Not all films that deal with period go the route of tasteful and sombre recreations of a historical past. Many of them just use the setting as a backdrop for generic thrills, such as the melodramatic camp murder-mystery thriller of The Limehouse Golem, which uses real historical figures and events as the backdrop for a very much fictional story.
This film seems to have received rather mixed reviews, but I suppose it invites that at a certain level: it has the feel of a camp bodice-ripper, or a lusty period detective drama, or a slasher film. It most closely reminds me of Se7en in its interplay between the grizzled veteran (Bill Nighy) and younger police officer (Daniel Mays), in its thrill at the gore and violence of the serial killer they’re hunting, and in the comfort it takes in the baroque cosiness of Victorian libraries (in this case, the British Library Reading Room). Indeed, being based on psychogeographer Peter Ackroyd’s novel, it revels in its literary and (above all) theatrical artifice, whether having characters like Karl Marx and the novelist George Gissing as suspects, or making its flamboyant music hall star Dan Leno open the film with a prologue delivered from a literal stage. It never feels like it goes deep — it plays with the Jewish origins of the Golem legend, tying it in directly to Jewish immigration to London’s East End (which is where Limehouse can be found), and is largely sensitive in its depiction of gay characters — but never lets that distract from the central whodunnit mystery. What I liked too is the way most of the (straight male) characters are depicted as never being too far from dangerous and exploitative when it suits them. There’s a beautifully recreated sense of danger and intrigue in this 1880s London, and even if it’s all rather breathless, it’s good fun.
Director Juan Carlos Medina; Writer Jane Goldman (based on the novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem by Peter Ackroyd); Cinematographer Simon Dennis; Starring Bill Nighy, Olivia Cooke, Douglas Booth, Daniel Mays; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Aldgate, London, Monday 11 September 2017.
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.
- 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).
Following contemporary women-authored stories set amongst communities within white Australia, like Celia (1989) and The Last Days of Chez Nous (1992), it took artist and photographer Tracey Moffatt to become the first woman of Aboriginal background to make a feature film, one distinctive and idiosyncratic enough that she never did make another. I saw it at Bristol’s Cinema Rediscovered festival, a fantastic long weekend of cinema which is modelled after Il Cinema Ritrovato, and takes place at the end of July each year.
An extraordinarily stylish one-of-a-kind film (not least because director Tracey Moffatt never made another feature), it has a heightened unreality that recalls not just studio-bound 50s Hollywood hothouse melodramas but arthouse experiments like Rohmer’s Perceval le Gallois (1978) or Fassbinder’s Querelle (1982). The three ghost stories share not just this visual stylisation but the way they leap between past and present with ease, for these are not just stories, but collective memories or perhaps cultural touchstones, channelling a sort of Australian mythology that (for a change) isn’t rooted just in white men ‘going bush’, but a wide variety of ethnic identities, not least Moffatt’s Aboriginal roots. It’s quite possible the range of reference points is too specific for me (a non-Australian) to pick up on much of it, but it’s a heady watch all the same, a knowing wink at the audience without the suffocating irony and cynicism that too many directors of the 90s considered cool. Maybe that’s why it never made much of a splash at the time, but it’s ripe (in every sense) for rediscovery.
Director/Writer Tracey Moffatt; Cinematographer Geoff Burton; Starring Tracey Moffatt, Lex Marinos; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Watershed, Bristol, Saturday 28 July 2018.
I only started watching ‘giallo’ films a few years ago, that peculiar hyper-stylised Italian sub-genre of horror, and among those first three was Dario Argento’s Profondo rosso (1975). I’ve watched only a few from the genre since then, like Femina ridens (1969) and All the Colors of the Dark (1972), but they’ve all offered fascinating little glimpses into an alternate world of filmmaking. Finally, I managed to catch up on Argento’s most famous film, recently remade by Luca Guadagnino (though I haven’t yet seen the remake, and may not ever bother).
One of the taglines for this film is “The most frightening film you’ll ever see!” and I should point out right away that this isn’t quite true: part of what Argento seems to be doing here rather undercuts the scariness. There’s terror and horror and gore, but the use of colours and sound, the heightened acting (a nice way of saying it’s pretty ropey), the whole Grand Guignol nature of the enterprise, somewhat mitigates against the scares. Still, what colours! What sound! The score by Goblin is just fantastic, ultra-70s electronica, and combined with the deeply saturated colours, it makes the film that much more immersive. From the very opening scenes, the tone starts out at hysterical turned up to 11, and then… it just cranks it up ever more. The witches’ coven/German dance school conceit suggests deeper tensions within society that remain allegorical (I believe these are made more concrete in the remake), and while I may remain unconvinced by the acting, it’s some kind of a film.
Director Dario Argento; Writers Argento and Daria Nicolodi (based on the essay “Suspiria de Profundis” by Thomas De Quincey); Cinematographer Luciano Tovoli; Starring Jessica Harper, Stefania Casini, Alida Valli; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Sunday 9 December 2018.
I recently did a themed week on Korean cinema, starting at its origins and covering a number of films across the decades. The one thing I didn’t really touch on, and probably the element of Korean cinema that’s been most marketable in the West, was what video label Tartan used to call “Asia Extreme”: the brutal, often gory and very stylish thrillers and horror films that got the best distribution over here. Obviously someone like Park Chan-wook with his Vengeance film trilogy and Oldboy (2003) was the most famous proponent from South Korea, but Na Hong-jin had his share of notable films. Therefore for my horror week it seemed only fitting that I catch up with a recently lauded piece of taut genre cinema from the country.
Opening in one of those small town settings where not much happens and the cops we see are lazy and slightly incompetent means you already have a sense of just how much things are about to change, but this is a long film and it makes its move into full-on gory horror fairly slowly. That said, the filmmaking is stylish and pulls you along as first we get these little flashes of incipient disturbance (a mysterious stranger, a naked woman in the dark, and the spectre of death in a place which sees very little of that kind of thing) before it all becomes just a hectic rollercoaster of fury and emotion. Our hero of sorts is the slightly overweight Jong-goo (Kwak Do-won), a police office who has the permanent look of someone who’d much rather have a lie down, and over the course of the film he gets increasingly put upon, cut up and rained on, until he just seems to be pinging around like a pinball shouting at people to explain what’s going on — which isn’t very far from the viewer in a lot of the scenes. It’s called The Wailing but there’s much more screaming, shouting and crying in it, and if you can follow all the twists and turns then the filmmaker probably hasn’t done his job very well. That said, for all the extended running time, this is well worth watching.
Director/Writer Na Hong-jin 나홍진; Cinematographer Hong Kyung-po 홍경표; Starring Kwak Do-won 곽도원, Jun Kunimura 國村隼, Kim Hwan-hee 김환희, Hwang Jun-min 황정민; Length 156 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Saturday 24 August 2019.
The big UK cinematic release in a couple of weeks is It Chapter Two (and the earlier film is being re-released today ahead of that), so to cap a week of horror films on my blog, here’s a review of one of the bigger releases earlier this year whose title also involves a pronoun (though it obviously also plays on the abbreviation of its country of production).
Peele’s first film Get Out was both elegant in its satirical targets, and deeply creepy in the way it unfolded, and I certainly can’t deny his skill at harnessing the horror form. There are lots of shots that are striking in both the way that they are framed, and also in the technical bravura in which performance, camera and score are brought together. Yet I was left feeling that this second film was a little less elegant, especially in some of the way that the mirroring of the title and the setup was resolved towards the end. Whatever my misgivings in this regard, Lupita Nyong’o is fantastic: everyone is quite right about this, and she’s one of my favourite actors anyway. Somehow her eyes seem particularly enormous, and make her seem that much more vulnerable when events take their turn, even if her character is probably the strongest one amongst the family.
In terms of its thematics (which I shall not of course get into details about), I think Peele has put a lot in here to tease out the double-bind of (specifically American) materiality and imperialism, and there’s quite a bit of play around the rise of the subaltern, little hints tying in slavery as well as carceral capitalism, with prisons and schools being repeated reference points — stuff that will only become apparent on re-watching, and may yet further improve my opinion about the film. There’s also a sort of racialised double-consciousness around middle-class identities being enacted — although, this being a Jordan Peele film, it feels refreshingly free of othering tropes around having a Black family at the heart of the film (and Peele has specifically disavowed in interviews that this film is ‘about’ racism). It’s also likely there are deeper, more resonant aspects of this film which escape me; I very much like and admire it, though.
Director/Writer Jordan Peele; Cinematographer Mike Gioulakis; Starring Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Elisabeth Moss; Length 116 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Friday 22 March 2019.
There have been a number of recent films from the Middle East that deal with living through wartime, and which employ supernatural or surreal themes, like the Syrian film The Day I Lost My Shadow. One such is strictly speaking a British film (co-produced with Jordan and Qatar), although it’s made by expatriate Iranians and set in Tehran.
This isn’t the only recent horror film to locate terror in the chador (there was vampire film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night too), as the shadowy djinn in this film is a mysterious robed figure. It’s also not the only recent film to centre its story around a mother (hello The Babadook), also much mentioned by reviewers. So if it’s not exactly startlingly original, it’s also nice to see a horror film set in wartime Iran (the late-80s to be precise, when it was at war with Iraq). The horror thus becomes an externalisation of the terrors of that war, as well as fundamentalist post-revolutionary crackdowns on dress and on left-wing politics — our heroine Shideh (Narges Rashidi), is unable to re-enrol as a doctor after a period of seditionary political engagement, and encounters all kinds of judgement from her nosy neighbours. It has a requisite number of scary bits, but it also — and this is what I really like about the best horror films — manages to bring qualities that I love about films to the mainstream, which is to say, a sense of stillness, of suffusing quiet, of creeping dread about the world and the future. I could have happily watched 90 minutes of a woman and her daughter living by themselves in a middle-class Tehran apartment, driven slowly mad, but for the rest of you, well, there are frights and they work pretty effectively.
Director/Writer Babak Anvari بابک انوری; Cinematographer Kit Fraser; Starring Narges Rashidi نرگس رشیدی, Avin Manshadi آوین منشادی; Length 84 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Tuesday 4 October 2016.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The horror genre seems to attract far more men as directors and writers, though it’s certainly not short of women in front of the camera (usually being victimised, of course). That said, there are a significant number of women who are fans of the genre and have written about it at length (notably the Australian writer Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, who is working on a book called 1000 Women in Horror). There are even a few who have managed to get behind the camera, and I am trying to focus on as many examples as I can this week. The film today is more of a thriller than a horror, exactly, and its director Karen Arthur only ever made three feature films (before moving into a career in television).
This film is a lot. It’s at heart a sort of psychological terror film about a disturbed young woman, Cissy (Carol Kane, who at one point intemperately demands her sister explain what she means by “normal”), who acts out in a way that distracts her sister (Lee Grant) from her astronomy job. Yet there are many complex depths to their relationship, not least a sort of incest theme that left me wondering if they were in fact sisters, or whether something more was going on (at first I suspected a proto-Fight Club duality).
The specific manifestation of Cissy’s mental health issues is her fixation on her father, a deceased anthropologist. Cissy performs African tribal dances, obsessively plays field recordings, and wears African hairstyles, as if in an alternate timeline for Mean Girls‘ Cady. Moreover she tortures primates in the cage set up by their father for study (the “mafu” of the title seems to be a term used to refer generically to primates, or perhaps just pets). Thus the film seems to be enacting a confrontation between white colonisers and Africa (its fauna and its human cultures), perhaps hinting at a sense of guilt, but certainly a pathology of slavery and subjugation, while also being about family dynamics in a hothouse environment that (not unjustly) claims a particularly pervy astronomer colleague of Cissy’s sister.
There’s so much going on that I can’t pretend to cover it all, but it was certainly interesting (even if the surviving 35mm print we watched is rather degraded in its pink palette).
Director Karen Arthur; Writer Don Chastain (based on the play Toi et tes nuages by Eric Westphal); Cinematographer John Bailey; Starring Lee Grant, Carol Kane; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at Watershed, Bristol, Friday 27 July 2018.