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.

Cold Moon (2016)

The words ‘from the writer of Beetlejuice and The Nightmare Before Christmas’ conjure certain mental images; you’re left picturing something that resembles… well… a Tim Burton film. However, Cold Moon – an adaptation of the late Michael McDowell’s 1980 novel Cold Moon over Babylon – is an altogether different kettle of fish, brought to life with what would appear to be a considerably lower budget than Burton typically gets to play around with. Now, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, it tends not to inspire much confidence when low budget horror movies shot on cheap looking DV come onto the radar; nor is that confidence necessarily boosted when, as in this instance, it’s the work of a director whose CV consists mainly of direct to DVD cheapies for The Asylum. However, one of my personal favourites of the last decade, Some Guy Who Kills People, was made under much the same conditions, so given my confidence in both that film and the writer behind this new one, I definitely went into Cold Moon with an open mind. Unfortunately, director Griff Furst’s film proves to be every bit the dud I feared; an ambitious attempt at American Gothic which crumbles under its own weight almost immediately.

I’ll admit straight away to being completely unfamiliar with McDowell’s novel, but it’s no surprise that the film has literary beginnings, as the whole set-up screams paperback potboiler. Our setting is Babylon, a small town in Florida, and as the story takes place in the 1980s it’s naturally a place that sees the working class citizens struggle whilst the wealthy thrive. Among those hit the hardest are the Larkins, a grandmother and her two grandchildren who are struggling to keep their humble fruit farm from going under; whilst at the opposite end of the ladder, the affluent Redfields, owners of the local bank, don’t seem too concerned with helping out the little guy. However, worries about money soon fade into the background for Evelyn Larkin (Candy Clark, recently seen in Twin Peaks) and her grandson Jerry (Chester Rushing, the high school douchebag in Stranger Things), when Jerry’s younger sister doesn’t come home after school – and not long thereafter is found dead in the river. Sheriff Ted Hale (Frank ‘check out the big brain on Brett’ Whaley) is soon on the case, and a hysterical Evelyn is convinced that the sleazy Nathan Redfield (Josh Stewart) is responsible. But of course, this first death is just the tip of the iceberg.

From that description, it sounds like Cold Moon is all set to whip up intrigue, mystery and suspense, particularly given that a supernatural element soon comes into play, with the ghosts of the recently deceased coming back to haunt their murderer – or at least, that’s what the murderer thinks they’re seeing… ah, look at me being all coy trying to avoid spoilers, when in truth Cold Moon doesn’t play anything close to its chest for long. This may be part of the problem: the true identity of the killer is revealed far too early, with motives that aren’t especially compelling, and in order to make up for that release in the tension, the film tries to pile on a bit of weirdness to compensate. This latter half of the film is where the Beetlejuice link in particular comes into play, as the ghostly apparitions take on increasingly bizarre appearances; however, in this instance they’re largely played straight, presumably intended to elicit real scares rather than laughs. It doesn’t prove effective. These elements might have been intended to heighten things, but they just stick out like a sore thumb in what is otherwise a very mundane, boringly constructed backwoods police procedural that could easily be confused with any bog-standard TV detective drama.

I suppose it’s never a good sign when a film’s marketing makes a point of promoting Tommy ‘The Room’ Wiseau as one of the stars of the show; which, incidentally, is bollocks, as he’s little more than a featured extra in one scene. Wiseau’s cameo notwithstanding, Cold Moon does boast a perfectly decent cast, notably with a small role for Christopher Lloyd (sadly, with this coming so soon after The Sound, that’s two films in a row that are completely beneath the old legend). Sadly, director Furst’s background in Asylum tripe betrays him, as Cold Moon is blandly shot and directed, with no real tension or atmosphere to speak of, undermining the best efforts of the actors. This is a shame, as the potential was clearly there for something better – but if you’re after a great small town murder mystery with surreal and supernatural overtones, stick with Twin Peaks, and give Cold Moon a very wide berth.

Cold Moon is releaed to US theatres and VOD on 6th October, via Uncork’d Entertainment.


Berlin Syndrome (2017)

It seems that films in which women are sequestered in the name of romance yet wind up trapped and fighting for their lives are like buses; you wait for ages, then two show up at once. Okay, technically Berlin Syndrome arrived a fair bit sooner than Gerald’s Game, as it was released to limited cinemas earlier this year following a number of festival screenings including Sundance, Glasgow and (appropriately enough) Berlin. Still, as it hits home entertainment now, it’s hard not to notice the thematic and narrative similarities between Mike Flanagan’s Stephen King adaptation, and Cate Shortland’s take on Melanie Joosten’s novel. Not that this is something to get too hung up on, however, as Berlin Syndrome quickly proves to be a very different, almost equally compelling work, with a haunting power all of its own.

Our central protagonist is an Australian backpacker named Clare (Teresa Palmer, who’s been in so many US productions – Warm Bodies, Lights Out, Hacksaw Ridge – that I don’t think I’ve ever seen her play an Australian role before now). Visting Berlin solo, Clare’s ostensibly there to take photos of the city for an art book she’s working on, but really she’s there in the hopes of some life-changing experience. Exploring the city, she crosses paths with Andi (Max Reimelt of Sense8 and We Are The Night), a handsome, charismatic teacher whom just about any straight woman would surely be delighted to take home to mother. The two hit it off, he shows her some sights of the city – the real city, in what had been East German territory before the Berlin Wall came down – and, naturally, he soon takes her back to his place, which would appear to be the only habitable apartment in a remote, run-down complex. A night of passion ensues, and everything seems to be going just right… until, after he leaves for work in the morning, Claire finds herself locked in without a key. She takes this for a simple mistake on his part at first, and when he returns that evening he insists it was just that – but then the same thing happens the next day, bringing Claire to the alarming realisation that her seemingly perfect guy has made her his prisoner.

It’s easy to assume going in, as I did, that Berlin Syndrome is setting itself up as another breakneck survivalist thriller in which a terrified but resourceful woman fights off a psychotic predatory male, along the lines of Red Eye or P2. However, while there are certainly aspects of that here, Berlin Syndrome has something rather different in mind. First off, after a spot of Googling I think I can safely assume the title does not in any way refer to the actual condition of Berlin syndrome (apparently some kind of ectodermal dysplasia), but rather plays on Stockholm syndrome, which as I expect more readers are aware hinges on an emotional bond between the hostage and the captor. The film plays out in a far more realistic and grounded fashion than many similarly themed thrillers, and when Claire’s first escape attempts reveal that she doesn’t in fact have any of those hidden reserves of superhuman strength which Final Girls so often summon forth, she comes to accept her situation. What makes the whole set-up all the more disturbing is that, while a few subtle red flags are thrown up along the way, we don’t know for sure that Andi’s a bad guy until the moment he locks her in, and up to that point it really does seem a romantic bond is growing between them. Then, once Claire’s fight leaves her, a seemingly genuine sense of love between the two resurfaces. We’re not sure to what extent Claire is playing along simply to lull him into a false sense of security, or if she genuinely wants to please him. Either way, it’s a real descent into madness arc which Palmer handles beautifully, and making it all the more effective is the fact that Reimelt never plays Andi as a villain, as easy as it would have been to do so. Deplorable though his actions are, he remains human and, in his own way, easy to empathise with, all of which makes the whole thing all the more disturbing.

Still, while Berlin Syndrome is a handsome-looking film driven by two compelling lead performances, it does lose momentum a little in the scenes that take us away from that central relationship. A subplot involving one of Andi’s pupils never quite convinces, which is a bit of a problem as this thread comes into play in the final scenes. There also undertones of political unrest rooted in the history of the previously divided city which are intriguing, yet feel perhaps a little underdeveloped; I’ll admit, this may reflect my own relative ignorance of the history of Germany since the fall of the wall, and if the film encourages viewers like myself to learn more about that, surely that can only be a good thing. Either way, Berlin Syndrome is an impressive piece of work that’s well worth watching.

Berlin Syndrome is available on DVD, Blu-ray and video on demand now, from Curzon Artificial Eye.

Gerald’s Game (2017)

For anyone who keeps up with the contemporary film scene, there’s really no getting around the somewhat eerie prescience of Gerald’s Game landing on screens at this moment. It’s not just that it’s the latest high profile Stephen King adaptation during something of a renaissance for the famed author’s works on screen, landing in the wake of the massively successful It and the somewhat less successful The Dark Tower, not to mention the recently axed TV series of The Mist. Considerably more so than this, it’s the core themes of King’s 1992 novel – brilliantly adapted by one of the finest filmmakers working in horror today, Mike Flanagan – that really resonate in the current climate. On the one hand, we could call Gerald’s Game a simple survivalist tale, centred on one woman trapped alone in a single location facing certain death, and in that respect it’s not too far removed from Flanagan’s earlier film Hush; but crucially – indeed, inescapably – Gerald’s Game is a story about the suffering of women at the hands of abusive, manipulative men. And if you need filling in as to why this is particularly relevant now, this article is as good a place as any to start.

Jessie (Carla Gugino) is taken by her husband Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) up to their idyllic, remote holiday home by a lake. The plan, it seems, is for the couple to get away from the hustle and bustle of their metropolitan lives and spend some real quality time alone. Of course, this doesn’t mean they intend to walk on the beach and be one with nature or any of that nonsense; nope, this means the plan is to rekindle the flames of carnal desire between the two of them. And in his advancing years, it seems Gerald needs a little bit extra to rev his engine these days, not just in the form of Viagra (not an aspect of King’s 1992 novel, obviously as it wasn’t a thing just yet), but also by playing a bit of kinky role play and bondage with his apparently willing wife. For this special occasion, Gerald’s gone all out, advancing from the classic silk scarves to bona fide police grade handcuffs with which he restrains Jessie on the bed. However, as the game begins, it quickly becomes clear that Jessie isn’t comfortable, and the ensuing argument ends in the worst possible way: Gerald is suddenly struck down by a massive heart attack, and drops dead, leaving Jessie trapped, with seemingly no means of escape, and no neighbours for miles around – with the exception of one hungry-looking stray dog.

Considering the novel’s a full 25 years old, and vast swathes of King stories have been adapted for the screen in that time, it seems quite remarkable that it’s taken this long for Gerald’s Game to get the movie treatment – but I think we can be very thankful for that. I shudder to think what the results would have been like had anyone tried to film it in the 1990s; in the wake of Basic Instinct, it almost certainly would have been geared as a sordid erotic thriller. Thankfully, Mike Flanagan and his co-screenwriter Jeff Howard are much too smart to take that route. While I can imagine that some purists and/or perverts will bemoan the fact that Gugino is not naked for the duration as in the book, this is the only major deviation, the film staying true to the novel’s central focus on the protagonist’s mental struggles as she tries to think her way out of her dire situation. The main way in which Jessie processes her trauma is with mental projections of both the dead Gerald and an externalised version of herself; as a result long sections of the film are based on conversations between Greenwood and the two Guginos, all whilst another Greenwood lies rotting on the floor, slowly being eaten by a dog.

Written down like that, you’d be forgiven for anticipating a thoroughly sensationalist schlock horror with overtones of black comedy, but the truly remarkable thing is that Flanagan’s direction always keeps things surprisingly grounded and sober. Yes, the leads are scantily clad throughout (and both in amazing shape – male and female viewers alike, prepare to have Carla Gugino arm envy); and yes, there are some very grisly moments. Yet it never feels exploitative, even in its most extreme moments. And let there be no mistake, Gerald’s Game gets pretty extreme at times. I haven’t seen a film that’s made me wince so hard for some time. As his previous films have demonstrated, Flanagan is capable of showing remarkable restraint, whilst at the same time not leaving the shock-hungry gorehounds feeling short-changed, and this, I think, is why he really is one of the best in the business right now.

However, the real gut-punches in Gerald’s Game are not the splashes of viscera, as gruesome as they may be. This is a story that deals with real trauma buried deep in the subconscious of a troubled woman, and it’s in delving into this that the film really gets under the skin, in a manner which is liable to push a great many viewers out of their comfort zone. However, as I said coming in, this is a story that I think needs to be told right now, particularly to the men among us. As recent events have shown, the mistreatment of women – and the all-too frequent lack of consequences for abusive men -remains a huge problem that needs to be addressed, even among us allegedly progressive cineaste types. As much as Gerald’s Game will no doubt present much which women can relate to, so too does it confront men with aspects of our behaviour we might not like to admit to – and, here’s hoping, it may open some eyes to the need for change.

I haven’t seen The Dark Tower at the time of writing, but even so – and after thoroughly enjoying It – I feel confident in declaring Gerald’s Game the best Stephen King adaptation of the year. On top of which, it goes that bit further to confirming that Mike Flanagan is a director who’s truly at the top of his game. Even so, this does raise the point that it’s rather a pity his film has to skip cinemas entirely in favour of going direct to Netflix, but that’s a whole other debate for another time…

Gerald’s Game is available to view now on Netflix.

Body Heat (1981)

As much as devotees of horror and science fiction will often quite reasonably complain about their favoured genres failing to get the respect they deserve, I’m not sure there’s any genre with quite so bad a name as the erotic thriller. The very utterance of the words invariably elicit titters, not just from childish types who automatically giggle at anything sexual (which, obviously, isn’t like me at all, honest), but also because so much absolute crap has been produced under the heading of erotica. 9½ Weeks, Showgirls, Body of Evidence, Striptease, all the way up to Fifty Shades of Grey; while there’s certainly a case to be made for the entertainment value of such movies, the bulk of them are high camp guilty pleasures at best. It seems almost unheard of now for a glossy, studio-produced erotic movie to feature a truly great cast working from a truly great script with truly great direction, treating the character and the drama with every bit as much importance as the bare flesh. However, this is very much what we get from 1981’s Body Heat, and it’s a feat made all the more remarkable given it was the first film of both director Lawrence Kasdan, and lead actress Kathleen Turner. 

William Hurt (a relative film newbie himself at the time, coming to this straight from his breakthrough roles in Altered States and Eyewitness) is Ned Racine, a small-time lawyer in a small Florida town caught in the grip of a stifling heatwave. Scraping a living from the most tedious cases imaginable, Ned clearly doesn’t get much in the way of job satisfaction, and so it seems his principle means of fulfilment is womanising. When we meet him it’s apparent he has a slew of one-night stands and casual affairs under his belt, but when he crosses paths with the wealthy, alluring and oh-so-married Matty Walker (Turner), that’s when – as the film’s title clearly implies – the temperature rises. The two become lovers, and very enthusiastic ones at that, but all on the understanding that it has to remain a total secret, especially from Matty’s husband Edmund (Richard Crenna, of the Rambo series). You know the drill: the older man can no longer fulfil his younger wife in any manner save monetarily, but thanks to a prenup, leaving Edmund would leave Matty with almost nothing – and so it is that Ned and Matty decide they’ll have to murder him in order to have the life they want together. But once again, you know the drill: no murder plot ever goes as smoothly as planned, and there are always a few unexpected twists along the way.

From the premise, the title, and the title sequence in which saucy saxophone tones (props to the legendary composer John Barry) play out over extreme close-ups of feminine curves cross-fading into one another under low light, one would be forgiven for going into Body Heat expecting something very trashy indeed. The remarkable thing – indeed, the thing that’s hardest to believe after decades of upmarket skin flicks promising ‘tastefully done’ nudity and sex – is just how genuinely classy a film Body Heat is. The simple explanation is that, rather than going out of their way to make an overtly titillating film as so many others would in years to come, Kasdan and co clearly focused on making a good film first and foremost, in which sex just happens to be a key component. While the sexual content is pretty strong by mainstream standards, it doesn’t feel forced; nor does it feel specifically intended to shock, as was so often the case with the movies that came in the wake of Basic Instinct. It’s a direct, natural sexiness which surprisingly never feels voyeuristic, and is pleasantly undercut with low-key humour.

Much of this is down to the casting. Both tremendous actors at the top of their game, Hurt and Turner have remarkable chemistry, and are of course fine-looking people, which does rather factor into things given how frequently they appear naked and/or in the throes. I doubt I need to tell anyone what a sex symbol Turner became in the 80s, and while she went on to take a few more raunchy roles (the raunchiest of all being Ken Russell’s Crimes of Passion), she was never again quite such an authentic femme fatale vamp as she is here. Sure, she played up the femme fatale stereotype in The Man With Two Brains, and most famously as the voice of Jessica Rabbit, but – once again – the key to Body Heat is that neither Turner as actress nor Kasdan as writer/director are playing it as a stereotype. As Kasdan remarks in the extras (recycled from a 2006 DVD release), while the film is very clearly modelled on the romantic noir thrillers of the 40s and 50s, his intention with the film was to present “recognisable people in extraordinary circumstances,” and that’s very much the way the end result plays.

As terrific a launchpad as Body Heat proved for its director and lead actors, it doesn’t short-change its supporting cast either. It’s curious now to see Ted Danson, who I think it’s fair to say went on to become a much bigger heart-throb than Hurt off the back of Cheers, cast as a weirder, geekier guy in horn-rimmed glasses with a habit for breaking out in impromptu tap-dance routines. While very much playing third fiddle as Hurt’s fellow lawyer buddy, he gets quite the interesting journey of his own to go on, particularly as the drama builds and he and their mutual cop friend JA Preston (another great supporting turn) come to suspect their pal of foul play. I found it particularly striking that Mickey Rourke also gets a supporting role, given that actor would later play a key role in the commercial rise and artistic plummet of the erotic movie via tripe like the aforementioned 9½ Weeks and Wild Orchid.

Kasdan to this day remains best known for his work as a screenwriter – writing Raiders of the Lost Ark and three of the best Star Wars movies will do that for you – but revisiting Body Heat now, it’s hard not to be a little sad that his directorial career didn’t prove to have quite the same enduring lustre. (Remember Dreamcatcher? Yeesh.) No matter though, as his debut truly is a remarkable piece of work, and one that a lot of filmmakers in these post-Grindhouse days might do well to look at, given it shows how a film can pay homage to favourites of years gone by without labouring on explicit references and aesthetic trappings. Write a great script, get a great cast, and all being well the rest should take care of itself.

Body Heat is available now in dual format Blu-ray/DVD as part of Warner Bros’ Premium collection, exclusive to HMV.

The Sound (2016)

I can’t speak for all horror movie reviewers when I say this, but personally I tend to take very little pleasure from seeing my initial preconceptions proved 100% correct. As soon as we first got word of The Sound, everything from the title to the premise to the blank, lifeless expressions on the faces of the lead actors in the accompanying stills drove me to assume that it would be an utterly bland, mediocre haunted house movie nigh-on indistinguishable from countless droves that have come before it. I hoped I was wrong; surely we all go into any movie hoping that we’re going to be pleasantly surprised, or what’s the point sitting down to watch them at all? Given that Rose McGowan had not long since declared her retirement from acting, perhaps there was something special about this role to bring her back. Then there’s the presence of Christopher Lloyd; perhaps, as with last year’s I Am Not a Serial Killer, this would be another smart choice of an above-average indie horror production from the ageing big screen legend. Sad to say, though, my first instincts were in this instance dead right. The Sound is a tedious, uninvolving, been-there done-that affair from start to finish.

McGowan is Kelly Johansen, and when we meet her pulling up to a remote farmhouse on a dark and eerie night, it initially appears she’s some sort of parapsychologist, called in to investigate a ghost sighting reported by the homeowners. However, once she sets up her laptop and microphone and starts live tweeting the event with the use of some rather snarky hashtags (#notscared, and the like), it becomes clear that, rather than being a ghost hunter, Kelly’s a professional debunker, who goes about identifying the scientific explanation for supposed supernatural phenomena, on the strength of which she can confidently state out loud, “there is no such thing as ghosts.” Of course, Rose McGowan was in Scream, and as such she – and we – clearly understand that to make such a bold declaration is the equivalent of “I’ll be right back.” Sure enough, just as she’s publishing a blog entry on her latest triumphant debunk, she gets a message asking her to come and check out an alleged haunting in an abandoned Toronto subway station where, some years earlier, a woman committed suicide under a train. Seemingly fearless, carrying her fancy laptop but no immediately apparent forms of protection, Kelly darts over to Toronto, disregards the ‘no entry’ signs, and heads on down into the dark, dingy, spooky old tunnels. Here she’ll meet an amiable but enigmatic old janitor (Lloyd, not on screen nearly as much as his billing would imply) and a somewhat intense local cop (Michael Eklund), and – wouldn’t you know it – see her preconceptions about the paranormal put to the test.

The Sound is the directorial debut of Jenna Mattison (also writer and producer), and a release of the recently revived Orion Films – and given how much love I have for that old brand (they gave us RoboCop, for crying out loud), I honestly wish I could say this film pointed towards a strong future for them. Unfortunately, as I think I’ve already made clear, The Sound is little more than a joyless exercise in tedium. While the strong central cast obviously doesn’t hurt, none of them are able to breathe life into proceedings. The burden largely falls on McGowan’s shoulders as she’s on screen pretty much constantly, all alone much of the time – and Mattison’s script barely gives her anything interesting to work with. The real sting of this is that the scientific aspects, explanations of how acoustic physics can account for suspected paranormal activity, might actually have been quite an interesting angle had it been properly explored. Unfortunately, The Sound treads a more familiar path of a scientist being compelled to disavow science when presented with a supernatural force which turns out to have a more personal connection to them than they initially thought. You’ll forgive me for questioning whether that’s the healthiest message in this day and age.

Devoted fans of Rose McGowan will doubtless be pleased to see her back as a leading lady, and those with a particular liking for standard ghost movies may find something to enjoy. Otherwise, I really can’t recommend The Sound to anyone; trust me, you’ve heard it all before.

The Sound is in US cinemas from Friday, 29th September.

Point Blank (1967)

To the best of my recollection, the first time I heard the name Lee Marvin was in Reservoir Dogs, when Mr Blonde suggested Mr White must be a fan of his. Personally, I’m afraid to say I never really have been. Not that I have anything against the actor, I’ve just never seen enough of his work to really form an opinion; never been a big viewer of old war movies or westerns, never watched The Dirty Dozen or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. If you choose to stop reading now in disgust at my ignorance, I’ll understand.

All this being the case, Point Blank has always been a film I’ve been aware of primarily by association with other films. While I might not be too well versed in Lee Marvin, I have long admired the work of director John Boorman, primarily his 70s/80s works: Deliverance, Zardoz, Excalibur, The Emerald Forest (truth be told, I don’t even mind The Exorcist II). I’m also aware that Point Blank was remade – or, at least, another movie adaptation of Donald Westlake’s novel The Hunter was produced – as the 1999 Mel Gibson movie Payback, and that Westlake’s character, featured in a series of novels, was also the basis of the more recent Jason Statham movie Parker. As both of these were fun but fairly straightfoward hard-boiled thrillers, I didn’t necessarily anticipate much different from Boorman’s movie, the English director’s first work in Hollywood (astonishingly, his only feature credit up to that point was the Dave Clarke Five movie Catch Us If You Can).

However, Point Blank hit screens in 1967. This, as is noted in the commentary track – a discussion between Boorman and fellow director Steven Soderbergh, who cites the film as a major influence on his own work, most pointedly on his 1999 crime thriller The Limey – was the beginning of that brief but vital period in which the director was king in Hollywood, breaking with convention was the order of the day, and the barriers on what was allowed to be shown on screen began to fall. While Point Blank isn’t necessarily quite such a groundbreaker in terms of sex and violence as other films of the era, even 50 years later it remains quite the eye-opener, given that what on paper reads as a simple tale of robbery and revenge is cut together in so abstract and disorienting a manner, it leaves the viewer questioning more or less everything they’re shown. How much of this is real? Is anything real? If it is real, is all of it or some of it just a memory? What’s actually happening right now? These are just some of the questions liable to cross your mind throughout. It’s interesting that Boorman also notes that the initial script for the film was so hated both by Marvin and himself that they binned it and started from scratch – yet, the director says, Mel Gibson’s Payback plays out as if it was using that very same script they threw out.

The premise is indeed simplicity itself. Marvin is Walker (Parker in the novel and the Statham movie, Porter in Payback – your guess is as good as mine), and in the film’s opening seconds we see him shot by Mal Reese (John Vernon, later seen in such exploitation classics as Red Heat and Savage Streets). As a barrage of moments are thrown at us in nothing resembling linear order, it becomes clear that Walker and Mal are old friends, and Walker has agreed to partner with Mal on a robbery. However, once the crime proves a success and the men rendezvous with Walker’s wife Lynn (Sharon Acker) at the now-abandoned Alcatraz, Mal turns on his friend, gunning him down and making off with both his wife and his cut. Yet it would seem Walker makes not only a miraculous recovery, but also manages to get off Alcatraz island just fine, and – with the assistance of an enigmatic benefactor, Yost (Keenan Wynne) – he sets about taking his revenge, and naturally this goes higher than his treacherous friend and spouse.

Yet as much as Point Blank might seem a standard gun-toting revenge flick, Boorman – a director who would come to specialise in adding a mythic dimension to his work, up until he embraced myth whole-heartedly on Excalibur – adds a subtly other-worldly feel to proceedings which is baffling, yet fascinating. This feeling is not solely down to the non-linear editing but also in the art direction, with entire scenes colour-coded (clothing and scenery in matching shades of red, yellow, blue, grey etc.). From a modern perspective, it might be easy to dismiss such flourishes as meaningless self-indulgence designed to tart up an unremarkable narrative, yet it all seems to work through the power of the direction and the performances. Central to this, of course, is Marvin’s steely turn as Walker, who in the midst of so much weirdness remains the quintessential man’s man, in the classic, emotionless, taciturn spirit of the day. It’s a performance which would certainly seem to point toward such future anti-heroes as Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle, Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan and Charles Bronson’s Paul Kersey, defining what it meant to be a real big screen tough guy in the days before Stallone and Schwarzenegger drowned it all out in string vests and baby oil. Plus, exploitation aficionados will be delighted by the presence of Angie Dickinson, another cult icon whose work I must confess to not knowing as well as I probably should.

A distinctive and compelling piece of work, Point Blank stands proud as the starting point of John Boorman’s Hollywood career, reasserting my admiration for the director – and I daresay it may make a Lee Marvin fan of me yet. Existing fans, of course, should need little persuasion to snap up this  dual format Blu-ray/DVD, available now exclusive to HMV as part of Warner Bros’ premium collection, with extras including the aforementioned Boorman/Soderbergh commentary, theatrical trailer, and two-part vintage featurette ‘The Rock,’ focused on the film’s use of Alcatraz.


Downrange (2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Official poster released for Abertoir Horror Festival 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the battlefield, blood will flow….

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

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

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

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

Mab (Katie Bonham, UK 2017, 15 mins)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A mother! of a debate, with Keri and Ben

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

mother! (2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

mother! is in cinemas now.

The Howling (1981)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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