Saturday, 27 February 2010

The Phantom of the Opera (1962)

Country: UK

Gaston Leroux’s 1908 novel The Phantom of the Opera has become one of the most durable and influential narratives of the 20th century and beyond. Like Dracula, Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde this tale of revenge, love, and tragedy has universal truths and myths which persist to this day. The index of this narratives cultural importance lies in the fact that a film adaptation emerges every ten to fifteen years to remind us that The Phantom is still playing away in the sewers beneath the Paris opera house and is unlikely to stop anytime soon. It was almost inevitable that Hammer Film Productions would create their own take on Leroux’s source material. By 1962 they had successfully rejuvenated and re-imagined the three heaviest hitters from Universal’s horror back catalogue; Dracula, Frankenstein and The Mummy. But Phantom of the Opera required a grandeur and a scale that Hammer had hitherto only hinted at. The resulting film would emerge as one of Hammer’s most controversial - a film of some moral ambiguity, lacking the bloody punch for which Hammer were well known for. It would be their first major commercial failure within the gothic horror form, and would lead to temporary exile for its director Terence Fisher. But if one single film in Fisher’s career could be said to embody both his style and his thematic obsessions then this is it.

Thursday, 25 February 2010

The Plague of the Zombies (1966)

Country: UK

This efficient and highly enjoyable Hammer film showed both the economic brilliance of Britain’s most successful independent production company and their willingness to experiment. The film was shot back to back at Bray studios with The Reptile (1966). Both films employed the same director John Gilling, the same technical personnel, and the same Cornish setting. The themes of both films intersect in interesting ways, and it is helpful to view both films as flip sides of the same coin. The setting is integral to both films, but probably more so to The Plague of the Zombies. The writer Peter Bryan is able to make the class dichotomy even more keener in a rural village riddled with resentment and superstition. And the insertion of a foreign menace in the shape of Haitian voodoo in an already polarised village aids the simmering tensions that Sir James Forbes (Andre Morell) and his daughter Sylvia (Diane Clare) encounter when they arrive to assist the local GP in uncovering the cause of an inexplicable outbreak of plague.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Kiss of the Vampire (1963)

Country: UK

By 1963 Hammer’s gothic horror formula was assured and still fresh enough not to seem stale and repetitive. Their productions at this point had an effortless feel as all aspects of the production worked in a seamless fashion, giving even badly written and derivative films a requisite atmosphere and gravitas of which they were perhaps undeserving. Kiss of the Vampire stands out in a number of important ways. Perhaps of paramount importance was the lack of ‘star’ names. Neither Peter Cushing nor Christopher Lee are on hand for this one, and instead Clifford Evans and Noel Willman are given the opportunity to spar against each other as vampire hunter and vampire. Both actors perform extremely well, but the commercial shortcomings on release and its relative obscurity since suggest that Evans and Willman may not have been first choice. Secondly the directorial responsibilities are handed to relative newcomer to the craft Don Sharp.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Trauma (1993)

Country: ITALY/USA

Dario Argento's Trauma

It is a common consensus amongst horror aficionados that the output of Italian director Dario Argento has decreased significantly in quality from 1990 onwards. I’m not going to disagree with this. The films he has made since Opera (1987) have been patchy at best, and on occasion totally dreadful. His dire and pointless remake of Phantom of the Opera (1998) is perhaps the nadir. However it’s not all doom and gloom from the horror genre’s great visual stylist. His return to the giallo form with Sleepless (2000) was a success on many creative levels. Unfortunately Sleepless appears to be a blip as more recent efforts such as The Card Player (2004) and Mother of Tears (2007) have only confirmed that Argento must be suffering from senility.

Friday, 19 February 2010

Deep Red (1975)

Country: ITALY

Profondo rosso
The Deep Red Hatchet Murders
The Hatchet Murders

After the critical and commercial failure of Dario Argento’s historical comedy The Five Days of Milan (1973), he returned chastened to the familiar terrain of the giallo. This was a territory that Argento had helped to both popularise and innovate with such trend setting suspense filled films as Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), The Cat O’ Nine Tails (1971) and the obscure Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971). For his fourth and ultimately defining entry into this subgenre he enlisted the writing skills of frequent Fellini collaborator Bernardino Zapponi, and between them they concocted a witty, literate, and truly exhilarating example of post-Hitchockian suspense. Almost every formal trick conceived of by Argento succeeds here. From the saturated and vivid colours brought to life by the Technicolor cinematography of Luigi Kuveiller, to the smooth and seamless tracking shots that offer a subjective glance into the scheming and voyeurstic mind of a psychopath. These stylistic attributes are given added resonance and impetus by an inspirational and much imitated soundtrack composed by Giorgio Caslini and arranged by progressive rock band Goblin. Led by Claudio Simonetti Goblin would almost single-handedly define the sound of Italian genre product in the 1970’s and 1980’s. The music shifts from the mysterious bass driven opening theme (itself indebted to Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells), to a creepy nursery rhyme leitmotif, to funk rock atmospherics too ultimately create a college of contemporary sound that fits perfectly with the artistic credentials of the film.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Street Trash (1987)

Country: USA

Street Trash represents the height of horror absurdity, a film in which almost every taboo is not only explored, but satirised. Few horror films have such a brazen attitude to such subject matter as rape, castration, and out of control vagrancy. The vagrant community the film depicts is a vile cesspool. We feel not an ounce of sympathy for the street trash of the title. They are either homicidal, rapists, or thieves. In the wrong hands a film such as this could have been a truly abominable piece of cinematic excrement, but in the talented hands of director Jim Muro and writer/producer Roy Frumkes the result is a mind and body bending catalogue of carnivalesque imagery and laugh out loud dialogue.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Colin (2008)

Country: UK

The British zombie film is a relatively recent addition to the myriad of subsets that make up the history of British horror. Prior to the break out examples 28 Days Later (2002) and Shaun of the Dead (2004), one has to travel far back into the mists of time to the heyday of Hammer horror and their sublime Plague of the Zombies (1966). Unfortunately British cinema is not in the privileged position where it can map out the generic landscape and instead has to respond to external commercial forces. This is why the relationship between a socially committed cinema that explores British concerns and the genres that often make a film a commercial proposition is one filled with a tension that causes headaches for culturally minded funding bodies. The British zombie film is a good example of these market forces at work, and whilst other examples have ably addressed cultural concerns and anxieties Colin is unique in its attempt to reconfigure the conventions of the zombie film.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Rogue (2007)


Of all of the beasts and creatures to feature in the durable sub-genre of the revolt of nature horror film the crocodile by far is the most common. This is because the crocodile is not really revolting against mankind, but instead continuing its centuries old struggle against its human oppressor. Therefore these types of films immediately have a resonance and realism that killer insects, spiders, and sundry household pets lack. Despite having this primal advantage over other creatures in this cycle, the killer crocodile has still consistently failed as a cinematic proposition. Lacklustre and shallow efforts such has Lake Placid (1999), Crocodile (2000), and Blood Surf (2000) showed the limitations of digital effects, a technology that should have helped to realise the potential of this form. The more notable precursor for Greg Mclean’s entry Rogue is the little seen Black Water (2007), which was inspired by true events. A film that is less concerned with close ups of gory death in the marauding mouth of a croc and instead more interested in character. Unfortunately Rogue isn’t interested in either character or gory death.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Diary of the Dead (2007)

Country: USA

George A. Romero's Diary of the Dead

After the grossly bloated and highly compromised dross Land of the Dead (2005), the ponderous symbolism and allegory of George A. Romero returns again for the fifth entry in a saga that began in the age of civil rights and Vietnam. Each subsequent instalment of Romero’s Dead series has addressed the cultural anxieties of the day. Diary of the Dead doesn’t let the series down - the allegorical backdrop to this film being the changes wrought on America by the ‘war on terror’, reality TV, surveillance culture and the overriding sense that without documented footage an event doesn’t exist. With this in mind Romero’s extremely low budget works as an advantage (it has to be noted that few filmmakers could switch from a $15,000,000 budget to $2,000,000 with such ease) as he incorporates public domain newsreel footage, and grainy internet documentary material.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Taste of Fear (1961)

Country: UK

Scream of Fear

Despite gaining the moniker of “House of Horror” for its formulaic wanderings through the sublime world of gothic horror, Hammer were in fact long purveyors of generically diverse material. Throughout the late 1950’s World War Two dramas such as Yesterday’s Enemy (1959) and The Camp on Blood Island (1958) stood side by side with the ongoing adventures of Baron Frankenstein. In the early 1960’s Hammer embarked on a series of pirate adventures designed for the summer release schedules and titles such as Captain Clegg (1962) (US title Night Creatures), The Devil-Ship Pirates (1964) and Pirates of Blood River (1962) proved time and again Hammer’s adept ability at tapping into and sometimes creating trends. Perhaps the most successful of Hammer’s efforts to diversify were the monochrome suspense horror films inspired by the commercial success of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). Taste of Fear (1961) written by Jimmy Sangster (who also penned the screenplays for The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Dracula (1958)) were the first of these to take advantage of the market opened up by Hitchcock.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Carnival of Souls (1962)

Country: USA

The influence of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) took a number of years to filter through in American horror. Hammer were quick to gain inspiration from Hitchcock’s film with a series of monochrome thrillers in the early 1960’s the best of which was Taste of Fear (1961). But in the first half of the 1960’s American horror productions largely continued in the vein of the Roger Corman/Edgar Allan Poe films. A notable exception is producer/director Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls. Although Harvey also shoots in black and white, he generally rejects Psycho’s modernism in favour of an eerie Americana that exists out of time and has more in common with the traditions of the English ghost story. There is more than a hint of M. R. James about the proceedings making it a very atypical horror film for the 1960’s. This is perhaps why it is generally overlooked in discussions of the modern horror film. This is an America with a strange otherworldliness, a world of empty and foreboding churches, dark and labyrinthine roads and its centre a derelict carnival. The space of the American landscape is used to create a nightmare logic as the central character Mary tries to escape the feelings of dread and apprehension which plague her. At points the film switches to the structure of a road movie as Mary attempts to outrun a fate of which she can barely conceive.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Let the Right One In (2008)

Country: SWEDEN

Lat den ratte komma in

The surprising commercial success of Twilight (2008) as ensured that the vampire is back haunting the multiplexes with a bang. Although Twilight has gone on to become the most successful vampire film of all time it was essentially a hollow hearted experience, slick but lacking in substance. Whilst the media frenzy exploded for this saccharine garbage, a film from Sweden slipped under the radar that was superior to Twilight in every conceivable way. Let the Right One In was never going to find its audience theatrically, it is an artistic film, and so it was shunned by the mindless multiplexes. But on rental and DVD the film has proved very successful, even if Blockbuster Video have to warn there customers with a garish sticker that the film is subtitled.

Monday, 8 February 2010

The Wild Blue Yonder (2005)


German director Werner Herzog has made a career out of an intriguing and often controversial fusion of fiction and documentary. His fictional feature films such as Aguirre: Wrath of God (1972) and Fitzcarraldo (1982) foreground the hardship, toil and risk of their filming and come across as much as essays on the perils and difficulties of the filmmaking process as they do works of poetic art. Likewise, documentaries such as The Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner (1974) and Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997) have all the embellishments and stylisations one would expect in a feature film.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Aguirre: Wrath of God (1972)


Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes

In 1972 German filmmaker Werner Herzog travelled into the dark heart of the claustrophobic Peruvian jungle, armed with a camera, a skeleton crew and an army of Indian extras in order to film Aguirre: Wrath of God, an astonishing work of film art that would herald his international breakthrough, and eventually become one of his most celebrated works. On one level Aguirre is an epic adventure film, and as such it has a linear and easy to follow narrative. This linearity marked a break from Herzog’s past efforts. Herzog also cast a recognisable international figure in the shape of Klaus Kinski as the eponymous plotter Aguirre. Therefore its clear that this was a slightly more commercial venture from a director who previously seemed more allied with an Avant-garde style of filmmaking.

The Time Machine (1960)

Country: USA

H. G. Wells' The Time Machine

The works of H. G. Wells have not been particularly well served by cinema. Aside from James Whale's stylish and inventive adaptation of The Invisible Man (1933), and William Cameron Menzies film of Things to Come (1936), the rest have been something of a mixed bag. Whilst both the 1953 and 2005 versions of War of the Worlds were impressive in their own way, neither captured the essence and spirit of the source material. However, in 1960 George Pal, noted at the time more for his duties as producer on such science-fiction heavyweights as Destination Moon (1950), When Worlds Collide (1951), the aforementioned War of the Worlds (1953) and Conquest of Space (1955), took to the directing chair for arguably the finest screen outing for a H. G. Wells story - The Time Machine.

Monday, 1 February 2010

Herostratus (1967)

Country: UK

This troubling and challenging piece of experimental cinema almost defies a simple explanation. To reduce it to mere plot or narrative mechanics is to perform an injustice of which the film is undeserving. It may on the surface utilise certain conventionalities of mainstream narrative cinema, but this is a film about what lurks underneath such pretence. Like Jean-Luc Godard, Australian filmmaker Don Levy utilises film form itself as part of his strategy of attack. There is a self awareness in this film that to use mainstream methods of representation is in itself a statement of hypocrisy. If one is to challenge social and political institutions and to interrogate questions of history and our failure to learn from it, one must provide a revolutionary framework of representation in which to do it. Godard was aware of this, which was why film form was fore grounded in his cinema, and Don Levy seems fully aware of this too. Levy makes exceptional use of montage, one juxtaposition equates the bloody mechanics of an abattoir with the beauty of the female form. What exactly this signifies and means is unclear, it could possibly be a statement on the commoditisation of the human form - and this reading is in keeping with the films general attitude toward the marketplace and the forces which govern it. But the meaning is less important to me, it is the physicality of the images themselves which linger in the mind. The fast cutting images assault and on some occassions offend the senses, but every frame is part of a very delicate composition. Levy also makes use of newsreel footage and documentary material of concentration camp victims to create a statement about the failure to right the wrongs of the recent past, and too address the underlying issues that led to the attrocities committed in World War Two and Britain’s part in the conflict.

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