Memory: The Origins of Alien (2019)

memoryI enjoyed this documentary far more than I had expected to, believing that it was largely redundant at this point, after all the documentaries made about Alien featured on various DVD and Blu-ray releases over the past few decades, and of course all the books written about the film- most recently the late J W Rinzler’s magnificent The Making of Alien volume. An additional handicap is that some primary interviewees are no longer with us (Dan O’Bannon, H R Giger) and Ridley Scott was presumably not available/not interested, therefore forcing the film-makers to use video interviews from those old Blu-ray documentaries with the now so-familiar soundbites. The film’s editor Terry Rawling was a pleasant surprise appearance; he died in 2019 so I suspect this was one of the final interviews that Rawlings attended, if not the last.

And yes to some extent Memory is indeed redundant because there is little here that’s really new regards Alien lore for fans of the film. In some respects its largely a Readers Digest of all the factoids that Alien fans have learned over the years, but I did enjoy some of the points about mythology and symbolism, and how Alien really represents where society and its audiences were back in 1979 – it was clearly the right film at the right time, capturing the cultural zeitgeist and resonating through all these years since. I think there are some very valid points made and some views quite illuminating, particularly regards universal archetypes and myth.

Maybe the films argument that Dan O’Bannon was some kind of genius is a bit of a reach, but its no accident that O’Bannon was connected to some of the most important or memorable film projects that I have seen over the years- Dark Star, Alien, Total Recall, The Return of the Living Dead and Lifeforce. Some of them are great and the others are at the very least great fun (and I REALLY want to catch up with his last directorial effort, the Lovecraftian horror The Resurrected, which has escaped me for years, frustratingly). You don’t get a resume like that in Hollywood without having some talent, and he’s surely qualified as a genre great. Yes, Alien was very derivative of other, earlier movies and the genius of Alien is mostly that of Ridley Scott’s approach of elevating schlock b-movie fodder into serious, top-list quality motion picture, but one can’t deny that what made Alien unique was Giger, and it was O’Bannon who knew the artist (from the aborted Dune project) and championed his work for the film.

On the whole though I really enjoyed this documentary: the title is ironic considering so much of it was like a stroll down memory lane of Alien factoids and familiar faces. But yeah, this is Alien, and I don’t mind being reminded why the film is so bloody great, so this was certainly a very pleasant watch.

Memory: The Origins of Alien is currently available on Channel Four’s On Demand service up to late September, and is also available on DVD and digital download/rental.

Enemy (2013)

enemypostrrThe final shot of Denis Villeneuve’s surreal Enemy had me jumping out of my chair- its absolutely shocking and terrifying. I’m not certain what that shot actually means, because the film is something of an enigma, reminding me throughout of early Cronenberg movies. There is the weird sense of not knowing what is reality, and of a character having the fabric of reality pulled from under him: in Videodrome (1982), this is caused by a signal in a pirate video feed affecting the characters brain, while in Enemy it seems to be a video rental recommendation that triggers the main characters crisis. And of course the idea of twins/dominant personalities etc reminds of Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers (1988). Enemy is a relentlessly dark, fascinating film and another example of just how impressive a film-maker Villeneuve is.

However, if you don’t like spiders, it might be best to give this film a wide berth, because it uses spiders as a major part of its surrealist imagery. The film opens at a clandestine sex show being witnessed by a group of men: after a woman apparently masturbates to orgasm in front of them, a second woman stands naked but for high heels, a menacing-looking tarantula spider then unveiled at her feet. One of the attendees, Anthony (Jake Gyllenhaal) can only look through his fingers, evidently more scared of the spider than aroused by the woman or sense of danger. The scene ends with the woman apparently about to crush the spider under her heel. Spiders will become a regular motif during the film, usually haunting dream imagery- we see a giant spider over the city, a naked woman walking down a corridor with a spider’s head, and that final shot where I nearly lost my lunch. Spiders mean something. There also seems to be a visual motif for webs- whether it be the fractured glass of a window in a car accident, or in the street cables/telephone wires in the sky. 

enemy2If you have not seen this film, it might be best not to read the remainder of this post if you intend to give it a go, because I’m going to spend much of the rest of this trying to decipher the film and unravel what it might mean (albeit having only seeing it once, I’m likely wide of the mark). As well as certain Cronenberg movies, this film also reminds me of David Lynch movies, particularly my favourite, Mulholland Drive. Enemy is a mystery, a masterfully obtuse film that only suggests that it can make sense, that there is an internal code that can be used to decipher any meaning. For all I know, there may not be any solution.

Adam (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a college professor living in a quiet, rather monotonous, uneventful life in Toronto. He doesn’t seem to have any freinds or much of a social life, and he seems unable to really connect with his girlfriend Mary (Melanie Laurent) other than on a basic physical level- they don’t seem to talk and he seems more attentive to marking his course work: they have an argument and she leaves. He seems so emasculated he doesn’t go after her. 

(Adam’s lectures concern “bread and circuses”, how totalitarian states placate the masses through diversions of entertainment, such as the coliseum of Rome: does this also reference diversions such as the sex show frequented by groups of men we see at the start of the film? Or indeed the virtual escape of films and cinema?)

A colleague at the college recommends a film, Where There’s a Will There’s a Way, and while Adam replies “I don’t like movies” (which may have further implications later on), when Adam passes a video store he rents the film out. He watches it, and then during the night wakes up from a strange dream and goes back to his laptop and plays part of the film again, upon which he realises one of the extras playing a hotel bellhop looks just like him (albeit minus Adam’s beard). Its not clear if he missed this when first watching the film, or if the film has changed- or perhaps if Adam is now imagining the likeness, ‘seeing’ this face in the background of a scene (triggered by the nightmare?) and a sign that he’s beginning to lose his grip of reality. Or perhaps he’s remembering?

Looking up the films credits, he investigates the actor who looks like him- discovering that this apparent twin is Anthony Claire, stage name Daniel Saint Claire, an actor whose talent agency is (conveniently/suspiciously/alarmingly) nearby. Clearly beginning to obsess over this strange doppelganger, Adam gets into the talent agency, is mistaken for being Anthony, who hasn’t been seen there for awhile, and is given a package marked for Anthony’s attention which reveals Anthony’s address (we will later discover that the package also contains a key, which likely links directly to the opening scene at the sex show, which possibly infers the whole film is some elaborate loop or one that holds multiple loops within one greater loop). From the address on the packet Adam divulges Anthony’s phone number and calls it, but Anthony’s pregnant wife Helen (Sarah Gadon) answers- she mistakes Adam’s voice for that of Anthony, and believes he is playing a prank call on her. At first amused she becomes frightened by Adam’s refusal to ‘fess up to the prank and abruptly ends the call. When Adam marshals the courage to ring again, Anthony answers, angry at who he believes is a stalker.

Neither man seems aware the other even existed, and they are indeed quite identical (Anthony now sporting the beard too) and each gets mistaken for the other: actually, however, the men’s personalities are quite tellingly different, Adam quiet and introverted, Anthony confident and assertive. Perhaps they are two facets of one personality, broken.

Now, strange things seem to be happening with Time in this film- in this respect it feels rather like a Christopher Nolan movie. I may be wrong about this, and having only seen the film this one time I cannot be certain, but I think the film is actually some strange loop, or loops within loops. And clearly, I’m not at all certain we have a reliable narrator, and that things we are seeing can be relied upon as ‘real’. Although the film seems to suggest the two men are two separate individuals, each living in seperate, quite distinct apartments with different women, I have to wonder. Helen berates Anthony for an affair, claiming that he is seeing ‘her’ again- I think she is referring to Mary.  Also, Adam searches a box of photos at home and discovers one of him in which half the photo has been cut out, hiding the second person in the photograph: later when he gets in Anthony’s apartment, he sees the same photo, now whole, on display in a frame, with the photo revealing the second person to be Helen. Are we witnessing two time periods, with Adam/Anthony losing his mind and slipping between the two? Anthony pursues, and has sex with, Mary; Adam sneaks into Anthony’s apartment and has sex with Helen (the latter suspecting who he really is but being attracted to him).

Anthony goes to visit his mother (Isabella Rossellini!) who congratulates him on having a proper job and no longer wasting his time trying be a successful actor. So was Anthony an actor who gave it all up to be a history professor, when he ‘becomes’ Adam, if that’s the case, which of them ‘belongs’ in the past and which in the future? I began to think my seperate timelines/multiple personalities theory had some weight, but its doesn’t completely hold true.

A complication is that Helen is as mystified/horrified by the implications of her husbands doppelganger as the men are themselves- Helen visits the college and chances upon Adam, who does not recognise her, they have a conversation in which Adam thinks he is simply making small talk with a stranger, and he leaves, upon which she calls Anthony on her mobile and he answers, wondering where she is, apparently elsewhere- but of course we cannot see Adam as he has gone into the building and may have answered the phone himself, now adopting Anthony’s personality. Helen is upset, can’t understand what is going on- unless of course she KNOWS what is going on, and that she knows that he is suffering from a multiple personality disorder or some kind of schizophrenia, fearing perhaps he is not taking medication and he is slipping back into twin personalities/getting confused. 

The cast is uniformly excellent. Its possibly the finest performance I’ve seen from Gyllenhaal, and the women are brilliant (although Rossellini basically has just a cameo, its a very pleasant one). An intrusive, yet ambient score grates as it gets under your skin sonically; the visual effects are convincing (and at times horrifying). The ending suggests Villeneuve could make one hell of a horror film someday.  

It is a confusing, fascinating, quite disturbing film. Its some kind of genius. It again demonstrates that Villeneuve is without any doubt one of the most exciting and interesting directors working today: his filmography is really quite remarkable. Enemy displays some familiar fascinations of Villeneuve- the lingering shots of the city skyline, of buildings and location, remind of Polytechnique and Blade Runner 2049. The dark mood and slow pace reminds of most every film of his; but of all his films, Enemy feels unusual in its absolute morbid darkness, its Cronenbergian sense of unreliable reality. Maybe its an alien spider invasion movie, an arachnoid Invasion of the Body Snatchers and our protagonist is the only one who realises what is really going on. Maybe its a nod to Lovecraft’s From Beyond or Philip K Dick’s Valis, and Adam is glimpsing (through the spider images) reality pushing in on the ‘bubble’ of our perceived reality. Who knows? All I know is that the film creeped me out and really got under my skin.  

The Color Out of Space is so bright, you’ve got to wear shades

colorWell ain’t that weird, this one’s a tricky one- I actually quite liked Richard Stanley’s The Color Out of Space a wee teeny bit, but I’m hard pressed to explain why. Maybe its the fairly poor track record for films based on H P Lovecraft’s horror fiction; its highly likely that the best Lovecraft films are not actually based on any of his stories at all- thinking of Alien and Annihilation here- and its pretty clear that when film-makers try to bring actual HPL stories to the screen it never really ends well. Ironically, while HPL’s own prose is very serious and thoughtful archaically elegant, most films seem to swap tension for laughs, as if the tales are just so ridiculous you have to wink at the audience rather than yell “boo!” which is something that has endlessly irritated me, a trend set way back by 1985’s Re-Animator. If I had to name my favourite ‘proper’ Lovecraft film, it would probably be the late Stuart Gordon’s Dagon from 2001, and that was far from perfect. Or maybe the 2005 Call of Cthulhu produced by H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society, although I’d contend that was more a ‘fan film’ than a genuine full-fledged motion picture. What I’m saying is, as far as Lovecraft films are concerned, the bar’s set pretty low. 

Maybe if Guillermo del Toro had managed to shoot his At the Mountains of Madness film ten years ago, things would be much different. That film possibly ranks among the great films never made, one of those lingering ‘what-ifs’ that film buffs can wax lyrical over whilst sharing drinks on a cold and stormy night. By all accounts, that film might finally have been Lovecraft done right, with a huge budget, visionary director and a great cast. 

Lets get the elephant out of the room straight away- I’m no fan at all of Nicolas Cage and he is perfectly hideous in this. Although one can argue the slippery slope his career has been on has been a long and steep one (if Hollywood had a Mariana Trench, you’d find Nic halfway down it), in recent years particularly he has essentially become a parody of himself. Here in The Color Out of Space he is absolutely, horrifyingly, mind-bogglingly terrible- I’ve seen him phone in some nonsense before, but he seems to think he can justify his casting in this film by having a wild tantrum in the kitchen. Maybe there is some level of meta-horror here in his casting that escapes me, some level of terror that his performance graces this film with that elevates it to some other subconscious territory of horror – God knows when I think back upon his performance it evokes something of a shudder.  

Its clear that  The Color Out of Space suffers by being made after the fantastic Annihilation, a film that, sharing so many of the themes and ideas of Lovecraft’s original story,  visually pre-empted many of the visual flourishes that Richard Stanley uses here- the twisted, richly-coloured vegetation and strange alien creatures used to express the sense of unknowable, alien nature. Indeed some viewers could be forgiven, in fact, for mistakenly thinking its based on the same source material or is indeed a sequel, both films after all concerned with an alien rock falling to Earth and transforming the land around its crash site, and ultimately warping reality. The world within the Shimmer of Annihilation has a profound strangeness, of normality slipping into alien nightmare, and Stanley uses similar art direction to same effect with this film. But Alex Garland’s film is far, far superior, with a better cast and script, and Stanley of course sadly has to contend with dear Nic. In any case, with the nagging feel of the familiar hanging so obviously over Stanley’s film, it loses any sense of originality that might have otherwise excited attention. 

But all that being said, how bad Cage is and how much the film suffers in comparison to Alex Garland’s film, I have to admit I still found it worthwhile. Maybe it was just refreshing to see someone trying to make something decent while at the same time making a HPL film: its heart was in the right place, you know? You gotta love a trier, especially if you’re a fan of this Lovecraft stuff, as I am.

Yet again though, here’s a horror film that makes the unforgivable sin of not really being scary, but that’s something I can say of most horror films of late so its perhaps not fair to slap the film with that one. Perhaps its the limitations of the budget, or the cast (the lack of chemistry between Cage and his onscreen wife Theresa, played by Joely Richardson, is deplorable, albeit quite funny in their awkward romantic moments, which had me wondering if it was a clever reference to Lovecraft’s real-life antipathy towards women, as if Stanley was weaving some complex meta-story). One of my chief issues turned out to be that perennial favourite of HPL movies:  with it showing flower-child daughter Lavinia (Madeline Arthur) messing around with amateur black magic at the start, the film establishes a silly fairy-tale-like milieu from the start that undermines any attempt to make anything afterwards feel as real or involving as the events, of, say, Annihilation.  And that’s before the pattern of nuttiness that rolls in when Nic appears, leaving Stanley nowhere to go but a kookier colour Purple than even Prince could have ever imagined. This, in a film which I’ve praised for being a serious take on Lovecraft. If nothing else, that surely indicates how low the bar has fallen with all these Lovecraft adaptations.  

At the Lighthouse of Madness

lighthouseActually, just typing that title makes me think that a film of H P Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness might benefit by taking a similar approach to this film -black and white, obtuse to the point of impenetrable plot (if there even is one)- but I have to confess it just annoyed the hell out of me in this film. On the one hand, sure, I could admire the gritty, atmospheric b&w cinematography, the unnerving sound design, but as a piece of storytelling it just felt broken. 

Which was very disappointing, because I really enjoyed being intrigued and horrified  by Robert Eggers’ earlier film, The Witch, from 2015. The Lighthouse shared that film’s sense of dread and welcome tendency to undermine traditional horror tropes, but The Lighthouse just goes too far into delirium, frankly, as if Eggers just lost control and succumbed to his own temporary madness making it.

Or maybe I’m not giving the film sufficient credit for successfully delving into madness as the subject matter of a film. Sadly the irony is that it doesn’t really function as a film at all. Its perhaps more of a tone poem than a story, the plot being two lighthouse keepers on a New England island in the 1890s don’t really get along and promptly lose their shit. I mean that’s about it, really. Eggers throws in some vague references to scary mermaids and Lovecraftian Cthuloid horror but that’s one of the characters minds succumbing to the Lighthouse of Madness. I think I would have preferred it to be literal; you know, there really is something Lovecraftian going on at this strange, remote island on the edge of 19th century civilization. Its not that the madness of it all is actually anything wrong, its just that it robs the film of what might have been a genuinely chilling story. 

Maybe I was just in the mood for an old-fashioned horror tale rather than a cerebral art-house tale. Yes the two leads are really very good – I don’t think I’ve seen William Dafoe as good as this in many years, and Pattinson might actually turn out to be an intriguing Batman after all-  but I think their efforts are wasted in an ironically empty-headed and pointless film. Its frustrating because otherwise, it is such a brilliantly made period piece- the acting, art direction, atmosphere, dialogue all lending it a wonderfully convincing  sense of time and place, that if it really had genuine horrors under the surface (sic), it might have been a genuine horror classic and up there with The Wicker Man or The Blood on Satan’s Claw, frankly. 

Or maybe I just missed the point. I have this same issue with some of David Lynch’s films and others of that ilk, where being obtuse almost for the sake of it just strikes me as lazy and frustrating, undermining what should be ‘proper’ storytelling. I don’t mind ambiguity, but I do think it needs a proper framework.

Last night, on Halloween

returnMost film bloggers, for obvious reasons, spend October devoted to watching horror films- its inevitable really; timely at best, tiresome at worst, and I’ve done it myself in years past, to some extent. Not this year, though during the month I did watch one decidedly sub-par horror film (The Curse of la Llorana) that rather proved that there’s nothing quite as boring as a bad horror film, and that, God Knows, there are far too many of them. Besides, there is enough horror on the news every day without adding to it by watching horror movies. 

I’m finding -indeed, I just commented as much on someone else’s blog- that Covid is changing how I’m looking at things, that I’m suddenly looking through some strange prism, like how the world seems to change when reading a good Philip K Dick story, or H P Lovecraft. Its like watching a colour movie gradually fading into black and white.

So anyway, last night was Halloween, so it would have been rude not too finally succumb to the season by watching a horror film. Actually, I watched two, picking two of my favourites: John Carpenter’s classic The Thing, from 1982 -a very good year for movies-and for a change of pace (real-life schedulers please note) Dan O’Bannon’s delightfully irreverent zombie flick Return of the Living Dead, the unofficial sequel to George Romero’s seminal Night of the Living Dead

thing3The weird thing is that Covid is changing how we look at certain movies, because Carpenter’s The Thing, in the past accepted as a reflection of the Aids epidemic, inevitably now reflects the paranoia and unseen menace of  the Covid Pandemic. The enemy within, the spreading alien contagion, the betrayal of our own bodies. I won’t labour the point, but it did make watching the film this time around a different experience. Part of that is so much bullshit- its what we are seeing, not what the film was originally  intending, and the important thing is that its still a great film, but its a reminder that films never change, but we do, and the world around us. Naturally I was watching Arrows Blu-ray edition from a few years back and it looks quite beautiful (I actually thought it had come out last year, but was horrified to learn it came out back in 2017, yet again me being baffled by the passage of time) – I understand a 4K UHD edition is likely coming out next year, and have to wonder just how much it can improve upon Arrow’s disc, and wonder if I will be suckered into buying this damn film again. Its clearly Carpenter’s best film, and one of the best End of the World movies ever made. I understand they are making a remake/reboot, somehow with Carpenters blessing  (probably the cheque he gets handed to him, he loves easy money, bless him).

Return of the Living Dead, from 1984… crikey, I can still remember seeing this in the fleapit ABC cinema in town back in the day.  Its a cheap and nasty b-movie that revels in being silly, which is an angle even more brilliant now than back when it came out, mainly because of all the zombie stuff we’ve seen since, particularly The Walking Dead (Return should be aired immediately after every season finale of The Walking Dead, if only for a Reality Check). Zombies are a stupid idea; the central premise overwhelmingly daft, its amazing that people get suckered into taking it so seriously, when you really think about the ‘logic’ of it.

There’s a lovely moment in Return when the rain, infected by the ghastly chemicals that reanimate the dead, soaks into the soil of a cemetery (the ‘Resurrection Cemetery’, ‘natch) and the dead start to rise, and a skeleton promptly thrusts itself out of the wet earth, its jaw drops, and the soundtrack breaks into song “Do you wanna PARTY?!!” Its daft, irreverent, silly, hilarious. These zombies know how to rock, and they know how to party . “Send more Paramedics!” one of them gasps into a radio handset, and once that meat has been exhausted, another calls in “Send more Cops!” Its all about the brains, stupid. Considering its humour, the film is also surprisingly dark, its ending inevitable, rather echoing the dark inevitability of the conclusion of The Thing

Dagon wakes: Underwater (2020)

underw1I’ll be honest, I was predisposed to enjoy this film just because of the setting, and the surprising nods to Lovecraft only sealed the deal, so this possibly isn’t the most even-minded, judgemental of reviews. We’re just predisposed to like certain films, I guess.  James Cameron’s The Abyss, for all its faults, is one of my favourite films, and William Eubank’s somewhat ill-fated Underwater (what, not even a DVD release over here?) is like some kind of sequel or perhaps more precisely an  ‘anti-The Abyss’. In Cameron’s film our bold aquanauts meet Spielbergian good-guy aliens who just want us to play nice on the surface, whereas in Underwater our aquanauts meet up with beasties who want us to frak off and die horribly, but both films share the same blue-collar workers in the depths/gritty hardware/grungy reality tropes which nod back to Ridley Scott’s truckers-in-space Alien. The hardware is great in Underwater, particularly the deep-sea suits that they have to wear in order to survive the pressures of the depths and trek across the desolate ocean floor- they are hugely impressive and convincing.  

Underwater initially unfolds like an Irwin Allen disaster movie, with a bunch of survivors trapped in a stricken deep-sea mining platform trying to get back to the surface. The setting is well realised -if vaguely uninspiring/overly familiar, in a Deepcore/Nostromo kind of way- and the characters reasonably defined, our angst-ridden, moody heroine Norah (Kirstin Stewart) surprisingly androgynous as far as traditional heroines go. She manages to find some survivors in the ruins -Rodrigo (Mamoudou Athie), and wise-cracking comic relief Paul (T J Miller) and after a finely directed claustrophobic crawl-through-the -wreckage sequence they hook up with station commander Captain Lucien (Vincent Cassel) who has managed to see off the last of the crew in twenty-two surviving life-pods. Lucien and two other crew -Liam (John Gallagher Jr.) and Emily (Jessica Yu Li Henwick)- having now run out of lifepods are trying to find some other way off the station, and Norah and her bunch join the effort.  

underw2My biggest gripe regards the film is that it has clearly been edited down to its bare-bones: it literally starts with a bang, with the drilling station stricken by disaster. It’d be like starting The Abyss with the Deepcore rig being dragged to the edge of the, er, abyss, or Alien starting with the Nostromo landing on the planetoid.  We are not given any time as viewers to acclimatise ourselves with the setting or the premise or the characters, we are just thrown into it and the pace never really lets up over its slim 95-minute running time. The only real information about where we are and whats going on is given during the title sequence in the form of text/news cuttings, and that’s it- clearly this is a deliberate info-dump device which is bookended at the end, too.

This obviously betrays the film as a film of its time, as attention-deficit disorder viewers obviously have very valuable time that they don’t want to waste with movies establishing characterisation and drama in the old-fashioned ways, they just want to get to the action and then go out for a drink and pizza. Very often this kind of thing is done in films to disguise plot holes and bad logic- JJ Abrams is a master of this and Rise of Skywalker possibly the most heinous culprit of late- and its a pity, because Underwater doesn’t really have too many plot-holes it needs to hide away and it could have done with more running-time to establish its characters in more, er, depth (sic). Its hard to care for characters if you don’t know them, and while the film does manage to clearly define them as individuals it only does so by making them unfortunately very simplistic and one-dimensional. The brevity also damages the atmosphere of the film, lacking the time to deepen the mood and tension. Like many-if not all- modern films, Underwater lacks a really good score too: its score by genre veteran Marco Beltrami and Brandon Roberts is functional at best, and lacks the cloying, disturbing atmosphere, of say Elliot Goldenthal’s similarly-themed Sphere soundtrack.

So while I thoroughly enjoyed Underwater for what it is, there is always a frustrating sense that it could have been more, and that it betrays itself as a possibly troubled production (it was apparently finished in 2018 but left on the shelf for a few years waiting release). While I suppose I’m fooling myself to think there’s possibly a longer, superior extended Directors Cut out there that we’ll never see, I think I’d be right in thinking that if this film had been made in the 1970s or even 1980s, it would be two hours long and better-paced with proper character beats and an improved sense of tension. Like many modern films, this film in its final guise almost feels like a highlights reel, and its likely inevitable that if a studio starts cutting a two-hour movie to ninety minutes, it’ll keep the expensive effects sequences and cut the character stuff.

As it is, after a very limited cinema release earlier this year, Underwater has been dumped on digital rental services here in the UK, without even a DVD or Blu-ray release (never mind 4K UHD). Hey, its not exactly a genre classic but it deserves better. A film like Underwater, as dark as it is, can be particularly hurt by compression issues when streaming it, and to be frank it looked pretty horrible in some of the more frantic murky sequences on the Amazon stream I watched it on. Just another reason to bemoan the move away from physical formats- what a brave new world we have to look forward to, film fans. 

  

If Lovecraft wrote a date movie: Spring

springThis film first caught my attention several years ago, but as often is the case with indie films with limited distribution deals, the film proved elusive to find in HD resulting in an outlay not worth the blind-buy. Years passed, and I’d actually forgotten about it. Thankfully, as often happens these days, by pure chance I found the film on Amazon Prime and  having re-sparked my curiosity from years ago, could not resist- I watched it immediately.

After the death of his mother, Evan (Lou Taylor Pucci), a troubled young American tries to escape his problems with the law by taking a trip to Italy, where he enjoys a few drunken adventures with some Brits and ends up in an old, quiet coastal town. A beautiful woman, Louise (Nadia Hilker) catches his eye and he finds himself intrigued by her and falling in love. It might be the Italian sun, the sea, the wine, or the fact that she’s quite gorgeous and extraordinary, but its rather like Avanti! for the Lovecraft generation. The film is exquisitely photographed, really making the most of the startling and captivating locations, just as Billy Wilder’s film did, giving the film a lushly romantic feel. Evan is right about one thing- Louise, you see, is indeed no ordinary woman, but not wholly in the romantic sense that Evan is thinking of.

Spring is surprisingly a very subtle movie; I was quite swept away by it. Its mostly a character piece, with two fantastic leads. Pucci is a naive young man angry at the world , trying to escape his troubled past by finding something new, always trying to do the ‘right thing’. Hilker, meanwhile, as the bewitching Louise is quite a revelation, a beauty who is older and wiser than her apparent age suggests and quite a force of nature, an exciting and mysterious femme fatalle. I had one of those ‘where have I seen her face before?’ moments until I discovered she’s appeared in the last few seasons of The Walking Dead that I watched before bailing on the show last year: chalk her up as another great talent utterly wasted by the soul-destroying writing on that show. In Spring, she utterly shines, stealing every scene she’s in: its definitely her movie and on the evidence of this performance deserves success in future films if she can escape that tv show.

spring3Considering this is indeed a monster movie with a few startling transformations and shocks, its quite a feat that its the relationship between the two characters that proves the centrepiece of the movie. Its no mean achievement in a film like this to establish a realistic, emotive relationship as if its primarily a date movie posing as a genre piece, rather than the other way around. Indeed, I think its not until the hour-mark that the horror aspect starts to surface.

My reference to Lovecraft in the title of this post is not accidental- its really got Lovecraftian undertones, albeit grown-up, open-minded Lovecraft (which, er, doesn’t exist, now that I think of it). In some ways one could get away with summarising this film as Billy Wilder’s Avanti! crossed with Stuart Gordon’s Dagon. If that sounds intriguing, you’d be right. I suppose in some ways, that whole monster sub-plot proves totally unnecessary, and that’s what might make this film so interesting/frustrating: the two leads are so good and their romance so convincing, that’s probably enough, leaving the horror almost superfluous. Which really isn’t what I had expected, and made it such a pleasant surprise.

If I have a problem with the film, its possibly how it concludes. If by some ghastly whim Lovecraft ever had really written a horror romance, he would have had it much darker, but the film goes the Billy Wilder route. Individual mileage may vary- I guess some may feel its perfect and validates everything that happens earlier in the film, and I guess they’d be right, but that’s never how Lovecraft had it in his stories, finally making the film less of a Lovecraftian movie that it threatens to be. Intellectually that darker end would have been more fitting, perhaps, albeit it could have felt like a bitter punch to the stomach so the alternative taken is hardly surprising.

Spring is apparently finally coming to Blu-ray here in the UK later in the summer, if that still comes to pass I think I’ll be getting a copy. This was a great little movie.

Spring is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

 

A Perfect Allison Williams Double-bill

perfect2Allison who? I hear you ask. Well, that’s a very good question really. I was watching The Perfection last night, and you know how it is, you’re watching a film or tv show and you see a (usually pretty) face and you think, I’ve seen that bloke/woman (delete as appropriate) before, but where? I watch a lot of films, not as many as some, sure, but a lot, and this kind of thing happens all the time. Its what mobile phones and the internet are for, right, to avoid this kind of thing becoming a mental meltdown spoiling what you are watching, but I prefer it to be a bit of a game- pause the damn thing (it’s what pause buttons are for, right?) and just debating with your other half “what the hell have we seen her in? Its something recent, I’m sure, but…”

Too many movies/tv shows. Its all getting a blur at the best of times.

So anyway, this occurred watching The Perfection, a strange horror/thriller flick on Netflix- whenever Allison Williams was onscreen, and it was, like, all the time because she was the star of the damn thing and it was really bugging us. So twenty minutes in we hit the pause button and wracked our brains and eventually, as it does, it came to us- she was in Get Out, another horror/thriller film that we saw a few weeks ago but which I hadn’t gotten around to reviewing here.

So, probably an ideal opportunity to review both films, or at least offer a few thoughts about each whilst considering the artistic qualities of she who is named Allison Williams.

Now, Allison, let’s get this right off the bat- she’s pretty, and she looks an awful lot like Daisy Ridley (Rey from the latest Star Wars trilogy) and Keira Knightley (The Pirates of the Carribean and a lot of other more forgettable stuff) so I suppose I could be forgiven for thinking that she fits a certain casting profile of what’s trendy in films now regards female leads. Now, the spin here is that while I’d likely be correct in thinking that, I’d also have to admit, she’s pretty good, possibly even a better actress, although she comes from a television show background (not something that carries the stigma it used to in the 1970s, certainly) and hasn’t had the break into blockbuster territory that Misses Ridley and Knightley have enjoyed just yet. At any rate, she was pretty damn good in Get Out, and even better in The Perfection– maybe she benefited from limited roles but she manages screen presence and charm and carries herself pretty well. I suspect we may see more of her in future and in later years people won’t be stumbling upon this post wondering “Allison who…?”.

011641211.jpgSo anyway, let’s start with the film clearest in my memory because I saw it last night: The Perfection. This is a something of a revenge/horror thriller that delivers on the shocks and gore but also on the modern tendency of scripts to just break down under scrutiny. I have been reminded before that all film is like that- it’s the plot holes that are filled by the scripts that enable the drama and twists etc and that most films fall apart when really given consideration. So we can forgive all that to some degree. I mean, it’s a little like thinking back on all the carnage in the John Wick films and wondering where all the cops are, particularly in New York considering Wick leaves a wake of bodies akin to a terrorist incident and the frenzy of police and ambulance sirens would surely be up on live News casts etc while it’s still going down. So filmgoers should always suspend disbelief with the proverbial pinch of salt and consider it all part of the fun.

In the case of The Perfection, its perhaps to consider it a modern fable, a kind of adult morality tale, clearly something rather diverged from any reality any of us are familiar with. Its a b-movie posing as something more sophisticated, which it really isn’t, and in this way it reminds me of several other films, like Velvet Buzzsaw, for example, or the recent Suspiria. Child prodigy Charlotte (Allison Williams) was a budding master cellist who had to leave a prestigious musical academy when her mother fell ill, and now years later following her mothers death she reconnects with her old tutors and the academy and the star pupil that replaced her and has lived the fame and success that Charlotte was denied. There’s a similar jealousy/animosity/sexual tension that featured in the superior Black Swan, as Charlotte and new star Lizzie (Logan Browning) reconnect. They start an affair as Lizzie takes a well-earned break from performances but something feels a little ‘off’ and its soon revealed that Charlotte really has a few scores she means to settle before the film is over.

To reveal much more would certainly break into spoiler territory, and as I endeavour not to do that when posting about new or fairly recent releases, I won’t go much further here, except to say that it’s got a few left-turns and surprises and is pretty good, except that it really can’t resist going just a few steps too far. Its not a unique criticism, I mean its true of so many contemporary films and tv shows- the drive to shock and surprise and entertain in modern material just can’t help but stretch credibility. The Perfection is, ironically given its title perhaps (whoops, cheap shot right there) is, alas, far from perfect, but it’s reasonably good fun while it lasts. Best to approach it for what it is, a b-movie at heart, and accept it on those terms.

geto1It is also, in a way, reminiscent of the original Twilight Zone tv series, something I was also thinking of when I watched Get Out a few weeks back,  Both films can be considered as simple Twilight Zone-like pitches. In Get Out‘s case, its a film about Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), a young black guy whose relationship with white girl Rose (yep, Allison Williams) comes under some nervous scrutiny when he meets her family one weekend at their rural family home. “Don’t go to a white girl’s parents’ house!” he is warned by Rod, his conspiracy theorist best friend, whose wild fancies are initially played for laughs but it transpires he’s right to be afraid for Chris. Its all a little like The Stepford Wives or Twin Peaks, regards a dark underbelly hidden beneath what on first glance is a pleasant, law-abiding if overly conservative white American community out in the sticks. I was reminded of some of H P Lovecraft’s stories, in which cultists would preserve their essences in ‘Saltes’ through which they might achieve some immortality or life beyond death by occupying the bodies of later descendants – Get Out chooses to follow a more scientific route to explain what’s really going on, but it’s essentially the same.  Its well acted and staged and is a pretty good thriller, and like the best Lovecraft fiction, it had me grimly pondering the really nasty undercurrent of what was really going on – on reflection it’s really horrible how people were being replaced by others in their bodies and for how long it had been happening (I prefer Lovecraft’s more fanciful somewhat mystical methodology than the brain-swapping silliness the film hints at, and I think the film would have functioned as  a great HPL film had it gone that way).

So anyway, there’s two films featuring Allison Williams. I’m sure there will be plenty more, and maybe with the next one I’ll recognise her straight away and won’t be distracted by wondering where I’ve seen that face before…?

Alien 4K UHD

alienAh, Alien– just thinking about the film throws me back to summer 1979, reading Fantastic Films magazine  absolutely goggle-eyed at the imagery- you have to remember, absolutely nothing that looked quite like it had ever appeared on film before (except, curiously, for the Victorian-bent tech of First Men in the Moon in 1964). Alien really was something new, a trend-setter and showstopper, one of those cultural pivot points that rarely happen now in these more jaded times- and of course a neat adult response to Star Wars. It wasn’t the technology of Alien‘s film-making that changed things (as opposed to how technology-driven modern film-making has since become, it was using all the old tricks and methods of so many films before and after), but rather the sophistication with which Ridley Scott approached its otherwise derivative b-movie plot (essentially a haunted house/monster on the loose story in space). The coverage of those issues of Fantastic Films really opened my eyes to the craft and art in genre films- its interviews with Ridley Scott in those issues (particularly the extensive examination of the Alien storyboards Scott drew) really fascinated me, and sealed my interest in Scott’s films forever after.

ff2I wasn’t really familiar with Heavy Metal at the time, but Alien was definitely the very first Heavy Metal movie in approach and artistic worth. It was adult and dark and gritty and quite overloaded with visual information. Even today some forty years later it’s amazing not just how well Alien holds up, but also how it surpasses much of what we see now. The Nostromo bridge, the messroom, the corridors, it’s incredibly convincing, a work of art. That’s quite seperate to the impact of Giger’s nightmarish creations: never was a films title so apt. Alien really was alien, its Lovecraftian pseudo-sexual horrors as disturbing now as they ever were. I almost wish it stood alone, that there were never any sequels or any prequels, that Alien could just stand there, a one-off classic.

Its certainly the best way to watch it today. Just soak up and savour the mystery of that derelict craft and the alien space jockey, and the glimpses of the creature itself as it preys on the Nostromo crew. Try to forget the mythology that followed after with all its contradictory noise.

So that summer of 1979- like some kind of fool, I was of course madly anticipating actually watching the film, but as the September release date of the film neared here in the UK I learned that it was rated ‘X’ by the BBFC, partly no doubt for the films intensity but more for the use of language- swear-words were a big no-no in the old days of Blighty (actually things might not have changed so much in the years since). So having read all the film magazines, as we used to do in those pre-internet days, the film became this forbidden object, a tantalising mystery- and of course this was in those dark pre-VHS days when films came to the cinema and then went, lost for years before even a glimmer of hope of a possible tv screening. I didn’t actually see the film until it turned up on television*, on a Sunday night following the 1982 World Cup final on ITV. In pan and scan, nevermind the dreaded ad breaks (didn’t have a video recorder back then, so recorded the film onto audio cassette to listen to after- only hardcore/older geeks possibly understand what that was all about).

So perhaps it was fitting that last night, another Sunday almost thirty-seven years later, slowly slipping towards the fortieth anniversary of the films 6th September UK release date, I watched the film again, only this time in yet another format- 4K UHD.  I have to say, the film looked gorgeous, the best I’ve yet seen it, one of the best catalogue films I have seen on 4K disc. The HDR isn’t distracting, instead tastefully managed to increase the sense of depth to the picture and really improving some of the miniature shots (such as the Nostromo touching down on the planetoid with its lights blazing in the stormy murk). The colour balance and saturation of the film seemed improved, and the 4K image certainly allowed more appreciation of the films many visual details. I’d say this presentation seemed pretty much definitive to me, and I really enjoyed the film again.

Rewatching films can always be a curious experience, as you can take different things from them with every viewing- this time around, I seemed to appreciate some of the acting quality. Ian Holm was brilliant, as was Veronica Cartwright too- both are superb character actors with a sense of understated reality. They seem natural and effortless performances and convincingly ‘down to Earth’ (albeit that might seem strange considering the film’s setting). As a whole I’d say the films casting was a masterstroke in general- the characters are quite underwritten by the script but each actor brings something to each part. Compare the trucking Nostromo crew to any of the characters in Prometheus or Alien Covenant, say, and you’ll get what I mean (damn- I intended not to refer to those prequels at all and I’ve gone and bust it). The casting grounds the film in a sense of blue-collar reality, and while the smoking may seem a little incongruous these days, it’s certainly another layer of reality that carried weight back in 1979. The world has changed but Alien won’t, it’s a part of film history locked in time and thank goodness for that.

A curious thought though, that forty years ago I would be reading all those magazines, Fantastic Films, Starburst etc) and getting photographic glimpses of the film, and I’d read the Alan Dean Foster novelization, and the film would be frustratingly yet held back for another three years. And here I was some forty years later rewatching the film again. If I was around forty years from now, no doubt I’d still be rewatching it. Films, afterall, can be forever- well, the best of them, certainly. But maybe I’ve just bought Alien one last time in one last format.

* prior to the network premiere, indeed some time before as I recall. maybe in 1981, I was looking at records in my local HMV when I noticed that they were playing Alien on a television sitting on the shelf near the till (it must have been a sell-through VHS tape, which were wildly expensive at the time, before rentals took off and the idea of actually owning a film became rich fantasy). It was near the chestburster scene, and needless to say I stuck around awhile to see it in the corner of my eye while pretending to examine vinyl copies of albums. Vinyl, VHS, record stores… it’s a long time ago indeed, and I was so nervous that this was an ‘X’ -certificate film that they were surreptitiously screening that everyone in the shop of any age could see. Was I ever that young/naive? 

Mandy (2018)

mandypicI came here by way of Johann Johannsson’s strange, dark and intense score (the last one that he recorded, I believe, prior to his passing). Otherwise, I would have likely given it a wide berth, if only because of Nic Cage’s involvement. I used to like Cage’s work but his increasingly manic OTT-style wore increasingly thin over the years. I think his Crusader Elvis in Season of the Witch was the final straw.

Anyhow, spoilers ahead- I don’t usually like to raise any with films still fairly ‘new’ but I can’t help it with this one. So anyway, here we are. I suppose an easy shot would be one of style over content, but that’s clearly the intention here- the story is a paper-thin b-movie plot and its the colour-saturated, gaudy 1980s-era VHS sensibility that raises this into something that is either, well, genius or trash. Johannsson always had a gift for knowing what suited the film project he was working on, and he nails it here – so much so that I’ll give the film the benefit of doubt and declare it brilliant. His music score drips grim darkness and dread and colours the film as intensely as the cinematographer and all the work likely done in post to make the image such gorgeous madness.

Madness is the key word here, and I’d suggest that this films director should go and make a Lovecraft film next. Watching Nic Cage’s lumberjack woodsman descend into madness during this film was an experience indeed- more so because Cage somehow stayed fairly restrained throughout. He didn’t play it overboard and slip into farce- instead we can sense the pain torturing him and by the end he’s slipped into some other universe entirely. I almost expected the film to cut to a shot of him dead and his car wrapped around a tree, revealing the true insanity of the final shots as he drives under blood-red skies with his wife alongside him on the seat.

In some ways, particularly in its style over content (or style is content), the film reminded me a great deal of The Neon Demon, but this film is far, far superior. For what it is, its almost perfect.  There. I really enjoyed a new Nic Cage movie. The world really is going to hell in a handbasket.

And we really lost something so special with Johannsson’s passing. This film sounds so remarkable and strange, what bizarre wonders did he have yet ahead of him? Alas, we will never know, and that just adds another level of pain and darkness to this strange insane film.