Shock Waves (1977)

shock2Shock Waves, 1977, 85 mins – Amazon Prime

Directed by Ken Wiederhorn– Return of the Living Dead Part II

Starring Peter Cushing – The Curse of Frankenstein, The Abominable Snowman, Dracula, The Revenge of Frankenstein, The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Mummy, The Brides of Dracula, Suspect, Cash on DemandCaptain Clegg, The Gorgon, The Skull, The Blood Beast TerrorCorruption, The Vampire Lovers, Twins of Evil, Dracula AD 1972, Horror Express, And Now the Screaming Starts!, The Satanic Rites of Dracula, The Devil’s Men, Star Wars.  John CarradineThe Howling, The Monster Club, Brooke Adams – Days of Heaven, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), The Dead Zone.

Shock Waves is a surprisingly effective 1970s horror, with plenty of mood thanks to some remarkably atmospheric locations, some great visuals, and an old-school synth score that drips menace. It shouldn’t really work, but it does- I really quite liked it.

Part of this film’s success is its surprisingly  intriguing premise, that would no doubt work better in the 1970s than if it were done now (the Second World War still being a fairly recent memory back when this film was released), although these days we’re possibly more accepting of that entire ‘Nazi’s experimenting with supernatural forces’ thing (thanks to Mike MIgnola’s Hellboy etc.) that has since  pervaded so much of genre culture in the years since 1977.

A prologue suggests that supernatural research by the Nazi’s during WWII resulted in a corps of the SS being formed of dead solders and criminals resurrected into Zombie killing machines. Put onboard a cargo ship in the last days of the war, the ship was sunk off a tropical island and long forgotten, except by its aging SS commander (Peter Cushing) who abandoned the sinking ship all those years ago and has waited on the island over the decades since, convinced his Undead corps will one day return. However, the rusting hulk finally releases its Undead Nazi’s just as a yacht of holidaymakers is shipwrecked on the same island.

shock3Its basically just the good old  Ten Little Indians horror-trope set on a remote island, with a few hapless civilians hunted down one by one by Nazi zombies who rise up out of the sea. The film is very low-budget, shot very quickly (both Cushing and Carradine only filmed for five days and have fairly limited roles) but benefitting immensely from using an abandoned hotel for a location, adding production value and atmosphere that belies the films humble origin.  The imagery of the silent Nazi horrors rising up from out of watery depths is really effective, too. This isn’t a gory film; its really more one of moody horror and the threat of violence- the slow pace (dictated no doubt by budgetary limitations) possibly even raising the tension.

While they don’t have much to do, both Cushing and Carradine add some weight to the proceedings in their limited screen time- its a shame they never appear onscreen together. Their limited time onscreen results in individual storylines that are short, but the film works this in its favour, giving them abrupt ends that surprise. Brooke Adams is very good in an early role, and the rest of the cast (I was amused by the -unintentional? who knows?- similarity in appearance of two of the main leads to James Caan and Robert Redford) largely just function as one-dimensional characters, hapless tourists who will prove bait for the Undead.

Those Undead are a big plus point for the film: I thought the moody shots of their black-goggled, rotting faces rising up out of the waves was very effective. They don’t express any emotion or talk, they just move relentlessly and coldly kill, providing a great sense of threat. These days if a film like this was made and proved to be a success, I can imagine it would result in all sorts of spin-off films, a mini-franchise of rotting SS zombies, but this film seems to have largely sunk (sic) without trace back in the 1970s. I must admit, I wouldn’t have come near this film if it had not been for noticing Peter Cushing in the credits, but I’m so glad I did. I have a liking for these kind of moody horrors, and while its up on Amazon Prime Shock Waves is likely worth a shot for anyone in the mood for a late-night Friday fright. Far superior to that same year’s Empire of the Ants, anyway.

Devil’s Workshop

devils2Devil’s Workshop, Dir. Chris Von Hoffman, 2022, 86 mins, Amazon Prime

There’s so many films available on Prime that I’ve never heard of- this one is a low-budget horror film from last year which caught my eye only because it stars Radha Mitchell, an actress who impressed me way back when in Pitch Black (2000) and Silent Hill (2006), who I haven’t seen as much of as I’d have liked.  While always having plenty of work, Mitchell has had neither the roles nor success that she possibly merits -possibly the most notable recent entries in her filmography are two Gerard Butler action flicks.

Mitchell is, by some wide margin, absolutely the best thing in Devil’s Workshop; she is Eliza, recruited by a struggling actor, Clayton (Timothy Granaderos) to help him prepare for an audition for a film or tv role (I don’t think its ever clear which) playing a demonologist. Being a method-actor, naturally Clayton needs to ‘get real’ and advertises online for a demonologist and what do you know, Eliza gives him a call and invites him to spend a weekend with her to  learn her trade.

Clayton thinks this may be the ace opportunity he needs to beat his chief rival for the role- the utterly self-confident and immensely irritating Donald (Emile Hirsch) who repeatedly puts Clayton down in their acting school.  Donald’s idea of researching for the audition is spending the weekend getting stoned and drunk with two young women. The fact that the film keeps cutting between Clayton’s weekend with Eliza, and Donald’s partying with his lady freinds is problematic: neither informs the other, and the two arcs don’t even dovetail together at the end.

Radha is brilliant as Eliza; beautiful, mysterious, enigmatic, she’s often calm and polite, hinting at sophistication, and at times she’s mercurial, explosive and agitated. Is she a crazy recluse or is she actually the real deal? I’m not even sure Clayton has the intelligence to ask, instead he’s just obsessed with being able to fake doing Eliza’s job well enough to ace the audition- he appears quite ignorant of how strange things are in her weird house, or what the ramifications are if she is indeed the real deal.  Its like he’s too stupid to question the oddness of her keeping a sacrificial goat up in her attic torture chamber.

Clearly we’re not really expected to take things too seriously: its trying to be a comedy as much as a horror film, the humour largely originating from poking fun at insecure, self-obsessed actors so desperate for validation that they’ll do anything. Generally they are portrayed here as needy, weak, pretty types, but when this includes your protagonist, though, your film is in trouble, right? In any case, its a tricky balance keeping us laughing with the film rather than at it while we’re waiting for any scares to start. Not that there’s many laughs anyway. Or scares really.

Mitchell, meanwhile, seems to be in a quite different movie to anyone else. As I have noted, she’s great- there’s an erotic charge in her performance, a sense that she’s always playing with Clayton, toying with him, and when the inevitable twist comes, its entirely thanks to her performance that it works at all, but I doubt that at that point many viewers will care. Even at 86 minutes, it feels too long. The frequent cuts over to Donald’s weekend are irritating distractions from the main storyline of Eliza and Clayton; had the film focussed on those two and cut out Donald entirely it would have worked much better. Or maybe had it decided to ‘just’ be a horror movie and lose the attempts at comedy.

Devils Workshop is not a total bust; its certainly worth watching if only for Mitchell’s fine performance, but there’s little else to recommend other than the convenience of its running-time, albeit as I’ve noted it still feels a bit long. I suspect it would have worked great as a one-hour episode in some anthology horror series, benefitting from the tighter focus that running-time would have enabled.


fall2Fall, Dir. Scott Mann, 2022, 107 mins, Netflix

I’ll open this with the disclaimer that I really, really don’t like heights. So it may not actually be a measure of the effectiveness of this film when I state that I had to look away a few times whilst watching it, and that my legs were often turning to jelly. For me, it was a particularly intense film and one that proved a hard watch. Individual mileage may vary, but I thought it was a very effective horror tale.

Following a brief prologue that is heavily… well, lets be kind and call it ‘inspired’ by Cliffhanger, the film starts with Becky (Grace Caroline Currey) and her best friend Hunter (Virginia Gardner)  going off on a road trip to climb a 2,000 metre radio tower off in the middle of a desert… er, lets just stop right there for a moment.

I presume there’s some routine for potholers, to inform someone of where they are going in the event that something goes awry/so that someone can check up on them later? Well, if there isn’t, there should be – now that I think about it, what happened in Neil Marshall’s excellent horror  The Descent (2005), did those women leave someone in authority a record of what they were doing? Anyway, what I’m getting at is, surely the same applies to climbers too? Two young women go driving off into the desert with limited resources to climb a rusty 2,000 metre-high tower, you’d think one of them would leave word of where they were and what they were planning, just in case, you know, the ladders they were climbing collapsed leaving them stranded at the top with no mobile phone signal. I suppose I’m making it sound lousy, but it was actually a genuinely tense seat-of-the-pants viewing experience for me. When your legs are mostly jelly and your stomach keeps turning, you don’t care how silly what you’re watching is.

When I state I’m dubious whether I could watch this again, its no criticism of the generic script, overly-telegraphed character arcs, or a twist that echoes Gravity (2013) just as much as the prologue echoes the aforementioned Cliffhanger, or that the ending feels rushed and therefore more than a wee bit unsatisfying. No, its just that the experience for me was pretty unpleasant (albeit not in the way a Nic Cage movie usually is). No, this was something else. I was watching this feeling like good old ‘Scottie’ Ferguson in Hitchcock’s Vertigo; deeply unnerved and not at all sure I’ll be rushing back to this one at all soon. Certainly, its a b-movie premise that doesn’t quite live up to its possibilities, but acrophobic folks like me won’t care about lazy writing or reliance on cutting-edge visuals; some of us won’t even make it to the end, I’m sure.

If only the damned camera had stopped looking down…

Empire of the Ants (1977)

empireantsposterEmpire of the Ants, Dir. Bert I Gordon, 89 mins, Talking Pictures TV

Back in the late ‘seventies, I was fascinated by the posters advertising this film; it was like forbidden fruit. I was deemed too young to go see it, but it looked so impossibly cool. How could a modern-day film (this was the age of Star Wars, after all) fail to be utterly fantastic with a premise so close to that of the 1950s b-movie classic Them! (1954), a film that scared me shitless on late-night TV? Well, it has taken me almost fifty years but I have finally found out: its more rotten fruit than forbidden fruit, in all honesty (with the irony that here in the UK it was heavily cut on release to get an ‘A’ certificate anyway).

Marilyn Fraser (Joan Collins, perfectly cast here as another uber-bitch) is staging an elaborate con selling bogus real estate lots for a ‘luxury beachfront complex’ called Dreamland Shores, in the Florida everglades. Its really worthless swampland but she’s trying to convince her prospective buyers that its the opportunity of a lifetime.  Unfortunately for Marilyn and her nine gullible guests, some unscrupulous buggers have been dumping radioactive waste into the sea nearby, and one of the barrels has washed up on the beach at Dreamland Shore, infecting a local ant colony.  Marylin and her marks are soon attacked by giant ants and they are picked off, one by one as they flee across the swampland, until a few survivors finally reach the safety of a town- but is the town as safe as it looks? Is it instead Ground Zero of… the Empire of the Ants?

empireants3Well, its pretty bad. But there is a charm about it, mostly from seeing so many actors who I remembered seeing on TV during the ‘seventies and ‘eighties – people like Robert Pine, Albert Salmi, Pamela Susan Hoop, John David Carson, and of course, Joan Collins. These were wooden professionals who had no pretensions of superstardom (well, except for Collins, anyway), or illusions that they were in some Great Movie – I certainly doubt they thought they had been cast in the next Jaws-monster hit. No, these guys were hardboiled thespians who didn’t blink at terrible dialogue or cheap sets, they’d sell it and sell it hard to the audience and you rather have to love them for it, especially as they are here selling horrible ant puppets and alternatively reacting to ghastly-quality process photography of real-life ants blown-up and dubbed into on-set footage with all the technical quality of Ray Harryhausen’s worst front-projection nightmares. My goodness, you really have to feel sorry for every one of them; the things some actors have to do to make a buck. Its almost a shame that thanks to VHS, DVD and all these television channels airing any old junk that films like this can’t fade into obscurity.

empireants4I suppose the H G Well’s credit is a requirement of using the title; can’t imagine there’s much of this storyline to be found in the original story. Instead, this film is more indebted to Irwin Allen’s disaster movies which were in vogue in the early ‘seventies, and there is indeed some appeal to the soap-opera character arcs fleshing out the running-time. I must also admit I was pleasantly surprised with the last third of the film once our heroes reach the town and find things aren’t as wholesome or ordinary as it initially seems: there’s an element of Invasion of the Body Snatchers at this point in the film, patently ridiculous but it does give the film a bit of a twist which ensured I stuck around to the end.

The strangest romance (with a zombie)

Neither the Sea Nor the Sand, 1972, Dir. Fred Burnley, 110 mins, Amazon Prime

Sometimes, what dark sorcery is the Amazon algorithm – I suspect that, in this case, it was triggered by me having watched the folk-horror film Men several weeks ago. The 1970s were a rich time for British folk-horror films such as The Wicker Man (1973) and  The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971), which were clear influences on Alex Garland’s film, although his film fell well short.

While it is clearly in that British folk-horror tradition, what really made me curious about Neither the Sea Nor the Sand, a beyond-obscure film of which I had never heard anything before (frankly, has anybody?), was that the film was based upon a book by Gordon Honeycombe. Readers outside the UK will have no idea who this gentleman was, but for anyone of my age who grew up in the 1960s/1970s, Honeycombe’s face, and particularly his voice, will be well-remembered, as he was one of the main news readers for ITN here in the UK, reading the primetime evening news to the nation. I had no idea he wrote stories though, and something as low-brow as a horror story?  Or a passionate love-story that turns into some kind of zombie nightmare tale? I couldn’t resist.

To be clear, I won’t pretend that  Neither the Sea Nor the Sand is actually any good; its a pretty terrible movie, but it has an impressive cast, really bizarre music, surprisingly effective location shooting, all of which creates a curiously unique mood which results in a quite haunting film that made quite an impression upon me – maybe for all the wrong reasons, really, but its a strange film. To be fair, its central premise makes for a great ghost story, which I suspect in the  book worked very well- it just got lost in translation being transferred to the screen (the irony that Honeycombe himself wrote the screenplay suggests that authors don’t always understand the needs of film or the differences between literary works and visual narratives).

The very beautiful Susan Hampshire, herself a familiar face from television when I was growing up in the 1960s/1970s, stars as Anne Robinson, a wife from a troubled marriage who has left home for a break in Jersey, presumably to take stock of her life and decide what to do when she returns to her marital home. Visiting a remote lighthouse on the island she meets local lad Hugh (Michael Petrovich) and their mutual attraction is sudden and overwhelmingly intense- their love affair is wild and elemental in the greatest Mills & Boon tradition and Anne decides to stay with Hugh. For reasons not entirely explained (“I want to make love to you in Scotland!” Hugh announces), and certainly serving little actual purpose to the plot, they decide to immediately go to Scotland on vacation, but after arriving there Hugh suddenly dies. Anne is understandably horrified and distraught, but it transpires that the bond between them is so great that Hugh returns from the dead – in, it has to be said , a very moody and effective sequence. The film here takes one of those weird leaps of logic/reason that effects how one accepts everything that subsequently happens. Somehow Anne thinks life can go on as normal; such is her relief at Hugh returning to her, Anne’s heart over-rides her reason, quite blind to the fact that while Hugh’s soul has returned, his body is cold and inevitably begins to decay…

Hampered by very routine, perfunctory direction, the film has a turgid pace that suggests a short story badly bloated into a full-length film; it reminded me of The Ghost of Sierra Madre, which I watched a little while ago. My suspicions that that film was originally a one-hour tv pilot stretched too far to full-length feature (which turned out to be the case) were repeated here, even though in actuality here it really isn’t the case, but I do feel that had this been cut down by half to a one-hour drama it would have been much improved. No matter how well it possibly worked in the book, the film just can’t carry the simple story for close to two hours, at least not with such unimaginative direction lacking the visual flair a supernatural film such as this really needs, and the terrible music score (reaching for Morricone but falling far short) is clumsy and ill-suited, 1970s muzak at its very worst, often threatening to mark the film as farce .

I think Susan Hampshire is very good in this film; something of a porcelain English Rose, I was surprised how sensual she is in this. Anne has a deep fragility to her character and one can certainly believe how this incredible passion overcomes her, its intensity everything her marriage lacked, although admittedly some may think Petrovich makes a better corpse than hot lothario. The delicious quality of the cast is really evident in the great Frank Finlay tearing up the screen playing Hugh’s older, disapproving brother (“Doing that in mother’s bed – it’s disgusting”). His bravura gusto when he declares “I know what we must do! We must take him to a priest!” when he learns his brother is one of the living dead suggests his role in Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce a decade or so later was as inevitable as the sun rising in the East.

The film actually dares some kind of suggestion of necrophilia with a curious scene of sex with a zombie, albeit it is some kind of suggestion of sex, Hampshire groaning on the bed while the undead Hugh does things to her, er, telepathically, or something like that- a very ill-judged sequence that would have been best left on the cutting-room floor. Well, it gets a titter in a film otherwise lacking any real humour.

One sequence suggests the great folk-horror this film might have been. Anne returns to the cottage she shares with the undead Hugh, finally overwhelmed at her predicament as Hugh bangs at a the door from the next room, trying to be with her (he’s the clingy type). Finally Anne relents, unbolting the door and Hugh reaches for her- all we see is Anne’s terrified face and Hugh’s blue-black, decaying hand reaching for her. Its quite disturbing and effective, casting a sudden spell of horror that enlivens the film but is immediately neutered when we then see his face and its still rather surprisingly pretty. How much better had we not seen his face at all from then on, but rather it left to our imagination. But alas, the director has no such skill or daring, or faith that less can sometimes be more.

The ending of the film, while inevitable, really, is also quite refreshingly grim. There is an air of tragedy over all, which unfortunately doesn’t land as deeply as it should. By the end the film has out-stayed its welcome, its been too long getting to that finale and we’ve been asked to swallow too many wtf moments, which is a shame. I think Hampshre deserved a better film, frankly. Well, Finlay, too, to be honest; his camp skills would have to wait for Tobe Hooper to find their true vindication. Neither the Sea Nor the Sand is such a very strange film though. In some bizarre way it really needs to be seen to be believed.

It’s not just a movie: The Thing (1982)

thethingfg2The Thing (1982), Dir. John Carpenter, 109 mins, VHS/DVD/Blu-ray/4K UHD

Some films get in your blood, which is perhaps a particularly unwise turn of phrase when in reference to John Carpenter’s The Thing. I first saw this horror classic in the late Autumn of 1982; a lad in the art class a year above mine had a Dad who could get hold of pirate videos from a neighbour, and one night several of us from the art class/RPG crowd got together over his house while his folks were out, to watch The Thing. I know, I know, piracy is the great evil, but in my defence, I was a very young-looking sixteen at the time and thus clearly unable to go see it at the cinema due to its ‘X’ certificate- something that had similarly stopped me from seeing Alien three years before in 1979. I can distinctly recall my crushing disappointment in August of 1979 when I read in my local newspaper that Alien had been given the dreaded ‘X’ certificate by the BBFC, instantly realising that I wouldn’t be seeing Ridley Scott’s movie at all – somehow I’d expected I’d be able to go see it, such is the naivete of thirteen-year old geeks still high from Star Wars.

But back to 1982, and the arrival of VHS and Betamax video recorders in homes was changing everything. I wouldn’t be waiting for years to finally see some censored TV version of The Thing, instead here was the Real Deal, the uncensored film the same as everyone had been watching in cinemas. Sitting on the floor near that television set, I remember giggling through some of the more extreme moments, such as when Nauls suffers an heart attack and his chest opens up to bite off Copper’s arms. Even now when I type that out and look at it, is it any wonder, I mean, think about it- a guy has an heart attack and his chest opens up and bites someone’s arms off. My giggling was a nervous (almost hysterical, I suppose) reaction to seeing something I could never have imagined. It was just crazy, the whole film like nothing any of us had ever seen. So there I was, giggling like an idiot. Better than screaming I suppose.

In retrospect, its clear that 1982 was a year of films firsts like that. In The Thing‘s case, the film was so off-the-wall extreme, even the critics were caught off-guard, one famously comparing it to pornography. That grainy VHS copy no doubt lent the film a certain verisimilitude, such as how a pirate copy of Blade Runner I watched the following year added a certain quality to Jordan Cronenweth’s cinematography that no 4K UHD edition could ever match. People these days would be horrified at how bad VHS could often be, the vagaries of tracking dials and rich colours -particularly reds- blooming monstrously. To us back then, it was miraculous, really.

It was a different world back then. There was no internet to spoil things (sic) or hype things (again, sic). You could go into films totally cold, without even a clue who starred in it or what it was like, and back then I wasn’t so versed in how films were made or box-office or anything. We got information from film magazines like Starburst but they too could be as ‘behind the curve’ as we were (and by that time I’d stopped buying that mag every month). At any rate,  I had no idea that The Thing had been critically savaged or that it had flopped spectacularly, even though it had come out months before in America. On that cold night, it was one of the greatest films I had ever seen- John Carpenter would likely not at all approve of a pirate VHS copy of his film doing the rounds, but I think he might have had a blast watching our reactions to his film. We ‘got’ it in ways that the critics hadn’t (they’d catch up eventually).

thethingfg5A few years later, I was at college doing my Degree course, and one winter night I was travelling home on the bus; we’d had some heavy snow and the sodium streetlights were casting the world in a yellow/orange cast not totally unlike the flares that Mac used in The Thing. Back in those distant days, Sony Walkman’s were all the rage- at the time they were considered the cutting-edge of listening on the move. In a few years they would be considered quaintly obsolete compared to nifty little mp3 players, but those audio-cassette players like the Walkman were so cool. I loved mine, I used to put mix-tapes together to listen to on my commutes or walking around town and sometimes in quiet periods at college, I remember having rechargeable AA batteries and plugging them into a charger most every night so I could spend the next day listening to soundtracks, Vangelis or Jean Michel Jarre.

So anyway, that night no doubt influenced by the wintry weather, I had Ennio Morricone’s score music for The Thing playing on my Walkman, the cassette recorded off the vinyl album complete with scratchy hissing and clicking that seemed to just intensify the music’s atmosphere. As I disembarked at the bus stop nearest home, my Walkman was playing the Humanity track, one of the most definitive lonely pieces of forlorn music I’d ever heard.  The snow was deep, my feet crunching in it as I crossed the road and tried to discern where exactly the footpath should be. Morricone’s beautiful music was in my ears, and my breath was a steam in the sodium streetlights. I stopped and considered staying there for awhile. Its one of those perfect moments that stay with you forever- you don’t know at the time, when its actually happening, you obviously lack the clarity that you’ll live that moment in your head for years, but I knew it was pretty special. I remember being so tempted to just hang around there listening to that music while the chill air bit at my cheeks and the snow crunched beneath my unsteady feet. But I was hungry and late for tea, so I resumed my trek through the snow to home, not realising I was leaving a tiny little part of me on that street corner for decades: not a time has gone by, whenever listening to that music again and again as I have over the years, that I don’t think back to those few minutes standing in the snow, listening to that music.

Event Horizon needs a reboot

EventIn an effort to shake things up from the relentless noir-watching of late, I watched Event Horizon again (well hey, a film in COLOUR!), albeit this time the recent 4K UHD release, which while hardly a revelation is nonetheless a big improvement on the old Blu-ray and the DVD before that.

I usually enjoy watching the film, but this time it didn’t feel the same. Its not as if I was expecting anything great. It’s just Event Horizon, after all, but I’ve always considered it a guilty favourite, much like Tobe Hooper’s Life Force. Event Horizon is cheesy with some stiff acting and terribly dodgy dialogue and is massively derivative of so many other, better films but usually I can ignore/put up with all that and enjoy it for what it is. But what exactly is it? What exactly has brought me back to it over the years?

Maybe its the mood, the ‘look’ of the film. I think I’ve noted before how much it feels a part of the Alien universe, if only because its at such pains to mimic Ridley Scott’s film. If the Alien franchise had gone another way, less about Giger’s xenomorph or Ripley and more about seperate horror films set in space, then yeah, this film could have been titled Alien: Event Horizon and nobody would have batted an eyelid. I think every time I watch the film I half-expect to spot the Weyland-Yutani logo somewhere, and I guess one could argue it looks part of the Alien franchise more than Prometheus did, so one could argue it succeeded where even Ridley Scott failed.

But of course, its not just Alien that the film cribs from. There’s a lot of The Shining in it. I could imagine a commentary track in which the voices say “hey look, here’s a bit of The Black Hole” or “this here’s a nod to Outland” or “here’s the fifteenth thing it’s nicked from Alien” or “yeah there’s that decompression gag  from Total Recall” etc. Its almost a wonder this film got released without any resulting litigation at all, its so blatantly cobbled together from other films.

Maybe its time that everything went full circle, and somebody made a reboot of Event Horizon, you know, rehash the film that was itself a rehash of so many other films. There’d be a certain logic or poetic justice to it.

In short: Men

Men (2022), Dir. Alex Garland, 100 mins, HD Amazon Prime

I’m a keen follower of anything Alex Garland does- he has written and directed two of the best genre films of the past few decades, Ex Machina and the utterly brilliant Annihilation, but Men, his third directorial effort, proves to be a profound disappointment. It starts so well; it has an intriguing premise, a wonderful cast on top form and beautiful cinematography, but goes totally off the rails in the last half, degenerating into an absurdly disgusting body-horror, as if its the bastard child of Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible (2002) and John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982). I note with some curiosity that each film came out in twenty year increments (1982/2002/2022) suggesting there is some cinematic sorcery at play here worthy of an episode of Guillermo del Toro’s Netflix show Cabinet of Curiosities.

The two leads, Jessie Buckley and Rory Kinnear are excellent and deserve so much better, I think; they are clearly all-in on what Garland was trying for and sure, I admit I may have totally missed that intention but after the last twenty-minute assault on both my senses and the contents of my stomach, I was left utterly perplexed. To reiterate, the first half of the film is SO GOOD, the cinematography, the use of sound effects and music, its all quite sublime and suggesting I was in for a great folk-horror story in the tradition of The Wicker Man, but instead…

I remarked to Claire when it finished that one of the issues with streaming is that, were this a Blu-ray we’d been watching there would be reasonable chance there would be a director commentary to listen to afterwards, to glean some idea of  Garland’s intentions or a rough explanation of what was going on, what the ‘message’ or point of the film was. Of course there’s a valid school of thought that if you can’t ascertain that from the film itself then there’s something wrong with the film anyway, but I don’t mind putting my hand up to admit the failing might be in my own ignorance. In any case, this was a stream on Amazon Prime so without a search on the Internet there’s no revelation, no redemptive sense of reason from the madness this film descends into. I can admire the nerve in making something as obtuse and unique as this, if only as an exercise in Pure Cinema, but have to question the storytelling, the futility of creating a puzzle without any kind of solution. Is there a validity to this if Garland claimed that what it means is wholly up to the viewer, or is that just a cop-out? I don’t know, but it does feel like Men got away from him and I can’t say I enjoyed my time with this film.

An interesting failure, then.

Ho, Ho, Ho, my Axe

silentnightSilent Night, Deadly Night, 1984, 79 mins, HD (Amazon Prime)

This Christmas, I have watched just one festive movie (alas, not even Die Hard) and it was Silent Night, Deadly Night, a 1980s slasher flick that  apparently caused quite a stir back in the day. It’s not particularly well made and the acting has the feel of an amateur production- its a fairly nasty piece of work, really, but I suppose that’s the entire point. Its definitely of its time, that era of horror series like Halloween, Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street. There’s lots of nudity and that old horror trope of sex = death, the ‘twist’ of this film is that this film’s axe-wielding maniac is dressed as Santa. Its gory, but so absurd its not really at all scary, instead almost feeling like a parody of those other, more serious/cynical slasher series. This is something only accentuated by this ‘uncut’ version featuring scenes dropping from HD to a grainy second or third-generation SD whenever the goriest bits are put back in; really quite surreal whenever that happens.

The film begins with a lengthy prologue set on Christmas Eve of 1971, in which five-year old Billy is taken by his parents to see his grandpa, who is senile and living in a care home. While Billy’s parents are in another room discussing grandpa’s care situation with a doctor, grandpa suddenly becomes lucid and scares Billy shitless with a tirade about Santa punishing children who have been bad. Then wouldn’t you know it, on the ride back home there is an incident in which Billy sees his parents get pulled up at the roadside and killed by a crook dressed as Santa. That’s Christmas truly ruined for Billy for the rest of his life, which is pretty miserable in general as he’s put in an orphanage governed by a sadistic nun (yeah poor Billy just can’t catch a break) who reinforces the lesson that bad children should be severely punished.

So years later the film picks up with eighteen-year old Billy getting a job in a toy shop, and as Christmas Eve approaches, the store Santa goes sick and Billy is put in the Santa outfit. Yeah, it doesn’t end well for anyone caught being naughty by Santa Billy.

This is exploitation movie with a capital ‘E’ and is really pretty daft from start to finish. It would probably have been largely forgotten (for my part, I’d never heard of it) were it not for the furore it caused on its initial release. Back in 1984 people were just not ready for an axe-wielding Santa chasing women flashing their boobs (who are more common than you’d think, considering its set in chilly December). The bodies pile up, the deaths are fairly imaginative, the gore intensifies, and the soundtrack stays jolly with lots of Seasonal songs. It isn’t as good as its premise possibly sounds though.

Back to Die Hard next year then.

Somebody call Kolchak

sierra3The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre (1964, TV Movie), 80 mins, Talking Pictures TV

A film cobbled together from a rejected TV pilot for a horror anthology series, The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre is a genuinely creepy, spooky horror that on the one hand is much better than its origins suggest, but on the other horribly undermined by underwritten characters and a quite nonsensical plot. Oddly enough, in that respect it feels quite modern- its all about the mood and chills and not at all about any drama or characters. Its really quite frustrating, in that it does most of the horror stuff very well – I’d imagine even  kids of today could be traumatised by some of its spooky moments-  but the rest doesn’t really hold up at all, and the pacing seems all over the place (as I’ll come back to later, I suspect that in its original edit it was intended to run under an hour -even with commercials- but had to be padded out in order to function as a TV movie).

The film was the brainchild of Joseph Stefano (at the time coming off both The Outer Limits tv series and having written the screenplay of Hitchcock’s Psycho) who was originally intending to launch a horror anthology series (The Outer Limits being mostly a science fiction show). I wasn’t aware of its origins when I watched it -I just thought it was one of those indie low-budget 1960s horrors, like Roger Corman’s stuff- but when watching it I felt like something weird was going on with some of the characters, definitely like it was setting up some TV show starring Martin Landau as an architect with a hobby of investigating ghostly goings on, a kind of Kolchak meets Scooby Doo kind of thing. Its funny how we can be tuned to such TV series conventions, and it seems I wasn’t too far off- maybe Landau’s architect wasn’t a series regular, maybe it was intended to be completely seperate stories like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, but it certainly felt like Landau was being set up as a regular.

There was also a distinctly David Lynch, Twin Peaks-vibe to many of the shots, that kind of orchestrated, long-take weirdness that Lynch does, hanging onto shots longer than usual, leaving the viewer feeling uncomfortable just from the editing, and some of it coming out of leftfield like Lynch is so fond of doing. For instance, there’s an early scene when Viva (Diane Baker) has returned to her blind husband Henry Madore (Tom Simcox). He tells her they have a new housekeeper, Paulina (Dame Judith Anderson) who then enters the room, upon which Viva totally freaks out without warning or reason, backing away in utter, unexplained terror. sierra4The film uses Paulina, who in black-draped garb looks totally not normal, for a few tonally unsettling, Twin Peaks-style visuals that linger far too long and serve no story function, such as when she’s standing on a beach looking up at Landau’s home up on the clifftop above. Upon later learning of the film’s genesis, much of this is clearly padding-out the length rather than anything particularly calculated, but it certainly works to the film’s advantage establishing its unsettling mood.

As a horror film it is certainly rewarding viewing and one can forgive its eventual silliness because of just how successful it is evoking its creepy mood of, dare I say it, distinctly ‘old-fashioned’ horror. There’s a delicious sense of Hammer-era fun early on when we are told that blind Henry living in his lonely big gothic mansion thinks he is being haunted by his dead mother who rings him and sobs down the phone at him. We are told that his mother was terrified of being buried alive so when she died she was placed in the family crypt with a phone placed next to her coffin with a direct line to his mansion. I suppose that’s Edgar Allen Poe updated for the 20th Century. Landau’s architect, Nelson Orion -weren’t names brilliant in these old TV shows?- is hired by Henry’s wife to investigate the possible haunting, as the call can only becoming from the crypt, so its either genuinely his mother or its someone orchestrating some elaborate prank to make Henry seem insane. Eventually it transpires that Henry’s mother isn’t the only tyrannical mother with damaged kids, and if there is a ghost its of someone else entirely (hint: Henry’s dear departed mother has no connection with Sierra de Cobre), but by the time we get to that point the plot has collapsed under the weight of its own contrivances and we don’t really care anymore. Which is a shame, because early on its really good indeed. sierra5The cast, certainly, is better than one would expect; I thought Diane Baker, later a frequent face in imported American 1960s/1970s television shows I watched growing up, was excellent, swinging from calm to wild hysterics in a heartbeat. Martin Landau, bless him, is, well, Martin Landau. Actually I think it was because I noticed it was him in the cast that prompted me to watch this at all. I’ve always had an interest in Landau’s work, ever since he starred in Gerry Anderson’s Space:1999 show which was second only to Star Trek in my childhood as far as formative addictions go. I was just the same with Star Trek and watching with due reverence anything starring William Shatner -hey, its Captain Kirk!- and its something I never really grew out of, bless my foolish loyalties to childhood heroes.

In any case, this is well worth a watch. Its just a pity the original, shorter edit doesn’t exist anymore because that would be an interesting alternate and might have proved more effective without the padding- although I have the suspicion its that padding with its longer shots that hang on just too long that make the film as successfully unsettling as it is.