Archive for August, 2009

The Midnight Meat Train

2008, US, Directed by Ryuhei Kitamura

Colour, Running Time: 103 minutes

Review Source: Blu-ray, RB, Lionsgate; Video: 1080p 24fps 2.39:1, Audio: DTS HD

It goes without saying that Clive Barker made a bit of a splash on the horror scene back in the eighties, initially with his rather visionary Books of Blood (famously endorsed at the time by Stephen King) and then with the directorial debut that was Hellraiser (discounting the insane arthouse shorts Salome and The Forbidden). Then after the comparatively small dents in humanity that Nightbreed and Lord of Illusions made it seemed that his presence in the genre film world diminished somewhat, other than the continued association he’s had with the Hellraiser brand through its many sequels. Actually he has acted as producer on a few low-end projects but otherwise the arrival of The Midnight Meat Train became quite noteworthy due to a number of favourable reviews attracted by it (though I acknowledge some are less kind). Based on one of the stories in Books of Blood the tale concerns Leon, a talented photographer who has his shots of the seedier side of city life declined by some snobby know-it-all woman in the business. However, during the course of the rejection one of her comments entices him to look deeper into the decadent city that forms the basis of the majority of his material in order to find something altogether more alerting. The otherwise stable Leon decides to head off into the night armed with a camera and his innate eye for an interesting shot, seeking something that will force people to take note. Stumbling across a mugging in the tube station he manages to make the assailants leave their victim alone, after he has grabbed some ‘artistic’ images of the crime in progression, but later finds that the woman being attacked has turned up dead, or more specifically, brutally slaughtered. Initially suspecting the muggers he takes his photos to the police where he’s treated more like the criminal himself for simply taking these shots of the woman, who turns out to be a semi-famous model. Effectively fobbed off he discovers that there’s a foreboding man who tends to hang around the tube trains and who looks likely to be the real perpetrator, so Leon decides to follow him. Eventually Leon realises that what he’s getting involved in is far more horrific than he might at first have imagined, and thus his descent from the stability of his everyday existence has begun.

MMT2

First of all I found myself really getting into this after just around ten minutes - I think Leon is played nicely by Bradley Cooper, coming across as likeable and someone who we can identify with reasonably successfully. The fact that he’s a photographer attempting to make it in a difficult world induces some sympathy and once he begins his nocturnal adventures we’re pretty much with him. It’s also a bonus that the world outside his apartment is realistically grim, or grimly realistic - a city weighed down by its own human slime. The film boasts a strong visual style courtesy of director Kitamura (genre fans may know of him from slick zombie-action flick Versus a few years back) and cinematographer Jonathan Sela (The Omen remake, for want of a more desirable genre example), most shots demonstrating efficient skills in the framing department. I also think the locations are well selected/designed - these largely revolve around Leon’s apartment, the café where his girlfriend works, the police offices, a cold looking tube station, and of course the train itself. Interspersing all this is some very contemporary extreme violence, something that most modern genre films can’t seem to do without. It is, however, very well executed and polished - almost enjoyable to watch perversely - though one scene in particular I had to turn away from (hey, I‘m getting on a bit, okay?). We get the ‘extreme’ version in the UK, and extreme it is! Famously taking on the tragic lead antagonist is football nutter Vinnie Jones, a factor which doesn’t necessarily attract me: having a celebrity face pulls you out of the fantasy as far as I’m concerned, although Vinnie’s virtually silent intensity is quite appropriate and he adopts some nice characteristics (e.g. the manner in which he almost primly holds on to his veterinarian bag) to flesh out the psychotic but focused man. He’s an imposing figure but I do think that the film-makers take this a step too far as the film reaches its final act, turning him into an almost Terminator-type unstoppable machine. This is one of the movie’s few real flaws though it fortunately doesn’t tarnish overall enjoyment a great deal. Without wishing to give any details away, the story does progress into mythological areas by the time of its conclusion (i.e. it’s not simply about a killer on a train) and this development is welcome, even if some may find elements of it hard to digest. It’s almost like a collision between eighties sensibilities and the aggressive cinematic tactics of something made more recently, and I think the ideas are constructed somewhat higher than what could have merely been categorised as ‘slasher’ otherwise. At a time when it’s difficult to please fans whose emotions are made of stone it seems that Midnight Meat Train gets things right, enough so to make its one centimetre or so of space on my shelf quite valid.

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Sliding the Blu-ray Disc into my player with some trepidation thanks to reading a small number of complaints on the internet about the graininess of the HD image I was pleasantly pulled into appreciating the film on a higher level. I understand that the film was shot on Super 35 and this factor tends to bring with it an inherent level of grain that has simply been captured by the two million or so pixels of the Blu-ray picture. Basically the people complaining about this do not comprehend what ‘film’ is. It’s easy to perceive a higher level of detail here than on any Standard Definition release and it grants the world delineated by the story a sharp realism. The grain makes this world look and feel dirty. It’s a pity people are so uneducated when it comes to the technologies that are used to create film and transfer them to the screens in our homes (to this day I go into people’s living rooms to find that they’ve set their DVD/widescreen TV up incorrectly and the proportions of the image are completely wrong - to the apparent ignorance of the household inhabitants!). All of this makes the job of Blu-ray more difficult than it should be, but - to those who understand - Midnight Meat Train is presented very well by Lionsgate here and I wouldn’t watch it any other way. Stellar audio also supports this in DTS HD Master Audio format, with 7.1 channels of immersive sound. Aside from a commentary and various featurette, one extra in particular fascinated me: a 15 minute look at Clive Barker and what he gets up to. Initially I was a bit surprised at how fu*ked up Clive’s voice is - his accent is even weirder than it was back in the eighties and there’s a strange croaky resonance about it. After some comments on the story on which the film is based Clive takes us on a tour of his studio, a place where he has been relentlessly painting for the last ten years or so. I found his artwork quite incredible to look at, and his attitude inspirational. The sheer quantity of paintings and the vastness of bottomless imagination on display is quite awesome and it seems that he has found the perfect way to express the contents of his unusual brain. Overall this Blu-ray Disc is a satisfying package of a film that is a suitably good time.

Posted on 22nd August 2009
Under: Horror | No Comments »

The Vampire Bat

1933, US, Directed by Frank R. Strayer

Black & White, Running Time: 63 minutes

Review Source: DVD, R1, Alpha Video; Video: 1.30:1, Audio: DD Mono

Taking place in a bat-infested village on the European continent somewhere, in a period probably around the early part of the twentieth century, the residents are in the grip of terror as a series of uncanny attacks results in murder through massive blood loss on multiple occasions. Arguments proliferate between the authorities - on one side the suggestion that a genuine vampire being the perpetrator is substantiated by the evidence, while those with more of a scientific orientation than superstitious scramble for a more plausible explanation. The village idiot - bat-loving Herman - seems to attract unwanted attention when many of the villagers decide that it’s him to blame, and end up chasing him through the countryside with burning torches. Even putting Herman out of action, however, does not bring the attacks on inhabitants of the village to a halt.

Do you mind if I taste your.... tea?

Clearly latching on to the success snowballing during the first ever real horror-boom, The Vampire Bat feeds off the thrills audiences derived from the likes of Dracula, having its characters obsess over the blood-draining antics of the antagonist as if they had just seen Tod Browning’s famous movie themselves. The film also represents a clash between science and superstition as the authorities endlessly argue amongst themselves what kind of killer they’re dealing with. In that respect it seems ahead of its time although the dialogues and scenarios are inevitably antiquated by the period in which they’re firmly embedded. Where the film rises above its meagre resources is in the atmosphere forcibly concocted by the direction, cinematography, and sets (famously borrowed from other, bigger films, notably Whale’s Frankenstein and The Old Dark House). Without spending too much money the film-makers manage to scrape together a look and feel for this Majestic Pictures indie not dissimilar to Universal’s early thirties movies. This is aided by the presence of several well-knowns from the period: Fay Wray looks thoroughly lush as Ruth and herself would be synonymous with several other genre movies around the same year (King Kong, Mystery of the Wax Museum, Most Dangerous Game), Lionel Atwill (Mystery… again, as well as a number of the Universal films later on), and Dwight Frye, fresh from Dracula and Frankenstein, here as the ill-fated Herman (village idiots really seemed to get a raw deal in the old days!). Some comedy relief is provided by an old woman who seems destined to be scared out of her wits by anything that moves - an old fashioned touch that doesn’t work as well nowadays, however there is one amusing scene where she is fooled into thinking Herman has transformed into a dog. The Vampire Bat is short and moderately sweet, it injects a touch of originality for the era with its scientific angle while not losing sight of the ambience that’s all so essential to these thirties chillers.

 

Floating around US DVD under the public domain, the best one would appear to be from Alpha Video. Undoubtedly a ‘cheapo’ release the image is nevertheless reasonable though in need of a restoration of higher proportions. The early shots look terrible and I wasn’t looking forward to viewing the rest as a projected image, but relax because it does settle down to something altogether more stable and defined. Sound-wise it’s also okay, though far from stellar. Extras are unsurprisingly pretty much nonexistent (limited to promotion of the company’s other golden oldies), though I think the colourful cover artwork is actually rather nice for a budget title (having said that I do feel it presents a potential spoiler, a factor indicating that the designers weren‘t too thoughtful in that sense). All in all this is a good buy for fans of B&W chillers.

Posted on 14th August 2009
Under: Horror | No Comments »

Shadow of the Vampire

2000, UK/US, Directed by E Elias Merhige

Colour, Running Time: 89 minutes

Review Source: DVD, R2, Metrodome; Video: Anamorphic 1.78:1, Audio: DD 5.1

Somewhere in Europe in the early 1920s, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau is attempting to direct a film sneakily based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula novel with names, film title, etc., switched around in the hope of avoiding the legal attentions of Stoker’s obstinate estate. Faced with mounting concerns from the production’s financiers, Murnau relentlessly pursues his unusual vision of the ancient vampire’s story of love and everlasting death. The film’s titular portrayer however is not revealed to the rest of the crew until later on, when he apparently refuses to appear to them in any sense except as his onscreen character, along with full ‘make-up‘. It becomes apparent that Murnau has made some sort of pact with the mysterious Max Scheck that keeps the strange man participating in something that may be at odds with his personal interests. But then Schreck begins making his own demands on the production, and before long people are being hurt by forces they’re unable to describe.

Schreck

Steven Katz’s story takes the novel approach of using a true life event (i.e. the filming of the silent classic Nosferatu) and injecting it with something (probably…) fictitious, in this case the suggestion that the person playing the monster was in reality a vampire himself, this essentially capitalising on the fact that there’s not a great deal known about the real-life Max Schreck. Bringing an unprecedented style to Schreck is Willem Dafoe, in what justifiably proved to be an Oscar-nominated performance - by all accounts uncanny, repulsive, and downright odd, he’s almost unrecognisable due to both extensive make-up and characteristic portrayal of the strange being. In fact he heads up an adept cast all round: John Malkovich is typically manic and emotive as the director, Eddie Izzard is a frightened Gustav (playing Hutter from Nosferatu - essentially the Jonathon Harker semi-hero renamed), the lovely appearance of Udo Kier as the perpetually oblivious producer, his natural accent fitting in well with the forced dialects of the rest of the cast, and finally Catherine McCormack as Hutter and Orlok’s stuck-up love-interest. The overall cinematographic approach is one of murkiness and gloom; quite suitable given this rather dark excursion, while punctuating the story are genuine snippets of Nosteratu alongside close recreations of shots with the actors of this film as ‘Murnau‘ shoots his masterwork - the genuine clips prove to be a reminder of the potency ingeniously injected into the 1922 chiller by the contextual suppositions made by Katz. Indeed, after watching this I think the natural urge is to seek out the real Murnau film on one of its many DVD incarnations.

 Schreck and Hutter

But not only is there a bit of terror and drama in Shadow…, we’re also treated to sly portions of black humour that induce the occasional smile. I guess a film such as this was always going to have difficulty finding a target audience among the masses due to a refusal to fixate itself on any particular genre conventions - even the vampire elements are masked by ambiguity as Schreck’s bloodsucking tendencies may possibly be those of a madman or something altogether unprecedented. Instead this is a thoroughly original treatment that seems to have paid the price that steers many producers into safer territory nowadays (hence the apparent stagnation of the film industry that we appear to be suffering nowadays).

Posted on 1st August 2009
Under: Horror, Other | 5 Comments »

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