Day of the Dead

US | 1985 | Directed by George A. Romero

Logline: A small group of scientists and military personnel are forced to co-habitat in an underground bunker while zombies are kept at bay above ground. 

“The darkest day of horror the world has ever known.”

Romero’s third installment in the Dead saga is, arguably, the most powerful of the entire six movie series (with a seventh on its way). It is unquestionably one of the most viscerally intense modern horror movies ever made, a stomach-churning indictment on the abject greed and inherent nihilism of the human race. It also set a benchmark for special effects makeup that has rarely been equaled. In short, Day of the Dead is a tenebrous, atmospheric masterpiece. 

Set in Florida several years after the events of Dawn of the Dead, zombies now outnumber humans 400,000 to 1. It is a very grim reality indeed, and only getting worse by the day. In an isolated underground bunker – actually a disused missile silo – a small group of desperate scientists are experimenting neurologically on the undead in a vain effort to domesticate them, or at the very least remove their urge to feed on human flesh.

The weary scientists are being facilitated by the military, a bunch of disgruntled soldiers, who spend their time acting the goat, or parading like cowboys, more intent on harassing the scientists than providing utility. The tension is palpable, the situation increasingly dangerous.

Dr. Logan (Richard Liberty) feels he is close to a breakthrough. His colleagues, including plucky Sarah (Lori Cardille), aren’t so sure. The helicopter pilot Johnny (Terry Alexander) would rather get the fuck outta dodge and find some nice tropical island and make some babies. It’s inevitable the shit will hit the fan … along with much flesh and blood.

There is a tone prevalent in Day of the Dead that is more intently serious than most other supernatural horror movies. It presents the zombie predicament as wholly realistic, an unholy plague upon the earth. Johnny sees it as God getting us back for “getting’ to big for our britches, tryin’ to figure His shit out.” Yeah, that’d be about right, mate.

The acting, considering the cast is made up of all unknowns, is of a much higher calibre than the previous Dead movie, with Lori Cardille’s quiet intensity often overlooked. The overall production is superbly realised, everything from Michael Gornick’s moody cinematography through to John Harrison’s emotive score. But especially notable is Tom Savini’s special effects make-up, truly astonishing stuff. More than thirty years down the track and the prosthetic work is still peerless.

Romero’s original screenplay for Day of the Dead was a far more elaborate final chapter; the soldiers and scientists were segregated above and below ground. The military had managed to train a combat force of zombies, a kind of Green Beret of the undead known as The Red Coats, to pit them against the rest of the zombies in a final ditch attempt to conquer the problem. However the budget for this exceeded what executive producers were willing to spend unless Romero could deliver an R-rated version. If he wanted final cut with all the gore trimmings, he’d have to work with half the budget. So Romero changed the script, and as he’d done with Dawn he released Day unrated.

Dawn of the Dead did good business, but for reasons we’ll never really understand Day of the Dead bombed at the box office. Perhaps the combination of the movie’s lack of any obvious humour, the surly, sullen characters, the pitch-black tone, and the overly realistic graphic violence at the time the movie was released (mid-80s) backfired. Perhaps many Americans thought the movie was a documentary on the Mexican Halloween festival? John Carpenter’s The Thing suffered a similar fate.  

Like Carpenter’s The Thing, Day of the Dead demands repeat viewings, as there are many subtle touches and character nuances to be relished. The dialogue crackles, especially from the malicious Captain Rhodes (Joseph Pilato) and flyboy Johnny. I also like that the book Dr. Logan offers to featured zombie Bub (Sherman Howard), to see if he recognizes what to do with it, is Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, a novel about a town overrun by vampires.

Day of the Dead is often unfairly criticised for being too talky, dull even, but its drama qualities intensifies the nightmarish atmosphere. There are more than enough amazing set pieces, and for those who champion the use of practical effects over CGI this movie is one of the holy trinity.

Without a doubt, Day of the Dead is the ne plus ultra of the zombie genre. 



Dawn of the Dead

US | 1978 | Directed by George A. Romero

Logline: Two soldiers, a reporter, and his girlfriend seek refuge in a shopping mall from a zombie pandemic, but battle to survive.

When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.” One of the most memorable and enduring taglines in modern horror history to one of the most regularly discussed and championed modern horror movies in history. Romero’s sequel to his landmark zombie flick Night of the Living Dead cut down all the competition like a point blank shotgun blast to the head. There hadn’t been a graphic horror movie with such a relentless tone, such a scathing satirical edge, like this consumer mayhem. 

The movie opens at a Philadelphia television station where everything is under pressure. It seems the plague of the walking dead established in the first movie has escalated ten fold. Instead of rogue farmers armed with shotguns taking out whoever looks troublesome, it’s a SWAT team armed with M16s storming apartment blocks killing anything remotely disheveled and evacuating the odd lucky person.

Two of the station employees, traffic reporter Stephen (David Emge) and broadcast executive Francine (Gaylen Ross) meet up with Roger (Scott H. Reiniger) and Peter (Ken Foree), two SWAT soldiers who’ve deserted their posts, and together they steal a helicopter in order to escape the chaos. After flying west they land and seek shelter in an abandoned shopping mall complex outside of Pittsburgh to wait the apocalypse out. They barricade themselves into a small storeroom and clear any unwanted undead from the mall’s interior.

But tensions soon arise as the weeks drag on. Zombies linger outside the mall refusing to dissipate. Then a biker gang infiltrates the mall with their own brand of chaos. Looting and rampaging, chopping down zombies for the sheer hell of it, the wheeled marauders cause the movie’s protagonists further headaches. So it’s insult to injury as the four survivalists fend off the lethal bandits and the flesh-hungry zombies in droves, with any plans being scuttled.

To borrow a tagline from a fellow modern horror cult classic, “Who will survive, and what will be left of them?”

Dawn of the Dead was Romero’s sly stab at the rampant consumerism and apathetic discourse of modern America. Most of this thematic subtext went straight over the heads of Joe Average horror nut, but the critics got the score. Even if it is a parable on the subversive dangers of automatic living, it still has great bite as a gung-ho horror flick. Tom Savini’s special effects make-up serves up some ingeniously staged gore. The blood looks like paint, but hey, that didn’t prevent Argento’s early movies from being so beloved. Two of the most memorable gore effects sequences are the zombie having the top of his head whacked clean off by a helicopter rotary blade, and a biker (played by Savini) cleaving a machete into the side of a zombie’s head. Both simply executed, but gorgeously effective. 

Dario Argento’s brother Claudio produced the movie and Dario was given the opportunity to re-cut the movie for European audiences. His version was shorter, deleted all “funny scenes” and kept the movie more action-orientated, whereas Romero’s had more humour, longer dialogue scenes, and was considered more horror-orientated. In Australasia and the UK the movie was titled Zombies: Dawn of the Dead. In New Zealand it was given the then unprecedented censorship rating of R18 – Contains Frequent Episodes of Graphic Violence. I have fond memories as an eleven-year-old of a huge mural based on the poster art in the foyer of the Majestic Cinema in my hometown of Wellington, and being in awe of the art, tagline, and that truly "adult" classification (as most horrors at the time were classified R13 or R16).

To make matters entirely confusing for international audiences Italian distributors re-titled it Zombi, so then Lucio Fulci’s 1979 zombie island opus was given the title Zombi 2 to cash in on Romero’s success. Fulci’s flick was called Zombie in the States, and Zombie Flesh Eaters in the UK and down under.

While Dawn of the Dead doesn’t have the urgent, cinema verité, docu-drama atmosphere of Night of the Living Dead, or the higher production values, better performances, and utterly convincing viscera of Day of the Dead or Land of the Dead, it’s a genuinely effective, satirical date stamp. Less creepy than Night, less chilling than Day, but the grim, apocalyptic tone is firmly in place, the despair locked and loaded, the ghoulish resonance deep, dark, and damp with dread. 



Night of the Living Dead

US | 1968 | Directed by George Romero

Logline: A ragtag group of men and women barricade themselves inside a farmhouse in an effort to stay safe from a plague of cannibalistic walking dead.

George A. Romero pioneered what we appreciate as the modern horror movie with this seminal, unconventional shocker. Shot on 16mm, in grainy black and white, on the smell of an oily rag, with a bunch of amateur actors, in and around his then hometown of Pittsburgh. The movie became a staple of the burgeoning midnight movie circuit, spawned a worldwide cinematic phenomenon known as the zombie apocalypse, and went on to earn the director the crown of Godfather of the Dead.

Along with William Friedkin’s The Exorcist and Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Night of the Living Dead re-vitalised a dying art form, injecting it with a dark, uncompromising attitude, and giving it the visceral, nihilistic edge it so demanded. It was the beginning of the end of Hammer Horror’s soft grip, and while Euro darling Roman Polanski delivered a mainstream hit with Rosemary’s Baby, the subversive sideshow shadow of Hollywood exploded in all its glorious grotesquerie.

A young man, Johnny (Russell Streiner), and his sister Barbara (Judith O’Dea), are visiting their parents grave when they are terrorised by a tall, shuffling, seemingly deranged, and rather ghoulish man. Johnny has been teasing Barbara, “They’re comin’ to get you, Barbara! Look there’s one of them now!” But, the ghoul fatally wounds Johnny, and Barbara just manages to escape.

She seeks shelter in a nearby farmhouse where she discovers several others already hiding out. It becomes quickly apparent that the countryside is running amok with those things, what we now call “zombies”; the dead have come back to life and have only one desire: to eat living human flesh. Anyone bitten by one of the ghouls becomes a ghoul. The only way to kill them is to destroy the brain.

Ben (Duane Jones) seems the only one of the household with any shrewdness and ingenuity, the others; a married couple Harry (Karl Hardman) and Helen Cooper (Marilyn Eastman) and their young daughter Karen (Kyra Schon), Judy (Judith Riley) and Tom (Keith Wayne), and heavily traumatised Barbara, are all rather hopeless.

The screenplay was co-written with John Russo, who had a falling out with Romero after the movie’s success, and in their subsequent legal settlement Romero wasn’t allowed to use the words “Living Dead” in any sequels he might wish to make. The script is lean and mean, with strongly etched characters, and surprisingly realistic dialogue. But most effective of all is the movie’s savage, uncompromising denouement. It’s Murphy’s Law through and through, the most bitter of ironies, with the end credits playing over a montage of images that gives the movie a docu-drama authenticity.

The handheld camerawork - shot in Academy ratio - adds a claustrophobic urgency to the film’s visual narrative. Romero was the uncredited cinematographer, and co-editor (along with Russo). The clever use of having most of the graphic violence occur in shadows or half-light only intensifies the tenebrous, nightmare atmosphere. The scene when Ben first discovers a body with its partially-eaten face on the staircase of the farmhouse is a genuinely alarming image; it’s mostly in shadow, but the staring dead eye and ruined flesh makes for a truly horrific motif for the whole film.

Night of the Living Dead is an excellent example of DIY, indie filmmaking. Despite the supernatural, almost absurd premise the movie is presented as realistically as possible. Imagine the genuine shock audiences would’ve had seeing this on the big screen almost fifty years ago. The atmosphere is so palpable, and the pacing brisk, you forget the movie’s technical limitations and goofs. Romero has always been fantastic at paring everything back to the essential elements of cinematic storytelling, and Night of the Living Dead is fully deserving of its enduring cult classic status in every way. 




US | 1978 | Directed by George Romero

Logline: A young man, believing he is a vampire, goes to live with his elderly cousin, where he attempts to reconcile with his inner demon.

Martin is George A. Romero’s only paean to vampirism. For the rest of his filmography zombies have pretty much ruled the undead roost. Romero’s fifth feature might be a low-budget affair, but it has a resonance that belies its inherent trappings. Though the performances, and the blood effects, are far from convincing, there’s a real sense of conviction that permeates the film. That Romero chooses to bathe vampirism in a realistic light makes Martin arguably the director’s darkest hour (and a half). 

Martin is a strange and schizophrenic creature, one part psychological thriller, one part dark character study, one part noir-horror, whilst straddling a twisted romance, and a theological and existential debate on the themes of loneliness and resignation. In a coffin, er, nutshell, Martin is a grim and tenebrous chamber piece that echoes eternally.

The titular character (John Amas), in his early 20s, is bound for Pittsburgh. On the overnight train he breaks into an attractive woman’s cabin and injects her with some kind of sleeping serum. She puts up a fight, but eventually is overwhelmed by the drug. Martin has sex with her whilst she is unconscious, then using a straight razor he slits her arm open and drinks her blood. It’s a confronting, nightmarish scene.

Martin leaves the woman’s body as though she’d committed suicide, and after disembarking at Pittsburgh he is met by the eccentric, aging Tada Cuda (Lincoln Maazel), who leads him across town to another train station where they travel to a satellite industrial town called Braddock. Cuda appears to know much about Martin’s background, and accuses him of being “Nosferatu”, but Martin insists they are simply cousins.

Martin meets Cuda’s granddaughter Christine (Christine Forrest), and her boyfriend Arthur (Tom Savini), but is warned by Cuda never to talk with her or to enter her room. Later Christine installs a phone in Martin’s bedroom. Martin calls a radio talkshow and enthralls the DJ and listeners with his vampire exploits. The DJ calls him “The Count”.

This is vampire portrait as emotionally cripple, a sociopath who deviously manipulates those around him in order to facilitate his addiction. It is inevitable Martin will be confronted by the demons that haunt him. Through stylized flashbacks the audience is privy to a younger Martin and a mysterious woman (Donna Siegel) from many decades earlier. Martin claims to be 84-years-old, but he’s really a very disturbed and borderline psychotic individual. There is one man who wants to end Martin’s diabolical lust for blood, once and for all.

Braddock may be a grim looking town, but Romero manages to shoot the city and capture a hard beauty. The flashback sequences, shot in high contrast black and white, are often stunning. In fact,  George Romero wanted to shot the entire film in monochrome, but the financiers refused him, and, apparently, there once existed a 2hr 45m version of the movie that featured much more of Martin’s adolescence. 

John Amplas certainly possesses an effectively steely glare, but his acting is better when he doesn’t talk. In fact, much of the movie works very well without dialogue, enhancing the movie’s ominous mood. Romero cameos as a priest in the film’s last quarter, Savini is the make-up effects designer who would go on to work on numerous other Romero movies, whilst then girlfriend Forrest would later become Romero’s wife.

Martin is an acquired taste, but strong stuff if you can get past its low-budget production values and mediocre acting. It’s a vampire flick for those who like the taste of copper a little more metallic; filmy and clingy like the sweat from a bad dream, and less the sweet taste that makes you lick your lips. Only Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction has achieved such a similarly affecting, naturalistic, devastating perspective.

"If he is our own child; if he is our primal conscience, looking back at us from the center of our souls, then Martin is a truly dangerous creature. For then he has us all figured out, while we haven't come close to understanding him." ---- George Romero, 1940-2017, Rest In Peace



Free Fire

UK/France | 2016 | Directed by Ben Wheatley

Logline: After two crews of criminals rendezvous in a derelict warehouse the meeting goes awry and an extended shootout ensues. 

It’s Boston, 1978. Frank (Michael Smiley), an IRA head honcho is about to front a guns deal with a South African merchant, Vern (Sharlto Copley). With Frank is his right hand man Chris (Cillian Murphy), and assisting with the cold hard cash transaction is Justine (Brie Larson). They’ve recruited a couple of muscle heads for the job, Stevo (Sam Riley) and Bernie (Enzo Cilenti), who turn out to be a tad on the flaky side. Vern has brought his own muscle, Ord (Arnie Hammer), plus his right hand man Martin (Babou Cessay), and drivers, Harry (Jack Treynor), who has some beef with Stevo, and Gordon (Noah Taylor). It’s this very recent history - Stevo has a black eye to prove it - that will cause the entire clandestine meeting to go entirely pear-shaped, and, as the title suggests, a free fire erupts. 

If there was ever a prime cut example of a movie that excels and succeeds brilliantly on a very simple premise with no too-clever-by-fucking-half convoluted plot shenanigans, then Ben Wheatley’s nod to the great 70s exploitation shoot ‘em ups is the one. It's an unbridled genre joy. The moment the first pistol is fired, and the pungent smell of of nitroglycerin, sawdust, and graphite is swirling in the air, it’s all on for the stupid and the smart, it’s every man - and one woman - for themselves. Ain’t that the damn truth. 

With a healthy disregard for those with sensitive ears, the dialogue crackles and spits with obscenities and expletives, it’s the kind of discourse that would make Martin Scorsese smirk with excitement, especially as the movie is also violent as hell. Hang on a minute, I think I saw Scorsese’s name listed amongst the executive producers, yeah, that’d be right, he’d want in on a piece of this action, especially as Wheatley is one of the most interesting, dynamic, and all-round talented cinematic directors of his generation. I may have been disappointed with his adaptation of High Rise, though it looked a treat, but with Free Fire Wheatley has delivered, arguably, his best movie since his amazing debut, Kill List. Along with Sightseers, it’s his most unabashedly entertaining. 

Along with his wife and very talented partner-in-crime, Amy Jump, who co-write the screenplay and edited the movie - and she has co-written and edited all his features - Wheatley keeps Free Fire moving at a brisk and volatile pace. The movie cost $10m and much of that probably went on armoury and ballistics, some on the excellent cast, who all deliver stellar performances, with special mention to Sam Riley’s hilarious fuck-up Stevo, Shallot Copley’s asshole-with-a-capital-a Vern, and Noah Taylor’s relentless Harry, while the rest of the budget probably on the superb period wardrobe. Ha!

What makes Free Fire so mindlessly brilliant is that Wheatley and Jump haven’t tried to pepper the narrative with too much of what soooooo many young filmmakers think is necessary in this post-Reservoir Dogs world (man, that shit’s been happening for more than twenty years now!): blocks of Tarantino-styled smart-arse dialogue. I’m over it. I’ve been over it for years. That shit was fine in Tarantino’s early movies, but Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight bored me to tears. Anyhoo, ‘nuff said. Free Fire is less about the banter and more about the ricochet, and that’s what makes the movie so memorable. It’s simple, no bullshit; just a mean, dirty, dusty game of death in an enclosed space. But, it just so happens to be bloody funny too, and it sports a killer ending. 

The comedy is dark as motor oil and most of it is pooled from the humour school of Bruce Robinson; the Withnail and I character-based cumulative-style that builds through behaviour and interaction, with short retorts, pithy wisecracks, not lengthy pop-cultural referential monologues. Okay, so it might seem like I have a bee-in-my-bonnet about Tarantino, but I’d be lying if I said Free Fire doesn’t owe something to Tarantino, and certainly, it would make for the fucking best double-feature with Reservoir Dogs.

Free Fire is an instant cult classic, a year's favourite, and one to be reloaded time and time again. 


Free Fire screens Saturday July 8th, 8:45pm, Sunday July 9th, 9:20pm, Thursday July 13th, 6:45pm, and Tuesday July 18th, 8:40pm, as part of Revelation - Perth International Film Festival


2017 | UK/USA/Canada | Directed by Benedict Andrews

Logline: A young woman struggling with the long-term effects of emotional and psychological trauma confronts the man who seduced her when she was an adolescent. 

Una (Rooney Mara), late twenties, seemingly drifts through life in a loner’s daze, constantly trying to bury the pain she feels with sensory excess; dark, loud nightclubs and casual, anonymous sex. But they don’t fill the cavernous void inside her. Her psychological wounds are deep. Her mother (Tara Fitzgerald) is wary of her daughter’s damage, and senses where Una is heading when she leaves home one morning. 

Ray (Ben Mendelsohn) is the boss at a packing warehouse. He’s known to his employees as Pete. Una arrives and demands to talk. Ray is very uncomfortable. They move into the staff coffee room and the beans are spilled. Fifteen years earlier Ray, who was Una’s adult neighbour, found himself sexually-attracted to the thirteen-year-old Una. Una responded to his behaviour and they began having clandestine meetings which culminated in them having sex and planning to elope. Their tryst came to an abrupt halt that same fateful night. 

Now Una wants closure, or maybe its revenge. She’s not sure, she only knows she was taken advantage of and abused and she wants to understand why Ray abandoned her. Ray wants the past to remain in the past, but now the skeleton in his closet has come to haunt him. There’ll be tears before bedtime. 

Andrews, an ex-pat Australian theatre director known for his work with the Sydney Theatre Company, originally directed the award-winning play Blackbird by David Harrower back in 2005. Harrower has adapted his own play for the screen and Andrews has done an exceptional job of turning essentially a two-hander into a powerful piece of dramatic cinema. Re-titled as Una, it’s a dual character study that burns with the ferocity of a psychological thriller. A provocative and delicate tale of manipulation and sexual, emotional, and psychological abuse, but also a story of damaged love. 

Unlike the play, Harrower’s screenplay introduces the young version of Una, via flashback, played by Ruby Stokes. It provides the movie with a much more disturbing context than verbal memories thrown in the air by two adults at each other’s throats. The crux of the movie is the confrontation between Una and Ray at Ray’s workplace, but the climax - the denouement, if you will - takes place at Ray’s house, during a soiree he and his unknowing wife of four years are hosting. The tension is palpable. 

Una is a sombre and disquieting film. The tightly-shot interior scenes, the narrow passageways work as metaphors for the walls that Ray and Una have built around themselves in the wake of their connection, and as a contrast, the individual flashbacks that both Ray and Una have, are nearly all exteriors, reflecting a sense of freedom, albeit morally corrupt.  

With yet another stunning score from Australian Jed Kurzel, who is proving to be one of the most talented cinema composers of his generation (Snowtown, Son of a Gun, The Babadook, Slow West, Macbeth, Alien: Covenant), and two fantastic performances from Rooney Mara and Ben Mendelsohn, Una is a sharply resonant and deeply affecting movie. It feels uncomfortable to recommend portraits of pedophilia, but Una is compelling and insightful, the grey area as dark as charcoal, just like any dangerous and brilliant relationship drama. 

The fragility and resilience of character, the nuances of trust and betrayal are exposed with intelligence, but not without risk of controversy. It’s a brave choice for Mendelsohn, and yet another role for Rooney steeped in tragedy (there’s an inherent sadness she exudes effortlessly), but as my father, an actor, used to remind me while I was growing up, “You don’t need to be a murderer to play a murderer.”


Una screens Thursday 15th June, 8:35pm, Hayden Cremone Orpheum, as part of the Sydney Film Festival. 


US | 2016 | Directed by Simon Rumley

Logline:  A woman, addicted to op-shop clothing, and in a troubled marriage, begins seeing a wealthy, enigmatic man who leads her further astray. 

Rumley is an English maverick who directs movies on the fringe, both figuratively and literally. He toys with fractured identities, dangerous relationships, lurid avenues, and isn’t afraid to delve into sordid depths in order to uncover hard truths. He peels away social mores and exposes the wounds of our fragile inner beasts. With Fashionista he plays with addiction and delusion, painting a cracked reflection of one woman’s fight for control, over her self, and over her surrounding heaven/hell. 

April (Amanda Fuller) leaves with her husband Eric (Ethan Embry) in the back of their large second-hand clothing store, Eric’s Emporium, in Austin, the wilderness heart of Texas. This is is Eric’s livelihood and it is April’s lifeblood. Whilst Eric is having an affair with one of the staff, Theresa (Jemma Evans) April spends her time sniffing and fondling the fabrics and furs, simultaneously feeding her own insecurities. She accuses another staffie, Sherry (Alexandria DeBerry) of screwing her husband, but she’s barking up the wrong tree. 

Amanda catches Eric and Therese in bed, and the rockets of rage explode. Eric cowers, Therese scampers, and April seeks solace deep in the open wardrobes. Outside of the Emporium she meets Randall (Eric Balfour) a sleek, elegant, and handsome man with a cruel streak. April is drawn to him like a moth to a flame. He entices her, and lures her into a very dark and twisted swingers game. April’s clutch on reality is beginning to slip…

Shot in a grainy, low-fi look, that sways between washed out and saturated, the cinematography gives the movie’s vibe a distinctly early 80s feel, as does the brooding, mostly electronic score. Texas exudes the desolation usually associated with the lost City of Angels. Rumley states at movie’s end that Fashionista is inspired by the films of Nic Roeg, and indeed, the manipulation of character, the fascination with femininity vs. masculinity, the hallucinatory, surrealist touches that Roeg applied to movies like Performance, Don’t Look Now, and Bad Timing, and in particular, the obsessive-compulsive natures of the central characters echo those movies tremendously. 

It’s a slow-burn descent into madness, April losing grip on immediate world, desperately seeking assurance, the mask of beauty hiding a deep-rooted desire for freedom, emancipation from prejudice and jealousy. Amanda Fuller, who was excellent in the lead role from Rumley’s Red, White and Blue (2010) is brilliant in the tortured titular role of this dark character study. Fantastic support from Balfour as a kind of nemesis, Embry as the pathetic spouse, and, also of note, Alex Essoe, who was magnificent in Starry Eyes (which also co-starred Fuller), in a mysterious role whom loiters during the movie’s opening scene, and who appears peripherally through the movie, but doesn’t reveal herself fully until movie’s closing scenes. 

Fashionista is one of those disquieting drama-thrillers that smoulders away, threatening too fully ignite. It catches, and singes, and it’s those surface burns that always seem to linger the longest. It’s one of the most original screenplays I’ve seen in ages. Clothing obsessions and nightmares don’t always mix, but Rumley has fashioned (pardon the pun) a terrific low-budget piece that razzle-dazzles in a way those big budget affairs could never hope to pin. Another favourite for the year. 


Fashionista screens Wednesday 14th June, 8:30pm, Dendy Newtown, as part of Sydney Film Festival. 

An American Werewolf In London

1981 | UK/US | Directed by John Landis

Logline: Two college students on a holiday trek are attacked by a werewolf on the English moors, which none of the locals will admit exists. 

David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne) are two young American tourists reluctantly enjoying the invigorating countryside of Yorkshire, England. As nighttime descends they stop at a tiny pub, with the rather ominous name of The Slaughtered Lamb, to get some supper, but the locals don’t want their nosy kind, and shoo them on. “Stay on the road and beware the moon” is the sage advice they’re given. But before they know it the lads have strayed onto the moors, and something big and nasty is circling them in the cold light of the full moon.  

The night doesn’t end well for the two friends. David ends up in a London hospital where he meets lovely nurse, Alex (Jenny Agutter), and a curious doctor (John Woodvine), who starts sniffing like a hound dog around David’s insistence that it was a wolf that attacked them on the moors. David’s undead buddy Jack pays him a visit and warns his dear friend that he must break the lycanthrope curse, quickly, and there is only one way. 

Landis wrote the screenplay in 1969, aged nineteen, and when it finally got the green light ten years later executives pushed to have Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi in the lead roles, both of whom were riding high on the success of Landis’s raucous comedies Animal House and The Blues Brothers. There is definitely an element of Landis’s trademark goofiness that he injects into his werewolf screenplay. He casts Frank Oz in a very brief role, and later uses an excerpt from The Muppet Show to punctuate the beginning of a particularly harrowing nightmare sequence. He also parodies adult movies with See You Next Wednesday playing in the grindhouse where David has his second transformation. 

Despite a quaintness that permeates the movie, it is this uncomplicated approach to the narrative; the simple and direct plot that provides the movie with much of its dark charm. It might not appear to be quite as sophisticated as many of the big-budget horror movies of today, but in many ways it’s far cleverer than much of today’s over-written fare, especially in its sense of mischief and nudge, nudge, wink, wink. Landis has created a superb example of the classic monster movie - especially in the movie's first twenty or so minutes - in fact its original tagline was simply that, “The Monster Movie”, but he very slyly twists what has been the convention of love conquering the beast. 

The opening scenes leading up the attack on the moors, and the subsequent scenes in the hospital as Alex and David get to know each other are wonderfully etched in terms of character development, atmosphere, tension, suspense, and shock. He punctuates several key scenes, right from the opening credits, with classic songs that reference the moon, Blue Moon (three versions), Moondance, and Bad Moon Rising, and, in a couple of scenes – the extraordinary transformation and the surprisingly emotional ending – the upbeat music is used in complete contrast to the macabre tone of the scene, which toys with the movie’s dark sense of humour. 

Rick Baker’s special effects makeup is, arguably, the real star of the movie. Using techniques pioneered by Dick Smith, Baker and his team created one of the greatest transformations in the history of the modern horror movie. Baker went on to win the inaugural Oscar for Outstanding Achievement in Makeup. 

During the pre-production of the movie, Baker’s protégé, 21-year-old Rob Bottin, was lured away by director Joe Dante to design the sfx makeup for The Howling. Bottin used many of the technical procedures he’d learned from Baker, as well as pioneering some of his own. Landis was royally pissed off because American Werewolf had suffered a delayed schedule and subsequently The Howling was released first, even though it had begun production months after the Landis picture. 

Great werewolf movies are a rare breed of beast. It’s hard for me to roll off more than five that I consider truly memorable, but An American Werewolf in London still tops the list for me, followed by The Howling, Ginger Snaps, and its unusually good sequel, Ginger Snaps 2: Unleashed, Neil Marshall’s Dog Soldiers, and, although not strictly a werewolf movie, another release from 1981, Wolfen

As a curious end note, in an interview made in 1982 Landis mentions how he cut a gruesome and scary scene where a trio of tramps are savaged (in the released version they are killed off-screen) because at a preview the audience were so freaked out Landis felt they missed crucial plot points that immediately followed. In hindsight Landis realised his mistake. Shame he never made a director’s cut and put that scene back in. Maybe his son, Max, will include it in the remake he’s helming, which has a young woman, Alex, as the central protagonist. Apparently he's following his father's screenplay in terms of story, but I'm not counting my chickens. 


An American Werewolf In London screens Friday, 16th June, 7pm, Skyline Drive-In, as part of the Sydney Film Festival.

Axolotl Overkill

Germany | 2017 | Directed by Helene Hegemony

Logline: A wayward teenage girl drifts through various relationships and connections in an effort to submerge the emotional trauma of her mother’s passing.

Based on her own novel, Axolotl Roadkill, Hegemony has written and directed a powerful iceberg of a movie, as cool and detached as it is unpredictable and unruly. It has no real plot to speak of, just a series of incidents and encounters in the days and nights of sixteen-year-old Mifti (Jasna Fritzi Bauer) as she copes with the people close to her, each with their own demands. The movie seemingly begins mid-scene and ends in the same abrupt way, the camera loiters and lingers, sometimes as if it is an invisible character itself. There is no moral compass, with the listless fly-on-the-wall narrative perspective this could just as well be a docu-drama. 

Mifti lives with her two much older half-siblings, Anika (Laura Tonke) and Edmond (Julius Feldmeier). Occasionally she visits her wealthy father (Bernard Schütz), who languishes in a cavernous post-modern abode. He doesn’t seem too concerned with his daughter’s future, off-handedly inviting her to join him on a trip to Tokyo. Mifti is pre-occupied with forty-something Alice (Arly Jover), whom she is lovers with, but who remains elusive. Mifti hangs out with Ophelia (Marvie Hörbiger), her scatterbrained junkie friend whom she is intimate with, yet clashes with. Ophelia and Mufti trawl the Berlin club and party scene doing drugs and sifting with whomever is up for it. Mifti sometimes wakes up in a forest, sometimes wakes up in a child’s bunkbed. No matter, as long as she has her cigarettes. 

Floating with the aloofness of Bret Easton Ellis and anchored with the ennui of Tom DeLillo, Axolotl Overkill moves and feels something Fellini might have made if he was a young contemporary. It’s La Dolce Vita in the jaded modern world, Christiane F. with the nihilism kept in check. While the title appears to be an obscure reference to being trapped in excessive youth, the movie is bracingly fresh, achingly awkward, deliciously sensual; a real cocktail of fervour and affectation.

Hegemony, who is briefly glimpsed as a director filming some production in Ophelia’s apartment, tackles the yearning and heartbreak of adolescence with the emotional complexity and maturity that belies a first time film director. No doubt her background in playwriting and prose has given herinsight into capturing human nature and provided the subtle nuances needed to project for cinema. But she is aided by a sensational performance from her lead, Bauer, the chain-smoking teenage rebel, who was 26 at the time of filming. But wonderful work from the co-stars, Joyer, as the alluring, enigmatic Alice, and Hörbiger, as the jittery, fragile Opheila.

While the soundtrack thunks and bristles to the beats of old school soul and contemporary hip-hop, and throbs and pulsates with the underground grooves of techno and house, the club and party scenes exude an authentic edge. This is the totally modern Berlin, and the city, like the roving voyeuristic camera, becomes a character in itself. 

Though Axolotl Overkill is tinged with a sadness, it’s certainly not a depressing or overtly melancholy film. It has a vibrancy and humour which elevates Mufti’s grieving. Her mourning is buried in sensory experience and elements of danger, but despite not really finding connection with her immediate family, she’ll never be alone. We’re seeing just a small part of her coming of age, quite literally, as the movie begins and ends mid-scene. Mifti is a contradiction, an axolotl of sorts, a loner with attitude to burn, yet her heart tucked in her sleeve.


Axolotl Overkill screens on Friday 9th June, 8:10pm (Dendy Newtown) and Sunday 11th June, 8pm (Event 8) as part of the Sydney Film Festival

Bonnie and Clyde

US | 1967 | Directed by Arthur Penn

Logline: A bored woman is seduced by a charming ex-con and, along with his brother and wife, and a simple-minded young man, they embark on a violent crime spree.

Here's the story of Bonnie and Clyde. / Now Bonnie and Clyde are the Barrow gang / I'm sure you all have read / How they rob and steal / And those who squeal / Are usually found dyin' or dead…

On the surface it's the perfect Hollywood crime tale; the inseparable couple with gorgeous looks and charm enough for six… shooter, that is. Robbing banks and stealing cars, eating whatever they like, sleeping wherever they like, smoking cigars and playing the fool, and shooting anyone who gets in their way. The true ballad of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow took place from 1930, until their brutal demise, under a hail of police bullets on a lonely stretch of Louisiana country road, May 23rd, 1934.

Warren Beatty acquired the rights and bought the script by David Newman and Robert Benton. A number of directors were offered the chance but declined, and eventually Beatty convinced Penn who brought a progressive melding of American and French New Wave style to the production. Although its hard now to imagine anyone else but Faye Dunaway as Bonnie, the role was offered to numerous other Hollywood stars first, including Jane Fonda, Tuesday Weld, Ann-Margret, Leslie Caron (Beatty’s then girlfriend), and Sue Lyon (who had played Lolita five years earlier). 

Beatty and Dunaway are superb. Gene Hackman does a great job as Clyde’s brother Buck, who, along with his wife Blanche, played by Estelle Parsons (the real-life Blanche was considered better looking than Bonnie), and C.W. Moss (a scene-stealing Michael J. Pollard), were along for the violent ride, almost to the very end. Apparently the real-life Buck was shot through the temple, during a siege, but survived for several more days!

Penn’s direction is a engaging mix of light-hearted drama, verging on comedy, especially the chase scenes, which were obviously influenced by the Keystone cops of Hollywood’s yesteryear, and snatches of poignant romantic drama, most notably the intimate scenes between Bonnie and Clyde, which are also loaded with a sexual charge. Clyde’s impotency vs. Bonnie’s sexual yearning provides their relationship with a fabulous tension, and even extends as a metaphorical juxtaposition of the couple’s aggressive behaviour to others, and their confident, arrogant posturing. 

Though the movie is not so remarkable for its episodic structure, it is the brazen thematic content, and the stylistic interweaving of drama and comedy in what was essentially an anti-authoritative piece, an apparent glorification of murderers, that was unlike anything seen by mainstream audiences up to that point. The release of the movie coincided with the breakdown of the Hays Code of movie censorship, and heralded what was later dubbed as the “New Hollywood”. Yes, the floodgates were opened, and the tide turned red. 

Indeed the way violence was depicted on screen changed with Bonnie and Clyde, which was the first movie to show the firing of a gun and the direct impact on a victim within the same shot or frame. But not only that, there were several examples of a victim being shot in the face, which had never been seen before, and to add further realism, Penn had blood squibs employed on the actors, most notably in the movie’s famous end scene where Bonnie and Clyde are ambushed by police fire and, in stylised slow motion, peppered with bullets, Clyde rolling in dust-laden death throes beside the car, Bonnie’s lead-filled body slumping out of the bullet-ridden car door. 

Poetic justice never looked so morbidly beautiful. 

The movie is fifty this year, and, yet, watching it recently on the big screen in a lovely 2K restoration, very little has dated, even if it is a period movie. I’m a little surprised the movie hasn’t been given a contemporary re-boot, but then I’m reminded of Quentin Tarantino’s Natural Born Killers, and realised that’s exactly what he was doing, in his own extremist, ultra-stylised way, right down to the curious relationship between the gangsters and the public’s perception of them through the media. 

Some day, they'll go down together / They'll bury them side by side / To a few, it'll be grief / To the law, a relief / But it's death for Bonnie and Clyde.


US | 2015 | Directed by Osgood Perkins

Logline: At a boarding school during winter break, an evil presence reveals itself, while an older teenager is left to chaperone a disturbed younger girl, another mysterious girl makes her return. 

The son of the legendary actor Anthony Perkins makes his auspicious feature debut, directing his own screenplay, and pulls a charcoal bunny from a coal black hat. It’s a tenebrous spectre,  abandoned as a child, raised by the dark. A curiously sensual and immensely atmospheric movie that tackles Satanism and desperate loneliness, by grabbing the goat by the horns, and providing the True Believers one of the most satisfying, and original horror films for many moons. 

Katherine (Kiernan Shipka) is a junior at an all girls’ Catholic boarding school in a small upstate New York township called Bramford. It is February, and a day before her parents are due to arrive to hear her perform at the school recital for school break. But her parents have been delayed. Rose (Lucy Boynton), a senior, is also waiting for her parents. The headmaster instructs Rose to look after Kat until her parents arrive, but Rose has other plans to rendezvous with her boyfriend whom she suspects has got her pregnant. A dejected Kat is left to her own devices in an otherwise empty school. 

A girl (Emma Roberts, daughter of Eric) arrives at a bus station in a nearby town. She tears off a hospital bracelet. Whilst waiting in the cold for another bus she is approached by a man (James Remar) who offers her a ride with his wife. She tells him her name is Joan. His name is Bill, and his wife is Linda (Lauren Holly). Bill seems nice, but Linda appears put out. Joan doesn’t say much. 

Re-titled as The Blackcoat’s Daughter in the US, and given a much-delayed international release, February is one of those slow-burn gems that glistens in the night time like a beacon from an alternate reality. Very much influenced by the gorgeous nightmares of David Lynch, but also of the wonderfully slippery, fluid textures of the European horror movies of late 70s and early 80s. February is beautifully shot by Julie Kirkwood, masterfully edited by Brian Ufberg, and succinctly scored by Elvis Perkins (Oz’s younger brother), whilst Osgood Perkins’ command of mise-en-scene is consummate.

The acting of the three young women is excellent, it’s impossible to single out one performance, they’re all brilliantly cast, each adding their own nuances and style. As beautiful as Boynton is, and as haunted as Roberts’ looks, it is Shipka’s face that lingers in the mind, a unsettling mix of child and adult, of innocence corrupt, serenity ruined.  

The complex and clever narrative structure of February is what provides the movie with much of its resonant dream-like fabric, as well as the lingering of shots, the careful use of slow motion, and in particular, the Lynchian stylistic of presenting something ordinary, routine-like, that in the context of the movie’s bigger picture becomes weighted with a dark, ominous tone. 

The three girls each have their own chapter; first “Rose”, then “Joan”, and finally “Kat”. We see moments played again from different perspectives, adding intrigue, creating tension and suspense. Just where in the timeline of events does each scene actually sit? Eventually the black cat is let out of the bag, and it screeches like a banshee. 

February may not be to all tastes, as it is very much a deep, brooding mood piece, and though it is violent and bloody in places, much of the graphic horror is left to the imagination, an altogether darker place than any movie screen. However, Perkins has managed to shine a light on the darker corners of his own mind, and it is a real pleasure to have him share his nightmarish conjuring. I was lucky to see February on the big screen at the Sitges Film Festival in October 2015, and after finally getting to watch it again I can confirm its place amongst my all-time favourite horror movies. 


February is released in Australia via Reel DVD.

Alien: Covenant

US| 2017 | Directed by Ridley Scott

Logline: The crew of a colonisation expedition land on a seemingly perfect paradise only to discover the sole survivor of an earlier doomed expedition, and monstrous predators. 

Ridley Scott initially talked up his return to the Alien franchise by describing Prometheus as going to be “really tough, really nasty”, and that he would be dealing with dark side of the moon, with gods and engineers. Essentially he was juggling with age-old concepts grappling with the power of creation; Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein thrown into the deep dark cosmos where the tendrils of Greek mythology and humanity wrestle for eternity, or damnation. 

Prometheus polarised audiences and critics. For many hardcore science fiction movie lovers it was the biggest disappointment ever, for other passionate followers of cinema it was an amazingly rich and atmospheric nightmare. For all its flaws in the screenplay department, much of which comes down to Ridley Scott’s attempt to fuse elements of numerous story threads, and in the process creating something that tries too hard to explain and in the process turns plausibility on its head, and throws valuable dread and mystique out the cabin window. 

If Jon Spaihts original screenplay (before Damon Lindelof was brought in) had been the one that was filmed, I think Prometheus would’ve been a far more interesting and awe-inspiring movie, but it probably wouldn’t have lead to Covenant. So, we find ourselves with a sequel to Prometheus that is bringing us closer to the original Alien movie. Prometheus was set in 2093, Covenant takes place in 2104. Alien takes place in 2127. According to Scott, the next movie, Alien: Awakening, will be a sequel to Prometheus, but a prequel to Covenant, and that it will be part of a trilogy (or the precursor to a trilogy) of further Alien movies he wishes to make (should Covenant and Awakening perform well). At some point one of these movies is supposedly going to dovetail into the beginning of Alien, where the crew of USCSS Nostromo discover a derelict spacecraft belonging to the engineers (a.k.a. the space jockey) on an inhospitable moon known as LV-426. But, I digress … 

The crew of Covenant are couples on an expedition to a planet with the intention of terra-forming and colonising. They are joined by Walter (Michael Fassbender), a newer version of the android David (also played by Fassbender) who accompanied the crew of Prometheus, and whom ended up decapitated and in the care of Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) on her ambitious quest to find the home planet of the engineers at the helm of one of their spacecraft. 

A signal from another, previously undiscovered planet, lures the Covenant to make an unscheduledvisit to this apparently pristine world, which would save them another six months in cryosleep. Oram (Billy Crudup), the First Mate turned Captain, makes the decision, much to terraforming expert Daniels’ (Katherine Waterston) dismay. She’s already emotionally devastated, but she’ll need to pull herself together. 

The mountainous geography of the planet is stunning, but it’s eerily silent. No birds, no critters. Instead, the reccy group discover the wreck of the craft which Shaw and David traveled in, and Shaw’s dog tags. There’s something strange, something ominous in the air. 

What is inherent about Covenant, and to a lesser degree Prometheus, is that it lacks any real intrigue, except for the flashbacks in which we see David, aboard the engineers’ spacecraft, making a dramatic entry over the massive central plaza of the engineers’ city. This lack of intrigue won’t be pronounced at all for anyone watching the movie who hasn’t seen any of the other Alien movies, but, seriously, will there be anyone in the audience who hasn’t seen, at least, Alien and Aliens??

Covenant is a hybrid - a xenomorph - if you’ll allow the analogy; taking the successful elements of Alien, Aliens, and Prometheus, and stirring the pot of extraterrestrial stew fast and furious. There’s the nightmarish claustrophobia and suspense of the first movie, the action-orientated military shoot -em up of the original sequel, and elements of the prequel’s intrigue and mystery. But, and herein lies the alien rub, Alien worked a dark treat because back in 1979, no one had seen a movie like it, and, let’s face it, there won’t be another of its kind (an elaborate, arty b-movie space horror) ever again. Aliens worked well (at the time, but much of it has dated) as a spectacular and visceral action-horror, of which there was very little that could compete with it. 

The ideas thrown up in Prometheus have both fascinated and infuriated fans of the original movies.  Everyone has an opinion about why it failed, or why it didn’t work properly, and already the critics have been carving up Covenant in similar, if perhaps, slightly less vitriolic fashion. There are implausibilities, for sure. Characters do stupid things, a central character survives an obviously fatal injury, an android somehow manages to remain active despite no maintenance for ten years, it’s ridiculous, yes. But, if we tear a movie to shreds, and most movies can have strip torn off them if we look to do it, then we ruin the cinematic glory they might possess. Alien: Covenant is awesome cinema. 

Ridley Scott is 79-years-old, and, one can argue, he doesn’t seem to know the best draft from the less-than-best draft. But keep in mind, the contemporary Hollywood protocol for a big-budget movie like this is nothing like what Scott worked with when he made Alien. That amazing naturalism he elicited from his cast back in ’79 never extended into any of the sequels, or even his own prequels, nor was that industrial grime that gave Alien such authenticity. Covenant is forced to play fast, but it’s not even as hard as Scott promised to all the hardcore horror fans of the original movie. Sure, it’s violent and there is some gore, but the overwhelming Lovecraftian horror and dread is noticeably, and depressingly absent. 

And, once again, therein lies the alien rub. As visually stunning - the cinematography and production design is beautiful - as Scott makes these new movies in the franchise, they will never re-capture that pure, unadulterated sense of cosmic, otherworldly horror as Alien did, and still does (if you’re lucky enough to watch it for the first time without having seen any of the other movies, and man, I envy that rare person). But all the familiarity and inevitable CGI aside, Scott makes a darn fine contemporary science fiction horror movie regardless. I look forward to the director’s, or extended cut, of Covenant, as I’m sure there will be one. And bring on Awakening. I’m not about to break my loyalty to this franchise, even if I do appear somewhat disappointed. 

Pork Pie

NZ | 2017 | Directed by Matt Murphy

Logline: After a young car thief hooks up with a man trying to reunite with the woman he jilted, and a vegan activist, the misfit trio embark on a road trip with the police and media in pursuit. 

For most audiences this will be regarded as New Zealand’s first ever remake, but technically that title goes to Rewi’s Last Stand, a silent movie from 1925 that was remade in 1940 with sound. Matt Murphy, who also wrote the screenplay for this contemporary spin, worked on the original movie as a lighting assistant (or best boy). Goodbye Pork Pie (1981) was directed by his dad, Geoff, who co-wrote the screenplay with actor Ian Mune. It was a roaring success, made on the smell of an oily mechanic’s rag, it raked in one and half million at the NZ box office and became a cult classic to boot. 

Many critics and viewers at the time described Goodbye Pork Pie as Easy Rider meets Keystone Cops, and there is certainly much to enjoy about the original movie’s rustic, larrikin charm, with the kind of absurdist humour that is very much of its time. Murphy’s son has more-or-less thrown the original movie’s rampant silliness out the window, but he’s kept the essence of what made the first movie work so well, a real momentum, a playful sense of mischief, and solid performances, especially Dean O’Gorman as Jon (in the “Blondini” role Tony Barry made famous), and Aussie Ashleigh Cummings, as Keira (a far more substantial one than the Shirl role, originally played by Claire Oberman). James Rolleston as Luke (Gerry as played by Kelly Johnson in the original) is charismatic, but unfortunately he plays second fiddle to the other two, despite being the driver and the character the new movie is named after. 

In the original movie “Pork Pie” is the name Gerry gives to the Mini Cooper. The title is fitting then, at movie’s end. In Pork Pie Luke dons a pommy “pork pie” hat during the sequence when the trio stow away on a freight train and raid a carriage full of circus gear belong to Blondini Bros. It is here where they also pick up the nickname “Blondini gang”, which the media adopts. The remake has numerous references to the original, without feeling slavish. For the older generation, it's fun to spot them. 

However it's likely that the audiences for Pork Pie will be made up of aging X-Gens in a cynical mood, curious to see if Geoff’s son is making a purely nostalgic indulgence, or something genuinely zeitgeisty, and the younger generation, most of whom will not have seen the original movie, or if they did, would’ve ridiculed the movie’s dated sense of humour. Methinks the younger generation will actually enjoy Pork Pie more than the grumpier older men and women. That said, I found myself laughing often during the media screening I attended, and was pleasantly surprised, since I too, had been harbouring cynicism after first hearing about the proposed remake a couple of years ago. It's a curious one. 

Pork Pie boasts sensational scenery, and this is easily one of the movie’s strengths. New Zealand looks gorgeous. British cinematographer Crighton Bone has done a fabulous job; if anything, the movie could double as a tourism ad. In fact I’m sure the movie was green-lit with that in mind. Jonathan Crayford provides a decent score, though nothing amazing, while the sourced music includes a couple of behemoths; Wandering Eye by Fat Freddys Drop, and Royals by Lorde, while Dave Dobbyn’s Language, from 1994, bookends the movie. 

The most notable element absent from Pork Pie, which gave the original its distinctive undertone, is a genuine sense of recklessness and nihilism. It was this edginess, darkness of character even - despite being such an obvious slapstick comedy - that imbued Goodbye Pork Pie with an elusive, curious maturity. Pork Pie doesn’t seem as interested in playing the nihilism card, keeping that one in the glove compartment. And while both movies end the same way, Pork Pie is ultimately much more of a feel-good movie, the chaos smoother, more hip, less volatile and unpredictable, and I'm actually okay with that. 

It’s curious to note that Murphy worked in the film industry in the art and lighting departments through the 80s and early 90s, and then nothing until he directed a short in 2013, and then Pork Pie. His direction on Pork Pie is very assured, and while this remake certainly isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel, hopefully we’ll see more movies from Murphy, because he’s made a spunky, funny little go-getter that deserves to be enjoyed on the big screen. 


US | 1987 | Directed by Paul Verhoeven

Logline: In a crime-ridden and corrupt future Detroit, a mortally wounded cop is put back on the force as a powerful cyborg, but is haunted by memories of his past life. 

Like an adult cartoon RoboCop blasts its way across the screen, taking out the trash, and restoring morale in what was once a city devastated by corruption. Only a stranger in a strange land could capture such a savagely sharp piece of satire. Dutchman Verhoeven on his first Hollywood movie, though not his first English-language outing, lights a blackly comic firecracker, and delivers one of the most memorable science fiction action flicks of the 80s.

Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner collaborated on a robot police flick with Reagenomics echoing loudly in their ears, whilst they chewed hungrily on the greed of yuppie consumerism. The result was a kind of hybrid Frankenstein meets story of Christ, perverted, mutated, rebuilt as one of those perfect tales of good vs evil in the contemporary world, or in this case, an urban dystopian future so palpable it leaves a metallic taste in the mouth. 

Officer Murphy (Peter Weller) is keen to keep himself as a solid role model to his kid son. He practices twirling his police issue gun and holstering it, just like T.J. Lazer does in the television show his son watches. He’s been re-located to the Detroit South precinct, and teamed up with Officer Lewis (Nancy Allen). They bond quickly, but their first day on the job as a unit goes pear-shaped when, after tracking a bunch of gangsters to their industrial hideout, Lewis is viciously immobilised, and Murphy is brutally murdered. 

Cue: Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer) at Security Concepts, part of Omni Consumer Products, who is very keen to showcase his prototype cyborg policeman, “RoboCop”. After OCP president Dick Jones (Ronny Cox)’s monstrous ED-209 suffers a “glitch”, the mayor (Daniel O’Herlihy), gives the green light to Morton’s project. The city’s crime situation is in dire need of fixing, so that the corporate cash-cow Delta City can go ahead. “Come quietly, or there’ll be trouble”.

Made only a couple of years before CGI began to replace some of the old school special effects in big budget productions, chiefly science fiction, RoboCop is, in many ways, a fascinating date stamp. It is both ahead of its time, but also curiously dated. From Rob Bottin’s brilliant RoboCop suit (a logistical nightmare to make and implement) and shocking gore effects, to traditional matte painting (Rocco Geoffrey’s OCP building is stunning), the production design and special effects are extraordinary. Even the use of the Ford Taurus as the standard police vehicle fits beautifully, as does keeping Peter Weller’s face under the RoboCop helmet, even though it seems superfluous. 

The hideous SUX 6000 and rudimentary RoboCop tracking device aside, the most notable dated effect is the use of stop motion animation, but this also gives the movie a very distinct look and adds real weight to the whole movie feeling like an adult (as in ultraviolet and profane) comic strip or adaptation of a graphic novel. Phil Tippet’s work on the growling ED-209 is fantastic, as the fully-automated peace-keeping machine chews the scenery, “Put down your weapon, you have twenty seconds to comply.” 

The prescience of RoboCop is slightly startling. Thirty years down the track and the military are using robots to complete many of the more dangerous tasks that in the past had been performed by soldiers risking their lives. Artificial Intelligence is being implemented in increasing fashion. Soon enough police will be using armed robots as sentinels in crime-ridden hotspots. RoboCop is, essentially, just around the corner. “The future has a silver lining.”

Verhoeven had never made such a movie, yet, after his initial reluctance to helm such trash - as the script seemed to him on surface level (in fact most executives turned the movie down simply based on its b-movie sounding title), he embraced the project and shoved it to the hilt, pushing the violence, greed, and corruption through the roof. In his mind RoboCop was like Satan killing Christ, a kind of fascism for liberals. “It's an old story, the fight for love and glory, huh, Bob? It helps if you think of it as a game, Bob. Every game has a winner and a loser … I’m cashing you out, Bob.”

Casting is spot-on, although it would’ve been great to see Stephanie Zimbalist, who was Verhoeven’s original choice as Lewis. Both Ferrer, and Kurtwood Smith as gangster head honcho Clarence Boddicker, are amongst the most wonderfully vile characters to grace/soil the screen in the past thirty years, and spot Ray Wise a few years before he became a very recognisable face as Leland Palmer in Twin Peaks

Another notable element - which re-surfaces in another Verhoeven-directed, Neumeier-penned science fiction satire, Starship Troopers (1997) - is the use of television commercials intercut with the narrative. The stand-out is the ad for the hologram family war game “Nukem” from Butler Brothers (read: Parker Bros); “You crossed my line of death!”, “Pakistan is threatening my border!”, “That’s it buddy, no more military aid!” … Yup, RoboCop trumps all other movies attempting to predict where and how socio-politics will deteriorate. 

Verhoeven had a lot of trouble with the MPAA, as they repeatedly slapped the movie with an X, after several submissions, finally getting an R. The Director’s Cut, the version to watch, would probably pass as a hard R these days. 

The Future of Law Enforcement remains steadfast. 


Italy | 1977 |  Directed by Dario Argento

Logline: A young woman arrives at a prestigious ballet academy only to discover the school is actually home to a coven of evil witches.

“Bad luck isn’t brought by broken mirrors, but by broken minds.”

Celebrating its 40th anniversary this year Argento’s piece-de-resistance continues to break the minds of those jaded by the often anaemic and pedestrian entries in contemporary horror. I’m generalising, but there’s a reason why Suspiria is regarded so highly by connoisseurs of modern horror, and by those who wouldn’t normally think of themselves as horror fiends. The movie’s vivid atmosphere; so drenched in a dreamy, frighteningly effective realm, provocatively and dangerously close to that of a real nightmare, the fractured logic, the over-stylised use of ultraviolence, the stilted performances, especially that of lead Jessica Harper, they all add to Suspiria’s intensity. 

Suzy Banyon (Jessica Harper), a young American woman, arrives in Germany one dark and stormy night to attend a famous ballet academy. Literally upon her arrival a tragedy is unfolding, as a panicked student flees from the building muttering nonsense about irises and secrets. Shortly after said student is brutally murdered in one of modern horrors legendary set-pieces.

Suzy quickly befriends a couple of her fellow dance students; Olga (Barbara Magnolfi) and Sara (Stefania Casini), after being acquainted with the academy’s butch head instructor Miss Tanner (Alida Valli) and the head of the academy, the mysterious, elegant Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett).

One night Suzy and Sara discover that the teachers, whom they thought left the academy at the end of each day, are in fact retreating to a covert section of the huge building. There is something very strange going on, something very ominous, sinister even.

“We must get rid of that bitch of an American girl. Vanish! She must vanish! Make her disappear! Understand? Vanish, she must vanish. She must die! Die! Die! Helena, give me power. Sickness! Sickness! Away with her! Away with trouble. Death, death, death!”

Suspiria (which translates loosely as “Sighs” or “Whispers”) was the first part of Argento’s planned "Three Mothers" trilogy, dealing with witchcraft and the occult. It centres on the realm of the first of the Three Mothers; Mater Suspiriorum (represented in the movie as the founder of the academy Helena Markos), while the superb second, Inferno (1980), part deals with Mater Tenebrarum (Mother of Darkness), and the third part, Mother of Tears (2007), portrays the evil of the eldest, Mater Lachrymarujm (though the less said about that abomination of a movie, the better).

The original screenplay dealt with much younger students, aged no older than twelve, however the studio and his father (who was producing) insisted the girls be older so as not to provoke outrage from censors over young children and extreme violence. But the occasionally childlike dialogue and naïve behaviour of the students still reflects the original screenplay’s intent. Also, the doorknobs within the academy are positioned much higher than they should be giving the impression of children having to reach up to open the doors.

The element so closely associated with Suspiria’s production is the extraordinarily intense and resonating score by Italian prog rock outfit Goblin (credited as “The Goblins”), which Argento would have blasting at deafening volume on set during the shooting of the movie. But combined with those nerve-shredding chimes and exotic percussion is the Gothic production design by Giuseppe Bassan, and the striking cinematography by Luciano Tovoli (the film was printed using the old Technicolour 3-strip process and thus appears to be mostly shot in primary colours). These key elements, helmed by the feverish direction of Argento combine to make Suspiria a cinematic tour-de-force of innocence and brutality. 

But it’s not the ultra-violence that makes Suspiria so unsettling - in fact the special effects make-up is not convincing and the scarlet blood looks more like bright red paint – but the use of light and shadow, the vivid pulsating colours (think artist Goya on acid), the throbbing, dissonant Goblin soundtrack, and the utter despair for the characters that they are trapped, which echoes in the mind and dances on the retina. The dance academy becomes a kind of black hole sucking those that eavesdrop, those that pry, those that dabble where they shouldn’t, into the very depths of Hell.

Few directors have ever managed to duplicate the same nightmarish intensity or clarity of surrealism that Argento achieved with Suspiria. Some have come close, but they’re either more abstract (David Lynch’s Eraserhead) or more of a genre hybrid (Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm). Suspiria will forever by regarded by the True Believers as the seminal nightmare film, the ne plus ultra of bad dreams.

A nostalgic foot note I feel inclined to share; the original VHS cover to Suspiria, depicting the hanging, blood-soaked corpse of victim Pat Hingle (Eva Axén), used to beckon to me every time I went to the video store as a pre-teen, but there was an anomaly about it; the strange title, the garish image; it seemed to push me away too. Eventually a friend of mine and I hired it and watched it late one night while we babysat my younger brothers. We were fifteen and the movie freaked the hell out of us! Now, more than thirty years later, finally, I have had the opportunity to see the movie on the big screen. Glorious. 



Get Out

US | 2017 | Directed by Jordan Peele

Logline: A young black man is invited to visit his white girlfriend’s parents estate and soon realises the family has a very dark history. 

It is very rare for a movie riding on such a massive hype machine to actually deliver. Most movies are destroyed under the weight of their own hype, or they are seen as promising, but deeply flawed. Peele is a successful comedian, both as an actor and writer, who then turns his hand to directing, and makes a horror movie, being a big fan of the genre, and effortlessly crafts a sensational thriller with a solid backbone of horror, that also, cleverly, brandishes a darkly satirical blade. It’s a real impressive package and one of the best movies you’re likely to see all year. 

Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), is a talented street photographer. He’s been dating Rose (Allison Williams) for five months. She comes from a wealthy upstate family and the weekend has arrived for the proverbial meet the parents affair. Chris can’t help but feel a little nervous. Rose assures him that her folks are not racists, I mean, why would she even bother introducing him if they were? Chris is hanging to smoke a cigarette, but Rose won’t let him. 

The Armitage homestead seems welcoming enough. Sure, Dean (Bradley Whitford) is overly enthusiastic and a tad embarrassing, Missy (Catherine Keener) is more-than-happy to demonstrate to Chris her hypnosis skills so he can kick smoking, and Rose’s younger brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones) is a bit of a loose canon, but nothing Chris can’t handle. What does strike him as a little disconcerting are the two black servants, Walter (Marcus Henderson) and Georgina (Betty Gabriel). 

Peele’s screenplay is an absolute cracker. His understanding of horror tropes is bang-on, and he knows exactly how to ply them within his own take on the “everything seems right, but there’s something horribly wrong” scenario. Get Out plays a fresh game on an age old nightmare; the hapless good person being pushed back and trapped by a steadily tightening screw of evil. Keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer. 

Right from the pre-opening credits scene when a black man is viciously abducted off a well-heeled suburban street, and into the ominous plantation lullaby being sung (which returns again over the movie’s end credits) as country trees blur by, then into a montage of Chris’s striking monochrome street images, you know you’re in the hands of a director oozing talent. We meet Chris and Rose, and hope they’ll be okay, because they seem really nice people. 

Peele has not only garnered a fantastic cast (I’ve been hanging to see Allison Williams in a movie, having enjoyed her on the “Girls” television show), but also got some truly great performances. I take my hat off to Kaluuya for his utterly convincing role as bewildered, suspicious Chris. The dialogue pings off the walls. Whitford is also a standout, as is Williams, and Gabriel as the timid servant who Chris thinks is crazy.  

Despite Peele’s pronounced background in comedy he has woven his sense of humour through the movie with expert control. There is comic relief provided by the role of Rod (Lil Rey Howery), a TSA officer (Transportation Security) and close friend of Chris, who tells his buddy straight up, you do not want to be setting foot inside your girlfriend’s folks' house. Rod wears his uniform with pride, and he doesn’t suffer fools gladly, he pretty much sees himself as the black cavalry. 

Get Out is doing gangbusters at the US box office, and it will no doubt do the same down under. There’s something curious about its success; it has a crossover appeal, so here’ll be audiences made up of people who normally don’t watch horror movies who will come out saying, “Oh wow, that was the amazing!” And there’s the racial element. It’s not really a sub-text, it’s plain to see and understand. I wonder how many closet racists will see this movie and laugh along at the blackly comic digs at racism; the stereotypes spouting diatribes about Afro-American men being great at sport, having great physiques and sexual prowess, that in fashion black is the new white? 

Peele has said he has another four “social thrillers” he wants to make. I’m sure production company Blumhouse, now enjoying the handle of “the Pixar of horror movies”, will sign Peele up for all of them, and, that will make a lot of people, like myself, very happy, because Peele has the chops. With Get Out, he’s knocked one clean out of the park, and I’m sure he’s just getting started. 


Grave | France/Belgium | 2016 | Directed by Juila Ducournau

Logline: Following a carnivorous hazing ritual at a vet school a young vegetarian student has an adverse reaction that spurs an uncontrollable taste for raw flesh. 

Justine (Garance Marillier) is dropped off by her parents at the veterinarian college, where her older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) is studying, to begin her own tertiary education. Alexia (Juju to her mother) hasn’t bothered to come and and greet her sister or say hi to her folks. Her parents don’t seem overly bothered by that. The father (Laurent Lucas) mutters to Justine that she’d be wise not to have two daughters. The cold vast concrete building of the vet school looms, Justine is all alone. 

In the middle of the night her new roommate, Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella), bursts in trying to escape the initiation chaos. Justine is shocked that she’s been thrust into a shared room with a guy, but Adrien is quick to point out that he’s gay, so what’s the difference. Suddenly their room is ransacked by balaclava-wearing senior students, and Justine and Adrien are forced to join dozens of other half-naked rookies in a hazing ritual in the school quad. 

Much to her horror Justine is presented with a raw rabbit kidney she has to consume. She proclaims her vegetarianism, and pleads for help from her sister, supposedly a vegetarian as well, who only insists she stop resisting. Alexia pops a kidney in her own mouth, to prove a point. Justine reluctantly follows suit, is revolted ... and the nightmare seed has been planted.

For her debut feature Parisian Ducournau has fashioned a sleek, minimalist relationship drama with a sharp spine of horror, and a sense of humour as black as pudding. It burns slow like a thriller, and peels back the layers of a dysfunctional sororal bond that eventually snarls like an angry dog and bites like a vicious snake. This is not your average visceral horror movie, not conventional in the way it shocks, for there is something intrinsically - psychologically - disturbing with its primary theme, cannibalism, and the section it tears off and chews feverishly on. 

Beautifully composed in widescreen, alternating with quiet moments of clean, elegant lines, and then juxtaposing those with intense, claustrophobic moments of anarchy and brutalism. The college party scenes are especially convincing, a testament to the tiny digital cameras that can get in amongst the tight action without actors and extras having to accommodate and move out of the way of a large camera. 

The score by Jim Williams, who has worked on several of Ben Wheatley’s features, lifts the movie to another level, providing an exceptional realm of electric/electronic broodiness. Indeed, the main theme resonates powerfully, long after the final scene, through the end credits. Big props to the awesome (at times ghastly - was that a real dog being sliced open, was that a real cow Alexia had her arm shoved in?!) prosthetic work by sfx whizz Olivier Afonso, who provided Inside (2007) with its amazing set-pieces. 

Ducournau has put together an impressive production that is greater than than the sum of its parts. Driven by fantastic, courageous performances from the two leads, Marillier and Rumpf, Raw is never quite as extreme as its hype suggests. But, of course, this is coming from a hardened True Believer. Raw is extreme in its cannibal context, even perversely erotic, and there is one scene, which starts with Alexia coercing Justine into a bit of female grooming, that really is the nightmare crux of the entire movie. 

Although I wasn’t wholly convinced by Justine’s rapid descent into cannibalism, nor by Alexia’s unraveling, or even by the movie’s denouement/epilogue - which opted for an explanation I had already seen coming - but, truth be told, I had been sated by the degustation of individual scenes; the hazing menace, the itching, the hungry sex, and the gnarly girl fight were meaty, and the overall tone and vibe, even its frankness, was rich and tasty in that distinct, unique Euro atmosphere. 

Raw might have a grave sense of humour, but leave your sniggers at the door, for this is a comedy that bites hard. 

The Lost Boys

US | 1987 | Directed by Joel Schumacher

Logline: After moving into a new town an older teenager and his younger brother discover it is home to a marauding gang of vampires. 

“A last fire will rise behind those eyes, black house will rock, blind boys don't lie! Immortal fear, that voice so clear, through broken walls, that scream I hear! Cry, little sister! (thou shall not fall), come, come to your brother (thou shall not die), unchain me, sister (thou shall not fear), love is with your brother (thou shall not kill) …”

Boy, did that theme song sing loud and clear to me and mine back in the day! Thirty years immortal! The Lost Boys is pure Hollywood, a true blue dream team: Keifer Sutherland, Jason Patric, Jamie Gertz, Dianne Wiest, right down to the two “Coreys”, Haim and Feldman, two bow-wow hamsters whose careers cartwheeled and then crashed due to drug addiction (Haim died of pneumonia in 2010, and Feldman has garnered a kind of cult-of-celebrity side-career). 

Director Joel Schumacher had previously made the very successful St Elmo’s Fire, and used his clout to have the original Lost Boys script, by Janice Fischer, James Jeremias, and Jeffrey Boam, changed from being about “Goonie” ten-year-old vampires to young adults, because he knew it would be more appealing to the then core older teen demographic (although in today’s climate the R-rated movie is more like a PG-13). Richard Donner executive produced, Bo Welch production designed, Michael Chapman shot the movie, Greg Cannom handled the special effects makeup, and Thomas Newman did the score. Like I said, a glittering Tinseltown production.

Much of the movie has dated, most notably in what was deemed comedic thirty years ago. Remember the tagline? “Sleep all day. Party all night. Never grow old. Never die. It’s fun to be a vampire.” Yes, the original script had been heavily inspired by the Peter Pan story, right down to characters’ names that were eventually changed. But it’s far less of a comedy thirty years down the track, with the Frog brothers and Sam providing limp gags. As for being scary, well, I’ve seen more frightening hairdos. 

The performances are solid, with Sutherland, Patric, and Gertz keeping the drama buoyant, although it's a shame Patric and Gertz didn't have bigger careers (Patric is excellent in Rush and Narc, as is Gertz in Less Than Zero, also released in 1987), and while the swooping vamp-POV camerawork looks dodgy compared to today’s elaborate integrated CGI work, Cannom’s sfx work is great, especially the contact lenses, yet most of his gore gags ended up on the cutting room floor. 

Trappings aside, there’s still a pervasive vibe and mood that sits tight, and for us X-Gens, the “I Still Believe” beach party scene will forever give us goosebumps. Even the tenuous theme of wayward, misfit teenagers looking for a home that isn’t broken manages to resonant beyond the superficial gloss and glamour. But at the end of the day, The Lost Boys is very much trapped in that camp mid-80s fashion: way too much pastel and over-stylised hair, an earring in one ear. The character of Sam is curiously dubious: he has a large Rob Lowe pose-ter in his bedroom (sure we all have our idols) and wears a t-shirt saying “born to shop” … Perhaps I’m reading way too much into this. But no doubt director Schumacher would’ve no doubt tried all and sundry with the homosexual sub-text, especially back in 1987, when it was about flying under the gaydar. 

The Lost Boys is ripe with symbolism. Actually, it’s ripe, full-stop. A time-capsule, a date-stamp. There are some neat little moments, and one can’t deny the charismatic presence of its older leads, but much of the action and romance comes across as silly, rather tame, a little provocative, but nothing truly intense, or gritty. Perhaps that has something to do with the conditioning cinema audiences have had over the past thirty years. There’s an irony at hand; The Lost Boys has most definitely aged.

Near Dark

US | 1987 | directed by Kathryn Bigelow

Logline: A young man in a small town is reluctantly turned by a vampire beauty, and drawn into her dangerous, nomadic clan. 

Very much a movie of its time, but a highly original one at that, Kathryn Bigelow’s hybrid western-horror, with heavy shades of noir, is one of the most memorable vampire movies of the past thirty years. It’s easily amongst my own favourites, including Nosferatu - A Symphony of Horror, Nosferatu - Phantom of the Night, Innocent Blood, Daughters of Darkness, Vampire’s Kiss, and The Addiction.

One night, Caleb (Adrian Pasdar), a young mid-western farm boy, who lives at home with his father and kid sister, meets a striking, ethereal young woman, Mae (Jenny Wright). He offers her a lift back to the trailer home where she is staying with friends, but Caleb wants a kiss in return, and reticent as Mae is, she eventually necks with Caleb, then runs off into the night. Caleb has been bitten. 

Turns out Mae’s “family” are a bunch of homeless vampires drifting across the country, feeding by night on whoever is unlikely enough to cross their paths. Caleb is forced to join the clan. At first he resists, despite his attraction to Mae, but after a couple of blood drinking sessions at Mae’s slender wrist Caleb feels the inherent, highly addictive power of vampirism. 

Co-written with Eric Red (who wrote The Hitcher) Near Dark is a fabulously moody and atmospheric movie full of metaphor and rich with symbolism, yet skilfully lacks any pretentiousness or self-indulgence. It’s essentially an action film, and Bigelow would go on to prove her mettle in that department even more with Point Break a few years later. In fact, Bigelow would later marry James Cameron (who produced Point Break), so it’s curious to note several cast members from Aliens; Lance Henrikson, Bill Paxton, and Jenette Goldstein, while the broody cinematography is by Adam Goldberg, who shot The Terminator

Near Dark had all the right ingredients to become a smash hit, but it was released around the same time as The Lost Boys, which devoured the box office, and, ironically, pushed Near Dark back into the shadows. However, most vampire movie fans will agree, Near Dark is the bone fide immortal cult favourite. While The Lost Boys still elicits a strong following among Brat Pack nuts, it is a much softer movie pitched at a younger audience. Near Dark is much more of an adult film, owning that hard-R rating, and it commands a substantial cult following. 

As a slap-bang 80s movie it has aged surprisingly well. Even the special effects are achieved carefully, never being too ambitious, but still packing punch when they need to. The pulsating score from Euro progressive electronic outfit Tangerine Dream fits superbly with the mood of the film. It’s definitely an 80s sound, but there’s a floating, dare I say dreamy, ageless feel to it too. 

Interestingly the screenplay and the look of the vampires has done away with any of the traditional gothic elements normally associated with them. In fact, the word “vampire” is never even mentioned. Nor are there any fangs on show. But there is plenty of aggressive, brutal bloodletting and several references to immortality and old souls, with Jesse admitting to having fought for the South (“We lost.”)

Henrikson always chews scenery, but he does it so well, in that Rutger Hauer kind of way. But Jenny Wright (who some might remember as a scene-stealing groupie in Pink Floyd – The Wall) plays one of the movie’s most memorable characters, exuding a delicate, sensual, enigmatic quality rare for an actor of her generation. Strangely, at times she reminded me of a female Sean Penn. It’s a real shame she never got to enjoy the success she deserved, and it seems she’s given up the craft; she’s a notable absence on the DVD retrospective making of featurette, and her last credit on imdb is from ’98.

For sheer undead mischief, Near Dark is one of the most entertaining vampire films ever made; the feeding scene in the truck stop bar is legendary! The dialogue whips and crackles like a roaring fire in the night (“What do you people want?!”, “Just a few more minutes of your time. About the same duration as the rest of your life.”), and while it is labeled a horror, it plays out as a dark romance, yet toys cleverly with the genres of western and noir. It snarls and cackles, guzzles and whines, like a good ol’ fashioned campfire bourbon-soaked yarn session … then it grabs ya by yer throat and rips out yer jugular! “Fingerrr-lickin’ gooood!”


US | 1977 | Directed by William Friedkin

Logline: Four men from different countries, each escaping deep trouble, agree to risk their lives transporting unstable nitroglycerin through treacherous South American jungle.

With two incredibly successful movies notched firmly on his belt, The French Connection and The Exorcist, Friedkin was determined to go out on a limb with his next film; his magnus opus, his piece-de-resistance. It would prove to be the most difficult movie he’d ever made, and was one of the productions that lead to the end of the Hollywood studio system that allowed directors such free reign. Sorcerer proved to be as ironically fateful as its future status was unpredictable. The giant crest that Friedkin rode out on turned into a terrible tsunami that seemingly destroyed everything in its path, but left a legacy in its wake that has become incredibly rewarding. 

Four middle-aged men are caught up in very dangerous and dodgy dealings, in different locations across the globe. Nino (Francisco Rabal) is an assassin. Kassem (Amidou) is a terrorist. Victor Manzon (Bruno Cremer) is a fraud. Jackie Scanlon (Roy Schneider) is a gangster. In an extended prologue sequence, made up of vignettes, we see each of these men in their tight situations and the dire consequences of their actions. Eventually their paths cross, deep in the dark heart of Latin America, in a remote village that is reliant on an American oil company. 

An oil well explodes, creating a massive fire. The only way to extinguish it is to blow it to kingdom come. The company head arranges for locals to come forward an offer their driving services to transport several cases of volatile explosives - nitroglycerin - from its storage shed two hundred miles away. There’s $US40 grand in it for four drivers, in two beat-up ex-military trucks (one of which is given the name "Lazaro", the other, "Sorcerer"). Our four anti-heroes step up to the plate. 

They just don’t make ‘em like this anymore, and thank Christ for the restoration process. I’d only ever seen very scratchy, heavily butchered versions in repertory cinemas, a 35mm print in Wellington, and the other a 16mm print (under the international title Wages of Fear), both without the half-hour long prologue. Yes, Sorcerer is a remake of the French classic The Wages of Fear (1953), directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, although Friedkin is adamant his movie was never intended as a remake, but a re-interpretation of the original novel. That said, he sought approval from Clouzot before he began production, and he dedicated the movie to him. 

Whilst The Wages of Fear is an exercise in nail-biting suspense, Sorcerer is more of an existential study of dread and the mystery of fate (read: Murphy’s Law), it’s also one of the best slow-burn thrillers of the 70s. Sorcerer drips with oily sweat, the grime so palpable you can feel it harden on your skin while you watch the edgy drama unfold. It’s a beautifully realised movie, with Friedkin at the top of his game. Stunning cinematography, all deep, rich colours, and a sparse, but evocative electronic score from Tangerine Dream. 

Infamously, Friedkin wanted Steve McQueen in the lead role, and he’s gone on record saying he damaged the movie’s credibility by casting Scheider, who didn’t have that rugged face that cameras adore. He wanted a cast of A-listers, including Marcello Mastroianni and Robert Mitchum. They all turned him down. But, it’s the cast of lesser known actors that gives the movie much of its chops. You become more invested with them as characters, and are not studying them as big name actors. In the humid depths of the jungle, it’s not about the McQueen hard stare, it’s about the Dominguez lost gaze of despair. 

Where Friedkin really excels is his set-pieces, sans dialogue. The notorious river bridge-crossing is the stand-out. It really is a brilliant sequence, especially knowing it was done for real (well, almost, as the special effects team had the bridge rigged with hydraulics), the tension and suspense as taut as the rope bridge is loose. Two other highlights are the sequence dealing with a massive fallen tree that blocks the paths of the trucks, and the scene driving through a desolate, surreal rocky stretch of badlands, that was filmed in New Mexico, where Scanlon (aka Dominguez) begins to hallucinate. 

Sorcerer is, indeed, a tough movie, uncompromising, downbeat, soaked in sweat, smothered in dirt, clenched in uncertainty, gripped with desperation, reaching out for an elusive sanctuary for the mind, body, and soul … But it is also one of the very best movies of the 1970s.