The Hateful Eight (2015)

2016 #89
Quentin Tarantino | 168 mins | Blu-ray | 2.76:1 | USA / English & Spanish | 18 / R

Quentin Tarantino hadn’t made a film in the same genre as his preceding movie for almost 20 years when The Hateful Eight came out — his second go-round with the Western genre, after the Spaghetti-ish thrills of Django Unchained three years earlier. Aside from the setting and its accoutrements, however, The Hateful Eight has more in common with Tarantino’s debut feature, Reservoir Dogs.

Wyoming, sometime after the Civil War: bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) flags down a stagecoach driven by O.B. (James Parks), looking for transport to Red Rock. Inside is fellow bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) with his latest catch, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who’s worth $10,000 — naturally, Ruth is suspicious of Warren’s motives. Later, they pick up Chris Mannix (Walter Goggins), who claims he’s to be sworn in as the new sheriff of Red Rock — also of great suspicion to Ruth. As a blizzard chases them, the quintet seek shelter at Minnie’s Haberdashery, a rest spot Major Warren has clearly visited many times before. However, Minnie isn’t home, and care of her establishment has been left in the hands of Bob (Demián Bichir). Inside, they find fellow travellers Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), and General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern). Ruth doesn’t trust a’one of them — and as they settle down to ride out the blizzard, it turns out he’s right about someone…

I’m not the first to observe that The Hateful Eight actually functions like a murder mystery, Agatha Christie style. It might be easy to miss because the film doesn’t begin with a murder or feature a detective, but then neither do all of Christie’s stories. Instead, there’s a long period setting up all the players and suggesting their motivations, and then eventually the proverbial does hit the metaphorical fan, after which deductions must be made. And it’s all in a remote, isolated location which has been cut off by weather, and every character is hiding some nefarious past — so far, so And Then There Were None. All of this comes dressed in QT’s famed dialogue, unfurled at the somewhat languorous pace he’s gradually been cultivating for a few movies now, and topped off with a few doses of the old ultra-violence.

One reason the “whodunnit” label doesn’t really stick is that Tarantino doesn’t sit it out until the end. Without spoilers: there’s certainly mystery about who is and isn’t involved, but you can’t invest in that too much because the answer is a little bit Murder on the Orient Express. Not completely Orient Express (I said no spoilers!), but a bit. One factor he does handle well is that (again like And Then There Were None) you can never be quite sure whose side you should be on; who might turn out to be a villain. Even at the end, when all has been revealed, the heroes are hardly heroic.

More talked about than the film’s content has been the way it was made. Despite the confined setting, Tarantino chose to shoot it on 65mm film, using the Ultra Panavision 70 process (only the 11th film to do so) and lenses that hadn’t seen light in nearly five decades, all of which have produced incredible images. QT’s regular DP since Kill Bill (excepting Death Proof), Robert Richardson, has once again done sterling work, with beautiful shots of scenery near the start and a fantastic definition of space once we’re locked up in Minnie’s.

Ultra Panavision 70 produces an ultra-wide 2.76:1 frame (for those not in the know, your widescreen TV is only 1.78:1), which for such an intimate story has struck people as odd ever since it was announced. In fact, it pays off in (at least) two ways: firstly, all the scene-setting scenery looks magnificent; secondly, for a lot of the film there’s stuff going on in the background or at the edge of frame — it’s not just a series of close-ups or two-shots where the ancillary detail is either non-existent or doesn’t matter, but one where that ‘background’ detail is sometimes very instructive to what is going on. Tarantino also uses the full width a lot of the time, placing two figures at either edge of the image — this really isn’t a film you could crop (thank goodness it doesn’t exist in the pan & scan era!)

Richardson’s work was Oscar nominated but lost to The Revenant (which I’m now a little biased against, after it beat this, Fury Road, and handed Roger Deakins his 13th loss, but I’ll see what I think when it finally hits British home ent formats next month), but the film did triumph for Ennio Morricone’s score — and quite rightly so, too, because it’s incredibly atmospheric and effective. Tarantino has commented that it isn’t really a Western score (which you’d expect from Morricone, what with his famous ones), but more of a horror movie score, and that that’s appropriate for the film. And, y’know, that’s not pretentious director-speak — he’s right. Well, that the movie is a horror movie is debatable, but he is right that Morricone’s work sounds more like a horror score, and that that score is appropriate to this movie. It even recycles some of Morricone’s material from The Thing, as if to bring the point home (and that’s far from the only thing about The Hateful Eight that’s indebted to The Thing, but I’ll leave that for someone else to dig into another time). Even though this is the first time he’s had a full score composed for one of his films, Tarantino still sources a couple of well-selected songs from elsewhere, including a very apt credits track by Roy Orbison.

The Hateful Eight may have a deceptively simple story, with straightforward characters and — once they’re finally all revealed — straightforward motivations; and despite that running time, it’s not as grand or as epic as either Inglourious Basterds or Django Unchained; but I say “deceptively simple” because I feel that it’s the kind of film that might reward repeat viewings, to reveal depths of character as well as hints toward the ultimate reveals. Or maybe I’m being generous — maybe it is just a long-winded, verbose way of telling a slight tale. But if it is, it’s still a mighty entertaining one.

4 out of 5

The Hateful Eight is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today.

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The Thing (1982)

2015 #97
John Carpenter | 109 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 18 / R

The Thing 1982It’s just an ordinary day at the US Antarctic research base staffed by helicopter pilot MacReady (Kurt Russell) and his compatriots, until a helicopter buzzes overhead dropping grenades on a dog it’s pursued across the ice fields. The dog finds sanctuary in the US base; the helicopter and its crew are less fortunate. Realising it’s from a Norwegian facility an hour’s flight away, MacReady and the doctor brave inclement conditions to investigate. They find numerous corpses and the base burnt to ruins. What horrors befell the Norwegian base? And have they inadvertently brought them into their own…?

I think we all know the answer to that second question. It wouldn’t be much of a movie if the answer was, “nope, they’re good.”

Derided by some on its release for being naught but wall-to-wall gore, The Thing naturally developed a cult following among horror/sci-fi fans. The funny thing watching it today is that, while the special effects still retain the power to shock in their gross extremity, they’re limited to a handful of quick-fire sequences; indeed, those seeking out The Thing to get their blood-and-guts fix nowadays often seem to declare it “boring”.

Naturally, they’re missing the point. At its heart, John Carpenter’s film is a psychological thriller: an alien is in the group’s midst; it has taken on the form of one or more of them; who can you trust? How can you tell? It’s both a dilemma in an abstract “sci-fi concept” sense, and no doubt a parallel from an era when spying and the threat of ‘the other’ infiltrating society were still major issues. I suppose it’s a facet that’s come round again these past few years, with the increasing rise of home-grown terrorists, previously decent citizens lured and brainwashed by propaganda. The most enduring themes are always timely, I guess.

Are you MacReady for this?Even if you don’t want to get deep about it, The Thing has the “who’s human?” thrills to keep you engaged on that level. Accusations of boredom no doubt stem from the fact it’s a bit of a slow burn, the early acts building suspicion and unease as MacReady and co investigate. Even after the true nature of the threat is revealed, Carpenter paces himself, though the frequency of incidents begins to mount inexorably as we head towards the climax. Well, that’s just good structure.

If the film has one problem, it’s there are too many characters. We know MacReady: he’s Kurt Russell, and he’s singled out early on as the hero — though we come to suspect even he may not be ‘right’ as the film goes on. As for the rest, I believe there are eleven of them, and at best they are loosely sketched. At least a couple are easily conflated and therefore confused, and for the rest, there just isn’t time to get to know them properly, so we’re less invested in what happens to them. There’s a reason most “who will survive?” movies have something like five or six characters in peril, not twelve.

In spite of all that, The Thing does remain best remembered for its extraordinary effects. Even though you know it’s rubber and silicon and corn syrup and whatever else, and even though the intervening thirty-odd years and lashings of CGI have enabled even more, even darker imaginings to be brought before our eyes, the visceral physicality of these effects, the way they play on long-established fears, and apply those to the human body in nauseatingly contorted ways, is plenty enough to render them still effective; certainly so within the context of a film that is, as I say, really more of a thriller than a gore-fest.

These people are going to dieFor me, it’s the psychological quandaries that are gripping and exciting, rather than any enjoyed disgust at the emetic special effects. However, knowing the characters a little better — thus caring if they’d been replaced or not, and also perhaps allowing us a chance to try to guess for ourselves — would have just made it that bit superior.

4 out of 5

The Thing was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2015 project, which you can read more about here.

The 2011 prequel, also titled The Thing, will be reviewed tomorrow.

Grindhouse (2007)

2010 #105
Robert Rodriguez & Quentin Tarantino | 191 mins | Blu-ray | 18 / R

Infamously, on its release in America the much-hyped Rodriguez/Tarantino double bill was an almighty flop, so much so that it wasn’t properly released in its full form outside the US. Which is a bit ironic, if you think about it, because the US is the market least likely to respond to something a little bit experimental.

A grindhouse, for those still unacquainted with the concept, was a second-run cinema in the pre-home video days that generally showed trashy films from poor-quality much-screened prints. It should come as little surprise that this is the kind of film and viewing experience Tarantino enjoys, and so he and best chum Rodriguez set about recreating the style for a wider audience. Which was probably why it flopped — it was, almost by definition, not a mass audience-aimed style of cinema.

What this means for Grindhouse is a double-bill of exploitation movies, more-or-less with a horror bent, with grainy, dirty, decrepit prints that are missing shots, scenes, and even whole reels, and complete with trailers for similar films and ads for local restaurants. Clearly, it sets itself up to be as much about the experience of viewing the work of RR and QT in this context as it is the films themselves. So, to take the viewing programme in order…

It opens with one of the several fake trailers — except in this case the trailer is no longer fake, as Rodriguez has since gone on to turn Machete into a genuine feature (out next month over here). It sets the tone well: cheesy dialogue, stagey acting, an emphasis on gory violence over any other element, and plenty of utterly ludicrous moments. Plus breasts, naturally. Entirely random explosionChances are, if you don’t find this opening salvo entertaining in some way the rest of the film is going to prove a struggle.

And then the film launches into its first feature: Robert Rodriguez’s zombie horror Planet Terror. In short, this is a completely entertaining pitch-perfect 90-minute proof-of-concept. Rodriguez packs every scene with at least one element you should expect from this style of cinema: graphic blood-spurting violence, horrific mutations, vicious zombies, over-the-top logic-light gunfights, entirely random explosions, clichéd dialogue, stock characters, extended shots of the female form… Have I missed anything? If I have, it’s probably there too.

Rodriguez’s skill lies in making this both homage and hilarious. You don’t need to have much experience of this kind of cheap horror/exploitation movie to see how well he’s hit on the stereotypical plot, characters and sequences. His direction hits the nail on the head too, discarding his usual style for angles and cuts that feel thoroughly genuine. But he also recreates it in a way that’s amusing; not so much in a “look how stupid they are” way, but by levying elements in a way that is consistently entertaining. In particular, he uses the self-imposed print damage to excellent effect — the sex scene literally burns out from over-play, for instance, while the “Missing Reel” card elicits a laugh by jumping the plot forward so ridiculously, as well as skipping a whole chunk of exposition.

A gun. For a leg.It probably works better in context than described on the page, but Rodriguez has marshalled every disparate element to create a cohesive whole that’s exciting and funny. At this point, Grindhouse is firmly headed for a full five-star conceptual success.

Following “The End” card, there’s a handful of trailers before the second part of the double-bill. From directors Rob Zombie (The Devil’s Rejects, Halloween remake), Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) and Eli Roth (Cabin Fever, Hostel), they showcase different archetypes within the overall grindhouse style. Zombie’s Werewolf Women of the S.S. is all Nazis, cheap werewolf costumes and (naturally) boobs — very video nasty. Wright’s Don’t takes on British ’70s horror with a nightmare-filled country mansion and a deliberately repetitive trailer (“don’t go in there”, “don’t see it alone”, etc). Also, for a British viewer, its sub-two-minute running time is packed to bursting with recognisable faces, some you’d expect (Mark Gatiss, Nick Frost) and others you wouldn’t (Katie Melua!) Finally, Roth’s Thanksgiving is a teeny slasher in the Halloween mode, A cheerleader giving thanksthough Roth can’t resist adding his own especially twisted brand of humour (I shan’t describe the final shot here).

While the trailers won’t necessarily convince you to see the films featured (good thing they don’t exist then), they perfectly capture the feel of various horror styles from the intended era, and — with the various “coming attractions” slides — sell the grindhouse experience.

And then we have the second film, Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof. And here the concept falls apart.

It seems Tarantino can’t let go of his own style. With a handful of exceptions, Death Proof feels less like a well-considered grindhouse homage (which Planet Terror certainly was) and more like a typical Quentin Tarantino Film launched from a grindhouse-ish concept. He can’t even sustain the literal veneer of grindhouseness: after some early print damage, obviously missing scenes, the clearly-labelled “Missing Reel” (which, in one of the film’s few authentic-feeling touches, is a sexy sequence), and — in the best grindhouse-style touch — a shoddily-replaced title card, the picture quality gradually loses its flaws until a climax that seems visually faultless. Perhaps QT’s imagined behind-the-scenes story was that every projectionist got bored of the film by this point so the latter reels survived in pristine condition…

Foot fetishBut it’s not just the increasing lack of dilapidated print quality that prevents Death Proof from selling its concept. The screenplay is clearly a QT work, much more so than most of Kill Bill or even Inglourious Basterds, especially when the girls indulge in long dialogue scenes of the real-world-natter variety. It’s like the opening of Reservoir Dogs, only with girls instead of guys and repeated two or three times throughout the film. One such scene is even shot in a very long single take, the camera constantly roving around the four girls sat round a table. It’s a technically impressive bit of work for any film; as a supposed product of a low-budget horror-thriller flick destined for the grindhouse circuit, it’s beyond improbable. In short, it’s all too well written and directed to convince as grindhouse. Though he does get to indulge in a couple of lingering shots of the female form, in particular his regular foot fetish.

QT almost makes up for all this with the final twenty minutes, featuring some impressive car stunt action. As noted, by this point any pretense of being a grindhouse-style film has been done away with: the image is devoid of all but minor damage, the stunt work — all done for real, I believe — pretty impressive. Whether it conforms to the style statement of the film or not (that’d be a “not”), it does manage to entertain. Tarantino’s decades of studying action-filled trash clearly pay off here as well as they did in Kill Bill, Proof of deathand if he chooses to create some more action-centric pictures in the future it would be no bad thing.

One thing that left me uncertain was the decision to slaughter his main cast halfway through. Firstly, the death-inducing crash is another sequence that’s too well done for such a pretend-cheap film, repeating the impact four times to show the imaginative fate of each victim. Brutal, yes, but one of the few moments that matches Planet Terror for effectiveness. The actual act of removing the three lead characters is audacious, maybe, but mainly so because QT’s spent so long apparently trying to invest us in these characters and their lives. It makes all the dialogue scenes we’ve sat through feel even more pointless, especially those setting up slightly dull romantic-ish subplots.

It also leads to a cameo appearance for a handful of Planet Terror characters, which could be fun but ultimately feels ill-conceived to me. In no other way do these films appear to be set in the same world, or have any other connection — indeed, cast members such as Rose McGowan and Tarantino himself appear in completely different roles in each film. The crossover didn’t feel in the grindhouse spirit to me; it felt in the “Rob and I are buddies and did this for no good reason” spirit. And it certainly took me out of the film. Wouldn't it be cool if I had a gun for a legIn fact, it might’ve played better if the films were the other way round, as it means Death Proof must be set before Planet Terror. I’d approve of this switch not only for chronological reasons, but because seeing one-scene bit-parters turn up in the-same-but-larger roles in the second film seems like it would be more satisfying as a viewer, rather than re-encountering these (in any case, minor) characters the way we do.

A length-based aside: as I mentioned, both films were released separately outside the US, and in both cases were extended. By my calculations, the Grindhouse cut of Planet Terror is just under 15 minutes shorter, while Death Proof is around 20 minutes shorter. More on that when I get round to watching the individual versions.

Grindhouse ends up being every bit a film of two halves, as you might expect a double-bill to be. Up until the end of the trailers, I was loving its commitment to the concept and the fun it was having with it — all credit to Rodriguez for that, as well as the trailer directors of course. But Tarantino’s entry lets the side down by seeming to fail in its execution of the film’s conceit. I’m not convinced it would be any better viewed as a standalone Quentin Tarantino Film, but in context it certainly disappoints.

If QT could’ve produced an effort as successful as his mate’s, Grindhouse would’ve been on course for full marks; not because it’s a Good Film, but because it would have fully realised its potential-filled concept in a thoroughly entertaining way. The finished product is still entertaining, but not thoroughly. It loses a star, but does retain a moderate chance of appearing on my Best Of Year list.

4 out of 5

Grindhouse is out on Blu-ray, exclusive to hmv, from today.
Grindhouse’s constituent parts, Death Proof and Planet Terror, are on TCM tonight from 9pm until 1:30am.