Saturday, 30 October 2010

Land of the Dead

Year: 2005
Director: George A. Romero
Screenplay: George A. Romero
Starring: Simon Baker, John Leguizamo, Dennis Hopper, Asia Argento, Robert Joy, Eugene Clark
Running Time: 93 minutes
Genre: Horror, action, survival

Summary: The dead have risen up and are attacking and eating the living. Anyone who dies becomes one of them, and anyone left alive after being botten by one will also shortly become one of them. The only way to destroy them is by destroying the brain, usually by shooting or stabbing in the head. The Earth has been pretty much completely overrun by these zombies. However, a community of survivors exist in a fortified enclve in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The community is ruled by the vicious and corrupt Kaufman (Hopper) who lives, along with the rest of the wealthy and elite in a luxurious high-rise apartment complex, while the rest of the people live in abject poverty, kept docile by the many vices that Kaufman lays on for the purpose. Frequently a team led by Riley Denbo (Baker) make forays into the outside world in a heavily equipped armoured vehicle known as "Dead Reckoning" in order to get urgently needed food and medical supplies. However, Riley is determined that this will be his last run. However, shortly after they return from their most recent expedition, Riley and his sidekick Charlie (Joy) are arrested after they break up an event involving two zombies fighting over a woman, Slack (Argento). Meanwhile Riley's second in command, Cholo DeMora (Leguizamo), whose dreams have been shattered when Kaufman denied him a place in the Fiddler's Green complex, has stolen Dead Reckoning and is threatening to open fire on the comples. However, in the city outside, one of the zombies (Clark) is beginning to show signs of regaining some of his human intelligence and is starting to organise the others.

Opinions: This film is the fourth in writer-director George A. Romero's Dead series and was preceded by Night of the Living Dead (1968), Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Day of the Dead (1986), and it has so far been followed by Diary of the Dead (2007) and Survival of the Dead (2010). It's fair to say that Romero's films have pretty much created the popular image of the movie zombie: a shambling mindless walking corpse forever chomping on the flesh of the living, which has now become one of the most popular horror movie tropes. The film, which was produced on a higher budget than any of the other Romero zombie films, is a fast-moving, action packed affair full of impressive special effects and well-designed action scenes. It is also full of gruesome set-pieces and the zombie make-up is suitably gross. However, as with the others in the series this movie is also quite satirical and full of quite savage social commentary, in particular the community's division between rich and poor, with the wealthy living in luxury more or less as if nothing has changed, while the poor live scrabbling for existence by any means necessary. In fact, the question could be who is worse: The zombies who are just acting on instincts and their own need for survival or the likes of Kaufman who casually exploit and destroy people for profit. The acting is good, with Dennis Hopper being particularly effective as the evil, but soft-spoken, Kaufman and Eugene Clark giving an affecting performance as the lead zombie. The movie's female lead is well played by Italian actress Asia Argento, whose father, legendary horror director Dario Argento, helped finance Romero's Dawn of the Dead. Despite the amount of gore and violence in the film, there is a strong vein of playfulness and humour running through it, and there are a number of in-jokes and references. Watch out for a cameo appearance by actor Simon Pegg and director Edgar Wright, whose Shaun of the Dead (2004) was heavily influenced by the Romero series.

Eugene Clark (centre) and friends in Land of the Dead

Burke & Hare

Year: 2010
Director: John Landis
Screenplay: Piers Ashworth and Nick Moorcroft
Starring: Simon Pegg, Andy Serkis, Isla Fisher, Tom Wilkinson, Jessica Hynes
Running Time: 100 minutes
Genre: Comedy, horror, period

Summary: It is the year 1828 and the city of Edinburgh is famous as a centre for science and medicine, and is home to two prestigious medical schools, one run by Doctor Robert Knox (Wilkinson) and the other by his arch-rival Doctor Monroe (Tim Curry). In order to keep these schools supplied with corpses to use as teaching aids, most of which are provided by the bodies of executed criminals. However, Monroe uses his political influence to have all the bodies of the recently executed automatically turned over to him. Deprived of the only legal means of obtaining fresh cadavers, Knox finds himself having to turn to the body-snatchers (also known as "resurrectionists") who steal bodies from graves and sell them, a potentially lucrative but also highly illegal profession. William Burke (Pegg) and William Hare (Serkis) are two Irish immigrants who attempt to make a living as con-men but without success, their only regular source of income being a boarding-house run by Hare's wife, Lucky (Hynes). When one of their lodgers dies, Burke and Hare realise that they can sell the body to Knox for a good price. Add to this is the fact that Knox always needs more bodies. The problem is that the cropses need to be as fresh and as intact as possible. The only solution is for them to provide the corpses themselves.

Opinions: This film is based on a true story which is still something of a legend in Edinburgh, although the film is very far from being historically accurate (one scene for example features another Edinburgh legend, Greyfriars Bobby, the little dog who spent fourteen years guarding the grave of his owner, depsite the fact that the dog wasn't born until 1855 - 16 years after the events of the film). However it is an entertaining film which manages to be funny throughout. The humour is mostly pretty broad and slapstick. The film is also very gory, which may put off some viewers, and some horror fans might be put off by the comedy element. The production design and sets are impressive creating an impressive vision of 1820s Edinburgh. It is also very well performed by a talented cast which is filled out by numerous cameos from well-known British actors and comedians. Focusing mostly on Burke and Hare themselves the movie makes them genuinely likeable and sympathetic characters, despite their murderous activities, and give Burke a moving romantic story with aspiring actress Ginny (Isla Fisher).
While far from being perfect, this film is both funny and dark.

Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis in Burke & Hare

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III

Year: 1990
Director: Jeff Burr
Screenplay: David J. Schow, based on characters created by Kim Henkel and Tobe Hooper
Starring: Kate Hodge, Viggo Mortensen, William Butler, Ken Foree, Joe Unger, Tom Everett, Toni Hudson, Miriam Byrd-Nethery, R.A. Mihailoff
Running Time: 86 minutes
Genre: Horror, sequel, survival

Summary: A young Californian couple, Michelle (Hodge) and Ryan (Butler), are driving through Texas on their way cross country to Florida. Along the way, they pass an excavation of a large number of butchered corpses. Stopping at a small service station, Michelle has an unpleasant encounter with the station's sleazy owner, Alfredo (Everett), but the couple are helped by a seemingly friendly cowboy, Tex (Mortensen) who informs them of a short-cut along a small little used road. However, that night they find themselves under attack from a chanisaw wielding maniac known as Leatherface (Mihailoff) and his sadistic, cannibal "family".

Opinions: This film is the second sequel to the notorious horror film The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), and it attracted a lot of controversy prior to it's release due to a battle between the film's studio, New Line Cinema, and the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America), which initially gave the film an "X" certificate due to graphic violence. In the end, the studio relented and a cut version was released with an "R" rating. However, both versions of the film are available on DVD. The movie is neither particularly bad or particularly good. It's very predictable and moves along with few surprises, and also a lot of the film takes place at night and is shot so darkly that it is really difficult to make out what is going on. However there are enough gruesome special effects to satisfy gore fans, and it is really too short to ever get boring. The cast all give spirited perfomances with Ken Foree a particular standout as the tough survivalist hero. Today, the most notable aspect of the film is an early appearance by Viggo Mortensen as the charismatic, but sadistic, cowboy. Incidentally, one of the studio's first choices to direct this film was Peter Jackson, who would later work with Mortensen on The Lord of the Rings films.
Basically, this is a very average, fairly gory, horror movie sequel, no better then many others.

Viggo Mortensen in Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III

Friday, 22 October 2010

The Brides of Dracula

Year: 1960
Director: Terence Fisher
Screenplay: Peter Bryan, Edward Percy, Jimmy Sangster and Anthony Hinds (uncredited)
Starring: Peter Cushing, Martita Hunt, Yvonne Monlaur and David Peel
Running Time: 85 minutes
Genre: Horror, supernatural, Hammer Horror

Summary: Transylvania, the late 19th century: Marianne Danielle (Monlaur), a young French schoolteacher, is on her way to take up a job at a girl's school. However, she ends up starnded in a small village. With nowhere else to go she accepts an offer to stay the night at the large castle of the sinister Baroness Meinster (Hunt). During the night Marianne discovers that the Baroness' son (Peel) is chained up in his room, and helps him escape. However, it turns out that the son has a dark secret, as during the following night a young woman in the village is found dead, drained of blood. The locals immediately recognise that a vampire is on the loose and send for the aid of Dr. Van Helsing (Cushing), the only man who was able to defeat the most powerful vampire of all - Count Dracula.

Opinions: This is the first official sequel to Hammer Studios Dracula (1958) which was also directed by Terence Fisher and starred Peter Cushing with a script by Jimmy Sangster. However this lacks one crucial ingredient from the original, and that is Christopher Lee as the Count himself. Dracula does not appear at all in the film, and is only mentioned twice. Lee wouldn't reprise the role of Dracula until Dracula: Prince of Drakness (1966). In this film the role of principal villain is taken by David Peel, who doesn't really make much of an impression. He's kind of bland, and doesn't really have a lot to do until the end. It doesn't help that he looks like a sixties pop star. It's hard to the bloodsucking undead seriously when it looks like he's going to break into "You Were Made for Me" at any moment. However, Peter Cushing was rarely better as Van Helsing than here bringing a strong sense of dignity and gravitas to the part as well as a welcome physicality in the action scenes. Yvonne Monlaur makes for an engaging and attractive lead. As often with the Hammer films the production values are strong, and the film effectively blends action with humour. However some of the techniques haven't aged well, notably the use of "day for night" filming (in which a scene is shot during the day but with a special filter to make it look as if it is taking place at night). Incidentally there is a very brief cameo by Christopher Lee: During the close up of the vampire's eyes towards the end of the film, the eyes are actually Lee's in a clip from Dracula.
This is an enjoyable slice of Hammer Horror and should appeal to fans and newcomers alike.

Filming The Brides of Dracula proved a real pain in the neck for Peter Cushing.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Sweet Smell of Success

Year: 1957
Director: Alexander Mackendrick
Screenplay: Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman, based on a novelette by Ernest Lehman
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Susan Harrison, Martin Milner and Sam Levene
Running Time: 96 minutes
Genre: Drama, show business, film noir

Summary: New York City in the late 1950s, and public life is dominated by the influential gossip column penned by J.J. Hunsecker (Lancaster). Press agent Sidney Falco (Curtis) feeds Hunsecker gossip in return for Hunsecker mentioning his clients in his column. However, Falco has not been able to get any of his clients mentioned in Hunsecker's column due to his failure to break up the romance between Hunsecker's sister, Susan (Harrison) and jazz guitarist Steve Dallas (Milner). With his business suffering, Falco finds himself willing to go to any lengths to obey Hunsecker's will.

Opinions: The title of this film is ironic in that the smell of success is far from sweet, it's rancid and bitter, corrupt to the core. It features career best performances from both Burt Lancaster as the monsterous columnist J.J. Hunsecker who cheerfully destroys lives and careers with a single phone call and Tony Curtis as the hustling press agent Sidney Falco who is willing to do anything to get what he wants. It has an intelligent and sharp script which is full of memorable lines and crisp black and white photography from James Wong Howe. It also benefits from stylish direction from director Alexander Mackendrick, who at the time was best known as a director of Ealing comedies in Britain.
The movie was shot under difficult conditions on location in New York City, with Mackendrick apparently scared the entire time due to the production company, Hecht-Hill-Lancaster (part owned by Burt Lancaster), and their reputation for firing directors for little or no reason at all. To add to their problems they were shooting in one of the busiest sections of New York City without a completed script. Tony Curtis had to fight for his part, because the studio with which he was under contract, Universal, were scared that the film would ruin his career. However, Curtis was tired of the pretty-boy roles which he had been playing up to that point and was desperate to prove that he could actually act. Orson Welles was originally considered for the role of Hunsecker, but Mackendrick wanted to cast Hume Cronyn who, he felt, looked a lot like Walter Winchell, the real life gossip columnist, on who Lehman based J.J. Hunsecker in his original story. However the studio insisted on Burt Lancaster due to his box office appeal. The film was not a box office success, with a lot of audiences very unhappy at seeing movie heroes Curtis and Lancaster cast against type.
The movie is now an acknowledged cinema classics and remains one of the few perfect films which, in it's depiction of a cruel and morally bankrupt media, is just as relevant now as it was when it was made, perhaps even more so. There are also a lot of even darker themes running underneath the surface, such as Hunsecker's twisted relationship with his sister. This is 1950s film-making at it's finest with very element in the film note perfect from direction to performance, featuring some of the best dialogue ever penned.

"I love this dirty town"
- J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster)

"Match me, Sidney": Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster in Sweet Smell of Success

Friday, 15 October 2010

The Fourth Kind

Year: 2009
Director: Olatunde Osunsanmi
Screenplay: Paul Brooks and Joe Carnahan
Starring: Milla Jovovich, Elias Koteas, Hakeem Kae-Kazim, Will Patton and Charlotte Milchard
Running Time: 98 minutes
Genre: Science-fiction, horror, alien, mockumentary

Summary: In October 2000, psychologist Dr. Abigail "Abbey" Tyler (Jovovich), whose husband was brutally murdered in mysterious circumstances right in front of her a couple of months previously an event which left her so traumatised that she has blocked out all memory of the actual killer, returns to her home city of Nome in Alaska with her two children determined to finish the work that her husband started.
Abbey starts conducting extensive therapy sessions with three Nome residents who all suffer from severe sleep disorders. Abbey is struck by the strong similarities between each case, in particular the presence of a white owl in each account. When she tries hypnosis on one of the patients, Tommy (Corey Johnson), he starts screaming, terrified of some presence which is trying to take him away.
As inexplicable and violent events seem to happen all around her, Abbey becomes convinced that she is dealing with genuine cases of alien abduction, and that she herself may also be a target.

Opinions: This film purports to be a drama-documentary telling the story of a real-life case, with the drama interspersed with interviews and genuine archive footage and tape recordings. In reality, it is an entirely fictional film and is not based on any actual cases. Also, in contrary to what is stated in the film, Nome is not some kind of alien abduction centre. Although Nome and other Alaskan towns have their fair share of disappearances, the FBI have stated that the specific disappearances that are discussed in the film are down to a combination of alcohol and freezing temperatures. Also the interviewees in the film are actors. This approach lead to a lot of controversy when the film was released due to the fact that the film is marketed and presented as being based on "actual case studies" studio produced fake on-line news reports and obituaries to make the film appear more genuine.
What about the film itself though? It features some good performances but otherwise doesn't really work. It's overloaded with flashy little flourishes, such as split screen, which just serve to take you out of the movie. Most of the shock scenes are telegraphed in advance by having the screen go blank and silent for a couple of seconds before something loud and sudden happens. There are a couple of effective jolts, but not many. The movie would have made a good 45 minute episode of The X-Files but feels stretched at 98 minutes. That is another thing about the movie, it actually feels quite dated now because the whole alien abduction thing has been so quiet in the last few years from it's hey-day in the mid to late 1990s. Incidentally, the title of the film is taken from an expansion of J. Allen Hyneck's "Close Encounters" classification of UFO sightings - a "close encounter of the fourth kind" referring to alien abduction.
Horror fans will probably be disappointed at the lack of real scares and those interested in alien abductions are not likely to find here that they have not seen before.

Milla Jovovich in The Fourth Kind

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Bride of Frankenstein

Year: 1935
Director: James Whale
Screenplay: William Hurlbut and John L. Balderston, based on the novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Starring: Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Valerie Hobson, Ernest Thesiger, Elsa Lanchester and Una O'Connor
Running Time: 73 minutes
Genre: Horror, monster, science-fiction

Summary: On a dark and stormy night, the poets Lord Byron (Gavin Gordon) and Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Walton) persuade Shelley's wife, Mary (Lanchester) to continue the story of Frankenstein and his Creature.
The story takes up from the end of the first film, with the Creature (Karloff) missing, presumed dead, in the blazing inferno and his creator, Henry Frankenstein (Clive) injured and traumatised but very much alive. However, the Creature has survived the fire and escaped, soon attracting the attention of the local villagers who persue him with pitchforks, blazing torches and shotguns.
Meanwhile, Frankenstein wants nothing more than to abandon his work and build a life with his fiancee, Elizabeth (Hobson). However, Frankenstein is approached by the sinister Doctor Septimus Pretorius (Thesiger), who has been experimenting with creating homunculi (and has successfully created a miniature king, queen, archbishop, devil, ballerina and mermaid). He blackmails Frankenstein into helping him create a woman: The "Bride of Frankenstein" (Lanchester)

Opinions: This movie, the first sequel to Frankenstein (1931) is widely regarded as not only one of the best horror movies ever made, but as one of the best movies ever made. It is also one of the very few sequels which is better than the original. The idea of a sequel was mooted as early as the first previews of Frankenstein and the plot hearkens back to a subplot in the original novel where the Creature demands that Frankenstein builds him a female companion, which he does but, envisioning a world overrun by the monsterous children of his two creations, destroys the unfinished woman before the Creature's horrified eyes (apparently it never occured to Mary Shelley that, for someone who could create a living being out of scraps of corpses, it would probably be pretty easy for him to create a woman without the ability to reproduce, then again it was written in 1818).
The original film's director, James Whale, was persuaded to return to direct the sequel with the promise of complete creative control, and many people today see a very strong gay subtext to the film (Whale himself was openly gay). Colin Clive returns as the tormented Henry Frankenstein and gives a great performance. Also memorable is Ernest Thesiger as the vain and highly camp but sinister Doctor Pretorius. Most memorable though is Boris Karloff as the Creature, under the iconic makeup from Jack Pierce. The Creature is portrayed as a sympathetic victim, and is largely non-violent except when provoked. One of the movies most memorable scenes is where the Creature finds short-lived peace with a blind hermit (O. P. Heggie) who teaches him to speak and smoke cigars. Elsa Lanchester, who has a dual role as Mary Shelley in the prologue and the titular Bride, has one of the most memorable scenes in cinema history as she comes to life, resplendent in white with the conical hairstyle complete with twin white lightning like streaks, jerkily rising among the sparking laboratory machines as wedding bells play on the soundtrack.
The film is full of memorable scenes, some comical (Doctor Pretorius eating his packed lunch in a mausoleum, resting his sandwiches on a tomb and cracking jokes with a skull) some surprisingly heartbreaking (the Creature's speech "Yes... Dead... I love... Dead... Hate... Living").
Inevitably the movie has dated and it is fair to say that it really isn't very scary by modern standards but it is a must see for anyone who has even the slightest interest in films.

"To a new world of gods and monsters!"
-Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger) in Bride of Frankenstein

Aw, they make such a cute couple: Elsa Lanchester realises Boris Karloff has forgotten the ring in Bride of Frankenstein

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Batman: Arkham Asylum - A Serious House on Serious Earth

Written by: Grant Morrison, illustrated by Dave McKean
Year of Publication: 1989
Number of Pages: 216 pages
Genre: Graphic novel, superhero, horror, fantasy

Story: On the outskirts of Gotham City, Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane, founded in the 1920s by Dr. Amadeus Arkham, has housed some of Gotham City's most dangerous criminals and now the lunatics have take over the asylum as, lead by the Joker, the inmates riot taking over the asylum and taking the staff hostage. Their main demand is for Batman to join them in the asylum. In the dark, twisting corridors of Arkham, Batman has to encounter his deadliest adversaries as well as coming face to face with his own heart of darkness.

Opinions: The book moves between the present day narrative of Batman in Arkham Asylum and the tragic story of the founding of the asylum by Amadeus Arkham in the 1920s, told through journal entries. The narrative weaves together multiple references from the Tarot to religion, from Lewis Carroll to Philip Larkin, and from Alfred Hitchcock's film Psycho (1961) to Lindsay Anderson's film O Lucky Man! (1971). It moves away from the gritty realistic approach to superhero comics that were popular in the late 1980s with the likes of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen (published in 1987) and Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns (published in 1986) to present a surreal, nightmarish vision. Destroying any lingering ideas of Batman as the colourful baddie-bopper from the 1960s TV series, this presents the Dark Knight as more or less borderline psychotic. There are frequent references to the fact that Batman is not really much different from his villains, who are presented here as more pathetic, grotesque and horrific than ever before.
The surreal artwork by Dave McKean incorporates his usual multimedia style which mixes painting, sculpture, text and photography emphasises the fact that the book is a psychological horror story. More of a nightmare than waking reality.
While this won't be to everyone's tastes, this is one of the darkest and most disturbing of all the Batman stories and is strongly recommended.
The popular video game Batman: Arkham Asylum (2009) is loosely based on the graphic novel.

Monday, 4 October 2010

"Horns" by Joe Hill

Year of Publication: 2010
Number of Pages: 437 pages
Genre: Dark fantasy, supernatural, crime, horror

Summary: Ignatius "Ig" Perrish is a very lucky man. Born into wealth and privelege, the son of a famous musician, and the brother of a rising television star, Ig has standing and respect in his community, and more importantly, he is dating beautiful, intelligent Merrin Williams, the girl of his dreams, with whom he once spent a strange afternoon of secret magic.
Until the night when Merrin is brutally raped and murdered, and Ig is the only suspect. Although the case against him is dropped, in the court of public opinion Ig is, and always will be, guilty.
With his world torn apart, Ig wakes up one morning to discover that two horns are growing out of his temples, and that he is suddenly in possession of bizarre supernatural powers, in particular the ability to make people admit their deepest desires and darkest most shameful secrets.
Now Ig sets out to use his new-found power to find Merrin's real killer and, after a lifetime spent always trying to do the right thing, he is willing to do anything to find the truth.

Opinions: This book is Joe Hill's second novel following the acclaimed Heart Shaped Box (published in 2007) and the short story collection 20th Century Ghosts (2005) and consolidates his position as one of the best writers working in the field of horror and fantasy today. As with his earlier work, Horns provides and original and contemporary take on a well-worn horror theme. The novel opens the morning that Ig discovers his new horns and moves between the "present" narrative of him discovering his new abilities and seeking revenge, and scenes from the past revealing the backgrounds of the characters and of course what happened on the fateful night. The book blends supernatural horror, crime thriller, dark comedy and coming of age narrative. It is a fairly violent book, but the violence is well handled and it isn't gratuitous. The story moves along well and remains a gripping thriller thoughout. However, one of the book's best elements is the fact that it also engages the emotions and showcases Hill's skills with character and dialogue. There's a lot of fun to be had as the story twists around the traditional figures of good and evil, and plenty of dark humour. Music and horror movie fans should also enjoy the numerous references.
Funny, dark, thrilling, frightening and moving this is a powerful and memorable book from a fine writer.