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.

Anti Matter (2016)

Sitting down to watch an ultra low-budget genre film from a first time feature filmmaker always feels something of a lottery. More often than not, sad to say, you wind up with something that really wasn’t worth anyone’s time, and it’s liable to leave you feeling either resentful or sympathetic to the individuals who put so much of their time and energy into it. On occasion, though, a few of your numbers come up and you find yourself with a winner on your hands; not a huge winner, necessarily, but something that shows signs of a genuinely skilled cast and crew at work, limited by the means at their disposal, yet with enough creativity and vision for that not to matter too much. This is certainly the case with Anti Matter, the debut feature from writer-director Keir Burrows.

Ana (Yaiza Figueroa) is a post-graduate physics student at Oxford, and as part of her studies she is… okay, I’m going to stop right here. There is a whole lot of complex science talk in Anti Matter, and speaking as someone who only got a D in GCSE science, I’m happy to confess that a great deal of it goes right over my head. However, much as one doesn’t necessarily need to understand, say, all the intricacies of real estate sales to be caught up in the tensions of Glengarry Glen Ross, so it is that you can appreciate the drama of Anti Matter without being up to speed on all the whys and wherefores of modern science. Not that I’m suggesting Burrows is in the same league as David Mamet. But I digress.

As I was saying: Ana’s post-graduate studies take an exciting turn when, quite by accident, she stumbles upon what appears to be a means of teleporting matter. She enlists her friends Nate (Tom Barber-Duffy) and Liv (Phillipa Carson), and together the students are beyond thrilled to find their technique works; but, as they’re naturally eager to keep their discovery to themselves, and their methods are not exactly legal, the experiments are carried out in secret. After starting out teleporting small inanimate objects, they gradually work their way up until living creatures is the next logical step, and so – taking care to avoid the attention of the mobs of protesters outside, demanding an end to animal testing in the university’s science labs – they start sneaking in rats, cats and the like. You know what’s next; it’s time to try putting a person through. And, as anyone who’s seen The Fly can tell you, teleportation experiments don’t always work out so well for human test subjects.

As much as microbudget filmmaking is always a risky proposition, science fiction can be a particularly tricky one given how often the genre hinges on special effects. Anti Matter, thankfully, is more driven more by ideas than visuals, and builds the drama through keeping you guessing; although, as microbudget goes, it’s still a handsomely shot affair, making effective use of the picturesque Oxford University setting. Plot-wise, the film’s PR likens it to Darren Aronofsky’s Pi, and while it’s not quite such a success Anti Matter does indeed work to similar effect, building in intrigue, suspense and paranoia as the running time progresses. After her teleportation experience, Ana knows things aren’t quite the same; she finds herself unable to recall events that have occurred since the experiment, and feels strangers watching her everywhere. The question is, how much of it is just in her head?

While Anti Matter may invite comparisons to Pi and, to an extent, Christopher Nolan’s Memento, I find myself most reminded of Mike Flanagan’s Absentia, inasmuch as both films are driven primarily by intellectual discussions of abstract concepts, all of which might have fallen flat in the hands of a less capable director and cast. As stated, much of the science talk can often feel like indecipherable babble to layman’s ears, but Figueroa, Barber-Duffy and Carson make it all sound natural enough that it’s easy to get swept up in it all. Given the strengths Flanagan has gone to since making the move to bigger budget productions, I certainly hope Anti Matter opens the door for Burrows to progress in a similar fashion. 

This is not to say that everything in Anti Matter is entirely successful. There’s a love triangle subplot which seems a bit superfluous and never entirely convinces, and a few sidesteps into action territory – a parkour rooftop chase, a wall-climbing break-in, and a bit of final act gun violence – feel like they belong in a different movie altogether. Much the same can be said for Noah Maxwell-Clarke’s eccentric copper, seemingly an attempt at comic relief which doesn’t pay off. It’s also fair to say that, after all the intrigue and build-up, the conclusion isn’t quite so surprising or effective as we might like. Even so, there’s more than enough in Anti Matter that works for it to be worthwhile viewing, and with any luck a great calling card for Keir Burrows, a filmmaker from whom I think we can expect big things in years ahead.

Anti-Matter is available on UK DVD now from Kaleidoscope Home Entertainment.

Felicity (1978)

Should we ever ask, “what did we do before we had the internet?” I daresay Felicity might be as good an example as any to address the implicit underlying question.  Now that footage of just about any form of sexual activity can be found at the push of button, and mainstream TV is filled with simulated rumpy-pumpy, it may be hard for younger millennials to conceive of a time when raunchy material was not so easily accessible. This inaccessibility was not purely down to technology, of course, but also differing moral stances on what was deemed acceptable viewing material. Thank goodness, then, for the lovely, liberated 1970s, which saw the (back) doors blown wide open as pornography made its way into the mainstream. The likes of Emmanuelle and The Story of O inspired scores of low-budget filmmakers to follow suit and cook up soft-focus softcore skin flicks of their own, and one such filmmaker was John D Lamond, director of 1978 Australian sex film Felicity, which Severin Films released to Blu-ray earlier this year.

Felicity (Glory Annen, who sadly died earlier this year) is a convent schoolgirl; just turned 18, we can safely assume, or bloody well hope (in any case, Annen herself was 26 at the time). Like any young lady blossoming into womanhood, surrounded only by members of her gender who spend a lot of time showering and/or sitting around the dorm rooms in very skimpy pyjamas, Felicity frequently finds her thoughts drifting toward sex. In fact, we’re given almost no indication that she ever thinks about anything else at all. Out of the blue, Felicity finds herself invited to stay with a relative in Hong Kong for the summer, and naturally she’s thrilled to go, not because she necessarily cares that much about experiencing another culture, but more because it presents ample opportunities for all manner of coming-of-age experiences. She ain’t mama’s little girl no more, as the film’s theme song tells us (many, many, many times).

If that synopsis sounds like the half-baked fantasy of a dirty old man – well, I doubt that’s too far from the reality of the matter. The film makes no secret of its influences, directly referencing Emmanuelle and The Story of O many times, and playing out in a similar fashion. As we’ve known for time immemorial, no one watches porn for the plot, so it’s not entirely surprising that Felicity is virtually plotless, content to simply follow our heroine from one sexual encounter to the next. As per the time, Felicity barely seems to bat an eye at the blatant lechery of men young and old, taking it all with the old boys-will-be-boys attitude whether it’s a caretaker peeping on her in the shower or her greengrocer boss touching her thigh while she’s up a ladder. Once she’s on her way to the city, she seems keen to tick all the boxes: boy-girl, girl-girl, orgies, in the cinema, in the lift. And when she isn’t either having sex or thinking about sex, she seems to be perpetually on her way for a hot bath.

Along the way, there obviously isn’t much in the way of discernible character development, despite Annen’s frequent narration explaining how much of a personal revelation it all is, in a classic dirty book vernacular; lots of ‘warm tinglings in my most secret place’ and whatnot. Innuendos naturally pop up quite a bit, some more blatant than others; one doesn’t have to look too hard (teehee) to see the connotation when Felicity invites her friend for a swim with the words “let’s get wet,” but I’m a little bewildered as to how saying “let’s get into the prawns” over a Chinese meal constitutes a sexual invitation.

The choice of setting the bulk of the action in Hong Kong is a curious one. I realise the Australian and Hong Kong film industries shared fairly close ties at the time (thank goodness, or we might not have Brian Trenchard-Smith’s kung fu classic The Man From Hong Kong), and I can understand that the location may add an extra dimension of exoticism to proceedings for the domestic audience of the time. However, the setting feels rather pointless given that, by the look of things, the bulk of the interior scenes were shot in Australia with Aussie actors, and the vast majority of the characters Felicity encounters along the way – including a ridiculously flamboyant lingerie salesman, a creepy mustachioed man who rather roughly takes her virginity, and the boy toy with whom she ultimately finds happiness – are Australian. Still, there’s more than enough bare flesh on the screen to distract the viewer from any such concerns.

Severin’s cover art proudly proclaims this to be ‘unrated director’s cut of the infamous erotic sensation,’ and it’s not hard to see how it might have been a bit of an eye-opener at the time. However, beyond some rather outdated notions about what constitutes acceptable behaviour (our heroine’s first time is quite clearly rape), Felicity is for the most part pretty quaint and tame by modern standards. It doesn’t take long to get repetitive and tedious, but as old school midnight movie material goes it certainly isn’t the worst you’ll ever see, and it’s got enough of that oddball Ozploitation flavour to give it a certain charm. Indeed, Ozploitation aficionados will probably want to pick up this Blu-ray edition from Severin, as it boasts two earlier full-length films from director John D Lamond: his 1975 debut, gonzo documentary Australia After Dark, and The ABCs of Love and Sex: Australia Style, a psuedo-educational film with its tongue so far in its cheek it’s hard to imagine anyone was ever under any illusions that it was anything but bald-face smut. And why not. On top of this we have a feature commentary from Lamond, a trailer reel of his filmography, and some outtakes from the acclaimed Ozploitation documentary Not Quite Hollywood.

Felicity is available now on Blu-ray in the US and UK, from Severin Films.

No guts, no glory: George A Romero’s bittersweet legacy

Whenever I see a film in which the characters are watching Night of the Living Dead – the breakthrough work of the late, great George A Romero – it inspires very mixed feelings. Such scenes are fairly common in modern horror (see Sinister 2 or XX), and on the one hand they seem a nice way for the filmmakers to doff their cap to the film to which the contemporary genre owes so much. However, such scenes also make me angry, from knowing that the filmmakers seized the opportunity to utilise iconic footage without having to pay a penny, due to the lamentable fact that Night of the Living Dead is in the public domain.

It’s a bitter sting that a tiny oversight – the accidental omission of a copyright notice under the title, as was legally required at the time – has meant that Romero received no residual payments from Night of the Living Dead, leaving any distributor with the right to reproduce the film as they see fit, and any filmmaker with the right to use the title, the premise, and of course any footage from the film, completely free of charge.  A high price to pay for a rookie mistake, particularly one for which neither Romero nor his crew may have been directly to blame (read more on the matter here).

It’s long been argued, quite rightly, that on top of giving birth to a whole new subgenre of horror and indeed playing a key role in revitalising the genre en masse, Romero’s Night of the Living Dead also rewrote the rule book for filmmaking on an independent level, demonstrating that films could reach a wide audience and make big money without having the Hollywood majors involved. We can easily say that Romero’s career set in place a blueprint which, by accident or design, many others would follow in the almost half-century since; but that includes both the good and the bad, which in a sad way the tarnished legacy of NOTLD serves to underline.

As recently as two weeks ago, Romero was lamenting his inability to get new movies off the ground whilst others squeezed the juice from the fruits of his endeavours. Whenever such remarks emerged, it was hard not to at least partially write them off as the grumblings of a crotchety old man; his dismissal of The Walking Dead feels especially cutting, given the association of his old friend and collaborator Greg Nicotero. Nor did it help that Romero’s final films showed the old master losing his touch; I for one will always defend Land of the Dead (yes, it’s glossy and mainstream-friendly, but it’s great fun and still has that sharp satirical edge of Romero’s best work), but Diary of the Dead was quite possibly the worst cinematic let-down I’ve ever experienced, and after hearing nothing good I’ve never had the heart to watch Survival of the Dead.

Despite all this, it was never hard to see where Romero’s complaints were coming from. Hollywood would remake films with his name on them (Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, The Crazies), and they’d trade in on the iconography he created (literally any modern zombie movie you could mention), and yet they wouldn’t fund the films he himself wanted to make. Phil Nobile Jr at Birth Movies Death notes that in the 1990s – a decade in which Romero’s only directorial credits are Two Evil Eyes (1990) and The Dark Half (1993) – the filmmaker was “paid more to develop projects that never happened than he was ever paid to actually make all his other films put together.” On the one hand, we might say that’s nice work if you can get it. When I had the good fortune of seeing and briefly meeting Romero in person at New York Comic Con in 2006 (yes, that’s me with him below), I seem to recall him remarking in a Q&A that he couldn’t really complain too much about how the industry had treated him given how well he’d done financially. Even so, surely no artist wants to work on a project only for it never to come to fruition.

 

Of course, we can’t fail to note that after he finally got back on the horse with 2000’s Bruiser (a film I must sadly confess I haven’t seen to date), Romero went on to produce nothing but zombie material, both in his aforementioned latter-day Dead trilogy (Land/Diary/Survival), and the Empire of the Dead comics series. The question remains as to what extent the industry wouldn’t let Romero out of that reanimated corpse-shaped box, or whether he remained there by his own volition. I’m sure I can speak for many fans when I say that I found his apparent resignation to the title of ‘the deadfather’ really quite dispiriting, given the great work he’d done outside of the living dead: Season of the Witch is a flawed but fascinating blend of early 70s occultism and feminism (and a film which, in 2006, he said he was considering revisiting); Martin is one of the finest and most frequently overlooked of all vampire films; Creepshow is the best live action approximation of the EC Comics format that we have, not to mention one of the best films Stephen King has been involved with; and, while my feelings on Arthurian hippy carnival biker movie Knightriders are somewhat mixed, there’s no denying it’s a distinctive and unique vision.

We might consider the possibility that Romero’s latter-day difficulties with Hollywood were less to do with the filmmaker himself being pigeon-holed, and more endemic of the broader struggles faced by older directors in the contemporary marketplace; witness David Lynch’s on again/off again retirement from film due to his frustrations with the industry, or the fact that Martin Scorcese’s next film The Irishman looks to be headed straight to Netflix despite the ridiculous wealth of talent attached.  Even so, it’s clear that Romero never had the desire or inclination to play the game, preferring to make his own films by his own rules. An admirable approach, and one which gave us several of the best and most influential horror movies of all time, which have inspired both the output and the ethos of countless scores of filmmakers since. Yet it’s bittersweet when we consider how much more Romero could have given to cinema, and how much more cinema owed him in return.

 

Space Babes from Outer Space (2017)

Microbudget indie film company Bandit Motion Pictures are very much following their own path. The partnership between filmmakers Scott Schirmer and Brian K Williams produced two of the most unique and impressive horror movies of 2016: the erotically-charged Harvest Lake and backwoods nightmare Plank Face, both directed by Schirmer. However, as should be apparent from the title alone, Space Babes from Outer Space is one giant leap in a different direction. This time around directing duties go to Williams (previously responsible for grindhouse movie Time to Kill), and the largely serious tone of Bandit’s last two efforts goes out the window in favour of a raucous sci-fi sex comedy which, thirty years ago, one could easily envisage Linnea Quigley, Brinke Stevens and Michelle Bauer taking the lead roles in. And if you’re in any way an admirer of the work of that iconic B-movie trio, you will surely find plenty to enjoy here.

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Show Pieces (2014)

Does mastery of one particular art form ever guarantee success in another? There are numerous instances of literary figures moving over to film, some very successfully (say, Clive Barker), some a bit less so (say, Stephen King); but for a frame of reference more specific to the subject of Show Pieces, we might consider the great comics writers – or, if you’re that way inclined, graphic novelists – of the 1980s. Neil Gaiman seemed to move with relative ease from master of comics to one of the most justly acclaimed fantasy novelists of our time, plus some modest success as a screenwriter (Beowulf, Mirrormask), whilst Frank Miller got off to a roaring start on the big screen with Sin City, even if he fudged the landing on The Spirit. Ah, but then there’s that undisputed titan of the field, Alan Moore, as renowned for his groundbreaking masterworks in the comics arena as he is for his unabashed contempt for Hollywood and its appropriation of his creations (not unreasonable when you look at From Hell, Watchmen or most pointedly The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, although I daresay the V For Vendetta movie isn’t half bad). Given his outspoken contempt for most mainstream media, the idea of Moore getting into film at all had long seemed unlikely, so it’s little surprise that when he chose to do so it would be very much in an independent capacity, on a trio of short films with director Mitch Jenkins. The question is, what would the mighty imagination of Moore bring to the screen, and how well could this be realised on a microbudget?

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Baby Driver (2017)

Edgar Wright has carved a fairly unique niche for himself in the contemporary film landscape, as the creator of original, mid-budget productions which have made him the toast of critics and fan circles, without necessarily alienating the broader mainstream audience. Just look at how Baby Driver, his fifth major movie (sixth overall, counting his little-seen DIY debut A Fistful of Fingers) is hitting cinemas in peak blockbuster season, with a marketing push to rival that of many a studio tentpole release; a show of remarkable confidence on the part of Sony/TriStar, given that the film in question is a fairly odd fish that doesn’t neatly fit into any pre-existing barrels. We can also hardly fail to note how heavily Baby Driver’s marketing his been based not so much around its cast – even though it boasts two Oscar-winners in Kevin Spacey and Jamie Foxx, as well as esteemed TV stars Jon Hamm and Jon Bernthal – but around the name of its writer-director himself. Again, a bold move, particularly as Baby Driver is in some respects quite far removed from anything Edgar Wright has done up to this point; but at the same time, his calling cards are so liberally littered across every minute of film that there’s really no mistaking it for the work of any other filmmaker working today.

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