Kuroneko: an ordinary ghost horror story saved by expressionist cinematography and social commentary

Kaneto Shindo, “Kuroneko” (1968)

A companion piece to his earlier classic “Onibaba”, Shindo’s “Kuroneko” explores vengeance and human desires for love in the setting of a typically Japanese ghost horror story. The film also expresses an anti-war theme by concentrating on the disruptions and changes war brings to poor people and to poor women in particular. Two farm women, Yone (Nobuko Otawa, who also appeared in “Onibaba”) and her daughter-in-law Oshige (Kiwako Taichi), are attacked in their home by a group of rough samurai led by Raiko Minamoto (Kei Sato) who rape and murder them, and who try to cover up their crime by burning down the farm-house with the dead women inside. The women’s spirits then inhabit the bodies of black cats and acquire the ability to change into aristocratic women in order to attack travelling samurai and drain them of their blood in their ghost mansion set up in the bamboo grove where their farmhouse used to be.

Oshige’s husband Hachi (Kichiemon Nakamura) returns from northern Japan with the head of an enemy general which he presents to his local governor who turns out to be Raiko Minamoto. Believing Hachi’s lie that he fought the general under the name Gintoki, Minamoto makes him samurai and then orders him to find and destroy the ghosts at Rajo Gate that are preying on samurai. Oshige finds the ghosts and realises they are the ghosts of his dead mother and wife. Oshige is torn between the pact she and Yone have made with underworld demons to destroy samurai and her love and desire for Hachi / Gintoki. Her choice condemns her but saves Hachi / Gintoki’s life. Forced by the governor on pain of death to get rid of Yone, Hachi / Gintoki tries to manoeuvre his way out of his dilemma of having to kill his mother’s ghost but finds himself outwitted.

The story is fairly and straightforward and trots along at a steady pace until its last few scenes when it speeds up and becomes unhinged when Hachi / Gintoki desperately fights his mother’s ghost. It is repetitive, even ritualistically so, for much of its running time and Western audiences may find its repetitive nature tedious. What elevates this ghost story into an eerie investigation of the supernatural woven through with social commentary is artful cinematography in which the natural world, populated by bamboo forests, and a minimalist style, from the furnishings to the dialogue and the costumes, are dominant. White mists swirl through the sparsely furnished rural mansion where the ghost women live. The use of light and darkness to create the world of the ghosts as opposed to the world of humans, and to highlight the desire Oshige and Hachi / Gintoki feel for each other is notable.

The transformation of two human farm women into ghostly aristocrats through a brutal incident clearly establishes Shindo as a director concerned for the well-being of the underclasses; the transformation also suggests that ordinary people who are close to nature and who create are the pawns and playthings of the nobility and warrior classes who, removed from the natural world, can only exploit and destroy what others create. While Hachi the farm-boy is raised to the level of samurai by killing someone, his lack of preparedness for the role he is required to play as samurai – that is, to kill – becomes his undoing. Governor Minamoto who elevates Hachi to the level of samuari and thus sends the young man on his way to karma remains unaffected by the events as they unfold.

The soundtrack is significant in its own right as a character – the film’s opening scenes are done entirely without dialogue and all we hear are the sounds of people drinking and eating, and later the sounds of violence, followed by the sounds of forest insects – and features a range of music from experimental folk using taiko drums to more conventional Western popular styles.

For all the tension created by the revenge plot and the dilemmas and conflicts faced by the main characters as they must navigate their changed status, whether socially in the world of humans or morally among the demons, the film seems quite ordinary compared to “Onibaba”. The acting is not nearly so good and the plot and sub-plots seem disjointed and do not flow well. Compared to other ghost story horror films being put out by other Japanese directors – the brilliant “Kwaidan” comes to mind – “Kuroneko” is redeemed mainly by its expressionist cinematography and must be regarded as a minor classic.

Real-life horror movie treatment of patients in “Brainwashed: The Secret CIA Experiments in Canada” which the Canadian government refuses to acknowledge and apologise for

Harvey Cashore, “Brainwashed: The Secret CIA Experiments in Canada” (The Fifth Estate, December 2017)

As The Fifth Estate’s website post on this documentary says, the scenario might be straight out of a Hollywood B-grade horror movie plot: patients in a psychiatric hospital subjected to electro-shock treatment, rounds of drug treatment including hallucinatory drugs like LSD to induce comas lasting weeks, even months on end, hypnotic suggestion and sensory deprivation, all supposedly to cure them of mental conditions like anxiety, depression and paranoia. Yet these patients end up behaving like infants and their memories are almost destroyed. Incredibly this scene was the reality for hundreds of Canadians being treated by medical personnel under the supervision of Dr Donald Ewen Cameron at the Allen Memorial Institute in the 1950s and 60s as part of the notorious MK ULTRA project directed by the CIA and supported by the Canadian government. These experiments, aimed at breaking down people’s negative mental structures and patterns causing their problems, were ultimately recognised as failures and the program at the institute was shut down in 1965, yet the demands by patients and their families for compensation from Ottawa went ignored or were obfuscated for years. The Canadian government has never apologised for supporting and funding Dr Cameron’s experiments which caused such suffering and injury to patients and which affected their families as well, and continues to deny responsibility for its part in the experiments despite grudgingly paying compensation to some (but not all) patients who brought law suits against it.

Using a mix of archived materials, dramatisations and interviews with former patients of Dr Cameron, narrator and writer Bob McKeown builds a compelling story of how the experiments began as a response to the return of US and Canadian soldiers from the Korean War who had been held as POWs by the North Korean government and who supported its Communist ideology. Determining without apparent evidence that the North Koreans, Russians and Chinese were using mind-altering methods on prisoners, the CIA decided to research the use of drugs that could counter such brain-washing and influence captives from Communist nations to support capitalist ideology. At the same time, at the Allens Memorial Institute in McGill University in Montreal, Dr Cameron was investigating ways of treating and curing schizophrenia by erasing memories and deprogramming then reprogramming the brain and psyche. The CIA recruited Cameron into its MK ULTRA and related projects and paid him through a front organisation called the Society for the Investigation of Human Ecology. From there the documentary follows the paths of two former patients and what they suffered, and it details the profound effects of Cameron’s experiments on these patients and their families, and on other families.

Rather than admit its role in financing and encouraging the brain-washing experiments, Ottawa persecutes the victims of the experiments by denying compensation, subjecting former patients to eligibility requirements for compensation, placing gag orders on people and forcing people to pursue justice through the legal system.

Although the two female patients interviewed by McKeown were fortunate indeed to survive their treatments, the documentary makes no mention of those not so lucky and who continue to suffer long-term ill health (or have even died) as a result of the experiments. The documentary’s narrow focus on selected Canadian victims means that the wider ramifications of the experiments, especially for the CIA renditioning programs in the Middle East and western Asia which often involved torture and the use of mind-altering drugs on prisoners, must go ignored.

The Quatermass Xperiment: an outdated science fiction / horror film that still has the power to terrify

Val Guest, “The Quatermass Xperiment” (1955)

Filmed well over 60 years ago (at this time of writing), this film of alien-human possession remains a timeless inspiration in its not unsympathetic portrayal of a helpless astronaut overcome  by an extraterrestrial infection that turns him into a monster. While we modern Western audiences might laugh at the crude special effects and the naif plot, “The Quatermass Xperiment” was something of a revolution in fusing together genuine Gothic horror and science fiction, and demonstrated that the film-going public had an appetite for science horror films with often morbid themes and plots. Apart from its more dated and hokey sections, the film rockets along at a brisk pace with a tight plot and a brusque set of scientist and police characters working against time to determine the nature of the danger they have to tackle and how to get rid of it.

Professor Quatermass (Brian Donlevy), an irascible and obsessively driven rocket scientist, is conducting an experiment that involved sending three men into outer space some months ago. The rocket crashes back on Earth and Quatermass and his team discover that two of the crew have either died or disappeared, and the third man, Victor Caroon (Richard Wordsworth), is seriously ill. Caroon is whisked into the care of Quatermass’s colleague Dr Gordon Briscoe (David King-Wood) who is puzzled by the various changes in Caroon’s biochemistry from the blood samples he takes. Caroon’s wife Judith (Margia Dean) decides to sneak her husband out of Briscoe’s office and sets off a chain of horrifying incidents culminating in the wipe-out of all animals in a city zoo overnight. Reports of strange sightings in inner London convince Quatermass and the police, led by Inspector Lomax (Jack Warner), that Caroon is rapidly changing into a more monstrous life-form.

The science is very dodgy indeed – if the film were to be remade, Caroon would be subjected to very strict quarantine procedures undertaken by the military, and enormous secrecy would surround the quarantine, such that it would be done either in an underground laboratory or a facility located on a remote island – and the monster’s nature is deliberately so protean, taking on characteristics of all its victims as it changes and matures, that its transformation (while highly inspirational for later films like John Carpenter’s notorious 1982 flick “The Thing”) stretches plausibility. A monster that feeds on familiar Earth life-forms must not be all that alien after all and the creature conceivably could have hitch-hiked a ride on Caroon’s rocket from Earth before being blasted by bursts of radiation that allowed it to enter the rocket and destroy the crew. The film shows very little of the monster until the very end, using suggestion and artful cinematography, such as portraying night-time scenes from the monster’s point of view, to suggest a horror far beyond what one’s own nightmares can conjure.

While most of the acting, including Donlevy’s performance as Professor Quatermass, is workman-like, Richard Wordsworth’s performance as the doomed Caroon, wracked with physical and mental pain at the transformation he surely knows he is undergoing, is heart-wrenching and elicits much sympathy from this viewer. London in the 1950s – a poor city, post-industrial in parts, with a very socially conservative culture not much changed from Victorian times – is a significant character in its own right in giving the monster plenty of hiding places to fool Quatermass and the police while it grows and changes form. The showdown between Quatermass and the monster at Westminster Abbey is less spectacular than it should be in such a venue, though perhaps having the monster shimmy up Big Ben to bat off RAF planes was considered too derivative of Hollywood sci-fi stereotypes.

Despite having saved planet Earth from a plague of similar gargantuan slime-mould critters, and presumably having been presented with the bill to clean up the snail trail slime left around London, Quatermass vows to continue with his experiments and sends a second rocket into outer space. This attitude may reflects the view, widespread around the world during the 1950s, of scientists as being rather remote from the concerns of the world and obsessed with pursuing their studies and experiments without thought for the consequences of their work. Quatermass’s determination can also be interpreted as defiance in the face of the fear and possible threat of unknown alien forces; after all, the only way one can deal with such forces is to confront them directly. Apart from this, Donlevy’s Quatermass seems a hard-bitten man, more gangster than scientist, and this unsympathetic portrayal contrasts well with Wordsworth’s Caroon who inspires pity.

The authorities’ reaction to news that a fast-growing and changing monster is on the rampage in the British capital can be quite chilling, with London put into lockdown, all electricity cut off in its metropolitan area and information about the monster deliberately withheld from the public. Britain even then was much closer to becoming a police state than many people supposed.

The film offers plenty of tension and terror in the way it builds up to the confrontation between scientist and giant slime-mould with a plot that plays out like a documentary rather than drama. While it surely needs a remake with more credible science, I fear something of the terror and paranoia of the original film will be lost.

 

The Andromeda Strain: a lesson in how situations and the clash of characters generate drama and tension

Robert Wise, “The Andromeda Strain” (1971)

Although made over 45 years ago, this science fiction film about a team of scientists battling to identify and contain an extraterrestrial microscopic life-form before it brings death and destruction across Earth can still teach modern movie-makers a lesson or two (or even more) about how to draw out drama, tension and pace from situations and the clash of characters and personalities without resorting to contrived or stereotyped plots, sub-plots, or character types. There are no preachy messages or big-name actors playing themselves in roles tailored to their limitations. While there’s a huge emphasis on special effects and modern technology, these aspects are appropriate and subordinate to the narrative. The minimalist style of the film throws viewer attention onto the plot and its cast of characters. The plot may be mundane but the care given to plot details and how a group of people with particular personality quirks and weaknesses work together in a situation they cannot control and which quickly becomes urgent and life-threatening flesh out the thin plot and manage to make it absorbing. The film’s ultimate message – that humans have less control over nature and the Earth’s systems than they realise – is very humbling indeed.

A satellite crashes to Earth near a small town in Arizona and the town inhabitants promptly drop dead from a mysterious disease that turns their blood into powder. Only a drunken old man and a bawling baby survive the infection. The two are brought to a secret underground laboratory called Wildfire where a team of four scientists drawn from different scientific and medical disciplines study them and the remains of the satellite to learn more about the xeno-organism. The scientists themselves have undergone an elaborate series of decontamination procedures through four floor levels to reach the fifth and lowest level where the actual laboratory is located. This level also contains an automatic nuclear-powered self-destruction mechanism to stop all infectious organisms from escaping. One of the four scientists, Dr Mark Hall (James Olson), is given the key to turn off this mechanism.

The scientists identify the xeno-organism, which they dub the Andromeda strain, and discover its unique properties that enable it to grow and mutate rapidly. The xeno-organism quickly changes into a form that eats through the laboratory’s plastic and rubber seals, setting off the facility’s self-destruction mechanism. Dr Hall has only minutes to turn off the mechanism when the scientists realise that the organism can absorb the energy of a nuclear explosion and turn into a super-colony that might wipe out all life on Earth.

Some of the hard science and medicine can be implausible and if the original novel were to be written now rather than nearly 50 years ago, its writer Michael Crichton (of “Jurassic Park” fame) would incorporate current scientific and medical advances to make the novel more realistic: for example, the baby and the old man’s survival would now be attributed to their having vulnerable or weakened immune systems that did not over-react to the organism. This reasoning would be consistent with the hidden message in the film which is that the elaborate procedures that safeguard the people working in Wildfire from virulent microorganisms turn out to be their potential doom when an alien organism escapes their control. Wherever possible, computer and other technologies in the film are used to their utmost potentials: computers are not just used to crunch out data and statistics, they are also incorporated in scientific analysis and to describe (in text and animations) the nature of the alien organism under study.

The cast of actors is credible in the level of restraint they exercise and in the way they flesh out their characters. All the scientists are ordinary people with easily bruised egos, prejudices and weaknesses which they try to hide. One of the scientists, the cantankerous Dr Ruth Leavitt (Kate Reid), has an epilepsy problem which threatens the safety of the Wildfire laboratory when she experiences an epileptic fit caused by flashing red lights while performing an experiment on the alien organism. Dr Mark Hall displays quiet and unexpected heroism in his quest to shut down the self-destruct mechanism in spite of tremendous obstacles in his path from the fifth level to the third level of Wildfire.

At one point in the film, Leavitt and fellow scientist Dr Charles Dutton (David Wayne) accuse team leader Dr Jeremy Stone (Arthur Hill) of wanting to use the team’s findings about the Andromeda strain to develop bio-weapons. Indeed, the whole Wildfire laboratory itself seems to be under the control of the US military which says something profound about how the United States perceives its role in guarding or protecting Earth from possible alien contact: aliens are to be regarded as potentially threatening rather than as possible partners in exploring and understanding space, and perhaps understanding our place and purpose in the universe.

The film is noteworthy for its restrained use of special effects that emphasise the virulent nature of the alien organism and how colour is used to define the different levels of the Wildfire laboratory. Special mention should be made of the use of an electronic avant-garde music soundtrack to emphasise the film’s technical approach to its plot and themes. Funnily, while much of the film is drawn out and devoted to detailing the elaborate procedures the scientists follow to observe the laboratory’s hermetic nature and in the way they conduct their experiments, the way in which the alien pathogen is brought under control seems hastily written and not very well explained.

Even though the technology featured in the film looks very antiquated, the film itself has not dated a great deal and much of it – and the attitudes expressed towards the alien organism – still remain relevant. Microorganisms from outer space are still to be regarded with horror and dread, to be held at bay or wiped out altogether, rather than as life-forms that could enrich Earth’s ecosystems.

“Doctor Who: The Power of the Daleks” – a futuristic setting for a police-state society beset by political rivalries

Charles Norton, “Doctor Who: The Power of the Daleks” (animated version, 2016)

Originally filmed in live action in 1966, this Doctor Who adventure was the first to feature Patrick Troughton as the newly regenerated Time Lord forced to face his most deadly enemies the Daleks not long after he staggers to his feet and strains to recognise his faithful Earthling companions Ben and Polly. The trio lands on the planet Vulcan where already a colony has been established by Ben and Polly’s fellow Earthlings in a future hundreds of years after the duo’s time. Almost as soon as they land and start investigating their surroundings, the Doctor finds a dead man, murdered by another. Not long after, the Doctor and his companions are found by the colonists and herded into their settlement where they meet the Governor and his subordinates, all of whom assume that the Doctor is the examiner come to check and audit their work.

The Doctor takes an interest in chief scientist Lesterson’s work but is horrified to discover that Lesterson and his team are attempting to revive three Daleks found in a capsule that crash-landed on Vulcan a couple of centuries ago. Sure enough, as soon as the Daleks are resurrected against the Doctor’s protests, they set about in their cunning and manipulative way to direct the colony’s resources into maintaining themselves and producing new Daleks. The Daleks quickly realise that the colony is divided among the rulers and a group of rebels who plan to overthrow the Governor and his regime, and aim to exploit the political divisions in the colony.

This story was certainly not written with children in mind as the target audience: the animation is minimal and sparse and the story is driven by character and dialogue. Most of the story is carried by the colonist characters and their interactions with the Daleks: the colonists assume they have full control of the Daleks and the Daleks pretend to be subservient while always on the lookout for an opportunity to usurp those in charge of the colony and enslave the humans. This relationship might be read as a metaphor for the decline of British imperialism in its Asian and African colonies in the period in which this Doctor Who adventure was originally made (1966): the British had always assumed they could maintain their empire but through their arrogant exploitation and impoverishment of their subject peoples, and their attempts to expand their global empire to maintain their political and economic edge against rival powers the US and Germany (leading them to fight two disastrous world wars), ended up losing this empire. In most of their colonies, subject peoples fought hard for self-government and the right to make decisions concerning the use of their lands and natural resources, and then for independence when they discovered the British had no intention of sharing power with them. The difference though in the Doctor Who adventure is that the Daleks are united in their apparent subservience while plotting their own rebellion, and remain united when they seize control of the colony. One unfortunate result though of the story being driven by the colony’s unstable and seething politics is that the Doctor’s companions Ben and Polly are reduced to helpless onlookers unable to do much to help the Doctor or the colonists combat the real danger.

The story is outstanding in delineating the characters of several colonists – the sinister and power-hungry Bragen, his equally conniving No 2 Janley, chief scientist Lesterson who possibly feigns madness when his experiment unravels badly and threatens the colony, the crusty Governor and his hapless deputy Quinn who is constantly being shoved aside in spite of his protests – to the extent that viewers come to identify with them, even though these colonists are mostly greedy people engaged in a grubby power struggle. This establishes a tension – viewers know that some of these characters will be killed by the Daleks, that is a given – so when the Daleks do go on their rampage, the shock of seeing so many colonists being massacred can be overwhelming. The one thing lacking in the story is motivation: why are the colonists so keen in the first place to resurrect the Daleks and use them as robot servants? For that matter, we do not learn much about the human colony on Vulcan and why it was founded there: we have to assume that Vulcan contains minerals and other resources needed for the future human civilisation that set up the colony.

One thing that helps to lighten the seriousness of this adventure and distance viewers a little from the characters is the Doctor’s own wavering character which has yet to establish itself properly. Absent-minded, liable to wander off without warning and whip out a recorder to play during times of stress, the Doctor nevertheless retains a sharp mind and the ability to improvise a strategy to defeat the Daleks. Because the adventure under review is an animated reconstruction of the original live-action story, I cannot really comment much on Troughton’s acting against the rest of the cast; the audio recording suggests Troughton and the actors playing the colonists (Lesterson, Bragen and Janley in particular) do a good job in the parts they play, given that the plot is quite complicated but must fit within the structural parameters of a six-episode adventure where each episode lasts 20 to 25 minutes.

This story is definitely one of the better Doctor Who adventures, even if it seems a bit overcrowded with many good characters: it’s a story that inquires into the nature of politics and finds it cynical, petty and small-minded, and what that small-mindedness might say about the values of the society where such politics exist. While the Daleks use their own cunning and exploit the greed and the rivalries of the humans they seek to conquer, they still end up puzzled by the humans whose psychology they manipulate. Why indeed do humans kill other humans for no other reason than sheer greed for power and influence over their fellow humans?

Downsizing: an uneven satirical science fiction comedy commenting on various social, economic and political issues

Alexander Payne, “Downsizing” (2017)

For most viewers, perhaps the more interesting part of this long meandering film will be the first half in which main character Paul Sofranek (Matt Damon) decides to undergo miniaturisation for various reasons reflecting his status as a lower middle-class technocrat worker bee and the pressures that attach to that, and the actual miniaturisation process itself. The rest of the film is likely to leave audiences behind as Sofranek embarks on a journey of self-discovery and fulfillment among similarly downsized humans and is brought to the depths of existential despair and the equally dangerous highs of spiritual exhilaration in his adventures. If viewers were to tune out after the halfway point though, they will miss a great deal of satirical social commentary on the current state of the American middle class, the class system generally, climate change, the plight of refugees and outsiders in American society and cult behaviour among even supposedly enlightened communities.

Sofranek and wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) aspire to the typically American dream of material success – good jobs with incomes that accommodate a fair-sized house in a socially upward community, good schools and colleges for any children they may have – but due to past circumstances not wholly theirs to control, Sofranek’s dream of becoming a surgeon is downgraded to his being an occupational therapist for a meat-packing plant in Omaha, and the couple’s application for a loan to buy a cheap-looking over-sized McMansion house is dashed because they don’t have the income to support repayments. Through friends, the Sofraneks hear of a community called Leisureland where they can live the life they desire: the catch is they must consent to be downsized to 15 centimetres in height to live in this tiny community – the assumption being that tiny people can exist on a fraction of the resources that normal-sized people require. This assumption has grown from experiments done in years past by Norwegian scientists searching for alternate solutions for human survival in the event of climate change and/or reduced global resources due to overpopulation and overcrowding.

Paul Sofranek himself undergoes the downsizing – the process is very clinical, machine-like, even a little industrial, yet the creepiness of it is (depending on the viewer’s point of view) either attenuated or increased by the cheery music one associates with television situation comedies of the 1950s – but his wife chickens out at the last moment. Paul thus finds himself adrift in a sterile cartoon Disneyland gated community where he has the money to afford a huge mansion with cheap reproductions of famous European paintings. He decides to move into an apartment and (after his divorce) acquires a girlfriend who later rejects him when she discovers his neighbour is a noisy Serbian called Dušan (Christoph Waltz) who throws large parties. You know the Hollywood stereotype about Serbians: they’re either outright villains or just not to be trusted. Dušan invites Paul to one such party where Paul becomes intoxicated on an ecstasy tablet, dances all night long and crashes out next morning. He meets Dušan’s cleaner Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a former environmental activist who was arrested and shrunk down as punishment by the Vietnamese government, and who now hobbles on an ill-fitting prosthetic leg she acquired after defecting to the US in a television carton. Ngoc Lan takes Paul to meet her sick friend and he discovers that the women live in a huge slum barrio, one of several on the outskirts of Leisureland. After trying (and failing miserably) to help both Ngoc Lan and the friend with their health issues, Ngoc Lan co-opts Paul into her cleaning service – at least he gets to visit different people and workplaces, so he gladly leaves the telemarketing job he currently has – and the two run a parallel charity in which, instead of receiving payment for cleaning rich people’s houses and business premises, they take away unwanted food, medicines and other supplies for the barrio.

Later Paul and Ngoc Lan travel with Dušan and his skipper friend Konrad (Udo Kier) to Norway to meet members of the original tiny community in an idyllic fjord forest setting. However the people of this community receive news about methane releases in Antarctica and decide that the global extinction of humans is about to begin so they prepare for a transformative event that appeals to Paul.

The cast puts in excellent performances with Hong Chau and Christoph Waltz being the most outstanding. Ngoc Lan’s broken English skills hide a cunning and manipulative personality who knows exactly what she wants. Dušan is a louche playboy who makes his money in the grey areas between what’s legal and what’s not but he, like Ngoc Lan, turns out to have a heart of gold. Damon’s acting is rather more limited in style and expression but his character represents an everyman stereotype, not too bright, and limited in knowledge and expression, perhaps because he has trained for a narrow occupational specialty and was shunted into a niche where he is expected to stay, though changing circumstances mean he will eventually become redundant. Through his adventures with Dušan, Ngoc Lan and Konrad, Paul comes to appreciate humanity as a whole, to learn compassion and true tolerance (as opposed to tolerating people’s presence), and to realise that his purpose in life is to keep on listening and learning, to put others’ needs above selfish desires, and to help others not so fortunate and privileged as he is. True social change comes not from following fads and movements promising utopia but from working with others to improve society as is.

There are so many social, political and economic issues treated in satirical ways in “Downsizing” that the film can only deal with them in a superficial way. The result is that the plot lurches from one issue to the next: first, we have overpopulation as an issue; then come miniaturisation and one social issue that arises from that (will tiny people have the same rights and freedoms as normal-sized people if they shut themselves away in tiny communities?); the class divisions in Leisureland are another, signifying that even tiny communities are not utopias but merely replicate the economic and political structures of their original source communities; doomsday cults are another issue. Far from being a solution to climate change and overpopulation, miniaturisation is simply another means to social avarice and meaningless consumerism. The point could be made though that overpopulation is not itself a problem: the real problem is that the wealth of the Earth is unevenly distributed among peoples due to the economic and political systems that we have which ensure that a wealthy few not only acquire more than they deserve but are prepared to defend what they have to the point of enslaving or killing others to keep their wealth and acquire more. In this respect, the miniaturisation project goes some way (but only a little) to redistribute some of the wealth to a few lucky have-nots – but even they are seduced by the dream of having more. (And if the film’s science were accurate – which it is not – miniaturisation wouldn’t even be considered as one panacea to the unequal distribution of resources: tiny humans would need to eat more, several times their weight even, and thus by sheer necessity take up more resources for their size, simply to keep warm.) True redistribution comes from caring for others and sharing with others, not from isolating oneself in a luxury retirement-village gated community or in a hippie village anticipating an apocalyptic scenario and acting as a doomsday cult, and this is the difficult lesson Paul must learn.

For all its faults and limitations as a tale of self-discovery and redemption, “Downsizing” may eventually attain lasting cult status: it presents issues of varied social, economic and political import, and at the very least prompts serious thinking on these issues, even if it itself fails to answer them adequately.

Pride + Prejudice + Zombies: affectionate spoof historical comedy drama / horror film mash-up could have promised more

Burr Steers, “Pride + Prejudice + Zombies” (2016)

At long last, instead of yet another BBC TV series adaptation or British / Hollywood movie version of the famous Jane Austen novel of marriage and manners, we have an affectionate spoof in which the Bennet sisters – or just two of them, Elizabeth (Lily James) and Jane (Bella Heathcote) – not only sing, dance, play piano and chat wittily at parties and afternoon tea but also fight and kill zombies with knives, swords, guns and Shaolin kung fu. Yes, this is the movie adaptation of the mash-up novel by Seth Grahame Smith which credits Austen as co-author. Although it’s been a long time since I read the original Austen novel – I had to read it for school – and I have never read the mash-up, the film is surprisingly faithful in spirit if not in the details of the original plot and preserves most of its characters.

In early 19th-century England, the moderately wealthy Mr Bennet has trained his five daughters to fight the zombies that have recently overrun that green and sceptred land after a mysterious Black Plague has swept through the country and laid waste to much of it. His frivolous wife is keen to see her daughters hitched to wealthy gentlemen suitors. The family attends a ball hosted by the rich Bingley family and young heir Charles Bingley is attracted to Jane Bingley. Zombies then gate-crash the ball and the Bennet girls help in dispatching them to Purgatory. Elizabeth Bennet catches the attention of Fitzwilliam Darcy (Sam Riley), an even more wealthy gentleman than Charles Bingley and a noted zombie killer to boot. While both Elizabeth and Darcy are attracted to each other, a misunderstanding between them soon arises concerning why Darcy advises Charles Bingley to keep his distance from Jane.

Parson Collins (Matt Smith) pays a visit to the Bennets and proposes marriage to Elizabeth if she will give up her warrior ways but the lass refuses to do so, to the fury of her mother and the relief of her father. About the same time, Elizabeth becomes acquainted with George Wickham (Jack Huston), a soldier who tells her a sob-story about how badly Darcy has treated him and denied him his inheritance. Wickham takes Elizabeth to visit St Lazarus Church in a no-go zone in London where zombies fed on pigs’ brains to calm them down worship. Wickham hopes that these zombies can eventually co-exist peacefully with humans. Failing to persuade Elizabeth of the worth of his plan, he tries to convince her to elope with him but she refuses. At a later time, Darcy also tries to propose marriage to Elizabeth and the attempt ends in a hilarious sword-fight and battle of wits between the two.

Darcy writes a letter of apology to Elizabeth, telling her why he advised Bingley to stay away from Jane – Darcy having believed she was merely after Bingley’s fortune due to Mrs Bennet’s loud-mouthed behaviour at the Bingley ball – and the truth behind Wickham’s lack of money: the soldier squandered his inheritance, tried to hit up Darcy for more money and might have even infected Darcy’s father with the plague germ that zombified old Mr Darcy, forcing the younger Darcy to kill him. Darcy and Elizabeth later discover that her younger sister Lydia has run off with Wickham and that Wickham is preparing a zombie army to invade and take over the whole of London.

The plot just about manages to stay the course of the film – though it does become formulaic towards the end with a climactic fight  between Darcy and Wickham – with no collapse while incorporating key sub-plots and incidents and remaining faithful in the portrayal of the main characters of Elizabeth and Darcy, and even minor characters like the Bennet parents. Wickham is upgraded into the major villain and Huston looks as if he’s having great fun playing an aristocratic wannabe liberator of zombies from their presumed state of savagery so they can share in the wealth of England. Indeed, all the actors seem to be enjoying themselves and the result of their enthusiasm is excellent acting and fairly well defined characters in a film where there’s hardly much pause in the action. Of minor characters, Matt Smith dominates all his scenes as the pompous and obsequious parson, turning Mr Collins into a comic figure to be pitied rather than scorned, and his performance is the best in the film. Lena Headey’s Lady Catherine de Bourgh turns out a surprisingly layered, even sinister character in the few scenes she has; the pity is that she is not a more useful character in the film other than being an obstacle in Darcy and Elizabeth’s paths to happiness together.

The film doesn’t say anything about the status of upper class women and their treatment in Regency England that hasn’t already been said by Jane Austen herself or the various film adaptations of “Pride and Prejudice”. For all their skills as zombie fighters and killers, the Bennet sisters are still reduced to whatever economic value they are worth as the daughters of a minor aristocrat. That humans would waste precious time and energy preoccupied with who’s who in their social hierarchy, how much money a prospective suitor makes and constant match-making while all around them the zombies not only don’t make class distinctions among themselves but don’t discriminate among the humans either is an irony the film fails to capitalise on. The zombies tend very much to stay in the background and viewers see nothing of how the calm zombies might conduct their lives when they are not set upon by humans. Perhaps Wickham’s suggestion that humans and zombies could learn to live together is more pertinent than it first appears: the zombies could certainly represent the disenfranchised proletariat classes of Regency society. A scene in the middle of the end credits suggests as much, as the zombie masses, led by a zombified Wickham, march towards the horrified upper classes in their gilded-cage mansions.

Apart from this, the film is mainly to be enjoyed as a distinctive adaptation of the famous novel but no more. The main problem with “Pride + Prejudice + Zombies” is that the feature film format is too short to deal with the original novel and the zombie invasion to do both justice and needs a mini-series format that could treat Regency-era zombies as a metaphor for the poor and oppressed. The savage zombies could represent the prejudices of the aristocrats and their biased views about zombie behaviour. The upper classes may be proud of their wit, their culture and fighting skills, but their pride is a desperate one rooted in the knowledge that one day they and their culture and values will all be swept away by the zombie hordes.

The mash-up literary genre that produced “Pride + Prejudice + Zombies” and other odd combinations like “Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters” and “Android Karenina” ultimately became a temporary publishing fad but it could have promised more.

Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 14: Adam Ruins Halloween): beneath the silly slapstick and cheap thrills, a sobering message about manipulating people’s emotions and weaknesses for profit

Tim Wilkime, “Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 14: Adam Ruins Halloween)” (2017)

Beneath the silliness is a sobering message that the scariest thing about life is the extent to which people and the news media will deliberately lie and manipulate information and people’s emotions, weaknesses and vulnerabilities for profit. Adam Conover visits schoolboy Stuart (Elisha Henig) on Halloween night to tell him the truth behind the persistent urban myth of strangers offering children poisoned lollies when they go trick-or-treating; what really happened during that night in 1938 when Orson Welles read “The War of the Worlds” on radio; and why mediums and séances are scams. All three phenomena are or have been very heavily dependent on the power of the news media to repeat and remind readers or viewers constantly to the extent that by sheer repetition the deception appears more real than the actual truth.

That the myth of strangers giving children poisoned candy persists, even though US police statistics and studies have only ever turned up one case of a child poisoned and killed by a cyanide-laced sweet (and the scumbag who did this turned out to be the boy’s father), speaks more about the news media’s repetitions of this tall tale stereotype which takes advantage of people’s fears about the welfare of children as they wander off on their own on Halloween evening around the streets knocking on people’s doors for treats year after year. Why news media outlets continue to exploit people’s concerns by perpetrating a falsehood that has long been debunked by research  to increase sales revenue, without regard for possible long-term effects of this exploitation (such as decreasing trust and weakening community ties, and encouraging people to rely more on government or corporate institutions for security and protection – institutions that may well be advertising through those same media outlets), is worthy of a documentary in its own right: we might find that the media’s exploitation of people’s fears may be tied to an agenda on the part of government and corporations (and those who control those bodies) to keep people fearful and distrustful of a world supposedly hostile to them. In this way, individuals are less likely to come and band together and fight for their common rights.

Similarly the perception that Orson Welles’ radio broadcast of “The War of the Worlds” back in 1938 generated mass panic turns out to be an urban myth that began almost as soon as Welles’ broadcast became known and is attributed to print news media’s jealousy of radio broadcasting and the desire to suggest that the immediacy of radio broadcasts could lead to irresponsible reporting: a rather ironic thing to say since the episode tends rather to suggest that print news media is irresponsible in stooping so low to rubbish a potential competitor. Nothing is said about the social and political context of the period: the Western world was on the verge of war at the time. Again, the fact that this belief has lasted so long and how and why repetition keeps sustaining it is worthy of its own independent investigation: perhaps the myth says something about our fear of being controlled by those who have the power to withhold truth from us.

Finally the episode pooh-poohs self-proclaimed psychics and the methods they use to ensnare people into trusting them and parting with their hard-earned money without asking why desperate and vulnerable people are most likely to believe mediums.

This Halloween episode is one of the more entertaining episodes in the series of “Adam Ruins Everything” even if it does go in for slapstick, cheap scares and thrills. The segment on “The War of the Worlds” scare is lavish and well done, and pays tribute to the creativity of sound effects technicians working in radio broadcasting at the time.

Les Biches: a coolly elegant and stylish film on obsessive love, the fragility of identity and class tensions

Claude Chabrol, “Les Biches / The Does” (1968)

A beautifully elegant film of stylishness and subtle performances from its lead female characters, “Les Biches” is a psychological study of obsessive love leading to jealousy and derangement and of the nature of identity and its fragility. It’s also a study of class, and how one set of rules exists for the upper class who happily and nonchalantly engage in decadent activities and another exists for the lower classes.

The action seems to take place in a hermetically sealed world where only the upper class swan about freely and anyone else has to be invited in. Wealthy Parisian socialite Frédérique (Stéphane Audran) encounters a struggling street artist called Why (Jacqueline Sassard) and seduces her. The two lovers then drive down to holiday in St Tropez and stay in Frédérique’s villa which is also inhabited by Violeta the cook and two gay male room-mates. Initially Frédérique and Why have a great time as lovers. However a young architect called Paul (Jean-Louis Trintignant) intrudes on the women’s happiness: he and Why are attracted to each other but Frédérique, jealous of the burgeoning romance, seduces Paul instead and makes him her lover. Complications arise when Frédérique realises she really does love Paul and wants to be close to him 24/7, leaving Why in bored limbo. The three try to live together but Frédérique and Paul’s affair arouses intense jealousy in Why. Who will prevail over the other in claiming Paul’s attentions for herself: Frédérique or Why?

The plot is very thin and most of the film’s attractions come from the actors’ own ability to make their characters come alive: in this, Audran does a far better job than the other main actors Sassard and Trintignant. Of the three, Trintignant’s character Paul seems a bit one-dimensional and ineffectual if cautious and dead set on Frédérique for her money. Trintignan’s Paul gives every impression of being manipulated by Frédérique. The burden of carrying the film falls on Audran and Sassard and both play their parts well, with Audran having the edge on Sassard in portraying a vampiric predator who sucks the life and vitality out of both Paul and Why. The hold that Frédérique has over Why is enough to rob the younger woman of her original bohemian street artist identity and replace it with Frédérique’s own glossy but ultimately empty spirit. Eventually (spoiler alert), Why confronts Frédérique and gets rid of the socialite – but at what cost to her own sanity and stability?

The gay freeloaders Robèque and Riais provide much needed comic relief in an otherwise very insular and suffocating film and act as Frédérique’s familiars in much the same as bats might do for Count Dracula. They are also dealt with in much the same way by Frédérique as she deals with Why: when their usefulness comes to an end, the socialite throws them out of the house and sends them back to Paris. As for Why, Frédérique gives the younger woman plenty of clues (which Why fails to pick up) that she is no longer wanted. Such is the difference between someone wealthy like Frédérique who can make and break people, and those of the lower classes who are bedazzled by wealth and influence, and are made and broken accordingly.

Few films on sexual power, the class divide, upper class decadence and the fragility of identity are so subtle and coolly elegant as this one with such a small cast.

Treasures Decoded (Season 4, Episode 6: Shrunken Heads): phenomenon of shrunken heads hides a history of cultural exploitation and degradation

Peter Crystal, “Treasures Decoded (Season 4, Episode 6: Shrunken Heads)” (2017)

Shrunken human heads are the kind of macabre curio objects, beloved of museums and oddball collectors, sure to arouse curiosity and revulsion alike – but the history of how shrunken human heads came to the attention of 19th-century European explorers in South American and sparked a collection mania among museums, private organisations and individual collectors throughout the world masks a sordid history of Western capitalist exploitation and undermining of a culture and its worldview. The episode begins innocently if breathlessly with a supposedly impartial team of anthropologists, archaeologists and historians using the latest methods including DNA analysis to examine and discover the origins of various shrunken heads found in museum collections in places as far apart as Philadelphia and Warsaw – and what they discover leads narrator Mark Bazeley and his audience into a shocking underworld of bodysnatching, cold-blooded murder, fakery and near-genocide.

To its credit, the episode spends time explaining the role of shrunken heads in the worldview of the Shuar people in Ecuador: the Shuar decapitate their enemies in warfare and shrink their heads so that the spirits within are trapped and cannot wreak revenge on the Shuar for killing them. (To be on the safe side, the head’s eyes, nostrils and mouth are sewn shut.) Over time, the spirit’s power is used by the Shuar people for peaceful and beneficial purposes. Once Europeans contacted the Shuar and began demanding – and paying for – shrunken heads to furnish their museums, the Shuar were drawn into economic and trading networks in which an aspect of their culture became commodified, and the Western demand for shrunken heads led the Shuar down a dangerous path in which they became increasingly violent and any traditions and customs that they had which had preached peace were forgotten. In time, the Shuar were not only killing their warrior enemies for the head-hunting trade, they were killing their own – men, women, even children – and raiding graves for heads. Over time, the Shuar’s own culture and traditions became degraded and the people acquired an unjustified reputation as being bloodthirsty and violent.

At the same time, the episode does titillate Western curiosity by devoting considerable time to an anthropologist’s attempt in recreating the process by which heads were shrunk by the Shuar with a pig’s head. The fellow then tries through digital means to reverse the shrinking process and to reveal what the face of a man whose head was shrunk might have looked like in real life.

The novelty of seeing shrunken heads wears off very quickly and the really fascinating aspect of this phenomenon is how a cultural tradition originally aiming to mitigate violence and restore peace came to be corrupted through Western contact and co-opted into providing a commodity in capitalist society, in the process being stripped of its benevolent intentions and turning into a sick, twisted and degraded parody spreading fear and violence. Viewers will be heartened to discover that head-hunting was made illegal in Ecuador in the 1960s but only after Christian missionaries contacted the Shuar and persuaded them to give up this violence. It seems a shame that the Shuar could only give up head-hunting by being herded into accepting a foreign religion rather than be allowed to turn back to their traditions to find a remedy to end the violence and instability created by head-hunting. We learn nothing about how the Shuar have since tried to rebuild their culture and communities, and regain the peace and stability they once had.

If there is something valuable to take away from this story about shrunken heads, then the narrative of how the Shuar nearly killed themselves off but instead recovered to reclaim their society and reputation and by doing so saved themselves and survived should have been at least as important as the phenomenon of the shrunken heads themselves.