Annihilation (USA 2018) Dir: Alex Garland
Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, Gina Rodriguez, Oscar Isaac

Fresh from his success with previous sci go flick Ex Machina, novelist turned screenwriter and director Alex Garland serves us up another welcome slice of conceptual science fiction with this handsome looking, if loose adaptation of the eponymous  Jeff Vandermeer novel.

A meteor crashes to earth in the vicinity of a lighthouse in the opening sequence. Three years later, and ex soldier turned cellular biologist Lena (Portman) is still grieving the loss of her special forces soldier husband Kane (Isaac), missing believed killed whilst on a top secret mission.

When Kane suddenly reappears at the marital home, and shortly after begins to suffer some form of haemorrhage, the ambulance is waylaid by a military team and Kane along with Lena suddenly find themselves housed in a top secret military complex.

The mysterious Dr Ventress (Leigh) informs Lena that Kane disappeared while on a mission inside ‘the Shimmer’ a quarantined zone surrounded by an electromagnetic field resulting from the meteor crash, and which appears to be slowly expanding inland. Several teams have been sent inside the zone, but none have ever returned, save for Kane.

Ventress announces that she is to head the latest expedition into the Shimmer to trace its source and investigate the nature of the phenomenon. She offers Lena the chance to join the all female  team which along with Lena’s scientific field and the Psychologist Ventress also comprises an anthropologist, physicist and paramedic.

And it’s when the team venture inside the Shimmer that the story really kicks into gear…

It would be remiss if me to give away any spoilers, save to say that Annihilation is not the creature feature that the trailer suggests, but rather an intelligent piece of science fiction/horror of a type that I’d feared had gone out of fashion amidst the seemingly relentless tide of brawling superhero yawn festivals that have taken over cinemas recently.

Garland definitely has a touch for this sort of thing, and his hinterland as a novelist ensures the concepts explored by the story don’t drown out the characters, and his assured script ensures the film stays on just the right side of narrative ambiguity,when at times it feels as if it might stray off into pretentious twaddle. Portman as ever, gives it her all, her commitment to the work shining through here, and she is ably supported by her fellow actresses, with each given just enough background and personal arc  to make us care when things inevitably head south. With Annihilation being the first in the planned Southern Reach trilogy  by Vandermeer, and the ambiguous climax of the film adaptation, the door is wide open for a sequel, dependent on the film’s success of course.

The tone of the film brought to mind the science fiction novels of John Wyndham (which he himself referred to as ‘logical fantasies’) , the most famous of which is of course The Day of the Triffids, but his oeuvre extends well beyond his most well known work, and fans of Annihilation (the film and/or the novel) could do worse than to check out such titles as The Kraken Wakes and Trouble with Lichen.

In conclusion, Annihilation is a film sure to please fans of cerebral science fiction or for those discerning film fans who wish to cleanse their palettes of glossy but hollow studio blockbuster fayre.

Annihilation is available to stream on Netflix now.

Chopping Mall (USA 1986) Dir: Jim Wynorski

Kelli Maroney, Barbara Cranston, John Terlesky

Straight out of the Roger Corman film factory, this strange hybrid of the slasher horror, sci-fi and fantasy genres has a great idea at the centre of it, that of security robots running amok after hours in a giant shopping mall. Unfortunately the leaden script fails to capitalise on this great exploitation set up, instead presenting the audience with a deeply average, by the numbers horror devoid of any trace of wit or imagination to lift it above its many peers. Even b-movie stalwarts Barbara Crampton, Dick Miller and Paul Bartel can’t breathe life into what soon turns into an extended corridor chase with the identikit teens menaced by the one of the least terrifying protagonists in horror film history. The trailer however does have its charms (see below).

A remake of Chopping Mall has been slated, although no release date has been announced. Interestingly (or bizarrely depending on your point of view), the remake will not feature the killer robot element, instead going for a supernatural twist. Writer director Robert Hall explains:

“My version of CHOPPING MALL that I wrote is totally supernatural…It’s more The Fog set in an abandoned mall than it is robots. Instead of killer robots, they are these mannequins that are possessed by the souls of dead slaves that worked at the plantation that the mall was built over.”

The word around the campfire is that Corman himself has given his seal of approval to proceedings. Whatever the result, The Stricken Land will be sure to give you the lowdown. Watch this space.

Interesting facts:

  • The film was shot in the Sherman Oaks mall in California, the same mall used as a location in the Schwarznegger camp action classic Commando (1985).
  • Dick Miller was a regular in Roger Corman b-movies from the 1950’s onwards. He also starred as the gun shop owner killed by the eponymous killer cyborg in The Terminator (1984).
  • Director Wynorski and star John Terlesky teamed up again to make the far superior Deathstalker II (1987).

Get Out (US 2017) Dir: Jordan Peele

Daniel Kaluuya, Alison Williams, Bradley Whitfield, Catherine Keener

The explicitly political horror film is a rare beast. Over time, the genre has justifiably gained fame as a vehicle for societal allegories, even if these were attached to certain films in hindsight by critics looking to give their copy more resonance. I’m thinking of the underlying social conservatism prevalent in the slasher sub genre (so memorably lampooned in the Scream franchise), and the alleged critique of western consumerism as the underlying theme in Romero’s original Dawn of the Dead (1979). Personally I like to think of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) as a treatise on the horrors of unemployment, a sort of Boys from the Blackstuff with a darker heart.

The two horror films that best exemplify an intentional socio/political commentary in this reviewer’s opinion are the original Night of the Living Dead (who can forget its shocking nihilistic ending?), and Bryan Forbes’ excellent 1975 second wave feminist chiller The Stepford Wives adapted from the Ira Levin novel of the same name.

It is this latter film that Get Out owes a debt to. Jordan Peele’s directorial debut begins as a taut, slightly unsettling tale centring on the angst of meeting the parents of one’s other half for the first time. Along the way it also weaves in an examination of the disparity between the level of media exposure that missing black people receive in the US as opposed to cases featuring whites (particularly females) that disappear.

Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya), a young black photographer is taken to meet his girlfriend Rose Armitage’s (Alison Williams) parents Dean and Missy (a pair of splendidly restrained performances by Bradley Whitfield and Catherine Keener respectively), and her passive aggressive brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jone) at their spacious country pile.

The Armitage family employ two black people, groundsman Walter (Marcus Henderson) and maid Georgina (Betty Gabriel), both of who display curiously affected behaviour. Conscious of how this domestic setup may look, Rose’s neurosurgeon father Dean reassures Chris that ‘he would’ve voted for Obama a third time if he could’. This case of protesting too much is soon compounded at a weekend gathering of the Armitage’s friends and family who all make disparaging, passive aggressive racist remarks towards Chris, with the exception of Jim Hudson (Stephen Root), a blind art dealer, who tells Chris how much he admires his work. After Missy tricks Chris into being hypnotised over curing his smoking habit, matters quickly go south for the young man.

Black Lives Matter go to Stepford is perhaps too crude a label to give the film, and Peele goes for more of a straight horror/thriller angle than the satire of Forbes’s classic. We are cleverly wrong footed near the start of the film with a skilfully navigated confrontation with a local traffic cop, and the film resists the temptation to play up the victim angle (the climax to the third act shows that Chris is anything but). In fact it is this climax to the third act that is the weakest point of the film, seeming rushed and splatter heavy where a subtler, more nuanced and sinister denouement would have been more in keeping with the overall mood and tone of what has gone before. One half expects there to be a coda to events at this point, to rob the audience of reassurance and show that all is not well in this world despite the hero’s survival. Perhaps Peele was wary of sequelitis, and who can blame him? Given the film’s success and capturing of a particular moment in the zeitgeist, one wouldn’t put it past the studio to float the idea of a follow up.

In summary then, Get Out is an interesting and well made horror with great performances, even if the material is not quite as fresh and original as some of the hype has made it out to be. In the wake of this success, Peele has been linked to the long gestating live action Akira project, which he may be wise to stay clear of given Hollywood’s track record with Japanese properties. Resist the siren calls of sequels to your debut feature though Mr Peele, few recall the follow ups to The Stepford Wives, and with good reason.

Hail movie brethren! What fresh terrors have stalked the grey wastes of The Stricken Land in the week past? Read on…

  • Do you feel suitably let down by the really not very good Alien prequels? Sate your disappointment by watching Life (2017), a great little outer space chiller from the makers of Deadpool. Ignoring the golden rule of film that extra terrestrial organisms should be left well alone, the crew of the international space station propagate a globule of Martian bacteria with predictably malevolent results. It’s not going to win any prizes for originality and trite comparisons with Alien are inevitable, but this well crafted horror takes its vintage more from classic fifties paranoid sci fi like the Quatermass films and X the Unknown by way of the novels of John Wyndham, than it does from man-in-a-suit creature features.

  • Next up is The Raven, a stylised period manhunt thriller centred on the conceit of having the father of the detective novel, Edgar Allen Poe investigating a serial killer inspired by the grisly deaths featured in Poe’s gothic masterworks. John Cusack does a great scenery chewing turn as Poe, but the film’s great weakness is its abundance of hard to like characters, not least the drink sodden Poe himself. Director James McTeigue (V for Vendetta) does his best with a basic potboiler plot, but the languid pace and lack of sympathetic protagonists meant this struggled to keep this viewers attention. There is probably a great film waiting to be made about the life of this giant of American literature, unfortunately, The Raven isn’t it.

  • Audible have recently released Bafflegab Productions audio drama version of the 1971 British folk horror film Blood on Satan’s Claw, featuring the voice talents of the ever excellent Reece Sheersmith and Mark Gatiss. I’ll be posting a compare and contrast review of both productions in the near future. Watch this space…

 

  • Spotted on Twitter is this crowdfunded British horror from Ash Mountain Productions and director Richard Rowntree. Scheduled for UK home viewing release in April 2018, Dogged was the 4th most successful UK based horror feature film to receive funding from Kickstarter according to the IMDB. Go to http://www.ashmountainfilms.com  for more info, meanwhile, check out the trailer –
  • Also peaking our interest is Lords of Chaos, the latest flick from Jonas Åkerlund, an account of the Norwegian Black Metal scene of the late 80’s-early 90’s based on the book of the same name. Focusing on the band Mayhem,its founder Euronymous and his subsequent murder in 1993, this looks to be a dark and disturbing look at the lives and time of some very f**ked up individuals.
  • And finally, the documentary Unearthed and Untold: The Path to Pet Sematary gets a Blu-Ray release on March 13 2018.This looks like a must for fans of the film as well as Stephen King fans and all those fascinated by what goes into making a film.

Before I sign off; to any aspiring independent filmakers, podcasters or film related writers out there out there reading this, let me know if you’d like me to publicize and/or review your projects, The Stricken Land is always happy to promote new talent and ideas! And as ever, please feel free to share this post and any others on here that you like, far and wide.

Watch the Skies,

Ian

Over the last couple of days I’ve found myself tweeting with an Australian chap by the name of David Black, frontman for a theatrical horror rock band called Darkness Visible and all round horror film fan.

It turns out that David is deep in production of his own hosted horror show Horror House, which is a late night half an hour slot showcasing the best new Australian short horror films. Presented in the spirit of fondly remembered horror hosts like Criswell and 80’s goth babe Elvira, It will be hosted by David himself playing the role of hapless bloodsucker Count Funghoula along with co-host Tritia DeVisha playing the role of horror goth dominatrix Mistress Boobiyana.

Yes, it all sounds as kitsch and comedic as it looks,(check out the stills below), and frankly, great fun. It’s high time we had this sort of thing back on our screens to promote new talent and creativity in fields other than bubblegum pop and tiresome variety acts. As David himself say; “The preference is always going to be for bucket loads of gore, boobs and bad taste humour.” Amen to that!

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Currently, David and Tritia are busy hawking the show around the Australian networks, but are also hoping to interest one or more of the on demand services so we viewers outside the land of Oz will get a chance to see the fruits of their labours at some point. Watch this space.

In the meantime you can follow Horror House on Facebook @HorrorHouseShow  and David can also be found lurking on Twitter and Tumblr. He also has his own blog, Oz Indie Cinema, a link to which you can find in the sidebar under Blogroll.

On a related note, The Stricken Land is always and everywhere happy to promote film related projects be they indie productions, books, blogs, websites or podcasts, so if anyone reading this would like me to review and/or promote their project do let me know. I am contactable on any of the social media channels listed on the sidebar, or alternatively just leave me a comment on the site. Promotional freebies, cash bribes, free Lamborghinis or trips to the Playboy mansion are not obligatory, but will be greatly accepted.

Semper fi

This article originally began as a review of the most recent entry in the long running Alien series, Alien: Covenant. However, in the process of writing it, I ended up straying off the reservation and waxing on at length about my thoughts on the Alien franchise as a whole. This further developed into a related critique of director Ridley Scott’s approach since he returned to the property that first made his name all the way back in 1979.

After a lot of re-reading and subsequent editing I’ve managed to wrestle my original jumble of words and mixed emotions about the series into what I hope is a vaguely coherent form. Read on then pilgrims, and beware, trenchant opinions contained herein…

Alien: Covenant (2017) review
I’ll admit it; I approached Alien: Covenant with some trepidation. I try to keep an open mind when watching new entries in franchises that hold a special place in the hearts of fandom. Alas, Fox seem determined to stretch this goodwill to breaking point when it comes to the Alien series. Ever since the much derided, but actually not bad Alien 3 (1991), those of us who love the Alien universe have been subjected to the risible Alien Resurrection (1997), the trying-a-bit-too-hard Paul WS Anderson effort Aliens vs Predator (2007), and the crime against humanity that is AvP2: Requiem. It really shouldn’t be hard to get right, yet the studio continues to make a complete pig’s ear of one of its most valuable franchises.

Alien: Covenant then, is a direct sequel to the 2012 Alien prequel Prometheus, a film that I could expound on enough to fill a whole other article just on its own. For now it’s enough to say that I found Prometheus hugely flawed, and many of those flaws carry over into its sequel. Picking up ten years after the events of Prometheus, Covenant’s story centres on the eponymous colony ship, travelling to the distant planet of Origae 6 to establish a settlement there. A freak space accident damages the ship, killing the captain (James Franco in a cameo), and waking the crew from hypersleep. Now led by nervy man of faith Oram (the underrated Billy Crudup), the ship picks up a signal sent out from a nearby earth like planet that Oram decides is ripe for settlement, pulling rank over the objections of crew member Daniels (Katherine Waterston).

After an initial exploration of their landing area, two of the crew are infected and killed by a mysterious lifeform that nearly wipes out the other members. At this point, David, the android from the earlier film (Michael Fassbender, still doing his spot on impression of Lawrence of Arabia era Peter O’Toole) appears to save the day, although the Covenant’s own android Walter (also played by Fassbender) quickly begins to suspect that David harbours an ulterior motive. I won’t detail any more plot details here, just in case there are some readers who have yet to watch the film, suffice to say that David’s arrival brings with it a ton of Prometheus related exposition and xenomorph related mayhem.

There is no doubt that Alien: Covenant is a visual treat. This is a Ridley Scott film after all, and he has always been a much better production designer than a storyteller in this humble scribe’s opinion. The film also features solid performances from the cast, particularly from Waterston, who is competing for screen time with the intense Fassbender, and also under the long shadow cast by Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley.

The problem is bigger than that, and it begins with the approach taken in Prometheus and clearly intended to run through the intended prequel trilogy; that is, the intention to explore the origin of the Alien, and to tie this in with both the ‘space jockey’ glimpsed in Alien and an origin of humanity backstory that would make Eric von Daniken blush. It is a classic example of storytellers failing to heed the maxim ‘show, don’t tell’. The unknown is scary in itself, and all the unanswered questions concerning the Alien should have been left at just that; unanswered. To explore the origin of the Alien inevitably strips away part of its mystique, and thus its ability to scare the bejeezus out of audiences. Another problem here is that layering ever more detail about the origin of the creatures risks disrupting or outright contradicting the internal logic of the Alien universe. A good example of this is the amount of time between the implanting of an embryo into a host, and the chestburster erupting. It seems to be different in every film. This makes the audience’s suspension of disbelief ( a prerequisite for good storytelling) much harder.

Instead of the lean, tight, menace of Alien, Aliens, and yes, Alien 3, we get a load of philosophical guff from Fassbender’s David, some admittedly decent creature effects and some inventive death scenes (the shower sex death scene has to be the stand out for me.) None of these elements add up to anything more than yet another mediocre offering in the series though. Fassbender handles this hokum like the professional he is, yet making an android with a God complex the centre of the narrative just isn’t as compelling as an everywoman like Ripley dealing with the indescribable. In the end Alien: Covenant just ends up a pale facsimile of the 1979 original.

What might have been…
If only Fox had been bolder with the creative decision making, and gone in the direction of exploring the wider Alien universe, rather than the origin of the Xenomorph. One is reminded here of the original William Gibson screenplay for Alien 3, which saw the introduction of the Union of Progressive Peoples (UPP)  to the background, a power bloc locked in a cold war with the corporate entity of Weyland Yutani, with both seeking to capture a live xenomorph to turn into a bioweapon. Gibson’s script went to two drafts before Fox passed on cost grounds. A lost opportunity, but one of many along the tortuous journey out of development hell that finally resulted in David Fincher’s flawed but still interesting Alien 3.

A more recent attempt to reboot the series came with Neill Blomkamp’s bid to make a direct sequel to Aliens that saw both Hicks and Newt survive along with Ripley. This sounds a lot like the story arc published in the early nineties in the Dark Horse comics license. Sadly Fox weren’t interested, and it looks like Blomkamp’s proposal has bitten the dust. Shame.

Ironically, Alien: Covenant, while not being a flop, hasn’t met Fox’s expectations at the box office, and word around the campfire is that the studio is planning a ‘soft reboot’ of the franchise, which probably means that while previous films will remain canon, any reboot movies will feature an all new cast and setting. In the meantime the studio looks to be still going ahead with the third film  the prequel trilogy, provisionally titled Alien: Awakening, so we have one more installment of this tripe to endure before Fox begins afresh. Although at this rate one wonders if they should bother. Should’ve gone with Blomkamp.

So is Ridley to blame?
“Ridley Scott on terrific form”, exclaims Brian Viner of the the British tabloid the Daily Mail on the Alien: Covenant DVD cover. After reading my review above you can probably surmise that I regard this statement as a brazen lie. Now I like Ridley Scott, and his films always look beautiful regardless of whether they succeed or not. But has he made a truly great film since Blade Runner in 1982?  I would contend not, although I haven’t seen The Martian yet (I’m put off  by anything starring the pompous and preachy Matt Damon). The fact is, Ridley Scott peaked early, and it’s been a gentle downward slope since then. GI Jane anyone?

Before anyone starts shouting ‘Black Hawk Down!’ at me I’ll go on the record that I’m not a fan. Without meaning any disrespect to those men who fought and died in the real life events depicted in the film, the Battle of Mogadishu just doesn’t make for an interesting event from a storytelling point of view. Two hours of explosions and men shouting at each other does not a  good film make, unless Gene Hackman is in it.

I don’t mind Gladiator (1999), and it is probably ego on legs Russell Crowe’s only other good film apart from his stellar turn in the excellent LA Confidential (1997). Still, it is marred by probably one of the most flat, anticlimactic endings ever. I did enjoy Kingdom of Heaven (2005), though a judgement of greatness is snatched away by the inexplicable decision to have Orlando Bloom as the leading man.

Which brings us to the Alien prequels. While it’s probably unfair to lay all the blame at Scott’s door (Damon Lindelof wrote the Prometheus screenplay), it’s inconceivable that he didn’t have some input and creative control over the narrative direction of the prequels. Thus a large portion of the responsibility for the direction the films have gone in must lie with the boy from South Shields. A shame, as there has long been better ideas out there for expanding the Alien mythos without compromising some of the factors which made the series great in the first place.

And finally…

The Stricken Land is now on The Book of Face! Pop over to my dedicated page for genre and b-movie news, facts and trivia. You can also join the page’s group Movie Babylon to join in discussions with like minded movie geeks. Just answer the simple question, and my gatekeepers will let you in. Please feel free to like and follow the page or even leave a review if the mood takes you.

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Until the next time Bad Movie Brothers and Sisters!

 

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Warning – contains spoilers!

With the advent of All Hallows Eve last weekend, my better half and I settled down in front of the box for our traditional scary movie night. This year’s choice was low budget little Australian flick The Babadook, (hat tip to Mr Bligh yet again, for the recommendation).

The story centres around six year old Samuel who lives with his frazzled and sleep deprived single mum Amelia. We are shown in flashbacks how Samuel’s dad Oskar died in a car accident while driving the pregnant Amelia to hospital to give birth to him. Forward to the present, and Samuel is convinced that an imaginary monster inhabits the house and builds a variety of makeshift weapons to defend himself and Amelia against ‘it’. Her son’s night terrors and increasingly erratic behaviour have caused the sleep deprived Amelia to reach breaking point.

After one of Samuel’s weapons is discovered in his possession at school, Amelia removes him rather than have the boy put under special measures. That evening Samuel selects a bedtime story book called ‘Mr Babadook’ that Amelia is unfamiliar with. At this point the fun kicks in. Mister Babadook turns out to be possibly the most splendidly inappropriate children’s pop up book of all time, its sinister charcoal drawings accompanied by a rhyme that reads like it was written by a particularly vengeful Spike Milligan on a bad acid trip.

As things start to go bump in the night, an increasingly terrified Amelia begins to suspect that Samuel’s insistent warnings about ‘the Babadook’ may well be founded in reality. Or is it all in her head, a twisted hallucination borne of past trauma and too little pillow time?

Well, glad to say it certainly isn’t, and I was cheered that the film didn’t end up going down the route of that well roasted old chestnut of a plot twist. At its core The Babadook is a film about repressed grief; a theme that runs through the film and forms its inner core. Amelia refuses to have Oskar’s name mentioned in her presence, and cuts a rather wan and fragile figure, listlessly moving from one day to the next, feeling increasingly isolated due to her son’s behaviour. It’s almost painful to watch Essie Davies’ nuanced portrayal of a single parent laden down by grief, confronting the seemingly unsympathetic world around her. Amelia’s mental and emotional state is deftly evoked in the films cinematography, all washed out greys punctuated by harsh lighting.

Is the Babadook itself is a manifestation of Amelia’s repressed grief for Oskar, (the Babadook appears to Amelia as her dead husband at one point) brought to the surface by Samuel’s fear of ‘monsters under the bed’ and her subsequent lack of shut eye? The Babadook certainly ends up acting as a catalyst in shaking Amelia out of her moribund state, forcing her to confront her fears (of grieving for Oskar?)

The monster (poltergeist would be more fitting) is a suitably ambiguous presence. Although we are left in no doubt of its malign intent, the spirit’s personality is childlike, if nasty and unpleasant; it hides in dark shadows (Amelia and Samuel’s home is a gloriously lit sound stage steeped in sharp and oppressive shadow of which F W Murnau would have been proud), and delights in mischief like bobbyknocking. In fact, the spirit seems to be capable of being frightened itself as when an enraged Amelia confronts it at the film’s climax forcing it to retreat into the cellar and perceived safety away from a mother’s wrath (in the final scene we see Amelia and Samuel collecting earth worms from the garden which Amelia then takes to feed the Babadook who has taken to living in the cellar, thus representing Amelia coming to terms with her fears and living with the loss of Oskar).

The aspect I loved most about The Babadook (apart from the fantastic, intentionally lo-fi appearance of the Babadook itself, you’ll see what I mean if you watch the film) was the ambiguous nature of the eponymous spirit. It is left unclear as to the provenance of the storybook that unleashes the entity into the lives of Amelia and Samuel, leading one to suspect that both book and spirit are manifestations of either mother or son’s ids, manifesting physically in order to force Amelia to confront her demons. Horror, I think, is the genre that does this sort of ‘show, don’t tell’ approach the best when handled skilfully as I believe it is done here.

But don’t take my word for it. Take a look, ‘cos you can’t escape the Babadook.

thewitch_online_teaser_01_web_large

A couple of weeks ago I popped along to the annual Mayhem film festival held at Nottingham’s Broadway cinema for a pre certificate screening of The Witch, an atmospheric little folk horror movie recommended by my esteemed work colleagues Alan and Holly, with whom I share a love of horror cinema, and who tagged in for a very enjoyable post film session of tea, cake and film geek chat.

The trailer had promised what looked to be a bleak and oppressive tale, and the finished article doesn’t disappoint on either score. Coming across like Ken Loach channelling Dario Argento, director Robert Eggers spins us the tale of a puritan family in 17th century New England, cast out of their settlement for being too, er… puritan. No sooner has patriarch William and his nervy wife Katherine set up home in the wild, than their infant son mysteriously disappears while in the care of eldest daughter Thomasin. Cue the family’s descent into paranoia and fear as one event after another seems to conspire against them. The crops fail and Thomasin falls under suspicion of witchcraft, but are the family’s travails a manifestation of religious hysteria or does an evil presence truly lurk in the woods that loom against their small holding?

I’ll give away no spoilers here, suffice to say this has to be one of my favourite films of the year. Like all great horror, The Witch conjures up an unsettling atmosphere right from the start, aided by a superbly minimalist score and shot in a relentlessly desaturated palette of browns and greys (no hope, or colour here). In its atmosphere and setting the film evoked, for me at least, comparisons with the excellent Witchfinder General and the less well known Blood on Satan’s Claw (you don’t get films with titles like that nowadays, more’s the pity).

The Witch then, is my kind of horror movie; a much needed change from the numerous’ jump scare’ nonsense that currently infests the supermarket DVD shelves and streaming services. The script has the self-confidence to focus more on the unseen, psychological aspect of the situation the protagonists find themselves in, and director Eggers has the presence of mind to leave the audience’s imagination do its worst (although the film is no slacker in the ketchup stakes either).

A word of caution; The Witch is not forgiving of those with a deficit of patience when it comes to viewing habits. The characters dialogue is in the form of 17th century English vernacular, (no RSC vowels here), and though beautifully acted by the cast, demands the viewers full attention. For me though, details like this put the cherry on the cake that is the production’s splendidly realised period setting, and made me love this movie all the more.

And you’ll never look at a goat the same way again.

Berberian-Sound-Studio

An affectionate homage to seventies Italian giallo movies, Berberian Sound Studio stars the always dependable Toby Jones in diffident Englishman mode as Gilderoy, a sound engineer hired by the eponymous film studio to create the sound design for their latest feature The Equestrian Vortex, which the slightly unworldly Gilderoy naively assumes to concern our equine friends, but which, of course, turns out to be exploitation schlock horror of the kind that got the British tabloids all worked up at the dawn of the VHS era in the early 80’s.

This being a film primarily about sound as its title suggests, we get to see nothing of the visual aspects of the fictional movie within a movie, bar its grotesquely lurid title sequence which is cleverly substituted for the credits sequence of the ‘real’ film the audience is watching. Instead we get glimpses of its narrative through the characters dialogue and sound effects (most Italian movies of this kind were usually shot cheaply, without sound, with the dialogue dubbed over the top in several languages, enabling the studios to distribute their productions into numerous European and overseas markets).

Gilderoy, belatedly realising he isn’t making a documentary on equestrian pursuits, but a horror film about undead witches laced with healthy dollops of misogyny and sadistic violence, starts to become ever more estranged from the rest of the production staff, most of whom consist of surly engineers, an ice maiden secretary and a production head with the sexual morals of Attila the Hun. Right from the start we get a feel for the englishman’s sense of alienation and displacement in a foreign clime, exemplified first by the language barrier, then by the byzantine office politics, and treatment of actresses that would make the Taliban blush.

Up to this point, at about two thirds in, I’ll admit I wasn’t sure where the film was heading, and the last third veers off into Lynchian surrealism, which judging from a lot of reviews I’ve read definitely isn’t a lot of people’s cup of tea. My own reaction was one of slight frustration, as it seemed the film lacked the courage of its convictions (is Gilderoy suffering hallucinations due to his isolation, is he going mad?) in taking the story to its ambiguous conclusion. That said, Berberian Sound Studio is perhaps best viewed as an experience, rather than a strict piece of narrative. The last act certainly has the quality of a nightmare, in keeping with a lot of Italian horror movies and giallo of this period (check out Lamberto Bava’s Demons, if you haven’t already, for a great example of this).

Certainly recommended for those with an appreciation of the oevres of Dario Argento and Mario Bava, and the underbelly of Italian seventies cinema in general. An interesting curio.

NB -For those interested Berberian Sound Studio’s director Peter Strickland (great name, but sadly no relation) has recently directed a reimagining of Nigel Kneale’s classic 70’s chiller The Stone Tape for Radio 4. At the time of writing, it’s still got a week to go on iPlayer, and is well worth an hour of your time.

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Kurt Russell? Check. Old West setting? Check. Cannibal troglodyte mountain men? Check.

Well, you had me at hello. A Sunday afternoon trip to favoured cinephile haunt the Broadway with my old partner in crime Alan saw pair of us spend an enjoyable couple of hours viewing this under the radar mash up of two of our favourite genres, namely the western and horror. As you might have guessed from my opener, I’m a bit of a sucker for anything with Kurt in (Overboard and Captain Ron are great films, and I’ll take issue with any man who says otherwise.) Apart from that other little Tarantino flick he’s just knocked out, the last film where The Russell has sported such impressive facial hair was the stone cold 90’s classic Tombstone. Clearly I was in for a treat.

I wasn’t disappointed. Okay, the film does have some flaws (a bit more tension in places wouldn’t have gone amiss, along with a ramping up of the grand guignol splatter element), but these are minor quibbles in what turns out to be a solid and respectable, if not quite a classic effort from director S. Craig Zyler.

The opening prologue sees a welcome cameo by genre stalwart Sid Haig, playing drifter Buddy, cutting throats and stealing from a bunch of napping cowhands along with his ne’er do well partner Purvis (a seedy David Arquette). Sure enough they soon stumble into a weird burial ground where natural justice is inevitably soon dispensed, with Buddy quickly dispatched with an arrow to the throat followed by disembowelling by a shadowy assailant, and the terrified Purvis making a desperate run for it.

Cut to the frontier town of Bright Hope where a drunken and nervy Purvis is confronted by Sherriff Hunt (Russell) and town troubleshooter and ladies man Brooder (Lost’s Matthew Fox). Shot in the leg trying to escape, Purvis is quickly thrown into jail where Hunt calls on the services of town doctor Samantha O’Dwyer (True Detective’s Lili Simmons) to patch up the miscreant.

Sure enough Buddy’s mysterious killers have followed Purvis to Bright Hope where they wreak some bloody mayhem before abducting Samantha, Purvis and Deputy Sheriff Nick (Evan Jonigkeit). Examining an arrow left behind by the attackers, token Native American Chief Ominous Exposition informs Hunt and Samantha’s distraught husband Arthur O’Dwyer (the excellent Patrick Wilson) that it belongs to a band of ‘trogodytes’, a tribe of devolved cannibal savages, who dwell in the ‘Valley of the Starving Men’ (how did the US Cavalry miss this lot?). Sheriff Hunt and O’Dwyer decide to form a posse with Brooder and back up deputy and comic relief Chicory (Richard Jenkins) to rescue the captives.

From this point the film enters into The Searchers meets The Hills Have Eyes territory where the macho men of the old west most definitely meet their match in the troglodytes (interestingly, their look evokes that of the cannibals in Ruggero Deodato’s infamous 1980 splatter Cannibal Holocaust and its many imitators) and the wilderness itself begins to take on an ever more threatening mileau.

As with a lot of horror flicks, the theme of masculinity in crisis looms large. Arthur O’Dwyer has been rendered lame, his leg broken in the course of a roof repair, and both Hunt and Brooder mine the classic western trope of violent men outliving their time (The Wild Bunch, The Shootist, Unforgiven.) While this serves to give their characters a certain mythic air, this is splendidly punctured later on when the captive Samantha berates Hunt and Chicory on the ‘stupidity of frontier life’ in them allowing her lame husband to accompany them on the rescue mission against a tribe of bloodthirsty cannibals. There’s just no helping some people. One scene of (literally) gut wrenching violence later, and it seems as if the posse’s emasculation is complete (where is Snake Plissken when you need him?).

I won’t give anything more away though, suffice to say it’s not for the squeamish (but then why ever would you come to this blog? Stumbled upon by accident you say? You’ll never leave…), but an interesting and solid attempt to marry together two iconic film genres.