Stake Land

Vampire films have little bite left; like zombie flicks, the horror genre has pretty much bled them dry by going to the well too often. Makes me wish for the halcyon days of the Hammer films. There’s been far too much tiresome reinvention of the vampire in modern horror, turning them into gorgeous romantic hearthrobs for teenage girls (Twilight films and True Blood) or gory cannon fodder for the action crowd (Blade, Priest, Daybreakers). Really it’s all been done, the movie vampire corpse is twitching in the roadside, run over and over by some mad Hollywood driver intent to wring every last cent out of it.  As genres go, it’s all pretty sad and ugly.

But then along comes a film like Stake Land, the best vampire movie I’ve seen in years (well, since 30 Days Of Night, anyway). An independent, low-budget movie that really shoots higher than it has a right to. It’s not perfect by any means, but any film that kicks fresh life into this horror genre is alright in my book. It’s a slow, thoughtful take on vampires, in a post-apocalypse America that feels pretty inevitable political collapse, economic ruin, religious mania… the vampires almost seem irrelevant to the story the filmmakers want to tell.

Stake Land is a road movie, its characters a thrown-together family, dysfunctional and broken, watching the old world disintegrate around them whilst mournful music (an excellent score by Jeff Grace) plays over the soundtrack. The young hero, the nominal lead in what is really an ensemble piece, voices a thoughtful narration over scenes of despair and desolation, a voice-over that reminds one of Terrence Malick films, or maybe what a horror film by Malick might seem like- dreamy, lost, uninterested in the gore, more interested in the sky, the barren landscape. Which is not to say they are no jumps, shocks or gore. It’s pretty grisly in places. But this film is better than that. Plenty of boring gore-fests come and go, but this film has more going on; some commentary on modern America in the vein (sic) of Romero in his prime.  

It feels very much like a film not of this era, more of a 1970s movie, very similar in tone to The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (one of my favourite films of the past ten years),  especially in its visuals, its music. For a film with its languid pace, it is also surprisingly rather short. No doubt many will despair at that pace however, tiresome of the emphasis on mood and character and setting, itching for the action and shocks, but they are missing the point;  that’s not what this film is about. A horror film yes, but one that has something to say rather than just supply shocks and gore. A refreshing change then, particularly in such a tired genre as the vampire movie. Perhaps in the end it betrays it’s influences too brashly, rather than having its own true voice. Really its The Road with The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford  and The Thin Red Line thrown in. But thats not a bad list of films to aspire to and be influenced by. Highly recommended.

“Graveyard Rats” by Robert E.Howard

Weird Tales, for all REH’s popularity with readers and the quality of his ground-breaking fiction, was poor at paying what was due. After his death in 1936, Weird Tales still owed Howard’s estate over a thousand dollars – which in those days was a tidy sum. Frustrated at earnestly writing some of his best work for that pulp magazine (his groundbreaking Conan tales among them), by 1934 Howard felt forced to look at other markets for his work, markets that would pay what was due in more timely fashion. This would entail attempting to work in new genres, and not all  such experiments would prove fruitful.  “Lately I’ve been trying to write detective yarns, something entirely new for me, and haven’t had much success, ” Howard wrote in a letter to H.P.Lovecraft in late 1933.  Howard was refering to his tales of Private Detective Steve Harrison, hard-boiled crime fiction tales. Four of nine Steve Harrison tales would eventually sell, but Howard himself felt that it was a struggle from the start. “I have defintely abandoned the detective field,” he later told Lovecraft in a 1936 letter. “I can scarcely endure to read one, much less write one” he added. 

It would be easy to dismiss Howard’s crime fiction as an understandable failure- afterall, this was the guy whose fantastic fiction, horror tales and heroic fantasy is what he is most famous for, and would on the evidence of those stories  hardly seem suited to writing crime stories.  But the hard-boiled detective stories that were popularised by Dashiell Hammett and company were not that far removed from Howard’s fantasy and serious westerns in style and atitude. Howard has been referred to before as being a ‘Hard-boiled Heroic Fantasist’. So Howard and crime fiction is not neccesarily the ill-fit that might be expected.

Graveyard Rats, which I read last night, was the last of the four Steve Harrison stories to be sold during Howard’s lifetime. There’s not much detecting but plenty of mood, action and horror in this tale, and while it can be seen to be an awkward fit for Howard, it nevertheless has some worth. Some of the imagery seems more Lovecraft than Hammett, with severed heads, vicious hordes of corpse-devouring rats, lightning-lit graveyards and a house and villain consumed by an inferno at the tales blood-soaked conclusion.

The story begins with Harrison embroiled in a hill-country feud (very REH) between the Wilkinsons and Middletons. The last of the Middleton’s, Joel,  has killed one of the four Wilkinson brothers a few days before and Harrison has been hired to hunt down Middleton before he can fulfill his pledge to kill the remaining brothers. One of the Wilkinson brothers, Saul,  awakens with a start in his room in the dead of night, convinced someone is about to kill him in the darkness, his shredded nerves rattled by the opened door to his room and the frantic scampering of a rat on the floor. Howard ably desribes the mad tension Saul feels as he searches the darkness convinced death is lurking in the blackness. Eventually he fumbles for the lamp and his hand, groping in the darkness, touches the hair on a human scalp. With a terrified shout he fumbles to light a match, and in the light of a  candle finds the severed head of his brother John, he who had been  buried just three days before. The sight blasts Sauls terrified brain and plunges him into madness. Harrison, awoken by Saul’s screams reaches the grisly scene and decides to examine John Wilkinson’s grave.  The graveyard scene, complete with a lightning storm and hundreds of corpse-eating rats, is pure REH; a vivid nightmare of tension, mystery and gritty action. 

Graveyard Rats seems more in common with Howard’s serious Westerns than hard-boiled detective fiction, but it’s dark, violent story is certainly gripping.  Yes, it feels like Howard is ill at ease and struggling some, and it’s certainly a lesser Howard tale when compared to his more accomplished historical crusades adventures and best fantasy/horror works. But even a lesser Howard tale is more than worthwhile, and the tale rushes by at breakneck pace. Some of the imagery is horrific and startling. It’s true- no-one could write a tale like this the way Howard could; a natural storyteller, even in a genre he struggled with.

Jaws Steelbook & Ugly CE3K

Oh, just look at this little beauty- prelim Steeelbook artwork for September’s Blu-ray release of Jaws here in the UK. Available for pre-order on I love Jaws; one of my favourite movies and one of the most intense cinema experiences of my life. I must have been nine years old when my Aunt took me to go see it one Saturday summer afternoon. Terrified me silly. No film ever shook me up like that since. Contemporary viewers may well wonder what all the fuss is about, but whenever I watch the film it throws me back to that darkened cinema of my childhood. Well, I won’t be watching it again now until this HD release in September.  What a fantastic year this is for catalogue titles on Blu-ray.

Whilst on the subject of Blu-ray coverart, on the other end of the scale, here’s some truly awful packaging for the recent Blu-ray re-release of Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. If you read my post last week about watching CE3K again you will have seen the lovely box art that release had, featuring the striking and enigmatic image of the nightime road leading to a mysterious glowing horizon (the original campaign artwork for the films cinema release). This latest edition of the film has a completely revised design and has the ugliest artwork I have yet seen for this movie. Really, you’d be hard pressed to do worse- I know they are trying to tie it in to similar-designed releases of films like Taxi Driver etc over here, but it doesn’t work at all. And it doesn’t work for the other films in this series either, but it looks like they are persisting with it. Far as I’m concerned, its more likely to put punters off rather than galvanise a purchase.  Ugly.

Odd Doublebill: Bad Teacher & Black Hawk Down

So yes, the other night I watched Bad Teacher followed by Black Hawk Down. Perhaps a word of explanation is in order- Bad Teacher because it was the latest rental from Lovefilm (I seem to remember dropping it onto my rental list after it’s popularity at the cinema over here made me curious). Black Hawk Down because a few nights previously whilst flicking channels just prior to bedtime, I stumbled on the film about three-quarters through, started to get hooked by it, and decided to grab the Blu-ray off its shelf come the weekend.

Anyway, Bad Teacher. Another Hollywood comedy that isn’t at all funny. You know, I remember reading about Billy Wilder and I A L Diamond, how they would sit down and endlessly work on the scripts for their films, fine-tuning and perfecting them prior to ever shooting them. And I am endlessly impressed by the genius comic timing of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthiau, even though they make it look so effortless. There is an art to proper comedy. But nowadays it seems like everyone in LA thinks they can write/produce a comedy, and everyone in Equity thinks they are comedy actors. There is certainly a formulaic /path of least resistance feel to Bad Teacher. You can imagine the meeting where it got greenlit- “It’s Bad Santa– but with teachers!” That kind of genius brainstorming will no doubt get us  Bad Doctor and Bad Mother and all the rest at some later date. As usual for Hollywood, its a case where the idea/pitch comes first and the Script second. And it’s a truly dire script; predictable, routine and utterly devoid of laughs. As for the cast, well, I quite like Cameron Diaz. It’s a novelty these days for an A-list actress not to botoxed/face-lifted/tucked etc to doll-like status. By which I mean, beautiful as she is, there’s something endearing about her actually looking approximately her proper age. But there is still something disturbing about seeing her spread-eagled  and scantily-clad across wet cars rubbing herself all over them in a slow-motion car washing sequence. Diaz deserves better films than this; maybe its just an indication those films just aren’t out there for actresses fast approaching the ancient age of the big 40. So Bad Teacher. Bad Movie.

Black Hawk Down, meanwhile, remains one of the better modern-warfare films. It’s visceral, edge-of-the-seat action sequences have yet to be bettered. Admittedly I’ve always had a problem with Sam Shepherd’s scenes in the control room; too much summing up the plot and explaining the who/where and why. I guess that’s to clue audiences in who are confused by the disparate battles going on across the city of  Mogadishu, but it just feels like unnecessary dumbing-down to me. Alas its one of the problems having seen a film several times, when you pretty much know the movie, you can be easily irritated by plot mechanisms like that. Shepherd sometimes comes across as a sports commentator summing up the story so far and whats coming up  next. Hollywood is so frightened of losing possible paying customers that it is assumed everyone suffers from attention-deficiency disorder and have to be held by the hand through movies. Keep it simple, comforting and always explain whats happening.

(Then again, what do I know? My favourite film last year was The Tree Of Life and I saw several punters walking out of the screening during the movie, bored and confused.)


Close Encounters Of The Third Kind

Just the poster art is enough to conjur up old feelings of mystery, awe, wonder. It was such an arresting image, and I thought it was a wonderful touch to use it for the 2007 Blu-ray release instead of some new photoshop nonsense or colourful photo like the UK DVD had some years before. I remember having the novelization in paperback with the same artwork, as did the original soundtrack release on vinyl; it’s an iconic image, like the Superman: The Movie poster that had the ‘S’ amidst airbrush clouds with the legend ‘You’ll believe a man can fly’.  Ahhh, even posters were better in the old days.  For CE3K, here’s just something special about that road stretching out back to the horizon, with that ominous glow below the starry sky.

So having seen Super 8 the other night, I found myself watching Close Encounters last night. Watched the original theatrical version. They really nailed it with this Blu-ray edition, having three cuts of the film. One in the eye for Lucas and his endless refusal to remaster the original theatrical Star Wars cut. Fans like the choice, George, and its important for posterity even if you prefer all that tinkering. Oh well, he’s not interested/listening to me so why bother? Anyway, I watched the original 1977 cut. Interesting, because as I watched it I realised I haven’t actually seen that version since, well, maybe 1978 when it was at the Odeon cinema in town; I have an idea that all tv showings have been of the 1980 Special Edition- I may be wrong about that.  Certainly home video releases have been of the 1980 cut or the latter 1998 so-called ‘Directors cut’ (a hybrid of the two earlier cuts) which is the version I’ve seen most. All these cuts, it gets confusing these days with movies. Something we have to thank DVD for? Go back enough years, and when you fancied watching Blade Runner, you just popped in the VHS tape- nowadays you have to pause to decide which of the five versions you feel like watching. I’m not complaining, it’s just a bit weird when I recall the days before we even had VHS. Its something taken for granted now, but its also almost endemic- the number of cuts of Alien, TheAbyss, Avatar, Alexander, Apocalypse Now… and thats just a few films starting with the letter ‘A’!

Watching CE3K again, it still holds up. It still suffers from Spielberg’s early penchant for repeated, agonisingly slow crawl-in reaction shots, and the  film really slips into being an fx spectacle (predating so many since) when it deserved a more personal, emotional conclusion. I mean, RoyNeary leaves Earth to join the Aliens with hardly a moments pause, but he’s leaving his wife and children behind. I always thought that a bit odd and even selfish. I mean sure, many people would do it, given the opportunity he has, but we’ve seen his family, his kids… surely it shouldn’t be so easy? Not even a goodbye, or a hastily written note or something? Maybe I keep missing the point. I just think too much gets swamped by the endearingly disco-light spaceships and wholesome, cute aliens (thank God for Ridleys film a few years later). But of course, Spielberg was a young film-maker back then, we have to forgive him some of that stuff. I’m sure if he made it now it would be a more different, more emotionally balanced conclusion at film’s end. One also has to remember back when it was made, it must have been such a major undertaking, a risky shot in the dark, just considering the optical work expected in those photo-chemical days of models and lights and lenses and basic motion control rigs. Imagine the nightmare scenario of that lovely mothership looking like, well, a plastic model blown up on a huge cinema screen.  It’s not an unlikely possibility considering the fx tech of the time- remember the Domed city in Logans Run, for instance? Even on a tv screen that looks awful, I dread to think what it looked like on cinema screens in 1976.

Did occur to me though, last night, seeing the ufos and the Mothership, how disco-era it all looks, all that bright glowing neon.  Dates the film in a kind of nice way, though, oddly enough. Trumbull painting with light, though- you can see how the fx work in CE3K helped create Blade Runner’s Spinner-cars and city vistas of nighted neon. You just can’t match that look with cgi.

But my biggest thought from re-watching CE3K again? God knows we’d never have a short, greying, bearded Everyman like Roy Neary in a modern sci-fi thriller.  No Studio would let any director get away with that now.  No big-budget toys without a healthily-toned, gorgeous young hunk fresh from the gym/cosmetic parlour. Shame really. The days of actors/movie heroes like Richard Dreyruss are long gone. Arnie and company (and Tom Cruise etc) would soon see to that.

A few thoughts on SUPER 8…

Watched J J Abrams’ Super 8 again last night; really, its a lovely little movie, kind of perfect in its own right. Deliciously retro. Maybe even the second-best film from last year. As an affectionate nod to Spielberg’s classic Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, E.T. and The Goonies, Explorers etc, it really is a wonderful piece. Anybody who was a kid like me in the 1970s and/or early 1980s knows what I’m talking about; there’s something honest and heartfelt about how this film harks bark to those wonderful films. It’s got me reaching for my Close Encounters  Blu-ray tonight; I’m just in the mood for some 70’s sci-fi nostalgia.

I’ve watched Super 8 three times now, and I’m still enthralled by it. Maybe its just wish-fulfillment, nostalgia for childhood; I wonder if people like me who saw Close Encounters at the cinema are alone in this; do people who weren’t even born back then still get the film in the same way? Is it just a good film for them, but something else for us? I don’t know. There does seem something special about Super 8 though; a summer movie that harks back to what summer movies were meant to be; about more than just flash-bang wallop cg spectacle and mad superhuman stunts. The child actors are beyond excellent, with a genuine chemistry between them that seems so effortless but is so difficult to capture… really exemplary casting. The script is charming and simple, the music sublime… really, whats not to fall in love with? They rarely make films this good anymore.

Red Riding Hood (2011)

Well, anybody who remembers Neil Jordans excellent The Company Of Wolves from 1984 will know how this one goes. I think it’s how movies are greenlit these days; they have to be based on earlier properties or easily described as being ‘film x mixed with y’. Red Riding Hood is Twilight for fairytales just as I Am Number Four was Twilight for sci-fi.  Hollywood sees the latest ‘thing’ and decides to jump on the bandwagon by mashing things up a little. In my darkest moods I suspect movies have nothing new at to offer; not true of course, but having seen possibly too many movies over the years it’s all too easy to see elements of them being re-used in others in increasingly derivative ways.

Essentially, Red Riding Hood is The Company Of Wolves by way of the Twilight movies- something perhaps magnified by Red Riding Hood  being directed by Twilight director Catherine Hardwicke, which lays bare where the intentions lie . I think it’s how movies are greenlit these days; they have to be based on earlier properties or easily described as being ‘film x mixed with y‘. Throw in some cinematography from Ridley Scott’s Legend and art direction from Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow and you’ve pretty much nailed all that Red Riding Hood has to offer.

Billed as a modern-day retelling of the Little Red Riding Hood fairytale, it’s really little of the sort.  It features the red hood and the grandma in the woods, and a werewolf, but thats about it- in truth it’s really it’s a romance, the heroine being courted by two men, one a commoner, the other an aristocrat, while her village is under siege by a werewolf who may indeed be one of the villagers themselves. Cue Gary Oldman in chewing-scenery mode as an old man’s Solomon Kane intent on solving the whodunnit as he tries to discover who is the Werewolf whilst the heroine gets on with the more important task of choosing which of her suitors to marry.  

It’s really as pointless as it sounds, and like many current films, features genuine acting talent hamming it up for the paycheck. How else can you explain people like Julie Christie, Gary Oldman, Virginia Madsen, Lukas Haas slumming in a derivative turkeyfest such as this? For the art? The original, dynamic screenplay? Yeah, sure.

Well, it looks pretty, I’ll say that for it- some of the imagery is very nice, especially on the Blu-ray; but really, isn’t that true of everything these days with cgi and digitally enhanced visuals?  Cinematography isn’t what it used to be- used to be all in-camera but nowadays films get so much processing in post everything looks pretty.