Super Dark Times 2017

2017 has certainly been the year of the nostalgic teenage horror movie. Stepehn King´s It and season 2 of Stranger Things have been the big hitters but now there is also Super Dark Times. It is more grounded in realism but it still captures the awful, perilous period of youth where childhood slips away to be replaced by adulthood and the threat of violence.

Unlike the other eighties based productions Super Dark Times is set in the 1990s. Gone are the hilarious clothes and fun movie references to Ghostbusters, instead nineties up state New York is a cold and bleak place to have your childhood. There are numerous references to the time and place – the teenagers wear baggy clothes, play crappy PC games like Minefield and everyone feels like they have been to Kurt Cobain´s stylist (not that he ever had one!) – but the only fun moment reflecting this is when one character talks about beating himself off to Jamie Leigh Curtis strip scene in the borderline misogynist True Lies.

Things start off still with a certain nostalgic gleam though – not for the cultural references but with the perfect way it captures wasted, and wasting, youth. Our main characters are Zach and Josh, two losers whose struggle with their lowly position at school but counter it with the strong friendship they have between them. The early part of the film is an absolute joy as we follow Zach and Josh and their hopes and dreams – which mostly amount to wanting to get laid of course. Even in these fun moments thoughthere is a desperate sadness about this. You can tell that something awful is going to happen, it is hiding just out of sight, but this is not an effects laden roller coaster ride but something much more tragic and real. These boys small lives, and how little experience they have in it, is perfectly reflected in a story one of them says about seeing a girl spill glue all over her hands: ¨Its the most erotic thing I´ve ever seen in my life¨ he says. Its funny but dreadfully sad: a short life of small events about to be turned upside down.

These films about youth really live or die by the casting. When Stranger Things first started people couldn´t believe how great the kid actors were in it, then Stephen King´s It knocked everyone sideways with the best ensemble of children since Stand By Me (admittedly with one of the children from Stranger Things but then he played Richie to perfection so no one was complaining). Picking up Super Dark Times I got to wondering if lightening could strike thrice but fortunately the cast here is great all round. This is especially true of Owen Campbell and Charlie Tahan as the two leads. They come across as believable and awkward friends mulling about wasting their time, waiting for something to happen. They have a genuine chemistry which is sweet and likeable, well to start with anyway. At first they are just like children (although we´re talking a little older than the It/Stranger Things crowd) but when an event spirals out of control it is like you can see the sheen of innocence just drop off their faces. The rest of the cast is equally as good although when we first met Max Talisman as Daryl I wasn´t sure what he was doing – he hilariously shouts all his lines which is a little jarring to start with, compared to the quieter performances around him, but it perfectly suits his crazy character.

The film also looks fantastic. Partly due to the cold autumnal setting, it has a much more grounded feel to it, but that doesn´t mean that it isn´t beautiful. There is once scene in particular which is shot up a hill with the golden sun setting in the background. It isn´t a coincidence that its at this moment that the terrible main event occurs – the sun is setting on the day but also on their happy (ish) lives too. Even the aforementioned gluey hands moment looks gorgeous. Cinematographer Eli Born has done a terrific job here, let´s hope he goes far.

Clearly a personal project of the film makers (hopefully not totally autobiographical) Super Dark Times perfectly captures the mood and despair of misspent youth. Although the title almost suggests a fun romp the emphasis is mostly on the middle word, but don´t let that put you off. This is a beautifully made work which may be set in someone else´s past but is something we can relate to in our present.

 

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Life 2017

 

I’m in two minds about Life. On the one hand I am ALWAYS in favour of an Alien rip off. I don’t care how many years after it came out (in this case a generatinal 38 years) or how cheap looking your movie turns out, if you are going to supply my senses with a creepy outer space monster movie then I am all in. On the other hand, something bothers me about this version called Life. Is it the incredibly serious tone? Or is it the alien itself which I have a lot of problems with. I’ll get back to that…

So Life is set at the International Space Station where a group of rag tag scientists are trying to grab hold of a passing satellite which contains a sample from Mars which may in fact be LIFE!! For reasons I can’t understand, director Daniel Espinosa seems to think that we are living in a post Gravity world. So the opening scene is done in one take with lots of deep space and sudden excitement as Ryan Reynolds tries to grab the satellite. Now no one is denying that Gravity wasn’t a great film because it clearly was, but surely Life should at least try to march to the beat of its own drum. Presented here you have a damn fine cast of actors in essentially a B movie, and stylistically it is trying to rip off something that is totally unique. Yeah alright I know I was just saying go film makers! Rip off the unique Alien all you like! But Alien felt like l, and indeed was, the start of a whole new genre. Gravity was a one off. There’s no point in trying to copy it. Also this approach just adds to the overly serious tone of Life, a seriousness which really undermines it’s own story.

Hey, I am all for serious horror, and no one can deny that the tone of Alien is also very straight. But where Alien felt refreshing being a trashy B movie but with real characters in a real universe, Life, by going the Gravity approach, just feels a bit po faced. Gravity at least had George Clooney charming banter to lighten the load. Life has the always likable, though small of facial features, Ryan Reynolds, but he doesn’t provide enough levity mainly due to story developments. Instead we have a script which although, well written and admirable in some ways, has characters stopping what they are doing (usually trying to trap/not be eaten by the alien) to philosophise about their existence in the universe or life in general. It’s great to have some depth to the characters but at the expense of the suspense? I think not. Also whenever they start having these monologues it reveals the mechanics of the script -as if the need for deeper character was an afterthought – which just makes it feel clunky.

Beyond this though the film is beautifully made. The sets are claustrophobic and help add to the desperate nature of our heroes plight. The direction, apart from the desire to Gravity-fy everything, is tight and each scene involving the alien had a genuine menace and a well presented sense of the stakes at hand… well at least it would if the alien itself wasn’t so completely shite.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that the alien is badly done, far far from it. The visual effects team have done a marvelous job with the monster’s constantly evolving translucent body and watery tendrils. But the creature feels overly designed to the hilt. It has so much going on that you can almost see the various stages it went through before reaching this beast. It feels like something made by committee, the result of too many ideas rather than one single vision like H R Ginger’s. It may seem unfair to compare it to that masterpiece but then if you’re making an Alien rip off, homage, whatever, then that’s what’s gonna happen I’m afraid. The monster here for all it’s cleverness just doesn’t have a very strong or scary image, and this undermines the whole of Life.

Maybe I’m being too hard. Life is a technically very accomplished movie, especially for its budget. It’s nicely directed and the cast are uniformly great (it’s always good to see Jake Gyllenhaal embrace his love for genre). But ultimately it’s hard to get too engaged when the main threat looks like a cross between a jellyfish and some semen floating in a bathtub.

 

Prevenge 2016

 

It’s hard out there for actors. I know we all think of the Hollywood stars swanning about in their luxury trailers with personal trainers as best mates, but that is a tiny decimal point of a percentage of thespians. The rest of them are caught in a relentless series of auditions, or no auditions and pressure to give up their dreams for a real job.

It must be even more galling to make a film (Sightseers) that is a critical hit, a commercial one (well… for Britain anyway) and everyone to say how amazing you are in it, only to find yourself back on the unemployment pile. This must be even worse if you are there because you have committed the cardinal sin of being a pregnant woman.

This is where, it seems, the great Alice Lowe found herself. By all accounts she couldn’t get a single role due to her pregnancy. I guess she, like everyone else, has to pay the bills. So pregnant or not, she needed some work, even more so if she’s having a baby. But with no work forthcoming she took the only logical step and wrote a film for herself to perform in. It’s much like when Sylvester Stallone took it into his own hands to make Rocky to star in, but instead of an uplifting working class guy makes good, in Prevenge we have heavily pregnant and probably bonkers woman gets revenge on the killers of the father of her child. Okay, unlike Rocky, Prevenge is far too leftfield to win any Oscars. But it is extremely good.

Lowe plays Ruth, a clearly disturbed and pregnant woman whose partner has died in a supposed climbing accident. Ruth believes that it was no accident at all, and that the rest of the group purposefully cut the rope that lead to his untimely death. The reason she believes this is because her unborn fetus is telling her so. A sweaty, creepy little voice talks to her from her swollen belly, directing her to exact this vengeance on its father’s murderers. Whilst Ruth is (probably) mad as a hatter – veering between unstably shaking and being a cold killer at a moment’s notice, she is also a great actor herself. She assumes various personalities to trap her victims before bloodily dispatching them. Each of these murders are like little vignettes. Lowe as Ruth becomes multiple characters created to gain the trust of her intended victims so she can isolate them before finishing them off. This technique of storytelling is incredibly clever in such a small, low budget movie: it keeps the story entertaining with each new character driving the plot moving forward. Most slasher movies that take the point of view of the murderer (rather than the victims) tend to be incredibly morbid and depressing affairs – Prevenge is quite the opposite. It’s frequently hilarious and never less than enjoyable, albeit in a tense and disturbing manner.

At the time of watching it I thought that the effects were pretty good for a low budget British production, especially the pregnant belly effect. But good god, that’s no effect! That’s Alice Lowe being eight months pregnant throughout the shoot. No wonder it looks so real, it is! Even more remarkable is the fact that Lowe also directed the film. Now I’ve directed a few shorts in my time and as brilliant and rewarding as it is, directing is also one of the most all consuming and stress inducing things a human can go through… except probably being pregnant. How Lowe managed this feat is beyond me. Even getting a coherent finished movie would be a big enough leap as it is, the fact that Prevenge is genuinely great is even more mind boggling.

A little bit of research into the making of the film shows that Lowe shot it over eight days with three extra days for pick ups. This is about the length of time Asylum spend on their tragic shark movies, but this is a whole different league. Lowe clearly worked within very defined rules to make her movie. As she is also the star she didn’t have to worry about getting her lead actor on set everyday. As the rest of the cast only appear for a few scenes at a time I guess she had each actor perform on each of the main days shoots (there are seven potential victims and a midwife) so she was able to get great character actors like Kate Dickie (Red Road, The Witch, Prometheus) as well as Gemma Whelan from Game of Thrones (in the funniest scene of the film). The different characters and locations give the film a bigger sense of scale than it really is. It’s also a lesson on how to make the most out of very limited resources. Most f all it’s an inspiration to all aspiring filmmakers.

It’s also a lot just a lot of fun. Lowe is such a likeable performer that even in her most disturbed moments you are rooting for her to get her prevenge (surely a word bound to enter the Oxford English Dictionary before the year is out). However with the creepy unborn baby talking to her from her belly (like a twisted version of the talking dog in Summer of Sam) the film manages to stride over the twin problems of being funny but also dark and bleak. As what we really are dealing with here is a character with a severely damaged personality (or multiple personalities?) it’s a miracle that Prevenge works on one level as a straight horror, let alone as a character piece, a comedy, a psychological thriller and more. It’s even more of a miracle that such a fine film could be made so quickly but so well under such circumstances. Let’s hope Lowe now gets plenty of work offers, pregnant or otherwise.

 

The Babysitter 2017

Traditionally if you are making a horror movie based around what is usually considered normal and mundane in our lives, you make it incredibly serious and freak everyone out. Look at Halloween or The Stepfather, one minute we’re all having a happy holiday or living with a loving family, the next the film comes out and everyone is hiding in the closet in fear of their lives. The Babysitter should follow this pattern – a kid’s babysitter turns out to be a Satanist or devil worshipper or just a murderer (it’s never made that clear) and wants to use her charge’s blood for something terrible. However instead of being a straight up horror, the film is kind of played for laughs. And indeed, why not?The Babysitter is directed by McG after all.

Director McG is not a popular film maker. Coming from the same kind of pop promo background as the likes of Brett Ratner (did I just hear everyone spit on the ground?) McG brought his music video sensibility to the Charlie’s Angels movies that everyone hated a few years ago. Then he annoyed the fan boys by making Terminator Salvation which was a big old mess with its clunky story and endless reshoots (although ironically enough is actually pretty well directed). Even if McG made a decent film, for example We Are Marshall, he was doomed to be hated for things like This Means War (understandably so in that case) because let’s face facts here: no matter what he directs people think he’s a knob because his name is McG.

Poor guy, he can’t get away from it: he’s a dick because he’s called McG so he must make dickish films. He can make scifi epics or serious dramas but he’s never going to be taken seriously because of his name. So it seems McG has just accepted this fact and embraced his own stupidity… and The Babysitter is result. And boy is it dumb.

Plotwise… let’s keep this brief. Nerdy kid Cole is still being babysat when he is twelve whilst all his classmates have grown up and are, I don’t know what? Being left home by themselves by deeply irresponsible parents? Anyway it might be because his babysitter is a classic all American “smokin’ hot babe” – blonde, big tits and a pair of hot pants you could measure in millimetres. Cole’s chum suggests that the babysitter is only looking after him so she can have boys over after Cole has gone to sleep, so he decides to stay up and see if that really is the case, and if so… erm… perv on the babysitter having sex? Is this a good thing for the main character to have as his motivation? Especially when he’s twelve? Oh well, that’s what’s happening so we just have to move on. Anyway, as it turns out she has a bunch of friends who are the previously mentioned cultists or whatever who want to kill people in order to live forever or something… like I said before this is all a bit vague. I mean, they seem to have the Book of the Dead from The Evil Dead but that’s about demon resurrection not immortality. Who knows…

More to the point, who cares? The Babysitter is not interested in details like that or even making a hell of a lot of sense if you think about it. What it is interested in is entertainment and fun and that’s what you get! The babysitter’s gang is about as broad a stroke as you can get: there’s the jock, the slut and a token black guy. There’s someone else but I’ve already forgotten him. They are all far too good looking. Cole as the kid is sooooo wrong for the role. He’s meant to be a picked upon dweeb but apart from the comedy glasses on his face he’s the kind of kid we all recognise as the coolest dude in your class. Even at the age of twelve all the girls would be in love with him and he’d probably already have a fourteen year old girlfriend. That’s not to say Judah Lewis isn’t good in the role, he’s charming and full of confidence and screams a good scream. But a Poindexter? Never.

Also while I’m here who the hell is this film aimed at? The main protagonist is a a twelve year old so aimed at kids yeah? But then the babysitter is a killer sex kitten so is this for teenage boys? But it’s extremely violent and gory so… okay no that’s still for teenage boys. Okay, I’ve got it. This is a weird sexual fantasy for teenage boys. Now it all makes sense.

Actually looking at it through that eye it really does. Sure the characters are broad but they are also interesting and entertaining. The whole film has focus like an old eighties movie so you are constantly engaged. Actually what this is most like is like an R rated Home Alone, but instead of a couple of bumbling robbers you have a pack of horny youths and instead of Macaulay Caulkin you have someone who can act.

I’m not saying that The Babysitter is good by any stretch of the imagination good, but it is relentless entertaining. It’s the kind of film you’d happen across in the old video stores and thoroughly enjoy despite yourself.

A decent McG film… who’d of thought it?

 

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.

 

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?