Archive for May, 2009

Demons

1985, Italy, Directed by Lamberto Bava

Colour, Running Time: 88 minutes

Review Source: DVD, R1, Anchor Bay; Video: Letterbox 1.66:1, Audio: DD 5.1

If you want artistic intellectualism, cultured dialogue, or existential relevance in your movies, don’t come to Lamberto Bava. Despite his dad being a bit of an auteur in the cult genres, a flamboyant technician with a great sense of aesthetics along with the raw talent to innovate in his efforts in the creation of unique shots, Lamberto took up the directorial reigns to knock out bloodshed movies that would appeal almost exclusively to the lower cerebral functions. That’s not a bad thing. Demons begins with a young woman (who’s on her way home from work or university presumably) receiving a complementary ticket to see a movie. Tagging her friend along they both head off to the cinema where a reasonable size audience has gathered to watch the mysterious film, which turns out to be a horror story about Nostradamus’s apparent prediction of a demonic plague becoming a reality. Some of the viewers are perplexed when certain events in the movie begin to mirror what’s happening in the theatre and suddenly there is an outbreak of demonic possession outside of the film. All hell breaks loose in the cinema as people are ripped apart, subsequently transforming into the very monsters that killed them, while others flee in panic only to find that the exits have been blocked - as death and mayhem escalate it would appear that there is no escape for the survivors.

C'mere, you bloody humans!

Young Bava had made a small but noticeable mark on the genre world already with the macabre Macabre and the moderately stylish (if overlong) modern giallo Blade in the Dark in the early eighties, and Demons (or Dèmoni) would pretty much sledgehammer his presence on the scene: whilst it is minimalist in terms of plot development and characterisations (though there are a few feeble attempts at the latter) the movie delivers profoundly on violence, gore, suitably ghastly demons, sheer ruthlessness, etc. Taking a good half hour to get going (where the spectators are generally sitting around watching the onscreen action unfold while telling each other to shut up, or generally attempting to mate), once the action does kick off it’s like the gates of hell have opened up. What gives the scenario some impact is the setting: everyone being inexplicably trapped within in a labyrinthine cinema has a cool vibe about it, and one that brings a little bit of a sinister edge with it too. Periodic injections of humour also elevate the darker elements of the story, usually in the form of some of the characters’ oddball lines (the black guy has some of the best of these). Of course the film’s crew did boast some respectable talent working alongside Lamberto: acclaimed director (at the time!) Dario Argento both produced the film and wrote the screenplay (with Lamberto and Franco Ferrini) based on a story by Dardano Sacchetti (writer of most of Lucio Fulci’s best films, amongst many others), and Claudio Simonetti wrote a significant portion of the soundtrack, he of course being famous as one of the collaborators and originators of Italian prog-instrumentalists Goblin. Aside from Simonetti’s typically distinctive contributions there’s a great choice of metal tracks granting the bloody action with some bite, making the movie almost a cinematic celebration of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal era that had reached its summit by the time Demons was released. Saxon’s Everybody Up and Accept’s Fast as a Shark are notable highlights though of course this choice of music won’t suit everyone, however I think it makes good accompaniment to some of the crazy antics of the characters. Stripping genre cinema down to its fundamental constituents Demons is basically a kick-ass, rock n’ roll, gory roller coaster ride.

 

Still unsurpassed as far as I’m aware this Anchor Bay disc was released in the US some time around 1999. The dull, non-enhanced transfer is reasonable though nothing more. The accurate aspect ratio is welcome while a dated attempt at creating a 5.1 surround track from antiquated elements does bring some weight to the soundtrack, even if the audio is still a little centred at the front side of the soundstage. A commentary from the director (among other people), a featurette and trailer round out the DVD package.

Posted on 28th May 2009
Under: Horror | 2 Comments »

The Nightmare Before Christmas

1993, US, Directed by Henry Selick

Colour, Running Time: 76 minutes

Review Source: Blu-ray, RB, Disney; Video: 1080p 24fps 1.66:1, Audio: D TrueHD

Jack Skellington is an influential force in Halloween Town: the inhabitants look up to him to orchestrate the arrangements of each Halloween night, the primary purpose being to annually frighten the residents of the human world above and then spend the rest of the year preparing the following festival. But from Jack’s point of view the whole routine is becoming meaningless. As with most reasonably intelligent individuals he’s beginning to question the point of it all and yearns for something to break the mould. One night wandering through an unexplored part of the woods he stumbles across a doorway to Christmas Town. Having a look around the place his enthusiasm is re-ignited as he decides to take over the Christmas celebrations of the human world and add his own personal spin on things. Authorising the kidnapping of ‘Sandy Claws’ to keep the big man out of the way, Jack utilises the help of Halloween Town’s infinitely macabre residents to prepare some new ways of celebrating. But being a little misguided Jack manages to make a bit of a mess of things when he angers humanity with his strange gifts (severed heads, snakes, etc.), putting his own life in peril in the process.

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Derived from a story and accompanying sketches produced by Burton several years previous, Disney (the film was eventually released under their more ‘adult’ subsidiary, Touchstone Pictures) bravely permitted the project to be realised using stop motion animation, an incredibly time consuming and arduous technique that involves meticulously moving hand crafted models frame by frame, each shot usually accommodating either 1/12th or 1/24th of a second depending on the level of sophistication required. It’s worth remembering that CGI was in its relative infancy at the time and the first fully computer animated feature (Toy Story) was still a couple of years away so at this point traditional 2D (generally drawn) was the method of choice for the majority of full length animated films. To take on a feature project using the laborious stop motion process was close to madness but thankfully it’s something that appears to have paid off, both critically and commercially - the movie’s subsequent success easily returned profits on the original investment of (approximately) eighteen million dollars.

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The magnitude of this technical achievement, however, would have been nothing were it not for the abundance of incredibly imaginative ideas on display: every single shot oozes dark beauty both in the designs and character movements. Each hand-created model, from ornaments and buildings to trees and entire towns, is almost a work of art in its own right, the pinnacle being the characters themselves: accurately reflecting Burton’s original sketches these statuettes are brought to life so exquisitely they could fool you into thinking they’re autonomous entities in their own right. Jack Skellington himself makes a charismatic lead, someone with both entertaining personality and the deeper flaws that almost bring about his downfall as he desperately tries to understand and emulate a cultural tradition that he’s completely unfamiliar with. Though the results of his actions bring about despair upon humankind he’s not specifically an evil person, more so misguided and misunderstood, hence there is a complexity there not as common as it should be in feature films, both live-action and animated. His stubborn attempts to bring meaning to his own life through recreating the Christmas spirit are counter-balanced by Sally, someone who can see clearly what’s going wrong but can’t quite get her point across. Of course she has her own problems in the form of scientist and captor, the gorgeously realised Dr Finkelstein. The efforts of the artists don’t stop at the primary characters though - even bit parts (especially the fantastic human children) are great to watch, ensuring there are things going on that you’ll be noticing afresh for viewings to come.

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Danny Elfman must have loved this project, composing a near constant score as well as writing the lyrics throughout and providing the singing voice for Jack. Not being a fan of musicals I admittedly didn’t warm to the soundtrack until after perhaps two or three viewings; nowadays it’s impossible to imagine this film sounding any other way. Of course Burton himself didn’t actually direct this film - his name over the title reflects the fact that it’s based on his story, visuals and concepts. While he stood in as producer (along with, at that point, regular collaborator Denise Di Novi) Henry Selick was offered directorial duties, something that requires a certain degree of awareness outside of the norm due to the extremely slow nature of filming. It may be fair to say that Selick’s contribution was initially less acknowledged than it should have been, what with Burton’s creative shadow obscuring recognition of the lesser known man’s presence somewhat. What’s almost as bad is the fact that he then went on to direct James and the Giant Peach, a Roald Dahl story that Burton obviously had not created, so the producers added Dahl’s name above the title! The talented guy just doesn’t seem to be destined for fame somehow. Aside from the fact that Nightmare Before Christmas has very little competition as far as stop motion feature films are concerned, it’s nevertheless an amazing film both artistically and technically, one that revels in visual beauty from the opening seconds onwards and a moment of real creative integrity for Hollywood, something that‘s way too uncommon in a world where cinema has been hijacked by business people.

 

Seeing this film for years on DVD brought about a familiarity that really gave birth to unprecedented appreciation when I watched the Blu-ray Disc - the transfer (finally framed at its correct ratio) brings the film to life in a manner I simply didn’t expect. Model work is truly granted justice as every crevice now seems to be visible, while the colour is so vivid a direct comparison to the DVDs previously released makes them look like going back to VHS (note that the screen grabs are from the DVD SE). Similarly there were sounds in the Dolby TrueHD track that I’m sure I’d never heard before, such is the clarity of the audio. The disc is rammed with extras with Burton’s old films Vincent and Frankenweenie being retained (though not looking as good as the feature obviously). A true gem of a film is blessed with a BD that should be owned by all film-lovers.

Posted on 12th May 2009
Under: Other | No Comments »

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