Category Archives: films

A toe in the water

I went into Glasgow yesterday, to attend a couple of screenings at the Glasgow Film Festival. I was particularly keen to check out Olivier Assayas’s new movie Personal Shopper, and after having (finally) caught up with Local Hero last summer, the opportunity to see Bill Forsyth’s rarely screened adaptation of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping seemed too good to miss.

In the event, the Forsyth proved the superior movie by far – emotionally rich and beautifully photographed, it put the curiously affectless, all-surface Personal Shopper in the shade. After the Festen-tense drama of Summer Hours and the intense, dramatic weirdness of The Clouds of Sils Maria, Assayas’s handling of the ghost story elements in his new venture seemed altogether too conventional, too trope-y, while the ‘sad lives of the super-rich’ plot strand that didn’t bother me overmuch in Clouds (because the emotional drama felt so convincing) here played out like a much less successful recapitulation of Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring (which did at least demonstrate a modicum of irony). The Neon Demon, only less in your face and therefore less gripping.

The weirdest thing for me about Personal Shopper was the music that accompanied the closing credits: Anna von Hausswolff’s ‘Track of Time’, the very same track that, with its accompanying video, directly inspired a recently completed short story of mine. More on that, hopefully, soon.

As much as the movies themselves, the best thing about yesterday was being in the Glasgow Film Theatre, the number one indie film venue in the country and a joyous early discovery for me in our new life here in Scotland. Taking the ferry and the train from Rothesay to Glasgow is made special precisely through being not special: this is a normal, regular commuter route, a well-worn connection between the island and the mainland that has existed and thrived for several centuries. Our two regular ferries – the MV Bute and the MV Argyle – were built in Gdansk and sail roughly once an hour in both directions. They are a constant and regular presence in our life here and one can’t help but feel a strong and immediate affection for them. 

Before moving here I’d not been in Glasgow for more than ten years and so had trace memories only. Since coming to live on Bute, I’ve been into the city twice already and the connection feels immediate and strong. What I place. There is enough here – of history, of psychogeography, of culture – to fill several lifetimes. I am already making notes on all manner of subjects – even notes about notes I need to make notes about. If there has been anything lacking in our time here so far it is simply hours in the day. There is so much to think about, to discover.

One of the (many) upsides to being involved with the shadow Clarke jury is that it’s the first thing that has made me feel normal – i.e like the world around me is something I recognise – since June 24th last year. While the planet’s most obnoxious internet troll continues to host his clowns’ tea party in the White House, and while the Westminster government continues hell bent on its mission to transport Britain back to the 1950s (a mission every politically literate person in the country – and a good few out of it – knows is batshit crazy), we can at least still read, we can still write, we can still cogently criticise what we read and write. (Abigail Nussbaum’s similar thoughts on nominating for the Hugos are well worth reading.)

We’ll start seeing the first of the shadow jury’s personal shortlist posts going live this week. And while you’re waiting to find out what we’ve picked, why not have a stab at guessing the official @ClarkeAward shortlist?  The award’s director, Tom Hunter, has come up with a competition: guess the official shortlist in its entirety and win copies of all six books! The contest is made all the more tantalising by the fact that to date, no one has ever managed to do this. So try and be the first. The competition is being hosted along with the shadow jury at the ARU Centre for Science Fiction and Fantasy. Just post your guesses in the comments to enter.


A question of adaptation

#weird 2016: Arrival

arrival-posterWe went to see Denis Villeneuve’s new movie Arrival last night. He’s an interesting director. His 2010 Incendies was outstanding, his 2013 Prisoners as well executed and chilling an essay in the serial killer thriller genre as you might hope (or not hope) to find. Enemy, Villeneuve’s take on a Jose Saramango novel starring Jake Gyllenhaal, was weird and slightly dull but still interesting, a film I’d like to see again after having read the work it is based upon. 2015’s Sicario, the movie widely regarded as Villeneuve’s breakout, I found sprawling and messy and unkempt, and not in a good way, mainly because the screenplay was so appalling. I’d still go and see anything Villeneuve puts out though. Like another similarly flawed director, David Fincher, he’s clearly serious about his art, and that’s what counts.

What then to make of Arrival, the film of Ted Chiang’s multiple-award-winning novella Story of Your Life (screenplay by Eric Heisserer)? In a sentence: I was expecting so much more. The reviews were great, seeming to agree that Chiang’s story, which some had initially deemed ‘unfilmable’, had been justly served, thus bringing the author’s work to a whole new audience. It would be great if that were so – yet after seeing Arrival for myself, I tend towards the belief that it will be chalked up as just another dutiful spin on Close Encounters, with most audiences remaining completely unaware of the movie’s infinitely superior source material.

It could be argued that Ted Chiang represents the Platonic ideal of the science fiction writer, the perfect fusion of reason and emotion, of form and idea. His language is candid, unfussy, absolutely fit for purpose, the extensive preparation Chiang undertakes before embarking on a story rendered invisible in its careful and relentlessly considered execution. The word that springs most insistently to mind when I consider the resolution, the unveiling of Story of Your Life is beautiful, not so much because of any ‘message’ the story might convey, but because of its author’s careful and painstaking attention to an idea. Story of Your Life is perhaps most readily comparable with Mieville’s Embassytown – stripped of that novel’s rococo excesses and clunky final third. At roughly one-sixth of the length, it’s a David-and-Goliath scenario with Goliath well and truly struggling to maintain his footing.

What spoiled Embassytown irreparably for me was its surrender to conventional outcomes: a trite ‘final battle’, a resolution that, after the more pleasingly abstract expositions of the first half, seemed disappointingly pat. And it is this – this damnable Hollywood obsession with conflict and resolution, with jeopardy, for goodness’ sake – that made Arrival feel limited to me, and finally derivative. There is no ‘conflict’ in Story of Your Life – the joy and satisfaction in that story lie in working out what is going on, the sudden realisation, the beauty of certain ideas about language, time and non-linearity – it’s like a literary game of chess. Arrival is all about deadlines, time running out, a constant threat of violence, soldiers setting up cordons and dashing about with guns. Amy Adams is the still centre, compelling and powerful in her role and a joy to watch. Yet still, there she is, in her impossibly beautiful waterside house (how d’you get that on an academic’s salary?) with her impossibly beautiful doomed child (even here the stakes have to be upped as Louise is made ‘responsible’ for the child’s doomed-ness – it’s not like that in the story) the One who can fix the world with a single phone call.

I don’t know, perhaps I’m being uncharitable. Arrival is a thoughtful, interesting film narrowly skirting the edge of something special. Perhaps it’s simply that in the light of ongoing political events I was simply not in the mood to see yet another film about the American military threatening to destroy anything they don’t understand, and where China is once again painted as the inscrutable, implacable villain with their finger on the nuclear button.

I don’t think it’s China people are worried about at the moment, actually. Jeopardy indeed.

#weird2016: The Witch

the witch filmWell, this was interesting. I’d been looking forward to The Witch ever since seeing the trailer around this time last year. I missed seeing it in the cinema but finally caught up with it on DVD, a perfectly acceptable substitute when the need arises, but the unnerving, subtle beauty of the cinematography did leave me wishing I’d been able to experience this movie on the big screen as the director intended.

Cast out from their fledgling Puritan community in the backwoods of seventeenth-century New England (the film opens with a theological disagreement between church elders) William (Ralph Ineson getting his best Nedd Stark on) and Katherine (the always excellent Kate Dickie) take their five children to live in a remote farmstead on the edge of the forest. When the youngest of the children vanishes without a trace, William is determined to blame the tragedy on blind chance – a wolf must have taken the boy. Twins Jonas and Mercy have other ideas, though – everyone knows the woods are home to witches. Their brother’s disappearance must surely be the work of the devil. But who is the devil working through, and who will be his next victim?

It would be impossible to watch the first half of this film without thinking of Nicholas Hytner’s The Crucible, with Ralph Ineson in the Daniel Day Lewis role, a man of faith who is nonetheless determined to uphold the laws of reason in the face of a religious extremism that threatens to overturn the community and civilisation they have spent so long in building. Naturally blame for the devilish goings on is laid at the door of Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), William and Katherine’s adolescent daughter whose burgeoning sexuality has already begun to stir the senses of her younger brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw). William won’t have it, though – Thomasin is ‘his girl’, intelligent, truthful and responsible. When she says the twins’ talk of her being a witch is nothing but a joke, he is prepared to believe her. But as tragedy after tragedy strikes the family, his faith in God and in his daughter is tested to the limit – and beyond.

As with The Crucible, it is emotional claustrophobia, the sense of creeping entrapment with no safe way out for anyone, that defines the action of this unusual and affecting film. The family, already under a severe strain from the harsh demands of their environment, seem besieged by misfortune, and the rising tide of horror seems all the more unbearable for taking place in such isolation, away from the sight and knowledge of anyone who might offer help. Of course it’s more or less impossible to know what life in a seventeenth-century New England village might ‘really’ have been like, but the period details here – the robust Puritan clothing, the mud, the candlelight, the sinister, encroaching forest and above all the sense of being acutely vulnerable in a vast and unknowable world, are rendered with a level of passionate commitment (I was reminded of Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights) that makes them feel accurate and utterly convincing.

What surprised me most about The Witch was the ultimate direction it chose to take. I don’t want to spoil the film for anyone by revealing too much about that, and even hours after seeing it I still can’t decide whether it was madness to go that way, or genius. What I do know is that The Witch is a beautifully crafted, richly imagined and intellectually worthwhile addition to your watch lists, and I would advise any fan of horror cinema – especially quiet horror cinema – to see this as soon as you can, if you haven’t already.

There’s a fascinating and informative interview with the film’s director, Robert Eggers, here. Suffice it to say this guy has definitely earned his horror credentials!

#weird2016: the terrifying weirdness of Philip Ridley

reflecting skin.ridleyOver the weekend I finally managed to catch up with, via the recently reissued DVD of the film, Philip Ridley’s first feature The Reflecting Skin (1990).

On the face of it, this is a simple coming-of-age story. Our eight-year-old hero Seth is growing up in rural Idaho in the early 1950s. WW2 is still a recent memory. Seth’s parents, Luke and Ruth, cope with the absence of their elder son Cameron, who is with the US armed forces in the Pacific, largely by ignoring each other, scraping by on the proceeds from their one-pump gas station. When one of Seth’s young friends turns up murdered, the local sheriff seems determined to point the finger at Luke, who was once cautioned for ‘indecent behaviour’ with a seventeen-year-old youth. Seth has other ideas. A near-neighbour, Dolphin Blue, harbours fantasies of violence and keeps mementoes of her deceased husband Adam – dead from suicide – in a locked box. Having been told about vampires by his father, himself an avid reader of pulp magazines, Seth believes the seductive Dolphin to be the true face of evil at the heart of their tiny community. As the recently returned Cameron falls ever more deeply in love with Dolphin, Seth becomes increasingly desperate to warn his brother of the danger he faces.

In the naivete of its child protagonist and its unintended tragic consequences, we might draw strong comparisons with such movies as Losey and Pinter’s 1972 classic The Go-Between and Joe Wright’s more recent Atonement and we would be right to do so. In their portrayal of misplaced jealousy, burgeoning sexuality, terror and envy of the adult world and the febrile intensity of the juvenile imagination, these films form a natural trilogy almost. That they all take place under the heat of ‘that last summer’, a span of time that seems destined to forever change the lives and futures of those who pass through it, draws such comparisons still tighter.

Interestingly though, Ridley’s film stands alone here in taking place in ‘real time’ rather than through the clarifying lens of hindsight. We can only guess at how the adult Seth might be affected in future – not just by what has happened, but by his own particular part in it. This is a dark tale, richly informed by Dick Pope’s superb cinematography, Nick Bicat’s ravishing score (fun fact: Bicat also wrote the music for the 2002 TV adaptation of Ian McEwan’s ‘Solid Geometry’) and Ridley’s own inimitably concise and emotive screenwriting. The imagery on display here – Dolphin’s memory box, Cameron’s photos, the mummified foetus, the nuclear sunsets, the teddyboy ‘vamps’ in their black Cadillac – is of a high and potent order. The only word that seems to fit this film is ‘Ridleyesque’.

I first encountered the work of Philip Ridley when I saw, completely by chance, his 1995 feature The Passion of Darkly Noon on late-night TV. Always on the lookout for interesting and out-of-the-way horror cinema, I was blown away by it. I also could not understand why so few people seemed to have seen this film or even heard of it. The themes were serious and deep, the vision complex, the writing and acting superb. The fact that this unique film has still never had a UK DVD release is a source of abiding mystery to me.

Ridley clearly likes to take time over his work, and it was more than a decade after Darkly Noon before he returned to the screen with the brilliant Heartless. Ridley’s third movie presents an equally disturbing journey into the heart and mind of an isolated young protagonist, with a destination no less terrifying than the end-point of his first. Particular shout-outs here should go to Eddie Marsan – the price of the DVD (easily obtainable this time, thankfully) is worth it for his Weapons Man alone – and to Clemence Poesy, who you will no doubt remember for being brilliant in In Bruges.  Again, this film has been more or less overlooked by the horror community, yet for me, Ridley’s movies are as equally deserving of attention as Ben Wheatley’s. What’s going on?

Could it be that Ridley’s themes – his preoccupation with religious belief, faith, sin and self-destruction – are seen by some as contentious and unfashionable, maybe off-putting to viewers? If so, then that’s just Ridley doing his job! He does not simply recycle old tropes – vampires, demons, ghosts – to sanitized formulas as so many more commercial directors are wont to do. He takes the tropes apart, examines them for substance, shows us what might happen when dangerous ideas are followed through to their logical conclusion. If you’re seeking comparison, think Guillermo del Toro before he went Hollywood – the del Toro of Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone. Philip Ridley is as good as that, perhaps better. He is a master of the weird, and I just hope we don’t have to wait another decade to see his next masterpiece.

#weird2016: Frozen

frozen mckoenI found a reference to this film quite by chance, while I was looking for something else – isn’t that what always happens on the internet? And no, I’m not talking about Elsa and Anna and ‘Let it Go’, nor the by-the-numbers 2010 trapped-on-a-ski-lift-with-wolves-beneath horror movie either. This is something quite different – and it’s exquisite. It is also, so far as I can tell, almost completely unknown.

Kath works in a fish factory in the town of Fleetwood, on the edge of Morecambe Bay. Following the unexplained disappearance of her sister Annie two years before, Kath falls into depression and attempts suicide.  She is referred to a counsellor, a local parish priest, who helps her begin to talk through her feelings of abandonment. Kath is not prepared to give up on her sister, however. She pays a visit to the police, demanding to see the video clip taken from a security camera that shows the last recorded sighting of Annie down by the docks. Kath watches the film obsessively, searching for any tiny detail that the police may have missed. When she retraces her sister’s last known movements in an attempt to draw closer to the truth, she experiences something extraordinary. What she sees convinces her that Annie – wherever she is – is trying to get a message to her. Desperate to be believed, she turns to Father Noyen, landing them both in a situation that neither has foreseen.

This is a slow-burn, quietly effective ghost story with an immaculately realised sense of place and a genuine frisson of terror at its heart. Stumbling upon it unexpectedly like this makes it seem all the more magical somehow, like being made party to a secret. Shirley Henderson and Roshan Seth are outstanding in the lead roles, but everyone involved with this movie has done a marvellous job. The stark simplicity of the screenplay is a joy. The writer and director, Juliet McKoen, made this film in 2005 and so far as I can tell she’s made nothing else since. This seems a criminal shame to me and I sincerely hope we see more from her in the future. Fans of Andrea Arnold and Mike Leigh, the English ghost story and especially The Loney should all seek out this gem as soon as possible. Watch out for the moment with the roller coaster. It made all the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end – and that’s something you’ll never come close to getting from more commercial horror.

Superb little indie movie and most highly recommended.

Save the Curzon Soho

When I first moved to London in the mid 2000s, the Curzon Soho cinema was one of the first venues I discovered that felt uniquely, precisely tailored to suit my needs and tastes. That they were showing remarkable films goes without saying – but coming from a provincial city I found myself spoiled for choice in that respect in every direction anyway. No – the Curzon offered something more, something extra, something harder to define. Was it the comfy chairs downstairs in the bar, where you could sit and work unhindered or hang out with friends before or after the movie you had come to see? The upstairs coffee bar, stylish and very London and yet inclusive and inviting enough for anyone totally new to the place to be able to enter without feeling like a fish out of water? The marvellous film posters and DVDs on display in the foyer? The informed friendliness of the staff? It was all these things and more. The Curzon felt like a venerable London cultural institution that truly was open and welcoming to everyone. I loved the place, still love it dearly, think of it often, visit when I can, still feel it as one of the things about London I miss most.

When I read in yesterday’s Observer (in an excellent article by film critic Jonathan Romney) that the Curzon is under threat of being demolished in yet another tranche of Crossrail mayhem, I felt and still feel profoundly depressed. It’s not just the Curzon, it’s everything. Little by little, London is being corporatised. Ordinary citizens feel, more and more, as if they have no power and no say in their environment, their political culture, the future of their social and cultural institutions. If I compare the Charing Cross Road/Shaftesbury Avenue area as I first came to know it in the 1980s – a warren of independent bookstores and corner cafes and newsagents and general old-London-ness – with how it is currently being reformatted, I feel choked up with sadness and an impotent kind of anger. I dare not research the number of bookstores on CXR that have been forced to close due to deliberate – yes, because none of this is chance, it is an overall plan – hikes in ground rent, because it makes me want to throw things.

In a remarkable 2014 interview with Ned Beauman, William Gibson, himself something of a part-time Londoner, spoke of the creeping gentrification of London in forthright terms:

“Some [of my lifelong Londoner friends] just don’t seem to see that there’s anything happening to [the city], even though it seems to me to be such a radical change. It amazes me when people argue: ‘Oh, it’s only happening in that neighbourhood, and if that’s no longer fun we’ll just move.’ I thought that was what the developers wanted you to do so you can gentrify the next bit.”

Even in my relatively short period of close intimacy with London, I saw the city being forcibly remoulded in ways that made me uneasy.  This continues to happen, faster and faster with every year that passes, and with Londoners – I mean actual Londoners, people who do the work and clean the streets and love the bones of the place – feeling ever more disenfranchised from crucial decisions. The same as is happening in the rest of the country, in other words, only even faster.

Yes, it makes me angry. It makes me sullen and paralysed with anger. It seems to me that the best thing we can do in the face of this is to fight back in the small ways that are open to us – writing, speaking, seeing, thinking even – in the knowledge that if enough of us stand up and speak out, then some of the worst decisions at least can be halted or reversed.

If you are a Londoner, an ex-Londoner who still feels the place in their soul, a person who cares about cinema or the arts or social history or city architecture – any or all of the above – then please sign the petition to save the Curzon Soho. As the Curzon’s manager Ally Clow says in Romney’s article. the cinema has its own sense of community, its own constituency:

“It’s a mix of people who come once a year, people who come every week, and people who come every day who use this bar as an office – they’ll have a couple of cups of coffee, do meetings, hold auditions for films. People feel at home here. It’s an oasis of calm and culture.”

If we want to save the things we care about, we need to show we care. Signing the petition is something anyone can do, in about ten seconds. Please do this. At least it’s a start.

#weird2016: Absentia

absentia.dvdI first came to hear of this film through an interesting list of rare and underrated horror movies compiled by Adam Nevill for The Quietus. Two of Adam’s choices were films I’d seen and ‘enjoyed’ already: the hideous masterpiece Snowtown and the really rather brilliant ghost story Lake Mungo, an ingenious and disturbing cross between Blair Witch and Black Pond. There was one I’d seen at FrightFest and hated: the Spanish movie Sleep Tight, which for me was just an inferior and exploitative update of Peeping Tom, the appalling punchline of which I saw bizarrely repeated recently in Joel Edgerton’s otherwise excellent thriller The Gift (stop using rape-of-an-unconscious-woman as an ingenious twist, boys, I mean seriously). No matter. I thoroughly enjoyed reading Adam’s list, not least because it mainly consisted of films I’d never seen or even heard of – welcome refreshment, when most ‘Top 10 Horror’ lists don’t contain even a single surprise. I was eager to get watching, and ordered a couple of Adam’s choices straight away.

First out of the box was Mike Flanagan’s 2011 movie Absentia. The film opens as Callie (Catherine Parker) arrives in Los Angeles to stay at the home of her older sister Tricia (Courtney Bell). Callie has been on the road, trying to sort out her life following a drug-addicted adolescence. Tricia’s life has been in stasis ever since her husband Daniel disappeared inexplicably seven years before. As Tricia files the paperwork to have Daniel declared legally dead, Callie is determined to help her move on, to find a new place to live, to put the memories and questions behind her.

Only they don’t seem to be alone in the apartment, and when Callie encounters a terrified homeless man in a nearby underpass, things begin to get even weirder.

This movie was funded by Kickstarter, and I’m sure the film’s many backers billygoats.grufffelt they’d more than got their money’s worth. This is a great little film, mainly because the two essential ingredients for satisfying cinema – a good script and wonderful acting – are firmly in place here. The writing is thoughtful, understated and naturalistic, and Parker and Bell are truly compelling as the joint leads – the chemistry between them is wonderful, they seem like real sisters. In fact, every single person in the cast list plays their part beautifully. I loved the low key suburban setting, the off-kilter oddness of everything, the bleached out colours. There were even – and because I’ve watched so many horror movies this doesn’t often happen – a couple of moments where I felt genuinely unsettled by what was happening and had to look away.

It’s easy to see that everyone involved with this film felt fully committed to it, and good on them. Personally I would have left out the fleeting glimpses of the ‘underneathers’ entirely because in horror less really is more – so far as I’m concerned, the first rule of horror cinema should be never show the monster! But that’s a minor gripe and a mistake easily forgiven when everything else about this movie is so right.

On an interesting side note, there is a lot in Absentia that reminds me uncannily of themes I’ve been working with in The Rift, right down to one of the character’s names…

Coincidences like that are ones I enjoy!

(And if you want to know what the hell all this has to do with The Three Billy Goats Gruff, go and watch the movie.)

ADDENDUM: I’ve now seen one more of Adam’s choices, The Pact, which is pact.2012equally worth watching. In terms of its themes of repressed grief and hidden memories, run-down suburban settings, bleached-out cinematography, and effective understatement, this film has plenty in common with Absentia and in an entirely good way. This is a movie where you start out thinking you know what you’re getting and end up (un)pleasnatly surprised. For fans of horror off the beaten track? Recommended.

#weird 2016: Schalcken the Painter

schalckenSchalcken the Painter, based upon an 1839 short story by Sheridan Le Fanu, is an extraordinary gem of a film that amply proves the power of the classic ghost story to shock and haunt.

The DVD, recently reissued by the BFI, was given to me by Chris as a gift this Christmas. I’d never heard of the film before, though Chris remembers it from when it originally aired, as part of the BBC’s Omnibus series, appropriately enough at Christmas in 1979.

The story is a simple one: Godfried Schalcken (who is real, by the way – Le Fanu’s story doubles as an insightful commentary on his art) is apprenticed to the master painter Gerrit Dou in the Dutch town of Leiden. Schalcken is fiercely talented, but penniless. When he falls in love with Dou’s niece, Rose, he has little hope that they’ll be allowed to marry, a prospect that is entirely dashed when Dou effectively sells Rose to the enigmatic Mijnhir Vanderhausen of Rotterdam. Dou is uneasy about the contract, especially since he knows nothing about the mysterious suitor, nor has even seen his face, but when faced with the sheer splendour of Vanderhausen’s riches, he finds he cannot refuse.

When it is revealed to Rose that her future husband is ugly to the point of deformation, she begs Schalcken to run away with her. He refuses, pleading poverty – a moment that shocked me back to the fateful conversation between Natasha and Rudin in Turgenev’s Rudin – a decision which is to haunt him for the rest of his life.

Schalcken makes some desultory efforts to find Rose, but when these fail he is quick to seek solace in the tavern and in the brothel – also in his newly found fame as an artist, which is increasing rapidly. He is given one chance to redeem himself – and fails miserably. Dou never quite gets over the devil’s bargain he has made either, and goes to his grave still in agony over the unknown fate of his niece. Alone in the church after the funeral, Schalcken is finally granted the answers he has sought for so long – and wishes he hadn’t been.

The form the film takes is a gloriously simple recitation (by Charles Gray) of Le Fanu’s text, with the sparse dialogue spoken by the actors in a deliberately studied manner. The cinematic art that accompanies the words is incandescent. Every frame echoes a Dutch painting – the magisterial still-lifes, portraits and vanitases of Vermeer and van Hoogstraaten are referenced both directly and indirectly, to include extraordinary tableaux vivants as Dou and Schalcken clothe and arrange their models in scenes of allegory. The technical skill in achieving the colour and ambience of these paintings – the effect is sometimes so striking as to be uncanny – must have been considerable.

The moment of quiet horror when Vanderhausen’s visage is first revealed is sensational, reminding me of the equally pivotal and terrifying moment in Lynch’s Lost Highway when Fred turns over in bed and sees not the face of his wife looking back at him.

Le Fanu’s narrative accomplishes a tremendous amount in a relatively few pages. Fictions inspired by real works of art are always intriguing. That ‘Strange Episode in the Life of Schalcken the Painter’ manages to combine its percipient art criticism with an equally sharp critique of the position of women in Dutch society at the time makes it all the more compelling. Leslie Megahey’s film brings the text to glowing life in a manner that will amaze and delight anyone interested in art, or horror, and hopefully both. Very highly recommended.

Whoops (I Did it Again)

I spent part of this bank holiday weekend at London’s Frightfest. I know I swore I’d not go back, but the company of friends, the wonderful atmosphere of the Fest itself, and the hope that maybe – just maybe – I’d see something astounding tempted me to give the thing another go. I had a great time just being in town, and loved the experience of just being at FF as I always do. The films, though. I know it’s hardly fair of me to comment as time and expense (and, this year, a train strike) meant I only got to see a small percentage of the complete line-up, but oh dear. Aside from a highly commendable and hugely entertaining Mad Max homage called Turbo Kid (chopper bikes and old comics instead of war machines – an appealing aesthetic, I thought, as well as a lively, funny, knowing script that played out as if the writer actually gave a damn) none of the films I saw possessed so much as a scrap of originality or merit. Worse, much of what was on offer seemed to have a retrograde vibe in terms of its subject matter – and not in a good way.

Every so often we get bursts of discussion about conservatism within the horror genre: namely, whether horror is an inherently conservative form of storytelling – over-dependent on tired tropes, antediluvian social attitudes and plot-it-by-numbers stereotypes. Not enough discussion, evidently. Why is it that whenever I start to feel optimistic about a new era of horror cinema, along comes a film like Levan Bakhia’s Landmine Goes Click and pulls that particular rug right out from under my feet. And again, not in a good way. It’s a shame Bakhia (who was present for the screening and – of course! – seemed like a really nice guy) wasn’t doing a Q&A at the showing I went to because I did actually have a question I’d have been genuinely fascinated to hear the answer to:

“Mr Bakhia, don’t you think films in which the women characters exist solely to be humiliated, raped and finally killed – in which the women characters’ sole purpose within the plot is to provide fuel for an argument/feud/vendetta between characters of the male gender and where in fact there is no plot driver except that an adult woman happened to have consensual sex with another adult – don’t you think films like that are just a tiny bit eighties???”

I think what Bakhia might (and I say that very tentatively because he shot so wide of the target) have been going for was a kind of Euro/US spin on Park Chan-wook’s mighty Vengeance trilogy. Personally, I would count such a misguided homage as an insult to Park. Landmine Goes Click is pointless, tasteless, boring and one of the very worst films I’ve seen recently. Right from the start, the omens weren’t good. In the few words he did address to the audience prior to the screening, Bakhia suggested that the story idea had originally arisen out of a brainstorming session. What’s the betting that the participants in said session were all lads..?

More worrying still, the movie currently has a rating of 7.6 on iMDb.

What actually went through the writer/director’s head? What emotions did he want to arouse? Because aside from the movie’s inherent derivativeness, nothing about the film is remotely shocking. Does Bakhia think horror films are just for men? Does he think men don’t care about story, so long as they get to see one angry dude call his fiancee a whore and set her up to be raped?

I’m asking, because I’m genuinely curious.

I was mulling all this over (during the second, excruciatingly tedious half of yet another film in which demons/witches seemed rapaciously intent on robbing a teenage girl of her unborn baby) and asking myself for the umpteenth time: is it them, or me? Is it even possible to make a good, commercially viable horror film? Not namby-pamby arthouse horror (my favourite kind – sigh) but the full-on, genuine article with its roots stuck firmly in the genre and that anyone who regularly watches horror would be OK with naming as such?

If so, what is it about these films that lift them clear of the dross heap, and why aren’t there more of them?

It’s interesting to think about (more fun than watching Hellions, anyway, and to think the same guy directed Pontypool – what the actual fuck??) and in a pre-emptive strike I’m going to answer my own questions:

1) Yes, it’s possible.

2) A decent script.

3) Because way too many writers/directors think a promising idea is the same as an actual story.

I’m now going to illustrate my answers with some examples. It so happens that shortly before I went to FrightFest, I happened to see an article over at Movies Films and Flicks in which Mark Hofmeyer set out to canvas opinion on the top ten horror films of the 21st century – so far. He culled figures and ratings from many sources – you can see the full breakdown here and the whole article makes fascinating reading. Whilst I may not agree with all the placings (although Mark’s personal five aren’t a bad line-up, actually) I found it a fun game to play. I scribbled down my own list, which soon ballooned to twenty and I’m still fiddling around with it. Here (and I stress in no particular order) is where I am with it so far:

Kill List (Ben Wheatley). A returning soldier faces problems reintegrating himself with civilain society. A charismatic friend (read ‘bit of a dick’) offers to cut him in on a high-paying, er, contract he’s landed. After a long, slow build-up that has more in common with the cinema of Mike Leigh than anything you might expect to find in a generic horror film, things suddenly get very nasty very fast. This film is hard to watch but it is a stand-out.

Wake Wood (David Keating). Remembering the quiet and chilling elegance of this Wicker-Man-style movie (which received far less attention than it warranted) makes it all the more painful to learn that its director went on to make the derivative and valueless coven ‘chiller’ Cherry Tree as premiered at FrightFest this weekend.

Thirst (Park Chan-wook). A reimagining of Zola’s novel Therese Raquin – with added vampires! I was totally swept away by this when I saw it – but then it is Park Chan-wook, so you can’t go wrong really. Stunning and beautiful.

Stoker (Park Chan-wook). Park’s first English-language movie mixes familiar Hollywood horror tropes with Korean revenge drama and some of the most luscious cinematography ever to grace a screen. I’d watch this again in a heartbeat and you should, too.

Paranormal Activity (Oren Peli). The best thing about this one is that it has the courage of its convictions. Not a lot happens – but the tension generated is mighty AND it stands up to repeated viewings. I thought this was going to be shit when I went to see it – the death throes of the Blair Witch movement – but I was more than happy to be wrong. The sequels get more and more stupid (as sequels tend to do) but whilst they’re moderately entertaining, the original first movie is actually worthy of a place in the canon.

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (Park Chan-wook). Park’s use of music and colour (especially the colour red) in this film is astounding. Whilst a lot of people cite Oldboy as the jewel in the Vengeance crown, I would have to cite Lady Vengeance, the third instalment in the trilogy, as my personal favourite.

The Mothman Prophecies (Mark Pellington). I’ve watched this about four times and I still love it. A quiet, slow, highly unusual ghost story about recovering from grief and predicting the future. Laura Linney, especially, shines. The final fifteen minutes provides a particularly glorious sequence, shot almost entirely without dialogue, which feels genuinely iconic.

The Last Exorcism (Daniel Stamm). Far and away the best of the spate of exorcism films that arrived seemingly out of nowhere between 2009-2012. The first half hour plays out like a real-life documentary about a boy-preacher growing up to become a professional exorcist. He’s mostly lost his faith but he still wants to help people. He’s called to a remote farm, where a young girl has been behaving strangely. The ending of this film is rather predictable, sadly, but there’s some great stuff along the way and several moments of genuine terror (all too rare in horror films these days).

Wolf Creek (Greg McLean). Four friends camping in the outback. Their van breaks down. Someone comes to ‘help’. Yeah, you know how it’s going to play out, but the first hour (in which nothing much happens apart from us getting to know the protagonists) sets this movie apart from its Texas-Chainsaw-wannabe cousins. It’s horrible. I don’t think I’d watch this again but it should be in the canon.

The Descent (Neil Marshall). Another one I’ve watched a lot. The first hour, in which backstory is established and relationships are set up, is brilliant. The moment when the women realise that no one knows where they are – a genuine frisson of terror. Amazing performances and some really good stuff in general. The third quarter – a lot of dashing through tunnels to escape monsters, basically – is too generic for my liking (less is more, people) but I still love this film. The ending is a hideous masterstroke. (A masterstroke that The Descent 2 seeks to obliterate, incidentally, which only proves the point that sequels – aside from the Alien tetralogy – only serve to weaken the original concept and are generally a bad idea.)

Byzantium (Neil Jordan). A common-or-garden vampire movie raised above the common by a gloriously measured, poetic script by Moira Buffini based on her own stage play. Lovely performances, plus it’s set in Hastings, which made it a real treat for Chris and me particularly. A perfect small film, and about a hundred times better than the disappointingly-scripted and laughably derivative Only Lovers Left Alive, which ended up hogging the bulk of the vampire-love the following year.

Only God Forgives (Nicolas Winding Refn). There’s no good way to describe this other than ‘a bloodbath’, with Ryan Gosling playing an angsty gangster and Kristin Scott Thomas as a cross between Margaret Thatcher and the Countess Bathory. (Note: best screen death evah.) The body count is pretty much total but this movie has a stunning aesthetic and is just so in-yer-face you come away reeling. I like Winding Refn a lot – like an extrovert Von Trier, he just doesn’t give a stuff who he offends – but I do understand why some people don’t.

Cronos (Guillermo del Toro). Before he was famous. I like this riff on the vampire movie even better than I like The Devil’s Backbone. Stunning sense of place, gorgeous palette, great characterisation. I honestly have no idea why this isn’t better known.

Audition (Miike Takashi). It’s the needle scene that gets people talking and seeing as it’s one of the most uncomfortable sequences in horror cinema it’s not hard to see why. There is so much more to Audition, though. The way Miike plays tricks with time and chronology, for one. The nightmarish sadness of the story, for another. Mysterious and – dare I say it – beautiful, this film is a must-see for anyone interested in horror cinema. I’ve watched it three times now and it gets better each time. Be warned: it is genuinely scary.

The Box (Richard Kelly). Based on Richard Matheson’s ‘deal with the devil’ story ‘Button, Button’, no one seemed to like this when it came out. It gets a bit silly towards the end, but I actually think this movie is an overlooked gem. Weird, and weirdly compelling. One to see twice.

Snowtown (Justin Kurzel). Based on true events. I found parts of this almost impossible to watch, but the characterisation, sense of place and raw, brittle style of the cinematography make it a powerful social indictment as well as a horrifyingly gripping examination of events in a small Australian community. Be careful with this one – it really is strong meat – but it’s an amazing piece of film making and should be recognised as such.

The Monk (Dominik Moll). An unusual, beautiful and completely engrossing cinematic experience. This film isn’t nearly as well known as it should be, and is a perfect demonstration of how familiar tropes can be made to seem original and to live again. Highly recommended.

Requiem (Hans Christian Schmid). The ‘real’ exorcist. You won’t get the crucifix masturbation or spider walk scenes with this one. But what you will get is the story of a devout and highly gifted young woman starting college, trying to make the adjustment from living in a small provincial community and assailed by forces – both emotional and spiritual – that seem beyond her control. This film is brilliant: quiet yet disturbing and highly affecting. Again, inspired by true events and a deeply personal examination of the tensions between the real and the imagined. I love this film.

The Silent House (Gustavo Hernandez). If you liked Paranormal Activity you’ll probably enjoy this, too. The film aroused a deal of curiosity and comment for being shot in a single take. But there’s more here than technical panache. There’s a fascinating mystery, a pile of raw tension and a genuine sense of unease about the whole thing. Does a great trick with timelines, too. Should be part of the canon.

Sightseers (Ben Wheatley). Oh, this movie. Wheatley’s follow-up to Kill List, and I’m not even sure it can properly be called horror, although it is about a distinctly oddball couple who go on a killing spree whilst visiting a pencil museum and other esoteric visitor attractions in the north of England. I don’t care what you call it — it is brilliant, chilling and also very, very funny. Wonderful, wonderful script.

I’m still quibbling with myself over the inclusion of Wolf Creek, because it breaks a lot of my own rules for decent horror (in that anything belonging to the subgenre known popularly as torture porn is a lazy excuse for a horror movie and should earn instant disqualification from discussion on grounds of being complete crap). But the set-up was so good – the extended, dawdling exposition of the characters’ relationships to one another, the sense of place, the documentary feel that I always enjoy – and the movie had such a strong impact on me at the time of seeing that I’m letting it stay on there for now. Miike Takashi’s Audition of course is a cheat inclusion – it first aired in 1999 – but it is such a strong film and so close to being 21st century that it has to be on there, I think. (The Blair Witch Project, another notable 1999 entry, could well qualify on similar grounds.) You could easily argue that Snowtown isn’t a horror film at all, but true crime. However, as one of the most brilliant, authentic and genuinely horrific films I’ve ever seen, I felt compelled to put it forward. Both Requiem and Only God Forgives could be subject to similar quibbles but who cares – both make generous use of horror themes, and I think they’re both, in their very different ways, astounding pieces of cinema.

The others all easily qualify as straight-up horror, though. Looking at them as a group, I can see they fall into several distinct categories: social (Kill List, Sightseers, The Box, The Last Exorcism), mythic (Thirst, Cronos, Byzantium, Wake Wood, The Monk), hauntings (The Mothman Prophecies, The Silent House, Paranormal Activity) and secret past (Stoker, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, The Descent). Both supernatural and non-supernatural horror are represented, as are contemporary and historical settings. A good coverage of themes and approaches, then. But the one attribute shared by all is an emphasis on the revelation of plot through character.

I’m not going to try and argue that all horror has to be ‘quiet horror’ or that horror cinema will always leave more of an impact when the violence is kept off the screen. What I would argue though is that in order for horror films to be effective, they must offer us a story to become engrossed in. The shattering, look-away-now violence in Ben Wheatley’s Kill List (one of FrightFest’s more noteworthy premieres) would be meaningless and therefore ineffectual without our knowledge of the characters, our nervous and wary investment in their story. We wouldn’t care half so much about what happens to Sarah at the end of The Descent if we hadn’t spent half the movie’s run-time getting to know her, following her backstory and learning about the intricate and uneasy web of relationships between her group of friends. Movies like Wake Wood, Cronos, Byzantium and The Monk are all based upon what you might call horror staples, but what raises them above hundreds of run-of-the-mill films that utilize the same tropes is the thoughtful, intelligent and sensitive way they are written.

More even than the stunning visuals, what distinguishes truly innovative and original horror movies like Sympathy for Lady Vengeance and The Mothman Prophecies – making them new classics of the genre – are their intricate scripts.

This goes for all horror writing of course, not just films. Stephen King has always understood this in a way that James Herbert never did. In King, character (as revealed through backstory, interior monologue, interaction with other characters, engaged writing throughout) is always bigger than whatever ‘horror’ is coming down the line. King’s novels are about people, and how they deal with adversity, failure, change and the intervention of evil or trauma in their lives. Herbert’s novels, on the other hand, are mainly interested in the coming splatpocalypse. The characters in The Rats or The Fog – like the backpackers in the Hostel movies or Jigsaw’s victims in the Saw franchise – are being set up from page one to die in any one of a number of repulsive and excruciating ways, which is their main and only purpose in what passes for the story. Their backstories are brief and broadly generic. After all, why waste time explaining a character’s lifelong immersion in the works of Kierkegaard when they’re going to have their head removed with a buzz saw in just a moment?

I’m not sure what description to apply to stuff like this, but I would argue passionately that it isn’t horror. The best horror fiction (in whatever form) reveals to us something about the world, something about ourselves. We read Lovecraft because of his writerly conviction that the world we see around us is not the world that truly is. We watch American Horror Story (although this series also is far from perfect – more on that another day perhaps) because we are fascinated by the hidden connections between events and between characters, because we want to discover how the storylines are interwoven and what these intricate relationships will later reveal. We read Stephen King because we can imagine ourselves so easily into his milieu. We know his people and the small towns they live in. We probably went to school with some of them. We want to know what happens to them next.

A horror story narrative should be a whole thing, a tightly woven tapestry in which people and events are intricately interrelated. A parade of gruesome-death set pieces is not a narrative, it is a series of not very interesting events. Viewers who haven’t seen too many horror films might find themselves on the wrong end of a few jump-scares, to be sure, but keep feeding them this schlock and even the hitherto uninitiated will soon pick up the rules. Then they’ll be bored, buzz saw or no buzz saw. They will end up feeling that horror isn’t for them.

In giving Chris a (mercifully) brief resume of the films I’d seen at FrightFest, I expressed regret that (because of the train strike) I hadn’t been able to see the one movie I had been excited about – Bernard Rose’s new adaptation of Frankenstein. Rose has a good track record with horror films, most famously with Candyman (very nearly a very good film, and worth experiencing just for Philip Glass’s amazing score) and with his earlier, less well known movie Paperhouse, an adaptation of Catherine Storr’s novel for younger readers, Marianne Dreams. Marianne Dreams was a touchstone work for me from an early age, and telling Chris about the movie adaptation brought it all back to me: the immortal strangeness of a world in which the greatest horror might be expressed in an image of a house with no internal staircase, or a ring of sentient stones marking a boundary and blocking your exit. Thinking about this story – and Marjorie-Ann Watts’s haunting illustrations – still has the power to transport me back to a time when I would avoid reading sections of the novel too close to bedtime, because the anxiety they aroused in me was so intense.

(And not a buzz saw in sight.)

Those of us who love horror fiction love its archetypes: the haunted house, the ghost from the past, the road through the forest, the person you have been told you should never speak to. These archetypes – what are commonly called tropes but that are actually more than that, more powerful, more evocative, more like myths – are important, because they form a wellspring of story. We each have our favourites – those that resonate most with us – and the reason a favourite is a favourite will always be different.

And this is the key, really. The reason so many commercial horror movies fail at being horror is that they do not take the tropes as wellsprings – as inspiration – but dollop them on to our screens as the finished article. Horror movies written by committee – by brainstorming – will almost always be pallid reiterations of cliche, because a simple exposition of archetypes is not the same thing as an affecting story. Such archetypes can only be brought fully to life by personal response. Why am I drawn to this subject matter? What is my individual response to it? What is it that made me want to tell this story in the first place?

Why does it matter to me as a writer, in other words. If I cannot answer that question, the chances are the material I produce won’t be much cop.

ENDNOTE 1: If I do decide to throw Wolf Creek off my list, I’ll be replacing it with Philip Ridley’s Heartless. Here is a fine example of a film that takes a classic archetype – the Faustian bargain – and brings it superbly to new life through personal interpretation. Hardly surprising, from the writer/director who brought us the minor masterpiece The Passion of Darkly Noon and whose chief occupation is as a playwright. We should also note that Heartless was originally premiered at FrightFest, so those guys do get it right at least part of the time.

ENDNOTE 2: I feel it would be wrong to end this piece without at least acknowledging the catastrophic imbalance (in favour of male writers and directors) that still exists within horror cinema. The fact that this situation is perpetuated throughout cinema does not make it any better. I want to write more about this, and about what it means for the genre, but it is a huge subject, and needs more research. I’m therefore leaving it for another day. But it’s something we should all be thinking about in the meantime.

Mad Max: Fury Road

Well, I loved it. Coming out of the cinema last night, I couldn’t stop laughing for at least ten minutes because I’d enjoyed myself so much. The last time I had that kind of very hyperactive physical reaction to a movie was when I saw Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell on its London opening night back in 2009. DMTH left me with the similar impulse to head right back inside the auditorium for an immediate second viewing, although I happen to think that Fury Road is infinitely the better, the more meaningful film, more lasting as art than the hugely entertaining but ultimately disposable DMTH will ever be.

A great deal of perceptiveinsightful, enthusiastic, original, and thought-provoking criticism of Fury Road has already been produced, with critics working hard to get inside the (generously distributed) meat and bones of this movie. That’s not what I want to do here – this is a personal reaction only – but just for the record, I do want to say that I loved what this movie did with male-female interaction in the context of the Hollywood action movie. In her truly excellent review, Abigail Nussbaum has some words of caution on this subject:

“A lot of what Fury Road does with regards to women–making the prime mover of the story a woman who is not sexualized or treated as the hero’s prize, featuring multiple female characters, not all of whom are young and beautiful, passing the Bechdel test–is not so much revolutionary as the very baseline of what we should expect from most movies–what we would expect, if we hadn’t become so accustomed to the toxic sludge of misogyny that Hollywood blockbusters have been serving up for twenty years.  In fact, the more I think about it, the more Fury Road seems not like a revolution, but like a throwback to the action films of the 80s, before the genre gained the respectability that comes from being Hollywood’s primary source of revenue, back when it was still possible to put women and people of color front and center, to be weird and grotesque, and not have to worry about courting an audience made up of thirteen-year-old boys.”

Whilst I applaud what Abigail is saying here and agree wholeheartedly, neither can I deny the sheer joy I did experience in seeing what we should be seeing up there on the screen… up there on the screen.  I loved the ‘passing the gun’ moment – because it was so understated, because it happened so naturally, and without even a flicker of resentment or attitude on Max’s part. I didn’t find anything male-gaze-y about the ‘women bathing’ scene. There is no hint of ogling in Max’s expression – just shock, incredulity at the sight of something so massively at odds with the horror and violence he’s just been experiencing. And the sight of water, of course – indeed, it’s almost as if he’s looking right past the women, at the water.  Neither did I feel that Furiosa’s autonomy was compromised by her reliance on Max. What I saw was Furiosa making deft use of the opportunities that came her way – Max turns up, he clearly shares some of our aims, let’s go with it. It’s not Max showing Furiosa what to do, getting her out of a tight spot – it’s two people, working together because they choose to and because it benefits them both.  What I saw was mutual respect, not timely rescue.

For those who felt that Max almost gets sidelined in the movie, I’d say no way does he. I felt my attention drawn by both characters equally. I think the difference here is that people are so used to seeing the action guy take the lead they don’t quite know where to look (the same as that thing you get when there are three women out of ten in a boardroom and the men start muttering about women ‘taking over’).

What I want to focus on mainly though – perhaps because in the main people have not talked so much about this aspect of Fury Road – is the movie’s supreme confidence, coherence and staggering beauty as a work of art. I don’t normally give a toss about special effects or CGI. If a film doesn’t have a good script to back it up, I’m just not interested. In Fury Road I have found my exception that proves the rule. I don’t think I have ever seen a movie in which the special effects were more exquisitely tailored to the action onscreen. People made a lot of noise about the visual spectacle of Gravity and Interstellar. I found the former to be completely empty – I can’t stand George Clooney anyway, and whilst watching the film I was never able to forget even for a second that Apollo 13 was far more exciting and much better written. The latter was a typical piece of ego-bigger-than-the-idea Hollywood bullshittery with a ludicrous script, heavily derivative storyline and not even as good in terms of its editing and cinematography as was inception. With Fury Road, on the other hand, I felt that perhaps in this instance the almost total lack of a script was a good thing. The power of the visual imagery told its own story, was demonstrative in a way that, dare I say it, opera or ballet is demonstrative. And what a relief to be spared the inane backchat, macho wisecracks and by-the-numbers, relentless wank that normally characterises what passes for the script of a Hollywood action movie. The worldbuilding, similarly, was superbly outrageous – never laboured, never explained, just there.

But simply as a piece of choreography, Fury Road is a stunningly beautiful thing, an exercise in skill and wild abandon that feels more like a piece of modern dance (by Pina Bausch, say) than anything else. The visual coherence, the gleeful relentlessness of pacing, the effortlessly logical segue from one set piece into another, the colours – the thing left me breathless with delight, not just at what was happening onscreen but at the obvious dedication, skill and commitment expended by those who put it there. In its visual audacity and visceral wantonness, Fury Road often reminded me of Jodorowski – only a lot less up itself and one hell of a lot more entertaining.

I never thought I’d be saying this, but Mad Max: Fury Road should win all the awards. It’s the kind of film I’d hesitate to watch again, in case that second viewing cast any kind of a backward shadow upon the heart-pounding, seat-jumping exhilaration of the unrepeatable first.