Prince - Sign o' the Times

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US | 1987 | Directed by Prince

Logline: A concert film based around Prince’s titular album.

Concert films are a dime a dozen, but few capture the pure essence of the artist as richly, atmospherically, or as passionately as the movie that followed the release of Prince's ninth studio album, 1987’s Sign o’ the Times. The movie that focused on the stage show based on his European tour was as singular and powerful as Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same, Talking Heads’ Stop Makin’ Sense, or Neil Young’s Year of the Horse. It has become a cult phenomenon as colourful and dynamic as Woodstock or Monterey Pop, and as memorable and emotionally affecting as The Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter or U2's Under a Blood Red Sky. It is Prince captured at the zenith of his creative, flamboyant influence, with an extraordinary band to boot.

Prince’s following in Europe had been building steadily since 1980’s Dirty Mind, the album that heralded the arrival of the Prince most recognize, the agent provocateur with more funk in his bounce than the average street cat. Prince toured extensively across Europe with his Sign o’ the Times Tour where sales were very strong, yet on his home turf the sales weren’t as impressive, and a concert film, to be distributed extensively in America, was devised to help bolster sales in the US. Live footage from concerts in the Netherlands and Beligum were intended to be used, but Prince was not happy with the results, and as such, around 80% of the concert film was re-staged and shot at Paisley Park, including an intro and series of vignettes that link the songs with a loose narrative about love, sex, and religion (the usual Prince fuel).

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Although the director credit is given to Prince, Albert Magnoli, who directed Purple Rain, did a substantial amount of uncredited work. Considering Prince’s previous directorial effort, Under the Cherry Moon, was so lambasted, it’s surprising that Prince would insist on helming the live project, but as the results show, Prince on stage as a showman outshines his hammy performance as a playboy on the Riveria. Prince delivers a career performance in Sign o’ the Times.

After a street hustle and bustle between Cat, Prince’s dancer and back-up singer, and Wally Safford, one of Prince’s sidekicks, Prince grabs Cat by the hand and steals her away, to a crystal ball, firing purple bolts of electricity …

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Alone on a stage designed to look like a cross between the dirty neon of old 42nd Street and the streetwise grime of Harlem or The Bronx, and opening with the album’s title track Prince in which laments the state of the world. Suddenly marching band drumming cuts through the song and the rest of the band enter stage right, single file, each one armed with a snare; Cat, Wally, Greg Brooks (backup vocals), Boni Boyer (keys), Miko Weaver (guitar), Levi Seacer Jr. (bass), Dr. Fink (synths), Atlanta Bliss (trumpet), Eric Leeds (sax), and Sheila E. (drums). They end in unison, and the crowd erupts. This is a pure celebration of Prince 's musical genius, unfettered, indulgent, uplifting, mesmerising. 

Indeed, prepare to be wowed, as the band kick proverbial ass through a roughly 80-minute set of searing funk jams and power ballads from the titular album, plus a dash of Charlie Parker ("Now’s the Time") thrown in for good jazzy measure, and not forgetting a blistering, awe-inspiring drum solo courtesy of percussionist extraordinaire Sheila E (even Prince gets behind the kit at one point!) The only other non-album song played is a tease of "Little Red Corvette" early on.

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If I had one gripe, it’s that the inclusion of the promotional video for the single "U Got the Look", which was filmed well in advance of the concert footage, and as such features a different set, and the performers with altered haircuts, not to mention the grain and harsh quality of the video itself, looks and feels out of place. Time has not been kind to that creative decision, whether it was Prince’s or his management, and it would’ve been an judiciously smart choice to have released a 30th anniversary HD edition with that four minute promo clip insert removed, and instead, provided as a separate extra.

But gripe aside, because it’s a small one really, Sign o’ the Times is a truly magnificent experience. It’s hard to pick favourites. Each time I watch the movie I change my mind. Sometimes it’s the epic "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man", with that soaring, heart-wrenching guitar solo, cleverly segueing into a coda that incorporates the brass section lifted from “Rockhard in a Funky Place”. On other viewings it’s the goosebumpin’ organ intro to “Hot Thing”, or the breezy gouster strut of “If I Was Your Girlfriend”, or maybe the marathon soul chant of “Forever in My Life”.

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Or perhaps it’s the stripped back rock pledge of “The Cross” that brings the movie to an end. Any which way, it’s loose and brilliant, and there will never be another maestro like His Royal Badness, so thank Christ we have Sign o’ the Times to help ease the mind, heart, and soul.

Watch for the first time, watch for the umpteenth. Just watch it, because it's always gonna be a beautiful night. Always, every time. 

Crash

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Canada/UK | 1996 | Directed by David Cronenberg

Logline: The victim of a car crash, and his wife, discover a sub-culture of damaged people who are sexually obsessed with automobile crashes and the libidinous energy surrounding them.

J. G. Ballard’s 1973 novel about a form of symphorophilia – sexual arousal from accidents or catastrophe – was long considered one of the great unfilmmable books. Then Cronenberg came along and, just as he had successfully tackled William Burroughs' seemingly unfilmmable novel The Naked Lunch, grabbed the car by its horns and wrestled it into a compelling tale of dysfunctional desperation and sexual misadventure. 

The novel could be read as a moody case study of sexual perversion and obsession, oozing dangerous fetishistic allure and fueling the most nihilistic of desires. Cronenberg strips the core elements from the book and customises his own vehicle, and it’s aged like a vintage performance automobile, all sleek body and raw engine power, with very little having dated in twenty years.

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Screen producer James Ballard (James Spader) and his wife, Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger), have an open relationship, each indulging their sexual whims, but striving for more within their own. They relate their extramarital encounters and find small joy in the discussion. After Ballard is involved in a serious car-crash and in recovery he becomes involved with the car’s crash survivor, now widow, Helen Remington (Holly Hunter). He also meets Vaughn (Elias Koteas), who expresses great interest in Ballard’s injuries, “The car crash is a fertilizing rather than a destructive event.”

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Ballard and Remington begin an affair. Vaughn befriends Ballard and introduces him and Catherine to his extracurricular project: recreating celebrity car-crashes for a small audience, such as the one that killed James Dean. Next he plans on staging Jane Mansfield's infamous accident (in the novel Vaughn’s ultimate fantasy is to have a head-on collision with Elizabeth Taylor), but in the meantime Vaughn has his eye on Catherine, whilst Ballard meets one of Vaughn’s entourage, Gabrielle (Rosanna Arguette), whose long legs are clad in fishnets and medical steel braces, providing Ballard with an erotic itch he yearns to scratch. 

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The reshaping of the human body by modern technology is a concept that has been part of Cronenberg’s blueprint since the beginning of his career. Crash takes his penchant for body horror and fuses it with a kind of urban apocalyptic urgency. Ballard says to his wife, both at the start and end, “Maybe the next one,” implying that the inevitable purge from his – and the others – sexual aberration will be a release from this mortal coil.

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The performances across the entire cast are superb, with many of the actors in roles and scenarios unlike anything else in their career, and pulling it off with somber aplomb, while Howard Shore’s grinding electric guitar-vibed score is perfectly in tune with the movie’s metal edge. We haven't seen this kind of sleekness and aloofness in a Cronenberg movie since Stereo and Crimes of the Future

It’s curious to note the omni-sexual presence that permeates the novel isn’t entirely diluted for the movie, in order to give it more mainstream appeal. A scene where Vaughn picks up and screws a hooker in the backseat of his Lincoln Convertible whilst Ballard drives with a whiplash smile, the woman is notably androgynous. In another scene Remington becomes extremely turned on whilst watching test-crash dummies on the television, and she fondles both Ballard and Gabrielle’s crotches, suggesting a desired threesome.

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The production design’s clean lines and the chromeo palette illuminate Crash’s vehicular chill, with emotionally desolate characters stranded on the islands of the highways, yet, peculiarly, the movie still manages to be erotic, especially in the uncut version of the film. Three urgent mechanical sex scenes punctuating the movie’s opening sequence, but it’s the two extravagant crashes, and the semi-deliberate final cut-off that just might repair the Ballard marriage – “Maybe the next time, darling, maybe the next time” – that linger longest and hardest, searing a sensual afterburn on the retina, and reminding us this is one of the most disturbing and powerful in Cronenberg’s oeuvre. 

 

 

Horror Movie: A Low Budget Nightmare

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Australia | 2017 | Directed by Gary Doust

Logline: A light-hearted documentary that follows the complete production process of a low-budget horror movie with all the obstacles and pitfalls that come with it. 

Some of the most memorable documentaries set out to tell one story, but end up telling another, or court ambitions of capturing all that is crucial, and yet something more intrinsic and fascinating emerges. Hearts Of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse about Francis Ford Coppola making Apocalypse Now is one such documentary, so is American Movie about Mark Borchardt making his short film Coven. Now we have the making of Craig Anderson’s Red Christmas, and all that is nightmarish is good in the world. 

Anderson was a frustrated bit player, an actor reduced to playing those small thankless roles on Australian TV. He harboured a passionate interest in cult-flavoured horror movies, especially the lesser known curios, those lost gems that never got a proper release on DVD, which he added to his monstrous VHS collection. But Anderson had a very big itch that needed scratching; to make his own weird cult horror movie, something that could fit snugly on his shelves alongside other treasures like Basket Case and It’s Alive!

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So he set about making his own movie, at all cost, and the result is one of the funniest, most heart-warming stories of tenacity, fool-hardiness, desperation, and perverse joy within the often cruel, relentless, and unforgiving realm of DIY, independent, low-budget filmmaking. The horror genre is full of these endeavours, but few, if any, have been captured from go to woe to hey-ho with such grotesque charm, cringe-inducing outrageousness, and sheer championship, as Gary Doust’s fly-on-the-wall, take-no-prisoners, warts-and-all account - and case study - of Anderson’s feature debut as writer and director. 

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After spending several years on a script - about an aborted foetus, now adult grown, that seeks retribution on its mother and her family - Anderson finds himself sleeping on a mattress on the floor of of his warehouse office with eighty grand of his own savings set aside, and an Ace up his sleeve: Dee Wallace (The Howling, Cujo, E.T.) has agreed to take the lead role as the mother. But Anderson still needs to get her to Australia. Somehow he manages to convince his reticent brother to loan him $60,000. Okay, that’s encouraging. So now he coerces his good friend Bryan Moses to take the role of 1st AD and informs him they have just sixteen days to shoot 330 scenes.

It can only go pear-shaped from there. And, of course, it does, magnificently. Moses has a nosebleed from stress on the first day of shooting. Brilliant. 

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Laden with scene after scene of deliciously oh-my-god moments (both in shock and mirth), Horror Movie ticks all the boxes about what NOT to do, and yet, the production continues to stumble along, getting results. From Anderson’s early shock revelation about his upcoming circumcision, to his insistence on using a real placenta in one of the movie’s gore gags, to the brave move of using Down Syndrome actor Gerard Dwyer in a pivotal role, to the utter fearlessness in hoping Dee Wallace won’t just walk off set the moment she arrives on location and sees what a shonky farrago the production actually is. Oh, and the test screenings on the ocean liner, we can’t forget those. It’s a smorgasbord of production hell moments, punctuated by Anderson’s nervous, but infectious giggle. 

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Big props to both Anderson and Doust in allowing a potentially humiliating project transform into something genuinely inspiring, surprisingly moving, and unashamedly entertaining. You don’t need to have seen Red Christmas to enjoy Horror Movie. There are two versions, a 99-minute cinema cut, and an extended two-hour two-parter screening in Australia on ABC, the first part on Halloween, 9:30pm. 

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Yes, do yourself a favour and watch this superb little documentary. It’s all the silly troubles, simple pleasures, and heartbreaking falls of life rolled into one twisted tale of a crazy "family" of creatives doing what they love, and rolling with the pinches and punches. If there’s one moral to conjure: throw caution to the wind, because life ain’t a breeze, it's a damn gust. 

Blade Runner 2049

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US/UK/Canada | 2017 | Directed by Denis Villeneuve

Logline: A specialised policeman’s discovery of a long-buried secret leads him to track down a former detective who has been missing for thirty years.

Officer K (an abbreviated serial number), played by Ryan Gosling, is working as a Blade Runner Unit for the LAPD, tracking down rogue old Nexus 8 Replicants following The Blackout of 2022 and the bankruptcy of the Tyrell Corporation, nearly thirty years earlier. In its place the Wallace Corporation has a monopoly on Replicant manufacture, including hologram companions, one of which is beautiful Joi (Ana De Armas), K’s live-in companion and virtual lover. 

Whilst investigating a protein farm outside the city K discovers clues that leads his superior Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright) to order him to uncover more before it is too late. He must enter dangerous territory, and will soon have deadly foe on his tail. The fate of humanity lies in K’s hands. It’s dangerous days, all over again.

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Hampton Fancher wrote the original Blade Runner screenplay. It became his baby. However Ridley Scott and the other producers wrangled the script from him and had David Peoples do further drafts. Thirty odd years later and Fancher concocted a sequel concept and apparently agreed to write the screenplay, but only in novella form. Michael Green was brought on to do further proper drafts.

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Blade Runner 2049 is a truly beautiful thing. It is far-fetched and it is immediate, it is intimidating and gorgeous, it is perfect and flawed, it is immense and detailed, epic and intimate. It is a rare creature indeed, a sequel that can exist on its own, but also expands gently on the original, capturing the same sense of melancholy, loneliness, futility… and hope. All the nods to the original movie are rewarding, most of them subtle.

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Denis Villeneuve has, arguably, the most consistently impressive track record of any contemporary director, Incendies, Prisoners, Enemy, Sicario, Arrival. His early work, Maelstrom, is a personal favourite. He is a true visionary, a brilliant cinema stylist, capturing much of what makes cinema so delicate and powerful.

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Roger Deakins delivers, once again, exemplary work on the cinematography. Perhaps the look is not as dingy as Ridley Scott’s original, but the cityscape, the urban situation is definitely worse for wear. Perpetually raining in the original, now the City of Angels is driven by the snow. Whereas Deckard (Harrison Ford) was gifted with a plush, albeit claustrophobic apartment, K’s pad is much smaller, sparser, even more box-like, and is littered with undesirables right outside his door, “Fuck off skinner!”

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Villenueve has always had a terrific eye for casting, and Sylvia Hoeks makes a brilliant combat-trained adversary, while Mackenzie Davis is bang-on in the role of a “Doxie” pro-girl. Carla Juni (who you may recognise from the outrageous German black comedy Wetlands) plays a memory-implanter, and Dave Baustista has a small, but pivotal role as a farmer in the movie’s opening sequence, which has been adapted from one intended for the original movie.

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With minor quibbles aside (nothing the God of biomechanics wouldn't let you in Heaven for), Blade Runner 2049 fills me with immense joy. I had originally been excited to hear Johan Johannson’s score, but his music was removed late in post-production and Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer were brought in, apparently to fit more closely to Vangelis’s original electronic score. The result is absolutely stunning, with some of the deeper tones causing the cinema monitors to fart (which isn’t a good thing, I know). Darker, more ominous, but then, the future setting of Blade Runner 2049 is ultimately a more menacing time and place. It may seem more filled with light – both artificial and organic, but it is a more tenebrous existence.

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Okay, I have to spit it out, if I had one thing to really bark about, it would be the whisky. With all that amazing whisky at your fingertips, would you really choose Johnny Walker Black Label?? Come on, Rick, surely you could've done better than that.

I thought my year's favourite movie was in the bag (Mother!), but Blade Runner 2049 has clinched the top position. I’m already itching for my next screening. 

 

 

Mother!

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US | 2017 | Directed by Darren Aronofsky

Logline: The tranquil, isolated existence of a young woman and her older husband is disturbed by the arrival of a curious man, and his insistent wife.

Baby?

Jennifer Lawrence plays the young woman. She has been rebuilding the once damaged huge country home of her husband, played by Javier Bardem, fixing the interior, and painting the walls, putting her love into the project whilst she waits patiently for Him to create. He is a poet, suffering writer’s block, and she is his muse, but not yet providing him with everything he desires.

 Or maybe desire is the problem at heart.

And damage is the key to unlock emancipation. 

An older man, played by Ed Harris, enters their lives. He is seeking something, yet he remains elusive, mysterious. Even more curious is the sudden appearance of the man’s wife, played by Michelle Pfeiffer. The couple seems fit to intrude, deeper.

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Unannounced, their two sons also arrive, played by Domhnall Gleeson and Brian Gleeson, and the pretty domestic picture begins to crack.

All that was beautiful and serene now is now threatened and fragile.

From the ashes of a children’s tale comes a fully-fledged adult nightmare, spun in a matter of days, Aronofsky’s passion play of commitment, anxiety, desperation, and deliverance is unlike anything you’ve seen before. A visual tour-de-force of pure cinema narrative, shot entirely from the perspective of the unnamed central character, played by Lawrence.

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It is immediate and entrancing, claustrophobic and exhilarating. 

As enigmatic and obscure as David Lynch, as visceral and symbolic as David Cronenberg, as studied and precise as Stanley Kubrick, as chaotic and sensorial as Dario Argento … All of these flow, yet Mother! is ambitiously, utterly unique, a truly mesmerizing experience that demands to be seen on the big screen, more than once.

But, it is a most particular taste, which will not be to everyone’s palette. Some will find it self-indulgent, repetitive, and obtuse, and it is far from the conventional Rosemary’s Baby-esque thriller the trailer conjures. Indeed, Mother! is an altogether darker, insidious creature that lies coiled like a primordial beast in the warm shallow waters, waiting patiently to pounce on you and drag you into the colder, murkier depths.

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Javier Bardem and Ed Harris are solid, but the performance from Jennifer Lawrence is stunning. Michelle Pfeiffer is superb in a small, but standout role. Kristen Wiig makes a surprising appearance, and the wonderfully etched face of Stephen McHattie also rises from the maddening, quasi-religious crowd. Longtime collaborator Matthew Libatique’s camerawork (all shot on 16mm!) is amazing, and, of particular note is Johann Johannsson’s credit as sound and music consultant – there is no conventional score.

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Mother! is dream-nightmare as cinema art, and I applaud Aronofsky for his boldness. Leave all your sensibilities at the door. Prepare to be upset. He has conjured something beautiful and grotesque, one of the most immersive, at times overwhelming, portraits of dream-logic I’ve ever experienced, exploring the nature of creation, tackling xenophobia, wrestling with faith, fucking with the fabric of time and space.

Who do you trust? Submission may be the only answer. 

The Damsel, the Philanderer, the Fool, the Wanderer, the Zealot, the Herald, the Thief, the Neophyte, the Soldier, the Executioner, the Foremother, on and on and on and on and on …

The artist forever trying to forge, to create

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Baby?

 

 

Fatal Attraction

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US | 1987 | Directed by Adrian Lyne

Logline: A married man’s one-night stand threatens to destroy his life when the lover begins to stalk and terrorise him.

Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas) is a successful Manhattan lawyer. He’s been happily married to Beth (Anne Archer) for nine years, and they have a six-year-old daughter, Ellen (Ellen Hamilton Latzen). When Beth and Ellen are out of town visiting grandparents Gallagher finds himself involved with Alex (Glenn Close), a publishing editor, who recently caught his attention at a function, and who is now working on the same legal job as him. 

After a full Saturday of legal wrangling, drinks turns to dinner, turns to – “Are you?” “Am I what?” “Discreet?” “Yes, I’m discreet.” “Me, too.” – which results in a night of sex at Alex’s loft apartment, impromptu midnight Latin dancing, and more sex in the warehouse elevator. Dan slips away through the meatpacking district at the crack of dawn. He is wracked with guilt and wants the whole incident forgotten. Alex, has other wants, and she refuses to let Dan ignore her, desperate for a relationship. She becomes increasingly unhinged and dangerous.

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A huge box-office success thirty years ago, Fatal Attraction rode on the chance that audiences would be willing to accept Douglas as an Everyman game enough for a little fidelity, throwing caution to the wind. This wasn’t the kind of normal Hollywood fare for the late 80s climate, greed was being sought elsewhere on more ephemeral things like cocaine and money, not the risk of marriage solidity and the corruption of honesty and family values. Fatal Atttraction spoke bluntly, if you want carnal knowledge, it would be wise to just read the menu, and leave the dishes for those that can afford the hard scrubbing.

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Based on a 1980 British short film called Diversion, written and directed by James Dearden, Fatal Attraction (which was still known as Diversion, then Affairs of the Heart, during early drafts) was brought to the attention of Adrian Lyne, who was riding high on the huge box success of Hollywood productions 9½ Weeks and Flashdance. The producers knew Lyne was the man for the job, provided he kept the on-screen sexual shenanigans in check. With uncredited script doctoring from Nicolas Meyer (chiefly the ending), the movie went on to become second biggest movie of the year and earned both Close and Archer Oscar acting nominations (which they lost to Moonstruck).

Indeed Glenn Close is the movie’s standout feature. Her performance is a tour-de-force, complex and sustained. She doesn’t exude a conventional beauty, yet her screen presence, unusually intense stare, and terrific dialogue, elevates her role into something truly memorable. Archer is the perfect juxtaposition of composure and emotional vulnerability, and excellent contrast. Douglas is solid.

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WARNING! SPOILER ALERT!

An original, less sensational, but more realistic ending fell flat with preview audiences, and the producers panicked and had an alternate ending quickly filmed. Close hated it, and fought against it, but she had no choice. On one hand the plunge into classic horror territory with Alex becoming almost demonic in her behaviour during the house invasion at film’s end is hokey and doesn’t do justice to the film’s Hitchcockian build in suspense. But, on the other, the bathroom fight does treat the audience to a sense of justifiable retribution, a la Brian De Palma style (Hitchcockian-to-the-hilt).

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What still sits uncomfortably is how Gallagher is painted in a sympathetic light, his cheating barely chastised, the Happy Family unit ultimately remains intact. When Dan’s infidelity is revealed to Beth, she confronts him with, “What’s the matter with you?!” and that’s as far as the reasoning probes. Alex dominates as the evildoer, especially as she descends into irrational, sociopathic behaviour. Hell hath no fury like a Madam Butterfly scorned, apparently. At the time feminists criticised the portrayal of Alex doubling as career woman and manipulative psycho … Jason Bateman, anyone? Interestingly, for her own character’s research Close had Alex as a victim of adolescent sexual abuse. This background is never revealed in the movie, and perhaps a deeper understanding of her motives would’ve made for an even more psychological thriller.

Thirty years on Fatal Attraction still packs an entertaining punch. Watch out. 

 

 

Frontier(s)

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Frontière(s) | France | 2007 | Directed by Xavier Gens

Logline: Following violent political riots, a gang of thieves flees Paris, only to be holed up at a remote country inn with a family of neo-Nazis.

“My name is Yasmine. I’m three months pregnant. One day someone said, ‘Men are born free with equal rights.’ The world in which I live is the opposite. Who would want to be born to grow up in the chaos and the hate? I’ve decided to spare him the worst.” Good luck with that Yaz.

It is a few years in the future, and Paris is in the middle of rioting, as the ultra-conservative candidate has become the new President. A small band of Arab-blooded thieves have taken advantage of the chaos, and with a bag of stolen cash plan to escape to Amsterdam. But Murphy’s Law intervenes and will govern the rest of their short lives.

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In the chaos Sami (Adel Bencherif) is shot and mortally wounded. His pregnant sister Yasmine (Karina Testa) and Alex (Aurélien Wiik) take him to hospital emergency, but the authorities are alerted and Yasmine and Alex hop it. Meanwhile Tom (David Saracino) and Farid (Chems Darmani), who are several hours ahead and exhausted, decide to spend the night at a rural inn. Farid texts Alex and Yasmine the rendezvous point.

The inn at Dachville, not far from the border (a la frontière), turns out to be a domestic hellhole, with Geisler (Jean-Pierre Jorris), an elderly Nazi sympathizer, at the helm of the clan. It soon becomes apparent his two sons Karl (Patrick Ligardes) and Hans (Joël Lefrançois), his daughter Gilberte (Estelle Lefébure), and extended family members Goetz (Sameul Le Behan) and Klaudia (Amélie Daure) are involved in attemping to create a pureblooded race. Despite her swarthy features the patriarch Le Von Geisler is certain Yasmine’s unborn baby is perfect family fodder, and her mates will make a great celebratory meal. Mahlzeit!

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Writer/director Xavier Gens has made a tour-de-force of unrelenting grimness. It’s an assault on the senses that will appeal darkly fabulous to horrorphiles, and has become renowned over the past decade as one of the key movies in the often argued and sometimes maligned movement referred to as the New French Extremism. Three other notable horror titles are High Tension, Inside, and the French-Canadian Martyrs. I’d opt to include the Spanish [REC] & [REC]2, and the Indonesian Macabre, as they are of the same calibre and intensity.

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The production values of all those movies are top notch. Frontier(s) sports terrific camerawork and cinematography, all stylish, grimy glamour, fantastic special effects (mostly lots of bloodletting, but also great prosthetics and sparingly-used CGI), an effective soundtrack (even the pop-Goth song over the end credits fits), and superb production design and art direction; more gorgeous filth and decay, Frontier(s) delivers in spades.

Performances are all excellent, but honours must go to charismatic Karina Testa’s harrowing deliverance, which takes the audience on the full arc of human shock and trauma. The scene where Eva (Maud Forget), the family’s black sheep, “pretties” up Yasmine for the family feast is haunting. The other standout role is that of the SS-adoring papa, played with chilling conviction by Jean-Pierre Jorris, he certainly looks and acts the part with sadistic aplomb.

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Drenched in the abject darkness of true nightmarish horror, Frontier(s) is definitely a horror movie for hardened horror fans; us True Believers who love the tone dark as oil and the atmosphere thick as bratwurst. Squeamish, stay clear of this border, it pushes boundaries (Archilles’ tendon alert!) Indeed, in the States the movie was slapped with an NC-17, and subsequently disqualified from inclusion in the US "Horrorfest: 8 Films To Die For", which it had been originally slated for. Sure, there are movies that are more graphic, but few that combine the level of atmospheric intensity at such a sustained pace.  

Yes, Xavier Gens takes you to the edge of comfortable horror, then slaps you hard in the face, and asks, “Care for a little more?” It’s a socio-political snake pit that is as sleazy and sordid as it is gruesome and ghastly, a truly sensational piece of work, a masterful modern horror. 

 

 

The Endless

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US | 2017 | Directed by Justin Benson & Aaron Moorehead

Logline: Two adult brothers return to the cult community they escaped from as adolescents and discover much more than they bargained for.

For their third feature, and continuing with creative responsibilities divided into Benson as screenwriter, Moorehead as cinematographer, and the pair sharing producing, editing, and directing, the two indie filmmakers return to the remote desert wilderness where their debut, Resolution, unfolded, as the narrative follows two brothers, played by the directors, using their own first names, who have languished in a menial cleaning job for the past ten years, trying to put behind them their weird experiences within a supposed death cult, from which they escaped and badmouthed. 

Emotional and psychological baggage can really weigh a person down. Aaron and Justin know this well. Now Aaron feels he has unfinished business at Camp Arcadia, the isolated group of believers he and his brother were part of in their impressionable early years. Justin is heavily reticent about re-involving themselves, but, as he feels protective of his brother’s frailty, he indulges (humors?) his brother’s potentially dangerous desire.

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Speaking of desire, there’s the lovely Anna (Callie Hernandez), whom Aaron feels drawn back to. But it’s the community/cult’s leader, Hal (Tate Ellington), and resident camp weirdos Lizzy (Kira Powell), Shitty Carl (James Jordan) and Tim (Lew Temple) who are providing Justin with the heebie jeebies. Then there’s the meeting with Jenny (Emily Montague), who is on the camp’s fringes, overwhelmed with grief, still searching for her lost husband Michael (Peter Cilella), of whom viewers of Resolution will recognize and know what she’s referring to.

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The connection The Endless has with Resolution and extraterrestrial intelligence/malevolence becomes more and more apparent as the movie burrows on, and it’s a disquietingly enthralling slow-burn of religious deconstruction and deep cosmic dread that plays – and screws – with the time/space continuum, that oh-so-delicate fabric of temporal existence we call “reality”, in even more complex and intriguing ways than Resolution does. The supernatural haze thickens.

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I wasn’t completely sold on the performances of Benson and Moorehead in the lead roles, and the unusual comedic tone that rears its head, but, like Shane Carruths’ similarly complex and unique Primer and Upstream Color, The Endless slyly manages to elude conventional criticism, and instead basks in the dark rays of its own elliptical meta-structure and the threads of strained relationships. It lingers long, like a powerful dream filled with mysterious spectres and enigmatic references. The movie is also gifted with a great sound design, and another stunning score from Jimmy Lavalle, who composed for their romance-monster movie Spring.

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As the two opening quotes imply; Lovecraft’s insight that humankind’s deepest fear is that of the unknown, and an unknown source stating that truths revealed by siblings are usually reserved for those precious moments just before imminent death.

Now. Here. Nowhere

The Endless screens Friday, September 15th, 10.30pm, and Saturday, September 16th, 12pm, at The Factory Theatre, Marrickville, as part of the 11th Sydney Underground Film Festival

 

 

 

Prevenge

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UK | 2016 | Directed by Alice Lowe

Logline: A heavily pregnant woman, recovering from the death of the father-to-be, is convinced her unborn daughter is communicating with her and making her do terrible things.

Ruth (Alice Lowe) is not having a good time. She’s seven months pregnant and her expectant child is talking to her telepathically, guiding her to kill anyone who is untoward or simply in the way of her pursuit of the truth behind the death of her partner who died tragically in a rock-climbing incident. It doesn’t help that most of the men and women she encounters are pigs and idiots. 

Ruth becomes increasingly desperate for clarity over the death of her partner. She meets Tom (Kayvan Novak) who was one of the other rock-climbers, and she is determined to squeeze the beans from him. But there will be collateral damage along this messy route. Ruth arms herself with a serrated kitchen knife and dispatches the obstacles as she sees fit, seeing herself as a kind of dark avenging angel, like the wide-eyed banshee in the old black and white movie she watched in a daze on tele.

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Made on the smell of a monthly rag, written in a three-and-a-half day sulk, shot with intent in just eleven days, mostly in Cardiff, Wales, Revenge is the kind of perverse vanity project that completely blows that hairy pretence to pieces. Alice Lowe has been acting since the mid-noughties, but she came to attention to genre fans with Ben Wheatley’s brilliant Sightseers, a comedy as black as the inside of a sack in a dark room. Lowe co-wrote Sightseers with her co-star Steve Oram (who went on to make his own hilarious and very taste-acquired comedy of manners Aaaaaaaah!), and she wrote and directed Prevenge as a direct result of finding it incredibly difficult to get work as a pregnant actor, and as a sly slice of irony, she actually was heavily pregnant during the shoot.

Prevenge is as much an adult fantasy as it is a comedy-horror, as dark, hilarious, and original as Sightseers. Lowe’s Ruth is a superbly realised character, as frustrated and driven as you can imagine, especially when she’s up against some disgusting male specimen, like the sleazy pet shop owner, or, better (read: worse) still, DJ Dan, played by Tom “Cracking Chang” Davis, who chews the scenery so beautifully and with side-splitting results. Also of note is Jo Hartley as Ruth’s midwife and Kate Dickie as an arrogant potential job employer.

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Featuring a great score from Pablo Clements and James Griffith, under the moniker Toydrum, and with Alice Lowe delivering one of the most entertaining, perfectly pitched performances I’ve seen in a while, Prevenge crackles with savage wit and warbles with absurd clarity; one woman’s descent into pre-natal and post-natal madness, and when I say “madness” I mean both fury and delusion, because who’s to know just what is really taking place in the real world, and what is occurring as a vision of Ruth’s twisted mind. The ending caps it all off beautifully. 

One of my favourite movies of the year. 

Prevenge screens Friday, September 15th, 8.30pm & Saturday, September 16th, 8pm, at Factory Theatre, as part of the 11th Sydney Underground Film Festival

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. 

 

 

Martin

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

Una

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. 

Fashionista

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.

February

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.