Monday, 30 March 2015

SPRING: pole star-crossed lovers

Love, life and relationships are complicated. So too is Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson's Spring. Accurately described as an odd mix of Richard Linklater's romantic character studies and H.P. Lovecraft's The Shadow Over Innsmouth, Spring is as chimeric a beast as those found in Lovecraft's writing. That weird genre pairing is only the outermost layer though, and beneath that is a film with a lot more on its mind.

Spring is the story of Evan, a man trying to leave behind the unhappy complications of his life by escaping into a seductive new existence that seems blissfully simple and trouble-free. It appears that love is in his stars, but the universe is a chaotic and merciless place, and Evan quickly finds that his new situation is far more complicated than anything he could have imagined. Ultimately he will learn that in order to truly love, sacrifices are demanded. Real sacrifices.

Our basest fears, whether they be xenophobic, fear of snakes and spiders, or a simple terror of dark places, are just expressions of our instinctive, hardwired mistrust of the unknown and the other. A primal survival reflex that pushes the rationalism of thousands of years of science and enlightenment to the back of our brains in favour of a knee-jerk defensive response. The conservative nightmares and anxieties that were the foundation of H.P. Lovecraft's writing are a perfect example. On one hand, his stories are brimming with the racist fear of insidious takeover by foreign cultures, and of the resulting breakdown of western civilisation. On the other, his loathsome monsters can be seen to represent a fear of facing the uncensored truth of biological life, resplendent in all its wet, birthing, fucking, suffering, diseased, predatory and frequently ugly glory.

Looking at that latter idea first, I can see Moorhead and Benson's movie as a critique of Lovecraft, and an exploration of nature and our place within it. For me, the film's real romance isn't between the star crossed lovers, but in the sense of wonder that it evokes about the infinite complexity of biological life. Sometimes beautiful, other times hideous, and always messy, life repeats itself endlessly down through the aeons - adapting, surviving and evolving. That it came to exist at all from the raw materials of primordial star dust is incredible. That it's had the tenacity to persevere, thrive and fragment into what seems like infinite varieties just on this planet alone is far more miraculous than any myth that could be dreamt up by the creationist crazies.

But human aesthetics are a fickle thing, and biology isn't always neat and pretty. From what I've gathered over the years (and although I've devoured his fiction I'm far from an expert on the man himself), Lovecraft was a very tightly wound and neurotic man. A product of the uptight New England culture that he was brought up in. He seems like just the kind of conservative puritan that would (and apparently did) have a difficult time resolving his sexual desires with the revulsion that he felt at the awkward, wet realities of sex. It follows that this same revulsion would carry over to every aspect of biological life, not just fucking, and not just human. When faced with a hatching clutch of spider's eggs, an octopus, or a New England beach covered in Horseshoe crabs I can't help but picture his face screwing up in disgust.

Spring, to me, feels like a response to that. A celebration of 3.6 billion years of life on this planet, not to mention the almost certain possibility of life elsewhere in the cosmos. Its message: forget the petty aesthetic judgements and anthropomorphisation that we've imposed on nature. There is no ugliness, no evil, no right and wrong. Those are human constructs. It's all beautiful. Yes, perhaps even the most vile form of life that we know: malignant cancer cells. After all, if cancer hadn't killed Evan's mother, he wouldn't have ended up falling in love.

To tie it all up in a neat bow, I see all that brain-frying, intangible complexity as a fitting metaphor for the utterly weird and disorienting phenomenon we all know as falling in love. Something that we're all a part of, but that's difficult for us to comprehend or control, particularly when we're in the midst of it. You can rationalise it and tell yourself that it's just feelings caused by the release of a potent cocktail of chemicals into your brain, intended to trick you into procreating and spreading our species like so many tumor cells. But that won't make it any less confusing, elating or painful.

As for Lovecraft's xenophobia, there's also a bit of subtext in Spring about the relationship that Americans (and Australians, I should know, I'm both) have with Europe. For new-worlders whose descendants emigrated from Europe, visiting the mother continent can induce a strange mixture of feelings. For some it's a profound sense of awe at being surrounded by so much history, combined with conflicting feelings of deep belonging and unsettling alienation. For others, there's a sense of familiarity and entitlement coupled with xenophobic feelings of distrust and the unknown. We've already seen this explored pretty explicitly in Eli Roth's Hostel movies, but Spring does so in a more thoughtful and mature way. Rather than being the focus (as it is in Roth's movies), it's explored with more subtlety through Evan's eyes. As he strives to assimilate into the rural Italian culture that he's found himself in, we see him observe the idiotic antics of his countrymates with an aloof distaste. Evan's willingness to accept this new culture is rewarded, while the frat boys are punished.

Well, I've gone completely tl;dr with my reading of Spring's themes, so I'm just going to leave the rest of this amazing little film for you to discover for yourself. Benson and Moorhead's direction, writing, cinematography and editing are all spot on, making for a satisfying and handsome movie that belies its undoubtedly low budget. Part of the reason for that is in cinematographer Aaron Moorhead's eye for bringing the best out of the film's atmospheric Italian locations. It's one of the most photogenic places you could ever hope to shoot a movie, and Moorhead exploits moonlit nights, subtly hued magic hours and sunbathed countryside to stunning effect. One sequence in particular, when Evan and Louise take a boat to visit a mysterious aquatic cave, is strikingly beautiful.

The other really noteworthy aspect of Spring's visuals are its superb makeup, prosthetic and creature fx. The team appears to have been comprised of what I assume to be a mix of Italian and American artists, none of whom I've heard of before, and their work here is nothing short of fantastic. The majority of the fx looked to me like a combination of practical with CG enhancement, and the results are by turns gorgeous, shocking and disgusting.

Finally, I have to acknowledge the real heart of the movie, the lovers themselves. Working from Justin Benson's excellent script, Lou Taylor Pucci and Nadia Hilker deliver nuanced, naturalistic performances that are every bit as good as those of Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, to which they will inevitably be compared.

Following their powerful 2012 debut, Resolution, these two hungry filmmakers have delivered a second dose of subversive, thought-provoking and highly original horror. I can't wait to see what they've got up their sleeves for their upcoming Aleister Crowley project.

Friday, 20 March 2015

Gully Foyle and The Lord Weird Slough Feg (TIGER! TIGER!)

Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination, AKA Tiger! Tiger!, is one of the most important and criminally underappreciated sci-fi novels of the 20th century. An enduring inspiration for generations of SF luminaries to follow (including Joe Haldeman, Michael Moorcock and William Gibson), Tiger! Tiger! was a major precursor to the cyberpunk literary movement and continues to be influential to this day. 

Bester's novel is very cinematic, a well balanced blend of heady ideas, operatic grandeur and pulpy action, so it comes as no surprise that Hollywood has designs on it. However, like Haldeman's The Forever War and Gibson's Neuromancer, Tiger! Tiger! is a novel with great cinematic potential that has languished in development hell for decades.

That inexorable development now seems to have entered a new stage, with the announcement that Jordan Vogt-Roberts is the latest director attached to helm the adaptation. I'm clueless about Vogt-Roberts beyond the fact that he's known for his well-received coming-of-age drama, The Kings of Summer, and that he's in the director's chair for Legendary's upcoming Kong: Skull Island. He's an unknown quantity for me, but I'm just glad the suits aren't going with some meat-headed action director. So far, so good.

Anyway, regardless of The Stars My Destination's treatment at the hands of Hollywood, we'll always have Slough Feg's rousing power metal interpretation to enjoy. Their 2007 LP Hardworlder features a few songs based on Bester's novel, but this one, "Tiger! Tiger!", is essential listening. Space opera reimagined as stirring, anthemic NWOBHM. 

Artwork below stolen from Noah Pierce.

The spheres in motion wrapped around collapsing stars
Immortal hands and eyes are framed in fearful scars
The mystery of living, breathing, dying hard

My name and occupation tattooed on my face
The stars my destiny, deep space my dwelling place
Delirious and rotting, where's my saving grace

The stars burn bright
In the forest of night
But what mortal hands and eyes will I see there?

I'm locked behind bars
On the gateway to Mars
But when all the stars expire will I still be here?

I'll set the villages and colonies aflame
The bards of history had best forget my name
Deliriously plotting, Nomad is my fame

Friday, 13 March 2015

INTERVIEW: ASTRON-6's Steven Kostanski talks THE VOID

Practical FX maniac and Astron-6 director Steven Kostanski took some time out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions for the EYE about his upcoming project The Void. UNFLINCHING EYE is a proud supporter of The Void, and you too can become an acolyte of this eldritch kvlt by contributing to its IndieGoGo campaign HERE. All proceeds go towards developing and building the film's practical creature and gore FX!

▲You've cited three of the greats - Rob Bottin, Chris Walas and Tony Gardner (who I note you worked with recently on the Eli Roth produced Clown) - as your main inspirations for The Void's FX aesthetic and techniques. Can you mention any other artists and/or films that have had an impact on The Void's design and tone? Was Michael Mann's The Keep much of a conscious inspiration?

SK: Alien is definitely a big influence. It’s amazing how many times we’ve come back to that film while developing The Void. It’s a perfectly executed horror movie, and it only gets better with each subsequent viewing. 

The Keep, Prince of Darkness or Hellbound: Hellraiser II could definitely count as influences, since they’re Lovecraftian in tone but centered around their own unique mythologies. That’s definitely the kind of vibe we’re going for with this film.

▲You've said that The Void marks a departure from your more playful Astron-6 projects, and into more overt horror territory. Is this the end of your involvement in Astron-6, or do you still have more retro grindhouse mayhem that you need to get out of your systems?

While this is a stand-alone departure for Jer and myself, it is not us splitting from Astron-6 in any way. We’ve been tossing the idea for The Void around for years and thought it was finally time to try something different. It’d be in the same video store as Manborg or Father’s Day, just maybe on a different rack. 

▲The tone of The Void seems to be Lovecraftian cosmic horror, which suggests the possibility of some grandiose and challenging imagery. In recent years we've seen some impressive VFX in very low budget movies, such as the Spierig's Undead and Gareth Edward's Monsters. Given your own budgetary constraints, will you be keeping VFX on The Void to a minimum, or are your plans more ambitious?

The idea is to keep it as practical as possible, but there are certain moments where VFX will be necessary to realize the full scope of the movie. It’s all in how it’s utilized. With any kind of effect, practical or cg, it’s best in small doses, and as always with horror movies: the less you see, the scarier it is. 

▲Given your experiences working on large scale productions (Pacific Rim, Crimson Peak, Hannibal TV series etc) in your role as FX artist, do you have a sense that the use of practical FX as a tool to enhance CG (or rather the other way around) is gaining traction? Or do you think it will remain more of a specialised niche thing used mainly by filmmakers like del Toro?

I wouldn’t classify practical fx as a “specialized niche”. Every TV show and movie that comes through Toronto utilizes prosthetics or creature fx in some way, whether it’s a hospital drama or a sci-fi series. And CG is just another tool to achieve the same result. 

Practical effects require substantial prep-time, patience and organization to be executed convincingly. These requirements aren’t appealing to some directors, especially in an age where everything can be done in post. 

▲Would you rather see:

del Toro's At the Mountains of Madness, greenlit for an R-rating with a 150+ million budget


a new Stuart Gordon Lovecraft opus with a budget of 8-10 million

I’d rather see a Stuart Gordon Lovecraft opus with 150+ million budget, or del Toro make At the Mountains of Madness with a 10 million budget. The creative possibilities of those movies seem way more interesting to me.


Wednesday, 11 March 2015

We Are Still Here SXSW poster

An evil new poster has surfaced for Ted Geoghegan's Barbara Crampton starring, Fulci-esque gorefest. The perfect compliment to last month's scorcher of a trailer. We Are Still Here debuts at SXSW in just a few days, and it can't gouge my eyeballs out soon enough.

The poster was designed by Erik Buckham, and as with Akiko Stehrenberger (see post below this one), Erik is responsible for some of today's coolest genre one sheets. A few more examples of his work:

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Akiko Stehrenberger

The other day, while doing an image search for poster art from Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin, I had a bit of an epiphany. I'd stumbled across the website of an award winning designer and illustrator named Akiko Stehrenberger, and was surprised to discover that she's responsible for quite a few of my favourite movie posters.

In her work for filmmakers as diverse as Astron 6, Takashi Miike, Todd Solondz and Don Coscarelli, Stehrenberger utilises different media and painterly techniques to create striking poster designs, ranging from delicate retro watercolours and bold hyperrealism, to arty photo manipulation. In this age of lazily thrown together Photoshop montages and equally lazy Illustrator vector images masquerading as "minimalism", it's refreshing to see movie posters produced with this degree of quality and professionalism.

Cynicism aside, I know there are plenty of other talented designer/illustrators currently making fantastic posters for horror and sci-fi films. I just think the majority of the best work is being made for the collector's market (by boutique studios like Mondo). The thing that distinguishes Stehrenberger from many of her peers then, is that almost all of her posters seem to be officially commissioned by studios and directors. These are legit movie posters.

Posters matter! The one-sheet is an essential part of a film's identity, a distillation of its meaning, intent, themes and images into a single defining image. That movie studios these days usually fall well short of creating anything that could be described as an iconic poster, speaks volumes about the way they view their "product". Quick turnaround, cost effective and disposable.

Movie posters can, and should be, works of art. Have a look at more of Akiko's posters here.

Thursday, 5 March 2015

GAY KISS Preservation Measures

A couple of years back I loudly sung the praises of the first Gay Kiss LP, an incendiary slice of manically tempo-changing hardcore, laced with a heavy dose of AmRep style noise rock. Since then we've only had a couple of short cassette releases to tide us over, so the email from bandcamp the other day announcing the release of Preservation Measures was a very welcome sight.

Preservation Measures is the long-awaited second full length from the Arizonan juggernaut, and if the amount of blogs it's showing up on this week is any indication, I'm not the only punk who's been jonesing for it. Musically, these twelve (eight new) tracks sound very similar to 2013's Fault - fast hardcore, loaded with blasting riffs and memorable hooks, punctuated by the kind of breakdowns that raise the hackles and give you goosebumps. If I noticed a real difference on the first few listens, it's the inclusion of some five-piece era Black Flag/BL'AST influenced moments, something which never gets old for me. The band's noise rock tendencies are also noticeable once again, this time in the form of some subtle power electronics that wobble and oscillate in the background.

One observation, not a complaint, is that the guitar (or maybe even the whole mix?) seems a bit more subdued on this album. Solution: turn it the fuck up! Finally, it's really nice of the boys to include the lyrics with their bandcamp download. Way to go.

So, another shredding album from one of the most powerful, original and sincere hardcore bands going today. A definite early contender for album of the year.