The Blood on Satan’s Claw (Piers Haggard, 1971)


Blood on Satan's Claw
A very interesting oddity, indeed, this one.

Set in a 17th Century village, it opens with farm labourer Ralph Gower (Barry Andrews) discovering a strange skeleton whilst ploughing. Fearing it to be demonic, he reports his discovery to his squire who, reluctantly, goes to the site only to find no bones present. Dismissing Ralph’s concerns as those of a primitive ignoramus, the squire takes no further notice. Soon after, the squire’s nephew Peter (Simon Williams) visits with his intended bride. Tragedy follows and it soon transpires that a coven is growing in power, led by the young Angel Blake (Linda Hayden), and the local priest is powerless to prevent it.

The worsening situation comes to the attention of a judge (Patrick Wymark) who starts to make plans to intervene but, in the village, things are getting desperate.

This was a British Film made during the period of decline of British horror movies, though this is made by Tigon rather than Hammer studios. There are plenty of dodgy dialogue, plotting and acting moments to indicate this might not have been the most expensively mounted film of the period. There is the (admittedly appropriate to the subject) nubile nudity you’d expect from a horror of this time. Some of the special effects are risible, and some of the hairstyles too. And yet…

There is a serious attempt to remain true to the period that is really admirable. I’m sure that historians, or enthusiasts of the period, could tear it apart but, to me, this looked surprisingly consistent in its representation of a particular time and place in English history. And there is both a seriousness in the consequences of the horror to the villagers and a consistancy in the beliefs of the people of that time and the way the horror unfolds that helps drive that suspension of disbelief. I was frequently a little scared, and never bored.

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Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2014)


Under the Skin
“Enigmatic” might be too light a word for this film; “Wilfully cryptic” might be better. “Oddball”, too (though this is not necessarily a bad thing).

The film opens with light effects reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey, a woozy, shifting kaleidoscope that intimates something weird without actually spelling out anything specific (unless I’ve missed some glaringly obvious symbolism), and we then see a mysterious motor cyclist recovering a dead woman from the roadside on a scottish moor. He delivers her to Scarlett Johansson, naked in a featureless white room space. Johansson takes the clothes from the dead woman and she and the biker part company, Johansson taking possession of a transit van and driving round Glasgow, accosting strangers to ask directions, in fact trying to ascertain who she can seduce and entice into her van and back to a base where her victims will meet a rather unpleasant, though still unexplained, end.

There isn’t a great deal of plot; this is basically an alien coming to earth and, in human guise, experiencing a little of what it means to be human (the people she encounters being mostly good, some not so) and perhaps becoming a little more human in the process. It relies a great deal on tone and atmosphere, in this (although not much else) being a little similar to Johansson’s breakout film, Lost in Translation, and I struggled, at first, to fully engage with the film. One of the much-discussed features of the film is that some of Johansson’s encounters were surreptitiously filmed meetings with real people, and others staged, and I found this distracting, wondering who was ‘real’ and who not, though this became less of an issue later on, when the story elements came more to the fore and the random encounters less frequent. Also, there were some transitions from comedy to horror that were distinctly odd – at first, I wasn’t sure if the comedy was intended though I now think they were. In at least one instance, the comedy nicely set up an unexpectedly gruesome bit of nastiness.

Johansson is nude or semi-nude for significant sections of this film, which I’m sure will attract publicity, one way or the other; it doesn’t appear to be simple titillation but, rather, is an important part of establishing the identity of the alien. Kudos, too, for Johansson for taking this role, in a small, weird and oddly interesting film that would barely get a screening but for her involvement in it.

I’ve not read the book on which this is based, and I’m not sure whether it would help explain things, or if I want all the meanings neatly wrapped up. It’s a film that, while not entirely successful, is extremely interesting and it’s one I’d probably watch again.

Stoker (Chan-wook Park, 2013)


Stoker
The opening censor’s remarks referred to “Scenes of strong sex, strong violence and sexual violence” and I wondered quite what kind of film I’d let myself in for.

As it was, the violence was more to the fore than the sex and, though it made me wince a couple of times, the scenes were not excessively graphic – more in the line of Hitchcockian discomfort than slasher-like, though not for the very faint-hearted. It was certainly less ‘in your face’ than Lady Vengeance, which I watched last year, to which it bears little stylistic resemblance despite an army of Korean and other asian technicians Park has brought in to make this film; after the opening sequences, the extremely stylised camerawork swiftly settles down to a more conventional usage.

The title hints at Dracula’s Bram and there is certainly a strong gothic sensibility running through the story, depite most of the action taking place on sunny days, with the links between sex and violence here pretty explicit, and also in oblique references – scenes of Mia Wasikowska’s lead, India, calmly letting spiders run up her leg put me in mind of Renfield, eating spiders in the asylum. India is a strange character, cold and distant with a phobia about personal touching and a stillness about her that is menacing in itself.

The film opens with some disorientating ultra-stylised scenes of India in a field, with her voiceover talking about herself in slightly cryptic terms – which become clearer later in the film. The action then shifts to her 18th birthday, as she seeks out the present that her father always leaves her but, in the box instead of the shoes that she has received every previous year, there is a mysterious key. Shortly, she hears that her father, Richard Stoker, a successful architect has died in a car fire. At the funeral, in the distance, India sees a mysterious man, observing them. At the wake, this man is introduced to her by her mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) as her uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode). Charlie is friendly and charismatic but also slightly sinister and India takes against him, though Evelyn seems utterly charmed. India confronts her mother as to why she had never even been told about Charlie’s existance and Evelyn reveals that, as Charlie has been travelling the world, she herself knows barely anything about him.

Charlie makes himself useful and ingratiates himself further, becoming an integral part of the household, especially after the housekeeper disappears, and Evelyn, and even India, seem to be almost hypnotised by him. There are hints that he might be more than he seems – he certainly seems to know more about India than he should – and there are hints of something almost supernatural about him.

Wasikowska’s performance is excellent, blank and detached and yet always compellingly watchable. Goode, too, is strong though I am less enamoured of Kidman, who just looks a little bland and characterless; her character might be a finishing school-trained trophy wife, but she doesn’t bring quite enough ‘inner life’ to the character for me to much care about her.

The ending, though it largely goes where I think it should, is also a slight letdown, being slightly anticlimactic; it just lacks the menace I think it should, perhaps because I don’t care enough about the Evelyn character for her particular plight to matter to me.

Creepy and chilling, good but not great.

Sightseers (Ben Wheatley, 2012)


Sightseers
Another film from the maker of ‘Kill List‘ and a return to horror, though with a very different tone. Where Kill List used hand-held cameras and a documentary feel to instil a sense of brooding menace, this uses the same techniques but undercut with a very black sense of humour. There is no laugh track and there are a few bloody scenes but this is not the juvenile feel of Inbred , compared to which it is both much funnier and much scarier.

It starts off with a keening wail, as an elderly lady, Carol, mourns her dead dog, for whose death she blames her daughter Tina (Alice Lowe). We later see in flashback that this appears to be at least partially justified. Alice is about to go on a caravan holiday with her boyfriend Chris (Steve Oram). There is something very, very British about a caravan holiday and this desperately ‘woolley jumper’ naffness is played up nicely. All the same, neither Alice, Chris nor, for that matter Carol, are quite normal, even for caravanners and when Carol turns to Chris and whispers menacingly at him “I don’t LIKE you”, there is a bit of menace in the air. In these opening scenes, Carol and Alice seem to be mentally unwell, Carol controlling and malevolent, Alice as subservient, meek and damaged, and Chris looks to be the normal one, though we know that things will soon change.

As they drive away, Chris itemises all the highlights he has in store for Alice; to us cosmopolitan (almost anyone qualifies compared to Alice) viewers, these seem very pedestrian and twee (although I’ve been to and enjoyed most of them) but to someone so closeted and unworldly as Alice they seem exotic and daring; the tram museum at Crich, the Blue John Caverns, the Pencil Museum at Keswick, Fountains Abbey, Ribblehead Viaduct. It seems Chris has an overdeveloped sense of order and control issues. After some mildly oafish behaviour exhibited by a fellow visitor to the tram museum, we see that he has severe anger management issues also. He tries to keep this secret from Alice but she soon finds out and, much to Chris’ surprise, is perfectly happy with it. Soon, the pair’s holiday turns in to a serial killing spree.

A few interesting (to me) things stuck out about this film. Firstly, how much Chris’ obsession with bad behaviour in others struck a chord with the audience. At the tram museum, as the soon-to-be-victim oaf littered unapolagetically, there was a collective groan of disapproval and there was laughter as Chris ran him down ‘accidentally’ shortly after. It seems that littering joins being mean to puppies in the cinematographic hall of infamy deserving a violent death! Also there is something secure in Chris’ OCD targetting of people who, though surely undeserving of death in any real sense, can be said to ‘deserve it’ in the filmic sense – they had at least really offended him, even if unintentionally. When Alice gets involved, things get more chaotic and quite a bit scarier. The ending is both predictable and yet also satisfying – unlike Wheatley’s previous film, this one ends properly.

Lastly, the cheap gag on the poster about Chris’ being ginger – “death has a ginger face”. Well, all I can say is – who doesn’t know a ginger person with extreme anger management problems? I certainly do. It seems a bit of an easy stereotype. 😉

The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard, 2011)


The Cabin in the Woods

This is great fun, though I’m not sure it’s quite as brilliant as some of the reviews suggest – for fans of co-writer Joss Whedon, much of the ground has already been covered – in Buffy, Angel and even Dollhouse (though not really Firefly) even if the horror has been ramped up a little for a Cinematic “15” rating, compared to a pre-watershed TV release.

We start off in some kind of technological facility with three technocrats (Richard Jenkins, Bradley Whitford and Amy Acker) discussing the pressure on them to perform, since international rivals can’t be relied on, and whether they’re taking their work sufficiently seriously. We are not told what their work entails, and who they work for remains mysterious.

Cut to a suburban house. Four students and their stoner friend are heading off for a weekend in the country – Dana (Kristen Connolly), just recovering from a break-up with her professor, Jules (Anna Hutchison) her friend, newly blonde and looking for fun, Curt (Chris Hemsworth) Jules’ athletic boyfriend, Holden (Jesse Williams), a serious and studious man who Jules is trying to fix up with Dana, and Marty (Fran Kranz) the clever, funny but wasted stoner. As they leave, mysterious observers report on their progress…

It’s been noted that the less you know about this in advance, the better since the movie relies heavily on its twist; this is probably true, and I won’t give the game away. Most people know already that, like Scream, this plays with genre clichés and, typically for Whedon, there is plenty of wit and cleverness in play. I have heard complaints that it’s not scary enough and that might be true – there were enough ‘yuk’ moments to make me squirm and there was certainly a sense of menace but I didn’t really get involved in the film until the reveal, when the characterisations came more to the fore.

Black Sheep (2006 Jonathan King)


Black Sheep

A New Zealand horror comedy riffing on American Werewolf in London, but transposed to an NZ sheep farm for extra silliness. I recall seeing the trailer for this at a cinema and laughing quite a lot but, not getting the chance to see it at the time, I waited until the DVD came out and snapped it up cheaply. Since then, a couple of people told me it was pretty bad so I wasn’t at all sure I’d like it.

It starts off with one of the most absurd and outrageous backstory setups imaginable, as one brother traumatises another with a sheep-themed evil prank, made worse by a terrible coincidence. Cut to present day and the traumatised Henry (Nathan Meister) is visiting his elder brother Alex (Peter Feeney) on the family farm, intending to sell up and put some ghosts to rest. In the meantime, two environmental activists, Experience (Danielle Mason) and Grant (Oliver Driver), are planning to break into the experimental breeding station Alex has set up and find out what secretive genetic nastiness he’s been conducting there.

It will hardly come as a surprise to anyone seeing this film that the environmentalists’ break-in goes awry and, as a result, the sheep turn nasty – effectively “were-sheep” – and no-one really need worry about spoilers, since everything is pretty much signposted from the off; there are precious few surprises here. But I really did enjoy this. Despite there being a fairly high ‘splatter count’, the film had a real sense of fun. There are clichés galore – the reluctant hero, the good woman who comes to love him, the sensible housekeeper who dispenses sage advice, the solid worker and childhood friend who assists the good fight, the mad and irresponsible scientist who ‘plays God’, the race against time before a local infection is spread worldwide, the last minute help arriving ‘unexpectedly’, and many more – but they’re all handled knowingly and playfully rather than cynically or crassly.

Also pleasing, the misanthropy and misogyny that is too often evident in horror seems utterly lacking here. Victims are not slaughtered or tortured to suit a political or moral agenda. There are villains and they get their comeuppance, of course, but the film doesn’t take its own ‘messages’, such as they are, at all seriously. It is, rather bizarrely, a really nice film.

The Woman in Black (James Watkins, 2012)


The Woman in Black

Hammer’s back!

The film opens with children playing in a Victorian / Edwardian nursery and then ominous music and… something happens.

Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) is a young widdower (and we’re still in period England), struggling to come to terms with the death of his wife in childbirth, and trying to raise the son from that birth whilst his career as a lawyer is at its last ebb. He is given instructions from his employer that he must buck up his ideas or lose everything and so heads off from London to the north east, to the sole and grand house on “Eel Marsh Island”, a tidal island along the lines of Lindisfarne or St Michael’s Mount, accessable at low tide but a true island when the tide comes in, to sort through the papers of the recently deceased owner to make sure he has the final version of her will. On arrival, the locals are in a desperate hurry to get rid of him.

One of the first new films under cult UK Horror label “Hammer” since it ceased production nearly thirty years ago, this has quite a few of the signature ‘calling cards’ of classic Hammer films, though with significantly better production values than many of them. It has a young hero, somewhat ignorant of the world but with some emotional baggage, it has a period setting (the house, particularly, is beautiful). The hero is periodically trapped in a scary location, much scarier at night with daytime providing background to scares to come (like so many Dracula and other vampire films), and it relies on a creepy atmosphere punctuated by occasional sudden surprises, rather than tons of gore, for its horror.

This film reminded me:
Children can be creepy.
Dead children are very creepy.
Antique children’s dolls and toys are the creepiest.

Racliffe is fine in the lead role – I’ve not really followed the Potter franchise, so I don’t have any baggage there but he seems a more than capable actor – and there are ‘name’ actors in Janet McTeer and Ciaran Hinds to play off, making the chills all the more effective for having been set up well. Despite the 12A rating, this is by far the scariest film I’ve seen in a while, something I only realised later in the evening when I had to walk down a poorly lit and lonely path on the edge of town…

Inbred (Alex Chandon, 2011)


Inbred

Well, this was unusual for me – a proper ‘Genre’ horror comedy, at a special screening (the first with this soundtrack) at the Hyde Park Picture House as part of the ‘Fanomenon’ strand of the Leeds Film Festival.

First thing to say – I’m not really the target market for this kind of film. It’s a B movie gorefest, a low-budget (nothing wrong with that) broad comedy schlocker that relies on bad taste and (pretty good) special effects and the ‘yuk’ factor for both its laughs and its horror. I have to admit that, while I laughed quite a bit and winced some more, it didn’t really make much of an impact with me. I want an emotional or intellectual connection with my films and this didn’t score well there, though I’m aware that this isn’t the point of this kind of film.

Ok, that out of the way, to the movie itself. The Director opened with a bit of absurd violence, for the benefit of genre afficionados, I suppose, and then spent the first half hour establishing characters and situation before returning to the ultra-violence, an investment that paid off, to an extent. The acting ranged from moderately good to adequate but no-one was terrible, so the characters worked and there were clearly established ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’, for us to give a damn about who lives or dies.

Two care workers and four of their reluctant charges arrive at a remote Yorkshire village to embark on a ‘team building’ weekend. The team leader is officious and distant and his assistant more of the ‘you can talk to me’ kindly and sympathetic. The kids range from the gobby and arrogant to the introverted and non-communicative. As they arrive, two of the more sympathetic kids catch a glimpse of the last outsider to visit, the man who is supposed to be meeting them to set up the weekend. The house they are staying at is a wreck, the local pub (“The Dirty Hole” – yes, this is the level of humour) an unwelcoming rural pub (an echo of “The Slaughtered Lamb” but anyone who’s visited a properly rural pub will recognise this kind of place). As the kids encounter the locals, the inevitable conflicts build until they explode in gory, splattering violence.

The film borrows heavily from loads of sources; there is an organist who resembles Eric Idle’s Monty Python character from “Blackmail”, another Python reference, to “Mr Creosote”, American Werewolf in London, Papa Lazarou from League of Gentlemen, , The Wicker Man and more. While spotting these is fun and the Director openly acknowledged them in the Q and A session after the film, they were a little obvious and unfiltered for my taste, too close to their source material to be as much fun for me as this evidently was for much of the rest of the audience. If that audience response was anything to go by, my luke-warm response to the film is not a good indicator to how this will go down with genre fans, who might well be more enthusiastic.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (Troy Nixey, 2010)


Yep, 2010 – not sure why it’s only been released now in late 2011 – it’s often supposed to be the sign of a poor film but there’s nothing particularly wrong with this – but more of that later.

So, Bailee Madison plays Sally, a young girl packed off by her mother to stay with separated husband Alex (Guy Pearce) and his girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes) in the old house they are renovating to sell. Sally hears voices of ‘little people’ who tell her they want to be her friend but they quickly show themselves to be nasty little bastards, no surprise to us since we’ve seen, in the particularly vicious opening sequence, just how horrible they can be.

Of course, when Sally says anything about the house’s oddities, nobody believes her, although evidence starts to mount. This has Guillermo del Toro’s name on the opening credits and a few of the exterior shots along with the fairyland meets reality idea bear a passing resemblance to Pan’s Labyrinth but it doesn’t have that same ‘magical’ feeling to it, nor is it half as good. Still, to this non-horror expert, it was pretty scary much of the time and didn’t drag or irritate though, as even I could recognise several well-worn tropes being rehearsed, viewers better versed in horror might have found it over-familiar. Even the critters themselves reminded me of several Terry Pratchett ideas mashed up together (tooth fairy magic being powerful and dark, scary elves).

So, pretty good for someone like me but probably not for the horror aficionados, perhaps why it didn’t get a timely release.

Kill List


Kill List

A couple of hitmen, one of whom, Jay, hasn’t worked for eight months after a previous job went bad in some unspecified way, agree to kill a number of people on a list but things aren’t quite what they seem and events are going to get a bit hairy…

I don’t watch too many modern horrors – I don’t like “slasher” films & much prefer psychological thrillers – but the film I’d meant to see tonight, ‘The Skin I Live In‘, was shunted to a ridiculous hour that I couldn’t attend after only two days’ showings (I’m going to try and catch it on another town tomorrow) and this was the most interesting offer available.

It has certainly had good reviews, I think deservedly for the most part, though I have just a couple of reservations about the end of the movie; luckily I had been warned (without spoilers) of some of these beforehand Had I not, I think the disappointment might have spoiled what had been, up to then, a really terrific film.

The reservations, then: there is a ‘surprise’ ending that isn’t. Perhaps, if we’re feeling generous, we can write this off as deliberately created for “a feeling of impending doom”‘ since that has been building throughout the film but I’m not entirely convinced this was what had been intended. My other main reservation is that the end feels rushed. For most of the movie, the tension has been slowly built up through realistic situations, setting and performance but the filmmakers seem to have felt the need to impose a ‘big’ finish, at odds with the rest of the film. I know that the end needs a dramatic climax but this felt like it was cashing in a little cheaply (the end is also a bit derivative but not excessively so, to my knowledge anyway).

The good stuff. As above, realistic settings. It was odd & gratifying to see recognisably normal Yorkshire in a film like this; I haven’t felt so familiar with a film setting since ‘Four Lions‘. This gave the realistic background for the actors to make the naturalistic script really work and convince me of the reality of their situation. Jay’s home is believable and normal, despite his job (of which his wife is aware and seemingly approving) and the professionalism and mundanity of the ‘work’ is nicely portrayed. The script (some of which was ad libbed), acting and directing keep things interesting, even as we pick up the plot in hints and inferences.

I don’t want to suggest that the end ruins the film – it doesn’t – but it fails to live up to the promise of the beginning. A carefully crafted reality with a slightly disconcerting weirdness just around the edges could surely have had an ending more in keeping with its earlier tone – something low-key, like ‘Don’t Look Now‘, perhaps. I felt much the same about Duncan Jones’ ‘Moon‘ where a tremendous atmosphere of paranoia becomes an entertaining and clever, but much less interesting, high concept sci-fi parable. Having spent so much care making something different and convincing, it seems a shame to revert to more ordinary tropes at the end.