You Can Check Out Any Time You Like, But You Can Never Leave

John Cusack in Mikael Håfström’s 1408 (2007)
John Cusack in Mikael Håfström’s 1408 (2007)

The second post in my Recurring Nightmares series for Permanent Plastic Helmet, this time looking at the allure of the horror hotel, taking in a little Méliès, Marienbad and Motel Hell along the way:

Frightfest 2013 Tweet Review Roundup

Julia Garner in We Are What We Are (2013)
Julia Garner in We Are What We Are (2013)

100 BLOODY ACRES (C+/B-) Aus appropriation of Motel Hell post-hillbilly sensibility. Low key, & likeably character driven rather than outright farce

THE BANSHEE CHAPTER (C+) Telegraphed scares, but enjoyably pulpy feel, and verite (rather than found footage) aesthetic well suited

BIG BAD WOLVES (B+) Tight, comic chamber piece, propelled by ambiguity & delicious irony. Superbly constructed, realised & performed

CHEAP THRILLS (B+) Contrived setup, real moral truths. Nice After Hours-y single-night out of control spiral, farce rooted in empty-glass pessimism

THE CONSPIRACY (C+) Mock-doc stylings intriguingly blur formal edges between reality & fiction, though at times too much of a storytelling constraint

CURSE OF CHUCKY (C+) Modest aims, partially achieved: frequently amusing, likeably knowing, if never greatly suspenseful

DARK TOUCH (C-/D+) Good ideas & occasionally striking compositions drowned beneath clunky dialogue & bungled supernatural scenes

DARK TOURIST (C+/B-) Somnambulance + unpleasantness a heady brew, but noir stylings & invocation of God’s Lonely Man feel heavy-handed

THE DEAD 2: INDIA (F) Earnestness of predecessor replaced w/ dull sentiment; clichéd script, off-the-peg characters, wobbly performances

DEMENTAMANIA (D+) Sub-Fight Club yuppie psychosis lifted by Bateman-esque fantasy psychopathy, but narration & soapy perfs feel cheap

THE DYATLOV PASS INCIDENT (D+) Charmless, tonally flat first half, ludicrously scattergun second. Periodically forgets mock doc rules

FRANKENSTEIN’S ARMY (C+) Steampunkish alt history concept interesting, story less so. Found footage aesthetic oddly anachronistic

HAMMER OF THE GODS (D+) Mostly looks the part (though underlit≠style); lacks own sense of identity, save for ‘GoT for Nuts readers’

HATCHET III (C-) More of the same (ergo YMWV), tho nice line in self deprecation. Entertaining, but more accomplished -> less interesting?

HAUNTER (B+) Conceit a doozy: teen ennui as in media res Groundhog Day. Shifting sands reveal notes of melancholy & existential revolt

THE HYPNOTIST (D) That’s quite enough portent now thanks, Scandinavia. Dreary pulp procedural flatlines under Hallström hackwork

I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE 2 (F) “Your honour, the accused has returned to admit to extra charges of xenophobia & breathtaking ineptitude”

IN FEAR (B-/C+) Rural horror vigorously tense when rooted in ambiguity, suspicion & mistrust, but really drops the ball post-reveal

THE LAST DAYS (C-) Undemanding cookie-cutter apocalypse drama, polished into glossy blandness. Identikit Hollywood remake inevitable

MISSIONARY (F) Flat shorthand emotions give way to dreary, inept psychodrama. Thematic content practically nonexistent. Dreadful

NO ONE LIVES (B-) Low fat slasher-with-a-difference, freshness from dry wit & shifting, ambiguous identification. A genre fan’s delight

ODD THOMAS (C) Slick, colourful & mostly likeable, tho smug in over-eagerness to hit offbeat notes. Not keen on 2D-ness of main female character

R.I.P.D. (D) Yeah, Men in Black-lite, let down by bland action seqs. Bridges playing familiar riffs, but melody still charms. MLP = MVP

V/H/S/2 (C) Snappier than predecessor, though some problems remain: gimmicky nature of segments, and limp link narrative

WE ARE WHAT WE ARE (A-/B+) Irons out wrinkles of original, elegant Southern Gothic restyle teeming with Old Weird America resonances

YOU’RE NEXT (B-) Effective, mischievous home invasion-er, spiced w/ black comedy. Snarling synth score + stylish visual tics among host of pluses

Five to watch:

We Are What We Are (Jim Mickle, 2013, USA)

Big Bad Wolves (Aharon Keshales & Navot Papushado, 2013, Israel)

Haunter (Vincenzo Natali, 2013, Canada)

Cheap Thrills (E.L. Katz, 2013, USA)

You’re Next (Adam Wingard, 2011, USA)

Taxis to the Dark Side

Griffin Dunne in Martin Scorsese's AFTER HOURS (1985)
Griffin Dunne in Martin Scorsese’s AFTER HOURS (1985)

In the first post in a new, regular column entitled ‘Recurring Nightmares’ over at Permanent Plastic Helmet, I take a look at two taxi rides across New York City in Martin Scorsese’s After Hours (1985) and Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999). You can read the piece via the link below:

Five Things I Learned From Frightfest 2012 (and some questions too)

Tulpa (Federico Zampaglione, 2012, Italy)

The Italian horror renaissance is still some way off

When questioned about the state of his country’s national genre cinema, Friday’s special guest, legendary Italian director Dario Argento, described it as “a sleeping beauty”; from the efforts on display at this year’s festival, it seems that the blood may still have yet to have dried on the spindle. Exhibit A was the Manetti Bros’ PAURA 3D, a quasi-incarceration thriller remarkably devoid of anything remotely approaching suspense, and whose use of 3D seemed little more than a perfunctory means of making the film’s title sound snappier. Also screening was Federico Zampaglione’s TULPA, a neo-giallo whose lacklustre, bilingual (or, more accurately, a-lingual) dialogue and surprising lack of visual ambition will prove depressingly familiar to viewers acquainted with the more recent Argento-directed entries in the sub-genre. To make matters worse, Italy’s rich horror heritage was lovingly paid homage to in Peter Strickland’s superb, Polanskian BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO, further confirming the sense that the long shadow of the country’s cinematic output still continues to eclipse the present paucity.

Torture is, mercifully, still off the US film agenda

Two years ago, the likes of I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE, VILE and THE TORTURED populated the festival’s programme, reflecting the continuing post-HOSTEL, post-SAW vogue for so-called ‘torture porn’ narratives. Last year’s programme saw a decrease in the number of such films, suggesting a decline in their popularity, and this would seem to be confirmed by this year’s selections which were again remarkably free from such sadistic revenge narratives. CHAINED director Jennifer Lynch elucidated the shift most obviously, clearly stating that she had modified the film’s original script in order to divert the story away from the familiar torture porn template. Elsewhere, the Twisted Twins’ AMERICAN MARY (notably dedicated to HOSTEL director Eli Roth) shaped towards such a narrative but pleasingly moved into other territories speedily enough, while other American studio films THE POSSESSION and SINISTER were remarkable only in terms of their sheer inoffensive conventionality. Indeed, it was the Italian PAURA 3D came the closest to broaching HOSTEL-like material, though ultimately contented itself with a handful of relatively restrained sequences of bound sadism.

Franchises don’t have to be formulaic

Most pleasant surprise of the weekend was [REC]³ GENESIS, not just in terms of sheer entertainment value, but also in its refusal to conform to the confining strictures of its own franchise. The sudden shift from the strict first-person perspective of its previous two installments (arguably the single defining characteristic of the series) via a transition marked by a near-iconoclastic destruction of a video camera, led to some viewers crying foul, but the overwhelming feeling was one of liberation, freeing up the storytelling from the gimmicky confines of POV storytelling, the entertainment potential of which had, frankly, already begun to wear thin even before the closing credits of the first film. Like the torture porn setup, which almost always essentially revolves around the same moral framework of ‘bad things can turn good people into evil ones’, there seems a natural limit to what can be achieved with the found footage setup, something which franchise co-creator Paco Plaza seems have acknowledged and attempted to look beyond here. Other franchises – take note.

The Seasoning House (Paul Hyett, 2012, UK)

Very Bad Things are still happening to women in horror films

As the festival progressed the hashtag #rapefest began to be shuttled around Twitter, inaugurated by the critic Kim Newman in response to this tweet by the screenwriter James Moran which decried the apparent ubiquity of sexual assaults on females taking place on-screen, including in THE SEASONING HOUSE, HIDDEN IN THE WOODS and V/H/S on the first two days alone. Women have always had a rough time in horror – the presence at the festival of Dario Argento, a director frequently accused on misogyny in his gleeful mistreatment of his film’s female characters ought to have served as a reminder of this – and one doesn’t need to consult a copy of Carol J Clover’s Men Women and Chainsaws to be able to come up with a substantial list of rape-based texts.

There is a wider, more complex debate to be had about whether violence against women on screen represents institutionalised misogyny or just a convenient cinematic shorthand for certain types of vulnerability, but with regard to sexual violence, female sexual assualt seems ultimately still considered something of a ‘safe’ transgression in comparison to that of the male (DELIVERANCE, in this regard, still feels an isolated anomaly rather than a ‘game changer’). Naturally, the context of individual films matters; worst offender this year was the odious HIDDEN IN THE WOODS, which fudged (at best) the issue by falling prey to the same kind of lecherous leering at its young female leads that its narrative was ostensibly critiquing.

Interestingly, two further examples offered differing takes on similar ideas: Paul Hyett’s THE SEASONING HOUSE and Jennifer Lynch’s CHAINED. Both films created hermetically sealed spheres in which women are ritualistically abused: the former set in a brothel during the Yugoslav Wars, the latter in contemporary America, and both viewed through the eyes of young protagonists who find themselves in moral complicity with violent, sadistic patriarchs.

Both are strongly visceral, challenging works, but while they have other significant differences – the former has a more pronounced fairytale-nightmare feel and the protagonist is female, compared to the more brutal-realist latter which centres on a male – what seems most pertinent is the difference in historical context, and it prompts wider questions about the degree to which they are likely to provoke controversy. My impression is that Lynch’s film, because of its more familiar setting, will be the subject of greater problems, the implication being that the ‘otherness’ of Hyett’s film somehow has greater leeway for the atrocities it portrays. Ought this necessarily be the case? Does a context which distances the viewer result in harder content becoming more easily digestible?

Maniac (Franck Khalfoun, 2012, France | USA)

It’s a fine line between stupid and, er, clever

The main talking-point of the festival appeared to be MANIAC, the Alexander Aja-penned remake of the 1980 psycho-thriller, which employed a strict first-person POV virtually throughout. Such an aesthetic choice, coupled with the woozy ambience and particularly gruesome details, appeared to make it the most effectively disturbing film of the long weekend, but also seemed to render the material genuinely problematic.

Subjective viewpoints are, of course, nothing new in horror cinema as evidenced by the post-BLAIR WITCH PROJECT vogue for found footage shockers. What makes MANIAC unusual is that, unlike those films, there is no mediation between the audience and the protagonist via the implication of a video camera recording the action; we are (one assumes) sharing exactly the perception of reality which the character is experiencing, placing the film closer to the more ‘purely’ subjective mode which includes Zac Baldwin’s HANAH’S GIFT, Gaspar Noe’s ENTER THE VOID, and even the television sitcom PEEP SHOW.

The urtext for such material in horror is Michael Powell’s PEEPING TOM (though, once again, its use of POV is restricted to what is seen either through the viewfinder of Mark Lewis’ camera, or on subsequent playbacks of his recordings). The film famously provoked revulsion on its release but has since gone on to inspire countless theoretical analyses, most notably the work of Laura Mulvey, who identifies it as a significant text in terms of the way it plays with notions of spectatorial identification, forcing the viewer into a complicity with its protagonist Mark’s brutal crimes.

The original MANIAC, as noted by Kim Newman, was a retrograde return to the deformed monster meme of early 20th century horror, a mode which PEEPING TOM, and the same year’s PSYCHO, had subverted two decades earlier by presenting its murderous protagonists as somehow sympathetic victims. This new MANIAC, however, is feels more ambivalent. The casting of as unshakeably likeable a screen presence as Elijah Wood would suggest the presentation of the protagonist in a positive light, as do the offered explanations for his actions (uncaring, promiscuous mother; loneliness; gender and sexuality confusion), however simplistic and cod-psychological they feel.

Yet there is a conflict between this feeling of sympathy and the extreme violence which is being presented onscreen. Is this intended as a kind-of absolution for his crimes? There seems no conclusive answer, and intertextual nods to the diverse likes of THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, TAXI DRIVER and THE CABINET OF DR CALIGARI only serve to muddy the waters, hinting that perhaps he ought to be viewed as nihilistic villain, deluded anti-hero or merely criminally insane. That there appears to be no satisfactory answer to this contradiction at the film’s core makes it unclear whether the questions the POV ploy prompts are there by design, and whether the form single-handedly raises the same schlock content of the original towards something more metaphysically disturbing and challenging for the spectator.

Frightfest 2012 Review Round-up

Berberian Sound Studio (Peter Strickland, 2012, UK)

AFTER  (F) Painfully ill-conceived hey-where’d-everyone-go drama, suffocating in a fog of misplaced, morose sentimentality

AMERICAN MARY (B-/C+) Titular protagonist well sketched, but narrative slips out of focus, body mod plot never as subversive as promises

BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO (A-) Warm, affectionate meta-cinematic glow dissolves into Polanskian purgatory between reality & art. Mesmerizing.

CHAINED (C+) Remorseless grimness lifted by committed performances, but thematic concerns only partly served by storyline twists

COCKNEYS VS ZOMBIES (C-) Handful of decent gags keeps things just the right side of amiable, though in too many depts more than a bit ‘pony’

DEAD SUSHI (B-/C+) Perfect throwaway midnight fodder; predictably nutso, and never runs out of suitably barmy fish/rice based ideas

EUROCRIME!  (B-) Thorough, entertaining passegiata thru poliziotteschi sub-genre; great talking heads from Franco Nero, Henry Silva & Chris Mitchum

GRABBERS (B-) Hugely endearing Irish small town creature feature, delicately genre savvy & a great paean to the joys of getting pissed

HIDDEN IN THE WOODS (F) Frenetic, morally confused feral tale of two sisters; telenovela-like hysteria (& aesthetic) generates unsolicited LOLs

MANIAC  (C+/B-) Undeniably brutal, but is it a formally innovative approach to themes of voyeurism & spectatorial identification, or merely retrograde & intellectually vapid?

OUTPOST: BLACK SUN (D-) Technically adept, if chronically under-lit, but story’s a bore; flavourless characters had me rooting for the Nazis

PAURA 3D (D-) Devoid of anything approaching atmosphere/suspense; botches scares, though descent into gratuitous sadism mercifully brief

THE POSSESSION (C+) Polished studio product, no more or less. Ditches early character work for derivative, predictable hokum

[REC]³ GENESIS (B-) No idea what, if anything, defines the franchise any more, but this was great, ribald taffeta-clad fun

THE SEASONING HOUSE (C+) Uneven; best when hermetic, puce-hued fairytale-nightmare, though edges softened by Balkansploitation silliness

SINISTER  (B-/C+) Throws its net wide, pecking corn like the metaphorical blind hen, though with surprising frequency. Effective sound, Hawke classy

SLEEP TIGHT (B+/A-) Taut, suspenseful but above all deliciously blackly comic, propelled by darkly twisted Almodovarian obsession

STITCHES (B-/C+) More than a little rough around the edges technically, but on the whole an inventive, funny & gleefully gory delight

THE THOMPSONS (D-) Nice rural setting, but standalone blood-sucking mythology is wispy & forgettable, + some terrible secondary performances

TULPA (D+) Familiarly hokey neo-giallo awfulness, rendered entertaining by magnificently (Euro)criminal dialogue & performances

TOWER BLOCK (C+) Frantic LIFEBOAT-meets-Broken-Britain setup, better before moralizing & explanations. Cutaways to gunman a mis-step?

UNDER THE BED (C-) Resolutely ludicrous. Nice central fraternal axis, but needed *something* extra (ambiguity? verisimilitude? Joe Dante at the helm?)

V/H/S (C+) Gripes about ‘VHS’ aspect aside, a portmanteau of efficient – if strikingly bland – found footage stories; Skype-ological 4th chapter pick of the bunch