Saturday, 17 December 2016

Some thoughts on…
The Witch
(Robert Eggers, 2016)

Arriving in my household this December on the back of a veritable avalanche of critical adulation (a major studio distributed horror film won “best director” at Sundance? Really?), Robert Eggers’ directorial debut proved… heavy going, to be honest.

Rendered in the dour, near-monochromatic style that so often seems to predominate in 21st century films that aspire toward “seriousness” (don’t get me wrong, I know life for the 17th century Pilgrim Fathers wasn’t exactly a riot of Technicolor extravagance, but I’d at least like to think they at least encountered the occasional dash of blue or green amid the grey, and managed to look at each other without frowning every now and again), ‘The Witch’ is nonetheless refreshingly unequivocal about its identify as a hackle-raising, scare-yr-pants-off horror film.

Indeed, in purely utilitarian terms, it succeeds extremely well in this area. Despite its overtures toward what I suppose we’re obliged to call in shorthand the “arthouse crowd”, I’ll readily admit that ‘The Witch’ was the most viscerally frightening film I’ve seen in years. Full-on sneaking-glimpses-of-the-screen-through-my-fingers terrifying in places in fact. So, yes - if you are the sort of person who is inclined to judge horror films based primarily on their capacity to be “scary”, you can anticipate a right doozy with this one, irrespective of its somber tone and subject matter.

Whilst I was busy being reduced to a quivering wreck by the film’s overpowering aura of dread and persistent threat of imminent, soul-wreaking violence however, I was also uncomfortably aware of the fact that the techniques Eggers was employing to generate these responses from me were just as cynically manipulative as those found in the most base of jump-scare filled slasher flicks.

From the slow, steady-cam crawls through unfamiliar locations to the nerve-shatteringly loud Penderecki-via-Hermann score, the rapid movements erupting from still life-esque quietude, semi-hidden tableaus of alarming Goya-esque beastliness and aggressive soundscapes of rumbling earthquake drone and chittering demonic feeding - every trick in the Hideo Nakata-via-David Lynch playbook for scaring the bejeezus out of your audience whilst still remaining artistically credible is exhaustively exploited here, whilst the more basic conceit of constantly imperiling children and other innocents simultaneously delivers the can’t-fail coup de grace to our ailing nerves.

Though it is confident in its execution and ruthlessly efficient in its effect, I couldn’t help but feel that this heavy-handed approach to the “scary stuff” was to some extent counter-productive, detracting our attention from the very elements that do actually make ‘The Witch’ a rewarding and genuinely disturbing piece of work – namely, those arising not from the heavy-handed direction but from the film’s writing and performances, which are both extremely good.

As the story initially got underway, I was surprised and rather impressed by the extent to which the script takes the strict puritan beliefs of its characters – a mind-set that is so alien to us in the 21st century West that it is almost impossible to approach it without implicit or explicit criticism – and presents them entirely at face value.

The “witch”, we initially feel, is an external force of parasitic evil whose wrath can be avoided only through a regime of prayer, obedience and enforced purity of thought. The soul of a child who dies prior to baptism meanwhile is headed straight to hell, and that is no laughing matter – especially as regards the burden of guilt which must subsequently be borne by the already grieving parents whose modest lapses in duty are seen as having allowed such a circumstance. Needless to say, it is in this invisible realm of Christian cosmology that the film’s real horror lies.(1)

As the story develops and we delve deeper into the internal lives of the film’s characters though, and as the situation facing them becomes increasingly desperate, ‘The Witch’s moral universe gradually shifts upon its axis in an extremely interesting fashion. Though the change is almost too subtle for us to even notice at first amid all the horror movie nerve-jangling, what eventually begins to emerge is a uniquely involving method of retelling an old, old story.

Though the notion that a seemingly external threat actually grows from within has been a given in haunted house and exorcism type narratives for decades (or indeed centuries, if we fall back on the gothic tradition), I have rarely seen this theme elucidated in quite such a compassionate and compelling manner as it is here, as, taking a page or two from the none-more-obvious reference point of Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucible’, ‘The Witch’ essentially becomes a tale about the way in which the seemingly unbreakable bonds of love and trust within a close-knit family unit can be strained, twisted and eventually destroyed in the face of stressful and traumatic circumstances.

As hardship and anxiety increases, minor vanities and personal failings that could be indulged and forgiven under more comfortable circumstances widen into fatal flaws, allowing nagging seeds of doubt to flower into full blown paranoia, which in turn becomes entwined with the family’s rigidly inflexible belief system, legitimising increasingly unhinged and dangerous patterns of behavior that move the story toward a far more nuanced and thought-provoking condemnation of religious extremism and its social & psychological consequences than we horror fans are usually asked to process via one-sided diatribes of the ‘Witchfinder General’ variety.(2)

Played out by a gifted cast with all the weighty intensity they can muster (I’d normally single out some names at this point, but frankly it’s just easier if I just refer to the IMDB cast list, as each member of the film’s central family is equally outstanding, the child actors in particular), it is this theme which serves to elevate ‘The Witch’ to a level of dramatic legitimacy that I confess makes all the Luciferian goats and monster-clawed hags that Eggers throws at us seem rather silly in comparison.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that ‘The Witch’ might even have worked better as a naturalistic, real world drama rather than as a horror film. This may seem a stretch, but the more I think about it, the easier it is to imagine the essential structure of the script being transferred wholesale to, say, the travails of the family trying to survive in a contemporary Middle East combat zone, without altering the beats of the story in any significant fashion. Just exchange the “the witch” for “the war”, and everything pretty much falls straight into place, with a result that would likely remain just as emotionally coherent, and even more harrowing.

(Of course, THAT film could probably never make it to the screen in quite the way I imagine it, even via the neo-realist film traditions currently prevalent in countries like Iran, simply because it would be near unbearable to sit through. After all, the perverse webs of escapism and thematic metaphor that inform our enjoyment of fictional narratives here in the First World dictate that it is a lot easier to contemplate a baby spirited away by a witch’s familiar than a baby blown to pieces by a cluster bomb, even as the latter continues to be tolerated and enabled every day by the same global power structures that allow us the comfort in which to enjoy tales of the former…. but, I digress.)

One thing that would probably not work in the kind of substitution I have described above however is the ending of ‘The Witch’, which I hope I can briefly discuss without straying into the realm of out-right spoilers.

In essence, there is something fairly extraordinary about the way in which Eggers dovetails ninety minutes of relentless terror and misery with a few giddy, closing moments of what feels almost like a post-annihilation/ego-death liberation of sorts – a kind of ‘flip the script’ alchemical rebirth that leaves us feeling unmoored and light-headed, as the lingering fear we’ve become accustomed to falls away into acceptance. It’s a great ending.

As my wife insightfully observed, by the end of the movie, the mysterious witch cult that we have been living in mortal terror of thus far begins to seem very much like the coven of female convicts in Shunya Ito’s ‘Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41’ (1972) – a society of outcast women transformed into predatory savages because the authoritarian society that has rejected them allows them literally no other options for continued existence. And if I tell you that the ending of Eggers’ film succeeds in capturing even a fraction of the transformative spirit of Ito’s, readers familiar with the latter will know that they can take that as a pretty strong recommendation.

In my more pompous moments, I’ve been known to declare that the only kind of fictional narrative that can be considered in any way relevant to an understanding of the human condition is one that features no clearly delineated ‘villains’, but instead posits a variety of ultimately sympathetic characters who provoke conflict through their contradictory or misguided actions. As such, it could perhaps be said that Robert Eggers’ greatest achievement in ‘The Witch’ lies in his finding a way to combine this principle with a tale of shrieking, inhuman terror that leaves just about everyone dead and eternally damned, and to somehow make it work.


(1) As a wanton digression that doesn’t easily fit anywhere else in this review, I should note that, purely in terms of supernatural horror, it was this earlier section of the film that I found to be by far the most frightening. Given that the family portrayed in the film (and indeed, the wider community from which they have separated themselves) seems to exist upon the edge of a wilderness largely untouched by humanity, I kept thinking, well, what the hell *is* this ‘witch’? Where did it come from? I mean, an old-fashioned witch cult existing as an off-shoot of an established Christian society – that’s something I can deal with. But the possibility of that *unknown other*…? Remember that quote (was it William Burroughs?) about how, before the white man came to America, and before the red man came, there was already something evil there, some lurking at its heart…? Now THAT’S a scary thought when you’re stuck in an isolated homestead surrounded by impenetrable forest. Though ‘The Witch’ doesn’t ultimately go in that direction, it hovers around it for long enough and convincingly enough in its first half to put the wind up me.

 (2) For wanton digression # 2, it behoves me to point out the similarities between ‘The Witch’ and what is quite possibly my all-time favourite horror film, Piers Haggard’s ‘Blood On Satan’s Claw’ (1972). Not only are they amongst the only horror films I’m aware of that create and sustain a believable 17th century setting, complete with period appropriate dialogue, they are also the only two films in my experience of the genre to operate on the basis of a period-appropriate puritan Christian belief system without foregrounding a contemporary critique of said belief system. 

Whilst that may sound like an odd thing to celebrate on one level, it is this straight-faced portrayal of the characters’ beliefs that I think gives both films some of their unique power. Add a number of more nebulous similarities – the association of nature and “the woods” with untamed, pagan nastiness, the corruption of children by an insidious evil, the quasi-political implications of a coven of young/female/sexually active outsiders attacking a repressive patriarchal society – and one wonders how closely Haggard’s film might have played into the development of ‘The Witch’, despite the vastly different tone of the two projects.

Friday, 9 December 2016

Exploito All’Italiana:
Blazing Magnum / ‘Strange Shadows in an Empty Room’
(Alberto De Martino, 1976)

Shot in Ottawa, Canada with a largely American cast, ‘Blazing Magnum’ is one of those latter-day Italian co-productions that tries so hard to hide its Italian origins that viewers coming to it blind may be apt to think they’ve simply stumbled upon some sublimely ridiculous Canadian TV movie. For those of us ‘in the know’ however, the fingerprints of producer Edmondo Amati and director Alberto De Martino (whose other joint ventures included 1974’s ‘El Antichristo’ and 1977’s ‘Holocaust 2000’) can be identified all too plainly in the movie’s woefully damaged plotting and unwavering dedication to the cause of senseless mayhem.(1)

Though often listed as a poliziotteschi on the basis that it is a ‘70s cop movie made by Italians, ‘Blazing Magnum’s transatlantic status lends it an entirely different feel from the kind of crime films being made in Italy at around the same time, and, despite Amati and De Martino’s obvious desire to crib as much as possible from the gospel laid down by ‘Bullitt’, ‘Dirty Harry’ and ‘The French Connection’, the end result isn’t quite like any other crime film I’ve ever seen.

To cut a long story short, what I think happened here is that the scriptwriters (see footnote above) had an unused treatment for a run-of-the-mill giallo lying around, but, realising that this wasn’t really what internationally-minded producers like Amati were looking for in the mid’70s, they took the decision to graft a load of testosterone-huffing, hard-boiled cop action onto the shell of their story, whilst crucially failing to actually incorporate the latter elements into the thread of the pre-existing narrative in any meaningful fashion.

What emerged, needless to say, is an unwieldy genre Frankenstein whose Hollywood cast and incongruous Canadian locations (presumably adopted for tax shelter purposes) serve to further confuse the film’s identity – especially given that the giallo segments are leavened with just about enough horror and sleaze elements to allow the film to be misleadingly foisted upon the U.S. public as ‘Strange Shadows in an Empty Room’, with a proto-slasher poster to match (see below). (2)

As such, we first meet Captain Tony Saitta (Stuart Whitman) – an allegedly rule-breaking, mad dog middle-aged cop with an incongruously compassionate, sleepy demeanour – as he single-handedly takes down a gang of violent, heavily armed bank robbers, his titular Magnum leaving two of the perps dead, as the remaining crook cowers before him and begs for mercy. (PRO-TIP: apparently if you stand behind a column and just step out to pick them off quite quickly, those desperate criminals with high calibre machine guns just *won’t stand a chance*.)

Whilst Tony was doing that however, he missed a call from his sister Louise, a drama student played by the at-least-thirty-years-his-junior Carole Laure (who probably won’t thank me for listing her other credits as including ‘Naked Massacre’ (1976) and ‘Get Out Your Handkerchiefs’ (1978)). Later that night, poor Louise is dead, her heart having mysteriously failed shortly after she was given a tonic by one Dr Tracer (Martin Landau) when she had a funny turn at a campus party.

When it transpires that Louise had been seen in public earlier that day having a violent argument with said doctor, her brother is on the case, and for the next twenty minutes or so, everything goes a bit ‘Colombo’ as we trudge through earnest interviews with the deceased’s nearest and dearest and unnecessary background on Landau’s character. (Though a fine actor, Landau is such a pointless red herring here he might as well have come to work in a fish costume.) No Magnums, blazing or otherwise, are in evidence, and at this point this movie’s prospects ain’t looking too hot, to be honest.

Stick with it though, because when ‘Blazing Magnum’ does heat up – oh boy.

The first sign that we’re in for something a bit more memorable than an afternoon TV time-waster comes when, out of nowhere, we see a streetwalker violently bludgeoned to death in a darkened alleyway, then witness her dismembered remains discovered the next morning when some unlucky construction workers fire up the conveyor belt at a local quarry. All of which is a bit of a shocker, to be honest.

Before you know it, the great John Saxon (sadly under-utilised here as Whitman’s exposition-spouting partner) has managed to keep a straight face whilst delivering the immortal line, “Remember that girl we found in the rock crusher? Turns out she wasn’t a girl at all!”, and, armed with some tenuous connection to the death of his sister (I forget quite what), Captain Saitta immediately hits the nearest sex shop for some leads on Ottawa’s transvestite hooker scene.(3)

This promptly leads our hero to a swanky rooftop apartment shared by three drag queens, who are seemingly busy dolling themselves up for a day(?) on the town. Saitta barges in and starts firing questions at them without even identifying himself, which isn’t very nice, but even so, the drag queens’ reaction is a bit excessive.

Basically, they immediately set out to kill him like a pack of wild animals - hurling furniture, lunging at him with knives, and eventually leaving him dangling by his fingers from the rooftop. Needless to say, when Tony gets back on his feet to retaliate, there follows what I believe is referred to as a ‘knock-down, drag-out fight’, incorporating several slow motion plunges through shattering French windows and concluding only when Saitta has the last conscious cross-dresser cornered at gun-point in their en-suite swimming pool.

I confess, it took me quite a while to retrieve my jaw from the floor after this outburst of wanton fury, but I needn’t have bothered really, as from hereon in, ‘Blazing Magnum’ just never lets up.

The great thing about the series of adrenaline-pumping action sequences that comprise the middle half hour of this movie is that they are so brazenly gratuitous, so totally removed from the vaguely credible chains of cause and effect that usually drive such police procedural storylines, that they barely graze the surface of the central murder mystery plotline at all. Instead, we watch with something near to awe as each contrived set-piece concludes with Sciatta merely discovering another who-cares-anyway ‘clue’ that he could have more easily ascertained simply by talking to people – and sometimes not even that.

A perfect case in point comes when, whilst working through a list of known fences who may or may not have handled the stolen necklace that may or may not hold the key to his sister’s death (or something), Sciatta pursues a fleeing suspect for a full five minutes of screen time in a desperate foot chase through a crowded subway station, eventually cornering him in a toilet cubicle and forcing his head into a full wash basin trying to make him to “talk!”, as members of the public look on aghast. We then cut immediately to Whitman back above ground, sharing a coffee with Saxon in the patrol car and saying something to the effect of “eh, that guy didn’t know anything”, before they head off to terrorize the next poor rube on their list. Incredible.

This pattern is repeated, amplified to the power of ten, for what is unquestionably ‘Blazing Magnum’s highlight – an prolonged car chase that must be seen to be believed. This begins when Sciatta knocks on the door of another fence, who again flees for no readily apparent reason [well to be fair, the way Whitman’s character behaves in this film, I’d probably run away from him too] and jumps in his bad-ass ‘70s muscle car. Sciatta is soon behind the wheel of his own bad-ass ‘70s muscle car, and the chase is on.

A blatant attempt to top the legendary chase in ‘Bullitt’, this sequence may lack the tension and technical acumen of Peter Yates’ film, but in terms of pure, death-defying spectacle, it beats it hands down. I mean, seriously folks – I may have been pretty snarky about this film up to this point, but the stunt-driving showcased here is incredible, becoming more so as the chase continues far beyond the point at which we might have naturally expected it to end, eventually climaxing with a jump-through-the-middle-of-a-moving-train stunt that would have done mid-‘80s Jackie Chan proud.

Though it is largely captured through fairly conventional long-shots, and takes place on obviously cleared streets and disused parking lots (complete with conspicuous piles of empty cardboard boxes), this is nonetheless high octane, gonzo action movie business of the highest order, and whatever those drivers got paid, it wasn’t enough. Mercy, as the Big O might have exclaimed.

By the time the chase concludes, both cars are mangled wrecks, still skidding after each other on their sides along a final few hundred yards of empty highway. And when the drivers emerge and dust themselves down, can you guess how the ensuing conversation goes? As I recall, it’s something like;

SCIATTA: ah, sorry about the scratches, heh heh
FENCE: no worries cop, what can I do for ya?

I really have no words with which I can express my reaction to that. I’d make a sound, but it doesn’t really work in written text.

Seemingly realising that they’re never going to be able to top that in terms of action, the final half hour of ‘Blazing Magnum’ reverts back to the giallo/thriller angle, as the desperate killer, realising the cops are closing in, and breaks out a big, shiny knife to begin stalk n’ slashing his/her (no spoilers here, folks) way through the remaining cast in much the way that desperate killers are want to do in these things.

This last minute reign of terror begins with a botched attempt to take out Whitman’s sister’s angelic blind roommate (played by a pre-‘Zombie Flesh Eaters’ Tisa Farrow), thus demonstrating that the script-writers have also seen the Audrey Hepburn movie ‘Wait Until Dark’ (1967), and precedes to bring us a few bracing moments of theatrical gore and entry-level misogynist sleaze, before the inevitable cavalcade of twists, flashbacks and curtain pulls finally bring us to an agreeably loopy, magnum-blazin’ finale that I won’t spoil for you here.

And, there you have it ladies and gents – ‘Blazing Magnum’, a film that truly has it all.

Actually, the one thing it WAS missing, and that I think may have raised proceedings to a whole new plateau of inadvertent genius, is a scene in which Tony Sciatta is hauled in for a meeting with his superior officer, to explain why, in the space of one working day, he has instigated a brawl that caused extensive property damage and left two people unconscious, nearly drowned an innocent man in a public bathroom, written off his car after driving it straight through a toll-booth and contributing to at least six major traffic accidents, and interviewed an important witness at gun-point in a motel room doorway…. all in the pursuit of a case he hasn’t even yet been officially assigned to work on!

I mean, maybe that’s just the way the cops roll up in Ottawa, but lord, imagine what Harry Callahan could have done with such a free hand. Hell, maybe someone over in ‘70s-movie-cop-land should have put the two of them in touch and suggested a job swap… especially given that Stuart Whitman spends most of this movie looking as if he’d be happier attending a poetry reading at the City Lights bookshop.

Well, anyway. I’m sorry to have relied so heavily on the “…and then this thing happens” school of movie-reviewing on this occasion, but when faced with an item like ‘Blazing Magnum’, it really seems the only sensible option.

By any conventional yardstick, this is not a good film. The direction is formulaic, the pacing, plotting and tone are all a complete mess (as is discussed at length above), and, whilst no one is questioning the chops of Whitman, Saxon or Landau, performances remain wooden throughout, in that particular “what the hell am I doing here? I’ll just say the lines” manner common to ill-conceived international co-productions the world over.

Shallow, cynical and pointless as ‘Blazing Magnum’ may be though, it is nonetheless – as I hope I have made clear above – the kind of movie that will leave action/exploitation fans utterly satiated, beaten into submission by more ridiculous fun stuff than they can possible process in one sitting. So if that sounds like a recommendation to you - take it!

Whilst I hate to fall back once again on food metaphors, watching ‘Blazing Magnum’ eventually ends up feeling a bit like sitting on the sofa for ninety minutes with a plate of cheap hamburgers in front of you, gradually eating them just because, well, you might as well.

A feeling of bloated dissatisfaction and vague spiritual emptiness is the inevitable result, but nonetheless, I feel it is a challenge many of my readers here will wish to take on - so pass the f-ing ketchup and let’s get on with it, I’ve got the disc right here.


(1) We may also wish to note at this point that screenwriters Vincenzo Mannino and Gianfranco Clerici went on to collaborate on such projects as ‘House On The Edge of the Park’, ‘The New York Ripper’ and Fulci’s ‘Murder Rock’, whilst each can also boast a similarly illustrious (ahem) list of solo credits.

(2) Whilst on the subject of this movie’s faux-horror re-titling, I can’t express the extent to which it saddens me that, even during the high watermark for human civilization that was the 1970s, there apparently weren’t enough punters willing to buy a ticket to see Stuart Whitman and John Saxon in ‘Blazing Magnum’, as advertised by the poster at the top of this post, when it hit their local cinemas. Proof positive that, then as much as now, people just don’t know what’s good for them.

(3) For more memorable examples of John Saxon knocking off ludicrous dialogue like a pro, see my earlier ruminations on ‘Blood Beach’ (1980).