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 John 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. 

RoboCop

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. 

Suspiria

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. 

Raw

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!”

Sorcerer

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. 

T2 Trainspotting

UK | 2017 | Directed by Danny Boyle

Logline: Being the continuing misadventures of the main characters from Trainspotting, set twenty years after their first set of exploits. 

Nostalgia is heroin for old people, so the saying goes. Indeed, nostalgia can be a real spike of joy for those of us keen to reminisce, to revisit good times past. Generation X are notorious nostalgians, maybe because we’ve seen such massive changes in the way society operates over the past thirty years, the way the sub-cultures have eaten themselves, and shat out strange new permutations of defunct methods to our collective madness. 

We live in a cinema age where there are more remakes, re-imaginings, reboots, sequels, and prequels, than anything remotely original. Hollywood jumps on the rights of a successful foreign film so they can churn out an English-language piece of mediocrity faster than forty-eight-frames-a-second. So why did Danny Boyle decide to revisit, arguably, the most cherished from his mixed oeuvre bag? Since Trainspotting (1996) became an instant cult classic with a legacy as potent as a hit from Mother Superior. 

Irvine Welsh wrote a sequel to Trainspotting. It was called Porno, published in 2002, set ten years after Trainspotting, and follows the mischief of most of the central characters. Using Porno as a springboard Boyle had been wanting to make a sequel to Trainspotting since 2009. John Hodge had delivered a brilliant screenplay adaptation of the first novel, and, as such, re-wrote an early draft of the sequel, and has crafted a superb follow-up, taking plot points from Porno and fusing them with elements from Trainspotting. It’s a very clever manipulation of giving audiences - especially those who saw the original movie twenty years back - that nostalgia fix, yet also playing on the universal angst and ennui of “What the fuck have I done with my life?” 

Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) has returned to Scotland, after living in Amsterdam, for his mother’s funeral. He decides to reunite with Spud (Ewen Bremner), still a junkie and trying to commit suicide. Renton then chooses (life?) to reconnect with Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), who is now a coke addict, running a dilapidated pub, and making dosh from blackmail schemes with young Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova). Meanwhile Begbie (Robert Carlyle) escapes from prison, and proceeds to return to a life of crime. When he hears that Renton is back in town, he swears bloody murder. 

I reviewed Trainspotting back in the day, describing it as “riotously entertaining” and that it was a rarity, living up to the massive hype that it was riding on. I also remarked that it was full of deadly irony, held a sheer exuberance in storytelling, and sported “an eclectic soundtrack, great surreal juxtapositions of sound and image, sharp and cynical dialogue, and exceptional performances”. I feel fairly safe in saying that Leith lightning has struck twice for Mr. Boyle. While T2 might not possess quite the same immediate shock’n’thrill (although it does have its fair share of nudity, profanity, drug use, and violence) which the original movie oozed in such liberal quantities, and one could argue we have been somewhat desensitised in these twenty years since the original movie came out, yet this new set of exploits is just as brilliantly constructed, and just as blackly funny. 

Boyle is the English Scorsese, the kind of director Guy Ritchie has always hoped he’d be compared to. The very best movies Boyle has directed; Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, and 127 Hours, all exhibit a masterful control of mise-en-scene, of purely cinematic storytelling, each one their own beast, with their own distinct visual style. T2 is proudly a sequel, working alongside the first movie, and interweaving with it too, but it is also a bold stand-alone tale of opportunity and betrayal, of stories told, remembered, re-lived, discarded, treasured. 

The ending is perfect. 

I’ve not been interested in much of the cast’s careers, but they deliver exemplary work here. The soundtrack is bang on, featuring exciting new music and cool retro classics - Blondie’s “Dreamin’’ and Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” - that fit hand in glove, and the cinematography from Anthony Dod Mantle is fantastic too.

Give it time, but I know, T2 is another stone cold instant cult classic. Well, definitely for us nostalgians. 

Aliens

1986 | US | Directed by James Cameron

Logline: Ripley, lone survivor of Nostromo, awakens to find herself caught up in a mission to rescue a colony based on the moon she escaped from fifty-seven years earlier. 

Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) was made for $US11m. Seven years later the director of the hugely successful sf-action flick that made Schwarzenegger a megastar, The Terminator (1984), is handed the reins to the plight of Ellen Ripley, and he delivers a $US18m blockbuster, considered by many science fiction and horror fans as one of the greatest sequels ever made. At the time it was regarded as a milestone in special effects and a kick-arse action flick, albeit less of a horror movie than the original movie. So how does it hold up thirty years down the track? 

Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is awoken from cryogenic sleep fifty-seven years after she escaped from the Nostromo, just before it self-destructed, and has been drifting through space. The Weyland-Yutani company has been terra-forming the moon LV-426, the same on Ellen and her dead crew visited in the first movie. But now communication has been lost with the colony and Ripley reluctantly joins a investigative/rescue mission with a bunch of hung-ho marines. Ripley must confront her worst nightmares. 

Aliens is essentially a war movie, with strong ‘Nam undertones. It grossed around $US180m and was nominated for seven Academy Awards, quite unusual for such an intense genre picture. What was less apparent at its time or release has become glaringly obvious thirty years later, and what has dated it, and it many ways harmed its aesthetic appeal, especially when compared to the original Alien movie. Maybe it's unfair to compare it to Alien, since the two movies are so different, but there are undeniable factors at work and play between both movies that must be compared. 

Ridley Scott’s original movie employed an aesthetic that George Lucas had pioneered with Star Wars (1977), the weathered universe look, the used hardware, the dirt and grime. Before Star Wars most science fiction movies looked clean and shiny. Scott employed Roger Christian, a brilliant art director, set decorator and props specialist, who had been responsible for much of the Star Wars look. Christian gave Alien a very convincing look. You really felt the Nostromo was a mining ship, the world loved authentic. To compliment the production design and art direction Scott’s cinematographer, Derek Vanlint, captured the movie in an appropriately tenebrous light. 

It is Adrian Biddle’s cinematography in Aliens that makes the movie suffer from being lit like a television show or commercial, as it’s flat, especially in the ship interiors. The depth-of-field, so strong and dynamic in Alien, is absent, and the costuming, make-up and hair design are all victims of mid-80s fashion. Cameron also chooses to show more of the Sulaco ship descending through LV-426’s atmosphere, and the dodgy compositing dates the movie terribly. Scott was much wiser in that department, evident in both Alien, but also Blade Runner (1982), which is curious considering Cameron’s background as a special effects technician.

One of Alien’s strongest elements is the almost documentary feel to the visual and performance style. The acting isn’t nearly as convincing as in Alien, and the dialogue reflects this also. Although David Giler and Walter Hill, who had worked on the script for Alien (from an original draft by Dan O’Bannon), had provided the story on Aliens, it was Cameron who wrote the screenplay. Cameron’s approach is more mainstream, appealing more to a younger audience, whereas Alien, although given the same R classification, was always intended for adults, and it’s arty b-movie legacy gives it an intensity and longevity that eludes Aliens

There’s no denying Stan Winston’s brilliant special effects work in Aliens, and the production design of much of the movie is still amazing, especially the armoured personnel carrier, and, of course, the xenomorph queen. My favourite moment is still Bishop’s unfortunate encounter with the “bitch". 

I was genuinely surprised at my somewhat adverse reaction to Aliens, after having not viewed it for many years. I still rate the movie very highly, but the elements that have dated it weigh heavily on my impression now, and have made my love of Alien intensify. Aliens feels much more of a bubblegum movie, not as dark as The Terminator (that Newt cuteness), certainly not as as affecting as Alien (I never felt much for any of Aliens’ victims), but it entertains with gusto, and its legion of hardcore fans will always champion it regardless of its 80s trappings. 

Something Wild

US | 1986 | Directed by Jonathan Demme

Logline: A free-spirited woman coerces a man into joining her on a weekend of fun and adventure, until the woman’s ex-con husband appears on the scene. 

Jonathan Demme began his filmmaking career in exploitation, most notably the cult women-in-prison flick Caged Heat (1974). He has made dozens of features, documentaries, and television episodes, and while he is most famous for directing The Silence of the Lambs (1991), it is this comedy-thriller-romance that remains his most colourful, surprising, and entertaining. It’s a riot from start to finish, an instant cult classic, thirty years young. 

Charlie (Jeff Daniels) is a yuppie, a city slicker, with a suit that itches. He thinks he’s got away without paying the bill at a cafe, but out on the sidewalk Lulu (Melanie Griffith) grabs him by the collar and hits him up for doing a runner. There’s an instant attraction of sorts, or at the least, some kind of curious tension. Lulu offers to drive him back to the office, and that’s where it all goes pear-shaped. Or maybe that should it be grapefruit-shaped? 

Lulu is a sassy opportunist, which is putting it mildly. Charlie is a gullible fool, with a heart of gold. Together they hit the high road outta town. But both are harbouring secrets, and soon enough the layers will be peeled back, and it’ll be all hands on deck, there might even be tears before bedtime, if Lulu’s dangerous husband Ray (Ray Liotta) has anything to say about it. He’s fresh out of prison, and keen to get back in the saddle. 

E. Max Frye penned the screenplay while he was still in film school. Demme committed to making it almost immediately, and a studio deal was struck very quickly. While Kevin Kline was considered for the role of Charlie, Chris Isaak was going to play Ray, but dropped out. I don’t think either of those guys could’ve brought the same kind of wonderful nuances that Daniels and Liotta did. In fact, both of them, and Griffiths, all deliver fantastic, career performances, and all three were nominated for a Golden Globe. 

One of the surprising elements is a score composed by Laurie Anderson and John Cale. But, the most notable surprise is in the movie’s brilliantly constructed and handled tone, which shifts dramatically after the half-way mark when Ray enters the movie, at the high school reunion Lulu takes Charlie along to. Liotta exudes such an implicitly volatile energy (something he’s brought to later movies many times over) that what has been a happy-go-lucky, quirky, odd couple-buddy flick, suddenly shifts gears and becomes a menacing thriller. 

There are some very funny scenes, and there are a bunch of amusing cameos/bit parts, including filmmakers John Sayles, as a motorcycle cop (although you’ll be hard-pressed to recognise him behind the police-issue shades), and John Waters, as a used car salesman (perfect casting!), also character legends Walter Tracey as a country squire, and Charles Napier as an irate chef. Special note must go to the high school reunion band, The Feelies, whom I was briefly convinced was Talking Heads in musical disguise (Demme had directed Stop Making Sense a couple of years earlier). 

Something Wild is one of those rare mix-genre creatures; perfectly cast, wonderful dialogue that rings true with humour and authenticity, and dynamic direction that captures a real sense of urgency and playfulness, yet can pull a punch and pull the rug out when the moment demands. I was never much of a fan of either Daniels or Griffith, but, let me tell you, if you’ve never seen this movie, do yourself a favour, Something Wild is definitely something wicked.  

Cul-De-Sac

UK | 1966 | Directed by Roman Polanski

Logline: On an isolated beach castle property an eccentric husband and his wayward wife are set upon and driven to distraction by a desperate gangster and his befuddled accomplice.

“Here we are!” ... “Where?” ... “In this shit…”

A dark comedy of manners and errors, this is minimalist Kafkaesque perfection from Polanksi and his frequent co-screenwriter Gerard Brach. Cul-De-Sac means “bottom of the bag”, or “dead end”, and that is precisely where this movie begins and ends. There are no practical solutions, only anguish, despair, betrayal, and heartache, but shot through with an existential angst and muse that is sheer brilliance. It is apparently Polanski’s personal favourite, and it has been in my top ten favourite movies of all-time for as long as I can remember. 

Two incompetent, injured gangsters on the run, Richard (Lionel Stander) and Albie (Jack MacGowran), find themselves on the sandy road leading to Northumberland’s Holy Island of Lindisfarne, where a beautiful castle property is perched. The tide is not their friend, and soon enough their car is waterlogged and immobile. Dick must seek assistance, as his friend and colleague is badly wounded, so he heads off to get help from the castle owners, who happen to be the meek and eccentric George (Donald Pleasence) and his young, mischievous wife Teresa (Françoise Dorléac). 

Before long there is a strange and amusing power play going on between Dick, George, and Teresa. Dick has arranged for his boss, Mr. Katelbach, to come and collect them, but visiting friends of George’s, including a secret lover of Teresa’s, get in the way. It’s a weekend of situations, to say the least. 

The superb black and white cinematography is by English veteran Gilbert Taylor (who had already shot Polanski’s Repulsion, made back-to-back with Cul-De-Sac, and would shoot Macbeth for him a few years later). Knowing how much friction Taylor had with George Lucas, ten years later on Star Wars, it’s curious how Polanski and he worked together, knowing just how much Polanski has control of his movies’ composition and mise-en-scene.

Brach and Polanski’s screenplay is a playful riff on Waiting for Godot (in fact, a working title of the movie was When Katelbach Comes). Most of the humour is not in actual gags, but in the subtle nuances of character, and it is undeniably one of Polanski’s richest, in terms of character and characterisation. It forms a curious relationship with his debut feature, Knife on the Water, which deals with the power play between three people on a yacht. There is a very similar atmosphere, even though Cul-De-Sac is less of a thriller, though it does feature some thrilling moments. 

Donald Pleasance is exceptional as the awkward George, slowing losing his grip. It’s an early career performance, but, that said, he is challenged every step of the way by the gruff charisma of Lionel Stander, who chews the scenery with a veritable chomp. The two men, as mannered and idiosyncratic as they are, deliver one of the finest comedic counterpoints in cinema history. It’s an absolute joy to watch them rub up against each other, whilst Françoise Dorléac (Catherine Deneuve’s elder sister, who was tragically killed in a car crash a year later) slithers around like a delicious serpent, the ivy to make the men itch further, and for the trainspotters, there’s a very young Jacqueline Bisset, hiding behind sunglasses. 

Cul-De-Sac is one of those movies I can watch again and again; a fifty-year-old movie whose tone, mood, atmosphere, visual style, and performances are pure cinematic pleasure. A masterful collection of odd moments as rewarding and bewildering as the best dreams. 

The Party

US | 1968 | Directed by Blake Edwards

Logline: Instead of being fired a clumsy Indian movie star is accidentally invited to a Hollywood party where he creates havoc. 

With two successful Pink Panther movies under their belt director Edwards and star Peter Sellers decided to try something a little different, but the same. Instead of a bumbling police inspector Sellers would play a bumbling foreigner, essentially a Bollywood star let loose in Hollywood, like a bull in a china shop. The result was an instant cult classic, in the vein of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. 

Sellers plays Hrundi V. Bakshi, an Indian star on the set of an elaborate Hollywood production, on a vast desert location. Sellers hardly looks Indian, but that’s not the point. It’s vaguely “blackface” politically-incorrect, but again, that’s not the point. Bakshi is a goon, a buffoon, always putting his foot in it, and sure enough, he haphazardly plants the sole of his sandal square on a detonator, whilst trying to fix the strap.  

The enormous fort set on the side of a dune is blown to smithereens … before the director has called “Action!” There is a look of disbelief as the calamity of the situation blankets the production. But this isn’t the first time the Indian actor has caused a disruption, as he has been upstaging the other actors, and generally causing mischief. The destruction of the expensive set is the last straw.

Back in Tinseltown the movie’s executive producer is informed of the catastrophe and the culprit who has been fired. He jots the name down on the nearest bit of paper, which happens to be the bottom of an invite list, unbeknownst to the producer. The list is then sent to the producer’s assistant for invitations to be sent out. And before you can say, “Birdie num num!” Bakshi finds himself spruced up and arriving at the plush Hollywood villa ready to party. Bakshi is essentially goodhearted, but he’s just a clumsy fool. It starts with a lost hush puppy, and ends in a lot of foam, but add a bit of booze to the equation and wahey, it’s everyone for themselves, as the caviar hits the fan! 

Edwards fashioned the script with the Waldman brothers, Tom and Frank, based on a very simple 50-page outline, but most of the movie was improvised, with each scene filmed in sequence, especially one the party starts. This daring experiment provided Sellers with all the comedic fuel he needed to cultivate his brilliant creation, and as such, much of the humour, whilst mostly slapstick, is also character-based and cumulative, like the most memorable comedies. 

Much of the The Party is free of dialogue, and this gives the movie it’s distinct old Hollywood feel. It also imbues the movie with its wide demographic appeal. The Party has always been a staple of the Christmas period television, where families can enjoy an hilarious escapade-cum-romance and not worry about vulgarity, profanity, or nudity as the butt of jokes. That said, there is something strangely, yet innocuously perverse about The Party, perhaps it’s the Bollywood-in-Hollywood element?

The Party never gets old, with Sellers at the top of his game, whilst the support cast are also very funny, and Henry Mancini provides a playful score. I’m very surprised that the movie hasn’t been remade with a current comedy star, but also very happy that it hasn’t been tampered with. No one could ever deliver with the same subtle brilliance the way Sellers did. The Party is comedy gold. 

The Party Blu-ray is released by Via Vision.

Thief

US | 1981 | Directed by Michael Mann

Logline: An ex-con and seasoned safecracker looking to settle down takes on a lucrative job for the mafia, unaware of the long-term implications.

All the hallmarks of Michael Mann’s distinctive style can be seen here in his debut feature (he’d made a few shorts and a TV movie prior). Based on the novel (read: exploits) by real-life jewel thief John Seybold, writing under the pen name Frank Hohimer, titled The Home Invaders: Confessions of a Cat Burglar, Mann wrote the screenplay, executive produced, and directed this thoroughly accomplished neo-noir tale with James Caan in a career performance. At its Cannes premiere it screened under the title Violent Streets

Frank (Caan) is keen to get out of the business that has almost set him up for life. He’s already done ten plus years in the can, and since being back on the street he’s set up two solid businesses, a bar and a car dealership, whilst working as a professional gem thief with his accomplice Barry (James Beulshi). But the most important part is missing; family. He has been courting one of his cashiers, Jessie (Tuesday Weld), and he propositions her.

Frank’s expertise is seemingly brought to the attention of Leo (Robert Prosky, in impressive villain form), who is an associate of a man who owes Frank money. But Leo is the boss of the Chicago mob and he has plans for Frank. He offers Frank serious money, but Frank is reluctant to deal with big egos. After an intense rendezvous with Jessie, and a meeting of the minds, Frank decides to do do one large score for Leo, so he can retire and settle down with Jessie, and an adopted baby, courtesy of Leo’s black market dealings. 

It must have all looked great on paper. 

As in all classic noir, the best laid plans are scuttled, sabotaged, damaged beyond repair, or simply fucked up beyond all recognition. In Frank’s case, the perfect crime comes hopelessly undone, and Frank refuses to be the captain going down with the ship. There will be blood, but none of it will be spilled on Frank’s bronzed Armani silk shirt if he can help it. There will be casualties, though, nihilism will rear its ugly head. 

From the opening heist scene, establishing Frank’s prowess, his professional minimalism, slipping away through the back streets after stealing the hot rocks, Mann’s skill as a director is evident, his aesthetics clear. The cinematography, from Adrian Biddle, is rich and dark, the wet streets, the vivid neon, the deep shadows, the intense, driven performances. 

Tangerine Dream provide the pulsating synth-rock score, and it’s a beauty. I was reminded of Scarface, released a couple of years later, and wondered if Brian De Palma was influenced in any way, as there is a certain vibe, both in the look and the sound, that is quite familiar with De Palma’s gangster epic. 

It’s a shame Tuesday Weld isn’t given more to chew on, her Jessie role is pretty thankless. She’s a great actor, and the nuances and intelligence she imparts in her character really demanded moire screen time, more involvement. It is Jessie who gives Frank the impetus to get out, yet when the going gets tough, Frank gives her the coldest shoulder. It’s a borderline tragedy. 

It’s not Michael Mann’s best movie - Heat takes that place on the mantlepiece - but I’m confident in putting it amongst his top three. Like the Coen brothers’ debut, it is that visually and thematically distinctive and impressive. 

Thief two-disc (Theatrical Version and Director's Cut) Blu-ray and DVD is released through Via Vision.

Bonus features include audio commentary from director Michael Mann and lead actor James Caan. 

The Autopsy Of Jane Doe

UK | 2016 | Directed by André Øvredal

Logline: Father and son medical examiners investigate a mysterious murder victim with no apparent death and discover increasingly disturbing signs that a malevolent supernatural force is involved. 

Following the critical success of his Trollhunter found footage horror fantasy hybrid Norwegian Øvredal changes his approach entirely with his third feature and delivers one of the year’s creepiest movies. Whereas as Trollhunter was more of creature feature romp with tongue in cheek, The Autopsy of Jane Doe is definitely a darker and affecting piece of work. This is unbridled nightmare material, and likely to unnerve the most jaded horror fans. It’s also one of the most original horror movies in recent years. 

Austin (Emile Hirsch) and his father Tommy (Brian Cox) work as medical examiners in the family-owned business. Late one night the local Sheriff delivers a young woman’s body who had been discovered in a shallow grave in the basement of a house where several brutal murders had taken place. She is apparently dead, but appears in pristine condition. Austin is due for a date with girlfriend, Emma (Ophelia Lovibond), so dad sends him off, but Austin gets a bad case of the guilts,  so he postpones the date til later in the evening, so he can assist his father and get the cause of death sorted quickly. 

With the two men working together in the underground facility a storm begins to rage above ground. As the corpse can’t be immediately identified she is given the police procedural moniker of “Jane Doe”. Her glazed eyes are milky, and odd sign. She has dirt under her fingernails and toenails. Her tongue has been severed. But this is only the beginning. The night will get darker and the atmosphere of dread will soon turn to abject terror as Jane Doe begins to reveal her true nature, her origin, her purpose. 

Building on classic horror elements Øvredal steadily creates an overwhelmingly ominous vibe. It’s essentially a two-hander, and a chamber piece, as almost the entire movie takes place in the examining room. It’s a superbly executed piece of cinema that could easily have fallen prey to feeling like a filmed play, or a short film padded out to feature length. The sound design is one of the movie’s highlights, especially the punctuation use of a small bell tinkling, tied to the toe of a corpse, a reminder of an old-fashioned method of careful morticians who didn’t want to end up burying a person who wasn’t quite dead yet, as was often the case during plague times. Also excellent is the prosthetic work. 

Cox and Hirsch give excellent performances. Apparently Martin Sheen was originally cast in the father’s role, but had to pull out. Cox is perfect, and I can’t imagine Sheen giving a better performance. Special mention must be made on Olwen Kelly, who plays Jane Doe, laying fully nude and prone on an autopsy table, as it would be easy to describe her role as thankless, however, it is her sustained stillness (she is a yoga expert); her ability to control her body and breathing, and thus, she’s amazing, the most convincing dead body I’ve ever seen in a feature.

The less one knows about The Autopsy of Jane Doe the better. For the trainspotters there is a neat little clue to the nature of the nightmare in the poster art. There are a couple of very effective shocks, and the narrative tightens its screw of dread with consummate control. Best watched late at night, alone, with all the lights off.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

US | 2016 | Directed by Gareth Edwards

Logline: A small faction of the Rebel Alliance, lead by a vengeful young woman, attempt to steal the plans for the Empire’s new weapon, the Death Star. 

I left my cynicism at the door when I watched The Force Awakens, episode VII in the Star Wars saga, directed by J.J. Abrams, and I really enjoyed the movie at the time. The more I thought about the movie in the weeks and months that followed the less impressed I was with it. The whole facsimile of episode IV element - and it’s a huge one - weighed more and more heavily. The sheen of the movie turned to floss, the movie began to taste and feel like Hubba Bubba bubblegum, all uber-flavour and great for blowing the bubbles of my youth, but soon enough the flavour was gone and the gum was no longer fun to chew. 

Gareth Edwards, who made Monsters, one of my favourite movies of the past ten years, and who delivered a great Godzilla re-boot a few years ago, is at the helm of this prequel, which dovetails straight into A New Hope like hand in Rebel glove. The story is essentially the brainchild of John Knoll, the special effects whiz from Industrial Light & Magic, who took his cue from the first paragraph of the opening scrawl to A New Hope; “It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire's ultimate weapon, the Death Star, an armoured space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.”  

The screenplay is by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, and while Rogue One isn’t a plot-point for plot-point direct copy of A New Hope it does rely heavily on the nostalgia for the original movies, but is that such a bad thing? While its merits as a stand alone movie can be debated, with character punctuation involving certain crucial roles within the Empire, it does provide a wealth of peripheral nods to the original trilogy that will appeal like gems to the more geeky of Star Wars fans, for example, the aggressive ugly mug who later accosts Luke in the Mos Eisley cantina, and the same hologram chess game from onboard the MF, making brief appearances. It is these references that enrich the movie as a whole, and are handled by Edwards with care and intelligence. 

Rogue One is, essentially, an espionage war movie, and rumour has it that a substantial amount of the movie was re-shot, after Disney executives became alarmed with the rough cut Edwards delivered earlier in the year. They told Edwards he’d made a war movie, to which he replied, yes. But apparently that’s not what Disney really wanted. Rogue One is certainly still a movie with a lot of battling going on, but one wonders just how much was actually re-shot. One rumour mill suggested between 40-50%, whilst another source told me he had inside knowledge that up to 80%. That seems excessive, and unrealistic, considering the release date. But something tells me somewhere there is another version of Rogue One that is much darker in tone and probably more violent. Maybe it will become the holy grail of bootlegs amongst Star Wars fans in years to come. It’s always fun and interesting to have those illicit treasures floating around. But I digress … 

One of Rogue One’s key successes, as opposed to Abrams’ super-glossy, ultimately hollow episode, is how close in mood, tone, and its visual style, it is to the original Star Wars movie, Episode IV: A New Hope. There are no wipe edits, John Williams’ legendary score rears its head in just a few scenes, and only the fourth moon of Yavin makes an appearance in the location department, but there is a genuine sense of exhilaration and intrigue which Edwards conjures. Admittedly, at times the sense of humour pokes its head up a little higher than I anticipated, most notably with the character of K-2SO, an Imperial droid who has been acquired and re-programmed for use by the Rebel Alliance. He’s like a cross between C-3PO and Chappie. He’s definitely funny, but the reliance on him for comic relief veers dangerously close to He Who Will Not Be Named for fear of jinxing the movie. 

Performances are solid, with Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, and Ben Mendelsohn (who is really shining in his career of late) standouts, while it’s curious to note just how multi-racial the cast is compared to George Lucas’s original trilogy. The production design is superb, the battle sequences thrilling, and the new locations are spectacular; the security of the Imperial residing in a lush Dubai-like tropical paradise, but a giant Jedi knight rock in the desert, wtf?!

Rogue One will no doubt have its cynics, but I’m proud to say, I’m not on that haters’ boat. Okay, admittedly, I don’t like that they’ve opted for full CGI on a crucial character. It’s the same issue I had with Tron: Legacy. I’d have much preferred an actor who looks the part, rather than attempting to digitally create a character from 1977. It’s all in the eyes. But hey, Rogue One, is awesome sauce. I might even go as far as saying it’s my second favourite movie of the entire saga. Now that’s a rogue move. 

Tonight She Comes

US | 2016 | Directed by Matt Stuertz

Logline: After a girl goes missing, two of her friends, and two strangers, find themselves trapped in a cabin in the woods, and dealing with a demon.

This hipster-looking director, delivering his second feature, is unafraid to twist the tropes, and is not shy at pushing the boundaries of what might be considered that all-too-important indie-mainstream crossover threshold. Tonight She Comes is a wild, unruly beast, and, ultimately, it rewards in such memorable ways that whatever reservations you might have had during its first half hour are torn asunder once the serious shit starts to hit the fan. 

Yes, the first half an hour is a curious affair, filled with stupid, annoying characters and behaviour, and a puerile sense of humour. One wonders if it’s a parody or just something ill-conceived. James (Nathan Eswine) is a rural postman, and his buddy Pete (Adam Hartley), is along for the ride. Meanwhile Ashley (Larissa White) and her friend Lyndsey (Cameisha Cotton) arrive at a lakeside cabin for a little girly r&r, whilst waiting to rendezvous with Kristy (Dal Nicole). But Kristy isn’t feeling herself anymore. 

At the risk of spoiling the fun Tonight She Comes spills along with crude hi-jinx, obscure POVs, and a strange perspective. Just whose story is being told here? Do we really care about these idiots? Or is this all an elaborate ruse by the young writer/director to lure us into a false sense of the absurd, only to pull the shagpile carpet out from under us? Indeed Tonight She Comes is riddled with sly and not-so-sly references, wearing its influences on its sleeve like flair on a uniform. Stuertz is brazen, and goes bolder still, once we’re introduced to the weirdo locals, Francis (Frankie Ray), and his offspring, Felicity (Jenna McDonald), and her older brother Philip (Brock Russell). 

It becomes quickly apparent the cabin family have been up to no good, although they claim to be setting things right. There is a demon afoot, and there will be hell to pay, unless everyone does exactly what Fah-liss-ah-tay says. The clock countdown continues, and the blood starts to flow unabated, and not just arterial either. You’ll wrinkle your nose if you get my cyclic drift. 

Tonight She Comes is a great-looking movie, with high production values, especially the awesome, mostly practical, special effects. The performances from an unknown cast are bang on, but special mention must go to McDonald as bogan daughter, and Ray, as her papa. They deliver the backwoods banter with aplomb. Also of note is the retro-vibed score from Wojciech Golczewski, tapping into the synth-driven suspense with seductive ease. 

It’s a riotous, entertaining assault on the senses, and as the chaos continues to ensue, the audience knows that awesome poster design and its matter-of-fact tagline wasn’t dicking around. Like a red river to a black ocean, this demon is hellbent. Fighting fire with fire seems to be the only option, and it’s getting damn close to midnight. 

Many will probably consider Tonight She Comes to be jumping on the It Follows bandwagon, but this vivid nightmare delivers in spades what It Follows only manages in spoonfuls. It’s short and as coppery-sweet as us True Believers’ like it. I hope it gets a theatrical, because horrorphiles would be served a grand injustice not to see this, loud, on the big screen. 

The Night of the Virgin

La Noche del Virgen | Spain | 2016 | Directed by Roberto San Sebastián

Logline: A desperate young man goes home with an older woman only to find himself caught up in an elaborate and nightmarish birth prophecy. 

You think you’ve seen it all? Oh no, think again. There are still wonderfully dark, festering corners of nightmare filth waiting to be scooped up and flung at the screen, all in the name of extreme entertainment. This is one night you won’t forget in a hurry. Prepare to be shocked, prepare to be offended, prepare to be appalled, but most importantly, prepare to see one of the best horror movies of the year, because this onslaught has its tongue rammed so far into its cheek there’s an ulcer. 

Nico (Javier Bódalo) is at a New Year’s Eve party, waiting to rendezvous with some mates. He invades the personal space of a couple of women on the dance floor, only to be met with a drink flung at him and vomit on his shoes. But then he meets Medea (Miriam Martín), a cougar on a mission, and before he knows it he’s standing in her darkened hallway, all fingers and thumbs. Medea warns him not to step on the cockroaches as it’s bad luck. Crunch. Oops. Too late. This mess is going to come back and haunt him something awful. 

To describe Medea’s abode as unkempt would be a huge understatement. Her bathroom alone makes “The Worst Toilet in Scotland“ look positively pristine, if you know what I mean. But Nico doesn’t really mind. He just wants to get his rocks off, and it seems fairly obvious Medea is up for accommodating his lusty agenda. That’s until she falls asleep on him, and he’s left to his own perverse devices. 

To describe this movie as simply a dark sex comedy would be doing it a grave injustice. This is the kind of oily black, inspired comedy of errors that will appeal to those that get their kicks from the most heinous of gags. If you can imagine the fiendish, absurd extremities of Takashi Miike, Frank Henenlotter, and early Peter Jackson, even Pedro Almodovar, rolled into one gleefully unsavoury, and at times hilarious, delight, then you might get to grips with the wild proclivities of this scatological gem. 

The two central performances are awesome, as it is, essentially, a two-hander. Almost the entire movie takes place in Medea’s apartment, so you could even call the movie a chamber piece. Ha ha, yes! The art direction is superb, and the special effects, courtesy of an outfit called Bacon FX, are outstanding. It’s a triumph of splattery design. 

In fact, I’ve not seen as much bodily fluid ejaculated, projected, discharged, and excreted in a horror movie since, I don’t know when. Keep a barf bag handy, or at least a box of tissues, as you may find yourself feeling the urge to wipe your clammy hands. But it’s all fantastic, nasty fun, as only the Spanish can do. Seriously, do yourself a favour and get weird and dirty with Nico. Real dirty. 

There are losers, and then there are Losers, and Nico is one of the latter. But he is our hero, our champion. It is this pathetic angle that gives The Night of the Virgin its true visceral edge. But, very importantly, make sure you stay to watch the end credits, for during there is a return to the New Year’s Eve television coverage which bookends the narrative, and a particular news story that pulls it all into brilliant perspective. 

Yup, The Night of the Virgin is definitely one of the most outrageous, and original horror movies I’ve seen in many years. 

The Night of the Virgin screens as part of Sydney's A Night Of Horror International Film Festival, Friday, December 2nd, 9pm, Dendy Cinemas Newtown

Threads

UK/Australia | 1984 | directed by Mick Jackson

Logline: The last few months before a nuclear holocaust, the attack on the industrial city of Sheffield, England, and the long-term effects of such an event. 

I first watched this movie when it was originally broadcast on television, which is what it had been produced for, in the mid-80s. Watching it again more than thirty years later very little of what made it so powerful has dated. With the world in the political state that it is, it is as pertinent as ever. A third World War will leave no victors, only a wasteland of terminal-ill survivors, with the poison spreading the world over. 

Although it is often referred to as the UK’s answer to The Day After, which was made the year before, also for television, although it was released in cinemas in some countries outside of the US, Threads was first commissioned by the head of the BBC after he was directly affected by watching the British docudrama The War Game (1965). Mick Jackson had already just worked on a documentary about a possible nuclear holocaust, on an episode of Living Proof, and as such he brought a certain gravitas to the production, essentially expanding on the ideas and scenarios delivered in the A Guide to Armageddon episode. 

The main narrative crux of the movie focuses on two families, the middle-class Becketts and the working class Kemps, who live in the city of Sheffield, in northern England, a city whose primary industries are metal works, coal, and chemical manufacture. Ruth Beckett (Karen Meagher) is set to marry Jimmy Kemp (Reece Dinsdale). We see their courtship in the months leading up to an nuclear attack. The other storyline follows the the Home Office, and its Chief Executive (Michael O’Hagen), and the officials as they follow the escalating exchange between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, the threat of war becoming all too real, and the desperation as several nuclear warheads detonate over England land and sea. 

As one would expect the consequences are catastrophic. Using the 1980 British Government exercise findings known as “Square Leg”, the filmmakers project a series of statistics which are presented as inter-titles - dramatic punctuation, if you will - depicting many things, but chiefly the level of destruction and the number of casualties. Around 17-30 million would be killed, with between 10-20 million unburned corpses left scattered around the country in the aftermath, as the survivors would not be able to dispose of them properly.

After the first month cholera, dysentery, and typhoid would be rife. Looting would be a huge problem. Food stocks and supplies would diminish rapidly. Basically, it would be a return to the Middle Ages, with no foreseeable solution to the ravaged land. The nuclear winter would continue on for decades, and Threads shows us some of the horror up until thirteen years after an attack, with Ruth’s teenage daughter Jane (Victoria O’Keefe) attempting to get by in a very dark and desolate future.

Carl Sagan, who was one of the many consultants on the production, introduced the wider public to the concept of the nuclear winter, and Threads is the first fictional drama to portray such a cataclysmic scenario. The Day After only deals, as the title says, with the immediate aftermath, and is nowhere near as harrowing as what Threads illustrates. 

As the production is several years before the introduction of CGI the use of stock footage from WWII and military archives portrays the effects of nuclear devastation. We’ve seen many of these images before, but it doesn’t diminish their power. Though the exterior production values aren’t very high, but one can see how skilfully Jackson directs the scenes of panic and chaos to bring as much impact. It might seem a bit like a cross between two grungy British dramas, the veteran Coronation Street and cult post-apocalyptic The Survivors, but it’s the fact that Jackson specifically chose unknown actors for his cast, and their naturalistic performances, that brings a Ken Loach realism to the story (unlike the casting of pretty faces, Steve Guttenberg, John Lithgow, JoBeth Williams, and Jason Robards in The Day After).

Very wisely, there is no music used (unlike The Day After, which although used sparingly still jars as emotionally manipulative), however I couldn’t help but conjure the use of Sheffield electronic outfit The Human League and many of their brooding, early, experimental tracks, such as Almost Medieval, Zero as a Limit, Dreams Of Leaving, and The Black Hit of Space, which I would be curious to hear used in context. 

Threads is a bitter message of hopeless grief, and one of the most stark political statements ever made. 

The Ballad of Tam Lin

UK | 1970 | Directed by Roddy McDowell

Logline: An ageing seductress uses her wealth and supernatural wiles to control a brood of young folk, while her favourite, becomes enamoured with a local village girl, and thus becomes the subject of her jealousy. 

"And ance it fell upon a day/A cauld day and a snell/When we were frae the hunting come/That frae my horse I fell/The Queen o Fairies she caught me/In yon green hill to dwell.”

Loosely based on an ancient Scottish ballad, “Tam-Lin”, by Robert Burns, it was the last screenplay of William Squires who wrote for American television. Roddy McDowell turned down the returning role of Cornelius in Beneath the Planet of the Apes to direct his only movie, and after it’s belated US release it vanished, only to surface sporadically on television in a re-cut, re-titled version disowned by McDowell. It wasn’t until 1998 that McDowell’s intended cut of the movie (complete with lengthy intro from Roddy himself) surfaced on VHS, and in recent years this director's cut has been given a restored Blu-ray release.

In this version of the celtic legend a glamorous and mysterious woman, Michaela Cazaret, known affectionately by her entourage as Micky, brings her swinging London set out to her enormous country manor where she indulges them in her games and toys. She has one regular bedfellow, Tom Lynn (Ian McShane), but I’m sure the inference is that she is lovers with them all. She is like a strange, beautiful Mother Hen, and Tom is her strutting peacock. 

Into the picture wanders young Janet (Stephanie Beacham), the daughter of the local vicar, and she takes Tom’s fancy. Now Tom’s heart is aflutter, but his mind is under the lock and key of Ms. Cazaret. No matter how much cognac he swills, he can’t get Janet out his head. Meanwhile Elroy (Richard Wattis), Micky’s aide-de-camp (pun intended), has his eye on the wayward stud. Reporting back any tomfoolery to the mistress of the manor, or, as the US re-cut version refers to her, The Devil’s Widow

"And pleasant is the fairy land/But, an eerie tale to tell/Ay at the end of seven years/We pay a tiend to hell/I am sae fair and fu' o fles/I'm feared it be mysel.”

Ian McShane is brilliant in the role of the handsome, hapless Tom Lynn (see the play on the title?). HIs Tom portrays the necessary confidence, and quiet arrogance, superbly. In counterpoint Micky’s vulnerability, her emotional fragility (how much of it is feigned?), works into his groove, then buckles his strut. Whilst the deer-in-the-headlights, butter-wouldn’t-melt innocence of Janet is the river running between them. Tom plunges in, Micky throws in piranha, can Janet save Tom? 

For the trainspotters there are several young faces in the support cast - Micky’s harem - that will bring a smile. Keep a look out for Joanna Lumley, Sinéad Cusack (several years before she married Jeremy Irons), Hammer girl Jenny Hanley, and Bruce Robinson (yes, the director of Withnail and I!) Also of note is the score by Stanley Myers, and several folk songs performed by Pentangle. Oh, and a couple of fabulous cars to boot! 

Very much influenced by, and a fractured, satirical reflection of the swinging London of the late 60s, coupled with a dark, insidious Wicker Man edge, this tale of greed, jealousy, cruel manipulation and the power of true love, is a nightmare dressed in the threads of a fairy tale. Apparently a tribute, a gesture of love, to legendary star Ava Gardner, who was in her late 40s when she made this. A curious gesture, indeed. 

"But the night is Halloween, lady/The morn is Hallowday/Then win me, win me, an ye will/For weel I wat ye may.”

During the movie’s first half the elements of a traditional horror movie are barely apparent, with the scent of its romantic interludes seemingly overpowering any foul stench, but following Janet’s declaration and bombshell to Micky, and it’s all on for young and old. During the second half, and especially in the movie’s last twenty minutes or so, Roddy pulls out all the stops, showing great technique, and the movie becomes as intense a nightmare as Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers

It’s a shame McDowell never directed any further movies, as he showed a distinctive style (I loved his use of stills during the courtship of Tom and Janet by the stream), and great understanding of the poetic, both light and dark, power of cinema narrative. Indeed, Tam Lin is a very atmospheric film! I believe the interfering by the studio and executive producers brought McDowell such frustration and despair that he vowed never to direct again. So we are left with just one curious, peculiar, rare gem, that must be savoured like a fine lilac wine. 

“Out then spak the Queen o Fairies/And an angry woman was she/Shame betide her ill-far'd face/And an ill death may she die/For she's taen awa the bonniest knigh/In a' my companie."