All posts by bobajim

Tobe Hooper 1943 – 2017

If ever there was a director who was dedicated to the horror genre it was Tobe Hooper. Whilst others like Wes Craven and John Carpenter moved around film types, or like the two Davids, Cronenberg and Lynch, used horror to make commentaries about humanity, Hooper was purely trying frighten us.

Maybe this was because he hit the ground running with one of the greatest horror movies ever made. Having seen the effect it had on audiences, maybe he just wanted to stay in that well.

If you look at the one sheet poster for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre you are hit with multiple statements, both true and false. The tagline “Who will survive and what will be left of them?” along with a victim hanging from a meathook, whilst Leatherface revs up his chainsaw, may make you think that this will be the most shockingly violent film ever made but the truth is that the gore is fairly limited. What is true is that when you watch the movie even the lack of guts and dismemberment doesn’t stop the violence being absolutely terrifying. This is mostly because it is sudden and cold like the real violence American audiences were seeing on the news at that time.

The poster also claims that this story is true which it isn’t in the slightest (although Hooper was inspired by serial killer Ed Gein amongst others) but being in a time when it was harder to check facts (and why would film makers even lie?) many people thought it was based on fact. In reality Hooper was making a statement. He saw America was becoming a nation of liars, led by their commander in chief and arch liar Richard Nixon. Oh how times have changed.

Ultimately what really made The Texas Chainsaw Massacre poster so shocking was the title itself. It suggested a modern wild west so twisted by violence that young people were being torn apart by petrol driven power tools – the machine was grinding them into meat, and indeed that’s exactly what the visceral, dynamic picture showed. It wasn’t through explicit blood and guts but through it’s sheer intensity and the poster said it all. No wonder the film was banned in so many countries across the globe.

These bans didn’t stop it from becoming a raging success and although it only had mixed reviews at the time it’s influence, as with George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead before It, is unquestionable. What is often is forgotten is what a beautiful and well made movie it is, from the stunning cinematography to the clever and haunting sound design.

This high level of filmmaking didn’t quite make it across to Hooper’s next movie. Eaten Alive feels like an expansion of the dinner scene from Texas with more screaming and a crocodile instead of Leatherface. Having the emphasis more on the deranged killer (who manages to run a motel where he kills ALL his guests and somehow gets away with it) makes the studio shot film less accessible than Chainsaw but also way more crazy. This would be a trait in many, many of Hooper’s films that followed.

Before he really started to make some of the maddest films in horror cinema, Hooper dipped his toes into television with Salem’s Lot, easily one of the best Stephen King adaptations and the cause of millions of kids making  sure their curtains were closed at night. A handsomely mounted production, Salem’s Lot starred one of the biggest names in TV at the time, the great David Soul, and a star of yesteryear, still giving it his all even as a sidekick to a vampire, in James Mason. They added extra class to an already classy movie, but what really made it work was it’s incredibly creepy horror imagery that only Tobe Hooper could have created. From the design of the Marsden House to the black rag in the middle of the kitchen floor that turns out to be the vampire Barlow, these are images that burned into the viewer’s psyche. None more so than the vampire Glick boys scratching outside the bedroom window, begging to come in. This image scared a whole generation of children.

The underrated The Funhouse came next which had the cheek of having the monster hiding in a Frankenstein’s Monster mask. Maybe it was this film that grabbed Steven Spielberg’s attention leading to their collaboration on Poltergeist. Obviously slicker, more expensive and with classic Spielbergian traits, Poltergeist was still packed with great, well, Hooperisms: close ups of rotten meat, eccentric characters and weird toy like faces (the clown scene has many shots almost identical to shots in The Funhouse). This combination of the father of blockbuster cinema and a master of horror hit paydirt and went on to be one of the year’s most successful movies, and made as bankable as the brilliantly left-field Hooper was ever likely to get.

This barn storming success led to lots of offers for Hooper and lots of false starts (he almost directed the classic Return of the Living Dead but that’s a story for a parallel universe) before he finally came into the radar of the Canon Film Group’s uber producers Globus and Golan. After years of making what most people saw as low rent trash Globus and Golan were desperate to move up into the big league with expensive movies that everyone took seriously. For some bizarre and wonderful reason they saw Hooper as the key holder to this brave new world of the blockbuster. For some equally bizarre and wonderful reason they decided that Lifeforce was the film to make this happen.

Lifeforce is the story of a crew of British astronauts (aboard the space shuttle Chuchill) who discover an ancient spaceship stuck at the back of Halley’s comet and end up bringing back to Earth three space vampires who cause havoc and destruction in a way that only producers throwing money at the screen could do. To star in this epic Hooper cast Steve Railsback who had not only not had a hit in years but was what could best be described as an unhinged performer for whom the word subtle is very, very foreign. Maybe in a sign that an audience could only cope with so much Railsback he disappears from the film all together for about half an hour for no reason I could work out. More importantly (to the 14 year old me who saw this in the cinema) the female lead was one Matilda May who may be the bravest actor ever to walk the silver screen. She spends the entirety of this big budget madness naked. Plus they must have filmed in autumn or winter in London because May is clearly showing signs of being extremely cold.

Lifeforce is one of my favourite films but even I could have told you that it was going to be hated by critics and bomb hard. This didn’t seem to stop Hooper or his friends at Canon who next dived into a big budget remake of Invaders From Mars for which the kindest reviews frequently used the term “ill advised.” Clearly a passion project of Hooper he took the 1950s reds-under-bed sci-fi sorta-classic and updated it with all the eighties monster effects and spaceships he could throw at it. Some extremely variable acting and the same hokey story as the original (even down to the it-was-all-a-dream-or-was-it? ending that seemed old hat in 1953) doomed Invaders From Mars to the same fate as Lifeforce from the previous year. However Hooper still had one more Canon film to make and this turned out to be a good one.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 is a great film almost despite of itself. Tonally it couldn’t be more different from the first movie. Instead of raw intensity we are presented with a blackly comic slice of family life… a mad, cannibalistic, victim-face wearing family but a family nonetheless. Hooper claimed he always wanted the original Texas to be a comedy but was forced into darker territory by the producers. Clearly Globus and Golan had no such problem. Or maybe no time to disagree… they were still shooting it in August 1986 and the film was in theatres by September. It’s surprising it was successful as it was.

Well… successful is a relative term. Having no time to even argue with the censorship board, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 was released in the US with the kiss of death NC17 rating and duly failed to light up the box office. In the UK it never got released at all.

After this spectacular triple bill of flops with Canon Hooper disappeared from the cinema for a long time. During this period he worked on TV which in lesser hands might have been just for the pay check. But Hooper made the last ever Amazing Stories for Steven Spielberg and the best, or indeed only good, episode of Freddy’s Nightmares. When he finally did get a movie off the ground, Spontaneous Combustion, it was sadly met with indifference. Many of the projects over the remaining years of Tobe Hooper’s life were similarly ignored, but maybe now there will be a reappraisal.

For example, the early nineties were a boom time for Stephen King adaptations. Misery, It, The Stand and The Shawshank Redemption were all hugely popular in Western culture (okay Shawshank took a while to get seen) and Hooper making a new take on one of King’s stories seemed like a logical step. Unfortunately Hooper made The Mangler into a movie. The short story, which appears in Night Shift, is a spiritual cousin to King’s Christine, again about an object possessed by a demonic force. However instead of a car, which can, you know, move, The Mangler itself was a laundry folding machine. This, of course, is a crazy idea. Somehow King managed to pull it off in written form, even at the end of the story with the possessed presser stomping down the town high street it somehow managed to be unsettling. Not so the movie. The trouble with evil inanimate objects is that in order to be killed by them you have to go near them (see for example Death Bed). So every victim has to actively go out of their way to get crushed by The Mangler. It is patently as ridiculous as it sounds. However it you give the film a chance it is also hugely entertaining. Much like Lifeforce and Eaten Alive before it, The Mangler’s bizarre casting, energy and general madness drive the plot forward. Casting Ted Levine, fresh off his twisted turn as Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs, as the heroic cop is just asking for trouble. The there’s Robert Englund as the factory manager whose performance flies so fast past over-the-top it’s almost a new art form. Also it’s a terrific looking movie which Hooper clearly had a passion for making, a twisted misguided passion but a real one nonetheless. Watched in the right frame of mind The Mangler is quite something. Like all his best films it is like something you’ve never seen before. It just happens to be about a murderous pressing machine, something not many people want to see.

Until he died Hooper continued doing what he started out doing: making (or sometimes just trying to make) low budget horror movies. Of his later films probably his best is his remake of The Toolbox Murders. A significant improvement on the original film, it is typically full of weird characters and crazy moments of violence and has Hooper’s busy, bonkers fingers all over it.

Tobe Hooper may have only had a short time in the Hollywood studio system and mainstream success but to horror fans he will always be seen as one of this genre’s favourite fathers. Poltegiest, Salem’s Lot and Lifeforce (suck it non believers) are classics and then there is The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Really, when any film maker STARTS his or her career with a film that good it is surprising he could ever make a film even half as good as that ever again. Hooper did it multiple times.

Thank you Mr Hooper for all the fear, and fun, you gave us.

 

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Annabelle: Creation 2017

Usually when a sequel comes out to a film everybody hated it is doomed no matter how good it is. It seemed everyone hated The Conjuring spin-off Annabelle so logically its sequel should crash and burn. This has not happened: it has done better than Annabelle did in the US and the worldwide box office. Maybe its the Rotten Tomatoes factor – its reviews have been significantly better than part one. Or maybe The Conjuring Part 2 came out between these killer doll movies and reset the love from audiences for this whole spooky universe.

For that is what we have arrived at folks: The Conjuring movies and its children are officially part of a shared universe and we didn’t even know it. It helps that:

a) No one told us that this was a shared universe to start with, despite the other stories were already well in development before the first Conjuring even came out and

b) They’ve all been really good, well made and frightening movies. Which is always a bonus. Even the first Annabelle – yeah suck it Rotten Tomatoes. I’m right, you’re wrong. Oh also…

c) They’re not The Mummy.

Annabelle: Creation continues this series by being exceptionally scary and not just sticking to one thing. If it was just a creepy looking wooden doll we had to deal with I’m not sure the story could have lasted until half way through the first reel of the first movie (some would argue it barely made it through the prologue of The Conjuring but that’s their problem). Fortunately Annabelle: Creation not only sets us up with the macabre figure of Annabelle herself and her demon we briefly saw in the first film (I think he’s smaller here, which makes sense as this is set years before hand so is less powerful) but a whole host of other creepy images. Things under the bed, crawling darkness up the doorway, half bodies climbing up gaps in the walls and a scarecrow.

That’s one of the funnest things about Annabelle: Creation, it sets up all the set pieces in the early part of the movie, like traps waiting to spring. Half a dozen female orphans and their nun (?) arrive at a country house where a grieving couple take them on after the death of their daughter. The girls all explore around the house and there is the scarecrow in the barn, a broken down old butler’s lift, a ringing bell and, best of all, a really creaky old Stannah Stairlift that takes a crippled girl very slowly all the way up to the top of the house. You know what is going to happen with all these objects and contraptions but that is half of the fun.

And these Conjuring films really are a lot of fun. The frights are varied and can be from a jump scare to something very slow building and subtle. Its a shame that the recent It didn’t learn a thing or two on how to do genuine scares from these films. The stories are relatively simple and maybe not that original but they are all about the framework: setting up the characters and situations as a basis for the main event: to frighten the bejesus out of you. I loved It and it obviously had a better story but it was a very dense one, packed with incident and asides to the point that it didn’t have time to let the scares genuinely frighten you, or at least me.

The Conjuring films are much more bare bones, though thats not to say that you aren’t invested in the characters. The girls here, well the two main ones anyway, are a likeable bunch and you want them to get out of this thing mostly unscathed, not that this is guaranteed. Another good aspect of these films: death is always just around the corner… the most frightening thing of all.

As for the shared universe –  well if this is the first one to fully embrace it then its done a fine job. The film doesn’t lurch to a giant stand still as a bunch of new characters turn up to talk about some international ghost agency (god help us if that happens in the next film). Instead there are just a few hints here and there – plus a post credit scene which is really just telling us what the next film is about.

This whole “Creation” thing though I’m not so sure about. Why call a film creation if the only creation you see is a tiny moment in the opening credits. I get that there is a bit more as to how the doll became evil in the first place but that’s pretty obvious and uninteresting really. What we are left with is a couple of shots of a doll maker following instructions and that’s it. Its like when Leatherface got his chainsaw in Leatherface: The Beginning – he was walking along and saw a chainsaw so picked it up. Et voila! Bit pointless really.

In fact why do we keep on having to have prequels all the time? What happened to horror movies carrying on with the story? The first Annabelle was a prequel to The Conjuring, this one is a prequel to Annabelle. Then there are the Insidious films which seem to just be going backwards now too. Okay they aren’t in this universe but they feel exactly the same so I’m putting them in there too. So where next? Are we just going to go back and back until Cain is being haunted by Abel?

A minor problem though, even if these films weren’t part of a shared universe they work really well floating on their own two feet. Annabelle: Creation has some great scares  (helped no end by the vast majority of them being practical effects or just plain old fashioned camera trickery) and whilst I don’t think that a scare is the be-all-and-end-all of horror, it is always a lovely thing to behold when done well.

 

The Limehouse Golem

I think we can all agree that Bill Nighy is great can’t we? It seems weird to think that he only became a household name in 1998 after his break out performance in Still Crazy, a film everyone seems to have forgotten. Since then Nighy has excelled as somewhat eccentric family members (the excellent About Time for example) or, being British, getting paid handsomely to appear as the villain in various Hollywood studio movies (the terrible I, Frankenstein for example). He even managed to get good reviews for the second and third Pirates of the Carribean films, which is impressive as nothing else did.

However what has been missing has been some proper Bill Nighy starrers to stretch him a bit. We all know he can do it, give him that role. Well here we are with The Limehouse Golem and thank god for that.

Nighy plays Inspector John Kildare, fighting his way through the smoggy streets of Victorian London, being set up by his own force to fail to find the Ripper-like Golem. Seeing as Kildare is not “the marrying kind” he is ostracised by his peers and officers. He is given little help: the Golem case seems as unsolvable as Jack the Ripper was, so the set up for him to succeed against all odds seems like a good one for a film. However he is quickly sidelined by one of the suspect’s wife who is accused of his murder. Might she have killed the man who was the Golem in order to save other victims?

Of course we have been all around Victorian London’s seedy underbelly countless times before. It is all here too: cheeky cockneys, rough ladies of the night, ruddy street urchins, old time music halls and opium dens aplenty. Considering this is not the most expensive looking film ever made, it manages to conjure up a good feeling of authenticity by making everything so goddam dirty and mirky. Even the daylight scenes seem to have a darkness hanging over them. Director Juan Carlos Medina and his team also have a terrific understanding of using light and silhouette to make the city of London feel even more dangerous and mysterious than it is.

However what The Limehouse Golem is really about is the acting. Here the script is not only served brilliantly by Nighy but also by, although not limited too, Olivia Cooke, the hapless wife of the Golem suspect. With her character we delve into what it must have been like to be a poor woman in Victorian England, not only with little chance of pulling yourself out of whatever shit pit you were born into, but then even if you did, contemporary attitudes towards women were at best violent, and at worse, well… much worse! Trying to make your mark in that world in any positive way must have been a grim prospect – one character even says “if I die and I go to hell, I’m not sure I’ll know the difference.” Cooke, who has already proved herself in Bate’s Motel and Me, Earl and The Dying Girl, really has to stretch herself, doing everything from a broken women accused of poisoning to a stage clown. She’s terrific.

Centre stage though it is Nighy who holds the film together so well. His softly spoken performance at first seems to be at odds with what we know as a typical Scotland Yard inspector of yore. But its this very casting against type which make his Kildare so fascinating and such a treat. It helps that the central mystery is such a good one too, but its Nighy’s determination to solve it that makes The Limehouse Golem worth looking through the mist for.

 

 

It 2017

If you’ve read Stephen King’s book of It you will know that turning it into a feature film is a daunting task. Between Pennywise the Clown’s multiple looks, the dense history of the town of Denny and the bit with the giant space turtle there is a lot to translate to screen. Most importantly the main characters, the misfits and rejects that make up The Losers Club, are some of the finest and likeable characters King, or indeed anyone, has ever written.

Basically making a film of It is a tall order.

The TV mini series in 1990 tried with very limited success: Tim Curry as Pennywise obviously and some of the kids stuff but that’s about it. This new movie looked to be heading for disaster with the removal of original director and True Detective creator Cary Fukunarga, he seemed like a perfect fit with TD also telling a story over different timelines. He was replaced by Mama director Andrew Muschietti who everyone seemed to hate because the last ten minutes of Mama had too much CGI despite the previous 80 minutes being horror perfection. Every still that came out was moaned about, no one expected anything good… until the conversation changed when the first trailer came appeared and became a phenomenom. Could It actually be good?

Now we’ve finally got the answer. It the movie is a raging success.

Okay let’s be straight here, it isn’t all perfect. I don’t think the horror side of things is as good as it could be. A lot of the times that the children are scared by the demonic creature the film making approach is loud and overbearing with the It comin’ right at ya. There’s no denying that a lot of King’s prose also had this kind of over-the-top monster mayhem but occasionally it would be nice for a scene to underplay the scares rather over do them. Pennywise himself is a twisted, screaming banshee of a ghoul. His approach to bringing out the fear in his victims is to overwhelm them. It does work within the confines of the story though: think of it as a sideshow or a ghost train at a creepy fun fair.  It is roller coaster thrills rather than genuine chills.This, of course, fits in well with the scary clown motif rather than a creepy old haunted house slant (although there is one if those too).

Another way to look at the horror aspect is that they are going for that macabre playfulness that Freddy Kruger gave us in the Nightmare on Elm Street movies. Not terrifying, just a grisly mocking of children’s fears. This makes sense as the It presented here is set in the 80s of Kruger not the fifties of the book. A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child is even playing at the local theatre.

Maybe I’m just making excuses for It, but even if the scares aren’t actually scary the film gets so much else right that it doesn’t really matter.

The very best thing It the movie does well is get The Losers Club right. Not just right but spot on. All the children are perfectly cast and so well realised that it’s hard to pick out a best performance so I won’t even try.  Richie Tozier was always my favourite in the book and Finn Wolfhard from Stranger Things nails him so well: everything he says is hilarious, which actually now I think about it isn’t like the Richie of the book because all his jokes were terrible. Jaeden Lieberher as Big Bill is sincere, focused and brave despite his stutter, a serious boy not prepared to give up like his parents have after his brother disappears. Sophia Lillis as Beverly is such good casting that it is almost as if she has stepped out of the page: she probably has the most traumatic life and it’s amazing that a young actor can bring such a multi layered and complicated performance to the screen. A scene in her bathroom which could just be gory and standard horror fare is made gut wrenching and tragic by Lillis’ exceptional performance. Only a weird damsel in distress bit late on in the story somewhat undermines Beverly’s character (it’s also a moment not in the book) which made me slap myself in the head. Other than that all the kids are brilliantly brought to life: not just in their acting but in that you can believe they are real friends who hang out with each other, trying to make their lives less depressing and dangerous.

Almost as important is how well the town of Derry is brought to life. In the book Derry is the very epitome of hell on earth: it seems like any normal blue collar American town but just beneath the surface it is a place of violence, abuse and racism. Actually there’s not much of the racism of the book which is a shame as it misses a good opportunity to make a comment about these turbulent times. The adults ignore or are oblivious to their children going missing and hold long, generational grudges against each other. Derry is always just one step away from it’s next accident or murder, another child disappearing or building burning to the ground. The movie somehow manages to capture this terrible feeling of dread in one place perfectly. Being summer there are fairs on, Batman and Lethal Weapon 2 playing at the cinema and long, hot Maine summer days for the kids to enjoy. But just around the corner there are gangs driving in muscle cars, adults ignoring children’s screams and the damp dark sewers where Pennywise is waiting for his next meal. It is the Derry of King’s novel, brought frighteningly to life, and is the really scary part of the movie.

I’m not going to say that I wouldn’t like the horror to be cleverer or more subtle because I would. There’s still enough ghoulish fun and jump scares to at least entertain if not exactly frighten you. But this isn’t what makes It such a great adaptation. It’s the well rounded and believable characters and the perfect sense of time and place that make the film. And the fear it creates is the fear you will have for these characters and the terrible world they live in, and the hope that they can make it out of it alive. Muschietti and his team clearly cared enough about the Losers Club when he made the film, hopefully you all will too.

 

It Stains The Sand Red 2016

Its hard out there for a zombie movie. To try and make yourself distinct from the rest of the flesh eating hordes you really have to try something different in order to get noticed. Recent times have barfed up The Girl With All The Gifts with its emphasis on children and World War Z with its emphasis on throwing lots of money at the screen and then doing a bog standard final act that could be in any low budget undead flick.

It Stains The Sand Red tries something different for its plot and it works a treat… well to start with anyway.

Molly and Nick are racing across the desert in his Porsche, escaping from the zombie apocalypse. Neither of them seem particularly bothered by the mayhem they’ve left behind, partly because they are drunk and high but mostly because they are selfish. However a quick vomit stop results in Molly alone with no car and being relentlessly chased by a single, besuited zombie. This is the central plot of the film: one woman being mercilessly pursued by a man who wants to kill her (and eat her intestines obviously). No matter where she goes, and she doesn’t really have anywhere to go as she’s in the middle of the Nevada desert, there he is, relentlessly following her.

This is a great set up for a low budget movie. For one thing you only need two actors. Brittany Allen has a really tough job to do here. She has to be both an awful human being and deeply sympathetic (she pulls it off well). She may be self obsessed but she has also found herself in this situation through a series of bad choices with bad men, the zombie following her is just the latest in a long line of them. It is telling that when she runs out of the cocaine she was so desperate to keep hold of in her initial scramble to escape, the real Molly starts to show herself. She is a woman of regret and sorrow and maybe this enforced, hideous, sobering experience is what she needs to get back on track in life. Obviously its a pity that her new life could be in a world where everyone is dead but hey, you can’t chose when you’re going to sort your shit out.

Molly herself is a trashy, taste free stripper with too much make-up, some awful animal print clothes and deeply inappropriate shoes for walking in the desert. There is a beautiful moment when Molly comes across a mirror and sees her face, all the make-up long since washed away. She looks almost shocked at seeing her true self. Its the minimalist plot which means the film can have great, subtle character moments like this.

Juan Riedinger plays the zombie, not very affectionally know as Smalls. Zombies are ten-a-penny nowadays so making them distinct or even scary is a tricky number to pull off. Smalls’s relentless pursuit of Molly makes him a formidable presence and having him stumble around in the bright summer sun rather than shuffling around in the dark makes him more creepy rather than less: despite the fact that here is a man trying to kill a woman in broad daylight there is no one here to stop him.

The other thing that works so well in It Stains The Sand Red‘s favour is the astonishing Valley of Fire desert location. There have been a lot of low budget films shot in deserts but director Colin Minihan and his cinematographer Clayton Moore really take advantage of the Nevada landscape, with grand vistas and heat hazed tarmac. The stark image of Smalls in his sharp black suit against the burning brightness of the sand makes the zombie stand out more in this hellish world not fit for humans.

My main problem as I watched the first part of the film was that I wasn’t sure they could make this premise last for an hour and a half. Even half an hour in it felt a little repetitive with Molly thinking she’d escaped Smalls only for him to lurch out from behind some rock again and again. However the dynamic between the two characters does take a turn, I’m just not sure its for the better.

Look, I find it a bit odd for people to say I don’t like the way a story went it should have done this instead. Well if that’s the story you wanted to see then you should have written it yourself. So its not for me to tell Minihan and co what there story should be about. However it seems weird that (OKAY SPOILERS FOR THE REST OF THIS PARAGRAPH) firstly Molly and Smalls should start to get along, mainly because he is a zombie who’s soul purpose in life, sorry death, is to eat people and Molly should be just meat to him.  Maybe its like Bub in Day of the Dead who grows as a zombie and doesn’t want to eat his master. I can maybe see a bit how Molly would be more grateful to him (he saves her life, albeit only because the person attacking her was nearer and so easier to eat) as she probably likes any man who shows some kind of kindness to her. But their relationship does seem to me to stretch probability somewhat. However I could go along with this because at least it did do something different and stretch Molly’s character in interesting ways. What I couldn’t understand was how the final act abandons the entire set up altogether and becomes a basic standard zombie movie like hundreds of others. I realise that you have to tell a story with a beginning, a middle and an end, however the end of this story seemed to be from a completely different movie.

Okay so if you did skip the rest of that last paragraph I basically said it starts of interesting, well made and original and by the end its just well made. Still if you aren’t sick to death of zombies by now (and I have to say I am more and more struggling to care about them anymore) then its better than most, certainly better than World War Z with its generic, bog standard final act… oh, hang on….

Antibirth 21016

The horror genre can be very repetitive. It is constantly going through cycles, making the same stories over and over again. We are subjected to years of slasher movies with little creativity, then years of post-modern slashers mocking them. Possession films have been spat out for so many years that surely everyone must be bored of them by now? Found footage has had its day, at least this time round, as has the haunted house movie. A film about ouija boards is a box office smash and a year later the shelves are full of Ouija rip offs. If you look at the horror genre as just this cycle of repetition then it would be easy to dismiss it as a beast always eating its own tail.

However the horror genre is also the ground for some of the most experimental and unique movies out there. Maybe it is because of the low risk nature of the budgets, or perhaps because experiments in art often result in nightmarish imagery, but the genre is packed with all kinds of weird, off kilter and demented projects. Its not a coincidence that a number of Any Warhol’s films were horror ones. Horror is the place where Cronenberg can explore his obsession with the alien nature of the human body, and where David Lynch can study the fractured state of reality. Horror may be sometimes a cheesy yarn about teenagers being chopped up in a woods, but every now and then it can achieve something much darker, stranger and better.

This is where films like Antibirth exist. It is clear that director Danny Perez’s approach to narrative structure is secondary to weird imagery from the opening scene where we follow our heroine Lou, played by Natasha Lyonne, through a fragmented, drug fueled night of partying which barely makes any sense. The rest of the film is about Lou’s attempt to piece together what happened that night when she finds out that she is pregnant. Whilst initially hard to follow what has happened and indeed what is happening, that is a really the point. We are following Lou’s point of view, and being a drug addict and alcoholic her point of view is as incoherent as her daily life. It’s not like Lou even tries to straighten herself up, either because she has potentially been sexually assaulted or because she is carrying a new life inside her. In fact she seems to go the opposite way and drink more, smoke more and intake more pills. Of course if you have seen Orange Is The New Black then you know this isn’t exactly a stretch for Lyonne. However it is really worth checking interviews to see Lyonne isn’t just being herself on screen, she’s just really good at playing a waster.

Lyonne is ably helped by Chloe Sevengy playing her best friend Sadie. The two of them are like low rent versions of Eddie and Patsy in Absolutely Fabulous– whenever the shit hits the fan, or even if they just have a bit of spare time, their approach is just to pop back to Lou’s horrible prefab home (that seems to being the middle of a dump site) and get off their tits.

All this self abuse leads increasingly to Lou having weird flashbacks and hallucinations which, surprisingly, drive the narrative forward as she is able to see clues as to how she ended up pregnant in the first place. What is most surprising abour all of this is that all this destructive madness makes sense at the end with a gloopy and gory climax for which the word “bonkers” was invented.

The film is designed with primary colours which swwwmed to have been left to mix up together too much in a paint pot so instead of bright and cheerful it’s repellently gross. This is no more vividly expressed than when we meet what seem like bad trip versions of the Teletubbies.

Antibirth probably isn’t for everyone: it’s incredibly cheap and sleazy, and the lead character works hard to get your disrespect and is barely able to stand for most of the time. However if you like to watch some freakish and experimental fun with a brilliant central performance from an actor honing a particular type then you will be laughing. And then there’s that ending which is either hilarious too of revolting, depending how you look at it…

 

 

 

 

George A. Romero 1940 to 2017

George A. Romero died on Sunday the 16th July 2017 after a short battle with lung cancer. He was one of the few directors who can genuinely lay claim to having changed cinema forever. His body may have died but his body of work will live on forever.

It is well documented in the likes of Easy Riders and Raging Bulls that back in the late 60s the counter culture was making inroads into Hollywood that would change American cinema from the stuffy old hierarchy of studio bosses and escapism to a modern, realistic form of story telling that ushered in the second golden age of the movies. However, whilst Hopper and company were making Easy Rider across America, in deepest, darkest Pittsburgh another young film maker was creating something so new and original that it would revolutionise horror cinema all by itself, sweeping away old Gothicism and clunky tropes and bring it slam bang into the modern world.

Night of the Living Dead may have seemed like just another drive-in B movie but with its subtext of how the violence of the Vietnam war was affecting the American mind and putting the civil rights movement front and centre by casting a black man as the hero, critics and audiences alike sat up and took notice. It wasn’t just these political issues which made the film an instant classic, it was also the striking imagery of the recently deceased attacking their former family members, the brutal, sudden, gory violence and its refusal to give the audience to give anything like a happy outcome.

Night of the Living Dead was a huge hit, making close to $30 million in the US alone (that would be $210 million today). However due to one tiny change to the title of the movie Romero lost the copyright to it and hardly saw a dollar.

The effect Night of the Living Dead had on horror cinema was almost instant. The reigning studio of the time, Hammer, immediately started to look old hat as audiences started to seek more modern scares. Films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre would never have been made without Night… and even the studios embraced the realism now being shown with like of The Exorcist. Romero himself never fully became part of the Hollywood system, instead continuing to explore what horror meant to contemporary America in independents with the likes of Season of the Witch and The Crazies.

During this period Romero’s greatest film was Martin, which like Night of the Living Dead took an old horror monster and flipped it on its head. Into the grim reality of 1970s America he reintroduced the vampire. Dealing with insanity, disease and drug addiction Martin is never less than a challenging and thought provoking feature. It is also absolutely terrifying. It didn’t strike a chord with audiences in the same way that Night… did but that doesn’t mean it is any less deserving of praise. Maybe now Romero has passed people will start digging up Martin and give it the recognition it is due.

Next Romero returned to the zombies that had made his name and make his masterpiece. Dawn of the Dead again brought up social commentary within the context of the horror genre, this time about the West’s obsession with consumerism. But it was also an incredibly exciting and well made action-horror movie. Managing to be both tragically bleak and hugely entertaining at the same time, Dawn of the Dead again had a massive influence on cinema and pop culture, an influence that is still felt today. The outrageous gore and fully realised world building of a post apocalyptic America has influenced so many parts of Western fiction there isn’t enough room to even begin discussing it here.

Romero collaborated with Italian macabre master Dario Argento on the making of Dawn of the Dead and with its success he was to move onto another great collaboration: working with America’s best horror author, Stephen King. Creepshow was a bizarre, vivid and strangely humorous anthology movie based on stories by King. Romero shot the film like the old EC comics it was clearly influenced by and the primary colours on show highlighted how wonderfully weird the whole endeavour was. Add in Tom Savini’s outrageous special make-up effects, Stephen King acting (sort of) and a final story so full of cockroaches you can feel your flesh crawl when the end credits roll and it seemed that Romero was so on fire that he could do whatever he wanted and the audiences would come flocking.

Unfortunately due to the difficult nature of funding, especially in the more conservative eighties, Romero struggled to get his next film, Day of the Dead, made. Rather than compromise his gory vision the director chose to make the third film in the Dead series with a smaller budget. Day of the Dead is still a horror classic but rather than be the grand finale to the trilogy it felt like a smaller, more intimate story in an ongoing series. It also suffered from difficulty with distribution and marketing due to being slapped with an NC-17 rating in the States (the kiss of death box office wise) and it seemed like Romero’s zombies were to die a sad, quiet death, rather than the rousing climax they deserved.

Romero went on to make other good films though, most of which no one saw. He worked again with Argento on the Edgar Allen Poe anthology Two Evil Eyes and also with King with a fantastic adaptation of The Dark Half. The story of a man being stalked by his evil dead twin is full of shocks, strong imagery and great performances… and again like many of his films in this period it didn’t get the release or praise it deserved.

The same could be said for Monkey Shines and Bruiser which also disappeared into obscurity and as the gap between productions grew and grew it seemed that Romero was to be all but forgotten.

Then a funny thing happened… Danny Boyle’s non-zombie zombie movie 28 Days Later was a surprise box office smash and suddenly the undead were hot again. Before he knew what was happening Romero suddenly had a big wad of cash to make Land of the Dead. The forth Dead film is certainly uneven but is full of ideas, not least the theme about how the rich are getting richer in their ivory towers whilst the poor are stuck down in the mud with death closing in on them. This seems even more relevant today that it did in 2004. A modest success it meant that Romero could now get funding for more films, albeit seemingly only zombie ones. He followed up Land… with Diary of the Dead and Survival of the Dead. These two films certainly have their problems and detractors but there were still full of those wonderful zombies, shuffling around and eating people who make foolish mistakes, in the way that only Romero can do.

If you look back at Romero’s long career, with a couple of oddball exceptions (jousting motorcycle drama Knightriders and OJ: Juice on the Loose !?!), here was a director who consistently embraced and moved forward the horror genre. However, despite the often serious nature of these films the man himself was apparently quite a different beast. A good friend of mine worked with him on some of his later zombie movies and said Romero laughed all the time. I mean literally he never stopped laughing. My friend worried that perhaps Romero was a little unhinged, in a good natured way, but I like to think that maybe he was just happy to be working and couldn’t believe his luck: still making good horror movies and, finally, getting paid for it.