Tag Archives: Horror

My opinion of Prometheus as expressed through the facial expressions of Eddie Murphy

So that was Prometheus. Having scrupulously avoided the multimedia promo bombing campaign and fevered opinion recklessly ejaculated all over my social networks, my expectations of the film were kept largely

And I think I did the right thing in avoiding all the hype. Parts of Ridley Scott’s portentous space opera were distinctly

Yet thankfully, the production design, and some sequences (as you’d expect from a director with Ridley Scott’s chops and experience) were absolutely

Most of the plot was

And whoever chose to cast Logan Marshall-Green in the pivotal role of archaeologist Charlie Holloway was absolutely

But whenever Michael Fassbender was onscreen (as Lawrence of Arabia-obsessed droid David), the film, as I’d hoped and expected, was

Noomi Rapace also did pretty well, and her big scene was

In summary, then, Prometheus was essentially

but more a work of polished sci-fi appropriation than anything else; like spending a couple of hours on WhoSampled.com, trying to work out where all the best hooks and basslines come from on that new rap album you’ve been listening to.

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Juan of the Dead

Alejandro Brugues’ Juan Of The Dead is a fairly amusing horror/comedy from Cuba which ultimately runs out of steam, but not before taking an intriguingly satirical glance at the country’s political climate.

Alexis Dias de Villegas – who resembles a near-perfect genetic splice between John Turturro and The Wire’s Bubbles – is the eponymous Juan, a charismatically down-at-heel odd-jobs man prone to puttering around Havana with his corpulent, sex-obsessed sidekick Lazaro (Jorge Molina) in tow. Juan’s life, other than conducting a risky affair with a married woman, is pretty bare; he’s a likeable rogue with a history of failed relationships, and an estranged daughter who lives with her mother.

Before long, creeping zombies begin to attack the town’s population, though they are misidentified by our heroes as dissidents paid for by the US government. Following the careworn generic template, a rag-tag band of last-ditch, have-a-go-heroes (led by Juan) assemble and attempt to save the day with inevitably bloody, queasily humorous consequences. The twist arrives when Juan hits upon the idea of making some quick cash from his group’s exploits.

The film’s greatest strength lies in its creation of a convincingly desolate landscape upon which to unfold the action. Like Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, it takes a recognizably vibrant area and scorches it with a digital sheen, resulting in a creepy, slick barrenness. Despite the film’s obviously skimpy budget, there’s an impressively inventive approach to gore manufacturing, with early set pieces proving particularly effective.

The acting is of a varying standard. As Juan, de Villegas exudes a shambolic charm, though he is guilty of some pretty wild overacting on occasion (those staring eyes!) The outstanding performance probably comes from Andros Perrugorria as Vladi, Lazaro’s cocksure yet sensitive son. Beneath all the manic action, another compelling feature of the film is its unusual satirical bent, which is clearly signposted enough for the uninitiated to cotton onto, but not quite overwhelmingly sledgehammer in approach.

Sadly though, Juan of the Dead never quite gets its pacing right, and starts to drag at a disconcertingly early stage. Scenes feel repetitive, and there’s also a distinct lack of chemistry between Juan and his main foil, the rather unpleasant Lazaro. Unlike Shaun Of The Dead (a film which, unsurprisingly, Juan quotes from explicitly), we’re never able to feel too deeply for these characters. Neither is the film particularly horrific or suspenseful, placing greater stock instead in comedy. Sadly, much of the humour simply falls flat, recoursing too often to the dodgy waters of ‘zany’, when a lighter, subtler touch is surely called for.

Worst of all, there’s a pronounced strain of homophobia throughout which doesn’t appear to be in any way ironic, and finally tips into a retributive viciousness that’s immensely difficult to swallow. Whereas Shaun…‘s Frost and Pegg embraced the undeniable homoeroticism inherent in the buddy genre, Juan… figuratively coaxes it out, then coshes it in an unpalatable, cowardly cinematic gay-bashing.

Ultimately, Juan Of The Dead emerges as a worthwhile, if not especially memorable, addition to the zombie horror genre. It’s not the finished product by any stretch – it’s far too uneven for that – but Brugues has certainly marked himself out as a directorial name to watch.

Babycall

Dark, unsettling and minimalist – and I’m not just talking about the Nordic landscape. Babycall director Director Pål Sletaune has brewed up a restrained psychological drama which abandons big horror shocks in favour of strong, chilling performances.

Anna (a phenomenal Noomi Rapace) and her eight-year old son Anders (Vetle Qvenild Werring) leave home in order to escape his abusive and murderous father. Once they move into a presumed safe housing complex, the film follows Anna’s psychological deterioration to a sudden, shocking dénouement. As bleak reality slips into an even bleaker fantasy, the audience are left questioning whether Anna’s world of disappearing lakes, abusive social workers, and a son with mysterious purple bruises on his body, are fantasies or grim truths. Using the age-old horror trick of the unreliable protagonist, Sletaune leaves question marks slowly and deliberately throughout the film.

What this film lacks in big shocks or sustained moments of horror, it makes up for in atmosphere. Anna’s breakdown is set against a bleak Nordic landscape of muted colours, life-sapping building complexes, and ghostly shopping centres. Bare neon-lit kitchens and empty car parks work as symbols of her solitude, giving us an insight into her nervous, sleep-deprived interiority. It’s in one of these shopping centres that Anna goes to buy a baby monitor and meets her only friend and a potential love interest Helge (played with a perfect mix of muted despair and gawky hope by Kristoffer Joner). Both exude a genuine waft of loneliness in a way that makes us root for the match, but also question the motives. Why does he take so many photos of her? What is she expecting from the relationship?

Noomi Rapace’s performance sustains the focus of the film. Rapace’s Anna embodies a hunched, painful physicality, with her awkward, skinny frame, wiry hair, nervously pinched mouth and big darting eyes. Her psychological (and often physical) grip on the child is frightening in itself, not least (I imagine) for those with overbearing mothers. There is clearly something about motherhood that is ripe for terrifying turns: think Henry James’ novel The Turn of The Screw, The Orphanage, absolutely any advert for Iceland with Kerry Katona or Stacey Solomon.

Part of my problem with the film was its lack of ingenuity in creating horror out of oft-used tropes: the questionably ‘mad’ mother protagonist, the creepy Nordic child, claustrophobic urban developments. Even the central premise of the film, that potentially haunted baby monitor, is a recurring trope in recent horror films, from Insidious and Paranormal Activity 2  to Spanish efforts like The Haunting and The Baby’s Room. Despite it’s obvious strengths, there was little in this film that I felt I hadn’t seen before. What felt genuinely fresh about it was its commitment to realism – no CGI horror here, thank you very much – and as such, the plot’s slow unwinding and careful entwining of moments of ethereal fantasy worked perfectly.

Sletaune has created a film which is part art-house, part horror, and this potentially awkward cross-category (pulled off so successfully by vampire horror film Let The Right One In) fails to really fully deliver on either premise. A sense of unease, some beautiful scenes of either stark despair or artsy fantasy, some powerful performances – we leave the cinema, not empty-handed exactly, but scrabbling for something more.  However, what this visually superior horror brings to life, more than anything else, is the peculiarly haunting loneliness of inner-city living.

Babycall is in cinemas from Friday 30 March, released by Soda Pictures.

Julia’s Eyes

Belen Rueda - hangin' on the telephone

Julia’s Eyes is out now on DVD and Blu-ray (courtesy of Optimum Home Entertainment)

Pitched somewhere between Roman Polanski’s harrowing psychodrama Repulsion and more generic scare-fare in the vein of What Lies Beneath, Spanish horror Julia’s Eyes is an intriguing, occasionally effective yet unconvincing effort from director Guillem Morales which ultimately eschews a carefully crafted atmosphere in favour of a surfeit of cheap shocks and implausible plot activity.

Julia’s Eyes starts strongly, and boasts a compelling premise. On a dark and stormy (what else?) night, Julia (Belen Rueda – giving an excellent, ballsy performance), who suffers from a degenerative eye condition, discovers her twin sister hanging in her basement. Despite the clear case of apparent suicide, and advice to the contrary, she believes that her sister – who had succumbed to blindness as a result of the same condition – has been murdered, and resolves to investigate matters herself.

What follows is an initially atmospheric chiller that proceeds at a rapid clip, combining a number of old-school horror film tactics (red herrings galore, creepy strangers, gothic production design) with skilfully impressionistic lighting to reflect our heroine’s declining vision, and unsettling sound design (a squealing kettle here, pounding rain there). There’s even the requisite use of an out-of-context pop classic [1]; in this case the creepily ironic deployment of Dusty Springfield’s ‘The Look of Love’.

A couple of sequences are particularly effective. In one, Julia, playing detective, finds herself eavesdropping on a revelatory conversation in the female changing rooms at the institute for the blind frequented by her sister prior to her death. Gradually, the blind women become aware of Julia’s presence, and slowly surround her. Although the blind community might object to their representation as creepy, giggling lunatics, there is more than a hint of the festering dread of Nic Roeg’s classic Don’t Look Now inherent in this sequence. Further down the line, there is a superbly edited and exquisitely tense denoument which makes jolting use of flash bulb photography, and plays cleverly on the themes of film’s themes of vision.

Both in terms of plot development and visuals, director Morales is hell-bent on keeping the audience as firmly in the dark as Julia; this is a blessing and a curse, for while the blurred frame and lack of subjective clarity help us identify with our heroine, there seems to be no real narrative to follow, just a succession of shocks and all-too-brief set pieces, which comes as a disappointment after the promising first half. There is a lengthy, stylistically brave sequence in which the faces of all characters save Julia are obscured or kept just out of frame; it effectively makes us empathize with Julia’s worsening condition, but is also irritatingly reminiscent of Tom & Jerry’s permanently out-of-shot racist caricature Mammy Two Shoes. Furthermore, the distressed Julia is understandably in survival mode, but as a knock-on effect, there is little room for character development. She seems so hell-bent on getting herself into peril that it’s impossible not roll your eyes at her naivety.

Perhaps there’s more to Julia’s Eyes than meets the, erm, major optical organ. As our heroine, ignorant of protective advice, continues to throw herself into dangerous situations, it could all be read as an extended metaphor for terrible relationships in which self-destructive women blind to such dangers end up with controlling boors or needy, pathetic losers. There’s also an unusual citation of Ralph Ellison’s classic 1952 novel of blighted African-American life ‘Invisible Man’, when a wheezing geriatric caretaker complains of his ‘invisibility’ within society, and warns that the mysterious killer too, is lost, unseen by the world. It’s a bit of a stretch, but still a quiet moment of thoughtful reflection in a film which, ultimately, has far too much going on.

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1. My particular favourite examples of this trope are Roy Orbison’s ‘In Dreams’ in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and Peggy Lee’s ‘Is That All There Is’ in Martin Scorsese’s After Hours.

DVD Extras: The DVD features brief, but interesting interviews with director Guillem Morales, producer Guillermo Del Toro, and actors Belen Rueda and Lluis Homar, plus a B-Roll and the standard theatrical trailer. 

Troll Hunter

Don't feed the troll

The troll is a much maligned mythical beast, evicted from its under-bridge home and goat-eating ways, and nominally condemned to fluorescent nostalgia as the mid-90s’ (or 60s, 70s, & 80s) fad for little plastic dolls with bright, frizzy hair. Now, however, these generational ephemera are making a fearsome comeback on the big screen courtesy of production behemoth Dreamworks. Thankfully, Norwegian director André Øvredal’s fun début monster movie rescues the troll myth, returning it to its beastly origins. As Troll Hunter’s eponymous protagonist reassures us, these aren’t the cute trolls from the fairytales of our childhood.

Set in present-day Norway, Troll Hunter follows three college students who set out to document a mysterious, nocturnal poacher named Hans for the purposes of a school film. After pursuing Hans against his wishes, he eventually acquiesces to their persistence and decides it’s about time he reveals all about his clandestine career as – you guessed it – a troll hunter.

The opening title cards set the premise of anonymously received footage reassembled in the vein of other horror smash-hits like The Blair Witch Project or CloverfieldThankfully, Troll Hunter does not take itself as seriously as these other titles and the pretence is immediately dropped. Though director of photography Hallvard Bræin uses handheld camerawork to augment a documentary-realist style, the cinematography and general finish of the image, in contrast to what one might expect from a bunch of college students, is crisp and glossy and the night scenes are well lit, with the Norwegian wilderness appearing lush and green. The choice to reject the realism associated with grainy footage is a wise one as it would have jarred with the respectfully tongue-in-cheek updating of a traditional Norwegian myth and the deadpan performances of the cast that further contribute to Troll Hunter‘s immense charm.

The film was improvised with a script merely to guide the action, and the older cast of Otto Jesperson (Hans) and Hans Morten Hansen (Hans’s amusingly bureaucratic boss), drawn from Norwegian TV comedy, anchor the droll tone of the film. Of the younger cast, Johanna Morck is particularly strong as laid back student sound-recordist, Johanna.

Troll Hunter: "Crisp, glossy and well lit"

Much of the comedy springs from the ludicrous idiosyncrasies of conspiracy. Besides protecting the public from trolls that stray from their territory, Hans is also keeping the Norwegian populace ignorant of their very existence. A national grid engineer hasn’t given a thought to why there is an immense ring of electricity pylons that leads nowhere other than in a loop (an ingenious oversized electric fence for the gigantic trolls) and there is an hilarious sketch involving a group of Polish painters, a bureaucrat and an immigrant bear.

Faithful to the classic tenets of the troll legends, Øvredal uses these particularly anachronistic peculiarities to great, teasingly comic effect; when, for example, Hans relents to the student’s prying camera lens, the first thing the troll hunter asks as a condition of them joining his hunt, is if any of them are Christians? Christians smell (to Trolls that is). Hans, however, is not too sure about Muslims.

In terms of visual appearance, the trolls are convincingly repellent, and despite the low budget (the film came in at $3.5 million) the CGI stands up well, with a little help from the mockumentary-style shaky camera and the trolls’ nocturnal lifestyle. The switching between ‘natural’ and ‘night-vision’ in the night scenes adds an extra dimension to the hunter/hunted scenario, playing intelligently on notions of seeing and believing. The scares are relatively low-key but fun, and the trolls are akin to Jurassic Park’s Raptors and T-Rex, only uglier and possessed of considerably worse hygiene.

There is only one rather clumsily worked scene, where Hans recalls a career low. He explains that he was once called upon to clear an area of its trolls for a road development, slaughtering all of the creatures in doing so. The scene breaks the rhythm of the narrative and is unnecessary as Jesperson’s well-judged performance excellently conveys the sadness that stems from the paradox of his job without the need for further exposition: in order to protect all trolls, he has to kill some. One can’t help but think of the current plight of Britain’s own badgers and modern governments’ oxymoronic policy of ‘wildlife management.’

Troll Hunter is released in UK cinemas on Friday 9 September via Momentum pictures, and is highly recommended.

Contributor John McKnight can be followed on Twitter @johntydon.

Characters that I love #8 – Griffin Dunne as Jack Goodman – An American Werewolf In London (John Landis, 1981)

Griffin Dunne as Jack

Almost thirty years on from its initial release, John Landis’ culture-clash horror An American Werewolf in London remains a deeply odd movie. The film’s premise is classic genre stuff; man bitten by wolf turns into werewolf at full moon, and goes on killing rampage. The waters of an ostensibly simple tale are muddied, however, by a series of bizarre tonal shifts from broad comedy to dark psychological thriller, spatial dislocation (why, oh why, does David end up in a London hospital when he’s attacked in Yorkshire?) and a bracingly abrupt ending that verges on the upsetting.

Werewolf begins with two young American tourists traversing the terrain of the Yorkshire moors. David (David Naughton) is clearly the more enthusiastic traveller of the two, with Jack (Griffin Dunne) ill-at-ease in unfamiliar surroundings, betraying his disdain with a stream of sarcastic asides, and more interested in discussing his preferred female conquests. Clad in primary-colour bodywarmers and sporting similarly lustrous brown hair, they enter an ominous pub named The Slaughtered Lamb seeking refuge and sticking out like proverbial sore thumbs. The pub, populated by a collection of stony-faced, flat-cap clad locals (including Kes‘ despotic PE teacher Brian Glover and, in a very early screen appearance, Bottom‘s Rik Mayall), offers them a particularly stony reception. After a terse exchange, they are cast out into the moors and before long, are lost. Suddenly, Jack is mercilessly savaged by a venomous lycanthrope who soon goes after David but only succeeds in injuring him. That, as they say, is that for Jack. Well, it should be, but in a masterstroke from writer-director John Landis (also responsible for Michael Jackson’s visually resemblant Thriller) Jack is soon to return to haunt David as a particularly laid-back corpse languishing in the afterlife.

Special Effects guru Rick Baker goes to work on Griffin Dunne

Already sardonic in the land of the living, Jack becomes positively louche in limbo. In his first post-death appearance, he pays David a visit at his hospital bedside, livid with blood and with skin flapping from his neck, casually urging David to kill himself to avoid any further wolf-based mayhem, and to free him from oblivion. David can’t decide whether Jack’s appearance is merely another of his frequent fever dreams, and is even less certain when he appears for a second time, in a state of further decomposition, at the house of his new girlfriend (his nurse, played stiffly by Jenny Agutter). David fails to heed his friend’s warnings and embarks on a series of murderous jaunts in the form of the wolf (including one memorably tense sequence shot in an eerily empty Tottenham Court Road tube station).

Jack’s final appearance, fittingly for his slightly sleazy nature, finds him rotting away in the back of a seedy porn theatre in Piccadilly Circus, decomposed to the extent that Dunne is now voice-acting only, having been replaced in physical form by a particularly diseased looking animatronic dummy. The jaded Jack is now the de-facto leader of a chorus of corpses in various stages of degeneration, all of whom ghoulishly suggest ways in which David could commit suicide.

Jack is a great character for a number of reasons. Firstly, his close connection with David adds an extra degree of poignancy to the unwitting murders that Jack commits and his ultimate demise; he is giving his friend the best advice he can, but his words of wisdom go unheeded as David gradually loses his grip, eventually succumbing to a barrage of police gunfire; it is worth remembering that at the heart of this story lies the tragic death of two young innocents abroad. As an essentially comic construction however, Jack also strikes just the right note of absurdist humour, simultaneously wry and horrific. Furthermore, in our modern age of bloodless, unemotive CGI, Jack’s appearance (along with David’s spellbinding homo-lupine transition) magnificently showcases a golden age of cinema in which convincing make-up and special effects were a tangible labour of love. Dunne had to sit in make-up for hours each day with Special Effects wizard Rick Baker (Videodrome, Thriller) to achieve the believable look of a man who was certainly dead, but not quite dead enough to preclude him from wandering around the back streets of Soho for a few days.

Jack is portrayed with laid-back elan by Griffin Dunne, a New York actor/director almost certainly best known for his defining lead role in Martin Scorsese’s pitch black 1985 comedy After Hours, in which he essayed a white collar drone way out of his depth in New York’s own SoHo. His performances in these two films can only make one wonder why he didn’t make more of an impact as an actor. After all, how many films can you name in which a sarcastic, decomposing corpse steals the show?