It (2017)

aka It: Chapter One

2018 #118
Andy Muschietti | 135 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA & Canada / English | 15 / R

It

The highest-grossing horror movie of all time, It is the story of a bunch of teenagers in small-town America coming face to face with an ancient evil… who looks like a clown. Well, it can look like other things too, but mostly it’s a clown. Why did it stick with that form? I dunno. Maybe coulrophobia is even more common than we think.

Adapted from a novel by Stephen King (which was previously filmed as a miniseries), It actually only tackles half the book, meaning they get to crank out a sequel too (currently due next September). This actually works in the film’s favour, however: the novel takes place across two timelines, and, rather than just adapt the first half of the book, the film only adapts the earlier timeline. That means it makes for a complete experience in itself, rather than feeling like you’ve only got half the story.

It also focuses our view of the characters. Rather than seeing them at two very different times in their lives, it becomes a coming-of-age tale… albeit one where they come of age thanks to having to battle a supernatural horror. “It”, aka Pennywise the clown, is effectively and unpredictably scary, because he’s able to turn up at any time in any form. It seems almost like a cheat — a free-for-all excuse for the film to be scary whenever and however it fancies, without the need to follow any monster rules. At the same time, that makes the film less predictable, and therefore more effective, at the headline goal of a horror movie, i.e. scaring you. Also, if we’re parsing this as a coming-of-age tale more than a monster movie, it allows It’s various forms to further develop the characters: each identity it assumes is custom-made to terrify the individual being targeted, and the only rule is you defeat It by overcoming your fear, an act which is (in this movie at least) explicitly tied to growing up.

I've got 99 red balloons and this is one

Plenty of people will line up to tell you It isn’t actually all that scary, a level of assessment that is to watching horror movies what boasting who can eat the hottest curry is to dining. Obviously, everyone’s mileage will vary. I found some of it to be suitably unsettling and disturbing, and the “any time, any place” aspect keeps you alert and on edge. The downside is that, for the first chunk of the movie, the film just seems to be a series of unsettling scenes without much of a plot. It gets over that when the gang really comes together, but I can see why the movie ended up being so long: there are too many characters, and because It assaults each with their own personalised horror, we have to wait while the film gives them all individual sequences. Not that any of it is bad, but it threw the pacing off for me. Maybe it would’ve been better if they reduced the size of the gang by deleting a character or two.

One thing that did get ditched between page and screen is one of the most infamous scenes in King’s novel: a ten-page pre-teen orgy. Though, as it occurs during a section of the plot that we don’t actually see depicted on screen, I guess you could imagine it still happened, if you want. Ironically, while the film may have removed that overt sexuality, it still very much male-gazes the gang’s only female member, Beverly: there’s a scene where all the boys ogle her as she sunbathes in her underwear, and she begins the film’s climax as a “damsel in distress” who has to be rescued by a “true love’s first kiss” kinda deal. She’s not completely useless or without agency, but there’s room for improvement.

The Losers Club

What’s perhaps most baffling is that, by the sound of things, the early drafts for this movie (which were rejected and rewritten after original writer-director Cary Fukunaga left the project) did a lot to modernise that stuff. For example, there’s a scene where Beverly flirts with an (adult) pharmacist as a distraction, but, in the original draft, one of the other kids just faked a medical emergency for the same result. No, that’s not the most egregiously sexual thing they could’ve put in (child orgy!), but it’s still putting her in the position of being an object of lust. I guess, much like the scariness of the horror, your mileage will vary on how distasteful this stuff is. Ultimately, it’s a fairly small part of the movie.

Even if the film runs a little long, I mostly enjoyed It. Its scary scenes are unnerving enough that it works as a horror-show ride, while its coming-of-age aspect is bolstered by really good performances from the young cast, and clear thematic stuff about overcoming fear and the value of friendship. Which almost makes it sound like a kids’ film, but, yeah, don’t go putting this on for younguns — coulrophobia would be the least of their problems.

4 out of 5

It is available on Sky Cinema from today.

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The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

aka Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari

2017 #163
Robert Wiene | 77 mins | Blu-ray | 1.33:1 | Germany / silent (German) | U

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

The poster child for German Expressionist cinema, as well as featuring “cinema’s first true mad doctor” and “cinema’s first unreliable narrator” (at least according to David Cairns on the Masters of Cinema Blu-ray — I haven’t verified those statements for myself), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari certainly has a lot to unpack for a film that’s barely an hour-and-a-quarter long. Or does it? Because one has to wonder if there’s an element of style over substance here.

“A mystery story told in the Poe manner,” according to the original Variety review, the titular Dr Caligari (Werner Krauss) is the host of a fairground attraction, and his eponymous cabinet contains Cesare (Conrad Veidt), a somnambulist who Caligari controls — at the fair, to answer questions from the audience; and at night, to do his evil bidding, including murder. Caligari’s activities come to the attention of young Franzis (Friedrich Feher), who attempts to uncover the truth about the doctor and expose him.

But the most famous thing about Caligari by far is not the storyline or the characters, but the visual style. Painted backdrops evoke a landscape straight out of a nightmare: jagged lines and stark monochromatic shapes (this isn’t just a film that happens to be filmed without colour, it feels black and white), the give the impression of the winding streets of a town and its locales, without actually being one. The implied structures tower over the characters, leaning in above, creating an oppressive and unnerving atmosphere, while their total lack of reality evoke theatre more than the literalism we’re now used to from film. The make-up and performances are the same: heightened; dreamlike — or nightmarish.

Impractical architecture

Which may be entirely appropriate given the film’s framing narrative, which (spoilers!) introduce an ending that’s a little bit “and it was all a dream”. Or was it? Well, that depends how you interpret what happens. The bookends were apparently added to help sell the film to the public, framing its fantastical narrative in something more grounded. The screenwriters weren’t happy — as Lotte H. Eisner writes (in the MoC booklet), “the result of these modifications was to falsify the action and ultimately to reduce it to the ravings of a madman. The film’s [screenwriters], Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz, had had the very different intention of unmasking the absurdity of asocial authority, represented by Dr. Caligari.” Well, the tacked-on ending doesn’t necessarily negate such an interpretation, you just need to fill in the blanks to get there yourself.

For example, there’s what Cairns calls his “Mulholland Drive theory”: that what we witness is all true, until the point that Franzis sees the asylum director is Caligari; from there until the reveal that Franzis is an asylum patient is a fantasy. Evidence in favour of this: everything goes implausibly swimmingly for our hero that section, from easily recruiting the asylum staff to finding (as Cairns puts it) “Caligari’s second cabinet, in which he keeps his entire backstory.” It’s a fun reading, even though it’s clearly a case of projecting an interpretation onto the film that wasn’t intended by the makers.

One that fits better, perhaps, is that Franzis’ flashbacks aren’t merely “the ravings of a madman”, but he’s telling the truth, and that somehow between the end of his flashbacks (which see Caligari locked up in his own asylum) and where we join the framing narrative (with Franzis locked in the asylum and Caligari in charge), the evil doctor has reasserted his authority and captured his accuser. Of course, that requires a leap — how does Caligari regain control? Why don’t we see it happen? Well, we don’t see it happen because that wasn’t what the makers intended.

Suspicious activity

And so we come back to “it was all a dream”. Maybe that’s the best explanation — the writers may’ve hated it, but in some respects it saves them from themselves: Cairns’ visual essay highlights a bunch of plot holes, inconsistencies, and confusions, not to mention issues of character motivations and actions (“in a way it makes no sense to speak of character motivation in a mad man’s fantasy”), all of which you can hand-wave away if “it was all a dream”. This is why I wondered if it was style over substance. The sets, the make-up, the performances — all fantastically atmospheric. The story, the characters, their actions — not such great shakes.

But maybe that’s okay. After all, why not? Director Robert Wiene and his crew did a fantastic job of bringing a surreal nightmare to life, and nightmares seldom feature plausible storylines.

4 out of 5

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was viewed as part of my Blindspot 2017 project, which you can read more about here.

The Monster Squad (1987)

2017 #43
Fred Dekker | 79 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / PG-13

The Monster Squad

When I rewatched The Nice Guys on Blu-ray, I also watched the (pathetic selection of) special features, in which Ryan Gosling mentions being a fan of Shane Black before he knew who Shane Black was because growing up he loved The Monster Squad. To cut to the obvious, that inspired me to watch the thing.

It’s about a group of young kids who idolise classic monster movies, but basically find themselves in one when Dracula and friends come alive and set about finding an amulet that will allow them to control the world. The film wasn’t a success on its original release, but has gained a cult following since. It feels like that kind of movie, too.

It’s also the kind of film I can imagine you’d love if you saw it at the right age, but the “right age” is not, it would seem, the one I am now. Really, it’s a kids’ movie, despite the BBFC’s 15 certificate. There’s more swearing and stuff than you’d typically expect from a kids’ movie, which I’m sure led to that classification, though as it’s not been submitted since 1990 perhaps they’d give it a 12 today. Nonetheless, the tone feels more aimed at, say, ten-year-olds — it stars kids who are 12 and under, and I bet they’re a moderately realistic version thereof, despite what ratings bodies would like.

Frankie comes from Hollywood

That’s not to say it’s without value for those of us coming to it late. There’s great make-up and creature effects, better than you might expect given the overall quality of the film, which is what you get when Stan Winston’s involved. It’s under 80 minutes long, which keeps things pleasantly fast — there’s very little titting about with bits of plot that we know where they’re going, it just gets there. There are some good lines too, as you’d expect from a Shane Black screenplay, although it’s surprisingly scrappily constructed. Perhaps that’s Fred Dekker’s limited skill as a director rather than Black’s screenplay? This was early in his career, mind, so maybe Black wasn’t up to scratch yet — it came out the same year as the film that made his name, Lethal Weapon… which I didn’t actually like much either, so…

The Monster Squad wasn’t a huge success for me, then, but I imagine if you saw it at the right age it would become a nostalgic favourite.

3 out of 5

Candyman (1992)

2017 #152
Bernard Rose | 95 mins | TV (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA & UK / English | 18 / R

Candyman

Written and directed by a Brit and based on a Clive Barker short story set in Liverpool, horror movie Candyman relocates its story to Chicago, where its race-related themes are arguably more pertinent. How well it handles that angle is another matter…

It stars Virginia Madsen as Helen, a student completing a post-grad thesis on urban legends, which is when she encounters the story of Candyman: supposedly he was a slave who was mutilated, given a hook for a hand, and then murdered, and can now be summoned by saying his name five times in a mirror, at which point he’ll kill the person who summoned him. Why you’d want to do that I don’t know. Anyway, Helen’s investigations lead her to the Cabrini-Green housing projects and a spate of murders that seem to fit Candyman’s MO. Could the legend be real…?

Candyman is over a quarter of a century old now, but it could hardly feel more current with its intellectual female lead and its story based around urban legends of poor black people — it’s ripe for commentary on feminism and racism. How well it handles these is another matter, because I’m not sure how much it has to say about either. Indeed, there’s gotta be room for a remake that tackles the racial tension stuff head-on and engages it more thoroughly. I guess the film just isn’t well enough remembered at this point, because otherwise surely someone would be on it already. It’s such a shame that so many great movies are subjected to inferior remakes when what we really need are more Ocean’s Elevens: middling-to-poor movies with good ideas remade with greater class so as to improve them.

Do you bee-lieve?

That said, I wouldn’t personally describe Candyman as “middling-to-poor”. What it may lack in societal commentary it makes up for as an atmospheric and unpredictable horror movie. I say that because it changes its style entirely halfway through: at first it’s very much an “is it real?” story, with our heroine investigating legends that don’t appear to be true (she says the name five times and nothing happens). The horror is psychological rather than gory. But then (spoilers!) Candyman does turn up (of course he does), at which point Helen becomes suspected of the murders, while Candyman manipulates her and tries to persuade her to become his victim. It’s an interesting development, and both halves present a captivating style of horror movie.

Such a switcheroo also means you don’t know where the story’s going to go or how it’s going to end, which is always an unusual sensation in a genre movie. It contributes to it being an effective piece of horror as well. It’s creepy and atmospheric, as well as containing straight-up jumps and gore. It’s all elevated by a fantastic score from Philip Glass, which helps lend a particular type of mood — kind of religious, almost; mythic.

Candyman spawned sequels, as most horrors seemed to back in the day, but no one seems to really talk about it anymore. That’s actually something of a shame, because it has a different texture to most horror movies, as well as some thematic points that are as socially resonate as ever.

4 out of 5

Beetlejuice (1988)

The 100 Films Guide to…

Beetlejuice

The Name In Laughter
From The Hereafter

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 92 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: PG

Original Release: 30th March 1988 (USA)
UK Release: 19th August 1988
Budget: $15 million
US Gross: $73.7 million

Stars
Michael Keaton (Batman, Birdman)
Alec Baldwin (The Hunt for Red October, Glengarry Glen Ross)
Geena Davis (The Fly, Thelma & Louise)
Winona Ryder (Heathers, Edward Scissorhands)

Director
Tim Burton (Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Edward Scissorhands)

Screenwriters
Michael McDowell (The Nightmare Before Christmas, Thinner)
Warren Skaaren (Beverly Hills Cop II, Batman)

Story by
Michael McDowell (see above)
Larry Wilson (The Addams Family, The Little Vampire)


The Story
Adam and Barbara Maitland are living an idyllic life in their lovely small-town house… until they die. What’s worse is that they’re condemned to haunt their old home while a family of city-slickers move in and destroy everything they loved about it. To get them out, Adam and Barbara may be forced to call on disgraced ‘bio-exorcist’ Betelgeuse…

Our Heroes
Adam and Barbara Maitland are a sweet couple living a quite life in a quaint little town, until they’re killed in an accident (swerving their car to avoid a very cute dog, to be fair) and have to cope not only with haunting their old home, but also with the afterlife’s bizarre bureaucracy.

Our Villains
Betelgeuse, Betelgeuse, Betelgeuse! He may be offering to help the Maitlands, but in the end he’s their biggest problem. Before that, though, there’s Charles and Delia Deetz, the new occupants who seem determined to ruin the Maitlands’ beloved home.

Best Supporting Character
The Deetz’s daughter, little goth Lydia. She’s the only human who can see the Maitlands, and quickly finds she gets on with them better than her own parents.

Memorable Quote
Juno: “What’s wrong?”
Barbara: “We’re very unhappy.”
Juno: “What did you expect? You’re dead!”

Memorable Scene
When the Deetzes hold a dinner party for some of their city friends, Adam and Barbara attempt to frighten them away by puppeteering them into a bizarre rendition of Day-O (The Banana Boat Song). As well as the supporting cast gamely engaging in a dance routine (er, kind of), they really sell it by simultaneously looking confused and troubled about what’s going on with their bodies. Unfortunately for Adam and Barbara, however, the stunt backfires…

Memorable Music
The famed collaboration between Tim Burton and Danny Elfman dates right back to the director’s first film, making this their second together. But that recognisable Elfman style — so familiar from, er, every other Tim Burton movie (as well as others, of course) — is already very much in evidence. The main theme almost sounds like a greatest hits package for the composer, which does make you wonder how much it’s style and how much he’s been ripping himself off ever since…

Truly Special Effect
According to IMDb, the visual effects budget was just $1 million, leading Burton to decide to make the effects look “as tacky and B-movie as possible” — which is interesting because a lot of them are pretty good, bearing in mind that the film hails from the late ’80s. Obviously they’ve aged now, therefore, but it’s so packed with creative and varied visual trickery that I assume it once played as a kind of effects showcase. It’s only that in an historical sense now, but there’s still a lot of striking and memorable stuff here.

Letting the Side Down
Betelgeuse, Betelgeuse, Betelgeuse! Ironically, I’d like the whole film a lot more if the title character wasn’t in it. Okay, I know not everyone’s going to feel this way — I imagine some people love him — but, for me, he’s by far the worst thing about the film. He starts off with just a couple of small appearances that are only a little irritating, but when he enters the story properly… ugh.

Making of
Believe it or not, the original script was a straight horror film. Betelgeuse was a winged demon, only transforming into a man to interact with humans, whose goal was to rape and kill the Deetzes rather than just scare them off. Lydia was a minor character, with a younger sister who could see the Maitlands. I don’t know how exactly it went from that to a comedy, but maybe it was for the best.

Next time…
An animated TV series, which reconfigured Betelgeuse as the hero and teamed him up with Lydia, ran for 94 episodes between 1989 and 1991. Apparently it was a big hit, and aired on both ABC and Fox simultaneously, becoming “one of the few shows in American television history to be aired concurrently on two different broadcast networks.” Aside from that, a sequel movie has long been mooted, and continues to be an on-again-off-again prospect to this day.

Awards
1 Oscar (Makeup)
2 BAFTA nominations (Make Up Artist, Special Effects)
3 Saturn Awards (Horror Film, Supporting Actress (Sylvia Sidney), Make-Up)
5 Saturn Award nominations (Supporting Actor (Michael Keaton), Director, Writing, Music, Special Effects)
Nominated for the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation

Verdict

I knew that I’d seen Beetlejuice many years ago, but I could barely remember anything about it, other than a general sense that I didn’t like it much. So watching it again now was almost like a first viewing, and was almost a revelation too: it’s a very enjoyable film. Pretty much my only problem with it is Betelgeuse himself (as discussed above); but, in fact, he only makes up a relatively small proportion of the movie: he’s in just 17½ minutes, less than 20% of the film. The good qualities in the remainder keep it up at a 4-star level.

Annihilation (2018)

2018 #45
Alex Garland | 115 mins | streaming (UHD) | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English | 15 / R

Annihilation

Many column inches (and even more tweets) have been penned about Paramount’s decision to relegate director Alex Garland’s second third film straight to Netflix outside the US, Canada, and China, so I presume the pros and cons of that move have been thoroughly discussed elsewhere. Personally, I’m on the fence: it’s disappointing not to see intelligent sci-fi being given a shot at the box office, but I’m one of those people who’s 50/50 on whether I go to see it or just wait for disc/streaming/etc. (I’ve not even seen The Shape of Water, for example, although that’s partly due to a dearth of convenient screenings during its brief theatrical appearance. Conversely, I did go to Arrival.) Anyway, it is what it is at this point, so let’s move on to the film itself.

Loosely based on the acclaimed novel by Jeff VanderMeer (reportedly Garland read the book once then wrote the screenplay from memory), it follows biologist, academic, and former member of the Army, Lena (Natalie Portman), whose soldier husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) went missing a year ago during a secretive mission. After he suddenly reappears, apparently with no memory of his time away but with some severe medical problems, the couple are scooped up by a military organisation investigating Area X, a top-secret quarantined zone affected by an unexplained phenomenon known as the Shimmer. Various teams have been sent inside the Shimmer, but Kane is the only person to ever return. As his health deteriorates, Lena, desperate for answers, joins the latest squad to venture inside. That’s where stuff gets crazy…

Squad goals

The first thing Annihilation made me think of was Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival. The connection was initially triggered by the score: the ambient soundtrack by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury reminded me so much of Arrival’s that I had to check this wasn’t a last work by Jóhann Jóhannsson. Once I spotted that, the other similarities in the story leapt out: they’re both thoughtful sci-fi parables about a female university lecturer being co-opted into a military operation to investigate a strange extraterrestrial presence on Earth, while also remembering her family life in flashbacks.

Despite Paramount’s insistence that the film was too intelligent for non-US audiences (you can take a moment to laugh at that notion if you like), Annihilation is perhaps more accessible than Arrival, at least initially. Whereas Villeneuve’s film played like a character drama, Garland’s has a strong adventure-movie vein, also laced with elements of the horror genre. It’s still not a mile-a-minute thrill-ride, but, if you wanted, you could engage with it on the level of a quest through an alien event, encountering strange phenomena and creatures, with events of life-threatening jeopardy. However, for all the original sci-fi ideas, it does also touch on weightier, more human psychological issues — as the Empire review summarised it, “depression, grief and the human propensity for self-destruction.”

All the better to eat you with

Naturally this material is carried by the cast. Portman makes for an interesting lead. Clearly damaged by grief, she’s quite a cold figure, which may distance her from some viewers in the way it does from some of her team mates. But there’s more to it than that, and Portman delivers subtle nuances that hint at more beneath the surface. The rest of her all-female squad — played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, and Gina Rodriguez — all have distinct personalities, all get brief subplots and moments, and they’re mostly managed with an equal level of understatement. Perhaps the best is Thompson, whose calm, gently heartfelt performance is quietly superb, and even more striking as it marks a huge contrast to her star-making turn in Thor: Ragnarok just a few months ago. As a pair of films to be a calling-card for her skills, one could barely ask for more.

A lot of disappointment about the lack of a theatrical release stems to not being able to see these visuals on a cinema screen; not being able to experience the audio with a cinema sound system. Well, that partly depends on your own setup at home, of course. Setting that aside, though, while there are certainly some very striking visuals, it wasn’t as consistently stunning as some reviews made it sound. I’m not saying it wouldn’t benefit from the big screen, especially if you’re particularly fond of that experience, but I didn’t feel I was missing much scale by watching at home. I felt similarly about the sound design, though I do say that as someone with a 7.1 system. For spectacle, the intricate and colourful end credits are the most striking bit — I’m certain they benefitted from my viewing the film in 4K HDR.

Scared of the dark?

However you get to see it, writer-director Alex Garland has crafted another sci-fi mystery/thriller that engages on multiple levels. For me it was somewhat damaged by the hype, perhaps a result of US reviewers frantically urging people to get out and see it to prove that Paramount’s lack of faith was a mistake. While I didn’t instantly love it in the same way as, say, Arrival, or Garland’s debut, Ex Machina, it’s undoubtedly a fascinating, thought-provoking slice of science-fiction — and a much-needed critical success for the “Netflix Original” brand after a couple of recent duds. I’d also say it places Garland ahead of genre contemporaries like Neill Blomkamp and Duncan Jones as a filmmaker to keep an eye on. Okay, he’s not quite Denis Villeneuve, but he’s a lot closer than the others.

4 out of 5

Annihilation is available on Netflix in most of the world now.

Making of the Living Dead

To mark the UK release of Criterion’s remastered, definitive Blu-ray edition of George A. Romero’s seminal subgenre-starting zombie classic Night of the Living Dead, I finally got round to watching two related feature-length documentaries that, er, aren’t included on that release. Never mind, eh?

Anyway, here are my thoughts on One for the Fire and Birth of the Living Dead.


One for the Fire:
The Legacy of “Night of the Living Dead”

(2008)

2018 #29
Robert L. Lucas & Chris Roe | 84 mins | Blu-ray (SD) | 16:9 | USA / English

One for the Fire Italian DVD

Made to mark the film’s 40th anniversary, this documentary interviews many of the surviving creators of Night of the Living Dead to tell the full story of the project’s genesis, making, release, and legacy.

After an opening segment that imitates Night’s own beginning and interviews the graveyard scene’s stars, One for the Fire goes for a chronological telling of events. It starts with Romero’s college days, when he met most of the gang who would eventually create Night. There are some great tales of him as a flamboyant student, swishing around in a cape or dressing up as a Mexican bandit for no particular reason — if you put it in a biopic it’d look like an OTT sitcom-ish affectation. After that they set up a production company, The Latent Image, making local TV ads. The expertise (and equipment) gained there would eventually embolden them to make a feature film, choosing the horror genre because it would be a relatively easy sell.

“We were just a bunch of guys out to make a movie,” says Romero, which kind of sums up the whole shoot — they basically winged it, making up the process of moviemaking as they went along. Any one of them could’ve done each other’s jobs because they all knew about as much as each other did; if someone knew slightly more about something, they were assigned that role. Everyone mucked in, doing what was necessary, be that zombie make-up or running to the shop for lunch. But they were canny, reaching out to local TV personalities, police, and helicopter pilots to lend a sense of scale to some sequences, or popping to Washington D.C. on a quiet Sunday to shoot a scene guerrilla-style, all to make it look like the film had some budget.

Making Night of the Living Dead

Interestingly, Romero says that Night is not only his scariest film, it’s in fact his only scary film. Not what you expect from a renowned horror director. But he says a specific part of the impetus while making Night was to try to scare the viewer, which hasn’t been his goal on any film he’s made since, despite the genre.

The documentary’s general narrative is interspersed with short asides that focus on minor-seeming individuals and the contributions they made to the film, which is a nice way of giving people credit. One who merits a longer discussion is Duane Jones, the actor who played the heroic role of Ben. He died in 1988 and they all pay quite moving tribute to him — he was clearly very well liked; admired, even. His part was written as colourless… well, so they say — I’m sure they assumed he’d be white. But they were young, hip guys, and so they happily cast Jones because he was the best actor they knew. They proudly didn’t change a single thing about the script to accommodate the race change. Romero thought they were being hip, treating him exactly the same as if he were white, but Jones disagreed, arguing they should acknowledge his race at least a bit. Speaking now, Romero thinks Jones was right — they were so busy being cool about it that they didn’t really understand that, in those days, it really was different him being black.

One for the Fire doesn’t get too far into that kind of analysis, mind. It’s really an oral history of how the film was made, by many of the people who were there doing it. How much that interests you will dictate how much this film does. Movie buffs may prefer the next documentary…

3 out of 5

Birth of the Living Dead
(2013)

2018 #30
Rob Kuhns | 76 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | USA / English | 15

Birth of the Living Dead

As Birth of the Living Dead got underway, I was worried I’d made a mistake watching it so soon after One for the Fire: it seemed to be telling the same making-of story (though starting later: it jumps straight to the Latent Image days), but with only one interviewee who was there (at least that interviewee is Romero himself) and some slick animations to illustrate events. However, it moves very quickly on to commenting on and analysing the film’s construction, effect, and influence, and puts both the finished film itself and its production methods into wider social and historical contexts.

There are some familiar stories and anecdotes here, unsurprisingly, but there’s actually not that much overlap with One for the Fire, and Romero even tells some new behind-the-scenes stories. Much more of the film is about commentary from knowledgeable individuals — other people in the industry, journalists, movie experts, and so on. What the film lacks in not having other voices from the production, it makes up for with this outside analysis. This is all good stuff for those interested in the movie’s effect more than its production. Some of the discussion is obvious or reiterates well-known perspectives, but there’s a good variety of voices. It’s the kind of commentary that can enhance your appreciation of the film itself.

George Romero interviewed in Birth of the Living Dead

The only seemingly pointless thread follows a school teacher as he shows Night to a bunch of elementary school kids. No, that’s not a typo — they’re surely far too young for it! But they seem to delight in it. Nonetheless, it seems like a needless addition to the film, until quite late on. When the documentary gets on to discussing Night’s release, it talks about how horror had become a genre mainly marketed to kids — it was seen as colourful campy fun, with only the occasional hint of slight scariness. But then it was that audience that saw Night of the Living Dead, and they were fucking terrified (see: Roger Ebert’s contemporary article about watching it with an audience of children). I thought the documentary wouldn’t dare to revisit the modern teacher after that, but it does — and they still seem to love it. I don’t know what that says about our society now, if anything.

Aside from traumatising small children, Night of the Living Dead was initially dismissed by American critics as trash; but when it was re-released the next year, it was seen by a writer for Andy Warhol’s magazine, who called it art and said it should be playing in art houses. When it reached Europe in 1970, the French had a similar reaction. That fed back to the US: the Museum of Modern Art played it to a standing-room-only crowd. I guess that’s how we get to where we are today, with it acknowledged as a solid classic.

Now THAT's a triple bill

As I said earlier, when I decided to watch these two documentaries basically back to back I thought it would probably turn out to be a stupid idea. Fortunately, the overlap is minimal, meaning they actually compliment each other pretty well. Fans would surely benefit from seeing both. Alternatively, the fact that they offer distinctly different things means a viewer could pick the topic that particularly interests them. In that regard, I’d err towards recommending Birth of the Living Dead, for its critical appreciation and historical analysis that furnishes viewers with wider perspectives with which to appreciate one of the most significant horror movies — arguably, one of the most significant movies full stop — ever made.

4 out of 5

One for the Fire is available as a special feature on certain releases of Night of the Living Dead: the Australian and US 40th anniversary DVDs, the Japanese 40th anniversary Blu-ray, and Optimum’s UK Blu-ray (not the one released by Network). It seems it’s also available on an Italian DVD and Blu-ray, which provided the cover art above.

Birth of the Living Dead is available by itself on DVD in the US and on Blu-ray in the UK, as well as bundled with Network’s UK Blu-ray of Night. It’s also streaming free to Amazon Prime members in the US, and I’m sure available to rent and/or purchase from other digital providers.

The Cloverfield Paradox (2018)

2018 #18
Julius Onah | 102 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English & Chinese

The Cloverfield Paradox

“Logic doesn’t apply to any of this.”

So says Tam, played by Zhang Ziyi, about halfway through this third movie in the Cloverfield sort-of-series. She’s talking about the crazy circumstances they’ve found themselves mixed up in, but she may as well be talking about the movie itself.

Set in the near future, the energy crisis has reached a point where it threatens the continued existence of mankind as we know it. Our last hope is an experimental particle accelerator that could provide all the energy we need, but it’s so potentially dangerous that it’s being tested in space. After almost two years of failed attempts the accelerator finally works… until it fails spectacularly, crippling the station. When the systems come back online, the crew realise they’ve lost something: the Earth. And that’s just the start of the crazy shit that’s gonna go down.

One worried astronaut

The Cloverfield Paradox started life as a spec script titled God Particle, which was at some point Cloverfieldised by J.J. Abrams’ production company, Bad Robot. The writer who originated the project, Oren Uziel, has said that “sometimes [sci-fi] movies tend to be more concerned with whatever the obstacle is, and I’m more concerned with the characters’ relationships to each other and that obstacle I guess. So to me, when you say it’s a contained astronaut movie, I’m just curious what those astronauts are going through and what they’re experiencing and what the character story is, and what specifically the threat is is often less of a concern to me.” Oh boy, is that apparent in the finished film. Whatever else Abrams & co changed to make this a Cloverfield film (and I’ll get to that later), I guess it’s Uziel’s original work that’s responsible for the half-arsed, inconsistent, and poorly-explained threats that the astronauts must face. No spoilers, but the explanation for what’s going on (which is so obvious that I don’t think even the film itself tried to play it as a twist in the end) doesn’t even vaguely begin to explain some of the random shit that happens. Uziel just throws sci-fi or horror ideas at the screen one after the other, with no care for if it hangs together consistently. Consequently, it doesn’t.

Unfortunately, his alleged interest in character hasn’t resulted in anything worthwhile either. At best they’re broadly defined archetypes — the Funny One; the Noble Captain; the One With A Tragedy In Her Past That We’ll Eventually Learn And It Will Affect Her Decisions; etc. At worst they’re utterly blank, with little or no time devoted to establishing or developing them. There’s a strong cast of good actors — people like Gugu Mbatha-Raw (who gets the best of a poor lot), David Oyelowo, Daniel Brühl, Elizabeth Debicki, Chris O’Dowd (who at least gets to be funny) — but they’re left to battle bravely against the mediocrity, and often terrible dialogue that comes with it, as they attempt to instil any kind of personality into their roles. They’re fighting a losing battle.

Two worried astronauts

Suffering most of all is Roger Davies as Michael, who’s the star of his own subplot back on Earth. Davies is probably aware this is his big break (his previous roles are mainly in things like Sky’s football soap Dream Team and Channel 5’s attempt at a soap, Family Affairs), but he’s lumbered with some of the clunkiest material of all. He struggles gamely to make Michael seem like a plausible human being while delivering first-draft-level dialogue, but I don’t think even Daniel Day Lewis could make this material work. An item of trivia on IMDb (source uncited, as usual) claims that all the Michael stuff was added later (in reshoots, I presume) to strengthen the film’s Cloverfield connection. It feels like that too: his stuff is completely divorced from the main thrust of the story aboard the space station, and it looks like it’s been achieved on as few sets with as few additional characters as possible.

Indeed, almost everything that’s explicitly Cloverfield-y smacks of reshoots. There’s a newscast about the eponymous “Cloverfield Paradox” that’s all inserts, i.e. it’s on a screen with none of the main cast also in shot. The main characters do refer to the paradox later on, but I’m pretty sure they only ever called it “the paradox”. (Also, side note, I’m not sure anyone involved in the making of this film knows what a paradox actually is.) The space station is actually called “Cloverfield”, but that’s mainly (only?) seen on CG exterior shots and green-screened monitors. Perhaps I’m forgetting something — perhaps there was a Cloverfield reference or two in the main body of the movie — but the vast majority of them could just have been shoved in during post-production. And if they weren’t, they feel like they were.

Three worried astronauts

I enjoyed the original Cloverfield and I liked the idea of them creating a franchise that was Twilight Zone-esque — movies connected by theme and style rather than plot. It seemed like a good way of getting original sci-fi movies made at a time when Hollywood only wants franchises. But we’re two sequels in now, and they were both marred by the Cloverfield elements forced upon them. And whereas 10 Cloverfield Lane was a very good movie before its tacked-on finale, The Cloverfield Paradox is pretty terrible throughout. We’re on a downward curve.

What was once set to be the expensive big-screen older brother to Black Mirror is now cast in its shadow: they’re both debuting on Netflix, but while Charlie Brooker’s TV series benefits from months of enormous anticipation and glowing reviews, Cloverfield was dumped just a couple of hours after its first trailer premiered, presumably in the hope you’d watch it before the reviews rolled in. When you combine that with the fact it was meant to be a theatrical release but Paramount ended up flogging it to Netflix as one of their “originals”, you have to think that even the studios knew it was a dud.

2 out of 5

Black Swan (2010)

2017 #128
Darren Aronofsky | 108 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Black Swan

Oscar statue2011 Academy Awards
5 nominations — 1 win

Winner: Best Actress (Natalie Portman).
Nominated: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing.



Described by director Darren Aronofsky as “a psychological thriller horror film”, Black Swan straddles the divide between classy Cinema and genre Movies as artfully as, say, a Hitchcock thriller. It’s the story of ballet dancer Nina (Natalie Portman) who’s desperate to be the lead in her company’s production of Swan Lake. She’s suited to the White Swan but struggles as its black counterpart, a role newly-arrived rival Lily (Mila Kunis) seems perfect for. As Nina pursues perfection with a monomaniacal focus, she’s pressured by the lascivious director (Vincent Cassel) and her overbearing mother (Barbara Hershey), to the point where her sanity is beginning to crack…

Shot handheld on a mix of 16mm and video-capable HD DSLRs, Black Swan has a documentary look, often emphasised by its editing — at times it could almost pass for a fly-on-the-wall look behind the scenes of a ballet company. That’s not to say the visuals lack artistry, however. In particular, the constant presence and use of mirrors is fantastic — both thematically relevant and visually rich. Nonetheless, the documentary-ish look serves to make the film’s unsettling parts all the more effective, especially as they take a while to emerge and continue to sidle up on you as the film goes on. The final act is where everything really kicks off — the point of the rest is to build up to that; to establish and put in place and explain everything we need for a shocking, thrilling, somewhat unguessable climax. If that sounds like a criticism, it’s not, because the movie leading up to that point certainly has worth.

Reflections

I’m not particularly familiar with Swan Lake, but it would seem Black Swan’s story echoes it — to the point, even, that all the cast are credited with both their character in the film and their equivalent in the ballet (and I don’t just mean the dancers who also play that role in the ballet-within-the-film — Hershey, for example, is billed as Erica Sayers / The Queen”). This extends outwards in other ways, like how the music of Tchaikovsky is repurposed by the film to its own magnificent effect. That’s as well as featuring a typically striking score from Clint Mansell.

Natalie Portman is brilliant as the conflicted Nina. She’s introverted and sheltered but has chosen (or been railroaded into) a career that requires she perform publicly; she’s fragile and under-confident but in a profession that invites criticism from all sides; she’s been left repressed, uptight, and virginal, which clashes with her perfectionism when trying to embody a role that is none of those things. It’s a complex role with many subtle facets that Portman negotiates skilfully. It feels like a departure from who she is — proper acting, if you like — which makes the performance all the more striking. Conversely, Mila Kunis feels more in her comfort zone as Lily, the free-spirited, lively but imperfect, almost a bit of a bitch, company dancer that Nina is inexplicably drawn to. She holds her own against Portman when required, but it’s not exactly a role of equatable complexity.

Titular terror

Depending how you want to see it, Aronofsky’s film is an arty movie about ballet and the psychological effects of perfectionism, or a slow-burn horror-thriller with almost as many jump scares as instances of introspection. Best of all, it can be both those things.

5 out of 5

Black Swan was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2017 project, which you can read more about here.

Darren Aronofsky’s latest dark mind-bender, mother!, is released on UK DVD and Blu-ray tomorrow.

The Mummy (2017)

2017 #82
Alex Kurtzman | 110 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | USA, Japan & China / English & Ancient Egyptian | 15 / PG-13

The Mummy

As studios scramble to emulate Marvel’s shared universe success, there are some very odd ideas being thrown around. One of the least odd, really, was Universal’s Dark Universe, which intended to mix together their various famous horror properties. At first blush that sounds as forced as most of these ideas are, but back in the day they made tonnes of “Dracula Meets Frankenstein” type movies, so why not do it again today? All of these movies were to be reboots, obviously, and they arguably played it safe by beginning with a reboot of one they rebooted before — a re-reboot, if you will. The Mummy 2017-style bears no resemblance to its popular ’90s forebear, but I doubt that was anything like the ’30s version anyway, so all’s fair in love and blockbuster moviemaking.

You’ll notice the repeated use of the past tense in my opening paragraph. That’s because The Mummy flopped, both critically and commercially, and the Dark Universe plans have been thrown into doubt. (Some say it’s been definitely cancelled, but I don’t think that’s been officially confirmed.) While I wouldn’t go so far as to call that a shame, I didn’t necessarily think The Mummy was that bad. On the other hand, it’s not great either…

Tom Cruise realises he's made a terrible mistake...

This iteration of the concept sets its scene in the present day war-torn Middle East, where Nick Morton (Tom Cruise) is a mercenary who stumbles upon a hidden tomb, inside which is the well-protected coffin of an Egyptian princess (Sofia Boutella). To cut to the chase, the dead lass wakes up, and brings all her supernatural powers to bear on destroying the world… or something. At the same time, Nick seems to have developed some kind of connection to her.

However, what sticks in your mind about The Mummy is not its eponymous villain, but all the time it spends trying to establish the aforementioned shared universe. Nick eventually comes into contact with a secretive organisation headed by Dr. Henry Jekyll — a name we all know, of course, so you begin to see the connections developing. You can’t help but feel more effort has been put into setting up this element than the movie that surrounds it, which therefore feels like little more than a delivery system for Dark Universe: Part 1.

But let’s try to judge it anyway. Primarily, it’s a tonal mishmash. It’s not exciting enough to satisfy as an action movie, but not scary enough to qualify as a horror. There’s humour, but it’s poorly integrated, feeling at odds with the dark tone. This is a PG-13 movie that kinda wants to be an R, but not so much that it’ll really commit to sitting on that PG-13/R line. Whole sequences and imagery seems to have been included just to look good in the trailer. For example, a bunch of business with a sandstorm in London — in the trailer it looked like it would be some sort of end-of-the-world climax, but it’s actually just a bit of a chase scene to get characters from one location to another.

“I’m here to talk to you about the Avenger Initiative.”

Cruise isn’t given room to display his usual charm, instead wandering through the plot being told stuff and always threatening to tip over into being the villain. This movie always seemed like an odd choice for him — getting stuck into a franchise-within-a-franchise at this stage in his career — and, yeah, it remains an odd choice. Russell Crowe phones in his Nick Fury turn as Jekyll, while sidekicks Annabelle Wallis and Jake Johnson fight against the material as they struggle to make their mark. Boutella’s part makes feints at complexity, but is ultimately no deeper than you’d expect the Mummy’s role to be in a Mummy movie.

And after all that it doesn’t even end properly. It’s not even that it’s blatantly set up for a sequel (it’s not, really), but it’s clearly aware that it’s part of a shared universe and they might want some of these characters back. Well, that’s what this is all about, don’t forget — Dark Universe: Part 1.

Despite all that, there are hints of a decent movie here: the first act is fairly good, and while the humorous moments may sit oddly with the pervading tone, they’re mostly fine in themselves. But it’s too concerned with establishing a universe when it should worry about being a good yarn in its own right, meaning it fails to do either adequately.

Mummy mia, here they go again

When I started this review I was going to end up giving it a generous 3 (that’s what it’s down as in my 2017 stats therefore), but my memories of whatever I liked enough to nudge it upwards have begun to fade. The Mummy — and the Dark Universe it was meant to kick off — could’ve been something, if not great, then at least worthwhile. Shame.

2 out of 5