October 2007

Spirits of the Dead

In 1968, three of the great names of European cinema came together to make a film based on the writings of Edgar Allan Poe. The result was Spirits of the Dead (Histoires Extraordinaires), an anthology of three separate stories revolving around themes of lust, guilt and retribution.

First up is Roger Vadim’s Metzengerstein in which Jane Fonda plays the spoiled, debauched and brutal Countess Frederique. Eventually she becomes besotted with her formerly despised cousin, Baron Wilhelm (Peter Fonda) who, being a goodly sort, rebuffs her advances. Unused to rejection, Frederique takes revenge, going further than she intended and a spooky black horse comes into her possession.

This segment is beautifully shot and gorgeous too look at, even if the Renaissance mini-skirts are a bit jarring sometimes. But the story itself meanders quite badly without reaching a really satisfying conclusion.

Much stronger is William Wilson, Louis Malle’s tale of an amoral sadist haunted by his more humane alter-ego. Alain Delon takes the lead role this time around and the film opens with him rushing to a church – having just killed a man - to confess to a priest and explain how he got here.

Delon’s puts in a truly mesmerising performance here and the film’s structure – using a priest’s confessional to justify a series of flashbacks - works to very effectively capture the sense of foreboding that runs through much of Poe’s work.

The highlight of the anthology, however, is Fellini’s Toby Dammit, which stars Terence Stamp as the title character, an alcoholic actor who has travelled to Rome to make a Catholic western. This segment is so different from what has gone before, and so densely packed with layer upon layer of meaning, that it’s easy to forget that this is the third part of an anthology.

Stamp is fantastic as his character steadily goes to pieces and, visually, Fellini superbly showcases the hallucinatory imagery with which he is justifiably renowned. And it all comes together perfectly in a story that is both genuinely horrific and which sends up the artificial nature of both celebrity and cinema.

Each of the three directors takes a very different approach to bringing Poe to the screen and the results range from the workmanlike to the outstanding. All three films work on their own terms and the anthology as a whole is well worth getting hold of.

Vanished Acres

Widowed farmer, Jerod Grot (John Riley) lives alone in his farm, a pale shadow of its former self, now overrun by crows and vermin.

Grot, too, is a pale shadow of his former self, living alone with his memories and only his scarecrow (Matthew Solari) for company. As he looks back towards the happy memories of the past, his life has become a steady grind, each day much the same as the last.

Things change irrevocably when Grot discovers a love letter from his deceased wife, which is not addressed to him.

There is a lot going on in Vanished Acres but, at its heart, this is a film about loss, loneliness, regret and letting go of the past. Until he discovers the letter, Grot really has been wasting his life – looking backwards while his farm steadily goes to ruin and his friends steadily give up on him.

The discovery of the letter gives Grot the kick he needs and, from here on in, the film goes in a number of directions, some of which were quite unexpected. But writer/director, Adam Bolt takes great care to ensure that everything remains consistent within the dream-like reality of the film and to pull all of these strands together to provide a solid and satisfying ending.

But what really makes this film stand out is the engagingly down-at-heel atmosphere that permeates the entire film. Jae Hyuk Lee’s understated cinematography beautifully captures the mood of the film, and conveys a great deal of insight into Grot’s state of mind.

The score, too, is both sparse and appropriate. As with the rest of the film, the sparseness points to a great deal going on underneath and adds immeasurably to the atmosphere as a whole.

Vanished Acres is a well written, well acted, well directed and thoughtful film that contains some genuinely powerful moments. It’s an original and moving film and one that is well worth getting hold of.

Buried Alive

Harking back to the past can be a very dangerous activity. There is always a risk, when looking back to genres - or sub-genres - that have been and gone that the filmmaker forgets why we have moved on.

Buried Alive is a slasher film that wishes it had been made in the 1980s.

What we have is a film about six students that take a trip to an old haunted house in the middle of nowhere. Leading the trip is Zane (Terence Jay), whose family owns the house, and his cousin Rene (Leah Rachel) with whom some sort of incestuous past is hinted at. We also have four other random teenagers.

The journey unfolds, the teenagers drink, they take drugs and some weird stuff happens. Specifically, Zane sees things. I’m not sure what effect they were trying to achieve with Zane’s visions – either a general sense of dread or the suggestion that Zane might be less than stable – but we’ve seen this sort of thing so many times that all it serves to do is to clunkily telegraph what we already know is going to happen.

And so, on to the house. But before we get there, we have to meet the requisite creepy caretaker, Lester (Tobin Bell) who has been secretly searching for the inevitable (cursed) treasure rumoured to be buried on the land. He’s had some success, too, but in the process Something Has Been Disturbed.

And then a whole lot of nothing happens for an interminable length of time before we get to the first kill. Stuff does happen, but it does nothing to provide any insight into any of the characters, all of whom are pretty flat stereotypes, nor does any of it generate any tension or advance the plot. There is, it has to be said, a lot of padding in this film.

But, we’ve had a kill. And shortly afterwards we get a scare, so you could be forgiven for thinking that things are finally going to get going. Instead, one of the characters (Laura, played by Erin Lokitz) briefly turns into Basil Exposition and then everyone returns to their regular clichés.

The acting in Buried Alive is fine and the direction is reasonably solid. The effects, when we finally get to them are okay, if not particularly shocking (which was a bit of a surprise, given Robert Kurtzman’s pedigree). Where this film really failed for me was in the script in general and the characterisation in particular.

The lead characters in this film are a bunch of smug, flat teenagers and none of them were in the slightest bit interesting. Consequently, I found it very difficult to care about any of them and, rather than building a sense of tension, the film left me drumming my fingers while I waited for far too long for the inevitable killings to get going.

The film does have a surprisingly effective ending but this is too little and too late to redeem what has gone before.

The Blood Shed

The Blood Shed DVD This has to be one of the strangest films I’ve seen in quite some time. The blurb on the back of the DVD tells you that this is the story of the Bullions, your average inbred cannibal family living in the deep woods.

This completely undersells the film.

What we have is an unlikely mix of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Mothers Day, held together with a darkly absurdist sensibility.

The rather loose plot congeals around Beefteena (Alan Rowe Kelly, who appears to be channelling Divine), the 40-going-on-12 year old daughter of the Bullion family. To say that Beefteena is not all there is a bit of an understatement, as is apparent as soon as we are introduced to her prancing through the suburbs with her pet dead squirrel. Not surprisingly, Beefteena attracts both revulsion and ridicule in equal measure.

And when these reactions lead to her being tormented by one of the local teenagers her brothers, Butternut (Joshua Nelson) and Hubcap (Mike Lane) arrive on the scene, ultimately setting off one of the multiple sub-plots that make up this film.

The plotting of The Blood Shed is quite unique in that there doesn’t seem to be any overall narrative. Instead, writer/director Alan Rowe Kelly has stitched together a series of tangential plot threads which allow him to focus entirely on the inbred insanity of the Bullion family.

This approach works surprisingly well, due in no small part to the exceptionally high standard of the acting. Each of the five of the main characters – as well as the ones already mentioned, we also have Papa Elvis Bullion (Terry West) and Sno Cakes (Susan Adriensen), who lives in a tent in the garden – has a distinct personality and the cast do a great job of bringing these personalities to the fore and ensuring that none of the characters ever descends into becoming an homogenised serial killer.

The result is that while all of these characters are thoroughly unlikeable, they exert a morbid fascination that keeps you watching – if only to find out how things are going to end. And when they go over the top – as they often do – the results are both painful and funny.

The Blood Shed is a deft homage to the exploitation films of the 1970s and early 80s and, if you’ve watched too many of these films, it will raise some knowing smiles. And even if you haven’t, this is an experience that any horror fan will enjoy.

But what really makes the film stand out us its unique mixture of horror and slapstick, which achieves a genuinely disturbing effect that will stay with you for quite some time.

Craig

Craig poster Craig, the film, opens with a house fire which has left two parents dead and their daughter in a coma. The circumstances are suspicious and, inevitably, the police decide to interview the only surviving family member, Craig (Kim Sønderholm).

The interview goes badly and ends with Craig storming out. The police, led by Johnny (Peter Ottesen) let him go – they know where he is and don’t think he’s guilty – although Johnny does have a sense that there is more to Craig than has so far been revealed.

We then jump forward six months and things are going badly for Craig. He still hasn’t moved on from his parents’ deaths, his sister is still in a coma and he is struggling through life with the aid of anti-depressants and a psychologist (Anja Owe). And he’s lonely.

Although desperate for human contact, Craig is a pretty inept character socially and his attempts to meet people are consistently rebuffed. This leads Craig to create a downward spiral for himself in which his increasingly sleazy behaviour leads to his being on the receiving end of a stream of humiliations, which he responds to by becoming increasingly squalid.

It’s this downward spiral that takes up much of the running time of the film and, as with Delivery, we do get a real sense of Craig’s damaged character. And it’s to Kim Sønderholm’s great credit that he manages to maintain a great deal of sympathy for his character as we watch him go to pieces and descend increasingly into his disturbingly violent fantasy world.

It’s this insight into the character of Craig, and the empathy that has been engendered for how he sees things, that makes the film stand out. When he does reach his final straw, Craig’s behaviour becomes both shocking and understandable, and it’s this combination that makes the film such a disturbing experience.

The atmosphere of the film also helps immeasurably here, and what an atmosphere it is. Both the suitably grimy cinematography and the admirably downbeat score are combined superbly with Sønderholm’s effective juxtaposing of pornography and violence to build an experience that is both engrossing and discomforting.

Craig does take a bit of time to get going but once it does, the pay off is well worth the wait. Writers Kim Sønderholm and Jan T. Jensen have taken the time to build a solid and believable character and to deliver a remarkably intense horror/thriller that really does get under your skin.

It’s a strongly atmospheric film that draws together a number of very capable actors from both sides of the Atlantic, all of whom put in an effective performance, to deliver a powerfully effective horror story that really does deserve to be seen.