Sunday, March 23, 2008

Trans-continental terror

For the first time in ages we managed to organise a horror night on Saturday, this time a trilogy of trans-continental terror. First up was Aldo Lado's 'The Night Train Murders' (ka Don't Ride on Late Night Trains, Last Stop on the Night Train, Torture Train and Xmas Massacre, apparently). I've been wanting to see this for a while after watching Lado's 'Who Saw Her Die?' a couple of years ago, a brilliantly miserable giallo about a child-killer featuring a resolutely downbeat performance by George Lazenby (and a score by Ennio Morricone which I aped for my short film 'Deliver Me').

'Night Train Murders' is an Italian version of the 'Last House on the Left' story, but with certain significant differences. The story concerns two young women friends, played by Laura D'Angelo and Irene Miracle (the first in a triumvirate of Argento actors in the film - she later played the woman at the start of Inferno), taking the night train to Italy to visit one of the girls parents.(Incidentally, the numerous scenes of people smoking on the train brought wistful sighs from the two ex-smokers in the room, like they were sharing a Proustian moment of emotional memory. Except with fags instead of madeleines.)

Also on the train are two young criminals, Blackie and Curlie (I know, they sound more Bash Street Kids than sadistic killers), played by Flavio Bucci (who later played the blind piano player in Suspiria) and Gianfranco de Grassi. They establish their thug credentials early on, by mugging an admittedly pissed-up Santa Claus in broad daylight. The train is packed, standing room only, and as the women and the thugs search for a seat, we meet the other passengers, a carriage full of jovial Nazis, a group of priests, one of whom, it is implied, has a paedophile's eye (although his travelling companion suggests it's 'just a twitch') and a carriage that is occupied by Pat Butcher, Winston Churchill and Michael Foot. Also in this carriage is a smartly dressed posh woman, played by Macha Méril (who later played the psychic in 'Deep Red' - another strong influence on 'Deliver Me' - it's like this film was made for me...) Outwardly respectable, a hint to her true character is revealed when she drops a book letting free a pornographic photo which she hurriedly puts away. Not soon after, on going to the toilet, she is assaulted by Blackie, who locks himself in with her. The assault turns into mutually consenting sex (importantly, there's no idea that the woman is enjoying a rape, more that she is character who likes to keep up appearances, but is actually quite debauched).

When the train is forced to stop because of a bomb scare, the two young women are pointed towards a near-empty connecting train which will take them home overnight. Unfortunately for them, also joining the train are the two thugs and the posh woman, now seemingly in cahoots. With the carriage cut off from access to the rest of the train by a faulty door handle, the two women are subjected to a series of assaults, growing in violence and coordinated mainly by the female character, who is constantly pushing the two men to go further. Also joining in on the act is a middle-aged middle-class passenger who is also trapped in the carriage by the faulty door handle, who begins by voyeuring the whole scene, then is pulled in (it has to be said quite willingly) to rape one of the girls. The whole sequence is filmed in a blueish light, with a soundtrack, led by harmonica, which incorporates the sound of the train and makes the whole thing relentless and grim. As with 'Last House...' the attack ends in the death of the two young women. The thugs and the posh woman then leave the train at the same stop where the girl's parents are waiting. I'd really forgotten how big fur was in the Seventies. Anyway, through a set of random circumstances/contrived coincidences, they all end up at the house of the parents, none of them aware of the identity of the others, until a report about the discovery of two women's bodies comes on the radio...

'Night Train Murders' is truly horrible and wrong, but much less sleazy than I was expecting. The main way in which the film differs from 'Last House on the Left' is in the implication of the complicity of the middle-classes in the violence - the middle-class characters in the film also pointedly discuss 'violent society' at a number of points in the film - with the main antagonist - at least in terms of driving the violence if not participating fully - getting away pretty much scott free at the end. The film is nicely shot, especially the train sequences and is full of great little details - like the carriage full of 'Seig Heil'-ing Nazis, or the Santa mugging - as well as moments which stick in your mind for long afterwards.

Next up was the Thai film 'Shutter', about a photographer and his girlfriend haunted by a ghost from his past. Although pretty much full of East Asian horror cliches - ghostly woman creeping around/appearing out of nowhere/looking through her long black hair - the film was full of authentic jumps and had a nicely evovling story concerning the central character. It's recently been remade in the States and it'll be interesting to see how much of the story they stick too.

Finally we had the Seventies Australian eco-horror film 'The Long Weekend'. Essentially a two-hander about a bickering married couple going for a weekend trip to the beach, the film is quite slow and eerie, but does feature a zombie manatee, and you don't get to write that phrase very often. The performances were great and it had some nice moments of absolute HusbandDickery (although to be fair, there was quite a lot of WifeDickery as well) - particularly the bits where he just pisses about, fucking up the environment for the heck of it. (As soon as they set up camp, he starts chopping down a tree - when his wife asks him what he's doing it for, he just shrugs 'I dunno'). Interestingly, the director Colin Eggleston is also listed on Imdb as having made, the year before, a film called 'Fantasm Comes Again' an Australian softcore portmanteau, featuring, amongst other things, 'Explicit Sex, Anal Rape,Lesbianism,Male Frontal Nudity,Nude Wearing Glasses and Non Statutory Female On Male Rape'. I've got to say, I'd never heard of him before, but he's bloody versatile.

With that (and with John Ross having, customarily, fallen asleep on the sofa) we were done. Next up, with the release of 'The Third Mother' imminent, we might plan on an Argento trilogy, although myself and Cooke might end up being the only takers...

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Circles and spirals, and the benefits of spending time on the dole when you're young.

I've loved Max Ophuls' films since the BBC showed a short season about 15 years ago. I was in the midst of my dole/temp daytime tv years at the time, so an afternoon spent indoors watching films like 'The Reckless Moment' or 'Letter from an Unknown Woman' was both a cheap and priceless joy.

I picked up Ophuls' 'Madame de...' about six months ago and it's sat on my shelf since then (alongside the 30 or so other DVDs I never get time to watch), until I finally dusted it off the other night.In some ways, the story is a typical 19th-century-novel-style tale - a flighty and flirtatious married countess falls in love with an Italian diplomat, leading to an overwhelming and ultimately destructive passion - it could fit in alongside 'Anna Karenina' or 'Effi Briest' - but then, as with all Ophuls films, the actual plot isn't what pulls you in, it's how the story is so brilliantly conveyed through his use of camera and sound, and the highly sophsticated but deceptively simple way he reveals character.
One of the themes of 'Madame de...' is fate - the plot is moved along by a set of earrings which the countess pretends to lose at the beginning of the film - lying to her husband, from whom they were a gift, in the process - but which she actually sells to a jeweller to pay off some debts. The earrings move around owners and countries until they come back to the countess, now loaded with a whole different significance, transforming them from inessential trinkets into symbols of an almost addictive and debilitating passion. Exemplifying the theme, Ophuls often uses the same camera angles and practically the same shots when filming scenes in the same location but months or even years apart, stressing the almost pre-ordained nature of the characters' actions - it's like once they set their path, they're stuck in a groove, able only to repeat the actions of the past.

One of the greatest sequences is that which shows the countess and the diplomat falling in love. Arranging to meet at a series of dances - the only times when they can, without too much suspicion, be physically close to one another - Ophuls segues elegantly between four locations, four dances, all the while keeping the music, and even the movement of the characters in their dance, continuous. Not only is the sequence seemless, but at the same time as the characters are spinning around in each other's arms (each one repeatedly taking the place of the other, emphasising their perfect fit) and moving round the bandstand, the camera is moving around with them. If you were to plot out the movements of camera and actors throughout the sequence it would look like a spirograph drawing, but on screen it's incredibly powerful and effortlessly effective. And later in the film, during another dance, the camera moves through the ballroom, even through walls, to stay with the couple, emotionally echoing their feelings for each other - they literally can't take their eyes off each other, can't bear to be apart - and we as an audience are made to feel that too. (As an extra on the disc, there's an interview with the filmmaker Alain Jessua, who worked as an assistant to Ophuls and who talks about how much he valued the actors, and that these long and complicated takes were intended to aid performance, by giving a continuity to the emotions of a scene.)

The performances throughout are great (including another director, Vittorio de Sica (The Bicycle Thieves) as the Italian diplomat) and what's really great is that all the roles are given some complexity, including the husband, who initially turns a blind eye to his wife's flirtations - because he's got affairs of his own going on - but who can't bear to see the pain that living without her lover brings her.
It's often mentioned how elegant Ophuls is, and his camera movements are brilliantly smooth and considered and powerful, but he's also quite a tough director - he can really make his characters suffer, especially in the name of love (never more so than in 'Letter From and Unknown Woman'). In 'Madame de..' he takes a couple who almost pride themselves on their superficiality and condemns them to feel more deep emotions than they can ultimately handle. Like the earrings which cause all the trouble, his films are both glittering and diamond-tough.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Reincarnation, madness and spanking

Thanks to free FilmFour and the temporary resumption of our satellite feed (for 24 hours at least, after a couple of days of no TV due to a combination of the scaffolding that next door have put up to fix their roof, and the apocalyptic weather) I got to see a film that I've been meaning to watch for ages, Johnathan Glazer's 'Birth'. After the great surprise that was 'Sexy Beast' I was looking forward to what Glazer would do next, but somehow never got round to seeing 'Birth' - I remember that at the time it suffered from mixed reviews, but the set-up always sounded appealingly mad - woman on the verge of remarrying is visited by a ten year-old boy who claims to be her dead husband.

In a way, it's a B-movie kind of set-up - it's a high-concept idea of a kind, and it could conceivably be done on quite a small budget, as it's all about the idea and the consequences of dealing with it, and largely takes place in a series of apartments. Weirdly, I think the success of 'Sexy Beast' might be the thing that hinders the film. Far from being a B-movie, the film is expensively cast - Nicole Kidman, Lauren Bacall, Anne Heche, Danny Huston - and lushly photographed. It's a slow-paced, atmospheric piece with a minimal amount of cutting and a lot of scenes played in lingering shots or in single takes. It feels like 'cinema' rather than a 'movie' - with all the attendant problems that brings. 'Cinema' isn't throwaway or daft or (too) mad. It's big and clever and 'about' things. But when you've got a set-up as nuts as the one in 'Birth', it's hard not to get frustrated when silences and looks and lingering shots replace what you might find in a B-movie - daft explanations using made-up science or cobbled-together mystical nonsense thrown in to keep the story moving. 'Birth' feels like it tries so hard to make you feel what it would really be like if such a thing happened - straining to have you feel sympathy for how Kidman is seduced into believing that her husband has returned - while at the same time distancing you with it's cool and measured atmosphere, that you end up just getting frustrated that no-one is asking the right questions - and Kidman's character, far from appearing as the sympathetic woman so in love with her dead husband that she is willing to believe this incredible story, feels like a bit of a gullible sap.

I think it all comes down to madness - like I said, the set-up for the film is very weird, but there are few moments that actually exploit the madness of it all - rather the film feels like it's trying to work with psychological and emotional realism. If the film had been cheaper and more 'throwaway' - less 'cinematic' - than it might have been easier to go with the madness of the story, and really make the audience feel how nuts the whole thing is. There's only one real bit (and it's not where Kidman shares a bath with the boy, that just feels too 'huh?' to really convince), that had that streak of madness, and it was the bit where a character really lets go - Danny Huston as the husband-to-be, feeling cuckolded by a pre-pubsecent, chucking the little brat into a room, sealing the door with a piano and proceeding to spank him violently. It was a bit of a breath of fresh air (I know that sounds weird...) to have a character in the film go 'fuck this, this is nuts' and really lose it.

It's not that the film isn't good - for the first half at least, it's got a great sense of foreboding and the kid who plays the boy does it brilliantly, but somehow the film doesn't quite work - you never really get inside it in the way that it feels like you should. Maybe with a bit less money and a lesser face than Kidman (and with the concomitant lack of 'importance' around the film) it would have had more of an edge of madness to fit the premise. But then no fucker would have gone to see it, probably...

Friday, March 07, 2008

Exposed in soho

Last week we had the cast and crew screening of 'Mum & Dad' - the first cinema outing for the film. It was at the Charlotte Street Hotel in Soho, where they have a small 67 seat screening room in the basement. It was a good turn out, and though I was nervous as hell beforehand it seemed to go well (at least nobody came up afterwards and punched me in the face, which always counts as a positive in my book)

There were representatives from a couple of festivals there, both of whom seemed to enjoy the film - it's just a question of waiting to see if they want to screen it.

It was great meeting up with the cast and crew again, although even after the screening I still couldn't properly relax - it's weird - seeing the film with an audience has the effect of making it seem new again, but at the same time it feels really exposing - like walking out on stage without any trousers on.

It feels good to get the screening behind us, although it's far from the end of the process. Now we've got to sell the thing...