Bram Stoker’s Dracula at 25: A Retrospective

The vampire – at least as we used to know it – seems to have fallen out of favour in recent years. By no means has it disappeared, but certainly, as on-screen monsters go, it’s no longer in its ascendant. Terrific, spellbinding horrors continue to be made, sure, even if more often than not as remakes or prequels/sequels – but glorious, gratuitous cinematic vampires seem harder and harder to find. Vampires have either paced into the modern day, in drab clothes to match, or else they’ve come to identify as something altogether different from a blood-drinker – a creature that can be mollified, without the old need to take a human life. There have, of course, been some superb vampire horror stories in recent years. However, in many other ways, it feels like a very, very long time indeed since Francis Ford Coppola unfolded the last great Dracula movie.

The character of Dracula doesn’t just have a long history with horror; the history of horror is Dracula, and there have been regular interpretations of Bram Stoker’s novel since the inception of cinema in the early 20th Century. In fact, Nosferatu (1922) eventually appeared out of a legal wrangle between director Murnau and Stoker’s still-living widow; subsequent name changes to characters stemmed from issues around copyright. Funnily enough, this tussle between the Stoker estate and the filmmaker reaffirmed the novel’s fading popularity, and probably contributed to the horde of Draculas which eventually graced the screen. The classic ‘Universal Monsters’ legendarily numbered Dracula amongst their ranks, and versions of the charming, deadly aristocratic Dracula embodied by Bela Lugosi dominated horror cinema for the next forty years at least. Advances in technology and filming techniques allowed filmmakers to make Dracula more visceral, more preternaturally frightening perhaps, but he more often than not retained that suave, aristocratic veneer; the cinematic Dracula is now a cultural archetype, a mass-produced and understood image which adorns anything from cereal boxes to kids’ masks.

In terms of horror films, the more successes Dracula enjoyed, the more scope for interpretation there was, but it was some time before a filmmaker earnestly took up the imperative so resonantly uttered by one of the world’s favourite cinematic Draculas, Christopher Lee, whenever he was asked about how you could improve one of his most famous roles: “use the words which Stoker has written”. (When Lee felt that scripts deviated too far into silliness, he elected to play the role mute, remember, so we can assume he meant what he said). However, not only did Francis Ford Coppola ‘use the words’, he also – via screenplay writer James V. Hart – completely transformed Stoker’s original novel, melding the legend of Transylvanian nobleman Vlad Tepes with the fantastical events of the text in a way which Stoker never did.

Books have been written and wars have been fought (or very nearly) about just how much inspiration Stoker took from reading about Tepes, a 15th Century prince whose barbarism is as feted as his fierce nationalism. It’s not for me to get too mired in all of that here, but certainly, Hart’s screenplay begins by placing the narrative squarely in Tepes’s court. In so doing, all the ambiguities regarding Stoker’s book, you know, the ones which have spawned a thousand essays on just why in the hell a Transylvanian nobleman suddenly decides to up sticks (and cases of earth) and move to England, are neatly skewered. Pardon me the pun.

In Coppola’s film, Dracula is Vlad Dracula; no further questions. His great victories over the empire-building Ottomans have secured his nation and his Church, but the church can offer him no gratitude, no spiritual flexibility. The recent suicide of his princess, upon hearing from the Turks that Vlad had in fact been killed, means that she is damned – whoever her beloved is and whatever he has achieved is immaterial. His ensuing grief and rage generates a blasphemy so aberrant that the very crucifixes pour with blood. He becomes a monster, and is damned to live forever for his crimes against God.

In one incredible cinematic sequence, there we have it. We know why Dracula continues to live. That tantalising line in the novel where Dracula asserts that yes, he has in fact loved, suddenly makes profound sense in terms of the narrative. It’s even – whisper it – an improvement on the source text, in my humble opinion.

I may as well be blunt here: it’s a notable book for many reasons, not least of which in how it’s generated so many more creative works down through the years, but I don’t think Dracula is a great novel in itself. The epistolary frame is interesting in terms of structure, and it’s cleverly pieced together, but this keeps readers at a distance from its protagonists; certain characters descend readily into farce (and are played faithfully as such in the film!) and there are a number of thankless questions, making the novel feel a bit like a whistle-stop tour of a fascinating place where you never have long to pause and look about you. Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula adds some sense and coherence to all of this by motivating its monster with undying love, but it doesn’t then abandon the effective and horrifying scenes from the book, either. Some of these – the creature turning into multiple rats which all flee, the still aged Dracula licking Harker’s blood from a cutthroat razor or impossibly scuttling down the castle’s steep walls – have lost none of their power. It’s these contrasts that allows the audience to see a fully-fleshed antagonist; to feel some ‘sympathy for the devil’, or at least sympathy for a damned being. Against the luxuriant add-on of what’s effectively a reincarnation based love story, it’s an absorbing array of contrasts.

This aspect is, by far, not the film’s only strength. It boasts a fantastic aesthetic sensibility throughout, combining shadow theatre with sweeping vistas and an immaculately staged version of the historical with cedes into the impossible. In many respects, Coppola’s vision represents the idea of the ‘hyperreal’, weaving something seemingly impossibly lurid out of even the ostensibly most realistic scenes. This kind of flourish is everywhere, as are a number of forced perspectives which trick the eye and add to the deeply dreamlike atmosphere. Dracula’s armour is blood red, foreshadowing what is to come; Oldman’s turn as the literally ancient Count Dracula, apart from rendering him unrecognisable, takes plausible shape as an elderly European nobleman, dressed hair and all; Sadie Frost transforms from a pre-Raphaelite into a Vaudeville harlot and finally into a beautiful corpse, her funereal/bridal clothes a perfect picture of excessive modesty – Frost’s ‘Bloofer Lady’ is perfect, and whilst more beautiful than terrifying (we owe Frank Langella’s Dracula that honour) it captures the threat which this character poses in the novel: she can still be sexual.

No one can ever accuse Coppola of shying away from things which could only ever be alluded to in 19th Century fiction. The Carmillas and Draculas of the day afforded the tantalising scope to be salacious, but likewise the sexual mores of the day meant calling things to a halt not too long after introducing this possibility of sex, couching even these supernatural encounters in veiled words and glaring omissions. Compare that, to give just one example, to the ‘Dracula’s Brides’ sequence in the 1993 release. Okay, even if the blood-sharing scene between Mina and the Count holds back to an extent (though still sending a million hearts a-flutter, no doubt) then the unholy trinity who make Harker their foodstuff/plaything must have been quite an education for more than a few young men – or women, for that matter. After that, we should be a hell of a lot more understanding as to why Harker’s speech sounds a little off. Then there’s what happens to Lucy Westenra, which is recounted as a ‘mystery illness’ in the novel, but is rendered overtly sexual on screen, in a series of eroticised, if dubiously consensual encounters – in one of which Oldman was advised to whisper scandalous nothings off-screen to actress Sadie Frost in order to encourage her to writhe appealingly. Coppola always intended his film to have this kind of sensory overload, storyboarding about a thousand scenes altogether and insisting that the costumes, alongside the mise-en-scène, underpinned the whole.

Over the ensuing years, much has been made of the film’s flaws – of which I accept there are many, even if for me they are still minor points, a mispronunciation of ‘bastard’ here, a somewhat dialled-in Dutchman there. Overall, this is still simply one of the most sumptuous adaptations of a notorious and oddly-beloved novel there has ever been, and I do not think that we have really seen its like since. It’ll always have a place in my heart, and it’ll always feel like a formative film, one of those many which, over the years, settle on you as a fond memory.

In the intervening years, perhaps only Dracula Untold has sought to interweave history with vampire fantasy on a similar ‘lost love’ theme, but, as broadly entertaining as it is, it just doesn’t come together in the same way. So, assuming we can ignore Dario Argento’s recent jaw-dropping foray into the source material, will Dracula ever be back? Or has he now crossed the divide into pop culture, there to remain? Or, is this just the perception of viewers like me, all too happy to discard erstwhile Draculas as counterfeit, crass or otherwise lacking? Perhaps, perhaps. But if Coppola was the man to bring us Count Dracula’s true on-screen swansong in 1993, then I think that it’s an extraordinary place to part company.

Fear in the Night (1972)

Hammer is best-known for its Kensington Gore and its literary monsters, usually shot against a 60s-coloured 19th Century which is a distinctive aesthetic all of its own; the studio deviated from this formula quite considerably at times, though, in a range of films which seem to have divided critics ever since. Fear in the Night is certainly dramatically different from other projects which had seen director Jimmy Sangster at the helm: the last time he’d worked with Hammer prior to this film, it was to bring us Lust for a Vampire, a film which is itself divisive, but inarguably, classic Hammer fare. Not so with Fear in the Night, with its contemporary setting and extremely slow-burn approach. The film is not without its issues, but it certainly showcases the flexibility of Sangster. There’s ne’er a scrap of flimsy white fabric to be seen.

We start with a languorous introductory sequence, with sweeping shots of a boarding school and its grounds, though eventually teasing the viewer that something is seriously wrong here, something which is explained through the course of the film. The subtlety of this revelation, coming in the first few minutes, is one of this film’s strengths; it casts a shadow over the rest of the film, as it indicates that there’s foul play going on and, by the by, we’ll come to understand exactly what form this takes. All of this is unbeknownst to Peggy (Judy Geeson), who is excited to be leaving her rented digs to move into a new home with her husband Robert (Ralph Bates). He’s a teacher, and he’s secured a post at…the boarding school we’ve already seen, living on site in a nearby cottage.

However, the night before she’s due to leave, someone sneaks into her flat through an open window and attacks her (in a sequence which is more reminiscent of a giallo than a Hammer horror, black leather gloves and all). As Peggy struggles, her assailant loses a prosthetic arm before fleeing. Or does he? When Peggy’s landlady comes to find out what all the commotion has been and finds Peggy lying on the floor, she gently insinuates to both Peggy and the doctor on call that the incident must have been all in Peggy’s mind. Peggy had a ‘nervous breakdown’ at some point in the recent past, and she is apparently not fully recovered.

Though shaken, Peggy does leave the next day as planned, and the Hellers begin to settle into their new abode, though Peggy worries that someone has followed her: she swears that she sees someone hanging around outside, and, soon enough, she is attacked again – by what seems to be the same attacker. Now, even Robert seems doubtful of the attack. To make matters worse, the headmaster of the school, Mr. Carmichael (Peter Cushing) is behaving in a strange, even unseemly manner: Peggy does not feel safe, not from him, or from anyone else in the extremely limited social circle she now finds herself in.

This is a very low-key piece of film, which takes its time establishing the interaction between Peggy’s state of mind and the possible threat to her. Unfortunately, some aspects of Peggy’s character and narrative haven’t aged particularly well; she behaves like a bit of a dupe, going from childlike to catatonic when the going gets tough. Mr. Carmichael’s wife Molly (Joan Collins) refers to her disparagingly as a ‘child bride’, and that is rather how she’s played. Eventually, she seems to withdraw from the plot altogether, every bit as unresponsive as Barbara in Night of the Living Dead. Before we get to that, though, Peggy is apparently primed to simply be ‘a teacher’s wife’, and having no other role, she has ample time to roam the grounds, where she has equally ample time to frighten herself half to death. The script accordingly does lag in several places, perhaps particularly where married life is concerned; perhaps as she is recovering from a mental illness (though we never discover the full nature of this) husband Bob is galvanised in his treatment of her as a lesser being, and the needy/dismissive dichotomy between them can be taxing.

Fear in the Night has one of those phenomenal casts which Hammer was able to assemble, though, and there are some surprises along the way, particularly from Ralph Bates. Cushing plays an interesting role here, a seemingly nasty piece of work who even comes across as a bit of a lech at times – which is faintly traumatic, given that Cushing seems to be every horror fan’s favourite gentleman. But it’s Joan Collins who steals the show here, and I only wish she had got more screen time. She’s turned in some great horror performances during her career, although she’s probably better-known for being an on-screen ‘bitch’: well, here she gets to be both, and it’s glorious. More films should have Joan Collins staring down the barrel of a shotgun, I feel.

And how does all of this resolve? Through a few ridiculously implausible plot resolutions, that’s how, albeit with some enjoyable, surprising twists too, before we finally find out what the hell has been going on at this particular school. There’s probably not quite enough cohesion and action to really sustain the film through ninety-odd minutes, but things definitely do gather pace in the last half hour after the patience-testing prelude. Fear of the Night is reasonably enjoyable, but perhaps most noteworthy simply for its radical departure from the Hammer tropes which have served the studio throughout its history. In this respect, it’s an ambitious film which is worth a look. You certainly won’t see it looking better anywhere else: the new Studiocanal restoration looks absolutely great.

Fear in the Night is available to buy on Blu-ray now.

 

 

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)

I will confess that I have had no prior experience of director Yorgos Lanthimos’s work, but based on his most recent film, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, I’d imagine that a little goes a long way. That isn’t to say that I wasn’t completely drawn in to this twisted story of unhappy families, but that it’s left an unseemly, faintly uncomfortable after-effect; I found myself squirming in (rewarded) anticipation of horrible violence, and soon after, laughing at things I definitely didn’t feel I should be. It has all conspired to create a queasy sensation, one which clearly took work to establish, and isn’t going away in a hurry.

Starting as it goes on throughout – by reducing people down to a series of often vulnerable and even somehow pathetic bodily processes – we see cardiac surgeon Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) first preparing to work, literally getting to grips with a beating heart in an open chest cavity, and then finishing up: he sheds the gown and gloves he’s been wearing, a clear disconnect from his day job but, again, only the first evidence of disconnection we see. Steven might be a great surgeon, or he might not, but however he conducts himself professionally, the stilted, almost ludicrously ineffective conversation he then shares with his anaesthetist Matthew (Bill Camp) doesn’t really suggest a man comfortable in his own skin.

At home, things are amiss too: he parrots expressions of love and fealty with his attractive but monochrome wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) and his kids, Bob and Kim, but there’s something hollowed out about it all: this is soon supported by the, shall we say, ‘niche’ tastes displayed by husband and wife when they’re alone in their bedroom. Then, there’s yet another layer of strangeness: Steven is mysteriously friends with a sixteen year old boy, Martin (Barry Keoghan). Initially, the nature of their friendship is kept in the dark. Their conversation is respectful in some ways, sinister in others: it seems that Steven has taken the apparently fatherless boy under his wing, meeting up with him to offer things like gifts and life advice, but the more he gives to Martin, the more Martin wants.

As Martin weaves his way into Steven’s life to an ever more claustrophobic degree, a situation facilitated by Steven’s apparent cluelessness about sensible boundaries and professional conduct, things feel as if they’re already on the edge of a precipice. Then, it seems as though the precipice is reached: Bob (Sunny Suljic) suddenly contracts a mysterious, paralysing illness, collapsing to the ground one day. It’s unclear whether this is a psychosomatic condition or a purely physical one. But there’s more, as the film reaches that little further to embellish its narrative, now with elements of the (arguably) supernatural escalating the tension in ways which are bleakly comic and appalling by degrees.

Although loosely based on the Greek myth of Iphigenia – hence the title – The Killing of a Sacred Deer is right up to date, and full of very modern anxieties. Medicalisation, medical procedure, professional practice, wealth inequality and bereavement; here, these things are weaponised. As presented here, accompanied by an overwhelming, atonal soundtrack, the film is a fever dream anyway, but it sticks with the theme of sacrifice, pulling the already loosely-linked Murphy family apart via its genuinely effective, creepy central performance by Keoghan. The physicality of this young actor is – with apologies to the guy – well-suited to the role. He has a sly, usually emotionless face and a voice which betrays no emotion either, no matter what he says. He comes across as deeply unpleasant, and this eventually squeezes some terror and rage out of the Murphys – Steven becomes utterly unreasonable, whilst Anna turns into a conniving nightmare.

But in both cases, their extreme responses often border on black comedy. This is the effect I mentioned in the introduction, this feeling of deep unease in the laughter: there’s something quite unpleasant about laughing in spite of yourself at something you know is, at the same time, tragic. It doesn’t just happen there, either. The script’s fixation on awkward physical transitions, usually linked to adolescence but not exclusively, and on people as component body parts (we see characters kissing hands, kissing feet, spitting teeth) leads to some really unpalatable lines and sequences. Things cross into torture horror in places, then trip lightly back to farce in others.

An overbearing, nauseating but fascinating film, I am – somehow – still glad I experienced The Killing of a Sacred Deer; I also feel completely sure that it’s not a film I’ll ever want to revisit. It’s just that kind of skilful, weird experience that sticks in your mind and to your skin. I’d also say that this is not a film for everyone, and if you struggled with the sledgehammer symbolism of mother! (as I did) then this film will leave you in much the same state.

Indeed, it’s hard not to compare the two films: each disrupts logic and conventional plot developments in favour of a fantastical threat to family and personal agency; hey, perhaps our modern age is just lending itself to these wild-eyed, somewhat unreal concerns. I preferred The Killing of a Sacred Deer as a film, however, if in large part to the varied and unusual performances it drags out of its key players, from Farrell to Alicia Silverstone (!) and definitely Nicole Kidman, who is, to her credit, really getting the challenging roles lately.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer is out on general UK release now.

Unchained Melody: The Films of Meiko Kaji

Meiko Kaji is, from a Western perspective, one of the most unmistakable and recognisable Japanese actresses of all time, but this comes with a significant proviso. Most of us know just a tiny fraction of the films she has ever made; only a handful of these nearly one hundred films have really made it over here anyway, and even out of that, we tend to think of her in one of a couple of key roles. Either Meiko Kaji is ‘Scorpion’, the largely mute and indestructible prison inmate of the Female Prisoner series, or she is the sword-wielding agent of doom in Lady Snowblood. This is a state of affairs acknowledged by author Tom Mes in his neat Meiko Kaji book Unchained Melody, available now on the Arrow Books imprint (and thus an extension of the work which Arrow has so far done in publicising Kaji’s work via their existing range of Meiko Kaji releases.)

Mes provides here a meticulous and exhaustive filmography, starting at the very beginning of Kaji’s career with her shortcomings as an ojo-sama, or a ‘well-bred young lady’, the kind of girl generally sought-after in the Japanese cinema of the early 1960s, and how this soon led to rather meatier and more challenging roles – even though this doesn’t mean she was ordinarily as taciturn as she seemed in the Female Prisoner films, and the book does well to point this out. As a means of adding structure to the book, Mes has closed each chapter with a mini-biography of a number of significant directors with whom Kaji has worked – the likes of Masahiro Makino, Yasuharu Hasebe and of course Shunya Ito all figure. He also talks us through her work for a range of successful Japanese studios, each with their own key styles and themes, each who had to adapt, or sink as audience tastes altered. There are also other chapters, one on Kaji’s TV work – a complete void to me, and probably to many other readers – and a chapter on her musical career, although this of course goes hand in hand with her film and TV work. It’s nonetheless interesting in its own right.

There is a tremendous amount of knowledge on display in this book: it’s almost overwhelming in places, perhaps because a lot of these projects are so broadly unknown to us, but for anyone with a desire to know more about Kaji’s career then this book would be an excellent roadmap to guide them through. The emphasis here is very much on the acting work itself, however: this is not a biography in anything but the loosest sense, with little comment on what may have been going on in Kaji’s personal life during her career, for instance. The author’s initial recounting of an interview with the actress in Tokyo in 2006 was clearly a defining moment for him (and I’m not bloody surprised) but it feels unclear whether any specific parts of this interview thread their way through the rest of Unchained Melody; I suspect a lot of existing commentary, from a variety of sources, has been brought together here too. It’s not that the book doesn’t feel personal, exactly, just that the author’s fandom is revealed via his comprehensive knowledge and a range of interesting asides about Japanese culture pertaining to various films and audience trends along the way. This can mean footnotes which would just as comfortably fit into the main body of text, but it all goes to show that Tom Mes knows his stuff and wants to share as much as possible.

This is, despite its detailed approach, a slim volume: it comes in at just over 150 pages, including references, acknowledgements and so forth, in a compact and bijoux 17 x 14cm format. It’s an appropriately attractive book too, with a number of full-page colour images, a large range of hitherto-unseen stills and behind-the-scenes pictures, even including Meiko Kaji grinning (!) out of a Sunsilk shampoo print advert from the 1970s. Unchained Melody also boasts excellent custom colour cover illustrations by artist Nat Marsh.

Unfortunately the book can’t (and doesn’t attempt to) answer the big question, which is: why aren’t current directors, Japanese or otherwise, falling over themselves to hire Meiko Kaji now, considering her documented avowed desire to act again? This is even after her name reappeared in the limelight in the wake of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill series, and even allowing for a couple of unhappy incidents which took her out of the running for a few projects in the noughties. Ah well, we can only hope that renewed interest in her career, coming across through ventures like this book, might lead to audiences seeing her again in cinema. In the meantime, this is a solid piece of work and a definitive guide to Meiko Kaji’s career – hopefully her career to date.

You can find out more about buying Unchained Melody: the Films of Meiko Kaji here. 

Tag (2015)

I have a real love/hate thing going with Japanese director Sion Sono. On one hand, his so-called ‘hate’ trilogy contains, for me, some of the most genius, subversive films I have ever been immersed in; they’re absolutely jaw-dropping, to the point that I don’t know if I can feasibly revisit Guilty of Romance for fear of washing away that initial impact. He’s also made brilliant cinema with a far more playful edge, albeit for the fact that there’s usually a grim, self-referential message tucked away beneath the many layers of flying limbs and arterial gore. But on the other hand, when I sat down to watch his manga adaptation  – usually an indication that things are about to go straight over my head – by the name of Tokyo Tribe, I have to confess I could stand to watch so little of it that I had to abort watching it at all. And I can usually make it through anything. It kind of goes with the territory. Yet here I was, switching off a film by someone I claimed was one of my favourite directors. A straightforward antipathy to hip-hop isn’t quite enough to explain that one.

So it was with a certain level of trepidation that I sat down to watch Tag (2015), the first of Sion Sono’s films which has made it to Western screens on any sort of broad scale in recent years. And it’s a strange thing to say perhaps, but I felt fairly reassured by one of Tag’s first sequences – an absurd, resplendent gore tableau strongly reminiscent of the still-incredible first reels of Suicide Club (2001). Here, what begins as a cliche-laden girls’ school trip (they’ve even brought feather pillows to fight with!) turns in an instant into a piece of monumental grotesque, with only one girl, Mitsuko (Reina Triendl) surviving a health and safety worst-case scenario on the bus. Sure, this is a strong indicator that we won’t be getting to grips with Kafka this time around, but Tag starts out with nicely familiar handling. After this event, Mitsuko, alone and terrified of whatever improbable force has just offed all her friends, starts running. But in a few minutes, she finds herself on the approach to her high school, where everyone is acting completely normally. Was it all a dream?

Before she has too long to reflect on this, however, Mitsuko, along with some schoolfriends, is bunking off class, with her (apparent) friend Sur (Ami Tomite) ruminating on how you get to stay one step ahead of fate – it’s by acting in increasingly improbable ways, in case you were wondering. You are, though, prepped for another grisly outburst thanks to the cartoonish tone-setting of the early reels, and – hopefully no spoilers here – you’d be right, even though it all comes refracted through an unreal blend of art-house and dreamscape. There are action sequences, too, which marry the sublime and the ridiculous. Can Mitsuko suss out why all of this is happening to her, before she gets showered with limbs? Or, hang on, is she who she thinks she is at all?

In these massively anxious times here in the West, where we have now exerted such a semantic shift on the word ‘historic’ that we almost expect the phrase ‘sexual crimes’ to follow it as a matter of course, it would be fairly easy to look at Tag and see it as exploitative, even if any culture so entangled in issues and non-sequiturs as ours should perhaps step away from that particular glass-house. Still, no doubt there’d be a public outcry if we even expected young girls to wear that standard-issue sailor girl school uniform so symbolic of Japan, let alone then adding an element of undress and/or peril into the mix, which is what I suspect will turn people off Tag primarily. There isn’t really a moral message tacked on here with any earnestness whatsoever, and the unusual all-female cast for the greater share of the film might count for little considering what happens to them, how they behave and how the story turns out.

But whilst the justification for all the things which befall our protagonists feels rather hasty and unconvincing in the end, and perhaps a very short hop from the ultimate cop-out of saying it was all a dream, I think what we have here is, overall, a decent Sion Sono film which joins up with many of the styles and preoccupations he has explored previously and feels, at least, a lot truer to form. Really, he’s getting up to his usual mischief here. He’s splicing ultraviolence and cartoonish splatter with questions about, oh you know, selfhood, free will, memory, fate, all the small stuff, even if not dipping into his passion for literature along the way this time. What’s more, Sion Sono is doing all of this with his usual fantastic imagery, set pieces and symbolism – that innovative bridal bouquet is a clear winner – and, to come back to gender for a moment, he’s executing a meticulous disruption of the old archetype of the ‘yamato nadeshiko’, roughly translated as ‘feminine woman’. (By the way, I am beyond excited to see Sion Sono has recently been working with Asami in Antiporno, a film about the roman porno genre which was quite literally big in Japan in the 60s and 70s.) That in and of itself is pretty subversive stuff in many ways, however you feel about the way things are eventually wrapped up.

Whilst I don’t think that Tag is going to displace any of my favourite work by this director, I think that on the whole there’s enough of a balance between batshit crazy and bizarre philosophising to be able to say that this is an entertaining Sion Sono film: it’s ambitious, dark and daft by turns. Perhaps the biggest compliment I can pay as a sign-off is to say that on several occasions, the grisly action sequences here made me laugh out loud in complete, head-shaking disbelief. That’s something Sion Sono always does impeccably.

Tag (2015) will be released on dual format by Eureka! on 20th November 2017.

Habit (2017)

It’s always a privilege, in these social media-saturated times, to walk into a film screening without the faintest idea of what it’s all about. As I hadn’t even looked at the Celluloid Screams programme before we sat down to watch Habit (and as I almost immediately mix up titles and synopses anyway) it definitely felt like a boon that I had zero expectations, allowing the film to speak entirely for itself. I’m about to stop this being the case for anyone reading, though, by offering the barest of synopses here: Habit is a dark urban crime thriller which gradually adds horror elements, a claustrophobic and nightmarish tale which perhaps overstretches itself in some key regards, but still deserves credit for many of the things it does very well.

Mikey (Elliot James Langridge) is a bit of a harmless deadbeat, lurching from dole office (where he arrives late) to pub, to club, where he spends all the money he’s just been given and starts again. This all seems to stem from a traumatic childhood experience, a few moments of which we are shown in the opening scenes, but he and his older sister Amanda (Sally Carman) have remained close into adulthood, as much as she’s completely exasperated with his inability to sort himself out. A chance meeting one day throws him into the path of Lee (Jessica Barden), a teenage girl who seems to have nowhere else to go. She promptly installs herself in the life (and flat) of him and his housemate, and the pair soon grow closer.

One day, Mikey accompanies Lee on a visit to her uncle Ian (William Ash), which happens to be in a massage parlour down a dark side-street in Manchester’s city centre. Her uncle seems to be something of a wheeler-dealer, but he helps his niece out and takes an interest in Mikey. Mikey, in good part, takes a keen interest in one of the girls working there, and returns on his own later that night for a promised ‘special offer’. The night doesn’t quite go to plan, though, when he witnesses a violent attack on another man using the premises. Ian’s tactic is to bring Mikey into the fold, offering him a job as a doorman. Mikey needs the money, so he agrees, steadily growing closer to his employer and the rest of the staff in the process, whilst questioning what ‘family’ really means along the way.

Still, this isn’t exactly a legal establishment. Things are going on, and – gradually – Mikey has his eyes opened to what these things are.

Some strong and largely plausible performances allow Habit to generate a sensation of slowly-ratcheting tension, with particular praise here for Langridge, whose turn as an essentially decent young man adrift maintained my interest throughout. The gangland characters were believably menacing, and the dialogue overall did convey, in Mancunian accents, this idea of something bigger and more profoundly wrong going on behind the scenes. So far, so good. The Manchester sights and sounds may call to mind the kinds of gritty TV drama, or indeed the gritty comedy, for which the city is better-known, but that’s only to be expected – regional dialects often crop up this way in the media. I do have to pause on Jessica Barden’s portrayal of Lee though, while we’re on the topic of believability: her tones were a little too cut-glass to really believe she had grown up sofa-surfing in Greater Manchester, but then elements of her writing didn’t help her either – first she’s the innocent bystander whose uncle just wants to keep her out of the mucky business of prostitution, then in a heartbeat, she’s involved after all. Still, these issues didn’t stop me engaging with the film as such, although they gave me pause for thought.

There are plenty of other things which I unequivocally enjoyed about Habit. What’s certainly impressive about the film is how the rain-lashed Manchester nightscapes appear on screen. This is a strong visual feature in the film, with a variety of shots which really make the film feel firmly rooted in its Northern England environment. In some scenes the city looks bustling and alive; in others, the rundown old industrial buildings and dark corners look like something straight out of a dystopia. I’ve always felt like there’s something special about Northern cities with their ‘dark Satanic mills’, even if these mills have been refurbished and let out as plush apartments now. It’s somehow pleasing to see these places represented on screen, even if it’s not necessarily as somewhere relentlessly upbeat. God, where’s the interest in that, anyway?

Still, as much as this isn’t a straightforward horror yarn, it makes sense to talk about the horror that’s there. To give credit where credit’s due, I had suspected some sort of fantastical twist was coming, but the one that turned up wasn’t what I expected. This, in and of itself, is a plus, although the decision to take the film in an entirely new direction brings risks of its own.

The next two paragraphs could be considered a spoiler, so skip it if you want things to remain a complete surprise. I feel I have to mention the following, though, as the comparison to another film I’m about to make seems integral to a criticism I need to make about Habit.

I feel that the newer film owes many of its cues to We Are What We Are, whether the original or the (very competent) Jim Mickle ‘reimagining’ of same, which stayed fairly true to source. In We Are What We Are, the ‘ritual’ which united the loving, but clearly dysfunctional family unit was a surprise and a complication which eventually leads to their undoing; it’s a very, very similar case in Habit. The addition of this maybe-supernatural, definitely-deviant behaviour was, the first time I saw it, an interesting motif which has usually only made it to the screen in the form of mondo documentaries or what is as near to ‘classic’ exploitation cinema as we have, the likes of Ferox et al.

However, as engaging as this new treatment of the cannibalism theme is in We Are What We Are, it brings with it some issues. A little, even just a little more explanation would have benefited the film/s enormously; this doesn’t mean that all loose ends need to be tied up, but some of this would have added a deeper level of understanding for the characters and their motivations. Now, here is where someone on the Habit filmmaking team contacts me to tell me that none of them have even heard of We Are What We Are, so perhaps – perhaps – this may be pure coincidence, but to my mind, the issues which dog the older film cause some of the same issues in Habit. I’d like to know just that shade more about what motivates the characters, or how ‘the family’ were brought together in the first place. If their behaviour makes them feel alive in some new and exciting way, then why, and how does it do so? Admittedly, I don’t know the novel which Habit is based on – this may reveal far more, but going by the film alone is what many, if not most of the film’s viewers will be doing.

For all that this issue casts a slight shadow over the motivations of the characters in the film, however, I did enjoy the escalating nastiness of Habit. It’s now that I come to write my review that I realise how much I did enjoy it, actually. Ultimately it’s all about belonging, and the savage things people will participate in to feel that. It also touches on a very real source of horror – the ways in which people on the fringes of society can simply disappear without trace – and as such, it riffs on the idea of consumption in a brutal and visceral way.

Support Michael Sabbaton’s The Turk

It’s fair to say we’re fans of Michael Sabbaton. Seeing Lovecraft on the silver screen has always had its ups and downs, but witnessing the encroaching madness of his protagonists on stage is an altogether more all-encompassing experience, and this is exactly what Michael has achieved with his solo dramatic works so far – The Temple, The Statement of Randolph Carter, The Call of Cthulhu and, most recently, Polaris. For his next project, however, we can expect very different fare.

When I interviewed Michael last year he revealed that he had been working on the idea of The Turk for some time; now, he is focusing his energies on preparing a brand new theatre show, based on this idea and phenomenon which simply wouldn’t rest easy. The Turk is intended to premier in the autumn of 2018, before a general tour in the following New Year. It will be based on a rather curious tale…at which point, I’ll hand over to Mr. Sabbaton himself. Engage cut and paste mode:

‘In 1770 an incredible ‘thinking machine’ was presented to Empress Maria Theresa of Austria that was to influence and bamboozle the world for over 80 years.  

‘A life-sized, mechanical automaton in the fashionable garb of a ‘mysterious’ Turk gazed down onto two opposing armies of chessmen. A key was inserted, the mechanism wound and in a whirring of clockwork The Turk came to life, raising its head and making its move. The Turk appeared an impressive machine but behind the cogs was it all that it seemed?  

‘Originally built as ‘a mere bagatelle’ by the court engineer, Wolfgang Von Kempelen, The Turk became such a spectacle that it was soon sent on tour to showcase its performance. All across the chess boards of Europe, The Turk gained a reputation as a masterful player astounding the crowds and only adding to its ever growing mystery.  

‘Some years later, after Kempelen had died and The Turk near forgotten, another engineer and maker of automata eventually took possession. Johann Nepomuk Maelzel was more of the natural showman than Kempelen and embarked on worldwide tours eventually settling in Philadelphia. Maelzel was lavish, vain and ethically unscrupulous living fast and promoting The Turk at every opportunity. Maelzel’s shameless and often underhanded opportunism regularly left him in trouble or on the run from those he would exploit. At the end of his life he found himself alone, penniless and diseased with only his past regrets and a solitary case of fine wine to share with his only, automaton friend.  

‘Time passed, and eventually forgotten about once again in a corner of a dusty museum, The Turk finally met its own end. Consumed in a fire spread from a nearby theatre, The Turk stared out of the burning pyre and from behind a curtain of flame gave its final bow.  

‘With historical opponents from Napoleon to Beethoven, Barnum to Babbage, Benjamin Franklin to Edgar Allan Poe, The Turk’s enigmatic legacy of technology and chess paved the way for the future of computing, automation, artificial intelligence and even magic. In my show, and through the yellow-fevered eyes of a drunken and dying Maelzel, these themes will be presented as a philosophy of being and a morality of life.’ 

Existence, autonomy, sanity, humanity – all themes which have recurred over and over in literature since this ‘incredible thinking machine’ was first made. You only need look as far as Frankenstein, a word we’ve since co-opted to mean ‘any science which makes us uncomfortable’, to see what anxieties the new sciences and philosophies could and can engender. It’s intended that The Turk will be a real piece of spectacle, with light and sound working together to present audiences with something genuinely innovative and engaging. As it does so, it’ll delve into many of the themes which Michael Sabbaton has already vividly brought to life on stage.

We’re very, very selective about promoting Kickstarters here on the site: it’s rare you’ll ever see us mention them at all, so know when we do, it’s because we feel that the proposed project is something really special. Someone who puts such extraordinary levels of effort into his craft as Michael Sabbaton definitely fits the bill; there aren’t many people out there creating completely original stories like this one, much less within the immersive world of horror theatre. If you feel that you’d like to help The Turk come to life, then please check out Michael’s fundraising page for more details and help spread the word.

The Endless (2017)

I’ve followed the careers of directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead with interest ever since I covered their challenging and innovative feature debut, Resolution, back in 2012. I loved the way that the film combined interesting characters, plausible dialogue and a type of slow-burn horror which was quite unlike anything else I’d seen. It’s rare to see filmmakers do something quite so unpredictable on a shoestring, and their second feature, Spring (2014) was just as ambitious. These guys have never felt the need to make a string of tester short films to find their own style, and although they work together very closely, manning most of the key development roles in their own films, they’ve thus far avoided the affliction of the indie filmmaker: an inability to edit their own work. Their films are economical in many respects but achieve a great deal, and consequently I had high hopes for The Endless, their new, third feature-length. Here, the two directors are taking on yet another role – actually starring in their film, but this works well; I soon forgot I was watching the directors directing themselves and got absorbed by events on screen.

Justin and Aaron (as in the characters) are living the dream. You know, that awful dream where you work your fingers to the bone to make minimum wage cleaning up after other people simply to eke out an existence. Justin seems to have made peace with this; his brother, Aaron, has not. Admittedly, their lives have never been easy or straightforward: ten years ago, they escaped from a place called Camp Arcadia, a cult where they had both been raised. Justin masterminded their escape with the best of intentions, but Aaron is struggling with his so-called freedom. Receiving a mysterious video through the post – where one of the inmates of the camp seems to be alluding to some sort of suicide pact – only helps to drive Aaron towards a decision: he wants to go back. Not to stay, he insists, but to say a proper goodbye. Justin reluctantly agrees to go with him, and so they make the long drive into the back of beyond.

When I first saw that there was an ominous circle motif being repeated, then a huge circular pit at the camp, I thought: Jug Face. Was this going to be another tale about an isolated community gone rogue, playing by its own rules? Well, in a way that’s true, but any expectations of blank-eyed backwoods folk were not to be fulfilled. Jug Face is a superb film, but this particular cult isn’t savage. Far from it.

Things at the camp are…fine. Better than fine. There’s been no Kool Aid incident, and if anything, life at Camp Arcadia compares all too favourably with life on the outside. Sure, it’s a little remote, but all that fresh air, fresh food and homemade beer seems like a far better deal than snacking on ready meals in-between cleaning jobs. The people who live there seem quite normal, too, and with the exception of ‘Smiling Dave’, no one appears particularly happy-clappy. Hal, the leader of the group (though he protests otherwise) seems pleased to see the two brothers, and they’re made welcome. So far, so good. Thing is, when they ask a girl called Anna why she sent them that strange video message, she (plausibly) denies all knowledge of it. The most obvious question – the question of who really sent it – soon breeds others. There seems to be some sort of malign force at play which has brought the brothers back to Camp Arcadia, for some as-of-yet inexplicable reason. As Justin and Aaron begin to understand all of this, the fabric of everything seems about to rend in two: at the camp, time and place are not what they seem.

I really feel that saying much more about the plot would spoil it, so please forgive all the following abstractions…

The Endless is not shy of grappling with themes which are terrifying enough in their complexity at the best of times, adding its palpable sense of unease by slow, expertly-wrought degrees. Our vulnerability to something vast and humbling like time itself has long been a source of horror, so the addition of – potentially – a pernicious unknown behind the scenes is both unsettling and ambitious. Linked to this is the idea that personal freedom itself is dubious – something else we don’t like to dwell on, something else that scares us. It would be easy to throw in the word ‘Lovecraftian’ here, and yes, there are a few key moments where that author comes to mind; I’d argue there are some links with his short story, The Unnamable [sic] amongst others. And, like Lovecraft, The Endless knows better than to straightforwardly show its hand. Retaining elements of mystery is key to the film’s success.

To leave it at that would undersell the film, though. Unlike Lovecraft, slivers of (intentional) humour underpin the growing sense of alienation throughout without undermining the darker elements. Sympathetic portrayals of Aaron and Justin, a first starring role for Benson and Moorhead, also allow a more relaxed, relatable feel to the film. The Endless is beautifully shot, too, with a sense of space and place which dwarfs its characters.

Benson and Moorhead have past form with this kind of ambitious handling. I credited Spring (2014) with how successfully it realised a lofty aim: creating a brand new mythology. Here, by linking in with other themes Moorhead and Benson have explored on film previously – and I’ll say no more about that here – The Endless successfully merges a study of family dynamics with something altogether more horrific. It’s believably realistic at the same time that it’s abstract and alienating. A lot of that stems from the terrors of analogue technology, used to subtle but compelling effect here once again. I think people of a certain age – namely those growing up in the Eighties and Nineties – will appreciate the fact that the visual distortions and audio disturbances on old video and audio tapes could be very creepy indeed. This theme appeared in Resolution, and it’s used to superb effect in The Endless.

Honestly, in many ways this has been a tough review to write – not because I have nothing to say, clearly – all these words in – but because I’m struggling to think of ways to balance out all the praise. But then, the first two films each made my top three films of their release year, so I suppose there’s no real reason to play coy now. The Endless is an intricate and subtle horror which never quite shows its hand. Messrs Benson and Moorhouse should be known absolutely everywhere by now; that they’re not is disappointing, no doubt more for them than for us, but while we live in a world where huge studios effectively buy people’s admiration, it makes this kind of unique cinema all the more compelling. See it if you can. In fact, see all of their films, and don’t skimp on Resolution. They all deserve your time.

I Remember You (2017)

Being a tiny nation, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Iceland hasn’t yet featured very prominently, in its own right, in cinema. Its stunning and evocative landscapes have been used a thousand times in films which simply seek a striking location, but it’s comparatively rare to see Icelandic people, language and stories making their own way to the screen – at least for audiences outside of the country. For this reason alone, it’s welcome to see I Remember You (Ég man þig) – an Icelandic thriller which unites the noir stylings of popular TV shows like The Killing and The Bridge with something altogether more supernatural, more intangible. To achieve this – which it does, largely effectively – it relays an extensive story via two seemingly separate narrative arcs. 

We first encounter a doctor, Freyr, apparently a psychiatrist (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson) but enrolled to attend a death scene out of sheer necessity, when an elderly woman commits suicide in a remote church. She’d clearly died in some distress, having trashed the church’s interior and carved numerous crosses into the walls before hanging herself. The mystery deepens; the crosses carved into the walls have also been carved into her flesh, by whom we do not know: it’s something which has apparently been taking place for years given the differing degrees of scarring. Alongside detective Dagný (Sara Dögg Ásgeirsdóttir) Freyr becomes embroiled in trying to understand the reason for this death. Examinations of her background reveal that a number of people from her childhood have also died in strange circumstances – in fact, only two of the children from an ominously defaced group photograph are still alive, whilst another boy disappeared decades previously, never to be seen again. This would all be troubling enough, but when the elderly survivors seem to know something about Freyr’s son Benny – himself long missing, presumed dead – then Freyr has to follow the mystery to its origins. 

Elsewhere, husband and wife Garðar and Katrín (Thor Kristjansson and Anna Gunndís Guðmundsdóttir) arrive in a weathered corner of the country with the goal of renovating a dilapidated shack in what was once a whaling village, long since abandoned. Katrín’s friend Líf has come along to help out, and on the surface, they seem a happy trio who aren’t afraid of the hard work ahead; there’s money to be made from the tourism which summer will bring, Katrín asserts. However, the ulterior motive behind all of this also pertains to a lost child. Katrín recently gave birth to a stillborn son, and the resulting pressure on the marriage caused a rift which is only just healing. Things are not as promising as they seem, however, and the cracks are soon to show, but Katrín seems to be prone to seeing and hearing things which seem to be supernatural in origin. The more she seems affected, the more issues between her and Garðar come to the fore; is she seeing the ghost of a little boy in the property because of her own trauma and her own situation? Or is there something else at play?

How these two stories will intertwine is kept quiet for a large share of the film, with each story generating its own interest (and several low-key scares); course, you can probably gather that they will, eventually, overlap, and to give credit to writer/director Óskar Thór Axelsson, it’s quite hard to predict the process. That said, it feels like a long road to get to this point: the film runs at 105 minutes, which in today’s climate is not that long at all, but given the deliberation and pace of I Remember You, it feels somewhat longer. If you have patience for these kinds of slow-burn thrillers, then I would say there’s plenty there to reward it, but if you prefer your films more tightly-wrought then you may also feel that this film meanders in places.

Still, what a place to meander: part of the joy (if that’s the right term) of so much of this scandi noir comes simply from looking at the Scandinavian locations where these various shades of hell are unfolding. Like its neighbours, on one hand Iceland is neat, orderly and picturesque, and on the other it’s stark, barren and oddly colourless: these places look like nowhere else on earth. In fact, it’s a wonder more specifically supernatural cinema isn’t coming from Scandinavia, as the whole ethos of order being overshadowed by something sublime and terrifying is right there in the landscapes and the towns in equal part. I Remember You also has decent performances throughout, which underpins the unsettling horror at its core: lost, dead children, and the impact this has on their surviving relatives, especially parents. Still, this has been done elsewhere in recent years: the stark locations notwithstanding, I Remember You is thematically quite similar to The Orphanage, with a similar balance of mystery and supernatural phenomena (mercifully brought to the screen with a minimum amount of jump scares, though a few black-eyed child ghosts, which seem irresistible to filmmakers everywhere). The problem is, once you spot this similarity, many of the mysteries may lose a little something, but this is to be expected when there are comparatively so few modern ghost stories which rely on this kind of mystery-solving.

All in all, however, I Remember You is a well-shot film which shows us that ghosts inhabit the bleakest corners. It lingers over its exposition in ways which may challenge the patience of some viewers, but those who enjoy things to move a little slower and quieter will find plenty here. Not an instant classic perhaps, but an aesthetically-pleasing slow burn chiller nonetheless.

 

Borley Rectory (2017)

For many of us growing up in the Seventies and Eighties, being terrified by the Borley Rectory hauntings was practically a rite of passage. For my part, I must have been around nine years old, I’d guess, and found out about ‘the most haunted house in England’ from a Readers’ Digest Mysteries of the Unexplained compendium. There were other tales of ghostly phenomena which also fascinated and appalled me – the Matthew Manning story, the Bell Witch case – but the allegedly ghostly scrawls addressed to ‘Marianne’ really fixed themselves in my imagination. I couldn’t bring myself to re-read the section on Borley Rectory for weeks at a time, but thought about it constantly, even beginning to practise my own automatic writing after I read about its use in Borley – thus, terrifying myself even more.

I’m clearly not alone in this; many people of around my age need only hear the phrase ‘Usborne Book of Ghosts’ and they’re off into a kind of traumatic nostalgia trip – the kind which seems uniquely beloved of horror fans, this drive towards recapturing the halcyon terrors of childhood. This makes it all the more unusual that a cinematic take on the Borley Rectory hauntings has been so long in coming, Haunting at the Rectory (2015) notwithstanding, and even if several superb haunted house movies (such as The Legend of Hell House) have already taken their cues from the case. Director Ashley Thorpe originally intended to make his Borley Rectory a short film; years have ensued, the project has grown, and the resultant film is a feature length offering.

Some sort of potted history would seem to make sense here, given the framework used in the film itself, but then the history of Borley Rectory, in Essex, England, is a convoluted, complex one. Originally built on the site during the Victorian era, the first inhabitants of the house – the Bull family – soon reported ghostly phenomena, such as footsteps, and the apparition of what seemed to be a nun, walking in the grounds. A combination of local rumours and the literary imaginations of the Bull daughters no doubt fuelled an atmosphere of suggestibility, but it seems that the people involved were very earnest about what they had seen. By the time that the Bull family vacated the living, with Harry Bull dying in the late 1920s, the rectory’s reputation was firmly established.

In 1929, Mr and Mrs Smith became the new incumbents, and the supernatural phenomena persisted; the family eventually contacted The Daily Mirror newspaper, asking for their help in contacting the Society for Psychical Research, and a series of sensationalist articles duly appeared before the newspaper facilitated the involvement of Harry Price, a notorious ‘ghost hunter’ of his day. After the Smiths left and the Foysters moved in during 1930, Price maintained his interest, and in many ways the phenomena seemed to intensify around the Foysters, particularly Mrs Marianne Foyster. Allegations of faking phenomena dogged Price throughout his professional life and Borley was no exception, but certainly Price’s involvement helped to cement a public interest in the place which has endured for the best part of a century, and after the Foysters, too, left Borley Rectory, Price and his team even took the unusual step of leasing the property for a year. Further spirit messages were communicated to members of his team during this time, including the prophecy that the Rectory would soon burn to the ground: this it did, in 1939, with at least one witness claiming to have seen a ghostly nun at an upstairs window…

Borley Rectory (2017) is unusually framed as a documentary film, exploring and discussing the events mentioned above in largely linear order with the help of a narrator – none other than Julian Sands. Ashley Thorpe explained at the screening that his film had been heavily influenced by his own childhood nostalgia for spooky 70s TV, such as the works of Lawrence Gordon Clark and the Armchair Thriller series, which had a scary ghost nun of its own. I’m sure I saw some Ghost Story for Christmas artwork tucked away in one of the sequences, too. However, Thorpe also mentioned a love of 1920s and 30s Hollywood horror, which seems altogether heavier in the mix: Borley Rectory is shot entirely in black and white, and the actors wear the heavily stylised costumes and make-up beloved of, say, early James Whale cinema. Whilst it’s somewhat engaging to see some well-beloved actors both dressed in period costume and acting accordingly – with Reece Shearsmith as the Daily Mirror reporter, Nicholas Vince as Reverend Smith and author Jonathan Rigby as Price himself, the rather studied delivery somewhat dwarfs any stylistic links to the barely-glimpsed horrors of Gordon Clark.

This brings me to my biggest gripe with Borley Rectory, something concomitant with the chosen acting approach. It’s the animation. Rather than a conventional shoot, the film was shot entirely on green-screen and then pieced together; the actors themselves were never shot on any location, it was all done and dusted in a few days, and then the film was built around them. I don’t doubt that this is a meticulous process, and doubly so for sequences such as the pop-up book, which I acknowledge was built on the back of careful research and application. I also know that there are other forces at work and other considerations to be made in judging how best to put a film together, made all the more difficult by the vastness of the Borley history. Some viewers may love this painstaking approach. However, the effect for me was to make me feel doubly distanced from the events taking place on screen. An altogether quieter, more conventional framework would, I feel, have better served the story. The ambition here is clear, but ultimately, the flashy visuals engulfed the haunting.

That all aside, it was certainly enjoyable to see something so oddly beloved finally make the leap from the printed page to the screen. Perhaps the most salient point which Borley Rectory successfully communicates, is that a haunting seems to be very much like a relationship; people, with all of their flaws and ulterior motives, imprint upon the phenomena they report; in some cases, their flaws make the phenomena altogether. This is one of the most confounding but fascinating aspects to any alleged haunting, and Borley Rectory – the place –  seems to have been an example of this par excellence. It’s fitting that Borley Rectory – the film – successfully makes this point, whatever my misgivings about its visual style.

 

Doubleplusungood (2017)

The legacy of Catholicism in French and Belgian left-field cinema seems to mean a strange predilection for Christian themes, although it finds its form in curious ways. In recent years we’ve had Calvaire, made in 2004 (retitled ‘The Ordeal’ for English audiences, which neatly strips it of its Biblical meaning), the Christmas creation horrors of Satan (2006) and of course Martyrs (2008). Now, ten years later, we have something which merges crime drama with something altogether more spiritual and not a little gonzo: voila, Doubleplusungood.

Doubleplusungood (and I’m using the one-word form here after IMDb) at least ostensibly looks like a very different deal to the films aforementioned: we start with a gritty Man Bites Dog-looking black and white intro and meet our key character, whilst a voiceover regales the audience with the pleasures of operating in the criminal underworld. But we move on, fifteen years (and into sharp colour) to pick up with the narrative and narrator again. Yep, it’s the same guy, same dark streets in an unspecified location, and now he’s on a specific mission. He’s on a theologically-tinged quest to terminate the so-called Twelve Apostles of Lucifer; organised into a so-called ‘Pyramid of Power’, our guy proceeds to ‘climb’ said pyramid, dismantling the apostles’ hold on his society as he goes.

The film therefore follows the pattern of our protagonist, Dago Cassandra, working steadily through a hitlist; the apostles he’s seeking are a disparate bunch, but overall, they appear to be low grade crooks, and (hopefully no spoilers here) they get offed in a series of increasingly grisly ways – whilst all the while, a mysterious key player seems to be monitoring proceedings from a shady office, and you get the distinct impression that he will figure prominently over the course of things. The involvement of a character called Eve is a further complicating presence, but this allows further asides about the nature of religion and morality – this is all context which clearly underpins Doubleplusungood throughout.

In this recognisable, but unnamed country, with an apparently supernatural frame and a heavy reliance on dialogue (or more often, monologue) in order to explicate all of this, one thing leaps to mind here: Tarkovsky. Like Tarkovsky, the presence of fantasy (or in the more established director’s case, sci-fi) elements is more a means of allowing us to explore characters and how they behave under extreme, unexpected circumstances than a means to study the fantastical – it’s all about the melting pot of human drama. There’s definitely something of this in Doubleplusungood. However, as the film takes place on the streets of what at least looks like a conventional European city setting, it’s far more streetwise than Tarkovsky, and there are some elements of worldly, or at least world-weary humour along the way here.

The film, for all its unusual contextual factors, is however broadly linear: it takes its unconventional elements on a pretty straightforward journey through a series of kills, which can feel repetitive, despite the film’s efforts to draw down interest via its inventively-nasty sequences. The film certainly steers away from conventional style or approach throughout: it’s thoughtfully shot, with a wide range of locales and lots of artistic, experimental detail (even veering into psychedelia on occasion). There is undeniably something of the new-wave of French/Belgian horror cinema in the way Doubleplusungood looks, with lots of that blueish colourisation, though it’s still far more of a crime thriller overall. That said, we do see a bit of ‘implement torture’ going on here, which also chimes with those new wave horrors.

This brings me to another of the film’s features, and probably the one I have most problem with: the voiceover technique employed. Doubleplusungood makes heavy use of a voiceover (by the central protagonist) to explain most of its goings-on, which – considering the mysterious elements in the film – it could have dialled back, leaving the situations to speak for themselves. Having all the elements of the plot explained along the way felt like heavy going at times, and the heavy American accent being attempted, whilst possibly intended to further the film’s sense of rootlessness, was an oddly jarring decision which raises as many questions as it answers.

Still, Doubleplusungood is stylish throughout, even if it’s a little too free-floating at times in the way it draws all its action from a largely straightforward journey (once we accept the divine calling behind the killing spree, that is). This is undoubtedly an experimental, attractive and ambitious film in anyone’s book, though perhaps needs a few more moments of key dramatic development to justify and sustain the wide range of creative styles it uses.

Torso (1973)

Honestly, I’m the sort of reviewer who thinks that the vast majority of slashers (and many gialli) are better enjoyed as still images than films – being largely an array of stylish, bloody set pieces only loosely linked by some sort of plot – so watching Sergio Martino’s crossover film Torso was an opportunity for me to test my misgivings about this type of catch ’em and kill ’em horror. His other work has been pretty diverse fare in its way, after all, and a who’s who of cult film stars helps to underpin the potential of the film under discussion. Worth a shot, right?

Well, the heady mix of sex and death promised by the film’s subtitle (‘Carnal Horror’) is present and correct straight away, so at least false advertising is not a charge we can comfortably bring against Torso. We’re straight in with the nudity, albeit with some strategic creepy doll placement which not only spares the lady in question’s blushes, but seems likely to be Plot Relevant. Creepy dolls in Italian horror tend to be there for a reason, I find. The opening sex scene quickly turns into a soft-focus tableau, but something sinister is going on in the background. Someone’s snapping away with a camera – an example of voyeurism which will recur throughout Torso. Following this, we’re taken on in time to an art lecture in Perugia, Italy, and a lecture on what the lecturer believes to be the unconvincing torments of arguably an early vision of torture porn, Saint Sebastian, as imagined by artist Peregino: after discussing the finer points of Saint Sebastian’s representation, the largely hot and pouty student body make time for play, which soon gives way to yet more surveillance: this time, a masked figure watches a couple unbelievably manage to get it on in a Mini (and an old Mini, too) before dispatching the lovers in a gruesome manner. Shock ripples through the campus, and as a group of friends try to solve the mystery, it seems as if there’s a large number of potential suspects at hand.

This is possible – and plausible – because, my word, director Martino has made practically all of his eligible bachelors here completely nightmarish. Scrub that; it’s all but maybe one or two of the male characters in the film. The men are by turns sinister, lowering, socially awkward (which on its own would be fine) and completely unable to appreciate that women might have plans of their own which don’t involve accommodating them. Oh, and there’s that whole thing where at least one man is so repressed that he’d rather maim a beautiful girl than accept her on her own terms. This network of weasels pops up throughout the film, and whilst a good share of what they do or say is obviously designed to repel, you can’t help feeling that a lot of the dialogue was scripted and spoken in good faith – it simply happens to sound positively creepy now. Torso also falls into the slasher/giallo trope of trying very hard to be liberated – lots of flesh on display throughout – but ultimately, it still often feels rather arch and prim in that its transgressions need to be paid for with restorative violence. Of course, it’s unfair to criticise a single film for clearly following a generic formula, as Martino intended for Torso, but by the same token, knowing that any boobs on screen will probably be followed up with some sort of assault isn’t necessarily that engaging for the most part, either.

All of that said, Torso does achieve many things which distinguish it against a crowded field of carved-up nubile flesh. It boasts beautiful locations (mind, Italian cities seem to do the hard work by themselves) and some scenes border on the supernatural, in ways beloved of Martino’s near-contemporary Michele Soavi. It’s also an incredibly tactile film, with close attention to small details; whilst the gore FX haven’t aged particularly well, they’re very brief, whilst interesting, unusual shots (such as a woman’s hands palpating mud) show artistic flair. And, after moving all of its pieces into position for benefit of the big whodunnit, the film generates tension very effectively: yes, this takes time, but the closing twenty minutes or so give a good pay-off for all that has come before, resulting in a genuinely gripping finale. I’m not sure I can say that Torso has won me over fully to this style of filmmaking, but certainly, this is an arresting example of its genre, which manages some real surprises, in amongst the various nods to Bava et al.

Shameless Films have gone the extra distance in putting together this Blu-ray edition, splicing hitherto missing footage (subtitled rather than dubbed) into a well-presented, well-packaged release. Alongside the standard Shameless trailers, there’s also an extra feature starring Sergio Martino. You can find out more purchasing Torso here.