Femina Ridens (The Laughing Woman aka The Frightened Woman, 1969)

The two English language titles (The Laughing Woman vs The Frightened Woman) are suggestive of the ways in which Italian films of the giallo style sometimes straddle the line between gynophobic/misogynist exploitation and empowered critiques of patriarchy. Rather, I should say that most fall pretty clearly on the former side, but this one manages to be both — the original title is in Latin, which seems to place ‘woman’ as something of a scientific curio — and in doing so is rather delightful. That said, having called it giallo (a heightened form of Italian horror film), it isn’t exactly that, but is mixed with comic pop-art inflected psychodrama. The drama of the film — a two-hander of power and control between Mary (a glorious Dagmar Lassander) and the manipulative Dr Sayer (Philippe Leroy) — moves one way then is suddenly reversed, much like the visual jokes which come suddenly out of nowhere, masterful uses of the set design and quirks of acting: the leap from bathtub to trapeze! the automated partition between halves of the bed! the car-boat!! Femina Ridens is filled with the joy of mise en scene, plus a bit of stylish S&M-lite in its story of toxic masculinity confronting its emasculating other.


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: She’s So Giallo Season
Director/Writer Piero Schivazappa | Cinematographer Sante Achilli | Starring Dagmar Lassander, Philippe Leroy | Length 108 minutes || Seen at Barbican Cinema, London, Wednesday 22 June 2016

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The Neon Demon (2016)

There is no shortage of films that deal with the subject of the artificiality of Los Angeles (one of them even features this movie’s star Elle Fanning), or the nasty insidiousness attendant on the objectification of women within the creative industries (think Showgirls). And then there are films that go for a heightened atmosphere, with dialogue which would be almost risible were it not for the acting being pitched at such an icily aloof plateau, and the images being so artful and gorgeously composed that it all seems of a piece with the allegorical (perhaps Orphic) subject matter (frankly, Refn’s last film Only God Forgives went for that register too). Oh, and there are even horror films about vampiric sexuality (in a sense most vampire movies are about sex, though Claire Denis’s Trouble Every Day was sort of working in a similar place).

Needless to say, I was thinking about lots of films while watching The Neon Demon, because it’s very much a film about making films — photographers do not come out at all well here and that’s surely a directorial self-critique. However, it works too as a further development of the lushly misanthropic style of Refn’s previous film, married to a throbbing Cliff Martinez electronic score that only further emphasises the strangeness of the many liminal, blank spaces the film sets itself in. By the end, Jena Malone’s make-up artist Ruby has more or less taken over the film from Fanning’s ingenue model Jesse, a narrative shift the film marks with a sort of Crowley-like magickal ritual transference involving much neon and mirrors (the demon of the title, one presumes), but then much of the film works more at an allegorical level (even Malick’s Knight of Cups seems naturalistic compared to this). It’s unsettling, certainly, not least for what it says about Refn’s view of women’s relationships with one another (there’s a disturbing lesbian/necrophiliac theme to emphasise this), but then everyone in this world is a parasite (not least the characters briefly essayed by Keanu Reeves and Christina Hendricks), and all sexuality is violent, it seems to posit.

I’m almost willing to talk myself out of liking it but for the sustained atmosphere and excellent performances — if heightened hyperstylised camp is your thing that is.


The Neon Demon (2016)

ADVANCE SCREENING FILM REVIEW
Director Nicolas Winding Refn | Writers Nicolas Winding Refn, Polly Stenham and Mary Laws | Cinematographer Natasha Braier | Starring Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee | Length 117 minutes || Seen at Soho Hotel, London, Wednesday 1 June 2016

Three Italian Giallo Films

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)

FILM REVIEW || 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 Giulio 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, Lucio Fulci and Roberto Gianviti | Cinematographer Sergio D’Offizi | Starring Tomas Milian, Barbara Bouchet, Florinda Bolkan | Length 102 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home, Leighton Buzzard, Saturday 27 February 2016

Profondo rosso (Deep Red, 1975)
Director Dario Argento | Writers Dario Argento and Bernardino Zapponi | Cinematographer Luigi Kuveiller | Starring David Hemmings, Daria Nicolodi | Length 126 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home, Leighton Buzzard, Saturday 27 February 2016

Near Dark (1987)

Following in something of the grainy exploitation footsteps of James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) — his 1986 film Aliens even gets a name-check here, though he was after all Kathryn Bigelow’s then-soon-to-be- and now-ex-husband — Near Dark takes instead the vampire mythos and reconfigures it into a dusty, grungy road movie with Western overtones. The word “vampire” is never uttered, so what we are presented with is a motley band of leather-clad ne’er-do-wells blazing a path across the mid-West, killing random locals and draining their blood for sustenance. One such is naïve farm boy Caleb (Adrian Pasdar), who is smitten with drifter Mae (Jenny Wright). She for her part takes pity on him and just bites him rather than draining his blood, meaning he survives but is turned into one of her kind. At this point, the entire crew is introduced, led by Lance Henriksen’s Jesse, although it’s Bill Paxton as the loud-mouthed and dangerous Severen who makes the most impact in the film (and so is given prominence on the posters). Even 30 years on, the film still looks excellent, with a score by German electronic group Tangerine Dream which is at once both an archetypal example of scoring from this strain of 1980s genre cinema and also somehow avoids seeming really dated, like a lot of the era’s soundtracks now tend to. Undoubtedly the film is playing with contemporary fears around AIDS and other epidemics — isn’t that what they always say about vampire films? — but it works as an enjoyable genre piece, if a rather nihilistic one.


FILM REVIEW
Director Kathryn Bigelow | Writers Eric Red and Kathryn Bigelow | Cinematographer Adam Greenberg | Starring Adrian Pasdar, Jenny Wright, Bill Paxton, Lance Henriksen | Length 95 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 31 January 2016

Criterion Sunday 63: Carnival of Souls (1962)

This early-1960s oddity was a one-off feature from its creators, but it somehow stands out from other low-budget quickly-shot exploitation-themed films of the era by virtue of the polish and expertise it shows both in the filming and the acting. Largely this is because its makers had a lifetime of experience in industrial filmmaking, turning their hand early in their careers to something a bit more genre in a long-shot hope of wider success, though that took several decades to arrive. It follows a young woman, Mary (Candace Hilligoss), involved in a near-fatal car accident in Lawrence, Kansas near the beginning from which she is the only survivor. Feeling traumatised, she goes on the road, ending up in Salt Lake City, Utah, where she takes a room. Increasingly she finds herself haunted by a demonic presence (in fact, her director in white greasepaint make-up). Fairly simple elements, really, but they’re made effective by the quality of the photography and the eerieness of the atmosphere, which is created partly by the organ score (Mary plays a professional organist), as well as by the distinctive quality of Hilligoss’s performance. She is called on to drift affectlessly through the film, as if in some kind of limbo between life and death, a liminal state only further emphasised by Hervey’s ghoulish appearances as well as periodic slips into a sort of non-existence during which people don’t seem to be aware of Mary’s presence. It suggests something of a protean The Sixth Sense, and though playing with a lot of familiar horror film tropes, it’s definitely a fascinating outlier in film history.

Criterion Extras: Quite a packed collection for extras is this one, which aside from having both cuts of the film (the original 75 minute release, and the extended director’s cut), also has some featurette extras. The lengthiest is The Movie That Wouldn’t Die!, a local Kansas TV piece from 1989 about the film’s re-release (its first official release on VHS) and rise to cult fame, which catches up with the director, writer and some of the cast as they recall its making so many years before, along with clips of the (re)-premiere that year. The same TV presenter returns for The Carnival Tour, a shorter segment revisiting the film’s locations around Lawrence, Kansas as well as the spectacular pavilion near Salt Lake City, Utah (Saltair) that was the film’s inspiration. Both pieces, despite their low-budget lo-fi 80s TV origins, are nicely put together and have a local’s enthusiasm to them that is of a piece with the film.

There are in addition a number of illustrated (text-based) essays, one about the history of the Saltair resort, and interviews by each of Harvey, writer Clifford and star Hilligoss, interspersed with plenty of images of them making the film as well as movie ephemera and promotional materials.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Herk Harvey | Writers Herk Harvey and John Clifford | Cinematographer Maurice Prather | Starring Candace Hilligoss | Length 84 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 22 November 2015 (and again at home, London, Tuesday 9 February 2016)

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.


© Universal Pictures

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Guillermo del Toro | Writers Guillermo 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

We Need to Talk about Kevin (2011)

This is basically a horror film, trading in psychological terror with a distinctly European sensibility of long takes, artfully composed alienation, and a mounting sense of dread, as via flashbacks we learn about the murderous crimes Kevin has committed. Kevin is Eva’s son, and Eva is really the linchpin of the film, so it’s just as well Tilda Swinton is such a good actress. There are hints that she’s failed as a parent — too committed to working, living in a large unpleasantly empty and sterile home with her husband Franklin (John C. Reilly), and not good at empathising with her children — but those are just suggestions, perhaps more easily attributed to the film’s horror themes, in which failing as a parent is a more terrifying prospect than being the victim of a mass murderer. The problem I have with the film is that the ‘evil’ of Kevin seems rather one-note, with Ezra Miller (and his counterparts playing Kevin as a child) called on to perform a very limited range of glaring nastiness towards his family and those around him. At a certain level, it seems like an easy way to keep the film at a distance, thought that’s of a piece with its filmmaking style I suppose. In any case, for all its stylishness, I certainly wouldn’t want to watch this film if I were a parent.


FILM REVIEW
Director Lynne Ramsay | Writers Lynne Ramsay and Rory Stewart Kinnear (based on the novel by Lionel Shriver) | Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey | Starring Tilda Swinton, Ezra Miller, John C. Reilly | Length 112 minutes || Seen at home (blu-ray), London, Monday 26 October 2015

Criterion Sunday 35: Les Diaboliques (Diabolique, 1955)

Acclaimed as a classic psychological thriller, Les Diaboliques was an inspiration for Hitchcock’s Psycho (he worked another novel by Boileau & Narcejac into Vertigo, after all) and a whole strand of creepy haunting horror films. There’s certainly a tension throughout between the supernatural and the all-too-real, though it’s never in doubt as to what an unpleasant, controlling character headmaster Michel Delassalle (Paul Meurisse) is, simultaneously keeping his wife Christina (Véra Clouzot) in check while carrying on with his mistress Nicole (Simone Signoret). Putting the viewer onside with Christina and Nicole’s plot to do away with Michel is a key to the way the subsequent events play out, and though the end title card may warn against spoilers, the set-up probably seems quite familiar thanks to its influence over subsequent filmmaking. Clouzot is excellent at building suspense through the womens’ plotting and then over the uncanny turn things take when he’s gone, using the shadows in the black-and-white photography to good effect. There’s a nasty streak to the film, but it remains an effective genre exercise, even 60 years on.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Henri-Georges Clouzot | Writers Henri-Georges Clouzot and Jérôme Géronimi (based on the novel Celle qui n’était plus by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac) | Cinematographer Armand Thirard | Starring Simone Signoret, Véra Clouzot, Paul Meurisse | Length 117 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 26 April 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.


© Viva Pictures

FILM REVIEW
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

Frankenstein (1931)

A classic horror film which, some of the excesses of its acting aside, still holds up pretty well today. A lot of its power comes from the excellent photography and set design, with some masterful use of the black-and-white to evoke a lost Europe of creepy castles and demon monsters. Karloff’s monster also embodies a rather touching hint at a grand theme of what it means to be human, and the struggle for outsiders within society, though none of this is really forced. The director James Whale would go onto the somewhat more self-consciously campy Bride of Frankenstein, and it’s this tradition that later takes on the story (like Paul Morrissey’s Flesh for Frankenstein) would play on. But James Whale’s original is the first and the best.


FILM REVIEW
Director James Whale | Writers Francis Edward Faragoh and Garrett Fort (based on the play by Peggy Webling, itself based on the novel by Mary Shelley) | Cinematographer Arthur Edeson | Starring Colin Clive, Boris Karloff, Mae Clarke | Length 71 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Wednesday 3 June 2015