All posts by bobajim

The Mummy 2017

When it came to the studios realising that they needed to jump on this shared universe franchise nonsense or die on their respective asses, you have to give Universal credit for thinking they could do with their roster of monsters what Marvel/Disney have done with their superheroes. Or maybe they thought “hang on one goddam minute! We’ve done this before: House of Frankenstein mixed up most of the classic Universal monsters along with House of Dracula and a few Abbot and Costellos meet ups thrown in for good measure. We’re old hands at this shared universe malarkey, all we need is a big star, a similar action approach to horror as the last three mummy movies and an inexperienced director without a strong vision: we are laughing.”

 

Clearly no one is laughing now.

 

In and of itself The Mummy is a perfectly fine summer blockbuster, there’s lots of interesting and well staged action, Tom Cruise, as usual, gives it his all and there’s plenty of cgi. If this was, in fact, a semi reboot of the Brendan Fraser movies but with more greys and blues then it might be just about acceptable. However, this would suggest that The Mummy movies only live in their own Mummy bubble… but they do not. They are part of a long and rich storytelling mythology that cannot be ignored for the sake of the next action scene. The Mummy itself is a walking cadaver that is exacting revenge on those who would break its curse: it is a monster from a horror story not a fun family franchise. This film seems to have forgotten that this is what the story of the Mummy is meant to be. It’s far too busy trying to bombard us with the next stunt or effect to tell us a proper, scary (but still thrilling) tale.

 

That’s not to say it doesn’t have it’s moments. There is some great imagery. When the tomb of the mummy is first discovered the giant stone head looking up from the pit looks suitably ominous. The returning victims of the mummy pop and crackle their bones as they shuffle towards Tom and co, looking all withered, horrifying and pretty cool. And the action is well mounted, especially the early scene in the plane, spinning around with our heroes bouncing around the inside at zero gravity. It’s shame that moment was shown everywhere before the film came out, it’s the highlight of the movie.

However there are a number of major problems outside the technical brilliance on display. First and foremost, and it pains me to say the obvious, but the script is just nowhere near good enough. Between the action scenes poor Annabelle Wallis is forced to give pages and pages of exposition which stop the film dead. This dreary dialogue is often describing ancient legends we the audience have already seen earlier, and (as a clear sign of behind the scenes problems in the editing suite) we are forced to watch again. Other bits of the script are so clearly lifted from other films it’s kind of embarrassing.  The always great Jake Johnson is (spoiler) forced into the undead best friend role from An American Werewolf in London. The Mummy herself sucks the lifeforce from her victims in a clear homage/rip off of, well….Lifeforce. I’m never going to be one to complain about reminding people about the glorious cinematic experience that is Lifeforce but to do it so blatantly in a tentpole summer blockbuster reeks of either laziness on the writer’s part or poor judgment.

 

Which brings us to Alex Kurtzman, the director and one of the many writers of The Mummy. The guy clearly knows a thing or two about how to write a successful blockbuster movie, so there’s no way I’m going to criticise him for that, however I’m not sure him or many of the team had a very strong grasp on what a modern Mummy movie should be about. Of course updating the concept to contemporary times is a given but the rest of the film keeps the whole mummy mythos too simplistic and shallow. The Mummy herself, gamely played by Sofia Boutella, wants to sacrifice someone to release the god Set so she can stand by his side or marry him or what? We know nothing more than that. The poor mummy here is so shallowly written that I started thinking that the monster in the 1999 version was the epitome of intricate character development. At least he had a tragic love story as well as all his mummy stuff.

 

Making a massive budget Hollywood movie is a daunting task nowadays and there are so many balls to juggle when trying to get the film to the (not) silver screen for it’s release date. It just confuses me why the studios keep on hiring inexperienced directors to do this. To be fair to Kurtzman I think he handles the action set pieces well and the film looks pretty and modern if a little grey but this is all for nought if we don’t engage with the characters. And I think the director has to take some blame for this if his inexperience with directing actors has an affect on how involved we are with them, and hence how involved we are with the story.  Of course Cruise, Wallis, Johnson and Russell Crowe (as Doctor Jekyll) are all more than capable of bringing their acting skills to any set but it takes a good director to bring them together and bounce off each other with proper chemistry. Cruise and Wallis try for the old cliche you’re-the-most-obnoxious-man-I’ve-ever-met routine but sparks don’t fly. The lacklustre dialogue doesn’t help here of course. Sadly the climactic emotional pay off also falls flat mostly because the characters don’t seem real or even real with each other.

 

I know that a studio employing an inexperienced director like Kurtzman means he doesn’t have the clout to get his own way so they can pull the creative strings but this has backfired here with no clear idea of what the film should be other than the start of a bunch of other movies.

 

Saying all that I still enjoyed The Mummy a lot. It is a slick, well made movie even if the cracks are fairly visible (too many flashbacks and I think three voice overs – always a bad sign). I do love a big budget horror movie even if it is an unsuccessful one. It may have been more of an action movie than a scary one but they gave it a shot. I’m just not sure that you can remake all the old Universal monster movies and actionise  them as much as they have done. It didn’t work with Dracula Untold, it didn’t work with The Wolfmam and sure as hell didn’t work with Van Helsing. Adding the shared universe business right from the start is, with an extremely clunky mid section which slows the story down to a full stop, also not going to work.

 

Okay I’m watching this after the film has flopped stateside so have the benefit of hindsight, however it’s a shock that Kurtzman and co couldn’t see what a miscalculation they were making when they were in the script stages: there was an interview with Kurtzman way, way before the film went into production and he gave away most of the pitch. Even then people (and when I say people I mean angry internet nerds) thought it was a horrible idea. Not even oh-well-i-might-be-wrong-let’s-wait-and-see type reaction but a general  this is awful moan from the collective geek world.

Oh Well…you live and you learn. Hopefully Universal will, for their next Dark Universe film, remember that the monsters are from horror movies. Mix it up a bit sure, but just know what your story is at its core. Or just rip off Lifeforce again if that’s too much effort.

 

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Gerald’s Game 2017

Gerald’s Game by Stephen King is considered one of those unfilmable novels. Of course whenever a book is unfilmable some mad man comes along and tries to make it. Often this is a disaster like Brian De Palma’s embarrassing Bonfire of the Vanities or just a bit blah and mediocre like Mike Nichols’s Catch 22 which in some ways is worse. Gerald’s Game has it particularly bad because it is essentially one woman strapped to a bed for two hours. This does not a good movie make.

Any film set almost exclusively in one room has to have three factors working in its favour.

  1. It’s got to have a good story in the first place.
  2. It’s got to have some dynamite actors to fill said room, and
  3. The director has to direct the shit out of it.

Gerald’s Game certainly has the first factor in the bag. Whilst not one of King’s very best it does have a terrific central character in Jessie, a woman who has buried her past so far down inside herself she hasn´t learnt it’s lessons. She has repeated the same mistakes again and again until she has found herself strapped to the bed as part of her vile husband’s grim games. This, of course, is never going to be a mainstream blockbuster so you have to give Netflix their dues for taking a risk on the adaptation. It might be mostly set in one room but they’ve clearly chucked enough money at it that it doesn’t look like a low budget horror movie. Netflix has basically given the story the money and freedom to work.

Obviously you are going to need some talent to pull off Jessie and indeed Gerald as characters you can sympathize with and be repulsed by respectively. Carla Gugino has spent far too many years in movies playing second fiddle to lousy men in lousy films (Jim Carey’s girlfriend in Mr Popper’s Penguins surely being a low point). It’s about time she was made front and centre of a film, even if yes, she is a victim of sexual assault and handcuffed to a bed. With all the pillows in the world this must have been a rough shoot and Gugino battles on like a trooper. She really does look ruined at the climax of the film and I wonder how much of that was acting and how much was just enduring being handcuffed to a bed in front of a film crew for weeks on end.

I presume one of the reasons the book was meant to be unfilmable was because of the inner monologue Jessie has with herself and various other people in her life. This is handled really well with alternative versions of Jessie and Gerald appearing in the room and talking to her, or, more often than not, belittling and opposing her. Here again Gugino has to bring a multitude of emotions to the character of Jessie which shows a person who is more than just a victim of her own life but someone who has a voice of confidence that has been lost due to the terrible events that have affected her life.

Bruce Greenwood might have a seemingly smaller role as Gerald but he also appears in her mind’s eye as a character to interact with. The great thing about Greenwood (who by the way looks terrific for a man in his underpants in his sixties) is that he might be a handsome, wasp-like all-American good guy in his looks and often in the roles he takes, but he is also capable of coming across as a mean bastard with a cold, hard centre. Gerald may seem like a loving husband on the surface, that anyone woman would want, but underneath he is a monster in human form. Twenty years of marriage shows a man with no love in his heart. Greenwood combines his smooth reassuring voice with a vicious undertone and creates a man who should be a kind, caring partner but has become rotten to the core.

Of course this good acting is for nought if the film isn’t well directed. Mike Flanagan is clearly a man who likes a challenge. His last film Hush had a lead actress with no voice and now he’s made this: a film with a woman with voice but no one to hear it. Setting your film in one location demands a director who can tie the audience into that place, get them to feel the tension and claustrophobic surroundings and grip them from start to finish. Flanagan makes things pretty tense before Jessie and Gerald even arrive at the deserted cabin and once the main plot kicks in he really goes for it. It helps that the story has very strong forward momentum. Jessie maybe stuck going nowhere but Flanagan pulls apart her life, partly through the conversation she’s having with herself and Gerald but also through the smaller things. A dog Jessie is kind to at the start of the movie becomes her enemy: it’s grubby, sad dark face she first sees soon starts looking like the devil as it comes into her room looking for food, it’s bright eyes burning hellishly from its black face. Flanagan cleverly frames this in two ways: firstly as Gerald’s body can’t be seen by Jessie (or us) as it’s hidden mostly by the bedframe, we are constantly trying to see around the bed to see what the dog is doing to him. Secondly when the dog gets a meal for itself it goes to leave the room but then stops and eats it’s food just inside the doorway. We can see whatever the hell it’s eating but the dog is too far away from the bed to do anything about it. Flanagan has put us in Jessie’s shoes: barely able to see what is really going on and unable to do anything but look on in horror.

Talking of horror there is a really grisly moment that I’m sure everyone will remember for years to come – it’s as grim as the foot cobbling scene in Misery. And there is another more classical horror element I won’t spoil for you now. But the really upsetting moment comes in a flashback that is both terrifying and heartbreaking at the same time. It’s the central horror of Jessie’s life and indeed the whole film. Although… damn you Flanagan! After seeing this I’ll never watch E.T. the same way again.

So Gerald’s Game may have been unfilmable but clearly not everyone agreed. And thank god for Mike Flanagan was one of them. Stephen King’s adaptations have certainly resulted in some good films over the years, but it’s also had some really bad ones (yeah The Mangler, I’m talking about you). But in this case Gerald’s Game is up there with the best of them.

 

Blood and Black Lace 1964

Blood and Black Lace may have been an early entry in the Giallo movement in Italy but boy does it represent everything that is great about it. Okay, yes it probably has everything that is wrong in it too, but it is done with such stylish aplomb I guess we can put the the slightly more dodgy sexual politics down to historical context and try to move on.

Dario Argento maybe the master of Italian horror but there is no denying that he learnt a good amount of what he brought to the screen from his mentor and the director here, Mario Bava. I have not seen enough of his films.

The opening shot has the camera moving towards a baroque Roman Fashion house. As a storm erupts the wooden sign outside snaps and dangles down in the wind. This opening shot shows that whatever that building in the background represents, the wheels are about to fall off it. The framing of the shot and the way the sign doesn´t break until the camera is right near it is almost the same as the curtain opening scene at the start of Argento´s Deep Red.

Plot wise we´re in familiar Giallo territory: a woman is brutally murdered, with the usual black gloved hand we´d come to expect of Giallo. Then meet the cast of the film proper.

Unlike Argento´s films, Blood and Black Lace works more like an Agatha Christie play than a full on horror film. We meet lots of characters who could all potentially be the murderer with the dark secrets they are trying to hide. Being set in the world of fashion these secrets are much more edgy than you would expect from a film from 1964. There are unwanted pregnancies, drug addictions and homosexuality all suggested to various degrees. The drug addict, a cocaine user, is particularly odd. He acts like someone on the brink of bursting into tears every unless he gets his fix every five minutes. This seems like it was written by someone who´d heard of drugs but never seen what they actually do, rather than anyone who actually experienced them. Perhaps film makers in Rome were more naive in 1964. I doubt it somehow.

This naivety is almost part of Blood and Black Lace´s charms.  Sure its about beautiful European models being strangled, burnt and stabbed through the face with bits of medieval armour but it is all done so beautifully. It is almost like a fashion shoot itself. Take for example the opening credits:

All the main characters are displayed like they are shop dummies in a high fashion store window.

They stand motionless (but aren´t actual still photographs) as the blood red shop dummy faces away from them or threatens them in some way. The dummy obviously reflects the killer who has no face in the film (he has a stocking on his head) but I don´t think Bava is giving us clues to the crimes that unfold. I think he is just telling us that this thriller is set in a world of opulence and beauty so get ready for some stylish film making.

And what style!

Every shot is perfectly composed and framed, costumes are luxurious and make up and hair impeccable. The men wear sharp suits and the women slinky lace numbers. All of this is shot with such a rich colour palette. Mario Bava was a cinematographer before he became a director and although this was officially shot by Ubaldo Terzano (who would go on to shoot Deep Red for Dario Argento) this has got Bava´s fingers all over it. Its not just the colours that stand out but the clever use of shadow to make the murders more exciting whilst keeping the identity of the killer just in the dark so you can´t be clear who he is. To be fair you do see enough of his shape to work it out pretty easily – there are five male suspects but most of them are either short or skinny, only one chap has the same large frame as the killer.

Even with the final result being kind of obvious there are enough twists and turns to keep you hooked to the story. There is a police inspector type investigating the crimes but ultimately he is more of a looker-on to this twisted world of fashion than the man to break the case. The victims and murderer are all so wrapped up in their own world of secrets and lies that they destroy each other before the law can step in to break them apart.

That´s what surprised me most about this 53 year old Italian shocker, I knew it would be pretty and stylish but I didn´t know it would be so compelling. What other great Bava films have I been missing?

Creepshow 1982

If you think about it it’s almost bizarre to think that Creepshow even exists. It’s five stories and a wrap around tale all by at-his-peak Stephen King, it’s directed by George A. Romero at his most confident, King stars in it, as does his son, Joe Hill. There’s also a host of great actors: Hal Holbrook, Ed Harris, Adrienne Barbeau, E. G. Marshall, Ted Danson and Leslie Nielsen when he was still a straight actor. It’s also got Tom Savini and his amazing practical effects at his most creative and playful. It’s basically a beautiful gift to horror fans. How is this even a thing?

Creepshow starts as a weird reflection of my own childhood. A horror obsessed kid has his favourite comic, the EC inspired Creepshow, thrown out by his father who doesn’t want any such filth in his house. Back when I was a child my father also had a fanny fit about the first issue of Fangoria magazine I’d bought. How could I have such vileness and depravity in his house? He threw it out and told me I was to never buy that magazine again. Much like the kid, played by Joe Hill, in Creepshow I decided that my father had no moral authority over me so fetched it out of the bin. Unlike the kid I didn’t decide to kill my father with a voodoo doll, even though I might have thought about it at the time. Instead I just got my mum to order me a monthly subscription and covered my bedroom walls with the “Scream Greats” pull out posters which came with each issue. Dad never mentioned Fangoria again.

The first story proper is probably the weakest story of the five, which is a good thing as the only way is up after that! “Father’s Day” concerns the returning corpse of a family tyrant desperate for his cake. Sure it’s got some early work from Ed Harris but the walking corpse make-up is decidedly rubbery and there is some truly terrifying disco dancing. The comic book styling is immediately apparent though. Romero freezes shots, turns them into comic panels and slides them along as a transition into the next scene. The lighting in moments of horror will flip to primary colours and action graphics will swirl out from behind characters as they look on in shock. It’s a little bit clunky and old fashioned nowadays with modern technology being able to do so much better and easier, but it’s also incredibly charming and, to this old horror comic fan, strangely comforting.

The second story, “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill” is, by some margin, the silliest story here. Basically a one hander about a simple farmer who is infected and mutated by some florescent green meteoroid space plant, I can never work out if Stephen King as the farmer is it’s biggest asset or it’s biggest problem. To say King plays it broadly is something of an understatement. With his face in full gurning-simpleton mode and speaking more like a cartoon than a real human being, King is about as far away from a proper actor as you can get. And yet there is still something tragic and weirdly heartfelt about Jordy Verrill as he remembers his life full of mistakes and imagines what it could be. Also the eleven year old me loved King in this so maybe this is one aimed at the kiddies, even if it does end with (spoiler) Verrill blowing his mossy head off with a shotgun.

“Something To Tide You Over” treads the familiar ground of revenge from beyond the grave. So familiar in fact partly because we just had this two stories ago in “Father’s Day”. However this story is much tighter and filled with incident. It helps that the two stars, Ted Danson and Leslie Nelson both known for their excellent comedic acting, take the story so seriously. Nelson is the angry older husband getting revenge on his wife and her lover by burying them in the sand and watching them drown in TV as the tide comes in. He is a cold hearted son of a bitch. His motivation has nothing to do with love or heartbreak, he only sees his wife as his property that Danson has the cheek to try and take. Danson goes through a range of emotions from cool, above it all boy-lover to a man begging for his life as he’s literally up to his neck in it. The scenes where Danson and Gaylen Ross have the tide coming in and the water splashes over them are particularly effective as, no matter how many safety regulations they had in place, the actors must have genuinely been half drowned for the sake of this creepy little tale. I also love the soggy, water logged zombies at the end, with their puffy blue skin all covered in seaweed. They are kind of ridiculous looking but so much fun with their waterlogged voices and dark green blood pouring down their faces.

And that’s what is so great about Creepshow. Yes it is dealing with murder, revenge, the undead and weird monsters but it’s done not so much as as a comedy but with its slippery black tongue planted firmly in its rotting cheek. Horror here is not trying to scare you but delight with its bizarre, fast paced and wonderfully macabre little tales.

“The Crate” is the perfect example of this. The story is simplicity itself: a university Dean finds an old crate which contains some ancient beast brought back from a find two hundred years previously and dumped in a cellar*. The creature munches his way through some of the faculty before another professor realises this might be the perfect way to get rid of his nagging, spiteful wife. The monster itself is a fur ball throwback to a cross between a yeti and a particularly mean Muppet. It could almost be endearing (on set the crew loved it so much they gave it the nickname Fluffy) if it wasn’t so vicious and bloody in its attacks. It tears through throats like they were butter and drags the corpses away to be eaten whole in the comfort of his crate. Then there are the performances. Hal Holbrook is so perfect as the educated man imagining violent deaths for his wife. He is down trodden but surprisingly calculating when push comes to shove (literally, he shoves his wife into the crate). Adrianne Barbeau, as always, is superb as his mean, drunk, belittling spouse. She is so different from Holbrook that you wonder how he could have ended up with her, and yet despite that you can see how he was attracted to her – she IS fun, her differences must have been appealing once upon a time. However you are totally on Holbrook’s side by the time he decides she should be Fluffy’s main course. This is the great thing about Creepshow, it can take the idea of a husband wanting to kill his wife and make it hugely entertaining.

The final story, ¨They’re Creeping Up On You¨ is the”greatest story here and also a showcase of Romeroś direction at its very best. E. G. Marshall goes for broke as a neurotic millionaire locked away in his hygienic ivory tower, under attack by an infestation of cockroaches. It is one actor in a white room and little else, but you learn everything you need to know about this contemporary Scrooge. you learn how he relishes in people’s misery, how his business deals are all the better if someone else suffers (hmmm…. where have heard that before?), and the abject terror he has with anything that is in the slightest bit unclean. The realisation he has that the muesli he has been eating contains more than just raisins is the most horrific moment here and that’s before the cockroaches start pouring out of every orifice.

This last story always freaked me out enough as a child. So much so that I would stop the tape before getting to it. Not sure I know why this was. Maybe it was the idea of all those bugs waiting for me in the bed or the thought of finding cockroaches in my Ready Brek. Maybe the story was too dark for my young mind.

Not so nowadays, this last story in particular but Creepshow in general is just great. Go on, show it to your kids, creep them out a little.

 

Deep Red 1975

Deep Red is a great many things. It’s one of Dario Argento’s best movies, it’s one of the finest examples of the Giallo sub genre and it’s a pinnacle of Italian Cinema. It’s also one of my favourite movies so expect extreme bias from here on in.

There are many ways to approach Argento’s movies but probably the worst way is to see it through a modern film watcher’s eye. The stories are often rudimentary at best or downright incomprehensible at worst. The dialogue is usually too full of exposition and is frequently stilted, and then there is the acting that seems like an afterthought. If you watch an Argento film expecting a Hollywood style slice of story telling then you are going to be severely disappointed. However if you watch one of his films with a, shall we say, more free wheeling approach to cinema then you are going to enjoy the hell out of it.

This is why the first time I watched Deep Red was after some one had slipped me some LCD and was tripping my tits off. And when I say someone I mean me. It was fucking brilliant.

Dario Argento’s is a visual and aural film maker first and foremost. His Giallo thrillers are all about what you see and hear and when you see or hear it. The images and sounds that bombard you may seem like a cacophony of madness but they are always in service of the mystery at the centre of the story, and Argento is giving you the clues to answer his mystery as he sees fit. This is why Deep Red is one of his best films: the plot fits so well with this method of storytelling – the spate of killings begins with a spiritualist seeing something she shouldn’t have, the hero knows he’s seen some big clue but can’t work out what it is, the opening shot is one part of the answer to the mystery but without seeing the full scene you are left with just questions. And so on and so on.

Deep Red concerns David Hemmings, a piano player living in Rome, who witnesses a murder and then spends the rest of the film trying to solve it, as all piano players tend to do. Back in the day Hemmings was about as cool an actor as you could get for your movie. He’d already played much the same character in the swinging sixties abstract thriller Blow Up several years before hand and whilst by 1974 he wasn’t quite the epitome of counter-culture he had been, he still cut a fine dash with his velvet black shirts and hair you could ski down. What’s not so cool is his put down of a female reporter for her apparently ridiculous views on women’s liberation and feminism. Ah well… at least he’s speaking English, unlike the rest of the cast.

It’s not a common practice any more but Euro movies would often have an English speaking lead and all the rest of the cast would speak pigeon English. The dialogue was then redubbed afterwards, often by very bad actors. I’m so used to this technique that I barely even notice it nowadays. The perky May, on the other hand, who drifted in and out of the lounge during my viewing in various states of hair transformation, found the whole thing rather trashy and cheap sounding.

Looking past the bad dubbing there is no denying that Argento movies are often somewhat sleazy. This is certainly not due to how they look: we’re not dealing with the kind of seventies movie sleaze you see in the likes of Maniac or Dirty Harry. Far from it. Deep Red looks beautiful. After the opening shot mentioned above we enter a theatre and a red curtain flicks open for the story to unfold. Sets and scenery are packed with detail, often a mixture of classical art and contemporary sculpture. These objects of art come into their own as tools used to kill – modern windows cut throats, baroque fireplaces break teeth and a thick chain necklace cuts someone’s head off. Its in the lurid detail of these deaths that the sleaze shows itself, often in the bright vivid reds of the bleeding wounds (rather than, say, a deep red which you think would have been more appropriate).

Argento is often accused of being a misogynist with his depiction of beautiful young women being brutally murdered in glorious and glamorous technicolour. He even said himself “I like women, especially beautiful ones. If they have a good face and figure, I would much prefer to watch them being murdered than an ugly girl or man.” Now you can read into that what you like (he says go ahead, he doesn’t care what you think), but the underlying meaning is not about his views on women, it is about the aesthetic. Argento is interested in how the world is visually represented on film, in how people look, and how he can make them appear even more beautiful in front of the camera, even when they are being murdered. That is why his films, especially Deep Red, are so stunning to look at. Michael Bay once said about one of his Transformers movies that he was “fucking the screen”. But just throwing money at effects and explosions is not really fucking anything (except maybe fucking boring). Argento knew how to make the screen sexy, and the viewer in the process got laid in the process.

Take for example, early on in the film as the killer prepares to dispatch the psychic. First we see the murderer’s eye in extreme close up, filling the screen as he paints make-up on in thick dark strokes. Next we see a table with lots of toys and trinkets on it: weird baby dolls, marbles, jewellery. The camera pans across these objects as the Goblin soundtrack builds to an almighty crescendo. Finally the screen is filled with the handle of a large, deadly knife and, as we travel up the shaft of the blade, the scene tells us everything we need to know. The killer is clearly insane, the objects are glimpses of his past and, in the knife, we find out what he is going to do in the near future. And all in glorious macro vision with a scream of dramatic music. Now that’s fucking the screen.

Whilst Deep Red is certainly typical Argento it is also atypical. It’s not just beautiful women being murdered, there’s an old man too. His daughter wasn’t even born at the time so instead of killing her horribly (as he did a lot in his later movies) he has to settle for stabbing his partner Daria Nicolodi instead. It’s also genuinely scary at points, which can’t be said about a lot of his films. Hemmings investigates an old house central to the mystery and it’s faded opulence and secrets hidden behind walls are seriously spine tingling. Either that or I’m having acid flashbacks.

Okay maybe watching Argento’s films off one’s face is not the best way to experience them. You can also go in quite sober and as long as you have a love of film, and a certain amount of forgiveness, you will find a lot to savour. Like many of the masters of horror, Dario Argento maybe isn’t the director he once was but, like my old dad often says, the beauty of film is that it captures a moment in time that will last forever. And when Argento made Deep Red it was one of his best moments.

 

Leatherface 2017

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 was widely criticized at the time of its release for being too far removed from the original film. Not only was there hardly any killing (outside the opening sequence) but it also seemed to be embracing other genres: it mostly play for laughs and seemed to be trying for a bit of romance between Leatherface and his hostage, Stretch. But maybe Tobe Hooper had the right idea – was it ever possible to recreate the perfection that was the first film?

Certainly the pile of sequels, prequels and remakes suggest not. Making the same story over and over again just lessened the impact. So when it came to making an origin story for how Leatherface came into being, doing something other than a bunch of teens show up at the Sawyer house and getting massacred wasn’t such a bad idea, depending on what that other idea was…

Don’t hold your breath people.

Actually you would probably be dead if you had been holding your breath for this film. This was filmed a long while ago and then either sat on a shelf or went for reshoots. It doesn’t show it though. Unlike some recent messed up movies (cough, cough The Mummy) it is a well made and coherent piece of movie making. I wonder if this is down to directors Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury who made the masterful Inside and the wonderfully mad Livid. They are the main reasons any sensible horror fan would want to see Leatherface (outside just generally hoping against hope that there is still another good Texas Chainsaw movie to be made) and they do a good job as far it goes. The film looks nice, it’s relatively well paced and all the acting is way up above what you would expect for this kind of thing.

There’s one problem though, and it’s massive.

We begin with Ma Sawyer (played by a surprisingly restrained-for-her Lili Taylor) and her inbred family around the old dinner table. It’s the youngest child’s birthday so she gives him a chainsaw for his birthday and tells young Jed to chop up the chap they have tied to a chair. Presumably he is going to be the main course. After some shenanigans with a sheriff’s daughter Jed ends up in a mental asylum and we cut to ten years later. Now a bunch of patients escape the asylum and race across Texas with a nurse as hostage. As all of the mentalists have had their names changed we don’t know which one was once Jed and will become Leatherface, and that is basically the story.

The trouble with this is that it’s SHIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIT.

Let’s ignore the fact that out of the potential Leathefaces, one is a girl, one so mouthy and obnoxious that he will almost certainly die first and a big hulk of a mute just screams red herring so loud we are left with one other character who must be it. So no mystery there then. The main problem is that whoever it is won’t act like Leatherface until the end of the movie, so you end up with a film about a character who isn’t that character. It’s just head-banging-against-wall dumb.

To mix things up a bit the girl and one of the men embark on a killing spree like a low rent Natural Born Killers but without that film’s wit and charm. I am being sarcastic here: I hate Natural Born Killers. Okay, without that film’s pseudo intellectualism and pretension. Yeah, that will do. Also there’s another bit of romance, this time between the kidnapped nurse and the other escapee who isn’t a giant mute, but this is almost as ridiculous as the one between Leatherface and Stretch in Part 2 but without the laughs. I mean I’m all for a bit of Stockholm Syndrome but these two potential lovebirds stretch all sense of reality.

There’s also an incredibly idiotic bit near the end when whoever-it-is is wounded in the face so his mother puts a leather harness around his head to hold the wounds in place. So he quite literally has a leather face. I almost knocked myself out I slapped my forehead so hard.

There is gore aplenty. I remember back in the eighties when as a blood thirsty teenager I craved a horror movie with a good splattering of blood and guts. This was especially tricky as the censorship board was snip happy with their scissors. I still like a decent, gory death in horror movies now, but the violence in Leatherface is somehow just depressing. Victims are sawn open, smashed through windows and have their heads caved in, all in lurid detail. But it’s all so miserable. There’s no showmanship to the violence, it just has a realism that is repellent rather than thrilling. Maybe it’s just me…

On the positive side… nah… forget it, I ain’t got one. It’s a really bad story, and as a prequel it means you know pretty much where it will end up, and it’s not worth the journey. And, you know… Leatherface with a leather face… Christ that’s stupid.

 

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.