Never Take Sweets from a Stranger (1960)

neverThe title tells it all really- indeed,even today, giving a film a title like that feels progressive, audacious, almost subversive. It treads across a line somehow, some kind of moral/social taboo that really the film itself does too. Indeed, I was so very surprised by this film, expecting some kind of exploitation b-movie about child endangerment/molestation (as deplorable an approach as the subject itself) but instead this film turned out to be intelligent and restrained and, sadly, as relevant today as it was over fifty years ago. Indeed, perhaps even more so. When one considers some of the news headlines from the last few decades, all those scandals etc, then this film feels more provocative, more ahead-of-its-time and just plain brave, than it likely did back in 1960. I suppose audiences back in 1960 could fool themselves into thinking child molestation and murder were rare incidents in their modern society and the uncomfortable message of the film somewhat redundant in a modern, sane and responsible world. Unfortunately recent history would suggest otherwise.

Of course you cannot possibly seperate this film from the period in which it was made and it does regrettably feel a little dated in some respects, but in a way I guess that adds a sort of David Lynchian-otherness to the whole thing. Thinking about it, that feels rather fitting, considering that his Twin Peaks series shared some of this films themes regards the dark underbelly of modern society and child abuse etc.  But how odd to consider that Hammer did this film so many decades earlier! I wonder if Mark Frost/David Lynch were familiar with this film back when they started Twin Peaks.

At its heart, Never Take Sweets from a Stranger is a film about small-town politics and abuse of power as much as it is about child sex abuse, and also has a courtroom section as rivetting as any courtroom drama you will remember. Its quite a sophisticated film carefully dealing with the uncomfortable issues it raises, somewhat distancing itself from the more sensationalist Gothic horrors that Hammer is more famous for. Watching this so soon after being amazed by the excellent Cash on Demand (this Indicator Hammer boset is proving quite a revelation), makes me wonder that perhaps the box office successes of those Gothic horrors did Hammer something of a disservice, and lost British film of a voice and channel for important, thought-provoking quality films.

The chilling and quite gruesome denouement of this film is possibly one of the best of any Hammer horror, in fact, and this film has lingered in my head somewhat uncomfortably over the last few days since I saw it. Its quite an important British film, I think, and one terribly overlooked and criminally forgotten. Had Hitchcock, for instance, directed this, then yes in execution it would likely have been a better film, but also I think it might well have been as famous and notorious today as his own Psycho. Instead it seems to have been consigned to an obscure footnote in the history of Hammer, rather lost in the shadow of its glossier and more sensational horrors, but hopefully the wonderful treatment that the film has been given by Indicator here will raise the film’s standing somewhat and give its place in British film history some reconsideration.

 

 

 

Forum Horrors

brbhsThis weekend I’ve been reading American forums regarding BR2049, as the disc came out over there last week and I was curious about what people were saying about it, particularly as so many of them failed to see the film at the cinema. Some people loved it, some people didn’t, some people actually preferred it over the original, some didn’t- so the usual stuff you’d expect to see. Overall I was pleased to see many more positive comments than negative, and quite a few regretting not seeing the film theatrically.

BUT… then I read this one.: My God… I’ve watched the first hour of BR2049 and it’s a mind-f–er!! I think it’s wonderful!! I don’t want it to be any shorter!

He then adds: I felt lots of tension all the way through the first hour. I’ll watch the rest tomorrow night…

Whoa. I nearly choked with laugher (somehow it struck me as being deliberately funny). THIS is the kind of stuff that really winds me up, and makes me question people’s modern viewing habits, their attention spans, how they watch films, and maybe explains all those assertions that the film failed in America partly because of the running time. This guy buys the film, puts it on, watches just an hour, then switches it off to resume a day later. What crazy shit is that? How do you watch a film in pieces like that? Can’t people schedule their lives, leave sufficient time to watch a film throughout, or refrain from watching it until they do have enough time?

But anyway, it just struck me as rather funny, praising a film that he clearly enjoyed and then almost offhandedly adding that he’ll watch the rest tomorrow.  Imagine watching Psycho for the first time, getting up to the shower scene and then deciding to stop it and resume it a day or so later. I can imagine Hitch being well impressed by that.

Is this how the new generation digest films now? No wonder studios think they have to chuck explosions and shit it every twenty minutes to maintain people’s attention. Bit like my recent review of Cinderella, and how I was a bit annoyed by the frequent cuts to big flashy (and rather fake-looking) cgi shots to establish locations. Its a crazy world out there.

I should avoid forums. They can be a bit scary.

Ridley’s Blade Runner Blues

Some interesting comments from Ridley Scott during recent interviews whilst doing the press for All the Money in the World (or ‘The One That Erased Spacey’).  Interviewed by New York magazine’s Vulture website the subject turned to the recent BR20149 and he seemed to blame the film’s box office failure on the film’s length:  [Whispers] “I have to be careful what I say. I have to be careful what I say. It was fucking way too long. Fuck me! And most of that script’s mine…  I shouldn’t talk. I’m being a bitch.”

br2049It set me thinking. I mean, Ridley may have a point about the film’s length- its 163-minute running time clearly put off some viewers, but would it have made it a better film? To me, the pace of BR2049 is part of the film’s appeal- its leisurely pace is that of a tone poem, a sad study of what is human, what is real. And it must be remembered that a chief criticism of the original Blade Runner, even today, is its perceived slowness, something I consider one of its successes.

But Ridley’s words made me think just as much of his last few movies. I recall on one of the behind the scenes docs, he made a telling comment that one has to be careful in the editing room of rewatching a film too much, of losing objectivity. I can’t quote him exactly, but he said something along the lines of ‘even the best jokes wear thin once you’ve heard them too many times’, and that it is too easy to over-cut a film, and cut some good stuff out, not because it isn’t working but simply because of over-familiarity, of seeing it too much, and it can actually hurt a film, cutting too much.

I remember watching Ridley’s Kingdom of Heaven at the cinema and being thoroughly disappointed by it- it was empty-headed pretty nonsense, every bad habit of Ridley’s thrown into one vacuous historical epic. And yet his directors cut of Kingdom of Heaven, restoring really important footage, is simply brilliant, and is one of his best films (in fact, I’d rate it right up there behind Blade Runner and Alien, and like Billy Wilder’s The Apartment or Hitchcock’s Psycho,may be remembered as Ridleys last great movie).

The irony is, that theatrical cut of Kingdom of Heaven didn’t fare particularly well at the box office and got a general savaging from the critics, so what did that shorter cut achieve? There are numerous times when I have eulogised about how great the film is, to be scoffed at by others, and I have to ask them what version they saw. Its like there are two seperate movies with the same title and cast.

Thankfully, this is not true of BR2049; we got its directors cut and the critics loved it and I’m sure when people finally get around to seeing it on home video/streaming they will be pleasantly surprised by it or reconsider it on subsequent viewings. Sure, some will rally against it pace and length, as its more a ‘seventies movie than a present-day movie in some of its sensibilities.

God knows I’m a huge fan of Ridley’s work and have defended him so many times- I can always find something worthwhile in most of his movies, indeed even The Counsellor, which is widely pilloried, is a pretty good film to me, particularly in its extended cut.  I do find it annoying these days though, how how a film is perceived can often depend on which version one saw. In the old days, there was only one version of Gone With The Wind, Citizen Kane, West Side Story or Casablanca (barring regional censorship). We didn’t need two or three seperate versions to tell a story.

Moreover, I do wonder if some of Ridleys comments stem from his ire at BR2049 being perceived by some as being actually superior to his original. Maybe he has been stung by such views, or the lavish critical praise for it in the wake of less-favourable reviews of his last few movies. Maybe I should take a leaf out of Ridley’s book….  I shouldn’t talk. I’m being a bitch.

 

 

The Monstrous Mr Christie

place10 Rillington Place (Blu-ray)

I first saw this film many years ago, I think on a late Friday-night showing on tv. It made quite an impression on the young me, as it is a powerful film, and its lesson that authority is not always right and that justice can be flawed resonated with me greatly. Now that I’m older and watching it again for the first time in decades, it’s clear to me now just how deeply disturbing and nuanced, and commendably restrained, this film really is. Quite a few times during this film I considered how it might well turn into an exploitation horror flick in other hands, and often thought how favorably it compares to Hitchcock’s Psycho, a film much more popular (infamous?) than this. I’d say this is one film that really gives Psycho a run for its money, and really makes me wonder what kind of film Hitchcock would have fashioned from its horrifying story and its sexual undertones.

The real chills about this film is that pretty much everything it depicts is true, and indeed it is the real titular house of horrors that features in the film’s exteriors, which adds a real sense of morbidity and uncomfortable voyeurism to the film. This last point in particular is quite pressing, because all the way through I felt like a voyeur witnessing the events that really transpired. The film is, as I have mentioned, remarkably restrained- the murders themselves are shown in a dramatic, almost documentary detail but in no way exploitive, and the perverse acts that Christie acted upon the women’s bodies is only hinted at. The depths of the viewer’s imagination is ample enough to ensure that we know he was an utter monster.

place2Its interesting that the film doesn’t attempt to explain why Christie did what he did, his past and how that might have created the monster he became. He is always an enigma, a twisted mystery in the guise of an ordinary, bald bespectacled man, and this makes him all the more horrifying. There is no comforting explanation, no reason why. At least in Hitchcock’s Psycho we have a psychiatrist who offers an explanation, simplistic as it might seem,  for Norman Bates madness. 10 Rillington Place offers no such comforting explanations for its monster, no sense of rational reason. Christie is a monster who looks and acts like that guy in the bus queue or walking a trolley through a supermarket. His almost quaint English ordinariness is frankly chilling when you consider what he was capable of and he remains one of cinema’s truly ‘great’ monsters. We cannot truly know him or understand him- he simply ‘is’, and that’s truly scary.

Richard Fleischer’s direction is assured and more sophisticated than one might expect for a film such as this. It looks utterly authentic, with great moody photography and dismal, claustrophobic sets that display just how grim post-war Britain was. The acting is sublime throughout the cast, and it is no small measure of John Hurt’s remarkable performance as the doomed simpleton Timothy Evans that he steals the film from under Richard Attenborough’s nose. Attenborough’s performance is subtle and quite disturbing- there is clearly all sorts of horrible stuff going on behind behind those eyes as he looks at the women he preys upon.

This Blu-ray disc is the first Indicator release I have bought, and it promises much for the quality of future releases this year (although my wallet might well blanch at the prospect),  with several Hammer and Harryhausen films among them. The picture quality is tremendous,  really showing off the photography and the textures of the sets and clothes (though maybe Attenborough’s make-up isn’t done too many favours at times). Two commentary tracks and a number of interviews are the highlights of an ample set of supplements. I’ve sampled a good half-hour of John Hurt’s track and he is a disarming and self-deprecating talker, with great recollections of making the film, the personnel and the true events that inspired the film and the book it is based on.

All in all, a great package and a great film that deserves all the praise it gets. That the BBCs recent three-part dramatisation failed to equal it, and indeed perhaps even got mired in being too faithful to how the film tackled the story, speaks volumes about how good this film really is. Its dark and morbid and moody and horrific. Mr Christie is a monster who will haunt us for many years to come.

Stoker (2013)

stoker1.jpg2016.41: Stoker (Film 4, HD)

Perhaps its a case of the wrong expectations. I was under the (misguided, as it turned out) impression that this was a horror film. Maybe it was the title and its associations with a certain author. Well, its not a horror film- but it is something of a horror.

Style over substance- its something we see so much of now. Maybe its used by film-makers eager to distinguish their films from everything else in the market. I don’t mind it when its used with some kind of restraint, but I do have an issue with it when it interferes with basic storytelling. Terrence Malicks films are ones which I generally enjoy, but he certainly does cross the line sometimes. Likewise David Lynch, although something as genuinely great as his Mulholland Drive certainly benefits from its stylistic extravagances, demonstrating a voice all its own- but then again, it clearly has the substance to back up any stylistic excess.

Stoker, I’m afraid, doesn’t. It’s running-time is interminable; by thirty minutes I was awfully close to giving up on it, which doesn’t happen to me very often. I can usually watch any film, no matter how bad, to the often bitter end. Stoker stretched my patience. There is a story here but it is buried under endless strange edits and scenes that go nowhere/do nothing, moments where the sound effects dominate for no particular reason.

Stoker is the story of a family secret that devours all, and a coming-of-age tale about a teenage girl whose strangeness is merely an indication of a psychological problem that manifests -eventually- in a murderous appetite fed by her charismatic long-lost uncle, who arrives at the outset of the film during the funeral of her father. Told like that, the film sounds interesting, and if the film had simply told that story, then yes, it might have been a success.

Alas, the central mysteries aren’t really even presented as mysteries, they are almost inconsequential to the film, lost in the murk of the stylistic choices that swamp everything. The film opens at the funeral of the girl’s father, and instead of elaborating on the man’s mysterious death, suggesting a darker mystery for the audience to engage with and unravel, its simply passed over. Only later as the family secret is finally revealed does the significance of the fathers death appear evident, by which time I was pretty much past caring.

The cast is fine but in an effort to make them all seem rather odd and David Lynchian the film loses any empathy from the audience. I really didn’t care what happened to India (Mia Wasikowska), the oddball teenager preoccupied with focussing on the films audio track, or her mother Eve (Nicole Kidman) who is self-centered and soulless. The only interesting character is India’s long-lost uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) who is very much channeling Anthony Perkins from Psycho and clearly up to no good.

It actually reminded me a little of Twin Peaks. I don’t know if that was a conscious thing by the film-makers, but it did occur to me that all the oddness and obfuscation was very much in the vein of the first series of that tv show. Perhaps if I had been aware of this from the start I might have enjoyed the film more, but as I was expecting something of a gothic horror I was derailed somewhat. In anycase, I don’t think there is really any excuse for deliberately bad storytelling so this film was a pretty poor misfire to me.

The Birds (1963)

birds1The Birds (Blu-ray)

I first saw The Birds many, many years ago- I remember it was a Sunday evening airing on ITV. It’s to the films credit that I can so clearly remember when I first saw it- it evidently made an impression on me. I was a kid and more forgiving back then about the pitfalls of rear-projection and bad mattes and dodgy puppets. The film was strange and exciting and scary.

Watching it again now that I’m older and subjecting the film to the demands of bigger screens and HD presentation in an age of sophisticated CG effects, that rear projection work and fuzzy mattes are rather more off-putting, but the film remains an effective thriller even if its technology is rather dated. It’s left me rather conflicted though, as I usually don’t care about dated effects etc but the effects in this film really haven’t aged well, and it just highlights the other weaknesses of the film. The casting is one particular issue for me- there is no chemistry between Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor and they seem uncomfortable and unconvincing. Imagine if the film had been somehow made ten years earlier with Grace Kelly and Cary Grant and you know it would have been much more effective even had it been saddled with even weaker effects.

But maybe Hitchcock was simply a better director when he was making those films with those great leads. Following the triumph of Psycho, Hitchcock’s career would move into a spiral of steady decline, never recapturing his earlier glories. That said, while many describe The Birds as his last good film, I much prefer his later Frenzy. That film didn’t depend on effects and it had a better cast, and of course had a more conventional story. Maybe Hitchcock’s heart just wasn’t into supernatural horror- this film does seem rather unique amongst his films in that respect. The Birds lacks something, some of that Hitchcock genius that his previous films had. Perhaps he felt frustrated at having little control of the effects and therefore rather less control of the finished film. It does raise the tantalising question of what would Hitchcock have done with all the technological wonders we have today. Its like wondering what would Kubrick do were he shooting a film today with all the stuff he could do now. I’d certainly like to think Hitchcock and Kubrick would have keener eyes and wiser applications of CG effects in their films compared to the young turks of today who seem to have the subtlety of a brick and prefer bashing audiences over the head with it.

Most alarmingly, The Birds lacks the fascinating psychological stuff of Rear Window and Vertigo and Psycho and the real-world thrills of North By NorthwestThe Birds feels like something of a dream. Maybe that’s indeed the problem- it doesn’t feel quite real and Hitchcock’s best films all feel very real and disturbing and thrilling.

The one thing I will say in the films favour is that the film never explains why the birds are behaving in the way they do. They can’t be reasoned with or argued with; they simply act the way they do without sense or reason and thats the most disturbing thing about the film. In a modern film there would be a need to explain everything and describe what is happening in the wider world, but here that’s left to the audience. When our heroes eventually manage to get in a car and drive out of town, they might be fleeing to safety but they might be driving to a further horror. Is the birds behaviour symptomatic of all of Nature finally turning on mankind in a supernatural Apocalypse? We just don’t know. It lends a rather dark, dour note to the ending which is pure Hitchcock and the films saving grace.

 

Hitchcock (2012)

hitch12016.22: Hitchcock (Network Airing, HD)

Strange one this. It purports to be an examination of Alfred Hitchcock and the making of his classic 1960 shocker Psycho. But it didn’t really come across like that. Instead it seems a very revisionist drama with a largely pro-feminist agenda; I know full well that Hitch and his wife Alma were a team, and that Hitch relied on her for her fine judgement, but this film seems to exaggerate this, almost to the point of stating that Hitch was an overweight, leery old goat who relied on Alma’s creative genius to actually make the movies. Hitch seems to be reduced to supporting character with Helen Mirren’s Alma being the focus of attention. Mirren is in fine, dependable form as ever, but her sheer charismatic force dominates every scene and threatens to sink the enterprise, dominating everything; maybe Mirren is just too good. Make no mistake-this is Alma’s movie.

That said, the film is a fine easy-going, lightweight drama of making movies in Old Hollywood- ‘Mad Men in Tinsel Town’ maybe. But it doesn’t really feel convincing. If there was a darkness to Hitch (his preoccupation with his leading ladies for instance) that informs his best movies, like Vertigo, then it’s largely unexplored. Hitch here is more preoccupied with raiding the fridge and drinking too much, and flailing at recreating his former film glories until Alma steps in and saves Psycho. It feels like fantasy- maybe it’s all true, but I very much doubt it; it always feels like fantasy, a lightweight Sunday afternoon drama. There’s no grit. In a film about Hitchcock, no less.

Anthony Hopkins does fairly well but he never becomes Hitch; buried under all that make-up and the fat suit he approximates the ‘look’ but the script always seems reduce him to something of a caricature, accentuating that tendency in the make-up design. Scarlett Johansson does surprisingly well as Janet Leigh and James D’Arcy’s is excellent as Anthony Perkins; both actors deserved more screentime and hint at what the film could have been. Jessica Biel doesn’t really convince as Vera Miles but she doesn’t have much to work with unfortunately. The problem is simply that the focus is never really the making of Psycho but rather the Hitchcock’s marriage and ‘fact’ that Alma was the real genius behind the scenes.  It feels like revisionist history and that rather grates to be honest.

Psycho (1960)

psychoAfter spending the week watching the first season of Bates Motel (great show, by the way), it seemed only fitting to re-watch that series’ inspiration, Hitchcock’s classic Psycho. I had the Blu-ray sitting on the shelf since I bought it cheap on Amazon several months ago.

There’s nothing new that can be said about this movie; I am sure it’s all been done, frankly. After all, how many books, never mind internet pages,  have been written about it, its themes and Freudian subtexts? For most people it’s Hitchcock’s best film, his signature piece and a game-changer for Hollywood and films in general (I’d agree with most of that, although my personal favourite of his remains the dark and endlessly fascinating Vertigo). There’s no doubt that its a classic, and a truly great movie.

Psycho has been so endlessly imitated and parodied, it must be rare for anyone to watch this film for the first time still innocent of its twists and genius conceits. There’s something rather sad about that; I can only imagine the impact this film had on the public back in 1960, but well recall how it shocked me as a kid watching it for the first time on tv (during a Christmas holiday season of his films on BBC2, I think). Its one of those films that, just when get comfortable thinking you watching a certain kind of film suddenly pulls the rug from under you and becomes something else. No-one ever forgets Psycho.

One thing I would note though is how astonishing the screenplay is.  Its a work of manipulative genius, tuned to perfection.   I’ve commented on this before, in that many modern films seem to get made with clearly unfinished scripts leaving all sorts of plot-holes and narrative problems. Film-makers like Hitchcock and Billy Wilder used to work so hard on their scripts, really nailing the film down on the page, thinking it through,  before moving on to the actual shoot. Perhaps the genius and craft of Psycho is indeed in Hitchcock’s direction, but I’d rather be inclined to suggest its actually in that incredible script.