Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Argento At The Chauvel

Horror fans living in the Sydney area are in for a rare treat next month as the always genre-friendly Chauvel Cinema is hosting a season of double-bills comprised of Dario Argento's entire output from '75 to '85 (minus Inferno), each one followed by a choice pick from Romero, Hooper or Craven.

The season runs over four Fridays (February 26th to March 19th) and opens with a crushing double: Suspiria and Dawn Of The Dead. I saw a print of Dawn at the old Third Eye in Surry Hills years ago, but two of the reels were so damaged as to make it almost unwatchable (I still had a blast). A good print of Dawn would be great, but not as brain-meltingly awesome as seeing a decent print of Suspiria in a cinema. The other Argento movies are Tenebrae, Deep Red and Phenomena and I'm frothing at the mouth for all three. Sharing these doubles with the Italian maestro are Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre & Eaten Alive and Wes Craven's Last House On The Left. I can take or leave the Hooper flicks (having already seen a screening of Texas Chainsaw and not being overly fond of Eaten Alive), but it might be fun seeing a crowd squirm uncomfortably at the sleazy nihilism of Krug and company.

As ever, the big question is: ARE THEY UNCUT? I'll be finding out at the Chauvel, over four consecutive Fridays of mysterious killers, arcane witchcraft, flesh-eating corpses, inbred mayhem and bloody vengeance!

The Chauvel is the last vestige of real independent cinema left in Sydney (a disgraceful situation for a city of five million), and when they run programs like this it drives home the importance of supporting it, lest the Chauvel disappear along with the Valhalla and Third Eye. Details for all the screenings can be found at the cinema's website here.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Soundtrack: Martyrs

Here's another soundtrack, this time from the bludgeoning, nihilistic French shocker Martyrs, directed by Pascal Laugier with an original score by Seppuku Paradigm.

A brief search of the web is all it takes to get an idea of how divisive this movie is amongst horror fans. It sounds like a cliche, but Martyrs really is a film that seems to be almost universally loved or loathed, with not many people reacting with ambivalence. That it elicits such strong reactions in people is a testament to the film's devastating power.

A lot of fans of really violent movies were angered and offended by the violence in Martyrs because it's not entertaining or cathartic. The final act in particular is a grim, prolonged
and extremely unpleasant depiction of one of the main protagonists being tortured, humiliated and beaten, that is about as far away from "fun" violence as you can get. In this respect it succeeds at forcing the viewer to really feel empathy for the victim of this atrocity far more effectively than Michael Haneke's Funny Games, because it doesn't indulge in Haneke's childish manipulation and insulting condescension. I don't know if that was Pascal Laugier's intention when making Martyrs, but when a Toronto Film Fest attendee (at a post-screening Q&A) pompously asked him if he had seen Haneke's film(s) and then more or less called Laugier disgusting and morally bankrupt for making Martyrs, he responded by saying "I hate Michael Haneke, I hate Funny Games" and then went on to describe his film as the "Anti-Funny Games". He could go on to never make another good movie, and he'd still be heroic to me, just for saying that. I was intrigued by Games when it first came out, but on subsequent viewings have come to really resent it for the way in which Haneke presumes to indict all viewers for revelling in violence, without giving them any credit for being thoughtful or empathetic. A truly stupid and myopic generalisation. Honestly, who does he think he is?

Of course this is only one small aspect of what makes Martyrs the masterpiece that it is. The two central performances from Morjana Alaoui and Mylène Jampanoï are heartbreakingly good and it's obvious in every frame of their screen-time just how much they sacrificed of themselves for this little film. The cinematography and stark production design are excellent, as is Benoît Lestang's incredible and disturbing make-up FX (he was a great talent who tragically took his own life in 2008). A lot of people dislike the abrupt change at Martyrs' mid-point into kind of metaphysical SF, but for me it works perfectly, and the end (which Fangoria's Tony Timpone accurately described as "approaching Kubrickian transcendence") literally had my jaw agape and my eyes bugging.

The score, by Parisian experimental electronic/rock band Seppuku Paradigm (who had previously scored the low budget French SF movie Eden Log) is by turns somber, mournful, tense and haunting with a few good stings like At Night In The Dormitory. Once, in the track Crisis, it explodes into throbbing Goblin worship that makes a very powerful moment in the film even more potent. It's a great little track, but at under a minute long I really wish they'd expanded it for the soundtrack. Martyrs wraps-up with the languidly paced, dreamy-melancholy of Your Witness that is perfect over the end credits to allow you to just numbly stare at the screen and begin to recompose yourself after being pummelled into a state of twitchy shock.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

The Body Horror Revival?

One of the films at the top of my to-see list for 2010 is Tom Six's controversial The Human Centipede (First Sequence). The story revolves around mad scientist Dr. Heiter's perverse experiment on a trio of captive victims to surgically graft them into a single organism with a common digestive system. To put it more bluntly, he sews them together, asshole to mouth.

Three brains. Twelve limbs. One twisted, nightmarish vision courtesy of Tom Six.

The film is apparently intelligent, blackly comic and squirm-inducingly grueling without relying on too much gore. The word is that Six consulted a surgeon to make sure that the medical procedures in the film were realistic in order to give the goings-on a pseudo-scientific veracity.

Festival-goers are raving about Dieter Laser's tour de force performance as the insane Dr. Heiter, and it earned him the
award for Best Actor at last year's Fantastic Fest (where the film also scored Best Feature). The cold-blooded, sadistic mad scientist is one of the most beloved archetypes in the SF/horror pantheon, and it's been too long since we've had a really memorable one chew up scenery on the big screen (the last great ones that spring to mind are from the '80s: Herbert West, Crawford Tillinghast, Dr. Logan, Brian O'Blivion, Dr. Hal Raglan et al). The performances of the three unfortunates who comprise the centipede are also supposed to be excellent, so I imagine it's genuine sympathy for their disgusting plight that makes this disturbing little horror movie work as well as the positive buzz suggests it does. I cannot wait to be assaulted by this flick (and it's in-development sequel The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence)!

So with the overt references to Cronenberg in last years SF masterpiece District 9
(the deterioration and subsequent metamorphosis of Wikus' body) and the "baby horror" of Inside and Grace, are we witnessing the birth of a fully-fledged body horror sub-genre? I really hope so.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

"As he sat on his balcony eating the dog..."

Some exciting news emerged tonight (as reported by bloody disgusting) that Vincenzo Natali is still attached to his long-in-gestation adaptation of J.G. Ballard's seminal SF novel High-Rise. The project has been on his slate for several years now, but I've been wondering for a while if he might have abandoned it. I've always thought High-Rise suited Natali perfectly. It's thematically similar to Cube in that it's about ordinary people dropping their veneer of civility and resorting to violence in a desperate and claustrophobic situation. Another similarity to Cube is the central role that the architectural environment plays in the story, how it influences and defines the character's actions.

Our bizarrely evolving relationship to technology and the urban environment is a theme that runs through my favourite Ballard stories (Crash, Concrete Island & High-Rise) and I don't think that the ideas he postulated in those novels have dated at all. In fact I think they're more relevant now than when they were written, and show a real prescience to Ballard's vision of where we're headed as a society (it's not optimistic).

Having only just lost this great SF writer last April, it's heartening to know that one of his most beloved novels is in the capable hands of an intelligent, independent film-maker. Too many of Philip K. Dick's SF stories have been reduced to dumbed-down action fests, but with first Cronenberg's Crash and now Natali at the helm of High-Rise, Ballard's cinematic legacy may fare better.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Soundtrack: Evil Dead Trap

Unbeknownst to most casual film-goers, not all Japanese horror movies revolve around angsty, hirsute dead girls. Toshiharu Ikeda's 1988 shocker Evil Dead Trap (Shiryo No Wana) is a blatant homage/rip-off of various horror styles that ends up being an enjoyably creepy and gory little flick in it's own right. That said, it never really rises above it's simple ambitions to ape the works of other (better) directors, but it doesn't really matter - it is what it is: a grimy, nasty, violent giallo. At least it wants to be a giallo, but it also wants to be other things, and thus ends up as a confusing mixture of sub-genres. The first two-thirds of the film are a pretty successful mixture of Argento-style giallo and Fulci-esque gore (going as far as to include a voyeuristic close-up of a blade, messily piercing an eyeball). Then in the final act, it suddenly careens right off course and turns into bizarre Cronenbergian body horror. Evil Dead Trap is atmospheric, bloody, sleazy fun, but makes little sense.

The cheap sounding synth score by Tomohiko Kira is, predictably, a total rip-off of Goblin and Fabio Frizzi. At times cringe-inducingly saccharine and almost unlistenably bad, it does manage in it's best moments to successfully invoke the feel of the Italians that it's imitating (especially in context, while watching the film). As far as I know, this is an unofficial OST, and has never been made commercially available (none of the tracks are titled). My thanks to the original uploader for making this rare horror score available. Hit the link below.

Saturday, 9 January 2010

Autopsy: 2009

Looking back at my first post below (from March last year), It's interesting to see how my expectations for 2009 panned out (or didn't).

My most anticipated film - Natali's Splice - has still not seen a release since being picked up by German company Senator International some two years ago. There's been talk of Senator's financial woes and possible studio meddling to tone down some of the films more confronting elements and give it a more "mainstream appeal". Ugh. An example of this short-sighted stupidity is the studio's idea to change the name from the evocative Splice to the utterly generic Hybrid.

There's still hope though! The film debuted at last years Sitges Film Festival to a positive critical reaction and came away with the festival's award for Best Special FX. Since then it's been added to this years Sundance midnight section where it will hopefully generate some buzz and find a new distributor. In the meantime the excellent is hosting a diary written by Natali documenting the experience of taking his monstrous labour of love to Sundance. The first entry can be found here.

So, looking back at my first post again, it's interesting to note that Romero's latest zombie film (going under the working title of "... Of The Dead" at the time of that writing) has since received a proper name as Survival Of The Dead, and opened at various festivals to very mixed reviews (it really seemed to polarise people). It's been picked up for distro by the genre-friendly Magnet and I for one can't wait to see it. I'm not a Romero apologist (I'll happily admit that about half his output has been pretty wonky) but I've found a lot to like in both of his "neo-dead" flicks. Yes, even Diary.

My prediction for an '09 release of Stuart Gordon's latest Lovecraft adaptation The Thing On The Doorstep was wildly off the mark as it seems to have all but vanished from his slate of future projects. The burly auteur spent the year working in his original medium - the theatre - on a one-man production called Nevermore... an Evening with Edgar Allan Poe starring who else but Jeffrey Combs. According to bloody disgusting he may now be attached to a horror project called The House On The Borderland which although not an H.P.L. adaptation, seems very Lovecraftian in nature. From bloody disgusting: "the supernatural thriller focuses on a family that relocates to a relative’s rural home only to discover it guards the border between our dimension and another which is inhabited by a race of hostile creatures." Sounds promising.

As far as the rest of the movies mentioned in that first post - Q.T. really silenced the nay-sayers by
serving up a satisfying and exciting exploitation epic in Inglourious Basterds. A pretty amazing feat given how rushed the production was. John Hillcoat's The Road is finally getting a theatrical release this month after long delays. Early reviews have been pretty mixed, but at least it seems to have retained the grimness of Cormac McCarthy's book. Finally, Winding Refn's little metaphysical viking pic Valhalla Rising has still only been seen by a few festival goers but his other '09 film Bronson is one of the few last year that really surprised me. This hypnotic Kubrickian homage really blew my mind, in no small part due to Tom Hardy's intense performance. It easily made my top three for the year along with Neill Blomkamp's stunning SF debut District 9 and my biggest surprise of the year - von Trier's Antichrist. Von Trier was a director I had long dismissed as a pretentious art-wanker of the most annoying kind, but this sublimely beautiful and deliciously disturbing horror movie has had me completely re-evaluating my opinion of him (I've since watched Breaking The Waves for the first time and loved it). So in the end, not one of my top-three movies for last year was a film I was looking forward to - they all took me by surprise. A lot of the fun of being a film geek is the anticipation and speculation that comes with looking forward to movies, but the weird thing is that the end result is so rarely what you expected.

So, in the words of last year's real fantastic fox: CHAOS REIGNS!

Sunday, 3 January 2010

10 Great Monsters Of The Last Decade

I thought I'd better do an end of decade post, but rather than yet another "best movies" list, I'm going to do something a little different. So here's a list, in no particular order, of what I feel are some of the most memorable screen monsters from the first decade of the 21st century. I gave myself two rules: 1. no cop-out "human monsters" eg. Patrick Bateman, 2. only unique creatures in the grand tradition of the great Universal monsters, so you'll find no "crawlers" from The Descent here. Not all of the beasts here are the stars of their respective films. Two of them only get very brief screen-time and one of them is technically never shown, but despite that, their presence made an indelible impression on me, and I think that with the passing of time they'll take their rightful place amongst the shrieking, putrescent pantheon of great movie ghouls.

This list strays into very mainstream territory, but that's irrelevant to me when it comes to this hallowed subject. Monsters transcend all filmic artistic and economic boundaries! It's interesting to note that despite quite a lot of research to refresh my memory, almost all of these films are from the latter part of the decade. It would seem that monsters are back in vogue. Also worth noting is that "Dren", the bizarre human/animal hybrid at the centre of Vincenzo Natali's Splice, would almost certainly have made this list if the movie weren't languishing in distribution hell. As it is she may be the first great monster of the next decade.

This post is dedicated to the memories of Stan Winston, Forry Ackerman, Dan O'Bannon and Chas. Balun...

THE BALROG - The Fellowship Of The Ring/The Two Towers (2001/2002)

My acceptance of PJ's epic adaptation hinged in no small part on the success of this sequence. I was not disappointed. As I sat in the hot, packed theatre on boxing day '01 and stared into the gaping satanic furnace of the Balrog's mouth, I knew that Mr. Jackson and his talented team at Weta had created the demon to top all demons. Lucifer himself would cower before the awesome might of this vision of Durin's Bane. A year later, in one of the most hair-raising of cinematic prologues ever, we were treated to another unforgettable sequence of Gandalf smiting the shit out of the Balrog with his sword Glamdring, as they tumble endlessly deeper into the chasm. Cool.

THE PALE MAN - Pan's Labyrinth (2006)

In a film packed with beautiful and shocking imagery, this sequence stands out as the most iconic and disturbing set piece. The whole thing is just drenched in a creeping, claustrophobic dread. You feel the wall seal up behind Ophelia and the sense that you are trapped in the airless, other-dimensional tomb of the Pale Man's lair is overpowering. Ancient fresco's depicting the cannibalism of live children adorn his walls. A banquet of poisonous looking blood-red food is laid out on the table before him and on a plate, sitting between his resting hands, lie his eyes, unseeing until he is awakened from his timeless slumber to feast on the tender flesh of intruding children. In a career full of amazing monster performances that truly justify his moniker of the new Karloff, this is Doug Jones' finest and creepiest moment thus far. It's the subtle physical nuance of Jones' performances that really bring his monsters to life, and with nary a sound to be heard here he infuses the Pale Man with a palpable sense of ancient menace and distilled evil. And it's really freaky when he bites the fairy's head off.

THE MONSTER - Cloverfield (2008)

I grew up on Kaiju movies in the '70s and loved Godzilla like he was a member of my family. As an adult I still love those movies, but unfortunately revisiting them now is more an exercise in nostalgia than an exhilarating experience. Enter Cloverfield and it's modern take on the Kaiju. I'm no fan of producer JJ Abrams and his hip, hyper-commercial TV shows, but with this old-fashioned creature feature he and director Matt Reeves really nailed the elements that made me love giant monster movies when I was a kid. Unlike most other "found footage" flicks Cloverfield really gives me the feeling - even on repeat viewings - of being there in New York City with a giant rampaging creature on the loose. And what a creature it is. Phil Tippett is a talented creature designer and this is his best work since Starship Troopers. Reminiscent of the weird bat-like creature from The Angry Red Planet, this beast has a believable physiology and really lives and breathes for me. I'd like to point out that I can't rewatch this without skipping the first 20 minutes, and crucial to my enjoyment of the movie is that the whole cast of insipid yuppie "characters" die horrible, violent deaths by the end.

THE PARASITE - Splinter (2008)

Not much needs to be said about this one. Toby Wilkins' Splinter provided hungry monster freaks with some great splattery practical effects and a cool parasitic monster whose intriguingly mysterious life-cycle harkens back to great SF monsters like Giger's xenomorph and Bottin's thing.

THE ANGEL OF DEATH - Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008)

Notch up another one for Señor del Toro. The Hellboy movies are a veritable menagerie of fantastic creatures, not the least of which are the titular character himself and his aquatic buddy Abe Sapien. Guillermo really gets that practical effects still rule and in Hellboy II he used CGI sparingly to enhance the already stunning animatronics, puppetry and makeup. This incredible entity seems like she might be a distant cousin of the Pale Man, with her blind face and anatomically displaced eyes. Another perfect invisible performance from the great Doug Jones.


Ask anyone who has seen Frank Darabont's bleak adaptation of Stephen King's novella what the most striking imagery was for them and chances are they'll say "the giant monster at the end". The Mist features some great creature design courtesy of Bernie Wrightson and Greg Nicotero, but it's this brief appearance near the end of the film by a towering, barely discernible behemoth lumbering ponderously over the landscape that really invokes the sense of Lovecraftian awe and dread that lies at the heart of this grim story. That what we are witnessing in the mist is truly unnameable and unknowable because it is not of this world.

COCK MONSTER - Bad Biology (2008)

Frank Henenlotter's welcome return to the big screen after a 16 year hiatus was no disappointment. In terms of theme, gritty texture and all-out sleaze value it fits in seamlessly with the rest of his oeuvre and indeed, feels like the auteur never stopped making movies. This isn't the watered-down work of an over-the-hill director mellowing with age, rather, it's the work of a deranged iconoclast revelling in getting his twisted vision up on the screen again. If anything, the sexual depravity on display here is more extreme than in his previous films. As far as brute force or sheer charisma goes this rampaging cock creature is no match for Belial or Aylmer, but he's still a unique and memorable monster that should have made the cover of Fangoria.


The image above is a bit of a cheat because you never actually see Dawn O'Keefe's mutant beaver in Mitchell Lichtenstein's debut feature about a virtuous, sexually abstinent teen who learns the hard way that she has a very unusual deformity. The truth is, Dawn's vagina is not the beast itself anyway. It's merely the part of her anatomy that makes this innocent looking girl the man-killing monster she becomes by the end of the film. I would very much like to see a classic monster mash-up (eg. Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man) between Dawn's killer vag and Henenlotter's cock monster.

GRANT GRANT - Slither (2006)

James Gunn's awesome '80s-throwback alien invasion splatterfest was probably the most criminally ignored horror movie of the last decade. I will never understand why people didn't flock to see this entertaining, smart and funny monster movie. Instead, despite a good critical reaction, it flopped, and very few people bore witness to this touching and tragic story about Grant Grant, a man infected with an horrendous alien parasite and his enduring love for his wife Starla. Michael Rooker must have truly suffered under the huge amounts of prosthetics and makeup he had to endure in order to bring the final stage of the disgusting alien monster to life. This is another example of a monster with a fantastically complex metamorphosing life-cycle that is really interesting to watch. The Grant monster may be a long lost relative of the Dr. Pretorius monster from Stuart Gordon's From Beyond.

MUBIA ABUL-JAMA - Black Devil Doll (2009)

He's a lover! He's a killer! HE'S A MUTHAFUCKIN' PUPPET! Last but by no means least we come to this caustic, raping little murderer. Shawn Lewis and the other upstanding citizens behind Blackest Heart Media and Rotten Cotton managed to stay sober long enough to make a feature that ended up being far better than it had any right to be. Honestly, it's worth the price of admission alone just for the opening credits sequence which proves that these guys aren't fooling around and have actual ambition to make some good exploitation movies. According to Lewis, this isn't the last we'll be seeing of this pint sized serial-rapist, as there's a sequel in the works that shifts the action into outer-space. Apparently he shares my love for the New World Alien rip-offs Galaxy Of Terror and Forbidden World and wants to do it in that style. I couldn't be happier. Oh, and Mubia would totally kill Chucky.

Friday, 1 January 2010

My Year As Seth Brundle

Well, here I am writing my second post almost a year after the first and on the first day of a new decade. My ambitions for this blog fell by the wayside when I found myself in the midst of my very own Cronenbergian body horror nightmare (aka cancer) and it's various delightful treatments.

Cronenberg has been my most loved director for as long as I can remember, and I've always been fascinated by the physical transformation and metamorphosis in his best films: The Fly and Videodrome. So it was with a perverse sense of satisfaction and familiarity that I watched clumps of my own hair fall out, my nails deform, my mouth ulcerate, my skin burn and blacken. Looking at my hair lying on the bathroom floor would often trigger thoughts of the Brundle Museum Of Natural History and it's various disgusting and mysterious artifacts. Sometimes I'd imagine the hard, lumpy tumours I could feel bulging under my skin bursting violently out of me like the masses of New Flesh exploding through Barry Convex's ruined and rended face.

I'm not officially in remission yet, but my treatment is over for now, and it's time for me to get back to the unfinished horror business of this here neglected blog. So, if you're interested in the cinema of the bizarre & fantastic, but crave a perspective on it that differs from that of the typical mainstream, I'd love to have you along for the ride. LONG LIVE THE NEW FLESH!