Friday, July 21, 2006

Embracing the Daft

I’ve just realized how close we are to the date when I’m supposed to be shooting “Awake” – (I’m actually thinking of changing the title to “Life in the Woods” as it’s the subtitle of Thoreau’s “Walden”, or maybe even calling it “Awake, or Life in the Woods” – I really like the idea of having a long, unwieldy title for some reason…). I’m not really that prepared – the script isn’t really written yet, I haven’t got a shot list, I don’t know what equipment we’re going to need – but I have been working on creating the spidery tree demon which bothers the main character – in fact, I’ve probably spent far more time than is healthy glueing bits of felt to the taxidermy body I bought off Ebay – the thing is likely only to be on-screen for a very short space of time.

The thing is, I’m trying to follow my own advice – and to show, rather than imply –embracing the daft (or at least, the potential for daftness). I’ve been encouraged (some would say “baited”), in this by Gareth, he keeps reminding me of my “fear of the daft” ethos, and wants me not only to show the demon, but to have it move about. This wasn’t part of the original plan, but I can’t resist a challenge, so I’ve started to make an additional model, based around a toy robot I found in a cupboard at home.

Hopefully, this will straddle that line of being creepy and stupid – rather than just being laughable (however, as Gareth has pointed out, if I’m feeling nervous about it, I need only remind myself that it can’t look any worse than the thing that runs off the table after it has burst out of John Hurt’s stomach in "Alien”). Gareth is still keen for me to have a scene where the demon is attacking the character, and he has to thrash around holding on to it to animate it, because it reminds him of the final part of “Trilogy of Terror” but, apart from the fact that I’m not entirely sure if the model would stand that kind treatment, I don’t know if I can fully embrace the daft to that extent…

Monday, July 10, 2006

All kinds of wrong

For a couple of years now, a few of us have been getting together on a regular basis to have Horror Nights – essentially horror film all-nighters round somebody’s house ( I say all-nighters, but usually we’re lucky to get past about 4 in the morning – although this means that we get through at least 3 or 4 films). As the nights have gone on, the choice in viewing material (mostly provided by me and Cooke) has got more and more varied and esoteric, which has led to great discoveries (like The Blood Drinkers, Daughter of Horror and May) as well as the occasional stinker.

This weekend, we had the first Horror Night for a while, round at Gareth’s. After a bit of a preamble with the a couple of Fleischer Superman animations from the 40s (which I picked up the other day for 99p from one of those discount book stores in town) – which were great, we started off with ‘Imprint’, Takashi Miike’s entry into the HBO ‘Master of Horror’ TV series, which showed on Bravo earlier this year – and which was the only one in the series (including films by John Carpenter, Toby Hooper, Joe Dante, Dario Argento, Lucky McKee, Don Coscarelli and Stuart Gordon), which hadn’t actually been shown in America due to its extreme content. Cooke and me had both seen it when it had been on TV, and wanted to see what the others would make of it. It’s probably the most compact of his films that I’ve seen (along with maybe ‘Audition’), with a really good narrative structure, but also at least 4 or 5 different kinds of wrongness.

It starts with an American (played by Billy Drago, who, despite being the only American actor amongst a Japanese cast, manages to deliver all of his lines as though they were written in a language he’d never before encountered) travelling out to a brothel island in 19th Century Japan to look for a girl he left years before. In the first five minutes you have a the bloated pregnant drowned corpse of a prostitute, a dwarf with a cockerel headdress and a big dark syphilitic hole in the side of her nose and a young prostitute with a face that is twisted on one side into a Joker-style smile. From then on, you get ghostly apparitions, the most horrible and wince-inducing torture scene that I’ve sat through since ‘Audition’ - (as a punishment for a presumed theft, the black-toothed brothel madam decides to maim one of her girls, but only in ways that won’t damage the merchandise…), the most extreme story of childhood poverty (including incest, aborted foetuses and rhubarb) and an ending that comes totally out of left field, that will have you both laughing and shaking your head with the horrible daftness of it all. All in all, it managed to put John off his pizza, allowed Gareth to discover what particular piece of onscreen brutality really makes him squirm, and set up some of the themes of the night, namely: wrongness, twinfreakery and, weirdly, noses.

After that, we all fancied something a bit lighter, so Cooke suggested Paul Morrissey’s Flesh for Frankenstein. I’d never seen it before (nor Blood For Dracula, which it was made back to back with) and it was a good contrast with ‘Imprint.’ It’s loopy, excessive, camp and hilarious – and, what’s more, it was originally made in 3-d, a fact which really adds to some of the scenes, especially when it’s a giant pair of decapitating tongs heading straight for you, or some innards falling out down a drain and into the lens, or with Udo Kier’s impalement. The film is also notable for featuring Chris Cooke’s favourite ever line of dialogue: “To know death, Otto, one must first fuck life in the gallbladder!” And you can’t really argue with that. Udo Kier plays the Dr. Frankenstein role, with immense gusto and a script-mangling accent, constantly going on about trying to find the perfect ‘nasum’ for his ‘Zahmbie’ (the evening’s second nose reference).

After a short interlude which we spent discussing particle accelerators, the shape of the universe and the trajectory of the earth around the sun, (albeit in a half-assed, read-an-article-in-the-newspaper-once-so-now-I’m-an-expert way), we put on the next film, a Japanese erotic horror from the late Sixties called ‘Blind Beast’.

It’s tricky, even now, to say what I think about the film. Essentially, it’s a three-hander, about a blind sculptor, who, with the aid of his mum, kidnaps a young model with the plan of making a sculpture of her. He disguises himself as a masseur, before slipping a chloroform-soaked rag over her mouth (what happened to chloroform? Once upon a time it was standard issue in all thrillers, now you don’t ever see hide nor hair of it. Did they run out or something?) and taking her (in a series of taxis – a blind man, an unconscious girl and a middle-aged woman – yeah, nobody will remember them…) to his home/studio, a large industrial warehouse in the middle of nowhere. When the model wakes up, she finds herself in a large room in near darkness, the sculptor’s torch gradually illuminating the room to show that the walls are completely covered with sculptures of female body parts – a section of lips, one of eyes, a wall of legs, one of arms, even one of noses (see, it’s officially Horror Nose night). Also, dominating the space are two immense naked female torsos, one on its front, the other on its back, allowing for a scene where a blind man chases a near-naked girl over a pair of giant breasts. Obviously, this description makes it sound like it could be some kind of Russ Meyer style kitsch romp – but in fact the film totally eschews any notion of camp – in fact it doesn’t have any humour in it whatsoever. While the relationship between captor and captured develops (in a very Stockholm Syndrome way), there is a lot of talking – a lot of pretentious talking at that – all about inventing new forms of art and becoming one with your sense of touch. For about an hour, it feels as though it’s never going to get any closer to being a horror film than just the premise – but then, in the last half hour or so, it goes all ‘In The Realm Of The Senses’ (which was made about 6 years later – they must have seen this…) and enters some very dodgy territory – after the model is raped numerous times, she finds herself ‘softening her feelings’ towards her captor. Actually, the film is already a bit dodgy in its depiction of the blind man – with one of those cinema visual impairments which means that he can instantly sense the precise location of someone in a room, but struggles to find the handle of the door to the house he’s lived in for years. It’s another one of those disability=madness ideas that pretentious (and able-bodied) filmmakers seem to like to employ. (That reminds me of the time we went to see the remake of ‘The Hills Have Eyes’ - which shows disabled people as being evil, hideous, baby-killing freaks – and found ourselves sat behind a group of severely disabled people and their carers. Who the hell thought that was a good idea?)

Which isn’t to say that I didn’t like the film – the design of it is really unique and it actually works okay despite being so setbound precisely because of the madness of the visuals, and in the last half hour, it works up into something quite interesting about sensuality and pain. It’s just that it probably could have worked as a less pretentious film – more of a B movie. Still, it’s worth taking a look at, even if it depressed the hell out of everybody by the end.

We finished off with another film about disability, but this time one that is a real B movie – and absolutely revels in it, Frank Henenlotter’s Basket Case 2. Cooke and Gareth had seen this at a horror all-nighter years ago and found it really good fun, and thought it would be a good contrast to ‘Blind Beast.’ And it was – no pretentious dialogue, a much better discussion of disability issues and some of the most over the top prosthetics I’ve ever seen. The story is that, although presumed dead at the end of the first film, the Bradley brothers are taken to hospital in critical condition.
Through the psychic prompting of his deformed, maniacal former Siamese twin brother, Belial, Duane regains consciousness and the pair escape – and are picked up by Granny Ruth (Annie Ross) who runs a sanctuary/commune dedicated to ‘Unique Individuals’. And unique is the word, because this is where the prosthetics dept is running overtime – every single one of the people living there has a face so grotesquely deformed it’s like they’ve been sketched on a beermat by a drunk – one on them is all face, like a giant clam ( but has ‘one of the most beautiful voices I’ve ever heard’), another has a face shaped like a giant half moon. Another woman has a head like the handlebars of a scooter, while my favourite (naturally, given the themes of the night) is the man who has a face made entirely of noses. All of which seem to be constantly running.

It was good fun, and a great end to the night, although Cooke’s contention that it is a better film about being a twin than Dead Ringers is, to my mind, a bit strong. Yeah, it’s less pretentious, yeah it’s got a good message about not treating people who are different like freaks (albeit slightly undermined by the fact that all of the ‘unique individuals’ take part in murdering people who threaten them), yeah, it’s got a man with a face made out of noses, but Speaking As A Twin, Dead Ringers is the one that freaks me out. If you’ll pardon the expression.

So, we made it through four films, ending up at around 4.00 which isn’t so bad (previous nights have sometimes only limped on to about 2.30) – maybe it was good to have short films (nothing over 90 minutes) so that your mind doesn’t get locked into one position for too long. And all had the requisite madness that makes true horror. Although, maybe next time we should try for something more ear-centred.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Accelerated growth

I spent most of last week working on a new project – an outline and treatment for another horror feature. I had to put it together really quickly to meet a application deadline for a scheme which I’d been invited to apply for, so I worked up an idea that’s been hanging around the back of my head for a couple of years, an ultra low-budget full-on horror called ‘Mum and Dad’. Although it was a lot of work, it was actually quite good to do it in such a short space of time – it feels like after moving in slow motion, the idea suddenly got injected with an accelerated growth hormone. The good thing is that, whatever happens, I’ve got a new outline to be thinking about – and it’s something that I really would like to do, because there’s a lot of stuff in it that, although very wrong, I could have a lot of fun with. The only negative about working in such a way is that there is no time for new things to rattle about inside your head and bang into other things – you have to kind of force things together and sometimes it means that there are elements that aren’t as rich as you might have wanted them to be. Of course, if the project goes anywhere (in terms of the scheme), I can work on these, but when you’re putting something in for consideration by a panel, you have to realise that as far as they are concerned, this is it – what you’ve put in could well be the end of a lengthy, considered, exhaustive process of imaginative thinking, rather than the beginning.
What’s quite interesting is that because I’ve had to knock it up so quickly, I’ve ended up talking to people about it, trying to get an idea of what they think – in effect doing a load of casual mini-pitches. And in that respect it seems like it works. It’s got a similar feel to Cry, where it seems quite straightforward to talk about – people seem to get it pretty quickly – whereas a lot of my other ideas take a bit more explaining – like I haven’t really got them boiled down enough in my own mind. It’s good practice, talking about things you’ve got in progress – it makes them seem alive in a way. For me, it feels good to get away from that feeling of preciousness about ideas – that fear that if you talk about them while they’re still in that embryonic stage you might ruin them, or someone might leech the idea, or people will look at you like you’re some kind of freak with a sewer for a brain….

‘Savage’, the other horror feature that I’ve been working on for a while has always been a bit of a harder pitch, and I think that’s down to me not having it crystal clear in my own mind where the key to the story lies. It’s something I’m working on at the moment, as I’m attempting to put together a revised outline for the story. I might have to do a new treatment as well – I did a PDF earlier in the year which works in some respects, but in others turns out to be a bit offputting, apparently. Luckily, having been in perpetual development with projects like ‘World of Pain’ for a number of years, my feelings towards revisiting/revising/reinventing ideas have softened. Now it feels like an opportunity to get something else out of the elements you’ve assembled. Not that you have to completely change the story, just find a different way of telling it. It always feels like a failure of communication on my part if people read the outline/treatment and can’t get how the film will work.

As far as ‘World of Pain’ goes – Chris is currently doing his draft of the script, so I imagine at some point in the near(ish) future, I may get the chance to revisit it. And turn it into a film about darts. Or caber-tossing. Or cheese-rolling. Or something.

‘Deliver Me’ is on the cards to start pre-production in the Autumn. We had a meeting with Paul Welsh from Em-media the other day, who has managed to get the paperwork sorted out. It was good to get some feedback on him about the project, as it’s the first time that we’ve really had that to date. He has some issues with the story, which I can understand, and I think we’re going to sit down and go through it prior to starting work, although I feel like at this stage we’re still sounding each other out and slightly miscommunicating because we don’t know each other (or each other’s work) that well. (Example - in this meeting we had a five-minute argument about whether ‘a vision’ was the same as ‘seeing something’.) He seems behind the film, but he did start off by warning that it was a ‘critical’ film for me. He was talking about how the routes into features are getting more and more streamlined, and how films around this level – including DVShorts and Cinema Extreme (ostensibly the rung above and below) are seen by a lot of people who will be in the position of looking for people to develop into feature directors. It sounded a bit depressing – kind of like a make or break deal – but then it probably is the reality of going along that route. However, for my own sanity, I can’t think of that being the only way that you get to have a career as a filmmaker in this country, so my attitude at the moment is to do my best to make the best film possible for the scheme, but not to treat it as though it’s such a precious chance that if I fuck it up I’m doomed. That way lies madness.

So, I’m going to continue making films outside of the funding system, just to assure myself that I can – and because, essentially, no-one can stop you doing it. Up with uncinema.