Tuesday, 30 March 2010

20 Million Miles to Earth (1957)

Country: USA

20 Million Miles to Earth is an interesting if largely forgettable science-fiction film from the heyday of the genre in the 1950’s. However the film has one or two noteworthy aspects to it that separates it from other examples of the time. The first of these is an Italian setting. The film opens in a fishing village off the coast of Sicily. The calm heat of a Mediterranean afternoon is shattered when a rocket suddenly appears in the sky and crashes into the sea. The bewildered fisherman scatter like a shoal of fish, but fortunately a couple of brave fellows are on hand to investigate the possibility of survivors. We later discover that the rocket was returning from an expedition to Venus and the only survivor Colonel Robert Calder (William Hopper) is keen to get his hands on a cylinder brought back from the mysterious planet. Pretty soon the might of the US military led by Major General McIntosh (Thomas Browne Henry) has descended on the sleepy village. Urgency is the order of the day as the cylinder which contains the egg of a weird lizard like creature from Venus has found its way into the hands of the zoologist Dr. Leonardo (Frank Puglia) and his daughter Marisa (Joan Taylor). The creatures adaptation to the atmosphere is terrifying and unique as it starts to grow to massive proportions. Eventually the creature is caught and chained up in a zoo in Rome, but he soon escapes to wreak havoc on an unsuspecting Italian populace.

Sunday, 28 March 2010

Paranormal Activity (2007)

Country: USA

Paranormal Activity is the latest in an increasingly long line of films to harness the realistic properties of the video camera. The mobility, shakiness, flatness of image and the naturalistic lighting give a greater illusion of reality than the warmth and depth of 35 millimetre film. But a film like this is not content to simply capture a sense of reality on screen, but like The Blair Witch Project (1999) before it saw fit to take the fabrication to a higher plane by suggesting the material seen in the film was found footage. Unfortunately the grainy home movie material is as much an indication of the opposite. This is a trick that has now been played to death. The use of non actors adds to the illusion, as does the lack of credits at the beginning and the end of the film, but the test of such a proposition is whether such a technique can be extended for the duration of the film - and the answer of course is no. The director Oren Peli uses a number of straightforward and predictable formal devices to create tension and suspension. Devices and modes which would not be apparent in the amateur documentary footage of two individuals terrified out of their wits by spectral visitations.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

The Monster Club (1980)

Country: UK

From a critical point of view The Monster Club represents the nadir of the British horror anthology film. This is a tradition in British horror which stretches back to the post war chills of Ealing Studios Dead of Night (1945) and was brought to longer lasting popularity by the Anglo-American production outfit Amicus. By 1980 the Amicus leadership had gone their separate ways and under the guidance of Milton Subotsky Amicus stuttered fitfully to this final swansong. The writing had been on the wall for the anthology horror film after the critical and commercial shortcomings of Subotsky’s feline themed bore The Uncanny (1977). Subotsky either chose too ignore this failure or was completely oblivious to an international market that had turned away from the quaint offerings that Amicus were now known for.

Monday, 22 March 2010

Stalker (1979)


The films of Russian auteur Andrei Tarkovsky are challenging and often inscrutable. The images presented in his films are enigmatic and the layers of meaning unfathomable but at the same time stimulating. The narratives of his films regularly play out in a linear fashion, but details of plot are often obscured by his meditative and dignified use of the camera. The editing strategy employed in his cinema often creates a sense of temporal confusion, a blurred netherworld in which memory and reality do battle in a war of representation. A world in which cinematic space is manipulated to become strange and otherworldly. His films walk a thin tight rope between commercial generic material (two of his most famous works have been positioned as science fiction) and an avant-garde style that is peculiarly his own. His films often betray a yearning for escape. The harsh realities of Soviet communism and the national trauma of World War Two dispersing into the realm of the visionary, into a sphere of dreams and half constructed recollections. Tarkovsky’s films are subjective ruminations and they reflect the confusion and fallibility of the human mind.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Halloween (1978)

Country: USA

John Carpenter's Halloween

American filmmaker John Carpenter built his reputation in the 1970’s with a series of innovative and in part socially committed genre films. At one time Carpenter had a particular gift in constructing genre films that combined affection and enthusiasm for generic history and innovation and newness for contemporary audiences. After successfully tackling science fiction through the lens of the counter culture in Dark Star (1974) and the western through the lens of contemporary racial tensions and urban disintegration in Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) Carpenter inevitably turned his attention to the horror genre. Halloween popularised the slasher and ‘body count’ horror seen in earlier trend setting examples like Psycho (1960), the absurdity and brilliance of Mario Bava’s cynical Bay of Blood (1971) and Bob Clark’s festive chiller Black Christmas (1974). Halloween polarised independent filmmakers to follow suit and by 1980 the major Hollywood studios had got in on the mass slaughter act with such derivative films as Friday the 13th (1980). The importance and success of Halloween was to gel a multitude of influences and tap into a particular virulent fear in American society.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

The Asphyx (1973)

Country: UK

The Horror of Death
Spirit of the Dead

The Asphyx is a film that would have seemed quaint and harmless at the time of its release. It is one of a handful of films that represented the last dying stutters of the British cycle of gothic horror. At this point in time Hammer’s gothic milieu was playing second fiddle to nudity and lesbianism, but this subtle and affecting drama is refreshing in its total disavowal of the exploitation elements that were dominating British horror at the time. It also differs in its richness of imagery and its stateliness. The perceived slowness of the film, its lack of star appeal, and its lack of violence and nudity doomed the film to a life buried deep in a cobweb strewn vault. But thanks to the recent efforts of Odeon Entertainment The Asphyx can now be enjoyed in all its visual glory, and it emerges as a touching, literate, and at times lyrical horror film.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Audition (1999)

Country: JAPAN

Prolific filmmaker Takashi Miike made his international breakthrough with this mischievous and beautifully controlled examination of spectatorship, generic expectation, and gender relationships. With its subtle hints that eventually lead to a nightmare world of sadism and torture Miike proves himself to be a filmmaker that audiences cannot trust. The slow burning narrative build up of the first half affords the male characters an opportunity to express their weaknesses and vulnerabilities. For widower Shigeharu Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) his emotional frailties centre on the persistence of his son in finding a replacement for the wife who perished several years before. Aoyama still loves his departed wife, but the idea of a sexual partner, and a housewife to keep everything in order is very attractive. Aoyama’s sexism is outmoded and old fashioned, but he is essentially an harmless individual. He doesn’t possess the same level of vitriol and spite his friends do at the rising number of women in the work place. Despite the dubious morality of holding a fake audition in order to find himself a suitable wife, Aoyama scarcely deserves the shocking punishment he suffers at the end of the film.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Blood of the Vampire (1958)

Country: UK

Although totally obscure and almost completely forgotten to modern audiences Blood of the Vampire has the dubious honour of being the first major attempt to imitate the colourful gothic horror of Hammer. Released mere months after Hammer had scored a major success with Dracula (1958) the screenplay was written by Jimmy Sangster who had also penned Hammer’s early gothic successes. Where Sangster had shown himself to be adept in the skill of adaptation for the purposes of Hammer’s low budgets, his skills as an original writer are found wanting here. Sangster is on firmer ground when his screenplays call for derivation (the series of black and white psychological thrillers he wrote for Hammer in the 1960’s are a good example of this). Blood of the Vampire is derivation of the highest order - one of the worst types of cash ins - unfortunately the horror genre is most susceptible to this. Part of the reason why this can be rated as one of the worst imitations is a deceptive title and a deceptive pre-title sequence.

Friday, 12 March 2010

Christine (1983)

Country: USA

John Carpenter's Christine

The 1970’s had seen a number of films responding in a most conservative fashion to progressions in technology. Like the revolt of nature film which saw the natural world decide it had had enough of humanity, technology was positioned as something that could achieve autonomy, to have a sentience and a will of its own that was dedicated to the destruction of mankind. Carpenter’s film feeds into this strain and builds upon the rather vacuous earlier killer car effort The Car (1977). In that film the vehicles sentience is painted in purely supernatural terms, whereas Carpenter opts to totally remove any sense of the supernatural from his film. The car is alive, can drive around on its own, can regenerate itself, has feelings of love, jealousy, and vengeance and is able to act on these feelings. We aren’t really given an explanation of this - it just does! Depending on your outlook this is either the films major weakness or its great strength.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Rosemary's Baby (1968)

Country: USA

Rosemary’s Baby is a very important film in two regards. Firstly it confirmed the promise of Polish filmmaker Roman Polanski and proved that he was able to handle a large budget and the pressures of Hollywood. Secondly it became one of the keynote films in establishing a new modern horror, a type of horror that didn’t reside in distant gothic landscapes populated by sadistic aristocrats. The problem with the brand of gothic horror pedalled by Hammer and to a lesser extent Roger Corman was the very restricted and simplistic world view the films offered. Depictions of good and evil were strictly demarcated, with the latter overcome by the forces of faith and rationality to maintain a conservative status quo. This did not reflect the world as it was in 1968 and Gothic allegories became increasingly irrelevant. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) blurred notions of good and evil, more realistically offering shades of grey reflected in the monochrome cinematography. Ira Levin in his novel Rosemary’s Baby built upon this, by cleverly fusing soap opera/melodrama with witchcraft in a modern milieu that nevertheless paid lip service to gothic conventions with a suitably eerie apartment block.

Monday, 8 March 2010

The Queen of Spades (1949)

Country: UK

The Queen of Spades is a remarkable film made all the more astonishing by the fact that its director Thorold Dickinson began work on it with just five days notice. At this point Dickinson was best known for Gaslight (1940) and he would only make nine films in a career plagued by interference and bad luck. He is perhaps more prominent now for his contributions to the academic study of film. Especially important in a British culture which has been dismissive of film as an art form and dedicated itself to the type of social realism that Dickinson gleefully ignores in this particular film. Instead The Queen of Spades belongs to a sensual and highly melodramatic tradition in British cinema of which the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger belong. The supernatural element of the narrative gives it a weak claim to horror status, but Dickinson astutely avoids the visual iconography of the genre, preferring instead to concentrate on the atmosphere and visual panorama of the piece. When once places the film into its post World War Two British cinema context it emerges as a very distinctive, poetic, and highly artistic effort whose critical and commercial marginalisation was no doubt due to its lack of social impetus.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Dracula (1958)

Country: UK

Horror of Dracula

The commercial success of The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) established a number of vital ingredients that would go on to form the basis of much of Hammer’s gothic horror. The lurid use of primary colour, the opulent and lavish set decoration and design, the bombastic and strident musical scores, and the tongue in cheek black humour. The film firmly set the small British producer down the rutted and overgrown pathways into the sublime universe of the gothic and their 1958 production of Bram Stoker’s famous novel would arguably become their finest aesthetic and narrative achievement. For all of its stylistic innovation The Curse of Frankenstein now seems a bit stately and stiff. The Hammer artists had created a dandyish and talky world of drawing rooms and parlours. By contrast Dracula still ripples and crackles with energy. It has a tone and economy of pace and design that remains exhilarating and exciting. The elements of Hammer horror reach a remarkable state of synthesis (some might say the only time they all genuinely did) and the result is a landmark in British cinema.

Friday, 5 March 2010

The Haunted Palace (1963)

Country: USA

Edgar Allan Poe's The Haunted Palace

In the 1960’s Roger Corman in conjunction with American International Pictures was creating his own brand of gothic horror. These films which were largely based on the short stories and poems of Edgar Allan Poe offered more psychological depth than the rival productions of England’s Hammer. Corman opted for a more delicate and finely balanced visual palette which mirrored the dreamy and hallucinatory nature of his films. Hammer’s merits lay in the externalised opulence of their production design and art direction. An evocative visual landscape which ultimately distanced the viewer from the horror on screen. Corman however was just as interested in interior landscapes and in the interaction between emotional depth and visual style. For this reason Corman’s Poe films seem to have an intellectual dimension which was rarely reached by any of his contemporaries.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Book of Blood (2008)

Country: UK

Clive Barker's Book of Blood

Clive Barker’s Books of Blood were originally released in six volumes during 1984 and 1985. Published by Sphere they were an impressive calling card and showed that Barker had an appreciation for the traditional aspects of horror fiction as well as an impulse to create something slightly different. The emphasis on perverse sexuality, sado-masochism (explored in more detail in Barker’s debut horror film Hellraiser (1987)) and graphic bodily violence showed him to be a distinctive voice in an overcrowded marketplace. Initially at least Barker’s translation to cinema was less than auspicious. Both Underworld (1985) and Rawhead Rex (1986) were dire wastes of celluloid, before Barker hit pay dirt with the aforementioned Hellraiser. As a director Barker has proved to be far more adept at handling his own material - both Nightbreed (1990) and Lord of Illusions (1995) were intriguing and complex tales which ultimately never recovered from the massive studio interference that plagued them. As a producer Barker oversaw one of his most successful films in Candyman (1992), a film that spawned a franchise, a new horror icon (something Barker has achieved twice, if you include the Cenobites) and a steadily growing reputation that has seen the film acclaimed as something of a minor masterpiece.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1965)

Country: UK

The beautifully titled Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors holds a prominent place in British horror history for being the first anthology film produced by Amicus Productions - an Anglo-American production house led by Max J. Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky. For a while the blueprint of the portmanteau format, big name ensemble casts, and inspirational low budget filmmaking heralded a commercial rivalry with Hammer. But one that ultimately tailed off in the mid 1970’s as American investment was pulled out of British productions resulting in floundering fortunes for both. Screenwriter Subotsky took as his model the creepy and atmospheric Ealing Studios film Dead of Night (1945). This film utilised the anthology form in order to explore themes of time and memory in post war Britain, and created much final resonance with a bridging story that added to the sense of alienation, dislocation and loss. Subotsky’s effort puts aside any intellectual dimension in favour of presenting five sub-generic horror staples in service of a fun and mildly creepy exercise in genre.

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