Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016)

pride1This one’s a curio. This mash-up of genres gets caught somewhere in-between really; too irreverent to be a genuine period costume genre and too light to be a genuine zombie horror movie. Fans of Jane Austen likely feel it isn’t being sincere enough and fans of zombie flicks likely feel it isn’t gory or scary enough. Maybe that’s inevitable with mixing genre’s like this but I can imagine cinema-goers looking for a zombie horror would have been left bored and frustrated by the romantic costume drama and the Jane Austen fans would be horrified by the zombie stuff, leaving no-one particularly satisfied.

Based on a book by Seth Grahame-Smith, I would imagine the film’s problems are inherent in the source material – as Jane Austen is public domain I suppose it seemed a neat idea to use her material and sprinkle zombie thrills into it for sardonic wit. Perhaps it works better on the page, or is the idea itself simply better than the execution? In any case, I think the film-makers should have perhaps used the book as a springboard and then made it truly cinematic by making it a ‘real’ horror movie rather than the action-comedy that it actually is (I did think of Buffy the Vampire Slayer at times, it has that knowing, slightly irreverent tone).

But maybe that is the point. Zombies are daft- at least George Romero knew to not take them too seriously, and rather use them for some social commentary.  Yes our culture does seem to have an unhealthy continuing fascination with zombie horrors, as evidenced by many movies and of course the long slow lingering death-crawl of The Walking Dead. But even when filmmakers take them seriously, its all clearly becoming something of a self-parody, so maybe Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is on the right track after all, and horror fans are wrong to be expecting any scares; the scares are all done.

Yet it is rather fun though, and I quite enjoyed it. The action scenes are well-staged and the gore pretty convincing, and of course the period costume drama is well-staged. Matt Smith in particular demonstrates a gift for comedy. For all its failings as a horror film, it at least injects some freshness to the awfully tired zombie genre. What I also found interesting was its alternate-history, using a period setting and giving it a genre spin.  Whatever next, zombies of Christmas Past in A Christmas CarolGreat Expectations and Zombies? 

Even better- War of the Worlds staged as the period drama that HG Wells wrote. Only when the Martian ships land they open up and hordes of martian zombies crawl out. I can see the tagline already : They don’t want our planet, only our brains.

 

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The Limehouse Golem (2017)

golemThe Limehouse Golem has a problem: I guessed its secrets fairly early on. I guessed who the Golem was and why the murders were happening. For a film that is centrally a Victorian murder mystery, that’s something of a problem, especially if I’m not alone in rumbling the game so early (otherwise I suppose I’ve watched far too many movies and its getting too easy to ‘read’ them).

Fortunately for this film, there are pleasures here besides that central mystery. Set in a benighted, misty Victorian London the film is sumptuously staged; rich in gaudy colours and vividly ruddy murders, with a production design to immerse in really. This is, to be sure, a filthy London that you swear you could almost smell. Not quite a Tarantino take on Charles Dickens, but its halfway there and gives a suggestion of what that might be like if ever the Ripper took Tarantino’s muse.

Of course, whatever the films faults, Bill Nighy leading a movie is something to be cherished, frankly, and he’s in fine form here as John Kildare, a detective brought in to work on a murder case that seems doomed to failure in just the same way as the Jack the Ripper case would in real London a few years later- the parallels between the cases are deliberate throughout. Kildare is an outsider in the force and knows full well that he is a scapegoat for a nervous London and furious press. As he investigates the brutal and eleborate murders he becomes convinced that his case is linked to that of an imprisoned Music Hall singer, ‘Little Lizzie’ Elizabeth (Olivia Cooke) who is on trial for the poisoning of her failed playwright husband, John Cree (Sam Reid). Kildare is certain she is innocent and that by proving it he can also solve the mystery of the Golem’s identity, but time is of the essence, and Elizabeth destined for the gallows soon.

The cast is pretty great, particularly Cooke who has a great charm and charisma as she struggles to succeed in a man’s world. Sam Reid is good as her slippery no-good cad of a romantic interest/husband who is also Nighy’s Golem suspect. Music Hall superstar (and Elizabeth’s friend and mentor, as well as another of Nighy’s Golem suspects) Dan Leno is played with fragile grace by Douglas Booth. The rest of the supporting cast are commendable too- indeed, the problem with the film isn’t the production values or the cast or the direction. Its the script that awkwardly seems to telegraph too much.

It also suffers by comparison to stuff like the (sadly cancelled) Penny Dreadful television series that shares its pulpish gaudy charms; and also the period detective dramas of Peaky Blinders. Back when I first saw the trailer for this film I thought, who would want to make a film of this and why would they think it would prove a success at the cinema in particular?  There is throughout a feel of redundancy, that maybe we’ve been here before, and to be fair, those television shows have production values arguably equal those of this movie with the benefits of longer airtime for character development etc. Maybe this is just the wrong time for a movie about Jack the Ripper-style Victorian murders. Another period BBC series, sure, but a movie?

But whatever my caveats, its enjoyable enough and the performances shine, so certainly its well worth a watch.

Gerald’s Game (2017)

geraldsgame1The beautiful Carla Gugino, who really deserves more movie roles,  takes center-stage and thrives in this interesting film adaptation of a Stephen King thriller. As usual with Kings output, Gerald’s Game takes a killer premise and runs with it – a married, middle-aged couple having marital problems, Jessie (Carla Gugino) and Gerald (Bruce Greenwood), hope to respark their marriage whilst on a weekend away in their remote beachside second home. Gerald has had the idea of spicing up their redundant sex life by handcuffing Jesse to the bed and indulging in some role play. Things get out of hand and Gerald suffers a heart attack and dies, leaving Jesse handcuffed to the bed.

Unfortunately, as usual for much of King’s output, the author can’t resist straining the limits of plausibility and credibility.  For much of the film everything is fine- the awful predicament that Jesse is in seems at first embarrassing and silly but soon becomes a real and dangerous situation, and its fascinating as her plight begins to shatter her psyche and she ‘sees’ and has ‘conversations’ with visions of her husband and her own, free self,  while her husband’s body is being eaten by a wild dog that enters the house. She starts to recall traumatic events from her own childhood that informs her present situation. Its all very interesting. And then we see Death standing in her room.

geraldsgame2I won’t go into anymore for threat of spoiling the film for anyone who intends to watch the film, but suffice to say while the film is still rewarding and worth a watch it does suffer from just taking a few steps too far as is Stephen King’s wont.

Its all rather unfortunate that the films last third, whilst no doubt faithful to King’s novel, rather completely spoils the film as it seems to take some strange turn into Twilight Zone territory and a few too many coincidences. Perhaps it would have been better to suggest things rather than have them so literally explained away, or imply that some things were not real but rather results of Jesse’s fragile mind. You know, leave things a little ambiguous, leave it for the viewer to decide. As it is, it’s all very in-your-face and literal, which is such a pity. Carla Gugino is pretty magnificent throughout and deserves a better film, and Bruce Greenwood, too, is pretty great in what turns out to be a more substantial role than you might at first expect.

I guess I would have preferred it to stay the psychological thriller it seems to be rather than the standard Stephen King horror potboiler  that it eventually reveals itself to be. The pay-off just doesn’t feel right or deserved, and it left me feeling a little frustrated, frankly. It could have been damned good, instead it’s simply okay. Pity.

The Cabin in the Woods (2012)

cabin1I’m currently playing a sly game with Avengers: Infinity War, in which I’m carefully filtering all media -internet, print, word of mouth- and avoiding any spoilers. At all. Its a tricky game and one can’t always win, but so far I’m winning. it’s a game I’m also playing with Marvel’s Black Panther movie and a few others that I haven’t seen at the cinema or on disc yet. Avoid reviews. Avoid internet articles. Avoid forums. Its the only way to avoid spoilers. I mean, sure if you’re not bothered, relax and the hell with it, but if you think a film deserves being unspoiled, you’ve got to make some effort.

Sometimes it can be a long game. Witness The Cabin in the Woods, which I finally got around to watching last night. I’ve dutifully avoided all spoilers and reviews for all these years. Not so sure the effort was duly warranted, as it turned out, but yeah, I managed to watch the film last night fresh-faced and blindly ignorant of what I was about to watch. I didn’t even know that Chris Hemsworth was in it until his name came up in the credits. In yer face, spoiler-net.

So anyway, it’s a film about a bunch of typical American college teens spending a weekend in an isolated cabin in the woods that is inevitably only going to end one way -loud music! booze! sex! gore!- and the horror tropes are, as you might expect, flashing by in an almost whos-who almanac of horror films, classic and bad. But there is always something weird going on, unseen by our protagonists, the events being orchestrated…  Clearly the whole cabin in the woods setting is a knowing wink towards all those horror tropes and the film has an agenda lifting it beyond the b-movie horror cliches it seems happily content to put onscreen. When the twists/meta-story unfolds the film actually descends into the wildest Joe Dante chaos not-actually-directed-by-Joe-Dante that I have ever seen and is all kind of fun. Gremlins on steroids. Wouldn’t say it was actually scary though. Which raises the question, shouldn’t a horror story be scary rather than clever?

Oh well. It was rather good fun and I enjoyed it, particularly some of the casting choices, such as Amy Acker and Fran Kranz, who set me off reminiscing about Dollhouse.  And it’s always a  pleasure being surprised by Sigourney Weaver turning up.  That’s worth all the effort of staying spoiler-free all by itself.

 

I Am Providence by S.T. Joshi

prov1I’m currently reading S.T.Joshi’s mammoth biography of H.P.Lovecraft, I Am Providence. ‘Mammoth’ indeed- I’m just 130 pages into volume one;  a two-volume work, the whole thing totals over a thousand pages across the two books. Its a sizeable undertaking just reading the thing, the amount of work writing it must have been formidable. While I read all of Lovecraft’s fiction in the mid-eighties (having at that point read most of Robert E Howard’s fiction) I have never really read much about the author himself or ever really been inclined to do so, hearing things from my friend Andy who was more obsessed by HPL than I that ‘filled the blanks’ as it were.

It has always been clear to me that Lovecraft was a decidedly odd fellow. Is that even a surprise, considering some of the stories that he wrote? My fascination  with Lovecraft is that his stories have haunted me for years and you see so much of his work in modern-day films and fiction- even if not in ‘straight’ adaptations, so much in the media has ‘Lovecraftian’ undertones (my first brush with such was Alien from 1979, clearly a Lovecraftian horror and indeed one of the very best). It is as if, after his death, he has gradually and increasingly infected the cultural zeitgeist in a similar way to how Philip K Dick did post-Blade Runner. Alan Moore recently wrote a brilliant horror comic-book/graphic novel, Providence, which had this ‘Lovecraftian infestation’ as its main theme and was particularly horrific for it.

Yet while I rather adore his best stories, Lovecraft has never struck me as someone I would actually like, were I to somehow meet him. Genius begats strangeness sometimes and like fellow Weird Tales writer Robert E Howard, Lovecraft was surely a little peculiar and outside of ‘normal’ society. Although I freely admit I’m likely fooling myself,  I always feel like I could have had a beer with Bob Howard and would have liked him, and would love to jump into a time machine and meet him (I once had an incredibly vivid dream in which I did just that, and stopped him from his suicide). As far as Lovecraft is concerned though, I doubt any meeting between us would have gone very well, but hopefully this book will allow me to understand him and his worldviews and his writing more.

Initially the book was rather a struggle, to be honest, with a dry, rather academic summary of the history of Lovecraft’s paternal and maternal family backgrounds up to his birth and the place where he lived. Joshi spares no detail in his account. Indeed, at the point I am at now some 130 pages in,  Lovecraft is still just 14 or so, some years away from any of his weird writing that I am familiar with. Instead the book has been concerned with his spoiled, insular childhood- the precocious, albeit over-sensitive, very intelligent young boy and the depressed recluse he became following his fourth and most traumatic ‘breakdown’ (which is what I am up to).

It has been fascinating, considering my knowledge of Lovecraft’s genuine strangeness and his racist views, to see where it possibly all arose. His racism, abhorrent as it is, is a tricky subject. I would never, to be honest, wholly condemn Lovecraft  for his racism as it was as much a product of the times he lived in, and the place he lived in, and while yes, he should have known better it can be perhaps understood if not forgiven. People are simply of their time and it’s wrong I think to view him wholly negatively from the enlightened perspective of today. The fact that his childhood was rather dysfunctional explains a great deal the man he would become. His maternal grandfather becoming his father figure after his actual father wound up in a mental asylum, and his mother, with her own increasingly fragile mental state, describing her teenage son as ‘hideous’ indicating she treated him with love and hate in equal measure (and I thought Bob Howard has mother issues, go figure). A solitary child, Lovecraft’s best freinds were his family’s library of books  that he simply devoured, enjoying intellectual interests rather than the usual childish playful ones of his peers. Not that any of this excuses his worldviews, but they do perhaps allow us to understand them

Perhaps I shall write more about these two books and any revelations in the weeks to come. I’m definitely enjoying it and looking forward to the later sections dealing with all those weird horror stories I am so familiar with.

 

Return of the Black Swan

blackswNo, it’s not a sequel where Natalie Portman’s Nina inexplicably returns from the grave for one last Ballet. Although that would make for a bizarre movie and you might feel guilty for wishing someone would make it. No, this is a return visit to the film Black Swan after watching it on a Lovefilm rental way back when, enjoying it and buying the blu-ray only to leave that blu-ray unwatched for years. Yes, it’s that pile of unwatched discs rearing its formidable weight again.

So, after so long (hard to believe this film dates back to 2010) how does the film measure up? Pretty damn well. Portman’s performance is as remarkable and screen-melting as ever. Its career-best material, really, her descent into madness as fascinating and terrifying as anything I’ve ever seen her do elsewhere. Funnily enough, my main observation about this film this time around is that it was really more of a horror film than the psycho-drama that I had considered it to be. This film is like a female version of Cronenberg’s classic sci-fi/body-horror Videodrome. In both films the human body is twisted and betrays the protagonist and in both films the very nature of reality, or our observation of it, is warped and subverted and questioned. Black Swan poses as a drama about ballet and stress and someone suffering a nervous breakdown, but its just as much a traditional horror movie. Or rather, its a horror movie dressed up as something more sophisticated.

At any rate, its a pretty damn fine movie. Maybe I should be brave and finally give Aronofsky’s mother! a try.

 

Requiem (2018)

requiemWith Requiem, the BBC (in a co-production with Netflix) jumps into the horror genre with some gusto, a six-part series about possession, ghosts, suicides, child abduction and murder, religious cultists and more, in a leafy town in Wales, of all places. Actually that setting is probably the series strongest point- its out of the familiar city and more into the remote Twin Peaks-vibe, with a cast of characters conveniently strange and complete with a ghostly mansion where bad things have been going on for centuries. And creepy caves in the woods. And dead sheep (did someone say there’s a werewolf in this?). And perfect hair, and perfect clothes that don’t seem to get dirty despite much traipsing through woods etc (or perhaps they get spookily dry cleaned overnight).

Subtlety is not this shows finest asset. Something I’ve criticised modern television of before, and to which I attribute Game of Thrones as the chief blame. In a need to grab viewers attention modern television feels that it has to shock and throw everything but the kitchen sink into shows now. Its not that Requiem is bad, its quite enjoyable really, but why so much has to be hurled into its six episodes is hard to fathom. We’re hardly ten minutes into it before somebody throws himself off the roof of the mansion. There’s little creepy atmosphere or slow horror- this is all in the Hammer Horror vein of yelling boo! at the viewer as often as possible with the central mystery (is lead character Matilda, platinum-blonde professional cellist from London correct in suspecting she is in fact Cerys, a child who went missing from the Welsh village of Penllynith twenty years ago) almost redundant. In just the same way as the Beeb’s Hard Sun a few months ago did, the central premise almost seems incidental and the makers too intent on throwing all sorts of ideas and complications into it, the characters having all sorts of sub-plots that stretch credulity.

Had it eased up a little bit and spread its revelations and twists and horrors over ten episodes rather than its rather rushed six, then perhaps it would have been a much better show with better characters and motivations. It must be noted that Game of Thrones itself was better over ten episodes than the rather rushed shorter seasons we are getting now, and imagining shows like Westworld being truncated to six is just as telling a consideration. As it is, Requiem squeezing all its arcs into six episodes comes across as all a little hysterical, with Matilda being incredibly irritating rather than sympathetic as she pretty much wreaks the Welsh locale with her obsession for ‘the truth,’ and when that truth finally arrives it lacks real impact. I’m quite possibly alone in this view, modern attention-spans likely prefer shorter series just as they approve of shorter movies.

And yet, even after that mad race across six episodes, just like with so many movies now, Requiem really just seems intent on teasing another series with an ending that feels rather hollow, and without the grounding that ten episodes might have enabled, it found me rather unable to care. Its all very lightweight and lacking in any emotional depth or impact that perhaps a similar show from the BBC in the ‘seventies might have had.  Frustrating really.