Blonde Nightmare

blonde1Blonde, 2022, 166 mins, Netflix

I must confess, impressed as I was by Ana de Armas in BR2049 and Knives Out, I would never have imagined her ever playing Marilyn Monroe, and when I first heard of her casting for Andrew Dominik’s Blonde I was quite incredulous. Still, what do I know, I thought Ben Affleck was going to be a disaster as Batman and he turned out to be the best incarnation of the caped crusader I’ve yet seen. So it turns out Ana de Armas is the highlight of Blonde, with an absolutely arresting performance which should get attention come awards season unless the films more notorious elements hold it back (I don’t think the Academy appreciates the Hollywood Dream Factory being portrayed in a bad light).

Blonde seems to be getting a mixed response from critics. To say I enjoyed it actually feels wrong, I mean, how can anyone actually enjoy something as dark and unrelenting as this film? But I did, in as much as I thought it was very good indeed, fascinating and unnerving with great performances and lovely art direction and attention to detail. Its powerful and intense stuff. Watching it just a week after seeing Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis felt rather curious though; two biopics of such iconic people in such close succession, and both being so grim. I’ve noticed critic Mark Kermode describe Blonde as a horror film, and he’s absolutely spot-on, but to be honest that was my experience with Elvis too. Baz Luhrmann’s film itself felt like a horror film, it’s Col Tom Parker a predatory character with devilish eyes something like a killer in a 1980s slasher movie. I remember feeling quite down after watching Elvis, it wasn’t as uplifting as I’d expected it to be, instead feeling disturbed by Parker and Tom Hank’s very effective turn, the film felt less of a celebration of Elvis Presley’s life and more a tragedy.

So here comes Blonde and its pulled the same trick, examining the misery and nightmare of Norma Jean/Marilyn Monroe’s life in such an unrelenting way its operating at some other magnitude entirely. The dark side of Hollywood is hardly a surprise to anyone now, surely. We’ve all read revelations of the misdoings of superstars of old that was covered up by the Studios, and the Harvey Weinstein saga depressingly reminded us how little things have changed. Hollywood is a dark place that destroys people just as much as it makes people into superstars. Many of the ‘revelations’ within Blonde are hardly going to be new to anyone familiar with Marilyn Monroe’s life story, and in some respects it actually holds its punches. We don’t see as much as I’d expected regards the Kennedy brothers and the mob and how Marilyn was caught up in that, nor does the film suggest anything about her death: it might have been accidental, it may have been despairing suicide, but there’s no intimation of actual murder.

I’ve seen Blonde come under fire, particularly from her adoring fanbase, for not being more of a celebration of Marilyn’s success, showing what makes her such an icon today, her relationship with the camera in all her movies and photo shoots. There may be something to those criticisms, but in  the films defence, its simply not that movie- it’s like pro-shark activists criticising Jaws for showing sharks in a bad light. Blonde is deliberately and absolutely a cautionary tale. If anything, it makes the good in Marilyn’s life, those performances (in Some Like It Hot, for instance), actually seem even more extraordinary considering what was going on behind the scenes. Considering Norma Jean’s childhood and all that came before Hollywood itself, I think her achievements and the fact she remains such an icon today are something to be marvelled at, no doubt.

I’m not the first or likely the last to have noticed a Lynchian undertone to the film- the excellent soundtrack score by Warren Ellis and Nick Cave sounds like, and functions like, an Angelo Badalamenti score, and of course the storyline mirrors that of Twin Peaks and in particular Fire Walk with Me‘s portrayal of Laura Palmers dark descent. Had Blonde actually been a David Lynch film, would it be getting some of the criticism Andrew Dominik’s film is getting? Possibly not; audiences would perhaps have more of a mindset of what to expect, and Lynch is adored for making films about the dark underbelly of America, he’s practically fireproof. I don’t think Andrew Dominik is as bulletproof as Lynch, but I think its admirable that in today’s Hollywood Dominik got to make the film he wanted to make.

4K Poltergeist

poltergeist4kDon’t look at the cover. Don’t. The real horror is, there have been worse.

First film I ever rented, back in 1983 – Poltergeist will always be something special. It was the first film I ever watched on a VHS tape, when the ‘miracle’ of watching a film at the push of a button, with no censorship or ad-breaks was something to leave you breathless, and incredibly exciting in ways that kids today will never understand. Ah, the pull of nostalgia will never loosen its grip on this movie.

Fantastic Jerry Goldsmith score, a pretty great cast including the beautiful JoBeth Williams and the great, late James Karen whose only better film was The Return of the Living Dead, and ILM bringing the horrors of Raiders to suburbia. 1982 was a great year for movies, and its somehow been 40 years so I guess this release was inevitable- joining quite a few of the Class of 1982 to 4K.  I just want to know where’s Conan The Barbarian in 4K;  you’d think Arrow or someone would give it a go if Universal had zero interest.

Bloody cover does look more like an alternate for CE3K than something for Poltergeist  (“Honey there’s a mothership over the house!”).

Murder of a franchise

halloweenrisesHalloween Kills, 2021, 105 mins, Digital

I’ll keep this as short as I can, this film deserves no more. There’s was a point during this film where I felt like damning John Carpenter for ever making the 1978 film that spawned this wholly lamentable horror franchise. Halloween Kills is so horrible it almost outweighs the positives of the 1978 original ever existing at all. Halloween Kills is badly written, badly acted, badly directed. Only the other day I was praising Ghostbusters: Afterlife for demonstrating how to resurrect a film franchise,  how to make a sequel befitting and honouring its original. Well, here comes Halloween Kills to demonstrate how not to do it. It is such a disaster I can’t quite put it into words; to be brutally honest I wasn’t expecting much, if anything at all, and yet it still managed to disappoint.

Actually, it made me quite angry. How do films, as demonstrably cynical and badly made as this get made? Of course, the answer is money, which I’ll come to in a few paragraphs, but bear with me here, because the question is nonetheless valid. There are so many continuity errors, factual errors, clumsy mistakes, it was one of the laziest, most ineptly made films I’ve ever seen, and I’ve suffered through plenty of them. Its so bad it feels almost deliberately bad, there is so little indication anybody really tried at all. There were so many moments that my jaw dropped at the crass stupidity of characters or plotting, the film increasingly edging so close towards parody and farce, it felt almost insulting, like the film-makers were physically slapping me in the face.

So lets get to the money, and the scariest thing about this film. It cost $20 million to make, grossed over $130 million worldwide, so there will be another Halloween film. And possibly another after that. Where will the horror end?

Which gets me worried; knowing how money attracts Hollywood attention, and recent rumours circulating, there’s surely a cautionary lesson in this film- that John Carpenter should, by all things Holy, somehow, if he has it within his power, veto any attempt to reboot/remake his 1982 classic The Thing, because nobody, surely, wants that film sullied like the way Halloween has been over the decades – with Halloween Kills, it has plummeted to stygian depths Lovecraft never considered. Worst film I will see this year, I expect (and sincerely hope).

Murders on the Horror Express

murders1Horror Express, 1972, 91 mins, BBC iPlayer

The first casualty of a bad horror film is any shocks, it seems. Well, that and the reputations of all involved. I dare say there are a few revisionists out there who describe this film as some novel precursor to John Carpenter’s The Thing but that’s utter tosh. Okay, the film owes a little to the John W. Campbell, Jr. novella “Who Goes There?” that both the original The Thing From Another World as well as John Carpenter’s version were based on, but its so poorly executed here its practically incidental- possibly it was even accidental (an alien is thawed from millions of years in ice and proceeds to jump from body to body killing travellers on a Trans-Siberian express). No, this is just a really poor, terribly bad horror film hamstrung by a zero budget and only enlivened by the casting of Hammer greats Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, albeit one has to pity them the misfortune of featuring in such a lousy film. Indeed, my overwhelming sensation watching this film was almost of pity, soberly considering that no matter how great we may now think both Cushing and Lee were, the truth is that back in the day they were likely poorly-regarded b-movie horror actors who had to bum around for gigs in awful productions such as this (see also Cushing’s appearance in the not-quite-so-dire The Devil’s Men). Mind, I’m not certain what Telly Savalas’ excuse is for appearing in this as a Cassock captain, who seems to drop in from nowhere on the hunt for the killer like some sabre-rattling Inspector Poirot (and no, its nowhere near as amusing as that likely sounds).

So it was a wholly irritating, sobering experience, this- I’ve been curious to see it for a few years now (thank goodness I was never tempted by those Arrow sales), entirely on the basis of seeing Cushing and Lee in a movie together again. Had this been a mid-sixties Hammer romp, it may have been just as silly but it would, curiously enough, have been a better-made film, even considering the limited budgets Hammer films were notorious for. At least it would have had Hammer’s signature gothic style, gaudy colours and fine period costumes/art direction, and would have been enlivened by seeing the usual Hammer retinue of actors with a dramatic music score. Sadly, there’s none of that here, and as one might expect from a cheap Spanish production there’s also woeful dubbing on any dialogue uttered by someone other than Cushing, Lee or Savalas, which only further detracts from what actually going on.

I suppose one can admire -although with considerable sadness- the professionalism of Cushing and Lee who heartily continue to act their best whatever the rubbish they are in (maybe all those Hammer flicks were ample practice), giving genuine effort here which the film hardly deserves. Truly, the two Hammer veterans deserved much better and its such a pity that they so needed to pay the bills that they had to sign-on to pictures such as this. Its far beneath them, but that’s true of quite a few films in each of their filmographies. Mind, its true most actors likely appear in films they’d rather forget- something that was much easier to get away with in decades before home video came along. What on Earth either Cushing or  Lee would have thought had they know this particular film would still be widely available to viewers all these decades later? They would likely have been horrified. Its not often I ever say of a film featuring Peter Cushing “never again!” but its certainly true of this nonsense.

So a fashion student lodges in Slaughterhouse, UK…

lastnightLast Night in Soho, 2021, 116 mins, 4K UHD

Oh, this one was crazy. Crazy good or crazy bad, I’m not sure. On the one hand, considering its obvious Giallo inspiration, I suppose I should cut it some slack for some of its excesses, its avoidance of all things sensical. I’m no expert (nor particularly a fan of) that Italian horror sub-genre that champions surreal and dreamlike imagery, and visual atmosphere over narrative, but its obvious in much of Last Night in Soho‘s cinematography and increasingly silly plot that it might not be working its drama and narrative in the same way as I would hope, and that some might consider that a positive.

Well, I came to it pretty blind, knowing little all about it other than much of it apparently was set during the 1960s, and that some kind of time travel might be involved, and early on, I anticipated it might be some kind of horror spin on Tom’s Midnight Garden, and was rather relishing the prospect. Well, I was way wrong on that…

To suggest that Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho goes off the rails somewhat, would do disservice to just how utterly bonkers it gets, going all Suspiria by way of The Shining and with a cup of tea in 10 Rillington Place. 

There does seem a trend in modern cinema, and television too, to some extent, which seems to originate in an instinctive need to outdo previous films and television shows, along the lines of bigger = better, more= better, to just go further, louder. Its like restraint simply isn’t a thing anymore. and consequently as things get more bonkers, there seems to be a split in the audience regards if this is a good thing or bad- indeed some love it. Most of the time it just makes my head hurt, because internal logic seems to be the first thing that goes out the door. People think I’m being ridiculously anal when I moan about new Star Trek, with the Enterprise ‘hiding’ under the ocean instead of safely unseen in orbit, or folks teleporting to a ship in warp or indeed from one star system to another, across the galaxy, indirectly suggesting starships are actually no longer necessary. Its always something done for effect, for surprise, for spectacle and thrill, but at the expense of making sense.

So in Last Night in Soho, it isn’t enough to have our sensitive fashion student haunted by a ghost, she has to be haunted by a whole pack of them, and its not enough to have one body under the floorboards, it has to be a few dozen, and our unassuming boarding house has to be a slaughterhouse, and the ending literally a conflagration, a bonfire of the horror vanities if you will, and our heroine suddenly becoming flame-proof, because you can walk through flames if you want to, and you can inhale super-hot air and toxic smoke without poisoning and burning your lungs, because. Because.

Even there, the film can’t stop. We have to have a coda in which our heroine is fine, and her boyfriend (stabbed in the stomach and left to bleed out, unconscious in the burning building (smoke etc. I know, boring details, go get a life, Ghost..)) is obviously fine, and not only that, but she has to have the literal applause of her peers at her fashion show getting her absolute vindication in its success (from copying designs she saw in visions of what happened in the 1960s, so hardly original designs, but hey, maybe that’s a subtle commentary on how films now replicate films of old and expect to be applauded for it). Maybe whether its brilliant or not depends on personal taste, obviously, but crikey, its just one bonkers scene too far for me, spoiling anything I could have forgiven before.

Failed second chances

Seconds1Seconds, 1966, 107 mins, Blu-Ray

John Frankenheimer’s Seconds is a very odd film- partly its a meditative study of mid-life crisis and the seductive temptation of second chances, but its also rather something more. Its also a drama about not fitting in, of hidden identity and feeling ‘outside,’ something only amplified by the casting of Rock Hudson, who was at the time an homosexual masquerading him as straight in order to maintain his career in Hollywood (albeit I understand it was something of an open secret within Hollywood circles). Its also a cautionary sci-fi parable akin to some (better-made) Twilight Zone episodes. Its also a bonkers sci-fi horror hybrid which makes little sense, predicated on a ridiculous premise (that plastic surgery can transform John Randolph into Rock Hudson). Yet, something about the film resonates, so much so that one can easily forgive the film its flaws. There’s a sense of an underlying ‘truth’ in its feelings of regret, mortality and lost youth.

The overwhelming melancholy of the film is enhanced beautifully by Jerry Goldsmith’s haunting score, which is how I came to learn of the films existence in the first place. Its one of those instances of listening to a score first, ignorant of its film; I think I bought the CD in a sale alongside another purchase back when the shipping costs etc didn’t make such blind purchases as prohibitive as they are now. I think cited comparisons to Goldsmith’s Freud score had caught my attention, a score I adore and had itself come upon due to its use in Alien. Connections within connections, one film leading to another, like the spider diagrams you might see in murder mysteries/police procedurals.

But it took a few more years, until now, having finally bought the Eureka Blu-ray, to finally see the film itself.

Seconds3Arthur Hamilton (John Rudolph) is a middle-aged man in a comfortable, affluent life – married, with a good job, a spacious house out in the suburbs, and a daughter… but the marriage is passionless, the daughter has grown up and left home, and the job is empty and unfulfilling. The ennui of this midlife crisis quietly dominates everything, albeit it is unrealised, his ignorance is, while not  bliss, perhaps making things tolerable.

This ignorance is shaken when he is offered, by a secretive, nameless company, the chance of a new life – they will fake his death and give him a new face, a new body and identity, a new life. A second chance, full of all the marvellous opportunities that the company suggest. It begins to dawn upon Arthur that nuisance phone-calls from a stranger claiming to be his friend who died several months ago might be genuine. Arthur’s curiosity is ill-met, however, when he is drugged and later shown footage of him sexually assaulting a young woman – blackmailing him to go through with the procedure despite his reservations. So Arthur signs the contract, his death is faked and he is later ‘reborn’ following months of surgeries, as Tony Wilson (Rock Hudson).

Elements of Corporate machinations, a secret company operating ‘under the grid’ outside of governmental controls selling a faulty product that doesn’t actually work (as it later transpires) likely resonates more profoundly today than it ever did back in 1966. What may have seemed incredible to audiences back then seems almost matter-of-fact today. Where the film really falters is in its proposition that simple surgery might transform John Randolph into Rock Hudson – in hindsight it might have been better to have resorted to some technical device, actually transferring a persons intellect from one physical body to another, i.e. a manufactured clone, which is essentially just as ridiculous for a film set in the mid-sixties but maybe more credible than plastic surgery to us today.

Seconds2But if one can turn a blind eye to the implausibility of the science, and accept the film as some manner of fable (the implausible science just a means to an end) then the film rewards hugely with its considerations of second chances, identity and roots and regrets. Its really quite fascinating although perhaps one of the most depressing films I’ve ever watched, with a genuinely chilling conclusion.  I think the first section of the film possibly works best (Rudolph is brilliant) but that’s not to say that Rock Hudson is not a revelation. I think its fair to say that the name Rock Hudson does not fill film fans with much anticipation but this film is utterly unlike anything else I’ve ever seen Hudson appear in. It seems clear that Hudson recognised something in the role that mirrored his own situation regards his hidden sexuality, and certainly suggests he might have thrived in better, more challenging roles although its probably true that this films failure to garner any critical or public appreciation likely ruined any such opportunity. John Frankenheimer joked that Seconds was the kind of film which if you rang a theatre owner to ask what time the film starts, he’d reply asking what time you could get there.

The rest of the films cast offers notable mentions: Jeff Corey, Will Greer, both disarmingly chilling performances, and Jaws‘ Murray Hamilton and The Six Million Dollar Man‘s Richard Anderson in support.

Considering there is so little music in the film (I think the score is barely over twenty minutes in length minus source cues) its clear that Goldsmith was rather judicial regards the spotting of music, but thats the genius of it, as when it comes in, it really works magnificently. Goldsmith’s score really is like a major character of the film, keying into the mood and sensitivity of the story. Its really one of the composers best film-scores (it must be, because I’m double-dipping with a new CD release featuring newly remastered sound recovering the music from dialogue bleed due to impaired source), and I’m reminded how Goldsmith suffered by how some of the films he worked on either weren’t as good as his music deserved or failed to find an audience (he never scored a Chariots of Fire or Titanic, at any rate, and few would recall films like The Boys From Brazil particularly kindly).

I think the most obvious problem for this film is in regards its length, as unfortunately it has the feel of an overlong episode of The Twilight Zone. Its a good fifteen to twenty minutes too long, floundering somewhat in its middle section, but that being said, with  judicious editing I think it would have benefitted from a longer first section (more focus on Arthur) and a shorter second section (less focus on Tony, if only to tighten up that part to make it function better) but regardless of that, I think Seconds is a good, surprising and contemplative film that deserves more attention: maybe it deserves a second chance of its own? I also think its curious how similar it feels to Frank Perry’s The Swimmer, in its tone, mood and re-evaluation of the American Dream, and as The Swimmer is one of my favourite movies of the 1960s its inevitable that I found Seconds so enthralling. One of those films that few people like, but those that do, rather love, like some guilty cinematic secret.

The crushing disappointment of Nightmare Alley

nightmare2021aNightmare Alley, 2021, 150 mins, 4K UHD

Well I guess the title of this post tells it all; Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley is a misfire, vastly inferior to the 1947 noir original. After seeing all those gushing reviews at the end of last year and all that talk of Oscar (whatever that really means) I finally watched this imported 4K disc and couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Sure its pretty, that is typical of Guillermo, he’s a great visual stylist, but I was actually shocked how badly staged this film was- scenes that are disturbing in the 1947 original just seem staid and even confusing in this version, and the star-studded cast are left wasted, Guillermo unable to extract any interesting performances from them: they look like millionaire actors playing bums and are about as convincing. I usually like Bradley Cooper but he lacks sufficient intensity to pull this off, and now that I think about it, most of the cast seem unaware they are in a noir, their performances tuned for something else. So I was left at the movies end wondering had I seen the same movie as those adoring critics, had I missed something?

Is it as simple as the critics thinking Guillermo their new darling (after the over-rated The Shape of Water), who can do no wrong, or that they are largely ignorant of the superior 1947 original film demonstrating how it should have been done? This one is just too long, horribly paced and curiously uninvolving, considering that the original freaked me out and had me disturbed for weeks afterwards. The original was as much a horror film as it was a noir and like so many noir, briskly paced with no fat at all, like some runaway train pulling its despairing character to his doom. There’s no relentless nightmare down this particular alley, little sense of its character at the mercy of terrible fate, and none of the surprises of the original.

So I am left wondering, what film were those fawning critics watching? I cannot understand, for instance, how none of them seem bothered by some glaring continuity errors that seem rather odd for such a well-regarded film. One early one bothered me so much that it likely spoiled the film for me entirely, as my head kept on referring back to it thinking it would constitute something of a twist, eventually, but it was a twist that never came. The Carnival is taken down to be moved some twenty miles to join another carnival site, and soon after arriving there, the geek escapes and following a tense search in which Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) suffers a head injury mysteriously absent the next day, the geek is captured and returned to his cage- but this location/tent is the one they left behind at the previous site. They carnies have not had time to put up the tent etc or dig the pit, and it wouldn’t be so clearly identical if they had, right down to rows of formaldehyde jars and their grisly contents. It doesn’t make any sense, frankly, and in that way that continuity errors sometimes do, took me straight out of the movie, and I struggled to get back ‘into’ it.

So instead I’m just left with an urge to re-watch the 1947 original again and a pretty 4K coaster. I don’t know, maybe I need to muster the courage (and time, this thing is 150 minutes long) to give Guillermo’s film another try with lower expectations. But unless The Batman proves different next month, I fear this Nightmare Alley could likely be the biggest disappointment of the year.

“The Spirit of Tom Molyneaux” by Robert E. Howard

fists1While he’s most popularly known for his fantasy creations of Conan, King Kull and Solomon Kane, Bob Howard’s love of boxing is well documented-both a fervent admirer of the sport of his time, deeply knowledgeable of its history, and also as an amateur pugilist in his own right, taking part in bouts behind the ice-house at Cross Plains, and his passion for boxing is clearly evidenced by the number of boxing yarns he wrote during his short-lived writing career. The Robert E Howard Foundation’s Fists of Iron series, ensuring all his boxing stories, drafts. poems and ephemera are in print, is spread across four substantial volumes of material. My copies have sat on the shelf waiting my attention for far too long- the shipping note and customs declaration for my copy of the first volume, complete with that magical Cross Plains Post Office stamp, is dated June 2013. Other than picking a volume up to browse through or read an isolated story or two, these collections of his Boxing stories have been waiting. And waiting. But 2013? Yikes. And I thought some of my DVDs/Blu-rays had it bad.

So I have decided to strike out and try work my way through these Fists of Iron volumes (albeit I’m sure to become distracted by the pull of some of his other yarns before long, such as his Westerns or Fantasy works, because I suspect constant boxing stories may become wearing, in time, no matter how enjoyable they are). Many of the boxing stories contained in these books are familiar to me, having read most of them at least once before over the decades that I’ve been reading Howard’s fiction, but nonetheless I am certain there are many gathered here that I haven’t read at all, certainly in the pure ‘original text’ versions that the REH Foundation prides itself upon. In the case of this story, there are two different versions, one had featured in Bison Books’ Boxing Stories collection and the other Del Rey’s The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard collection, and both feature in this first Fists of Iron volume. Seems double and triple-dipping isn’t just reserved for home video formats…

The Spirit of Tom Molyneaux” is a lesser tale of Howards that is perfectly fine, and which has a particular fame for being Howards first professional sale outside of Weird Tales.  As one might suspect from it being sold to Ghost Stories (following rejections from the Fight Stories and Argosy pulps), this is a boxing short with a supernatural bent. Its less pronounced in the version here, from one of Howard’s own carbon copies- likely the version Fight Stories rejected.  The ghostly stuff features more prominently in the published version- possibly at the request of the Ghost Stories editor or perhaps more an example of Howard tailoring his stories to a particular market, adjusting its tone to more likely get a sale (he even retitled it to “The Apparition in the Prize-Ring”).

Its the story about Ace Jessel and his epic bout with Mankiller Gomez, a brutal, almost primordial fighter who has swept all before him, taking the title from a fighter who Ace had been in line to fight. Ace is clearly outmatched but seems to take courage from a painting of his lifelong hero and inspiration, the boxer Tom Molyneaux, a black boxer who died a hundred years prior. Unbeknownst to Ace, his concerned manager John Taverel is compelled to bring the painting to ringside, and when Ace is bloodied and near-beaten, Taveral unfurls it so that Ace can see it, and the ghost of Molyneaux comes to Ace’s aid.

Which is a lousy summary of a simple story which, while it doesn’t really at all surprise, nonetheless proves to be a perfect example of just how great a storyteller Bob Howard was. I haven’t read any other author who can capture action like Howard could- his description of the bout is riveting and exciting and its impossible not to get caught up in it. I can’t say I have any particular interest in boxing at all, but I really enjoy Howards boxing yarns (the humorous ones are the best, as they demonstrate Howard’s surprising grasp of comedy) and the supernatural element gives this one a particular flavour worthy of a Twilight Zone segment. Its really pretty good.

Schrödinger’s party: Coherence (2013)

coherenceCoherence, 2013, 89 mins, Amazon Prime

Oh this was a strange one: imagine a streaming app. There’s a film on that app, that may or may not be any good. If Erwin Schrödinger was a film reviewer, he might suggest that, until that film is actually watched, it actually exists in two states: its a one-star film, and its a five-star film, at the very same time. Its the act of observation that determines whether a film is any good or not. Hang on. I don’t need high-end Quantum theory or a professor to tell me that I need to watch a film to discover if its any good or not.

Coherence is a film that is very preoccupied by Schrödinger’s thought experiment about his cat in a box.  In fact, its the films central conceit. Eight freinds attend a dinner party at one of their houses while a comet dominates the sky and news headlines. Peculiar things start to happen; the lights go out, there is a loud banging at the door. The street outside is in blackness, except for a house down the street that has its lights on. Two of the freinds go out to that house, looking for a working phone. Two freinds come back. But they might not be the same freinds. Turns out the house with the lights on is identical to the one where they are having the party, and through the window they could see guests identical to those freinds they had left behind. But maybe there are more than two identical houses, more than two sets of eight identical party-goers.

Ironically, the film becomes less coherent as it progresses. This might well be deliberate. Initially its premise is very interesting, even unnerving, and the cast pretty great in what I suspect were mostly ad-libbed scenes other than whenever a key plot-point had to be thrown in to move things forward. Its an extremely low-budget production, mostly an ensemble piece set in one place, very much like a theatre play and that elements works best, with some nice character work and rising friction. Oh, and it features that guy from Buffy.

Its essentially a Twilight Zone-like piece, an exercise in rising paranoia which unfortunately just confuses more and more as it goes on. I can’t really say I even understood the ending, it throws a weird tangent right at the end which rather undermines everything before (an unconscious body left in the shower seems to have disappeared and there is some vague twist about a phone call that is meant to mean… what, exactly?). Its either one of those films that is too clever for its own good, or not as clever as it seems to think it is- or maybe it just lost its way in execution. I should need a diagram to understand a narrative? This is a film that possibly needs an internet FAQ (no, I haven’t looked) to explain it all- not a Good Thing, really.

A Howl of a Good Time

howl1The Howling, 1981, 91 mins, 4K UHD

Watched Joe Dante’s The Howling for the first time in, oh, more years than I like to think. Twenty years or more, probably. Back in the VHS days this was a fantastic rental and a perennial favourite. This time around it was via Studio Canal’s recent 4K edition; it looks surprisingly good. I hate that over-used term ‘the best its ever looked’ but its true; and here its quite surprising, it was a low-budget feature and such films often seem to suffer under the scrutiny of ever more-unforgiving and demanding video formats. There’s some much more prestige pictures that have looked worse translated to the demands of 4K.

Back in the day I actually preferred this film to John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London, but the years have proved kinder to Landis’ film, which holds up better now. Part of the charm of The Howling was its rough-and-nasty, four-colour comic-strip feel and of course it’s amazing creature effects by the great Rob Bottin. Those transformations used to be the chief ‘wow’ but they have inevitably dated, and are not helped by seemingly going on FOREVER. But nonetheless there is a lot going for The Howling. It has the feel of those 1970s/1980s cheap horror paperbacks my mate and I used to read back then (not surprising, as the film is based upon a Gary Brandner novel); lots of gore and a sprinkling of titillating sex seems to have been the blueprint for so many books that thrilled teens those days, before they were replaced by VHS video nasties etc. Anybody remember those The Crabs series of horror paperbacks by Guy N Smith?

Was it wrong of me to have a bit of a crush for Elliot’s mom from E.T.? Dee Wallace is very good in this, watching it today she’s very impressive indeed albeit really deserved a better script. Much of the rest of the casting -typical for Joe Dante pictures- features some genre faves, like the great Dick Miller, Kevin McCarthy, Robert Picardo and Patrick Macnee (although I wonder how Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing would have been in that particular role?). As for Elisabeth Brooks as the nymphomaniac leather-clad witch/werewolf-bitch…  ah, you gotta love horror films from back then.

I was horrified to learn awhile back that Brooks had died some years ago- back in 1997, at the far-too young age of 46. She was apparently quite bitter regards her rather (in)famous nude scene in The Howling, believing that she was misled onset regards just how much would be visible to the camera and in the film. She thought the flames of the campfire would be artfully positioned to preserve her modesty but Dante and the cameraman seemed to have other ideas. When I saw that scene again this crossed my mind; I don’t know how true it is regards her claiming to have been taken advantage of, but is rather sad if true. Movies. Hollywood.

On one of the (sadly rather few) extras on the disc, Joe Dante makes an interesting observation. The Howling was very much a b-movie, and he notes that he later found it very difficult working in Hollywood as budgets got bigger, and eventually what would once have been referred to as ‘A’ pictures were actually just b-pictures with bigger production values and tighter control from the studios. I think he’s right: look at most blockbusters now, they are usually very dumb and very safe. Its probably why I gradually gravitate towards watching older movies: they are often much more satisfying than the silly comic-strip adventures that pass as major motion pictures now. The b-movies took over, but even the b-movies of old are more sophisticated than what we get today.