounters in the movies and/or on the pages of paperbacks, Egbert discovers that a slave in the Viking encampment named Eric (Curtis) is in fact the son of the now-dead English Queen; and more, he is the bastard son of Ragnar, who raped the queen in a raid more than 20 years earlier. As a result, Eric and Einar are, without knowing it, brothers, yet they despise one another; never more so than when, at the suggestion of Egbert, the Vikings abduct Aella’s betrothed, the lady Morganna (Janet Leigh), with whom both Eric and Einar instantly fall in love.

While no one’s going to mistake it for its almost-namesake contemporary TV series, it’s not hard to see how The Vikings was considered a fairly extreme film for its day. There is a notably bloody moment when Einar loses an eye to a hawk attack (the film landed the year after Hammer’s The Curse of Frankenstein, which shocked everyone with a similar splash of gore); and, while the raid and battle sequences are not necessarily that graphic, it’s abundantly clear what’s going on, not least when it comes to the raping. I’m quite surprised that, in the current climate, the BBFC remain happy to release The Vikings under a PG certificate, given that Borgnine’s Ragnar is introduced gleefully assaulting the clearly horrified Queen, and that Einar’s later attempted rape of Morganna is played as a love scene. There’s another, perhaps even more distressing moment in which a drunken Ragnar regales his equally inebriated son with loving memories of forcing himself upon the younger Viking’s mother; moments that were perhaps easier to take in jest at the time but, as we’re all very much aware, prevailing attitudes have quite rightly changed.

All this notwithstanding, in its own way The Vikings is a curiously subversive and progressive film. It’s made clear to us from the very beginning that the title characters are complete and utter bastards: sadists, thieves, sexists, murderers, rapists; and perhaps even more shocking for the time – and to this day in some quarters – they don’t believe in the Bible (because, as we all know, adhering to the latter means that absolutely none of the aforementioned sins are of any consequence whatsoever, right?) Even so, they are presented as the heroes of the film, and we are invited to root for them in their battle to overthrow Aella, who – while not by any means a sympathetic character – doesn’t necessarily come off as any worse. This curious romanticisation of outright twattery is most pointed in Einar; Douglas, being the biggest star of the show, goes to lengths to put himself centre stage as often as possible, when from a narrative standpoint it would generally make more sense of focus on Curtis’s Eric. Still, Curtis does get plenty to work with, notably in his happily reciprocal love scenes with Leigh’s Morganna, who, in one of the film’s most fascinating scenes, questions whether the two could ever really be together when she is Christian and he is Pagan; yet the film seems to conclude that love is love irrespective of personal faith, and by extension does not condemn Eric or any of the Vikings for their worship of Odin. How’s that for freedom of religion?

Of course, nobody goes to see a movie called The Vikings in search of provocative political overtones. Large-scale action and spectacle are the order of the day, and it’s on this count that the film really delivers. Richard Fleischer directed his share of adventure movies (and I don’t care what anyone says, Conan the Destroyer and Red Sonja are great), but this is surely the best he ever made. The sets and ships are gorgeous against the Norwegian locations, all beautifully captured by Jack Cardiff’s Technicolor cinematography; whilst the battle scenes, especially the final attack on Aella’s castle, really are eye-opening, adrenaline-pumping moments to this day, particularly when we take into account just how much of it had to be achieved in-camera. And while it may be fair to give Douglas a hard time for showboating, there can also be no denying that he is every inch the big screen man of action; his scar-faced look is iconic, and he seems totally in his element be he lashing with his sword, galloping on horseback, fighting hand to hand, scaling a castle wall, or running across the oars of a longboat, much of it for real. And – spoiler warning – damned if he doesn’t make dying with your sword in your hand, crying “Odin” as your last word, then getting a Viking funeral look like the coolest possible way to leave this life behind.

This a really nice edition of the film that fans won’t want to miss, presenting the film in 1080p with original stereo PCM soundtrack. As well as the aforementioned accompanying booklet and featurette (‘A Tale of Norway’), there’s also a video interview on the film with historian Sheldon Hall, plus of course the theatrical trailer and optional subtitles.

The Vikings is available now on Blu-ray from Eureka Entertainment; order here.

Red Christmas (2016)

Microbudget slasher movies from unknown filmmakers have always been ten-a-penny, and in the DV age they’re arguably all the more innumerable. Adding a recognised genre star always goes a long way to lifting such a film above the quagmire. Also, it never hurts to set your film on an annual holiday; all being well it might wind up making list articles as a perennial favourite. Australian writer-director Craig Anderson (making his feature debut, with numerous shorts and TV credits under his belt) has taken just this approach by enlisting Dee Wallace – star of some cult horror favourites (such as The Howling, recently re-released on Blu-ray), and one inarguable all-time classic (Critters, obviously; oh yeah, and that one ET) –  to take the lead role in Red Christmas. However, while the holiday angle and the horror icon are all well and good, there’s also the small matter of whether the central concept is worth a damn, and whether the filmmakers have the means and the know-how to successfully pull it off; and here, Red Christmas falls short by a wide margin.

Wallace is Diane, a recent widow bringing her grown children – three daughters, a son and two husbands – back together for one last Christmas in the family home before she sells it and moves on. This is the cause of some tension between her children; but whatever grievances they may have, these pale in comparison to those of the troubled, hooded stranger named Cletus who unexpectedly arrives on their doorstep on Christmas Day. Wishing to be hospitable, Diane allows the stranger into the home, but his increasingly unnerving words and actions soon lead them to throw him out. But of course, this isn’t the last they’ll see of Cletus, who has one specific gift to give them all: bloody vengeance.

Australia has a rich history for sleazy trash cinema (‘Ozploitation,’ don’t you know), so it’s fitting that Red Christmas should go out of its way to live up to this heritage by means of some rather provocative subject matter. The film deals directly with abortion: the prologue centres on one such procedure which goes wrong, and it isn’t giving too much away to reveal that the aborted fetus somehow lives to become the killer Cletus (why yes, that is a rhyming joke). The film also deals directly with disability, as one of Wallace’s children (played by Gerard O’Dwyer) has Down syndrome, and it is suggested the killer may also. Then there’s the fact that one of Wallace’s daughters is nine months pregnant, which inevitably raises questions of just how far this particular sleazy horror flick is prepared to go. It’s an awkward balance, and one which Red Christmas all in all fails to get right. In aesthetic and basic concept, it seems to aspire to the fun slashers, but as things get pushed in a grimmer direction it all feels rather misjudged.

Then, of course, there’s the simple fact that Red Christmas is just not particularly well made. I was rather flabbergasted by a PR email quoting a review that calls this one of the most beautifully shot horror films since Suspiria, as the cinematography here really isn’t anything to write home about. While the use of bright coloured lighting is certainly striking, it’s hardly unprecedented – that same 80s-aping aesthetic is in evidence all over the place in recent years – and it does nothing to detract from how ugly the DV looks, particularly in the over-abundance of home movie-esque handheld shots. Nor are the performances of a particularly high standard; sure, no one completely shames themselves, and Wallace in particular is doing her best to make the most of what aims to be a pretty complex role, but none of it manages to make Red Christmas anything special.

I expect its lurid tone and content, plus that inevitable weakness for Christmas-set horror movies, will go some way to ensuring Red Christmas finds a larger audience than most ultra-low budget indie slashers. To my mind, however, there’s almost nothing here to make the film memorable, endearing or in any way worthy of revisiting.

Red Christmas is available in the US on Blu-ray, DVD and on demand platforms on 17th October, from Artsploitation Films.

The Babysitter (2017)

Sigh – yet another Friday the 13th comes around, yet for the eighth bloody year in a row we still don’t have another Friday the 13th movie. Okay, I’ll accept that perhaps not all readers will be as bummed about that as I am, but I also know that I’m not alone in missing the simple, time-honoured pleasures of that most simple of horror franchises. But what do we have in the meantime? A Netflix original horror comedy which twists the classic slasher format by making the beautiful teenage babysitter the antagonist, rather than the final girl? Okay, I’ll buy that for a dollar. Or, y’know, £7 a month or whatever it is now. Although it turns out McG’s The Babysitter has less in common with the standard slashers than you might initially expect.

I’ve spoken at length in the past about my deep affection for the kiddie horror movies of the 1980s; movies with the tenacity to cast minors as the heroes and pit them against genuinely sinister threats. We have of course seen a bit of a resurgence in that format this year, with the hugely successful first volume of IT. Now, The Babysitter carries on that tradition with something rather more light-hearted and jovial, which may not skimp out on the viscera, but remains just that bit gentle enough to not alienate the younger viewers at whom it is clearly targeted. It might not win over all the oldies among us, but The Babysitter seems very likely to become the new favourite horror movie of young teenagers everywhere.

Cole (Judah Lewis) is your standard awkward young male on the cusp of adolescence. Routinely picked on at school and very low on self-confidence, he’s also the only kid his age still left with a sitter when his parents go out. However, as the sitter in question is smoking hot high school senior Bee (Samara Weaving of Ash vs Evil Dead and Mayhem), Cole doesn’t consider that such a bad thing. In fact, Bee seems to be pretty much his best friend, never belittling him, sharing in his interests, teaching him to believe in himself, and not getting too weirded out by his obvious schoolboy crush on her. However, when Bee stays over one Friday night while his parents are away, Cole – at the urging of the girl across the street, Melanie (Emily Alyn Lind) – stays up to see what his babysitter gets up to once he’s in bed, on the suspicion that she might have a boyfriend around to, y’know, do it and stuff. But it turns out Bee’s doing a lot more than that: she has a whole bunch of friends around, and what at first seems to be a raunchy game of spin the bottle turns out to be some kind of Mephistophelian blood rite. Yes, Bee and her cool senior friends aren’t just a clique, they’re a devil-worshipping cult: and what does any good cult need like a pure-blooded young virgin – i.e. someone just like Cole – for a sacrifice.

Don’t get too invested in the Satanic angle, as it’s not something The Babysitter dwells on in any particular detail; we have no arcane symbols or chants, nor even a single pentagram to be seen – nor, before anyone asks, do the cult members go in for any of that ‘skyclad’ business, aside from the perpetually bare-chested Robbie Amell (who does look quite uncannily like his cousin Stephen, the dude from Arrow). Indeed, while sex appeal might seem central to proceedings thanks to the poster art above, and the attire of our antagonists – Weaving in tiny Daisy Dukes, Bella Thorne in the classic sexy cheerleader outfit – The Babysitter is in fact a rather more chaste endeavour than you’d perhaps expect. This, again, reflects how the film is primarily geared toward a younger audience. Our hero is a 12-year old boy, and his struggle to survive is the key focal point. We’re repeatedly shown that sex is still something very alien to him: he has to Google the word ‘orgy,’ and in a slightly lame running joke the word ‘prostitute’ is repeatedly mixed up with ‘protestant.’ As such, the overt sexuality of the older characters is what sets them apart as monstrous, the musclebound Amell in particular being a pointed contrast to the smaller, less developed Judah Lewis. This also means there’s an agreeable innocence to the burgeoning romance between Lewis and Emily Alyn Lind’s characters; any scenes which feature flirtation between pre-teens threaten to get a bit creepy, but thankfully the right tone is struck here. All this having been said, The Babysitter doesn’t mollycoddle the audience: we still have a ton of swearing and plenty of OTT gore – the vast majority of which, I hasten to add, looks to be good old-fashioned practical FX. Such a relief that CGI splatter seems to be falling out of favour.

I’m aware that director McG has long been deemed cool to hate, and while I understand the reasoning behind much of this, I have to say he isn’t a filmmaker I have any great problem with. While there’s no doubt that he ballsed up Terminator: Salvation (although that looked like Citizen Kane next to Genisys), I freely admit to whole-heartedly loving the Charlie’s Angels movies – and that same bubblegum pop culture overload approach is very much at play in The Babysitter. There are moments that feel a little overkill – a choreographed disco dance routine, a reenactment of a confrontation from an old western – but all in all it balances out nicely to give us a horror comedy which isn’t super-scary or super-funny, but is always great fun, and has the good grace to be over and done with in barely 85 minutes. Again, older horror fans might feel like they’ve seen it all before, but The Babysitter clearly isn’t for the likes of us: it’s a film custom-designed to be watched at sleepovers, with Mountain Dew spilling on the sleeping bags and Dorito crumbs between the toes of the entranced fledgling gorehounds for whom this will doubtless prove a major gateway movie. And given that the final moments leave things open for a sequel, I wouldn’t be too surprised if there’s more to come.

The Babysitter is available to watch now on Netflix.

The Yakuza (1974)

Movies in which East meets West have always been a somewhat tricky proposition. Historically, representations of Asians in American (and, for that matter, British/European) films and television have tended to hinge on stereotypes; generally either the impeccably wise asexual Kung Fu master, or “Miss-a Gorightry, I plotest.” The 1970s, being of course the most progressive decade in film history, saw some positive steps taken toward a better representation of foreign cultures, and The Yakuza is a strong example of this. A solid drama with a reputable wealth of talent – both American and Japanese – on both sides of the camera, director Sydney Pollack’s 1974 effort might not have aged quite so well as some films from the time (and I’m not sure it’s so fondly looked back on as the films Pollack made either side of it: The Way We Were, and Three Days of the Condor), but it’s an interesting look at relations between the US and Japan in the aftermath of World War II, and a far more balanced and less paranoid take than later Hollywood movies to venture into similar territory, like Black Rain and Rising Sun.

Old hand Robert Mitchum takes the lead as Harry Kilmer, and with a name like that you pretty much know right away that he’s a retired detective and a veteran of the US military post-war occupation of Japan. In that time, Kilmer became well acclimatised to Japanese culture, to the extent that he came close to marrying a local woman, Eiko (Keiko Keishi). But that was all a long time in the past for Kilmer, until a friend comes to him for help over a shady business deal with a Yakuza that’s gone wrong, resulting in the abduction of his daughter. This sends Kilmer back to Japan for the first time in decades, back to the woman he clearly still loves, and her brother Ken (Ken Takakura) with whom he has a more complicated relationship. As an ex-Yakuza, Ken is the only person Kilmer can turn to for help in rescuing the kidnapped American girl.


The Yakuza is notable as the first screenwriting credit for Paul Schrader, later a key collaborator of Martin Scorcese and a noteworthy director in his own right, although his script here was touched up by another notable scribe of the era, Robert Towne. It’s interesting to note that it seems to have been regarded an extremely violent movie at the time (Roger Ebert’s review makes it sound like Kill Bill’s House of Blue Leaves squared), when to modern eyes it really doesn’t come across that harsh. More striking now is just how heavy on exposition it all is, with lengthy explanations of Japanese customs, and the vital importance of honour and loyalty; this would seem to indicate just how alien such concepts were to American audiences at the time (and maybe still are to this day for some, am I right, honourable behaviour and whatnot, social comment, etc.) However, all these years later, with Japan’s own Samurai and Yakuza films widely seen and acknowledged as classics, it does seem a little unnecessary for an American movie to come along and try and explain everything to us, particularly in the form of such a grandfatherly figure as Mitchum. (Indeed, more of a shock to me than any of the Katana fights and shoot-outs was the fact that Mitchum drops the F-bomb at one point.)

Still, The Yakuza deserves credit for giving a human, largely non-patronising representation of Japanese characters. Takakura (veteran of literally dozens of Toei films, and later a co-star in the aforementioned Black Rain) is a badass tough guy without ever coming off like a superhuman Bruce Lee type; even in the more violent moments, there’s a grounded humanity to his performance that’s striking, and – while I don’t want to seem like I’m trashing Mitchum – we are often left wondering why the old American even needs to be there a lot of the time. Again – a positive step forward for an American film of the time, but now it may just leave you wondering why you don’t just watch an actual Japanese Yakuza film. Still, there’s a certain kick to be taken from seeing a comparatively early turn from James Shigeta, later immortalised as Takagi in Die Hard.

While it didn’t entirely win me over, this new edition of The Yakuza, released as part of the Warner Bros premium collection: a dual format DVD/Blu-ray, with a vintage featurette on the making of the film, an old director’s commentary track from the late Pollack, and set of collector’s cards.

It’s available now exclusively at HMV.

Demons of the Mind (1972)

It’s interesting how accounts of the later years of Hammer Films can vary according to the tastes of the writer. Some will sigh in resignation at how the once great company lost its way as the times changed; others, such as myself whose early horror education largely consisted of films from that era, look back on it as a wonderful period, even if it did mark the end of Hammer as we knew it (I think it’s fair to say the recently resurrected brand is pretty far removed from what once was). Others might not even know or care much about Hammer at all: I heartily recommend these people track down The Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula (or, depending on where you live, Horror of Dracula) post-haste and work your up way from there, because you don’t know what you’re missing.

Wherever you land on the subject of Hammer, 1972’s Demons of the Mind will likely inspire at least a degree of bewilderment. It’s one of four Hammer movies that Studiocanal are releasing in dual format DVD/Blu-ray at the end of this month, along with Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb, Scars of Dracula and Fear in the Night; I was particularly drawn to Demons of the Mind as it was one I’d neither seen, nor heard a great deal about. Indeed, while it’s a Hammer production it seems to be largely the work of people who hadn’t worked with the company beforehand, and in many instances didn’t again; and while it has the standard non-specific 19th century countryside setting with Hammer’s favoured location Black Park near Uxbridge used for the bulk of the outdoor scenes, in terms of genre it’s not that easy to pin down. We might say that, rather than the standard Gothic horror that Hammer have always been known and loved for, Demons of the Mind was more of an attempt at Gothic melodrama, stripping away the supernatural elements in favour of a more warts-and-all treatment of the kind of sordid and sinister subject matter that ghosts and monsters have always been used to symbolise: in this instance, homicidal mania and incestuous desire.

We open on Elizabeth (Gillian Hills), a beautiful young blonde-haired woman in a diaphanous white nightgown, sitting in a horse-drawn carriage. So far, so Hammer. However, as a matronly older woman (Yvonne Mitchell) pulls her hand away from the window and tells her everything’s going to be alright once she’s back home, things immediately feel a bit off. The young lady seems catatonic. A wordless flashback montage ensues; we see her wandering in the woods, being taken aback by a young male stranger who she later takes as her lover (70s Hammer, after all); but then she’s back at her home, naturally a brooding Gothic mansion, with a father (Robert Hardy) who seems just a little too pleased to have her home, and a brother (Shane Briant) who seems even less emotionally stable than she is, and also displays concern for his sibling which seems more than fraternal. It transpires that the father, Baron Zorn, fears for the minds of his children, believing a curse is upon them following the suicide of his wife many years earlier. To this end, he brings a supposed specialist in the mind, Falkenberg (Patrick Magee), into his home to help cure their ailments via his somewhat experimental techniques. However, it may be too little too late, as a series of murders have occurred in the village, some of the victims being young women close to Elizabeth in appearance; and the villagers, not without reason, suspect the mad Baron and his children are to blame.

I was fascinated to learn from the newly-produced featurette on the Blu-ray that producer/story writer Frank Godwin originally pitched Demons of the Mind to Hammer as a werewolf movie, yet it was at the insistence of Hammer themselves that the monster element was removed. This I find fairly astonishing, as one would think a werewolf movie would be a considerably easier sell; and, indeed, it’s little surprise to learn that Demons of the Mind died a death at the box office, not least because distributor EMI didn’t have a clue what to do with it. Even in their grislier, skin-heavy early 70s days, there’s always been a certain homeliness to Hammer, at least in part because you tend to know what you’re getting when the lights go down; but in this instance, it’s really hard to predict where things are going from scene to scene. For some this may make for a more rewarding experience, but those with a particular fondness for the standard Hammer formula might be put off. Another interesting side note: the mansion setting was used that same year in Sergio Martino’s All the Colours of the Dark, which leads me to ponder whether, beyond Hammer’s standard Germanic period setting, Demons of the Mind might be closer to a Giallo in terms of narrative and theme. (Or maybe I’m stretching there. Anyway, John Hough later shot The Legend of Hell House there too, so however you cut it, it’s a great backdrop for people going nuts.)

Demons of the Mind is also one of the few Hammer movies that’s genuinely quite startling even now in terms of content. While the levels of female nudity were fairly standard for the company by this point, the blend of the sexual and homicidal impulse – a touch and go area to this day, particularly when it comes to the censors – is presented in a surprisingly forthright manner, as is the incest. The portrayal of the very early methods of psychiatric ‘care’ are fairly unsettling, not least a scene of exsanguination. We also have some of the most lurid, gruesome murders ever featured in a Hammer horror, some of which wouldn’t have felt out of place in a slasher movie a decade or so down the line. This, it seems safe to say, was Hammer doing their best to move with the times, as might be reflected by the hiring of a relatively hip cast (Hills, Magee and Virginia Wetherell had come straight from A Clockwork Orange; would-be romantic hero Paul Jones was formerly of pop group Manfred Mann), and a young, largely untested director in Peter Sykes (who would later helm Hammer’s last theatrical horror movie, 1976’s To The Devil A Daughter).

Any way you cut it, Demons of the Mind clearly does a better job presenting a more modern brand of horror than the same year’s Dracula AD 1972 – and I say that as someone with an unshakeable affection for that camp and corny schlocker. If, like me, you’re a Hammer fan who’s missed this one up to now, take this opportunity to make amends. It’s not your standard Hammer, but in this instance that really isn’t a bad thing at all.

Demons of the Mind is released in dual format DVD and Blu-ray on 30th October, from Studiocanal.

Eat Locals (2017)

To present yet further evidence why reviewing new horror movies is frequently a lot less fun than you’d hope: it’s hard to keep track of the number of small scale domestic productions ostensibly carrying on the British tradition of homely Gothic horror, and every time we go in hoping they’ll do justice to the legacy of Hammer, Amicus, Tigon et al; yet the vast majority of the time, we come out the other end underwhelmed at best, or outright mortified at worst. As such UK horror movies go, at a glance Eat Locals may seem to have a lot more going for it than most, given the wealth of proven talent in front of the camera, plus a decent actor making his debut as director (although a warning sign may be thrown up by the attachment of a rather less reputable producer). Unfortunately, while its heart may be in the right place, this profoundly unfunny and never remotely scary vampire comedy is a total wash-out from start to finish.

We open on a remote, gloomy-looking farmhouse on a dark and spooky evening. A meeting of sorts is taking place between several mismatched individuals, seemingly there to discuss business. However, one of their number, Vanessa (Eve Myles), arrives a little late, and she brings with her a stranger: seemingly her new lover, a young chav named Sebastian (newcomer Billy Cook), who’s expecting nothing more than a romantic getaway, and is naturally a little taken aback by this bunch of somewhat aloof oddballs. After a lot of euphemistic talk and standard comedic misinterpretation, Sebastian learns the shocking truth: Vanessa and her old friends are a council of vampires, and they find themselves with a vacancy at their table which, thanks to his Romani bloodline, they think Sebastian is an ideal candidate to fill. But of course, you can’t put a bunch of mismatched individuals in a remote building without going Assault on Precinct 13, and so it is that the vampires soon find that they are under siege from an army unit quite literally out for their blood.

It’s a set-up which shows just enough promise to get your interest; assuming, that is, you haven’t already been drawn in by a cast clearly contrived to grab the attention of the genre audience. On top of Torchwood veteran Myles we have Daredevil’s Charlie Cox, Doctor Who/Sense8’s Freema Agyeman, not to mention prolific character actors Vincent Regan and Tony Curran (the latter being pretty experienced in vampire roles after Blade 2 and Underworld: Evolution), and a comedy wild card in One Foot in the Grave’s Annette Crosbie, who seems there primarily because Cockneys vs. Zombies proved that senior citizens wielding machine guns is an easy sell. Mackenzie Crook also pops up in a small role as a soldier, in a surprisingly straight turn for the typically comedic actor. Unfortunately, it would seem Eat Locals blew the vast majority of its budget on its above-average cast, as in terms of production value it’s very poor indeed, with lifeless DV cinematography and mediocre SFX.

None of this would necessarily be too big a problem if Danny King’s script and Jason Flemyng’s direction brought some life out of the undead ensemble. No such luck, though. While there are some nice ideas here and there which might have proved effective under different circumstances, the whole endeavour is bogged down by excessive overwritten dialogue which fails to convey either tension or amusement. As I said before, this is a horror comedy that’s completely devoid of real scares, with jokes which rarely inspire anything beyond a mildly amused snort here and there, and efforts to stir in a bit of Brexit-era social commentary prove largely fruitless. A few attempts at injecting some action into proceedings present some vague hope here and there (Jason Statham is credited as a fight scene adviser, which has to inspire some confidence) but these too fall flat thanks to the dodgy cinematography and editing.

We might go in hoping for a new horror comedy hit that measures up to the greats (I’m not even going to name the usual suspects; you know, the one with a certain monster from the United States visiting a certain British city, or that one in which the protagonist’s name conveniently rhymes with Dawn). Sadly, Eat Locals is little more than an episode of a TV daytime soap with a bit of blood and some swear words thrown in. Tired, tedious and instantly forgettable, this is definitely one to avoid.

Eat Locals is available on home entertainment in the UK from 30th October.

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

I’m not generally comfortable making big sweeping statements about newly released movies. You never know for sure what a film’s legacy is going to be, and whether or not it will really be remembered as time passes. However, in the case of Blade Runner 2049, I feel surprisingly confident in declaring that, in years to come, when people talk about the very best sequels ever made – The Bride of Frankenstein, The Godfather Part II, The Empire Strikes Back – this will also be a film that is mentioned every time. Denis Villeneuve’s belated follow-up to Ridley Scott’s cult classic is an absolute triumph, which not only honours its predecessor and advances the storyworld it created in a compelling and powerful manner, but also tells a brilliant stand-alone story with a captivating new aesthetic all of its own; and crucially, understanding and enjoyment of this does not by any means necessitate familiarity with the original.

Given that this is one instance in which a major blockbuster’s marketing campaign has managed not to give everything away, I’m reticent to go too heavily into the plot, suffice to say that Ryan Gosling is K, a new generation Blade Runner continuing in the not-so noble profession that Harrison Ford’s Deckard begrudgingly pursued in the first movie: hunting down and executing illegal artificially created humans known as Replicants. Of course, given three decades have passed in the film’s timeline (a few more than that in our own timeline, given Blade Runner came out in 1982), the technology has advanced a fair bit, and there’s a whole new generation of legal, seemingly safe Replicants which will do as they’re told and not put up any resistance, as they were always intended to do. However, just as K’s wrapping up his most recent case under the orders of Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright), an unexpected discovery leads him down a whole new line of investigation which relates to events from many years previous – i.e., when Deckard was still on the beat. This investigation draws K into the world of all-powerful industrialist Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), creator of the modern Replicant and owner of what remains of their original manufacturer, the Tyrell Corporation. And it’s not giving too much away to say that intrigue and violence ensues.

While Blade Runner 2049 should be perfectly accessible even to those unfamiliar with Blade Runner, interest in the sequel will of course be contingent to a large extent on how one feels about the original. If you found Ridley Scott’s film sterile, over-stylised and too heavy on symbolism, it’s entirely likely that Villeneueve’s will have a similar effect. However, it should be noted straight away that Blade Runner 2049 is by no means beholden to the distinct visual aesthetic of the original. This much is obvious from the very first scene, which – shocker – takes place in broad daylight (well, in smog-heavy air, but daylight nonetheless), something which was notable by its total absence in the original. Nor is the action entirely restricted to overcrowded metropolitan areas: while there are a great many striking shots of cluttered city blocks lit up with gargantuan holographic advertising, we also have numerous key sequences crossing vast, barren landscapes, and delving into rustic industrial sites.

Another key complaint that can, and indeed has been made of Scott’s film, particularly in light of today’s more gender-conscious criticism, is what an outright sausage fest it is. By contrast, Blade Runner 2049 would seem to have made a point of casting women in key roles of power, the most obvious being Robin Wright as Gosling’s boss; between this and Wonder Woman, the Artist Formerly Known as Buttercup has had quite the year for tough and meaty supporting roles. More of a revelation is Sylvia Hoeks as Luv, right-hand woman of Jared Leto’s Wallace, whose initial warmth masks a steely interior; happily, she also gets way more screen time than Leto, whose unsuprisingly eccentric performance (with vocal mannerisms uncannily like those of Jeffrey Combs) threatens to derail things at points, but is thankfully kept reined in enough.

However, the character and plot thread which would seem most likely to inspire debate and potential controversy is Ana de Armas as Joi. I don’t think it’s giving too much away to reveal that she too is a Replicant of sorts; not a physical clone of a human, but rather an artificial intelligence in a holographic form, created specifically to provide companionship for men. As such, she’s a logical extension of both Daryl Hannah and Joanna Cassidy’s ‘pleasure models’ of the original Blade Runner, and the Siris and Alexas of today. Her relationship with K takes up a great many scenes which (particularly given the film’s two and half hour running time) might easily be deemed irrelevant to the main thrust of the plot. However, much as with the original film, Blade Runner 2049’s narrative is ultimately of far less interest than the themes it delves into: chiefly, questions of identity, the validity of emotional responses, and how exactly we define life. This being the case, while I can see how these scenes might slow things down for some viewers, I found them among the most rewarding moments, which I think the film would be considerably worse off without. De Armas and Gosling have a wonderfully understated chemistry, and it doesn’t hurt that the sexual elements are not treated in a creepy, voyeuristic manner (as many would argue was the case in the similarly themed Ex Machina).

When all’s said and done though, there are two main powerhouse performances that drive Blade Runner 2049 – and neither of them is Harrison Ford. Not that there’s anything remotely wrong with the performance from the beloved old curmudgeon with a knack for reprising the signature roles of his youth (after this, Indy and Star Wars, surely a sequel based around Bob Falfa from American Graffiti is the only way forward); he’s every bit the star he ever was, and I wouldn’t be surprised if recent speculation that this could land him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar proves true (although even so, it’ll be one of those ‘better late than never’ ones). No, the real stars of the show in Blade Runner 2049 are cinematographer Roger Deakins – surely the best there is in his field (who astonishingly still doesn’t have an Oscar either), doing staggeringly gorgeous work here – and Ryan Gosling. I must confess I was a little sceptical about Gosling’s casting at first, but as soon as the film began it all made sense. His largely silent roles for Nicolas Winding Refn feel like a dry run for this, as K’s emotional distance makes Deckard seem like a well-rounded new man by comparison. The actors I’ve always most admired are those who are able to ostensibly do very little, yet command your attention at all times, and Gosling – who’s rarely off-screen – maintains this throughout, even when sharing the screen with Ford. As great as his work with Refn is, this is surely Gosling’s best performance yet.

And of course, bravo too to Denis Villeneuve; and thank God (or, I dunno, the Maker or whatever) that Ridley Scott passed on the reins to this particular sequel, considering how badly the elder director screwed the pooch this year with Alien: Covenant. I’m a little ashamed to admit this is actually the first Villeneueve movie I’ve seen, and from this it’s quite clear why he’s held up as one of the best around right now. It takes real skill and real guts to take on a sequel to a movie as revered and influential as Blade Runner; the fact that Villeneuve was also able to craft a film which stands on its own two feet, with an energy, atmosphere and personality all of its own, is truly something to be applauded. More than anything else, with Blade Runner 2049 arriving in the wake of the likes of Logan and It (both of which it is superior to), it’s very encouraging indeed to see that intelligent, adult-oriented big budget genre films have come back in a big way. We can but hope this wave will continue – and if it means more sequels/reboots, then that’s nothing to worry about if they’re even close to being as good as this.

Blade Runner 2049 is in cinemas now.