Criterion Sunday 260: Les Yeux sans visage (Eyes Without a Face, 1960)

This is one of those precursors to any number of schlocky, gory horror movies of the coming decades (and indeed was first released with a similarly B-movie title in the States), but manages to be somehow elegant enough that Édith Scob in the more recent interview on the Criterion disc contends it is not a horror movie. (It is very much a horror movie.) But that assessment makes sense because it sits somewhere between older films about mad scientists performing experiments and the French policiers and thrillers of the 1950s (themselves staples of the Criterion catalogue). Of course, key to director Georges Franju’s vision of horror is that the scientist at the heart of this film, Dr Génessier (Pierre Brasseur), isn’t mad at all — he’s just driven by a love for his daughter Christiane (Scob), whom he has caused to be disfigured, in conjunction with a very loose sense of ethical responsibility. The horror then is really not in anything we see — though there are some brief gory and troubling images — but in the way it all seems so complacently self-evident to the doctor and his nurse accomplice (Alida Valli). It remains an elegant film about very inelegant people.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The chief extra is one of Franju’s short films, Le Sang des bêtes (Blood of the Beasts, 1949), which is undoubtedly a difficult film to watch, and one can only be thankful it’s in black-and-white. After all, it presents the work of a French abattoir contrasted with a small town idyll and the benign indifference of the people tasked with chopping up these living creatures. It’s a horror film of sorts but largely avoids editorialising.
  • There’s an 8 minute interview with Scob from 2013, in which she discusses the film and it making, and her place in it.
  • An odd little 5 minute French TV piece has Franju being interviewed about the ‘cinema of the fantastic’ by a man in a silly wig and a prominent chemistry set in the foreground — presumably as part of some kind of TV themed bit about mad scientists.
  • A 7 minute excerpt from a 1985 French TV documentary presents interviews with Boileau and Narcejac about their crime writing partnership, though they don’t specifically touch on this film.
  • Finally there are French and US trailers, the latter particularly interesting because it’s for the original release under the title The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus as a double-bill along with a creature feature called The Manster (he’s half man! half monster!).

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Georges Franju; Writers Franju, Jean Redon, Pierre Boileau, Thomas Narcejac and Claude Sautet (based on the novel by Redon); Cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan; Starring Pierre Brasseur, Édith Scob, Alida Valli; Length 90 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 11 July 2019 (and originally on VHS at the university library, Wellington, July 1999).

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As Boas Maneiras (Good Manners, 2018)

After yesterday’s review of The Mafu Cage (1978), this more recent film also deals with animals as well as confronting class and race in modern society, although it delves further into creepier, gorier fairy tale elements. (As this is a Brazilian film, I should mention that I’ve got a themed week around South American cinema coming up on my blog in a few weeks’ time.)


As a film pitched somewhere between a horror and a fairytale, the London Film Festival programme went out of its way not to give away any details, and while I don’t quite think their belief that it’s best watched without knowing anything really holds up — not least because I think there are plenty of pleasures to it no matter how much you know — I shall nevertheless try to tread carefully. Let’s just say it takes tropes from well-worn animal-based horror legends and places them in a Brazilian setting (the city of São Paulo), extending the metaphor to be one about both class and race in one of the most starkly divided of cities between those with wealth and those without (a split which is, unsurprisingly, largely between white and black citizens). Clara (Isabél Zuaa) is a maid and nanny to Ana (Marjorie Estiano), who is heavily pregnant with what appears to be a difficult pregnancy. The filmmakers then develop the story with fairy tales in mind, including a picture book-style animated origins sequence, and a heavy reliance on matte painted backdrops, giving the film a sort of distance from its subject matter that aestheticises it just enough that the gore is less shocking, but no less potent in the way it develops its themes. I admired it more than I loved it, but it’s a fine film with some great central performances.

Film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Juliana Rojas and Marco Dutra; Cinematographer Rui Poças; Starring Isabél Zuaa, Marjorie Estiano; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at Embankment Garden Cinema, London, Friday 12 October 2018.

Revenge (2017)

In my post about The Mafu Cage, I mentioned writer Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, who has also written a book about the Rape Revenge film. This recent French outing fits into that particular sub-genre, which sort of lurks off to the side of the horror film, its films often nasty and exploitative, which can be varied as to the way they treat the moral quandary at their heart.


This is definitely one of those films that feels like it’s in dialogue with retro trends. Like The Guest and its ilk from the US, it seems to be reimagining the 80s exploitation flick, with a helping of French cinéma du look values, while also in those bold title cards and twisted sexual politics calling back to Baise-moi (2000) and films by Gaspar Noé, et al., which attacked with glee certain notions of gendered violence. But if you are willing to accept its larger than life formal qualities — a saturated sun-drenched Mexican setting, its rape-revenge premise, the superhuman survival qualities of its four characters (a woman and three nasty, predatory men), and all the fake blood that exists in the world (that hadn’t already been used by Raw the year before) — it’s quite a ride. Its central character of Jen (Matilda Lutz) starts out as the kind of cipher for female sexuality you might find in a Michael Bay heroine, but soon comes to find a stoic resilience to pain that sets up the final two-thirds of the film, though beyond that there’s hardly much characterisation: this is a very simple concept, executed (as it were) very well.

Revenge posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Coralie Fargeat; Cinematographer Robrecht Heyvaert; Starring Matilda Lutz, Kevin Janssens, Vincent Colombe, Guillaume Bouchède; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 12 May 2018.

Dans ma peau (In My Skin, 2002)

Of the horror films which are directed or written by women, ones that dwell on themes of body horror do seem to be popular, and I’m sure plenty has been written about that. Cannibalistic themes have been the focus both of Claire Denis in Trouble Every Day (2001) and more recently in Julia Ducournau’s Grave (Raw, 2016).


This may not perhaps be surprising, given this is a film about a woman progressively pulling away her skin as a form of self-mutilation, but this film is really intensely disturbing. Of course, like any good modern horror film, it’s not just a story of a particular woman (played by the director, Marina de Van), but in a sense a film about dissociative, destructive feelings towards one’s own body. Our lead character is successful in her business career, but there are throughout little vignettes with her work colleagues and her boyfriend, articulating small but noticeable ways in which they control her body — pervasive and persistent forms of abuse which set the stage for her own proactive extension of her bodily wounds. I think there’s plenty that’s fascinating going on here under the surface (if you will), though it all operates at such a pitch of studied, detached intensity that I continued to find it difficult to focus while watching.

Film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Marina de Van; Cinematographer Pierre Barougier; Starring Marina de Van, Laurent Lucas; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 31 October 2017.

Grave (Raw, 2016)

Horror movies at their best allegorise traumatic experiences and Raw — or Grave in its original French title, which means something more like “serious”, and is a phrase thrown around a few times during the film in reference to lead character Justine’s changes — takes on that transition to university with aplomb. It is, to be sure, rather more disturbing than my own time as a first year but it captures something of that desire to fit in and also be a part of a larger group. Here the students are aspiring vets largely isolated at the edge of a small town, somewhere removed from society, running amok at parties in between scenes of lab dissection. There are other elements thrown in — the exploration of sexuality, most notably — which add further resonance to the film, as Garance Marillier’s Justine is led on by her older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf). In this particular intersection of sex and gore, the film is reminiscent of Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day (though with less Vincent Gallo, thankfully). It looks great, it has a carefully chosen soundtrack, and there are some great trippy shots. Also, can I just add that I love the poster. It’s been all over the London underground for the last month or so, and it’s just the right balance of unsettling and suggestive without being graphic.

CREDITS
Director/Writer Julia Ducournau; Cinematographer Ruben Impens; Starring Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf, Rabah Naït Oufella; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Aldgate, London, Saturday 15 April 2017.

Three Italian Giallo Films: Death Laid an Egg (1968), Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972) and Deep Red (1975)

I may have lived almost half my life (obviously this is a vague metric, but let’s be optimistic and just assume 40 is a median), much of it as an ardent fan of cinema, yet there are vast swathes of the seventh art which have passed me by. One such blindspot is the horror genre, and of this the so-called giallo films of Italian cinema (the word means “yellow”, from the covers to the pulp crime novels popular in the country at the time) are a particular mystery: for all their exploitational slasher origins, many of them are highly praised by critics for their artistic and narrative playfulness (as much as they are decried for their lapses into misogyny, though this could equally apply to much of slasher horror, surely). Directors like Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci and Mario Bava are frequently cited, the baroque titles of whose opuses have long taken up a small corner of my brain, even as I’ve never seen any of them. Therefore, I thought it only sensible to accept a recent opportunity offered by a horror-cinema-loving friend to visit and watch a number of these films back-to-back, with appropriate food, drink and enthusiastic company.

The pretense for this event was my friend Matthew coming across a film called Death Laid an Egg (1968) deep in Jean-Louis Trintignant’s filmography, and indeed this is the oldest (and perhaps oddest) of the three films we watched. It also has the most bankable stars of the three, with Trintignant and Italian actor (and 50s sex symbol) Gina Lollobrigida both receiving starring roles. In some ways, it seems to fit in more closely with trends in European art cinema, taking its cues as much from Michelangelo Antonioni’s architecturally-framed elliptical modernist narratives on the one hand and trippy, hippy late-60s head films on the other, as much as from traditional horror or crime genre tropes. It also features less overt violence towards women than the other films, though the staging of the opening shots does strongly imply that Trintignant’s poultry farmer Marco has a penchant for murdering prostitutes, which is the motivation for a plot against him and his wife Anna (Lollobrigida) by his cousin Gabri (Ewa Aulin). The idea of Trintignant and Lollobrigida as farmers isn’t in the end as absurd as that may seem, for the film is interested in a more coldly futuristic idea of the role, manipulating genetics and engineering the perfect animal from a lab, rather than mucking out cages or suchlike. The latter stages of the narrative are all set out in a rather maddeningly opaque way, such that it’s easy to miss some of the final revelations, but as a whole the film is nicely controlled.

More traditional, then, is Lucio Fulci’s Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972), another rather oblique title which hints at perversions in its small-town Italian setting. A number of boys have been murdered, and a big-city reporter, Andrea (Tomas Milian), comes to town, with his tight jeans and archetypal 70s moustache, digging into the events. The film offers a number of possible suspects for the murders, including a mysterious witch-like woman (Florinda Bolkan), a hermit, a simpleton and a young priest, amongst others. The film is pretty sharp on indicting religious-based repression and the power of the local church and police authorities to turn local anger into murderous vendettas. It also gets over a good sense of atmosphere for its story, with outbreaks of gory violence to move things along.

However, best of the lot is the now-admired and acknowledged classic Profondo rosso (or Deep Red, 1975) directed by Dario Argento, towards the end of the first classic period of giallo filmmaking. A recent Blu-ray edition captures the beautiful cinematography of this slow-building mood piece, which features recurring sequences languidly panning across mysterious items in extreme close-up, not to mention an unfussy set design with a bar right out of Edward Hopper. The plot has jazz musician Marcus (David Hemmings from Blow-up) investigating a gory murder of a psychic, and his ensuing chase folds in all kinds of supernatural mystery to tinge the horror premise. Indeed, there’s a prominent role for a particularly spooky house which hides dark secrets (as such houses always seem to do). Despite its length, it all moves along without excessive flab, albeit taking its time to build up the eerie atmosphere nicely. It’s one of the few horror films I’ve seen that even I feel would repay multiple viewings, but Argento is clearly well in control of his craft by this time. A high point for Italian cinema of the 1970s.


La morte ha fatto l'uovo (Death Laid an Egg, 1968)

CREDITS
Seen at a friend’s home, Leighton Buzzard, Saturday 27 February 2016.

La morte ha fatto l’uovo (Death Laid an Egg, 1968)
Director Giulio Questi; Writers Franco Arcalli and Questi; Cinematographer Dario Di Palma; Starring Jean-Louis Trintignant, Gina Lollobrigida, Ewa Aulin; Length 90 minutes.

Non si sevizia un paperino (Don’t Torture a Duckling, 1972)
Director Lucio Fulci; Writers Gianfranco Clerici, Fulci and Roberto Gianviti; Cinematographer Sergio D’Offizi; Starring Tomas Milian, Barbara Bouchet, Florinda Bolkan; Length 102 minutes.

Profondo rosso (Deep Red, 1975)
Director Dario Argento; Writers Argento and Bernardino Zapponi; Cinematographer Luigi Kuveiller; Starring David Hemmings, Daria Nicolodi; Length 126 minutes.

Crimson Peak (2015)

Having this year been watching almost solely the output of female directors, I’ve become used to seeing on screen a certain level of budget (something nearer to the $0 end of the spectrum, let’s be fair). And then you watch something like this, just a grand, gorgeous staging with the sets! and the costumes! and the art design so elaborate and intricate you worry it’s all going to get in the way of, oh, the acting, the characterisation, that kind of thing. (I gather some critics feel that it has.) Now, I don’t deny any of Guillermo del Toro’s talent; he’s clearly done a lot of legwork to get to the stage where he can make something like this, and I think his great films like Cronos and El laberinto del fauno have given him a peerless sense of what works filmically. Because that stuff comes effortlessly here, especially when he’s marshalling all the tropes of the horror genre — the depth of field in staging shots, the creepy sound design, flashes of spectral presences, and then the full-on gory costumework. Because yes, there’s a lot of gore here, whether explicit or suggested: much of the latter part of the film is set in a house whose walls and foundations seem to literally ooze blood. Within this, it seems like a canny choice to go for actors like Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain and Tom Hiddleston, all of whom have previous in this kind of enterprise — portraying doomed lovers in a period setting — so all of them look quite at home in what is a Victorian-era gothic romance hat-tipping visually to Hammer horror as mcuh as to Italian giallo, not to mention a bit of Kubrick’s The Shining too. It does in the end all feel a bit oppressive, and it should of course, but it’s a bravura piece of filmmaking and it hits all the right notes, honouring its sources without condescending to them.


Crimson Peak film posterCREDITS
Director Guillermo del Toro; Writers del Toro and Matthew Robbins; Cinematographer Dan Laustsen; Starring Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain; Length 119 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Saturday 31 October 2015.

Exeter (aka The Asylum, aka Backmask, 2015)

I watched this for completism’s sake, but I can’t profess to any great fondness for the gory side of the horror film (whereas the psychological stuff I’ve enjoyed in, say, The Babadook). Once it gets going, there’s certainly plenty of gore in Exeter, but the build-up is fitfully enjoyable (just an aside on the film’s name: it was retitled The Asylum for the UK market, possibly to avoid confusion with the county, but originally entitled Backmask, which I can imagine was picked because it sounds cool, though there’s only a passing reference to the urban legend of backwards satanic messages being hidden in rock music). As the makers seems to have started filming back in 2011, one can only assume there were problems in delivering the final cut, but thankfully it all looks very stylish and professional on screen. The setting is an eerie and dilapidated building (of course) hidden away in some rural backwater (naturally), which used to be a mental asylum (what else?) and is supposedly haunted by the lost souls who were dumped there to be forgotten (you get the gist). A group of youngsters camp out for a party and soon strange stuff starts happening. There’s a creepy priest who shows up early on, and elsewhere there are plenty of nods to The Exorcist. Otherwise this is a straightforward gory frightfest, with a disturbing sideline (thankfully fairly minor) in women being sexualised and then brutalised, surprising not least because the film is written by a woman. However, this is deeply embedded in genre territory, so there are rules to be followed, and the film does play by them. If you enjoy this kind of thing, then my review has probably been misleading, and this is a minor masterpiece. I just don’t tend to enjoy this kind of thing.

Exeter film posterCREDITS
Director Marcus Nispel; Writer Kirsten McCallion; Cinematographer Eric Treml; Starring Kelly Blatz, Brittany Curran; Length 91 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Friday 24 July 2015.