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.
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.
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.
One of the most prolific genres in cinemas is horror, and with It re-released this week in UK cinemas ahead of It Chapter Two in a couple of weeks — along with a few other titles like the latest by prolific genre director Alexandra Aja, a Guillermo del Toro production, and a documentary about Satanism — it’s about time I featured a few films in this genre (or closely adjacent to it) on my blog. Honestly, I’m not a huge horror genre acolyte, and it’s rather a blindspot for me — one I heartily acknowledge and am trying to remedy, given that a great deal of the most impassioned cinephilia revolves around horror. After all, I only watched my first few giallo films three years ago. There’s a huge range of work that falls under the ‘horror’ mantle, and it’s often a genre that attracts directors with a great amount of technical skill or visual flair (somewhat like metal in relation to other popular music), and as such has a committed fanbase of knowledgeable commentators. I’m not one, so this week I’ll just be picking out some things I’ve found interesting, starting with a short film for a change. It’s on YouTube and is worth 12 minutes of your life.
Due to my 2018 project to try to watch a film every day I was watching a lot more short films that year, and this strange video-shot 1980s oddity has been through periodic flashes of internet interest, because after all, it. Is. Wild. It feels like the kind of lo-fi found-in-an-attic thing that John Darnielle would be writing a novel about, except it is very au courant about its themes (because those themes, sadly, are always au courant) — being the link between capitalism and murder, and the creepy violence of weird dudes. It’s set largely at a mall, and it has the best Casiotone-style chunky keyboard music — it’s basically a musical short film. It is, in case this isn’t clear, thoroughly delightful with a strange, slightly surreal edge reminiscent of early Lynch.
Director/Writer Cecelia Condit; Cinematographers Amy Krick and Jeff Chiplis; Length 12 minutes.
Seen at home (YouTube), London, Thursday 4 October 2018.
I had this idea that I watched this film with my stepbrothers when I was a kid, but if I did I certainly didn’t get it at the time (nor do I remember any of it upon rewatching so I may just be imagining it). However, as a result, I’ve probably spent more of my life than is reasonable believing I wasn’t really ‘into’ David Cronenberg’s brand of body horror combined with media satire. That said, I’ve seen plenty of his films since, and I’ve liked most of them quite a lot, but yet still retained some core of that original belief, perhaps modified somewhat into some idea that he’s just an outré auteur who panders to horror-soaked fanboys’ wet dreams… and clearly — look, you all know this already — but I’m wrong.
Videodrome looks from the outside as something nasty and exploitative, but it feels more like an advance warning from a Nostradamus of the early-1980s about everything we have in our culture now. The technology may look a little clunky but the effects still hold up really well. It’s the kind of film that you probably need to rewatch a number of times to figure out its particular configuration of the televisual exploitation of sleaze, sex, sexual violence and depravity, the way that links to notions of masculine performance (James Woods, who nowadays probably really is that guy he’s playing here, hallucinates a literal vagina opening across much of his torso), added to which there’s the fetishisation of videotapes. There are also so many layers of hallucinatory dream life that it stops being clear what’s real and what’s just in the head of Max/Nicki/Prof O’Blivion/Cronenberg/whoever else might be imagining this stuff.
In short, it opened up my head like Barry Convex’s in this film, and I don’t know if I can be the same again. The 1980s was the decade of Cronenberg, no doubt.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer David Cronenberg; Cinematographer Mark Irwin; Starring James Woods, Debbie Harry, Sonja Smits; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Monday 6 May 2019.
An odd slow-burn of a film, pitched somewhere between horror (of which it has elements) and the everyday ordinary tension of living under the fear of war and all its manifestations. It’s really something of a psychological thriller about two women slowly losing their minds under such circumstances, a mother and her daughter-in-law linked by their missing-in-action son/husband. There’s a jazz score and deep visceral high-contrast black-and-white cinematography, evoking a really tangible sense of place, the heat and humidity of the swamplands, the sweat dripping off bodies, and the punishment of death. This is a film which would surely bear rewatching on the big screen.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Kaneto Shindo 新藤兼人; Cinematographer Kiyomi Kuroda 黒田清巳; Starring Nobuko Otowa 乙羽信子, Jitsuko Yoshimura 吉村実子, Kei Sato 佐藤慶; Length 102 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 9 September 2018.
Being one of the most discussed films in recent years there’s little I can meaningfully add to the online discussion (which I can at least finally read without spoilers), besides saying I also greatly enjoyed its mixture of satire, tense psychological thrills, comedy and gore. It uses the cinematic language of horror to dissect racism, and though some of the later twists seemed a little ridiculous (the grandparents in particular), they nevertheless fit nicely into the comedic-absurdist tone created by Jordan Peele’s directorial debut. Also, there’s a point in the film (I shan’t say which) that got the biggest cheer I’ve ever heard from any cinema audience I’ve ever been in — some films are best watched in a crowd.
Director/Writer Jordan Peele; Cinematographer Toby Oliver; Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at Peckhamplex, London, Monday 27 March 2017.
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.
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.