Sunday, 26 September 2010

Accion, Enigma, Panico!:
Pulp España.

I found these in an archetypal dusty bookshop on a back street in Seville. Total cost: five Euros.

I suppose the owner must have wondered what I wanted with a stack of Spanish books, given that my grasp of the language is so abysmal I tried giving him fifteen (approximate to what the books would probably have cost in a London bookshop), and he had to spell out the correct price for me with his fingers.

One thing I found interesting in the shop was a huge pile of tiny, cheaply printed matchbox sized books – undated, but I’d guess probably from the ‘50s – published by Ediciones G.P. of Barcelona. Each of them seemed to be a brief guide to a particular subject, with topics ranging from atomic energy to Alpine mountaineering. They all had pleasingly bright, illustrated covers, but these two in particular attracted my more prurient interest;

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Wild Guitar
(Ray Dennis Steckler, 1962)

You know, it occurred to me the other day that over the past few months this blog has seen a lot of modern movies, and a lot of long-winded, serious-minded filmic yakking. Time for a break methinks, and few things conjure up a happy brain vacuum quite so effortlessly as a screening of 1962’s “Wild Guitar”! Ah, you’ve gotta love it.

In this seventy something minutes of flickering fiction, groaning under the historical weight of Ray Dennis Steckler’s first credit as director, we meet Bud Eagle, a naïve wouldbe teen idol played with boggle-eyed, thug-faced grace by mighty-quiffed Arch Hall Jr.

Bud has dirtbiked all the way to Hollywood from Spearfish, South Dakota, with his guitar (wildness unquantified) ‘pon his back, and a notion that his golden voice and ear for a tune will secure him some steady work as a pop star, thus allowing him to fund his beloved brother’s tenure at medical school. Don’t look at me man, I didn’t write this crap.

The man who did write it is Arch Hall Senior, who we also see here in the role of Mike McCauley, the corrupt and manipulative boss of Fairway Records, who swiftly takes Bud under his wing, making the youngster a star and proceeding to ruthlessly exploit him, with a little help from his right hand man - a leering, carnivorous gangster with an uncanny resemblance to Ray Dennis Steckler.

This lively drama should of course on no account be confused with the real life background to “Wild Guitar”s production, wherein naïve wouldbe rock n’ roller Arch Hall Jr was coerced into staring in a series of quickie teen flicks by his father Arch Hall Sr, ex-Hollywood bit-part actor and owner of Fairway Independent Productions, who at this point in time had hatched some kind of cracked creative partnership with Ray Dennis Steckler.

The first movie this ill-starred gang made together was the legendarily strange rock n’ roll caveman flick “Eegah!”, and by late 1962, with dad taking care of business and the Steckler in the driving seat, they were ready for a shot at the big time, primed to take Arch Jr’s – ahem – boyish good looks and natural charisma to the next level with a project that sane people might actually want to watch. “Wild Guitar” was born.

Back to our story, and life in Hollywood gets off to a surprisingly good start for Bud Eagle, as a needy, slightly cross-eyed girl called Vicki (Nancy Czar) takes a shine to him, and even lets him finish her sandwich! (So movingly does Arch Jr portray his pitiful hunger and penniless inability to pay the tax on a coffee & doughnut, that FUCK YEAH, SANDWICH feeling is palpable.) And Vicki’s generosity toward her new beau extends even further, as she promptly whisks Bud off to the filming of something called the Hal Kenton TV Show, where she’s got a gig as a dancer!

Ah, to live in an era when an enterprising gal could hang around in a sandwich shop all day long trying to pick up boys, then get a pay cheque and national TV exposure just by doing the twist to a groovy instro tune.

In all fairness to Ms Czar, it should be noted that she’s a hell of a lot more convincing as a dancer than she is whilst standing still delivering dialogue, making me think this movie could have been even better (yes, EVEN BETTER) if she’d expressed herself solely through the means of interpretive dance. She’s really good at ice-skating too, as we’ll learn later.

Anyway, wouldn’t you know it, some boob of a saxophone player has flunked out of the show at the last minute due to stage fright, giving Bud Eagle a chance to knock ‘em dead!

Which indeed he does, with the help of suspiciously well-rehearsed pick-up band. Bud’s take on post-Buddy Holly swoonsome bubblegum pop is pretty damn fine if you ask me, although ironically his solo sounds pretty rough here – probably not the kind of “wild guitar” they had in mind.

So naturally everyone loves him, and he’s ushered up to see aforementioned sultan of the record biz Mike McCauley, and blah blah blah – if you’ve ever seen any other generic rock star rise & fall movies you’ll know the score, so I won’t bore you with the general outline. Henceforth, I’ll just give you a whistle-stop tour of the more winningly eccentric sights along the way.

Like for instance, check out the décor in the swanky apartment they set Bud up in;

Sheesh, I wonder whose pad this actually was? Stecklers? Oh, please say it was. The murals on the opposite wall are really something too (see subsequent screengrabs).

And speaking of Steckler, it’s time we introduced your friend and mine, the Rat Pfink himself, the one and only Cash Flagg!

More usually regarded as a pioneer of casual attire, Cash here ditches his trademark hoodie for an ill-fitting suit, in order to better portray Mr. McCauley’s menacing chief enforcer.

“Steak, for breakfast?”

“Sure kid, what else is there?”

What a great line. Throughout my first viewing of the movie, I thought Flagg/Steckler’s character was called ‘Stig’, but no, he’s actually ‘Steak’. Because he eats it all the time, you see.

Here, in one of my favourite shots in the movie, we see Steak in a rare moment of repose, taking in a side;

Man, I love this guy so much. I know it’s a redundant and cruel thing to say, but he’s just so weird looking. Every time he’s on screen, it blows my mind. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a human being who looks, or moves, quite the way he does in my whole life. Was Ray Dennis Steckler born somewhere? Did he have a childhood? I’d prefer to think he just walked outta the woods one day, the emissary of a higher race.

For any eligible ladies reading this in the early 1960s, I’m afraid the bad news is he’s married. We’re reminded of this via another great scene in which Carolyn Brandt, Mrs. Ray Dennis Steckler, showcases her unique exotic dance skills whilst Bud Eagle stands atop a golden staircase, serenading his lost love Vicki with a self-penned hymn to their cruelly interrupted courtship. (You see, Mike and Steak want to prevent Bud from seeing Vicki at all costs, for reasons which seem extremely vague now I come to think about it – must just be because they’re evil, I suppose.)

For some reason – a dazed mixture of awe and respect perhaps – I didn’t take any screengrabs from the segment of “Wild Guitar” in which Bud and Vicki have an emotional reunion, and she takes him ice-skating after-hours at her uncle’s rink. Frankly I found the whole sequence unaccountably beautiful - evocative and deeply sad in a way that only a scene in a quickly shot b-movie in which two future-less teen actors silently embrace in the middle of a deserted skating rink, before walking home through the Hollywood streets at dawn as a band plays that deathless “Earth Angel” chord progression again and again on the soundtrack, really can be.

Most of “Wild Guitar” is concerned with a very different kind of genius, but… well maybe I’m just getting soppy, but the accidental, haunted profundity of that sequence really got to me.

Anyway, back to the grind, and there’s a great scene in which Bud finally realises the cynical nature of his fame, as he watches McCauley give the low-down to a gang of hip, on-the-payroll “fanclub presidents” ready to push the Bud Eagle agenda in all of LA’s major high schools. These mean, dead-eyed teens are kinda fun (“what kinda fad d’you want us ta start?”), but really I’m just writing about this scene in order to mention this chick, who gives the camera the most artlessly lascivious wink I’ve ever seen on screen;

Oh, BOY.

What else? Oh yeah, there’s a fine turn from, uh, this guy, as a bitter and drunken former protégé of Mike McCauley, who lets Bud know the score, before Steak find him and kicks him down the stairs. What a brute!

Then, just when you think you’ve got an angle on where this movie’s heading, Bud Eagle is unexpectedly kidnapped by the Three Stooges-esque comedy crooks we saw earlier on in the coffee shop scenes!

More than anything else in “Wild Guitar”, these guys are pure Steckler. An embryonic version of his later ‘Lemon Grove Kids’, they’re a troop of school play level non-actors who portray incompetent duh-brained clowns, mugging through a litany of extremely bad kid’s movie gags with what may generously be termed laissez faire direction, giving an overall impression of being severely brain-damaged. There is no earthy reason for them to be in this movie, and Arch Hall Jr’s “why the fuck are we filming this again?” look is priceless.

Even better is the subsequent scene in which Cash Flagg barges in with a gun, snarling in menacing gangster fashion as the gang caper around the weird, mismatched set that comprises their “shack” (they all line up at one point and shout “let’s get back to da shack!”, “yeah, da shack”, “ta da shack!”, etc., which I found highly amusing), attempting to hide behind a mattress, or clambering up a step ladder that leads to nowhere and bonking their head on the ceiling. Sheer goofball genius!

There are those who would argue that “Wild Guitar” isn’t a ‘real’ Ray Dennis Steckler movie, and that the more conventional aspirations of the Arch Halls held sway over the production, stifling their director’s natural idiosyncrasies. But to those people, I say phooey!

“Wild Guitar” has Cash Flagg throwing a guy down the stairs. It has Carolyn Brandt doing creepy dancing. It has poorly executed physical comedy, more dubious song and/or dance sequences than anybody asked for, and irregular outbursts of manic violence. It has obtuse self-referential in-jokes, loads of really weird looking people, and a shot of Nancy Czar running down the street where it looks as if the cameraman is running backwards in front of her! What more do you want?

Perennially sad-faced sidekick Atlas King is notable by his absence, but that aside, we’ve got the works. True, “Wild Guitar” may be a lot less free-wheeling than subsequent Steckler outings, to put it mildly. It may labour within the confines of a generic teen quickie screenplay, and filmmaking may sometimes stray toward the realm of the blandly proficient, but regardless, the film still conveys the same sense of irrepressible joie de vivre found in everything Steckler lent his name to during the ‘60s.

Brought into this world with no ambition beyond the desire to make a few bucks and give a few teenagers a good time, “Wild Guitar” is simple, unpretentious homemade entertainment, cut through with a strain of rampant eccentricity that allows it to remain a fascinating, nay rip-snorting, viewing experience decades after most of these teen flicks have sunk into the mulch of eternal mediocrity.

Just like the film’s initial set-up, the ending too seems to reflect the real-life destinies of its creators, as Bud Eagle and Mike McCauley shake hands on a blackmail-aided promise of doing HONEST business from now on, despite the latter’s proven track record of deceit and villainy. Well I mean it’s not like Arch Sr was going to write a movie that ended with his own son kicking the crap out of him, right?

Poor Steak is not so lucky however, and as we fade out on Cash Flagg, he lies bloody and bruised in the back of a fruit wagon, perhaps dreaming of the wonders that await him in ’63, when Ray Dennis Steckler struck out alone to realise his true masterpiece, the veritable Citizen Kane of Goofery that is “The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living And Became Mixed Up Zombies”.

Arch Hall Sr meanwhile would never see his golden dreams of film production riches materialise, his later, Steckler-less works ploughing a furrow of diminishing returns as he insisted on casting his long-suffering son in such sound commercial prospects as “The Sadist” and “The Nasty Rabbit”, eventually packing it in after submitting the screenplay for Ted V. Mikels’ classic-of-a-sort “The Corpse Grinders” in 1971.

If there’s one thing all these gentlemen understood though, it’s that you can’t end a gig like this on a downer, so let’s go out the same way “Wild Guitar” does – BEACH PARTY!

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Youtube Film Club:

For your viewing pleasure today ladies & gents, we have an immaculately hip 1972 teen witch comedy from Czechoslovakia, directed by Václav Vorlíček.

Known in its native land as “Dívka na Koštěti”, “Saxana” follows the adventures a rebellious young witch (Petra Černocká) who seemingly gets kicked out of witch-school for general mischief-making and turns herself into an owl, flying to the ‘real world’, where she attends a normal person school and gets mixed up with a gang of moody mod boys. Hilarity, needless to say, ensues.

I say “seemingly” because I’m afraid there are no English subtitles for us here, and thus I have only the vaguest notion of what’s going on most of the time. But what can I say – I was never bored. Just looking at Saxana's hair was enough to keep me happy. She is the greatest.

The music is pretty killer too – spooky avant lounge funk of some kind for the most part, with a theme song I just can't get out of my head. A soundtrack reissue on Finders Keepers is forthcoming, predictably enough.

Part # 1 is here:

A reminder of some previous Youtube Film Clubs you might have missed:

Fantomas & Les Vampires
Harry Smith
Meshes of the Afternoon
Space Is The Place

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

London Frightfest 2010, part # 2.

(David Blyth, New Zealand, 2010)

New Zealand filmmaker David Blyth is best known for his 1984 movie “Death Warmed Up”, which apparently beat Peter Jackson’s “Bad Taste” to the punch to become the first Kiwi gore film. I guess there’s been a lot of water under the bridge since then, and 2010 sees Blyth returning to the director’s chair with “Wound”, an uncompromising descent into zero budget psychological torment which whilst clearly a lot more ambitious and unconventional than a standard issue splatter flick, at least proves his love of viscera remains intact.

Ostensibly exploring the world of an extremely disturbed woman who has been driven to kill her abusive parents and is haunted by the presence of her abandoned/dead daughter, “Wound” progresses via a feverish schizophrenic/hallucinatory dream logic that owes a great deal to the work of Alexandro Jodorowsky. And if the result ain’t exactly New Zealand’s answer to “The Holy Mountain”, Blyth certainly shares ol’ Alexandro’s distain for any notion of subtlety, and also his fondness for sledgehammer PRIMAL IMAGERY, bookending the film with two close-up oedipal gorefests that had even this battle-hardened horror crowd cringing in disbelief. Holy shit BBFC, did this one fall behind the couch while you were busy trimming ten seconds out of lousy Hollywood rape-revenge remakes, or what?

Secure in the knowledge that the faint-hearted will be long gone by the fifteen minute mark, Blyth proceeds to cheerfully throw incest, mental illness, S&M, clinical depression, rape, voyeurism and schizophrenia into the mix, and whether or not he manages to offer any genuine insight into those issues, or whether he’s merely putting in the hours in pursuit of a career in the tediously pretentious realm of ‘transgressive’ culture, is a question I’ll leave each viewer to decide for him/herself.

Personally, I didn’t enjoy “Wound” very much, just as I didn’t enjoy all that broken caps lock Lydia Lunch ‘poetry’ I waded through as an impressionable youth very much. But for the kind of film it is, I will at least cop that it was extremely well-realised, skating over a lot of potentially ridiculous and/or offensive material in a way that remained credible and non-exploitative throughout, an impression helped in no small part by the harrowing method-style performances of lead actresses Kate O’Rourke and Te Kaea Beri, both excelling in roles that could scarcely be more difficult.

One thing I found interesting whilst watching “Wound” was the extent to which the film’s contemporary setting and lo-fi, shot-on-DV look negatively effected my enjoyment of it. Not that I have a knee-jerk disapproval of such things you understand, but it occurred to me that when I watch disturbing lunatic films from the ‘60s and ‘70s (as a brief perusal of this blog’s archives will swiftly reveal that I am apt to do), the temporal distance between myself and the people and objects on-screen forms a kind of barrier, creating a kind of unreality that I find most pleasing.

At times, the woozy pace and non-linear narrative of “Wound” reminded me of watching a Rollin or Franco film, but something was kinda wrong. When the protagonist of “Wound” crams a corpse into a dustbin and wheels him outside to bury, she’s using a modern plastic wheelie-bin, like the one outside my house, and the guy is wearing ugly supermarket-bought socks like most men probably wear everyday. Putting such activity in the context of Real World just makes it seem ridiculous and uncomfortable, y’know? In a way that goes deeper than just the flatness and lack of definition of the Digital Video shooting?

What I’m saying is: I’m sure that back in 1973 there’d have been some unlikely ‘70s-style garbage contrivance, and the guy woulda been wearing AWESOME socks of some kind. I wasn’t alive in the 1970s. Things that happened there in weirdo horror films seem dreamy and different and fascinating to me; that’s probably part of why I enjoy them so much. The past is another country, quoth Graham Greene, whom I’ll bet never foresaw his words being used in this context. Consider: whenever someone goes to some crazy, anachronistic nightclub to dance to slightly-out-of-date music in a Jess Franco movie, it is clearly awesome. No questions asked. When characters in “Wound” go to some ‘90s style industrial S&M goth club and the film wants us to view it as some terrifying, underground nightmare place, it’s absolutely cringeworthy. You see where I’m going with this…? No, me neither really, but it’s some interesting stuff to ponder.

I’m certainly not suggesting that weirdo horror films were necessarily better in the ‘70s, or that people should slavishly try to recreate past eras in their movies or anything like that, you understand. Just observing that I probably tend to cut bad films from the past a lot more slack than I do vaguely decent ones from the present, simply due to this odd gauze of cultural/temporal dislocation. Or something. I dunno. The past four paragraphs haven’t exactly had much to do with David Blyth’s film, for which I apologise – thinking out loud alert over.

(Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani, France, 2009)

Billed as a po-mo tribute to ‘70s Giallo and Italian pop-art cinema complete with recycled soundtrack cues and visual calling cards (see poster art), “Amer”s directors would, you’d imagine, have a thing or two to add to the issues I was muttering about above.

I suppose I was expecting “Amer” would be some kind of stylish, Tarantino-esque retro funfest. All fast edits and bright colours and goofy antics, and “ho ho, why yes, I DO recall that moment from ‘Don’t Torture A Duckling’, well played sir”, and so on. It’s probably about time somebody made a movie like that.

As it turns out though, “Amer” is not that movie. “Amer” is something else entirely, something that is quite unlike any feature length film I’ve ever seen. In fact, I was surprised that a film this overtly experimental and essentially plotless should be programmed at a horror festival at all. And when I say ‘plotless’, I don’t mean in the typically Italian “what the goddamn hell was all that about” sense of the term, I mean that “Amer” is actually an abstract film – a collection of images and visual textures, entirely devoid of narrative.

I confess that during the film’s opening half hour – which seems to follow a young girl painstakingly exploring her sinister and oppressive family home - I didn’t really get this, and drove myself nuts waiting for a story to begin to emerge. For this segment at least, the film teases us, offering characters who enter and leave and then return, and who even utter cryptic lines of dialogue from time to time. But that’s not what the film is about. I guess you could probably watch it and come away with some vague sense that we were following a girl through different events in her life or somesuch, but you’d probably have missed the point. “Amer” is pure cinema writ large - trying to connect the threads seems akin to staring at a Pollock painting until you’re convinced you can see a dog or something.

What immediately separates “Amer” from just about every other avant garde film I’ve ever seen though – and probably the main reason it’s playing here rather than at some contemporary art fest – is it’s exquisite production values and awe-inspiring cinematography.

On a purely visual level, each and every shot in this film is incredible. So much so, one suspects that above and behind any high-minded artistic agenda, the film is simply a brazen exercise in technical wizardry, demonstrating just how far-out cinema can get when one combines modern Hi-Def technology with the excess and visual daring of decadent-era European pop cinema.

And if the film does indeed work with a visual palette that often recalls the work of Argento, Bava and so on, it swiftly becomes clear that the directors are using these tropes in the spirit of a Liechtenstein-style artistic recontexualisation, rather than as raw material for a bunch of cool, referential horror movie stuff.

Usually when avant garde filmmakers are attracted to horror imagery, they’re working from a trash/kitsch/shock angle (see, oh I dunno, Nick Zedd or somebody), but Cattat and Forzani come at it from the opposite direction, clearly in love with the languorous pacing, rich textures, lingering tension and dense atmospherics of ‘70s cinema, and determined to take elements that were only hinted at in the work of Italy’s more consciously ‘artistic’ genre directors, and to push them about as far away from the limitations of commercial filmmaking as they possibly can.

Violent and fetishistic imagery may be used (incredibly effectively) in “Amer”s concluding segment, but for the most part the directors seem content to dwell on the strange way in which Euro-cult aesthetics can serve to raise what in any other film would be the mundane to the level of a kind of cosmic radiance.

Use of close ups is excessive and extreme throughout, to an almost unprecedented degree. Seriously – what “Lawrence of Arabia” did for sand, “Amer” does for pores, eyelashes, lips, beads of sweat. By the end of the film, the human body has become almost some endless, alien landscape, swathed in strange colours and tracts of imperishable desert. There’s enough eyeball on show to leave Lucio Fulci and Umberto Lenzi weeping together in a darkened closet.

Ninety minutes of that I just couldn’t take, but thankfully there’re plenty more textures that get the camera’s love. Blindingly bright Mediterranean skies; wrought-iron railings and dense foliage; shards of glass scattered across a dusty bedroom floor; reflecting patterns of light against a taxi’s windscreen; a child’s hands prising glittering treasure from the fingers of an ossified grandfather; a bright cotton print dress rubbing against tender young thighs, and….. look, sorry, “Amer” is just an impossible thing to try to review in a conventional manner. I’ve heard of directors apporaching their films with a painter’s eye before, but this is just ridiculous.

And as I say, on this level, “Amer” is an astonishing achievement, no question. If any given five minute sequence from the film was crow-barred into the middle of a narrative movie, it would be an absolute jaw-dropper, enough to send you reeling, proclaiming the director in question to be a grand new cinematic stylist, the new incarnation of Fellini, or Bertolucci, or whoever.

But as a standalone piece, it is “Amer”s strengths which also serve to make it an absolutely maddening viewing experience. I don’t mind watching a film without a story, but one thing I do appreciate in my cinema is movement, and some sense of forward motion. Without getting too wanky about it, the desire to see people or objects get from A to B, to observe some sort of change or development within a shot, is a pretty basic component of what makes film appealing as a medium.

Cattat and Forzani, by contrast, seem determined almost to fight against the temporal flow of their film, treating the screen as a canvas upon which they can freeze each moment for as long as humanly possible. Instead of taking us forward to the next moment, most of the movement in “Amer” seems to emerge from the filmmakers’ desire to take us deeper and deeper inside the current moment, closer and closer to the subject until we can see the very fibres and stitches that compose the image. It is a very unusual and uncompromising approach to cinema, but one which, presented here in unadulterated form, can make for very gruelling viewing – the cinematic equivalent of trying to quench your thirst solely with espresso and absinth.

When we think of particularly gripping and audacious sequences from the films of, say, Argento or Hitchcock, we are seeing them, whether we like it or not, through the prism of the film’s narrative and forward momentum. However shallow or irrelevant those directors’ storylines may seem in comparison to their technical or artistic flourishes, however little we might care about the characters and their unconvincing motivations, we need that context to make the film work for us. If, as in “Amer”, we were simply to line up the tour de force sequences in succession, they would cease to be gripping and audacious, and would ultimately become meaningless, however beautiful they may look in the editing suite.

So if you happen to be a film technician or photographer with a particular fetish for Giallo-era imagery, then congratulations – you’ve got a new favourite movie.

And if you’re a struggling filmmaker searching for some cool ideas to liven up your horror/suspense flick, congratulations also – you’ve got a new crib-sheet.

If you belong to the rest of the human race though, I fear “Amer” may test your patience.

- - -

As a final note, I’d like to congratulate the organisers of London Frightfest for programming such an interesting line-up of films on their second screen. I’m sure that most of the audience, myself included, would have been perfectly satisfied with a bunch of fun, forgettable generic horror flicks, but instead we were gifted with four films which in their own way were all ambitious, unconventional, forward-thinking, and almost entirely devoid of genre cliché. And if I didn’t think any of them were quite 100% successful, I certainly enjoyed them all, and I’m very glad I had a chance to see them – well done guys, here’s wishing you well for next year.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

London Frightfest 2010, part # 1.

Ok, so it would be an exaggeration to claim that I fully ‘attended’ this year’s FilmFour sponsored horror-fest at Leicester Square’s Empire Cinema, considering I didn’t buy a festival pass and didn’t watch a single film on the event’s main screen. I mean, you know how these things go: I was busy on the Thursday, busy on the Friday, busy on the Saturday, and to be honest, selections like a 2010 remake of “I Spit On Your Grave” are unlikely to do much to revive my love for contemporary horror cinema, even if I had time and money to spare. (For a quick rundown of the festival’s main programme, and discussion of the absurd and anachronistic censorship trouble faced by the organisers, I refer you to The Quietus review here.)

On the other hand though, I did think the more, er, ‘marginal’ movies the fest was showing on its smaller second screen sounded kinda interesting, so I bit the bullet, blocked off Sunday in my diary and bought tickets for all four of that day’s screenings.

And boy, what a day it was, but between seasickness, genital mutilation footage and extreme eyelash close-ups, I made it out alive – I hope you appreciate the things I do for you readers.

Higanjima: Escape From Vampire Island
(Kim Tae-gyun, Japan, 2009)

Proceedings begin after breakfast with this promising sounding manga adaptation, and let me just say, when you find yourself finishing breakfast and immediately watching something called “Higanjima: Escape From Vampire Island”, it’s hard not to feel life is going pretty good.

Through it’s opening half hour, “Higanjima” looks like it’s gearing up to be a tremendous amount of fun, as we’re swiftly introduced to our school kid hero Akira and his loveable gang of misfit buddies, incorporating a Fonz-like ‘cool guy’, a sweet girl who’s a crack shot with a bow and arrow, a chemistry nerd ‘brainiac’ guy and even a comedy fat kid who’s always making jokes about sex. So when a mysterious lady turns up to darkly hint that Akira’s long-lost older brother is still alive and fighting vampires on a mythic uncharted island, this whole scooby gang of one dimensional funsters are soon ploughing toward adventure aboard a rickety fishing boat, armed with a rough assortment of golf clubs, samurai swords etc, and you could be forgiven for thinking there is no way this movie could possibly be anything less than awesome.

Up to this point the film has been pleasingly fast-paced and frivolous in tone, but when our crew reach the titular island things take a somewhat ‘dark’ turn (and not just literally), with the Secret-Seven-with-gore style hi-jinks we’d been anticipating sadly taking a back seat in favour of a lethal dose of the ol’ Japanese machismo, largely centred on Akira and his brother, as characters roar each other’s names incessantly, engage in unconvincing tests of strength and say stuff like “it is anger and sorrow that make a man!”.

By the halfway point, the film’s sense of humour has gone completely AWOL, and none of the secondary characters get to realise any of the fun stuff their pre-island foreshadowing would have led us to expect – the cool guy fails to prove his cool one way or the other, the bow & arrow chick is unforgivably reduced to the level of a helpless hostage for the movie’s duration, and as for the fat kid and the nerd, they just sort of tag along behind the tougher characters, failing to do a damn thing beyond just, y’know, being on the screen sometimes. Much like the recent ‘Scott Pilgrim’ adaptation, one gets the feeling that these characters must have had a lot more room to stretch out on paper, and in a 90 minute movie they are sadly rendered surplus to requirements.

Meanwhile though, there’s a dizzying whirligig of vampire-related action scenes, daring pursuits, swashbuckling and general shit-kicking etc to help keep us amused, most of it highly enjoyable, despite frequent lapses into “let’s shake the camera around to hide the bits we couldn’t be bothered to choreograph” territory. The vampires here seem to take a happy-go-lucky, comic book approach to their trade, freely mixing Western and Eastern tropes, as the foot soldier-level creatures wear peasant garb and wide, old-fashioned hats, resembling those weird ‘hopping vampires’ from old Asian horror flicks, whilst our arch-villain boss vampire is, inevitably, a fey albino goth guy with a rock star haircut who dresses like a Japanese Tim Burton fan’s idea of a 18th century European aristocrat.

And they’ve got a mad scientist vampire guy who’s doing twisted experiments to create cyborg vampires, and they all happily run around in the sunshine, and they’ve got leathery-winged lady-lizard vampires, and giant CGI monsters of some kind too, because… well who the hell knows - I guess that’s just the way they roll on Vampire Island.

As an energetic horror/action crossover, “Higanjima” effortlessly kicks the crap out of those ‘Underworld’ movies on a fraction of the budget, but, viewed at this time in the morning, its obvious deficiencies re: being completely stupid and poorly scripted can’t help but shine through brighter than the grubby night-time photography. Had I watched it, say, twelve hours earlier, after a few beers, I think I would have been happily numbed to the point of mindless satisfaction by the constant barrage of swordplay, bloodshed, explosions and monsters. So if that sounds like your idea of a good time (and frankly why wouldn’t it?), you can make a bee-line toward this flick with my blessing.

(Colm McCarthy, Ireland/UK, 2010)

A council block-set urban horror shot mainly in Edinburgh by an Irish creative team, “Outcast” deals with the scarier corners of celtic folklore, and surprisingly emerges as the overall most impressive film I saw today.

I say “surprisingly” simply because, well, you know, let’s be honest… British horror films that have emerged from the Lottery funding/Film Council treadmill in the past few decades have not done much to raise expectations for projects like this one, especially when, like “Outcast”, they adopt a hackneyed, TV drama approximation of “gritty realism”.

I mean, maybe you beg to differ, but I just don't think this combination of aesthetics that does anyone any favours, y’know? Ken Loach or Shane Meadows have never needed to put werewolves in their movies to fuck you up, and by the same logic, low budget horrors have (with a few notable exceptions) generally proved more successful, and indeed more capable of addressing real world issues, the further they manage to swing their action away from tepid recreations of ‘reality’.

So yeah, “Outcast” was a surprise. Whilst far from perfect, it’s an intelligent and effective occult thriller, kept afloat in potentially unpromising waters by way of a tightly-plotted, character-driven script, a rare understanding of the emotional underpinnings of occult shenanigans, and some really strong performances.

In brief, “Outcast” tells the tale of Fergal (Niall Bruton), an Irish lad of, shall we say, complicated ancestry, whose mother Mary (Katie Dickie, whom you might recognise from Andrea Arnold’s ‘Red Road’ and a wealth of TV work) has had no choice but to become a formidable practitioner of folk magic, keeping her family constantly on the move through a succession of cities and social housing projects in an attempt to escape the clutches of Fergal’s monstrous father Cathal (James Nesbit), a violent brute who has been granted temporary powers and assistance by the underground order who oversee such practices in Ireland, with the understanding that he must ‘hunt down’ his misbegotten son, before the boy comes of age and… well, this IS a horror movie, what do you think is gonna happen to him that would make these learned fathers feel the need to hunt him down? (Hint: see poster.)

Although it occasionally lapses into silliness, “Outcast”s approach to the idea of a subterranean world of celtic black magic is applaudably subtle, never deeming it necessary to spell things out for us through cornball ‘trip to the library’ exposition, instead giving the mystery of the story room to breath and leaving viewers to piece together their own understanding of what’s going on – spectators of inexplicable events, in the classic weird tales tradition. This may be a practically realised contemporary horror flick, with gore and squalor and drained colours and implied social criticism, but somewhere deep in the woods off screen the ‘fair folk’ of Arthur Machen’s mythos still lurk.

On another level though, “Outcast” also works well as a horror-aided exploration of the perils of adolescence and familial conflict, recalling elements of both ‘Ginger Snaps’ and Romero’s ‘Martin’, probably two of my all-time favourites amongst horror movies that adopt a ‘realist’ aesthetic. Despite the vagueness and peculiarity of the film’s subject matter, most of the cast bring a real sense of believability to their characters, with Dickie and Nesbit in particular burning up the screen with the charismatic intensity of tough, troubled people whom you simply would not fuck with should you encounter them in real life – no small boast when their roles require them to fart about with candles, hair clippings and pigeon entrails, reciting gypsy-curse style dialogue and talking of unholy powers, against the backdrop of an authentically grim Lothian housing estate and its real-life residents.

The only problems I had with “Outcast” really were technical/cinematic ones. I realise this is an odd thing for a film fan to admit, but in the past few years I’ve had real trouble watching films shot primarily with handheld cameras. I’ve never met anyone who has the same problem, so I guess it’s just me, but basically even the most unassuming documentary can make me motion sick if the camerawork is unsteady - a situation that’s led to me making a dramatic exit from the cinema more than once, sad to say. As such, I was less than thrilled to discover that most of “Outcast” is filmed, for no discernable reason, as if the cameraman was aboard a pirate ship in rough seas, meaning I spent a considerable portion of the movie staring at my feet trying to stay grounded, and left the screening feeling distinctly unwell.

Admittedly, this style of filming will prove a minor annoyance at worst for most other viewers, but speaking more generally, wouldn’t it be just a wonderful thing if modern filmmakers could get over this rather tedious idea that jerky camerawork + lightning strike editing effects + drained colours + constant Eraserhead hum = HORROR? But again, maybe that’s just me – stylistic missteps aside, I thought “Outcast” was excellent – well worth making time for, assuming it manages to earn itself some kind of half-decent release.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

The World of Eclos
by Rex Gordon

(Consul Books, 1961)

Here my friends, we see what is surely the very apotheosis of two-fisted sci-fi.

You get the feeling any egghead who starts complaining about time travel paradoxes or photosynthesis is gonna be met with a knuckle sandwich in this book.

Leaving aside the gender politics for a moment, you gotta love the idea that the guy in this book considers a job piloting the first rocket to an unknown world to be “short, practical and strictly business”.

If you’ll allow me two posts in a row with a music tie-in, here’s Mike Rep & The Quotas, on a Rocket To Nowhere, and I’m off to roam around Iberia for a week with no internet access, so see ya soon!