The Witch (2015)

thew12016.78: The Witch (Amazon VOD)

The Witch is a superior horror film but also a divisive one.  There are a few jumpy scares, little gore- its not THAT kind of horror film. Instead its really more about conveying  an ever-deepening sense of dread. Its a beautifully-shot film dripping with mood and atmosphere and slowly rising terror, but the slow pace, and lack of defined ‘evil’ (or even ‘good’) seems to have alienated many. Modern audiences don’t seem to handle ambiguity or invitation to interpretation very well. For myself, well, I absolutely adored it, and was then quite dumbfounded to learn of so many negative opinions of the film,  so much so I wondered if I had seen the same film. Of course I had- indeed the very same things I loved about the film, the archaic old English being spoken, the attitudes and behaviour of characters of their own time, the slow pace, the sense of unsettling mood and the utterly unexplained horror that befalls the characters, all the things I loved, were the same things that detractors hated in their comments/reviews. Shockingly, some people even walked out of screenings during the films cinema release.

Dubbed A New England Folk Tale, according to the title screen at the start of the film, it tells the story of a 17th-Century puritanical English family who have moved to the New World. Banished from their settlement due to some undefined dispute with the Church Elders, the family  set out into the unexplored, untamed wilderness and build a homestead and farm near some wild woods. Several months after settling there, the youngest child -scarcely a baby- is mysteriously taken by some vague supernatural figure (‘the Witch’ of the title) and suffers some awful end in a bloody rite.

thew2The family, ignorant of the supernatural presence looming in the depths of the nearby woods, simply think the infant has been snatched by a wolf and are consumed with guilt as if this tragedy has been brought about by Gods judgement of them. As the crops fail and other maladies befall them, this sense of guilt and self-loathing intensifies and the family start to turn on each other. In tone it feels like Kubrick’s The Shining mixed up with elements from all sorts of European folk tales (the Witch raises from her lair looking like Red Riding Hood at one point). It looks bizarrely ravishing in a grey, dreary, monochrome way, and sounds utterly horrifying (an unnerving soundtrack of period instruments coupled with wailing reminiscent of György Ligeti’s atmospheres in 2001: A Space Odyssey).

Its a nightmare of puritanical guilt, a family consumed by their faith and religion, the darkness of their wild surroundings settling into their hearts, as if the land is itself turning upon them. Is it actually a Witch terrorising them (she never speaks, or has her actions explained, and is only fleetingly glimpsed) or is it simply the Puritans own guilt and self-loathing manifested in the shadows, externalised into something that truly only exists in their minds?

Based on all sorts of folklore and memoirs, it hearkens back to real history, of settlers in the New World struggling through the horrors of famine and disease and child mortality,the brutal testing of their Faith eventually culminating in tales of Witchcraft (and the resulting Salem Witch-trials ).

thew3The characters all seem very real; they are of their time, never really behaving or reasoning things out as modern people would (hence the frustrations, I expect, of some audiences). Its a reminder that most period films are simply transposing modern people into historical tableau- something simply not the case here. The sense of place and time is utterly convincing; the period details are rich and seem authentic, and some of the imagery is quite amazing (and very disturbing). Its a genuinely unsettling, really gripping horror film and one of the best films I have seen this year. I’ll cautiously recommend it as I can appreciate its rather divisive, but crikey, what a horror film. It really gets under your skin (well, it did mine anyway, and I’ve been endlessly thinking about it ever since I saw it.)

Simply brilliant.

Whatever Happened to Paul W S Anderson? – Pompeii (2014)

pompeii_movie_2014-t2Paul W.S. Anderson- I quite liked his Event Horizon movie. Sure, it was a b-movie that was blatantly obvious regards its influences (it was mostly part Alien, part The Shining, amongst others) but it was pretty effective. It looked great, had a few genuine jumps and scares, had a great sense of mood and dread. It marked Anderson as a genuine talent, someone to watch. Well, so I thought at the time.

Alas, he never quite lived up to that, and has never -in my mind at least- come even close to replicating what he achieved with Event Horizon. In hindsight, maybe that film was an indication of what lay ahead, because while he may be technically proficient he’s like a poor-man’s Jim Cameron, with the same lack of writing skills or originality to give his films that extra spark, but lacking the ability of Cameron to marshal huge budgets and production values to hide those faults. I still return to Event Horizon– I bought the DVD, the Blu-ray…. I still find something rewarding in it. Its like an Alien sequel that we never had, in that its almost emphatically set in that same Alien universe (perhaps more so than Scott’s own Prometheus funnily enough). As if Fox was daring enough to think Alien films could be about horrors other than the titular Alien (if only Hollywood were ever that brave with franchises, eh?). I’m a fan of Event Horizon, but regards Anderson’s subsequent films, I always hope for the best but suffer the worst, and only ever watch them once. Once is always enough, and I face each successive film with ever mounting apathy.

pomp2So here we have Pompeii, and sadly it lives up to every cliché you could imagine- even for an Anderson picture, this one’s on Autopilot throughout. Its not that its bad, its just so blatantly obvious regards what it is, so patently lazy in its disregard of trying to be anything new or original. Akin to Olympus Has Fallen being a Die Hard movie in all but name, Pompeii, is, well, its Gladiator, complete with its hero being stuck in the arena with a personal grudge against his Roman masters (even to the point of avenging his family), and its Titanic, its star-crossed lovers from different worlds doomed to find love amidst some larger disaster (replacing an Iceberg with a volcano in this case). Its simply no more than its original pitch to the studio “hey- Gladiator mixed with Titanic! Can’t fail!” and if that wasn’t the pitch to  the studio, if the scriptwriters just put the damn thing together and sold it as something original, then more shame on them.

Tpomp3he sad thing about director Anderson is that he apparently hasn’t moved away from the Event Horizon method of making his movies- in the absence of any original ideas, just combine two or more earlier movies to make something ‘new’ (“DNA recombination”, as a certain Dr.Tyrell would put it). Its okay to start your career like that but to maintain your career like that? Maybe Anderson needs to start working with a  new producer, one able to promote new ideas, search for new properties. Maybe Anderson just can’t get anything else greenlit other than something with a simple pitch like ‘Gladiator meets Titanic’. I hate the word ‘competent’ but thats just what Anderson is- he’s a competent director. He can handle set-pieces, effects, can work well with actors, handles technical productions. He just needs something new to channel his abilities into. I was certain, years ago, that he had it in him, but now I’m not so sure. In his defence, maybe its more to do with how Hollywood works these days, and what films get greenlit, rather than Anderson himself.

Pompeii is just lazy and tired with an ill-judged concept from start to finish. You watch it feeling sad for all involved (there’s quite a cast marshalled here for such a poorly executed script). There’s clearly a great film in the central premise about Pompeii and the disaster that befell its people, something dramatic, heartfelt and tragic, something touching and valid regards the human condition and our fragility in the face of Nature, our place in the world, but this isn’t it- Pompeii and its fate seems almost incidental to the entire enterprise, which is shocking really; it might as well have been an alien invasion that totalled the city in this film for how cartoon-like it seems with its overblown cgi and stunts. No character feels real, nothing ever raises itself above the mundane and familiar and predictable. One to avoid really.

The Raven (1963)

raven1Watching The Raven is a delight, but I must confess it hardly feels like a proper Edgar Allen Poe movie. In a similar way to how The Haunted Palace was really a H P Lovecraft story posing as a Poe story (bookending the film with Price reading passages from Poe’s poem The Haunted Palace to maintain its place in the Poe series of AIP films by Roger Corman), I got the feeling that Price reciting lines from Poe’s The Raven, and then diverting into something else entirely, was a way of launching it into some other literary territory. This time it wasn’t Lovecraft but another of his Weird Tales contributors, Clark Ashton Smith, that was the inspiration.

Or maybe not. I’m not aware of any specific leanings towards CAS being admitted by the films creators or mentioned in the films credits. I doubt that the films screenwriter Richard Matheson ever admitted to it or likely even intended it, but Matheson was obviously aware of the writings of Clark Ashton Smith so there is a suspicion that its possible. I may indeed be barking up the proverbial wrong literary tree, but it just feels very much like a CAS story.He wrote such wonderfully rich, powerfully vivid stories of sorcerers and magic, that The Raven‘s central theme of three extravagant rival magicians, played with such scenery-chewing aplomb by horror thespians Price, Karloff and Lorre, seems to somehow channel the spirit and vitality of CAS’ prose so well, intended or not.

The obvious problem for any movie based on Edgar Allen Poe’s haunting poem The Raven is that there is little cohesive narrative to it- certainly not enough to fill a movie. Richard Matheson solved the problem by using the poem simply as a starting point for the film; not only that, but he dropped any leanings towards any horror implied by the title or by the film being part of Corman’s Poe series of films, by instead turning it into a comedy. And it works- it just doesn’t feel, as I stated earlier, authentically ‘Poe’. Perhaps it was turning it into a comedy that lost ‘the Poe’, but Clark Ashton Smiths stories certainly had plenty of macabre humour, and the subject matter echoes some of his writings.

But all this may be utter tosh and hardly matters in the grand scheme of things, as The Raven is a hoot, whatever its literary origin/influences. You just have to be in the right frame of mind, as it can be rather disorientating early on, if you are expecting a serious horror film and find yourself instead watching this strange comedic tale. Its one of those weird films in which nothing seems real, the characters behaving very oddly indeed.

The cast in particular is a joy, and includes a very young Jack Nicholson which seems quite bizarre, in a ‘was he ever really so young?’ sort of way (all the time I have known of him he always seemed middle-aged onwards re: The Shining, Batman etc, so much so that seeing him so young, and so, well, heroic/innocent/non-crazy in this does seem weird). Indeed Nicholson’s casting, considering his fame afterwards, in such a minor role in what is obviously a very b-movie production just makes the film seem more nuts than intended, somehow. Chief delight though are the great actors chewing up the scenery, hamming it up with the warm Matheson script (and ad-libbing and improvising like crazy when they aren’t, apparently). It looks like the film was just great fun to be involved with when making it, and its infectious too- by the midway point, whatever misconceptions you may have had, you can’t help but get carried away with it.

It is, to be sure, daft 1960s hokum, like the Batman tv series or the campier episodes of Star Trek. As opposed to Hammers more serious Gothic horrors of the period, these Corman films always had a West Coast, Rock and Roll, ironic sensibility and none more so than in this film.

Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures (2002)

kubrick boxStanley Kubrick directed just 13 films during his near-fifty year career.

Ridley Scott has directed 21 films.

Steven Spielberg has directed 27 films (not counting his tv-movies).

I’m not sure what the above figures demonstrate. Are Kubrick’s films inherently better than those of Scott or Spielberg because he took so long crafting them? Does simply a fewer number equate to a better quality? Are Scott or Spielberg actually better directors because they get on with the job and produce so many good (some great, some poor, admittedly) films in their career? Would Scott or Spielberg’s films actually be improved if they had spent so long making them as Kubrick did? Is it more professional of them to actually do the work creating so many varied films, was Kubrick less of a professional because he took so long on projects? Or is Kubrick the finer director because he crafted his films meticulously like perfected works of art? Is that body of work more impressive for the high quality of those films than it might have been had he made more films, albeit with some of lesser quality? Was Kubrick the last of his kind working in cinema? Will we ever see his like again? Was Kubrick truly that great, or was he just the critics darlng and his films over-rated?

It figures that my first film of 2014 would turn out to be a documentary. On New Years Eve the 7-movie boxset Stanley Kubrick: Visionalry Filmmaker Collection arrived. I owned quite a few Kubrick film’s on Blu-ray already, but Amazon had a lightning deal on during Christmas week, selling it for £15 which was too tempting to turn down for a copy of Barry Lyndon (unavailable seperately here in the UK) or Lolita, A Clockwork Orange and Full Metal Jacket. Turns out The Shining is a dfferent cut compared to my other Blu-ray for whatever thats worth, so thats not too bad a deal at all. But anyway, I decided to give the bonus disc (itself originally from the A Clockwork Orange release, I think) a spin first and watch the A Life in Pictures doc. Itself near two hours and thirty minutes long, its a considerable piece of work, and while even at that length it may not be as in-depth and rich as it could have been, or viewers would like, it is a fine overview of Kubrick’s life and work and an excellent addition to this box set.

Watching it I had the distinctly reinforced impression that Kubrick was an enigma, a flawed genius. What made his films so great, their sense of perfection, their finely crafted style (he often shot 30, 40 takes of individual shots, proving something of  nightmare for some actors), was also something that made them curiously flawed (very often there is a coldness, a sense of distance from what is happening, when watching one of his pictures, not helped by an often glacial pace). I have to admit that I admire Kubrick’s films but don’t really love them. But they are endlessly fascinating and reward multiple viewings in a way that few other films do. I have the impression that, over the years, rewatching Kubrick films is like watching them for the first time, you often get something new out of them. There is just something weird about them.

A Life in Pictures is fascinating. I was amazed to discover that, for all his notoriety for preparing his films in huge detail to the nth degree with incredible amounts of research, when on-set he often didn’t seem to have a clue how to shoot the scenes, often letting the actors do their own thing and working out the shots over so many, many takes until he got what he wanted. Wheras, say, Hitchcock also planned his films meticulously, but on-set always had a storyboard at hand or in his head, knowing how he was going to shoot everything. Kubrick oddly seems to have had more in common with someone like, say, Terrence Malick, which I didn’t expect- almost creating everything on-set ad hoc. Curious indeed.  Two immediate questions came to mind; how Kubrick would be able to function today the way the industry works now, were he still alive, and  related to that, what the hell would he have come up with, having access to a toolset such as the cg technology we now have?

Very interesting documentary. And I’ll get to watch Barry Lyndon in HD soon!