The Drowned Man, National Theatre until 13 December 2013

Drowned+man

Deep into the realms of horror theatre, this is certainly the maddest live performance experience I’ve ever had, and I’ve taken LSD at a circus so I know what I’m talking about.
Set over four floors of a former postal sorting office, Punchdrunk Productions have transformed the building into the fictional Temple Studios, set at the time of a wrap party for a movie that is still being made. As an audience member you wander around the never ending corridors, into creepy rooms and sets where a bit the story will suddenly spring up on you like a snippet from a newspaper, before disappearing off into the darkness.
Let’s do the short spoiler free version of this: it’s long, three hours long, it barely makes a scrap of sense, is completely disorienting and you get a sweaty nose.
It is also the craziest thing in London right now and if you want to see what it’s like to enter someone else’s nightmare then I’d go and see it while you can. Oh, and don’t read anymore of this review as I am going to hit you with lots of spoilers from here on in, not that it will really give anything away because in some respects The Drowned Man is like the Hollywood stars it portrays: completely recognisable but also impossible to really, fully understand. However this is part of its weird charm.
So here we go. Upon arrival my fine friend Mariam and I had to hand over our bags and were given a white mask like something out of an Edgar Allen Poe tale. All the audience had to wear the mask, it separated us from the performers, but also gave us a weird view of the action, looking through the holes of the masks (that were like skulls with beaks) we crowded around the different events like ghosts watching the living. Mind you it felt like the performers were the ghosts. Starting with the old fashioned Studio executive taking us in a lift down to the basement, talking like someone from a hundred years ago, he was like a spirit out of The Shining. Then as people left the lift, our man had a change of heart, slammed the door shut on them and took the rest of us up to the top floor where the tale began.
Set in the late fifties/early sixties the story, if you could call it that, started in a dust bowl of a mid-west town in the dead end of America. It was like wandering around a dream, there was a forest, but no sky, a trailer park, but no dwellers, then a girl and a boy ran past an old automobile and started a terrific row. Okay, so I must tell you at this point they argued through the medium of dance, and I’m not saying it wasn’t a bit pretentious, because it jolly well was. However, only a few minutes in you are already so freaked out by the mist and the darkness, the wild soundtrack playing all round you and the masked, terrified looking audience that a bit of dance is light relief.
Before you know it you are off again, going in your own direction, discovering dusty old empty rooms,  and then coming across a girl in her rotten old bedroom, putting on a pretty dress for some future, disastrous romantic meeting. Mariam and I stumbled (and there is a fair amount of stumbling, it’s bloody dark) into a bar room brawl. Stand back or you might get an incomprehensible madman landing on you. This open plan approach to seeing a play is to theatre what Grand Theft Auto is to videogames. Sure there is a main plot somewhere along the way but whether you find it all is another matter.
Down the stairs onto the next floor you find yourself witnessing the behind the scenes wheelings and dealings of a Hollywood studio, as starlets and has-beens mix with wannabes and sharks willing to become a success at any price. Things certainly are getting weirder here, and they were pretty nuts in the first place. Now you feel you have stumbled into the outtakes of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, where extreme sex and lounge music are the norm.
The further down the building you go, the creepier and more surreal things become: a room marked “Prosthetics” is adorned with hanging bits of fake flesh, a vast check-floored hall is the home of satanic rituals involving red velvet curtains and baseball bats. In fact, as Mariam pointed out, even the areas where no action actually happens feel like you’ve entered the room just as some one has left. You are encouraged to opens drawers, look through racks of costumes, sit in empty cinemas. Time and again we’d come across some freaked-out audience member, lost from their friends in all the dark mayhem, reading an old diary, looking for clues to the bigger picture like a shadowey detective. The attention to detail is incredible. I think the biggest clue I found to what the story was was in a small, dirty little room off from the main action down a dead end in the cellar. From the ceiling hung vein-like bits of red string. On each vein was a small piece of paper with a name written on it: stars having given up their identity and their souls for the Hollywood dream.
Mariam and I managed to stick together against the odds, despite seeing other audience members being being dragged off through a door, never to be seen again. Or at least I think never again, in the masks we all looked the same. There was a break of sorts somewhere in the middle, where we came across a time warp bar, serving wine and Budweiser while glamorous singers intoxicated us with their dreamy melodies. There was even an ending which I think made some kind of sense, but as we stumbled out blinking into the real world we could not be sure how long had we’d been part of this experience. Was it three hours? Was it longer? In fact I would recommend leaving your watch behind and just getting lost in the nightmare. It’s not for everyone, some of the eyes behind the masks looked terrified, a couple looked bored, but it’s certainly unique. As Mariam and I sat down for a much needed bite to eat afterwards we talked about The Drowned Man for a long, long time. We worked out the plot and the themes, and how all the details added to the story as a whole. Then I discovered a piece of paper in my pocket; the synopsis of the play, nothing like the story we saw! Well, it’s a different tale for everyone I suppose.
Oh and the Drowned Man himself? I think that might have been me.  The masks didn’t half make your nose drip with sweat, I felt like I was water torturing myself, which in that long, dark nightmare somehow made a lot of sense.

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Straw Dogs 2011

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SPOILERS! This remake was widely dismissed upon its release the other year, with cries of “how dare people touch a Sam Peckinpah classic?!” But Straw Dogs ain’t no Wild Bunch, let me tell you. The 1971 version of Straw Dogs seems to have been risen aloft in recent years as some kind of perfect vision of the ‘Us vs. Them’ thriller. It does have many good things going for it, but it also has some terrible old clichés and a really grim rape scene. So you’ll be pleased to hear that the remake has stuck closely to its origins, if not in location (it’s now set in the Deep South as opposed to the deep south of Cornwall) then certainly with its old clichés and another grim rape scene.

This new version finds James Marsden and Kate Bosworth returning to her old home town so he can concentrate on finishing his film script about the heroes of Stalingrad, seemingly blissfully unaware that this film has already been done twice in the last few years with Enemy at the Gates and Stalingrad (Oi Marsden! The clue’s in the title!). Here the usual assortment of sweaty, unshaven, lazy, beer-swigging Southern hicks roll about lusting after Bosworth’s tight little Hollywood body. The most prominent of these is the absolutely vast Alexander Skarsgård. I mean, this guy is huge and not in a fat way; I mean he’s a fucking giant. Every time he’s on screen it looks like everyone has been shrunk down to a smaller scale and when he’s got his mighty hand around Marsden’s neck it looks like he’s playing with an Action Man doll.

These men are an obvious threat to the fragile tranquillity of the young couple’s happiness, so of course Marsden does the obvious thing and employs Skarsgård and his pack to do up their broken down barn. This is where the main dynamic of the film lies, dealing with class difference: big city liberal vs. small-town conservative and brains vs. brawn and it’s all done pretty well, managing to make solid social commentary while simultaneously building up sweaty tension until everything blows up in the Southern heat.

One aspect of the original underlying story which is repeated in the remake is the idea that nerdy bookworm men should be constantly aware that they are under threat of having such a glamorous woman taken away from them by ‘real men’, so to speak. Kind of like stronger lions stealing another’s mate in the wild. In the original film Dustin Hoffman as a super geeky mathematician excels at this, really emphasising the odds that are stacked against him, which makes his final violent defence all the more powerful. Now I like James Marsden as an actor, he has an easy going charm about him, but relentless glasses-wearing doesn’t distract from the fact that the lad is far too good looking for the role. At no point do you think he’s ‘punching above his weight’ with his beautiful wife, which undermines the dynamic of the characters somewhat.

Finally, after various subplots involving James Woods as a bigot, we get to the last act which like the previous version is one big long siege with lots of screaming, shotgunnin’ and a dirty great big bear trap. And it’s a pretty intense act. Even with his pretty boy looks you do actually feel that the odds are indeed stacked against Marsden and Bosworth as they get suitably bloody and savage. It’s gripping stuff, which is a nice surprise since up until this point things have been moving along pleasantly, if not exactly thrillingly.

Oh…  And I’ve got to talk about the rape scene I suppose.

The original film was notorious for the vastly unpleasant rape where Susan George seems to smile at one point, perhaps suggesting a certain amount of pleasure. This resulted in the film being unavailable for years with Peckenpah refusing to cut the scene and the censors refusing to release it. Anyway as it turns out, that ‘smile’ was a result of a cut already made before the film was first released, bringing the two shots incorrectly together and making the scene seem much worse than it initially was. Still…

Well there’s no such smile in the remake. At first Bosworth really does try to fight off her attackers, but when she realises it’s hopeless and she’s going to be raped whatever she does, she goes silent. All understandable of course, but the unfortunate side-effect of this is that what we actually therefore see is just two super beautiful bodies grinding one on the other. Taken out of context, it could look like any Hollywood sex-scene and so potentially undermines what a hideous, ugly and often violent act rape really is.  When a second more aggressive rape takes place, with an unattractive perpetrator, the camera shies away from watching this. Well I’m glad about that in many ways, but on the other hand I think that showing one kind of rape and then avoiding the other suggests that sexual violence perpetrated by beautiful people can be titillating. As such the film seemingly avoids showing rape in the terrible light it deserves. Also, because Bosworth’s character doesn’t tell anyone what happens to her (there’s a suggestion that Marsden knows, but that doesn’t really make any sense) this renders the rape almost completely irrelevant in terms of the rest of the plot, in which case why have it in there at all? You could argue that it explains why Bosworth acts so violently later on, but why does a woman have to suffer the indignity of sexual assault before she can ‘legitimately’ beat the shit out of guys who are otherwise hideous, foaming-at-the-bit villains anyway? Maybe the film makers thought it was in the original so we gotta have it in this one. I’m not so sure we do.

Anyway, apart from that, as remakes go Straw Dogs one of the better ‘what-is-the-point’ remakes of late. It’s made with a certain amount of intelligence and thought, and at least they didn’t try to make up an explanation for the title: “well Amy honey, it seems like those wild redneck dogs were made of nothing more than straw after all”. Phew.

Pacific Rim 2013

PACIFIC RIM

All giant monster movies have some merit in my books so Pacific Rim gets a pass, but god-damn-it, only just. What fan of horror/ sci fi/ Godzilla wasn’t excited by the prospect of big mecha suits, enormous beasts from beneath the sea and Guillermo del Toro?  God knows I was and I almost worked on the thing. But the end result is really less than the sum of its parts, and that mostly is to do with the age old problem: a boring, sub-standard script.

Now a lot of people seem to think a good script is just about whether the dialogue is well written or not. Of course that is partly true (and the dialogue here certainly is not), but it is also about creating interesting characters and setting up a solid and yet motivating structure for the story. Pacific Rim manages to mess up both of these, while trying to do the opposite. The first thing the script does is skip the beginning of the story. We only have a brief recap as to the origins of the giant monsters, or Kaiju as they are known, their arrival on earth and the ensuing human resistance using Jaegers: big fat mecha robots controlled by two pilots. This isn’t a totally bad idea; it passes by what could have been a long old process before we even get to the first fight. Instead we are treated to a big old bash-up in the sea between our heroes and an ugly looking behemoth. So far so good but then we jump forward a few years and times have got tough, the humans are loosing and the fight back must begin anew. Or some such bollocks.

This is the section of the film where things go quite wrong. The lead hero, Raleigh Becket (a movie moniker if ever there was one) played by Sons of Anarchy’s Charlie Hunnam is your standard troubled loose-cannon and his new partner, Mako Mori played by Rinko Kikuchi, is so weak and wishy-washy you want the monsters to win. Raleigh also has a rival, kind of a Val Kilmer in Top Gun type, but for some reason the film makers have chosen to cast someone who looks almost identical to Hunnam. It’s really weird when they have one of their meaningless scrapes because it looks like really good effects created to show doppelgangers fighting. Not that I could work out what they were arguing about in the first place; it was almost as if they were doing it to create some kind of human conflict because the big monster threat wasn’t enough. Or they were trying to drag out the film before the real action starts.

Honestly this section seems to go on forever. And while I’m all for giving a film a chance to breathe and giving the audience time to get to know the characters so we care about them when the shit hits the fan, these guys are cartoon-like in their simplicity. We meet two scientists working on an unnecessary sub-plot involving two good comic actors failing miserably to raise even a smirk. And I haven’t even mentioned Idris Elba. Idris Elba! A man who is able to convey charm, charisma and depth while frozen in a suit made of gold in Thor has nothing to work with here, just a boring old military/father figure type. God it’s depressing.

Okay, so, well into the second half of the film things suddenly pick up: there is a terrific section involving a fight in and around Hong Kong, the lashing rain and neon lights creating a wonderful backdrop for some truly spectacular imagery. The effects cannot be faulted, though maybe some of the choices can. Why are all the fights at night? There’s a small glimpse of a daytime fight in Sydney which really shows off the size of the monsters and robots, but a lot of this is lost in the dark. Worse, the final battle is deep under sea, so now we lose all sense of scale in what is essentially an alien world. Then there are the Kiaju themselves; sure, they look okay sure, but there isn’t much variety in them, a few extra legs and wings here and there, but I’d have liked a larger selection of rogues to slap about.

But those are only minor problems; the real trouble is the script, with its bland dialogue and one dimensional characters and that long, long section where nothing of note happens. On the positive side at least I am thankful that the script isn’t overly convoluted and the action is nicely framed, edited and clear, unlike the dreadful Transformers movies. Maybe I’m being too harsh on the film, based on my own expectations; but when you spend this amount of money and effort making it look good, and it really does look terrific, maybe spending a little bit more time on the foundations ain’t too much to ask.

Fiend Without A Face 1958

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A film about an American airforce in Canada but shot in England with many Scottish people putting on funny accents, Fiend without a Face is not your typical 1950s creature feature.

Back in the heady days of drive-ins when the Americans ruled the world as far as monster and sci-fi B-movies were concerned it was difficult for anyone else to get a foot in. So when us Brits decided to make a sci-fi horror movie, to stand any chance of competeing with the yanks we had to play them at there own game. Oh and pretend we were American. But in this case we took it too far, and made one better.

Fiend without a Face starts off as an average U.S. B-movie. It has all the standard tropes: a tough jawed American soldier, a glamorous girl, a nutty professor and, of course, experiments with atomic energy. But there’s all sorts of weird details. For example, the hero Major Cummings (!) hardly has any sleep because he’s so busy, so keeps himself awake by taking speed. He freely admits this to his work collegues who all seem to think its perfectly fine, although he doesn’t talk too much or grind his teeth so maybe it’s only the mild stuff. Also, the heroine’s brother dies early on but on the way back from his funeral she is already flirting outrageously with the emphetamine addicted major. Is she not bothered at all about her loss? Maybe they do it different in the English country side, I mean the Canadian countryside. Because really, this isn’t fooling anyone. The farms that are attacked by the fiends without their faces couldn’t be in anywhere but Britain. putting a sign up saying “Canada 2 Miles” aint gonna fool anyone.

So the first two thirds of the film rumble along at quite a slow pace. The creatures are invisible so you just feel cheated by them, there are various US Airforce experiments which mostly consist of gerenals looking at  spinny dials while we cut to stock footage and it’s only the comedy accents that seem to keep us going. But then the truth about the monsters is revealed in plain sight, as indeed are they, and the final act suddenly shifts into high gear.

Now we are in a cottage-under-seige film, not unlike a precursor to Night of the living Dead. But instead of zombies we have stop-motion brains with stalky-eyes that push themselves along snake-like with their vertebrae. And they’re great. They wrap themselves around people’s necks, throttling them to death, they launch themselves through windows, and when they are shot they split open in a bloody splattering of brains and gore. In fact between the excellent stop motion, design and outragious violence it’s like we’re watching a different movie from a different era.

For the final act alone this is a film worth hunting down if you like this kind of thing. Just say no to the speed though.

 

Secret Window 2004

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There is a lot of talk about Johnny Depp’s performances of late. About how they fall into two catagories: The serious roles like Donnie Brasco and Blow, and “turns” like The Pirates movies, Dark Shadows, Alice in Wonderland, etc. Recently, people seem to be falling out of love with his turns, if not the great man himself. Especially the much hated The Lone Ranger with his take on Toto. But I think people are forgetting how hugely entertaining his over the top performances can be. Or maybe we’re just getting too many of them.

Anyway, on paper Secret Window should certainly fall into the catagory of Serious Johnny Depp. He plays Mort Rainey, a successful author who’s wife left him six months previously for another man. He now spends his time at his log cabin the woods, failing to write anything new and talking to his dog. Then up pops a southern drawling John Turturro claiming that Depp has stolen one of his stories word for word and he wants what is due to him, else he will get revenge on him one way or another.

So we have a classic thriller set up, but this is based on a Stephen King novel so things are never quite what they seem. It also has that attention for detail that King has in his stories so well: the small town mentality, the self destructive writer (something King really knows about) and an understanding of the nature of a marraige. The scenes between Depp and his ex wife (Maria Bello, fantastic as always*) are bristling with tension and underlying anger, made all the more amazing by the fact that they are often done over the phone. Also John Turturro makes for one creepy son-of-a-bitch, dressed in black with his high pilgrim hat he echoes Robert Mitchem’s preacher in Night of the Hunter, always a good thing.

But this is Johnny Depp’s film and rather than being serious Johnny he goes for one of his turns. He’s constantly gurning and talking to inanimate objects, at one point he even comedy walks into a glass door. It’s kind of odd. You would think that a thriller based on a Stephen King story would need a straight performance from its leading man, but for some reason, Depp playing it quite off-kilter really elevates the material. Maybe because the story might be a bit bog standard if he wasn’t going for it. It is nicely shot, tightly directed and isn’t over long, but it might just be a tad too unoriginal and maybe even a little dull if it wasn’t for Depp lighting up the screen whenever he’s on it. And he’s on it a lot, he’s in pretty much every scene. In fact a large chunk of the film is just him banging around his cabin by himself. And its a testament to his screen presence that sometimes when you have a great actor, that can be all you need.

*Except The Mummy 3. Poor Maria, what was anyone thinking? Casting a blonde, very American, American as Rachel Weiss? Madness I tell you.

 

 

The Keep 1983

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I bet when Michael Mann was making his second feature a lot of people thought it would be his equivalent to Ridley Scott’s Alien. Unfortunately what we ended up with was the equivalent to Ridley Scott’s Prometheus.

Like Alien, it is the sophomore effort from an obviously talented director. Also like Alien it is a beautiful, atmospheric horror epic. However, like Prometheus it also makes little to no sense and is also a load of old bobbins. It’s also bloody brilliant.Here, let me explain, before you dismiss what I have to say as the ravings of a mad man.

The Keep concerns a garrison of Nazis sent to occupy an ancient fort in the middle-of-nowhere Romania where the local villagers are your standard-issue horror village types, though no pitch forks in sight as the Nazis would shoot you dead if you raised one to them. Anyway, things really should be apparent that all is not well with the building of the title when the Nazis, led by Das Boot’s Captain, Jurgen Prochnow, realise that the keep is built inside out, as if to keep something in, rather than anyone out… Soon German soldiers are being decapitated, burnt and exploding all over the place, often in slow motion, usually in thick mist, and once in a while with a disco laser in the background if we’re very, very lucky.

But this is only the start of the story, soon the SS show up, and these guys are real bastards. Led by Gabriel Byrne with one of the severest haircuts in cinema history, they torture, shoot and rape their way about like it was The Third Riech Christmas party. Then Ian Mckellen is wheeled in, literally, as an Old Jewish expert on the Keep. And we haven’t even met the Hero of the peice. Scott Gleen plays an enegmatic mystery man charged with fighting the creature in the keep because, er… because, okay, I have no idea why, he just does.

See the problem is that while the first half of the film sets up the grim atmosphere really well, the second half just seems to start jumping through the story as if big chunks of it hadn’t been filmed. Rumour has it that this really is the case. The production went well over schedule and well over budget and various compromises had to be made, a lot of them to do with narrative it seems.

But for all that The Keep remains a unique bit of film making. The atmosphere is incredible, helped no end by Tangerine Dreams weird and haunting score. And the villain, Molasar, while looking a bit rubbery here and there, is an imposing presence, especially when he’s in his giant smoke monster mode. He’s the kind of guy you want on your side, even if he does threaten the entire Earth. Well nobody’s perfect are they.

Basically, it really is like Prometheus: striking to look at and hugely entertaining if you are prepared to accept certain (okay loads) of problems with the story telling. And on top of that, it has one big thing over Ridley Scott’s epic folly, it (spoilers) ends with an electronic rendition of Walking Through The Air – The theme from The Snowman. Why? Why? Who cares. It’s genius.

The Darkest Hour 2011

THE DARKEST HOUR

 

I’m not sure if this is definitely a horror movie, but then alien invasion movies are usually pretty horrific aren’t they? From the blood injectors in War of the Worlds to the weirdo aliens in Xtro there have been plenty of scary-ass invasions over the years. In The Darkest Hour our fragile Earth is invaded by, er, electrical glows from another dimension. Can you see the problem here? We’re dealing with an ill defined threat. In fact, most of the time they are completely invisible… Ooh, look we’re watching people being attacked by nothing: this is not exciting.

Worse, when people do die at the hands of these transparent chaps they burn up a bit like a cross between the vampire deaths in the Blade films and the heat-rays in Spielberg’s version of War of the Worlds. It’s all sadly derivative and un-ambitious. Similar I suppose to Skyline, but lacking that film’s craziness the story centres on a group of Americans on a night out in Moscow when the world is invaded by the glowing and/or invisible thingymawhatsits. This is really the best aspect of the film, Moscow looks amazing, all the empty Red Square stuff and other tourist attractions have a lovely, almost beautiful, haunting quality about them when no one is around. Much like London in 28 Days Later, but here we are again, being derivative.

Wasting talents such as Emile Hirsch and especially Olivia Thirlby (who do their best bless ‘em) on a story that goes nowhere seems like madness to me. Was the script just not developed enough? Or were there once interesting bits, ironed out as it headed towards production? There are a few nice details, like how the aliens make electricity switch on when they are near, so the survivors scatter light bulbs everywhere as early warning signs. Plus there is some fun to be had with a cat, but these elements are few and far between.

The trouble with criticizing the horror genre is that it gets an awful lot of shit from the mainstream critics as it is, I feel like I’m kicking a puppy when I pick on a small film that at least tries. This, on the other hand seemed like a fair-sized studio picture that should have been more ambitious, or at least more interesting than just glowing see-through aliens, the Moscow setting and Olivia Thirlby, although the last two are very interesting indeed.