It Follows (2014)

2017 #17
David Robert Mitchell | 100 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

It Follows

It’s always fun when you come across a divisive movie — “which camp are you in?” It Follows is one of those (naturally — I wouldn’t’ve mentioned it otherwise). Some say it’s an instant horror classic, others that it’s slow, boring, unscary, and can’t even follow its own rules. I’m not qualified enough as a horror viewer to claim the former, but nor do I hold with the latter.

If you’ve not already seen it, it’s based around an original horror concept — that, at least, has been near-enough universally praised. After teenager Jay (The Guest’s Maika Monroe) sleeps with her new boyfriend, he reveals that he’s passed a curse to her. She will be followed by something. It always takes human form, but that form changes — it could be a face in the crowd, someone she knows, whatever it needs to get close to her. Only people who have (or have had) the curse can see it. If it catches her, it will kill her, and then return to hunting the previous target (i.e. the boyfriend). The only way to get rid of it is to sleep with someone else and pass it on — though, of course, if they get killed then it’s back to you. The one advantage you have is that it only walks, and slowly — but it never, ever stops. Naturally, Jay doesn’t quite believe it… until things start happening to change her mind, and along with her friends she tries to find a way to shake the curse permanently.

Pretty in pink

A deadly force that moves towards you slowly but unceasingly and unstoppably — sounds like the stuff of nightmares. And it literally is, having been inspired by a series of nightmares writer-director David Robert Mitchell had as a child. He has not made those childhood fears into a childish movie, however. Far from it. Even leaving aside a couple of splashes of gore, the creature’s frequently nude form, and all the sex stuff, It Follows is adult in its filmmaking attitude. Much like the creature, it often moves slowly, letting its story and situations breathe. This is not a multiplex movie; not a teen-friendly horror flick for date night. It feels more like an indie drama, with Mitchell creating a slow, methodical pace, which doesn’t linger on things — he trusts we’ll spot them. It’s subtle filmmaking, respectful of the audience and our ability to work stuff out. There’s the subject matter, too, about disaffected youth killing time… until they start being stalked by a murderous force, anyway.

One thing I’d say it excels at is creating that ambiance of teenage life. That sense of endless time to do nothing, to be bored — who gets bored once they’re a grown-up and there’s not enough time to do everything you want to do, never mind have time to kill doing nothing? There are parents, but they’re barely present — they exist, but they also aren’t part of your life. They never really tell Jay’s mother what’s going on, nor get the police involved, beyond an initial, fruitless investigation into the boyfriend. Well, why would they? Like being a teen, adults have no real power in your world (i.e. your friendship circle); you can’t talk about all your ‘problems’ with them. Some of this is literally applicable to the film (seriously, are the police going to believe a teenage girl who says she’s being stalked by an invisible killer?), but it’s also part of the film’s broader metaphor.

Normal teens

They’re also a decent evocation of normal teens, not the Cool Kids you usually see in movies and TV — they don’t talk in pop culture references or be all hip and aware, like the cast of Sceam or Buffy or something. They’re more normal… apart from the fact they’re always watching black-and-white B-movies, anyway. They’re fumbling their way through life, and the situation they’re in forces them to wake up a little — and they fumble their way through that, too. Again, more metaphors for the real experience of adolescence.

Of course, if you don’t want that kind of stuff from your Horror movie, then I guess It Follows would seem slow and disinterested. So what of the scary stuff? As with pretty much all horror movies, your mileage will vary — perusing various reviews and comment threads shows no consistency in that regard. Personally, I found it more than sufficiently creepy. The whole effect is built on being very atmospheric rather than simplistically Scary. It’s not without its jump scares or freaky moments, but it’s the building sense of dread and tension where it most chills; that has you looking in the back of every frame for what’s coming; longing for a reverse shot, because what if it’s coming from the other direction? There are some very edge-of-your-seat sequences where Mitchell establishes there is something there, that something is coming, but then the camera pans slowly around, or it cuts away, and keeps cutting to other stuff, and you’re begging for it to cut back to the original shot, or for the pan to speed up, so that you can see how things are going, how close it’s getting, to LET US KEEP A BLOODY EYE ON IT.

Ahem.

Rules? What rules?

Also from reading others’ comments, it strikes me that the people who are most let down by the film are the ones who are either: a) looking for it to establish and follow a set of rules, or b) reading it as a great big sex metaphor. While it undoubtedly has rules (as a horror movie with a supernatural foe, it requires them) and obviously there’s a sex-related reading (the curse is passed on through sex — how can there not be?), I’m not sure either of these are the film’s main concern; at least, not in the way you’d expect them to be.

People as high and mighty as Quentin Tarantino have criticised the film for its faulty internal logic, for not following its own rules, but I don’t agree. For starters, some of the faults QT calls out are actually explained in the film itself. For seconds, the rules are never established with perfect clarity. We’re given some rules up front, but they come from a scared teenage boy whose only source for this information is his own experience. This isn’t some sage old wise-man or some ancient textbook, this is just some kid who’s been lucky enough to survive a while — who’s to say his observations are 100% accurate? Personally, I don’t think they are. Some people defend the film by saying there are no rules, that it’s operating under dream logic, and that’s fine because the point is to be scary, but I don’t agree with that either. I think the behaviour of “it” does bend the rules we’ve been told, but that’s because the rules we’ve been told are incomplete. I believe it is operating under a set of specific rules, which Mitchell knows but hasn’t fully shared with us. And further, I think that’s not only OK, but actively a good thing. Rules create a safety net — you know what it can and can’t do, and you can work out what to do to defeat it, and, by extension, a way for the characters to win. But if you can’t be certain what it’s going to do next, that’s scarier — and this is a horror movie, not an instruction manual.

Sex

As to the sex stuff, the obvious reading is the good old horror movie cliche of “having sex = getting killed”; or, more specifically, “losing virginity = getting killed”. Except that’s not the case at all. There’s a throwaway reference to the fact Jay isn’t a virgin, never mind the lack of general “it’s my first time” handwringing you’d realistically expect if she were, so if it’s a punishment for sex then it’s a bit late coming. Even more omnipresently, the way to beat the curse (albeit temporarily) is to sleep with more people. If the message was intended to be “sex is bad, mmkay kids” then it’d’ve royally fucked that up.

There’s an awful lot of theories that can be crafted out of It Follows — about what it’s saying about sex, about teenage life, about growing up, about the inevitability of death. I don’t think it’s the kind of horror movie that’s designed to scare you for 90 minutes in a darkened cinema in a comforting fashion (there are no pauses or fake-out scares to elicit reassuring laughter). It’s designed to chill you on a more fundamental level, and perhaps to say something about something too — though what those somethings are, well, we can debate that.

I also think its shortage of hard-and-fast rules should not invite derision, but rather our own theories. Like, what’s going on with water — does it really have an aversion to it? If so, why? Can it stop it? Spoilers: apparently not. More spoilers (just skip to the next paragraph if you’ve not seen it): does it require a chance to manifest as one of your parents before it can kill you? We don’t see how it appears to the girl at the start, though note she’s on the phone apologising to her father just before it does. Jay’s friend who dies identifies it as his mom just before we see it fuck him to death. When it finally catches up with Jay in the pool, it’s her dad. Conversely, when it attacks her on the beach earlier it starts by just grabbing her hair — why not get her then?

Wet

And I haven’t even mentioned the awesome synth score by Disasterpiece, or the era-unspecific production design. Maybe that doesn’t signify anything beyond an aesthetic throwback (the score is very Halloween; there’s some modern tech but they’re not all on their mobiles).

As I said at the start, my experience with the horror genre is too slight to ever go labelling something a genre classic. But this isn’t ‘just’ a horror movie. Like the same year’s The Babadook, there are dramatic elements that stretch out beyond the genre’s usual stomping ground, not to mention an atmosphere of terror that exceeds simplistic attempts to make you jump in your seat every few minutes and call it a day. It’s the kind of film that lingers after the credits roll, as you ponder the gaps it leaves you to ponder, and keep looking over your shoulder, because you never know when something might be following you…

5 out of 5

The UK network premiere of It Follows is on Film4 tonight at 9pm.

The Visit (2015)

2016 #124
M. Night Shyamalan | 90 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / PG-13

The VisitAfter a sidestep into big-budget director-for-hire movies that brought him even less acclaim than his last couple of self-penned efforts, once-fêted director M. Night Shyamalan goes back to basics with this low-key found-footage horror.

When their mother (Kathryn Hahn) goes on holiday with her new partner, teens Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) go to stay with her parents, who she hasn’t seen or spoken to for years. Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) seem kindly, but no one will tell the kids what happened years earlier to leave the family estranged. But soon they discover the strange, disturbing behaviour of their grandparents, particularly after dark, leaving them to wonder just what they’ve let themselves in for…

Although Shyamalan has always moved in supernatural circles in his movies, and The Sixth Sense is labelled a horror because it’s about ghosts and has a few jumps, he’s not really directed a proper Horror movie before now. Nonetheless, it’s not surprising that his skill set lends itself to the genre. Although the found-footage format is a little forced at times (isn’t it always?), it’s also used effectively to create some nailbiting sequences, putting you alongside the kids as they fear just what the hell is going in. And some of it is pretty darn freaky. One sequence — a demented game of hide-and-seek underneath the house, where we’re aware of stuff going on behind the kids that they don’t see — is particularly terrifying.

DeJonge and Oxenbould make for naturalistic kids, with the latter’s affinity for rapping providing some necessary levity, while McRobbie and Dunagan (in a particularly bold performance) well negotiate people who can be sweetness and light one moment and blood-chillingly terrifying at another.

Well suspiciousOf course, there’s a big reveal to explain everything that’s been going. People call it a “twist” because it’s a Shyamalan movie, but it’s more of an explanation. I mean, what was going on had to be explained somehow, and the explanation comes at the point where you’d expect the explanation to be. I’m not saying it’s not a twist, because it does change what you think you’ve been seeing, but it’s also not a be-all-and-end-all kind of failed-rug-pull, which Shyamalan’s worst twist-obsessed efforts have been. This one works. Or, it did for me.

The same can be said for the film as a whole. The Visit doesn’t quite represent a full-blown return to form — it’s not got the sophistication of The Sixth Sense or Unbreakable, or even Signs — but it is an immensely effective scarer, which suggests there’s still some hope for Shyamalan’s flatlining career.

4 out of 5

The Sixth Sense (1999)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #85

Not every gift is a blessing.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 107 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 6th August 1999 (USA)
UK Release: 5th November 1999
First Seen: DVD, c.2000

Stars
Bruce Willis (Pulp Fiction, Sin City)
Haley Joel Osment (Bogus, A.I. Artificial Intelligence)
Toni Collette (Muriel’s Wedding, Little Miss Sunshine)
Olivia Williams (Rushmore, The Ghost)

Director
M. Night Shyamalan (Unbreakable, Signs)

Screenwriter
M. Night Shyamalan (Wide Awake, The Village)

The Story
Child psychiatrist Dr Malcolm Crowe tries to help a new patient, Cole Sear, who claims he can see ghosts.

Our Heroes
Dr Malcolm Crowe doubts his abilities to help people after a former patient shot him before committing suicide, an event which has also left him distanced from his wife. But he may be the only person who’ll believe young Cole Sear, a reclusive child who’s struggling with delusions of seeing dead people… unless they’re not delusions…

Our Villains
Are the dead dangerous, or do they just need help?

Best Supporting Character
Cole’s mom, Lynn, who loves him a great deal and worries about him just as much, but has no idea what’s really wrong or how to help her son.

Memorable Quote
“I see dead people… Walking around like regular people. They don’t see each other. They only see what they want to see. They don’t know they’re dead.” — Cole

Memorable Scene
Stuck in traffic, Cole reveals his ability to his mother for the first time — that there’s been an accident ahead and someone died, which he knows because they’re stood at his window. Naturally Lynn doesn’t believe her son, but then he begins to talk about his grandmother…

Technical Wizardry
The twist ending is immaculately constructed. There are clues throughout the film, but, like all the best twist-ending clues, the vast majority of viewers will completely miss them first time through, even though they seem almost blatant when revisited.

Making of
The colour red is used only to indicate times and items where the worlds of the living and the dead have connected; if something red was present in a scene where this wasn’t relevant, Shyamalan had it changed. There’s a massive list of these moments here, but if you somehow haven’t seen The Sixth Sense yet, do beware of spoilers.

Next time…
There are no actual sequels to The Sixth Sense, but it kicked off M. Night Shyamalan as a kind of one-man genre, making supernatural thrillers with a twist ending — and decreasing critical acclaim with each new movie. It seemed to end with The Happening and he transitioned to be a director-for-hire, but he’s coming back somewhat with The Visit and next year’s Split.

Awards
6 Oscar nominations (Picture, Supporting Actor (Haley Joel Osment), Supporting Actress (Toni Collette), Director, Original Screenplay, Editing)
4 BAFTA nominations (Film, Director, Original Screenplay, Editing)
2 Saturn Awards (Horror Film, Performance by a Younger Actor/Actress (Haley Joel Osment))
2 Saturn nominations (Actor (Bruce Willis), Writer)
2 Teen Choice Awards (Choice Drama, Choice Breakout Performance (Haley Joel Osment))
1 Teen Choice nomination (Choice Sleazebag (Trevor Morgan))
Nominated for the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation

What the Critics Said
“the film eventually abandons the heroic-therapist model and ventures toward other ground, ever so gently tightening its squeeze. It seems really to achieve something that Stanley Kubrick was possibly groping after in Eyes Wide Shut, or that Nicolas Roeg achieved in Don’t Look Now, which might be called an extreme sense of the bizarre, not as invented by special-effects wizards with unlimited space on the hard drive but in the subtler ways of film craftsmanship. […] The movie is a maximum creep-out. It’s invasive. It’s like an enema to the soul as it probes the ways of death – some especially grotesque in a family setting. You leave slightly asquirm. You know it will linger. It becomes a clammy, chilly movie building toward a revelation that you cannot predict. As I say: I cannot tell you. You’d hate me if I did. I can only say, don’t look now, but look sometime.” — Stephen Hunter, Washington Post

Score: 85%

What the Public Say
“The film is rich in symbolism, and colour plays a large part in signifying spirits invading the real world. This is what makes The Sixth Sense so captivating. Watching the film for the first time, you don’t expect the ending, and so the shock of it tends to overshadow the subtlety of the beginning. It is only once you have re-watched the film, that you begin to notice little suggestions of what is to come. A success from start to end, this is at once an exercise in potent suspense, and a carefully crafted tale of child psychology.” — Cat Barnard, Screen Muse

Verdict

M. Night Shyamalan gets such a bad rep these days, it’s easy to forget how great his breakthrough movie was. It flew completely under the radar back in 1999: the guy at Disney who bought the screenplay was fired for doing so without permission; Bruce Willis starred in it because he owed Disney two films, and was paid half his normal salary; Entertainment Weekly’s extensive summer preview detailed over 140 films, but The Sixth Sense wasn’t even mentioned. By coming out of the blue, and in an era before the internet was dominant (these days there’d be plot dissections and spoiler-filled director interviews online by the Monday after release, wouldn’t there?), the film obviously had surprise on its side, which is particularly effective when it has such a memorable twist. But even before that ending, it manages to mix plausible emotional drama with scenes of chilling everyday horror, crafting something that is undoubtedly a genre movie but also not out of place in a list of Best Picture nominees.

The Sixth Sense is on Film4 tomorrow night at 1am.

#86 will do… whatever a spider can.

Christine (1983)

2016 #85
John Carpenter | 106 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 18 / R

ChristineOne of a couple of films John Carpenter directed “for hire” in an attempt to restore his Hollywood reputation after the box office failure of The Thing, Christine is an adaptation of a Stephen King novel about a car possessed by evil. Yes, a car. I guess if you wait long enough, anything and everything will be possessed by evil eventually (in fiction, at any rate).

Despite that pedigree, Christine is about as scary as… well, I was trying to think of something soft and fluffy that hasn’t ever been used in a horror movie, but that list is increasingly short. But you get my point: it’s not scary. Its 18 certificate is earned by an abundance of very strong language — which, according to screenwriter Bill Phillips, was added for that exact purpose: the film wasn’t violent enough to get an R, and they didn’t think people would see it if it was a PG (this being before the PG-13), so they just inserted a lot of swearing. It’s still a pretty entertaining film, though, thanks to some humour and the almost-there thematic subtext of America’s obsession with the automobile.

The central (human) character is Arnie, a nerdy teen who becomes obsessed and then empowered by the eponymous vehicle. Keith Gordon is pretty good as this “worm that turned” type, albeit in a somewhat melodramatic way: he’s a heightened version of a nerd at the start, and a heightened version of a car-obsessed teenage dick later on. One review I read reckoned the film “sacrifices character logic” — what, there’s a flaw in the logical behaviour of a guy who’s semi-possessed by his demonic car, you mean?

Girl on girl action, of a sortEven if Carpenter was doing it only for kudos with the studios, he still turned in solid work. Christine may not be scary, but she is menacing, and her attacks work as individual sequences. Unsurprisingly it’s not his strongest film, and it’s not the greatest adaptation in the Stephen King movie canon either, but if all movies by jobbing filmmakers were this good then we’d be luckier moviegoers.

4 out of 5

Christine is one of the first releases from new UK Blu-ray label Indicator, out today.

The Quay Brothers in 35mm (2015)

2016 #159
Quay Brothers + Christopher Nolan | 68 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 + 1.85:1 + 1.33:1 | UK & USA / English | 12*

The Quay Brothers in 35mmChristopher Nolan made a few headlines last year when his first post-Interstellar film was announced for near-immediate release. Not Dunkirk, of course, but an eight-minute short documentary, Quay, about British-based American-born identical-twin animators the Quay brothers. The short was screened theatrically as part of a programme of animated shorts directed by the brothers, curated by Nolan to accompany his documentary, all from 35mm prints — because it’s Nolan, so of course. One critic reckoned it “will always be one of [Nolan]’s most important contributions to cinema.”

Today, the BFI release a Blu-ray set of the Quay brothers’ short animations, containing 24 of their works plus special features, among which is Nolan’s short. As a complete neophyte to the Quays’ work, I thought the best way to begin approaching it might be via the selection Nolan programmed, which was at least partly minded as an introduction to the brothers’ oeuvre. (Now, obviously I’m not watching this on 35mm, nor in its intended form (i.e. in a cinema), and it’s technically a selection of short films, so can I really count it towards my list? We’ll leave that to my conscience.)

Though if it is a beginner’s course, it’s the kind that throws you in at the deep end. In Absentia (2000) was, remarkably, made for the BBC as part of a season about sound on film — you can’t imagine them commissioning anything like this today. Maybe for BBC Four. Maybe. It’s an inscrutable 20-minute nightmare of a film, with sci-fi landscapes, a demonic puppet, sentient pencil leads, and the graphite-stained fingers of too many hands. It’s clear from the outset that these are films more about mood, atmosphere, and feeling than they are strictly concerned with plot or character, and to an extent one needs to be open to just going along with it in the hope that meaning or significance reveals itself.

In AbsentiaFor all that In Absentia initially feels like flailing in deep water without armbands, accompanied with “what have I got myself into?!” thoughts, in retrospect I found it to be the most accessible of the three animations. It’s abstract and confusing for most of its running time, but by the end you can decipher some meaning; you can understand the relevance of the feelings it aims to generate — and if you haven’t got there yourself, or if you’re unsure, there’s a dedication to point you in the right direction. I didn’t get that with the next two; not so easily, anyway, which is why I say they’re less accessible rather than less good per se.

Nolan follows this opening salvo with his documentary, Quay. It provides a sliver of insight into the brothers’ methods and thought processes; the merest glimpse into how they do what they do, with little or no explanation for why or what it means. I suppose Nolan wasn’t aiming for enlightenment or explanation, but to instead acknowledge the craftsmanship of the animators. Rather than the kooky outré bohemians you might imagine from their bizarre films, the brothers seem quiet, calm, and, for want of a better word, ordinary. By placing his documentary here, Nolan gives you an idea of the people whose hands you’re in, before diving back inside their imagination…

The Comb (1990) professes to be adapted from something and has immediately obvious characters, both human and puppet. “Ah,” you may think, “a clearer narrative.” No chance! I came away with even less of an idea what this was about than I did In Absentia, and certainly no clue what a comb has to do with most of it — the exception being the bits where there is a comb, because then there is a comb there. In a piece on the film at BFI Screenonline, The CombMichael Brooke notes that it is “setting out to wrong-foot the viewer at every turn, and the result wilfully defies verbal analysis.” What can be easily discerned is that it’s about a dream, and it probably shouldn’t be a surprise that there’s some dream-logic involved. As to what else is to be gleaned, your guess is as good as mine.

Last up is the film that’s reckoned to be the Quays’ masterpiece, Street of Crocodiles (1986) — Terry Gilliam picked it as one of the ten best animated films ever, while critic Jonathan Romney has twice nominated it in Sight & Sound’s famous “greatest films of all time” poll. Once again, I was left initially floundering for significance. There’s some fascinating imagery, and the implication again that parts function though dream-logic, but as to an overall story or message… Reading various sources before writing this, a theme emerges: that to search a Quay Brothers film for direct meaning is futile; it’s more about somehow accessing the same otherworldly psychological and/or emotional space that’s peculiar to these filmmakers. Even when the Quays themselves describe what’s going on in Street of Crocodiles, you’ll notice there’s nary a nod to meaning — though even an outline of the plot as they conceived it is illuminating, unlocking something you sort of already knew, but providing a kind of clarity that felt absent before. A bit like that title card at the end of In Absentia, I suppose.

It’s true what they say: watching Quay Brothers shorts is like being given a glimpse into another world, connected to our own but also other to it — hiding in the cracks or around the corner, perhaps; or only in our dreams and nightmares; on the other side of the mirror, were we able to pass though it. Their work is our conduit to this otherness, which is Street of Crocodilessometimes informative about the world the rest of us live in (In Absentia), sometimes a twisted analogy for it (Street of Crocodiles), and sometimes just fascinatingly unknowable (The Comb). All the films are teasingly oblique, and by all rights that should make them frustrating to the point of irritation, even abandonment… yet they’re kind of compelling nonetheless.

Oh, and do I need to throw in a “they’re not for everyone” at this point? I imagine that’s implicit.

4 out of 5

The aforementioned Blu-ray collection, Inner Sanctums – Quay Brothers: The Collected Animation Films 1979-2013, is released by the BFI today. The genuine Quay Brothers in 35mm is screening at London’s Prince Charles Cinema in November.

Further Reading

* Although this particular presentation hasn’t been certified by the BBFC, a collection of Quays shorts featuring these is rated 12, and Nolan’s short is classified U. ^

Crimson Peak (2015)

2016 #33
Guillermo del Toro | 119 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA & Canada / English | 15 / R

Mia Wasikowska stars opposite a British thesp best known for playing a comic book villain and a red-headed repeat-Oscar-nominee, in a Gothic drama-thriller from an acclaimed non-Anglo director? That’s a description of Stoker, Park “Oldboy” Chan-wook’s modern-Gothic chiller that co-starred Matthew “Watchmen” Goode and Nicole “The Hours” Kidman, which I awarded a five-star review and a place in my top ten last year. It’s also a description of Crimson Peak, Guillermo “Pan’s Labyrinth” Del Toro’s classic-Gothic chiller that co-stars Tom “Thor” Hiddleston and Jessica “Zero Dark Thirty” Chastain, which struggled to find an audience in cinemas last year. That last fact has often been attributed to its marketing, which I presume was as a horror movie (I never watched any of the trailers). It’s understandable the studio went for that, though: they know how to sell horror, but Crimson Peak is actually something more uncommon.

If you’ve not at least heard of The Castle of Otranto then there’s a chance your expectations of Crimson Peak may be misaligned. Which is not to say you won’t like it, especially if you’re of an open-minded disposition, but if having heard it’s “Gothic” and a “horror movie” has conjured up something Hammer-esque in your mind, then you are indeed off base. I think most people hear “Gothic” and automatically extrapolate “Gothic horror”, at least as far as movies are concerned. Crimson Peak isn’t a Gothic horror, though — at least, not in the Hammer sense — but rather a Gothic Romance, which is as distinct from “horror” as it is from “romance”. Perhaps “Gothic melodrama” would be a term better suited to today’s audiences. OK, maybe not — frankly, it’s difficult to imagine any scenario in which a movie of this kind generates big bucks at the box office unless you somehow made one that features a comic book character beating the crap out of the cast every 20 minutes.

The story actually concerns Edith Cushing (Wasikowska), a well-to-do businessman’s daughter in upstate New York who is occasionally haunted by ghosts. She falls for visiting English gent Sir Thomas Sharpe (Hiddleston) and, long story short, moves with him and his haughty sister Lucille (Chastain) back to their crumbling — literally — pile in the English countryside. The house hides many secrets, and ghosts, too. Having said it’s not a horror movie, it would be unfair to class Crimson Peak as simply a tame drama — as you’d expect from writer-director Guillermo del Toro, those ghosts can be bleedin’ scary, and there are certainly a smattering of good old fashioned jumps to boot.

If you start reading online (the ones I read, at any rate), you tend to find people either: a) thought there weren’t enough ghosts, or b) thought there were too many ghosts. And there’s an element of truth in this: the horror bits are a little bit too horror-genre for a Gothic romance/melodrama, but they’re undoubtedly not in it enough to transform it into a full Horror movie. Someone with the predilection to enjoy both is required to stomach the film, which I must say I am, and I dare say Del Toro would fit that bill also. It seems clear that he’s made exactly the film he wanted to make; it’s just unfortunate that turned out to be a tricky sell, and consistently misunderstood by a mainstream audience. (I say “mainstream audience” because you can find an abundance of comments on film-fan websites noting how it was incorrectly marketed, etc.) That said (minor spoiler here), it’s stated in the film itself that the ghosts are a metaphor. OK, it’s stated by Edith about the story she’s writing, but you don’t need a degree in Film Studies to realise this is meant as a meta-comment on the film as well. Or maybe you do.

Whatever one’s thoughts on the story and tone of the film, it can’t be denied that its technical merits are extraordinary. Every inch of the design work is gloriously imagined, and the cinematography — the lighting in particular — is spectacular. And that gigantic house set…! And the climactic ‘limbo’ set, too — incredible work. (That’s not a spoiler, incidentally: it was the set’s nickname, not its literal location.) The ghost effects are excellent too — original, creepy, and executed in a way that blurs the lines between make-up, animatronics, and CGI. It’s a shame the film as a whole wasn’t better received, because I imagine that’s all that held it back from numerous awards-season nods.

Crimson Peak is exactly the kind of film that, on reflection, I may wind up liking even more than I do now. Perhaps others will feel the same and it will also gain better standing in assessments of the director’s filmography — even as it is, it’s definitely one of my favourite Del Toro films (though I really need to give Pan’s Labyrinth another go, to see if I can see what all the fuss is about this time). The film’s tagline was simply “Beware”, but perhaps the viewer needs to be warned instead to “be prepared” — if you know what you’re getting in to, I think Crimson Peak has a lot to recommend it.

4 out of 5

Crimson Peak premieres on Sky Cinema (including via Now TV) tomorrow, Sunday 17th July.

Ghosts of Mars (2001)

2016 #76
John Carpenter | 98 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

There are a good number of well-regarded John Carpenter films I’ve not seen that I could spend my time on, but I chose to expend it on this critically-mauled sci-fi-horror-Western from the first year of the current millennium. But sometimes watching poorly-regarded films pays off, because while Ghosts of Mars is no classic, it is actually pretty entertaining.

Set in a future where Mars has been almost completely terraformed, a group of police officers are dispatched to a remote mining outpost to escort a dangerous prisoner. On arrival they find the town mysteriously deserted, but soon discover the inhabitants have been possessed and basically turned into Reavers (…wait, did Joss Whedon just rip off Ghosts of Mars?!) Holed up in the jail, police and criminals must join forces to fend off their attackers. Yes, it’s basically Assault on Space Precinct 13.

It’s not just the plot that recalls older films: although the film was released in 2001, the quality of the acting, photography, sets, and effects are all like something made 15 years earlier. (In these technical aspects it reminded me a lot of Total Recall, and not just because it’s set on Mars.) It’s almost hard to equate it with other films made around the same time, and maybe that’s part of why it was so poorly received on release: it felt dated. Watched with 15 years distance, however, it’s an Old Film, so it’s as easy to mentally lump it in with stuff made 30 years ago as with stuff made 15 years ago. That doesn’t magically wipe out its other faults, but it does make me think about the level of forgiveness people are willing to apply to films based on extra-filmic knowledge of when they were made, etc. If people thought this had been made in the ’80s, would they view it as kindly as they do some ’80s genre-classics that are just as bad and/or dated?

I mean, I’m not saying it stands up to something like The Thing, which by comparison is a classy movie (bet no one in 1982 ever thought The Thing would get called “classy”!), but I don’t think it’s any less accomplished (at least in technical categories) than, say, Big Trouble in Little China. However, it’s swapped out some of the kooky fun of that film for a sci-fi-horror milieu, and maybe that’s why it doesn’t wash as well — it doesn’t have the comicalness to let the weaker aspects slide.

Conversely, if you made it today it would probably be seen as a throwback/homage and everyone would do backflips over it. They’d have a similar reaction to its diverse cast: a female lead hero, a black co-lead who’s also the cast’s biggest name (at the time), a lesbian commanding officer… If they could manage that in a studio picture 15 years ago, why does it seem to be such a big problem nowadays?

Anyway, it’s not “good”, but it is cheesily fun — and I reckon if it had been made 15 years earlier, exactly as it is, it would have a lot more fans.

3 out of 5

The Witches of Eastwick (1987)

2016 #47
George Miller | 113 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 18 / R

The first US feature from the director of Mad Max is an unusual affair. Three now-single women (Cher, Susan Sarandon, Michelle Pfeiffer) accidentally summon a man (Jack Nicholson) who lures them into a life of debauchery, while helping hone their latent magic powers.

Undoubtedly a comedy, Eastwick is less laugh-out-loud, more wryly amused by small-town tittle-tattle. Nicholson was made for devilish characters like this, but the rest of the film isn’t as focused. A presumed point about female empowerment gets lost in the mix, and it doesn’t know how to end, resorting to an effects-driven climax.

Still, it’s largely fun.

3 out of 5

For more quick reviews like this, look here.

Kill List (2011)

2016 #51
Ben Wheatley | 92 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 18

I appear to be coming at director Ben Wheatley’s films in reverse order (having covered A Field in England in 2013 and Sightseers in 2014), and now I reach, not his feature debut (that’ll be ‘next time’, I guess), but certainly the film that brought him wider attention.

To describe too much of the plot of Kill List, or to even name its genres, is to give away some of its mystery. It’s a problem for reviewers, and has been since it came out — I read an interview with Wheatley where he said he didn’t envy their job, trying to accurately assess and ‘sell’ the film without actually telling people why they should watch it! The marketing people go a little way towards that for us, though, billing it as a horror movie when it seems to be nothing of the sort for a very long time.

It begins in that classic British tradition, the “kitchen sink” drama. Jay (Neil Maskell) and his wife (MyAnna Buring) argue about the fact he’s not got a job and the money’s run out. It becomes clear something happened in Jay’s recent past to spook him out of work. Then his mate Gal (Michael Smiley) comes round with a new girlfriend, Fiona (Emma Fryer), for one of moviedom’s more uncomfortable dinner parties. Gal talks Jay into joining him on a new job (there’s some criticism of the film for being a “one last job” movie, but I don’t recall it being presented as that — Gal talks him back into work, not for a definitively final go-round. Maybe I missed something); elsewhere, Fiona’s actions hint at something more… unusual going on.

Kill List mixes in its genre elements — and they’re elements from a couple of different genres at that — so gradually that, as I said, it’s hard to discuss them without spoiling the film. (Much like the film itself, this review is getting progressively more revealing, so jump off when you’ve had enough.) It’s kind of a compilation of traditional British movie genres: we begin with kitchen sink, then discover we’re actually watching a crime film, before the final act swerves (though not without foreshadowing) into folk horror. The skill of Wheatley, and his co-writer Amy Jump, is in not making these transitions too implausible. That’s not to say they’re not surprising, but the doom-laden music, inexplicable proclamations by some characters, and a couple of very strange events should all clue the viewer in to the film not being a common-or-garden hitman flick.

Even as the latter, it is, again, very “low-key British”. It follows through on its domestic setup, presenting the mundanities of the profession — it’s the kind of film where the dealmaking and mission-giving are dealt with in a dialogue-free montage, but we do see characters discussing how they’ll get out of the hotel lobby without an injury being noticed, who’s going to clean up the blood in the sink, and the quality of the hotel’s free toiletries. The biggest threat the characters initially face is their credit card being declined, which might, potentially, later, draw attention to them.

The final act is naturally where the film reveals its overarching purpose… or rather doesn’t reveal, because there are a shortage of answers here. It’s a lot more straightforward than A Field in England, but it still offers few (or, some would say, no) explanations for what’s occurred. According to Wheatley, the screenplay was more explicit about what was happening and why, and so was some of what they shot, but he cut back on the exposition to leave it up to audience interpretation. This isn’t a film to passively watch and have everything explained, but even viewers prepared to do a little work for themselves may find it frustrating.

Nonetheless, there is striking, unnerving imagery to be found during the movie’s climax, Wheatley and regular DP Laurie Rose using the pitch-black nighttime setting to create dread rather than merely accidentally hide things, as so many under-lit movies seem to nowadays. The handheld camerawork and jumpy cutting that earlier in the film was just a little New Wave-y comes into its own here, aligning us with Jay’s disorientation and confusion. While the ultimate result is arguably predictable, to get too caught up in the minutiae of whether it’s a twist or not is to miss the point. What the point is… well, that’s debatable, but I don’t think it’s meant to be a twist for the sake of a twist. (Others disagree.)

The odd mash-up of domestic drama, mundane crime, and folk horror by all rights shouldn’t work, so credit is definitely due for the movie’s flow. Memorable sequences keep it ticking over throughout — and so they should: taking inspiration from the likes of Kubrick and Stephen King, Wheatley started from specific images and worked backwards to a plot. Here, I think that method has been effective. The abstruse ending won’t be to everyone’s taste, but the journey there is worth experiencing.

4 out of 5

It’s Ben Wheatley Night on Film4 this evening, beginning with Kill List at 10:45pm, followed by Sightseers at 12:35am and A Field in England at 2:15am.

Wheatley’s new movie, High-Rise, is currently showing in scattered preview screenings around the UK (mainly in London, because of course), and is on general release from next Friday, March 18th.

Daybreakers (2009)

2016 #24
The Spierig Brothers | 89 mins | streaming | 2.35:1 | Australia & USA / English | 15* / R

Most of mankind have become vampires, but the blood supply is running out and without it people mutate into monsters. Ethan Hawke’s scientist is developing a substitute, but when he encounters human resistance fighters he learns there may actually be a cure…

Made by the guys behind Predestination, Daybreakers offers an original and imaginative world (how would mankind cope if we couldn’t go out in daylight? Maybe like this). It’s somewhat let down by a few campy performances and a sensibility that reverts to action sequences, but originality counts for a lot, especially for genre fans looking for something different.

3 out of 5

* The distributor chose to make six seconds of cuts to get a 15 in cinemas. The uncut 18-rated version was released on DVD and Blu-ray. No idea which version is available through Channel 5, where I watched it. ^