Archive for October, 2008

The X Files

1998, US, Directed by Rob Bowman

Colour, Running Time: 118 minutes

DVD, Region 2, Fox, Video: Anamorphic 2.35:1, Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1

Taking an idea that was most recently mentioned in the finale to season 5, the movie begins with a couple of Neanderthals discovering in a cave what may be an extraterrestrial life form, a malevolent and putrid creature that destroys them. Jump forward several million years to the present day and some Dallas boys stumble across what is probably the same place underground, one of them (the lad who played Caleb so perceptively in American Gothic) becoming trapped with a strange black liquid that infiltrates his skin and takes over his body… Not only do the fire brigade turn up but a horde of militaristic vehicles arrive suggesting that something altogether more profound is going on than a mere threat to a child’s life. Some time later FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully are involved in a terrorist situation that has them attempting to prevent the explosion of a building and consequential catastrophic loss of life. Thanks to Mulder’s innate ability to turn a seemingly illogical hunch into the catalyst for an unprecedented discovery, the agents end up searching what is initially suspected to be the wrong building. It actually turns out to be the ‘right’ building and they barely escape with their lives before the whole thing blows. It later transpires that what they thought was a cleared area just prior to the blast has actually become the death bed for a couple of firemen and a young boy. Not only that but the FBI are as good as blaming the two agents for the disaster - they really were in the wrong place at the wrong time it seems. After a hearing that places their careers somewhere in mid air Mulder is contacted by a rogue writer of conspiracy theories, a man who is constantly at odds with authorities that are pinning anything on him that might put him out of action (e.g. child pornography claims). The man suggests that the people who ‘died’ in the explosion were actually already dead and this puts Mulder (along with a reluctant Scully) on a trail that leads the agents to the realisation that the whole thing may have been designed to cover up evidence of the possibility that aliens once visited the Earth and now threaten to repopulate it.

You three scumbags better start answering questions or we're hauling your asses in

The first theatrical outing (sometimes dubbed Fight The Future) for The X Files effectively bridges the gap between seasons 5 and 6: for the cracking final episode of the former the X Files department (read: basement) was not only shut down but burned down with Mulder and Scully being reassigned to more mundane cases (such as terrorist bomb threats and the like…). The irony is that the case they’re working on turns out to be inextricably linked to the very conspiracies that they’ve been ushered away from. The opening bomb scenario reminds me a little of that in Speed, but with a touch more realism (apart from Mulder’s discovery of the bomb’s location, one of those coincidences that underpins much of the series) - a pretty exciting and highly functional grip on the viewer for what’s to come. Woven into the dialogue are keenly inserted snippets of historical passages no doubt designed to familiarise viewers who may not be up to date with the show itself, but their incorporation manages to avoid contrivance just about. Familiar characters from the show are also peppered throughout - the smoking man, the lone gunmen, and Skinner of course - and these characters become mechanically relevant elements of the fairly intricate plot. In fact some viewers unaware of the show’s staples may find some of the dialogue heavy sections hard work, being articulate, complicated, and undeniably paranoid as they are. Hence all of the elements are there that made the show work in the first place and this would be amongst the best episodes if it were such. Surprisingly the movie doesn’t simply take on the appearance of just another episode - it looks and feels much bigger in scope from the outset; the famous 20th Century Fox ident at the beginning, an apparently much more generous budget, the 2.39:1 aspect ratio (up from the 1.78:1 of the preceding season and the 1.33:1 of earlier seasons), and the absence of the show’s opening sequence, which it has to be said just wouldn’t have worked for a convincing theatrical presentation. Some of Mark Snow’s distinctive theme has been implemented into the score generally, however, so it’s not entirely missed. Gillian Anderson and Dave Duchovny both translate their characters to the big screen well and are by this point very comfortable with the two people who simply couldn’t have been portrayed by anybody else. Their near onscreen kiss is a cool highlight too. It was really nice to see Lucas Black show up (Caleb from American Gothic) though the fact that they used Christopher Fennell too (one of Caleb’s friends in AG) makes me wonder whether this was an in-joke. The story itself, penned by the show’s creator Chris Carter along with regular collaborator Frank Spotnitz, reaches a huge and rousing climax that really tingles the flesh and proves that there was still life in the dog at that point.

The rather spiffing Gillian Anderson

The video transfer is by now dated but just manages to serve its purpose in an age that is gradually becoming hi-def. It’s soft and features a slightly artificial colour scheme that I suspect could be substantially improved nowadays. The 5.1 track is aggressive, loud, and enveloping; this suits the TV-cinema upgrade perfectly. A second disc of extras combines with an audio commentary to round out a pretty good package, however, a Blu-ray version is on its way and will make this set redundant almost certainly. Having not seen this film for ten years (which was at the cinema in fact) I thought it was a thoroughly good expansion to the show’s concepts and a carrot to entice people to continue watching into season 6.

Posted on 26th October 2008
Under: Science Fiction | No Comments »

The Guardian

1990, US, Directed by William Friedkin

Colour, Running Time: 92 minutes

Satellite Broadcast, Image: 1.33:1, Audio: Stereo

There are a huge number of movies out there that almost get completely forgotten about as time progresses (many justifiably so it has to be said) even in this DVD age where just about everything seems to appear somewhere in the world. The Guardian was released briefly on disc in the US by Anchor Bay a few years ago but remains generally low-key; is it an obscure classic or something that was deliberately trodden into the ground never intended for exhumation? Probably neither… being one of the very few movies I’m aware of that takes elements of druid legend as inspiration it certainly has some claim to individuality. The story is based on a Dan Greenburg novel called The Nanny and outlines a scenario early on where we know that a woman is masquerading as a nanny to gain access to people’s infants with the intention of abducting them for sacrifice to her tree-like gods. In the prologue she is successful so we then skip forward to meet the main characters (Phil and Kate) who have just moved away from town and have become pregnant. Of course once their offspring has arrived they interview for a nanny and have several terrible options to choose from, but a couple of feasibly capable women too. Their first choice dies in a freak accident so they’re forced to resort to second choice Camilla (Jenny Seagrove). She’s perfect in every respect it seems: physically alluring, intelligent, highly functional in child rearing, etc. Aside from the fact, that is, that she’s intent on sacrificing the child as soon as its blood cells have changed just as she has done many times before.

Original Poster

Not exactly carving a good reputation for the mysterious druid ‘faith’ of centuries gone by, it’s certainly a slightly different angle for a tale of terror. Add to the mix the threat of death to miniature human offspring and you’re certain to engage audience emotion to some extent. Friedkin’s film is gorier than one might expect though plays with less punch than The Exorcist, the film he’s undoubtedly most renowned for. Seagrove performs her Camilla role with a calm and collected nature that could almost be quite chilling, if it wasn’t for the fact that she’s so darned nice. Having said that her later scenes where she returns in her half-natural state and levitates through the forest are adeptly executed and send a noticeable shiver along the spinal column, and therein are a couple of other things that are worth mentioning: the forest itself comprises one of the more effective elements of the film, being an inhospitable swirling mass of engulfing trees and hostile winds. However, on the downside, and something that’s related to Camilla’s ability to float, is a wayward attitude towards establishing ‘rules’. Now of course this is fantasy so generally it could be said anything goes, but I find it’s often in a film’s favour to construct a universe where its laws of physics at least make some sense to itself, and where The Guardian goes overboard, for example, is when Camilla erases the evidence of a murder by magically waving her hand over patches of blood to make them vanish. Even considering the concept that trees may be conscious entities of some kind (and who’s to say they’re not?) this sort of thing is a touch on the silly side. The bad guys who attempt to attack Camilla at one point are also hopelessly stereotyped. Back to more positive aspects, the relationship that almost ensues (it’s only really hinted at here) between Camilla and Phil is something that adds some dimensionality and complicates the scenario, though this isn’t as fleshed out as it could have been. A feeling of terror is conveyed by Brad Hall - after an ethereal sequence where he discovers there’s something inhuman about Camillia, his prolonged final minutes are suspenseful and tense, but this is not a factor that’s maintained throughout the movie. To summarise, the story itself is likely to keep you watching for its one point five hours and that’s good enough.

 

As was the tendency back in the early nineties when I taped this from satellite, the image is heavily cropped to a 4:3 ratio - there were no widescreen TVs in 1992 (I don’t think?) and the general public were blissfully ignorant when it came to correct aspect ratios. Fans of the film would do well to track down the Anchor Bay disc but be warned as this OOP DVD is rather difficult to obtain nowadays, at least for a reasonable price.

Posted on 19th October 2008
Under: Horror | No Comments »

The Devil’s Rejects

2005, US, Directed by Rob Zombie

Colour, Running Time: 106 minutes

Review Source: DVD, R2, Momentum; Video: Anamorphic 1.78:1, Audio: DTS

The second feature length outing for the multi-talented metal-star-cum-movie-director follows House of 1000 Corpses almost as a sequel: it doesn’t specifically take up the same story but rather focuses on some of the principal antagonists, nasty murderous backwoods dwellers that creator Rob has clearly taken a liking to. Revealing the date to be around the end of the seventies (two years after House…) a group of cops lay siege to a house where a small posse of killers dubbed after the film’s title are hiding. A mass shootout ensues resulting in the loss of several lives, but the surviving Rejects, Baby Firefly and Otis, escape and hijack some old woman’s car to head out on their own strange little road trip. Warning their father (?) Captain Spaulding (the clown from House…) by telephone that the police may be heading his way he dumps his beached-whale missus and dilapidated home to meet them at a mutually convenient motel. When Spaulding arrives he finds they’ve wasted almost no time in capturing a couple of unnecessary hostages to torment, the sort of treatment he’s only too willing to participate in. The sheriff meanwhile has his own personal reasons for tracking down and destroying the Rejects - they were responsible for his brother’s death in the previous instalment. Soon his obsessive desire for vengeance brings him to a full-blooded showdown with the group as they’re hiding out with a friend who’s forced to betray their security.

DR1

For those who were interested in such things around the time, House of 1000 Corpses had extreme difficulty finding a distributor due to its tendency toward excess violence. I believe it was Lions Gate Films who eventually gathered together enough bottle to put it on public display (though shorn prior to that of some of its more visceral moments, footage that may now be lost forever), before others followed in picking it up for a more global distribution. Ironic then that after the film makes a few million dollars the sequel should have no trouble at all being produced, despite some of the most extreme violence and torment seen this side of the Video Recordings Act. The opening shot makes it clear to the audience that they’re not in for an easy journey - Tiny (played by supremely tall Matthew McGrory, who unfortunately died just days after the UK opening of …Devil’s) is seen dragging the naked corpse of a girl through the woods by her hair. The shootout after this fails to elicit any sympathy from the audience due to us not particularly caring about any of the characters at that point (in fact, by the film’s end you may even despise them), however, as the story progresses and we’re dragged along the same expedition as the titular characters it’s possible to find ourselves strangely fixated with their horrific antics. You may wince as a head is beaten, innocent victims are psychologically tortured, a girl is splattered across the highway, but you may also find yourself strangely compelled to continue viewing (unless you’re really squeamish of course). Of the number of directors in recent years who’ve laid claim at attempting to recreate the seventies gritty horror atmosphere of flicks like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Hills Have Eyes, Death Trap, et al., Rob Z is the one who really seems to understand the era. Whether it’s art of any value or not is really down to viewer opinion but he seems to unpretentiously pay homage to a period of film-making clearly admired by him, and he successfully recreates his own scenarios as if they could slot nicely between the aforementioned semi-classics, despite the frequent injection of a more modern approach to editing and style. His astute choice of music reflects his talents for writing it (though I’m not the greatest fan of his music, he’s often displayed flair and creativity with White Zombie and his solo output), from Midnight Rider (Allman Bros.) to Free Bird by Lynyrd Skynyrd, in the latter’s case a significant portion is implemented too believe it or not. I was surprised to find the soundtrack containing none of his own tracks - perhaps he wanted to keep the story’s mood firmly rooted in its reflected era. The film reaches a logical conclusion that almost makes you’ve feel like you’ve satisfyingly accompanied a team of anti-heroes on their final road trip rather than tagged along to involuntarily witness the brutal exploits of despicable serial murderers - Rob Z effectively turns our disgust right on its head with his potent, skilfully constructed, and oddly likeable concoction of seventies grindhouse cinema, spaghetti westerns, and contemporary technique. I should point out also that it’s a movie that works better second time around so repeat viewings may be favourable.

DR2

Despite having a lower budget than House… the movie looks and feels bigger than its predecessor thanks to smart decision-making and necessarily creative thinking, something that’s reflected by this stupendous transfer - colourful, bold, heavily detailed and with a rocking DTS track to boot. You wouldn’t be short-changed by picking up the two discer either, with a monolithic 2 hour 20 minute documentary overseeing every practical aspect of pre-production onwards (Rob Z looks intense without his sunglasses but comes across as articulate and very logical in his approach to movie making). The shooting and ultimate omission of a Doctor Satan sequence (one of the characters from the first film) is also discussed, and the fact that it was left out seems like a wise choice despite the deformed man-thing being a fan favourite. For those prepared to take a mental beating Devil’s Rejects should offer a hypnotic ride through Hell. That’s a good thing by the way.

Posted on 12th October 2008
Under: Horror | 2 Comments »

The Seventh Victim

1943, US, Directed by Mark Robson

Black & White, Running Time: 71 minutes

Review Source: DVD, R1, Warner; Video: 1.33:1, Audio: DD Mono

Val Lewton’s 40s genre productions have become much more renowned thanks to Warner putting together their fabulous DVD collection of his work about three years ago. But long before that his pictures for RKO studios were considered quite special, formulating as they did quite chilling little tales of the morbid without resorting to overt manifestations of the supernatural. This was always a pleasing contrast to the output of Universal and helped to push forward the idea that the genre didn’t really need inhuman monsters to succeed critically and commercially. In fact their conception was partly the result of the failure of the mighty Orson Welles productions so we could say we have Citizen Kane to thank, as if its legacy hasn’t snowballed enough. The Seventh Victim begins with young college student Mary being called up to be informed that her Manhattan-based sister is no longer paying her tuition fees. In fact nobody can seem to get in touch with Jacqueline so Mary packs up and heads off to the great city of NY to find out what’s happened to her older sibling. First stopping off at the restaurant once owned by Jacqueline Mary finds out she was seen at a local boarding house and goes off to enquire. There it seems the missing woman has hired a room - seemingly not to stay in, rather it’s there as some sort of haven for a potential suicide that forces Mary to realise her sister‘s situation is much more sinister than the innocent youngster‘s mind would like to have contemplated. She comes into contact with the man who loves Jacqueline and with the help of a private investigator (who is soon murdered for his curiosity) they delve deeper into a plot that leads to a satanic cult that has drawn Jacqueline into their macabre world.

Jean Brooks

A very noir-esque atmosphere is established once Mary arrives at the city: shadowy streets, darkly lit corridors, harsh contrasts (cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca was clearly an expert technician and artist) - it’s an ideal world to conceal the goings-on of a group of devil-worshipping people. In fact the cult reminds me of the sinister neighbours that later turned up in Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, and are quite a creepy bunch considering this was the forties. Mary (Kim Hunter’s feature debut, amazingly the same woman who went on to play Zira in the first three Ape movies) is lovely and innocent, making her treacherous journey a tad more engaging as she stumbles into a threatening city that could almost consume her, though it seems as though something is watching over her shoulder as more harm comes to those around her than Mary herself. An interesting moral seems to have been wound into the narrative that makes itself apparent by the end, and one which possibly reflected the way Val Lewton pondered upon his own existence (a cardiac illness was making itself known at the time, this eventually leading to a premature demise): humans may at some point, or with eventual inevitability, come to question whether they wish to continue living and both angles are represented by two characters. Jacqueline herself (resembling Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction) evidently possesses a fixation with her own death, perhaps fantasizing about suicide itself until it becomes an ongoing obsession, whilst crossing her path is a woman who is terminally ill but would prefer to avoid death - one person is living but wants to die, the other is dying but wants to live. Indeed the opening statement of the film (about running to death but death meeting one just as fast) suggests to me that the story is ultimately an exploration of man’s relationship with death, something which underpins all of horror in some ways. This gives what once began as B movie material (in fact, just a title really) a certain degree of greater depth than what might have been anticipated by the funding studio (the last thing they wanted was conceptual depth after Orson Welles had drained them of cash). Along the way we come across a number of smartly thought-out sequences; Mary and the PI standing at the end of a dark corridor, both afraid to advance before she persuades him to effectively walk to his doom, Mary’s subway ride where three ‘drunks’ stumble on to the train only for the hat to fall from the one being carried revealing him to be the very PI that was murdered earlier - his body obviously in the process of being disposed of, and not least the shower scene that surely must have influenced Hitchcock years later, such is its similarity to Psycho’s most famous murder sequence. The Seventh Victim is a movie than can be appreciated by both fans of the macabre and noir alike.

 

Warner’s transfer is exemplary given the movie’s period of creation, and it comes accompanied with a highly informative 53 minute documentary on producer Val Lewton. Perhaps some of the interviewees (the likes of William Friedkin, Joe Dante, etc.) go a little overboard in their praise, as is often the case with back-slapping Americans, but appreciation for Lewton will certainly flourish as a result of viewing this comprehensive piece. There’s also a feature commentary from historian Steve Haberman that is sometimes a little quickly spoken though this also means that there’s a large amount of information and considered opinions divulged. He discusses an omitted subplot concerning Tom Conway’s character as well as the critical and commercial response to the film following initial release, among many other things. One thing Haberman drew my eye to during listening was the point when Mary is offered the bad news by the school’s headmistress - watch her silent assistant who is staring at Mary throughout the dialogue, it’s a pretty creepy image as she continuously looks Mary up and down in far too suggestive a manner. The disc can be picked up as part of the superb boxed set that comes with Lewton’s other RKO genre productions - note, a later release of this also includes a Martin Scorsese documentary as an additional bonus.

Posted on 5th October 2008
Under: Horror, Thriller | 4 Comments »

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