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.

The Mummy (directed by Alex Kurtzman): action thriller / horror film with no horror, few thrills and silly action

Alex Kurtzman, “The Mummy” (2017)

Somewhere in this hokey action blockbuster film is a story about flawed humans acting for purely selfish reasons and the consequences that result from the idiot decisions they make: destruction, loss of human life and ultimately the loss of their own immortal souls. The plot has more holes than Swiss cheese, not that you’d notice very much because the material is so paper-thin as to be transparent. Whatever character development exists is very superficial because the characters are secondary to the digital special effects, the action and violence, and the need to pack in as much of those as possible so viewers don’t notice the film’s other flaws. Tom Cruise is very miscast as adventurer Nick Morton – he’s meant to be a dodgy thieving treasure hunter of dubious morality but ends up being another variation of action hero with a heart of gold – and his character generates no chemistry with archaeologist side-kick Jennifer Halsey (Annabelle Wallis). Really the only decent acting performances are those of Russell Crowe as the dualistic Dr Jekyll / Mr Hyde head of mystery organisation Prodigium and of Sofia Boutella as the eponymous monster.

Five thousand years ago, evil scheming Ancient Egyptian princess Ahmanet, miffed at being displaced as heir to her father’s throne after a half-brother is born, summons the help of Egyptian death god Set and with his special knife slaughters Dad, Step-Mum and Baby Brother. Her crime is so heinous and her union with Set so blasphemous that the high priests banish her to an underground prison deep down in … Mesopotamia of all places. (Could they not have buried her beneath the Valley of the Kings in the Sahara?) Centuries later, the special knife with the glowing red gemstone falls into the hands of Christian Crusaders who take it back to England where the gemstone is buried with one Crusader and the knife hidden in a statue in a cathedral. More centuries pass, the US invades Iraq and treasure hunters like Nick Morton and pal Vail (Jake Johnson) flood into the country seeking archaeological artefacts to sell on the black market. Under fire from terrorists, Morton calls for help, the US air force responds with a bomb drop and uncovers the tomb of Ahmanet. At the same time, the Crusader’s tomb with the red gemstone is uncovered under London during excavations for a new underground train tunnel.

“Coincidence” builds on “coincidence” and Morton discovers, with the help of Halsey and Henry Jekyll, that he is possessed by Ahmanet who seeks him so they may enter into union and through that Ahmanet can sacrifice Morton to Set and give Set a human form. Evil would then be incarnate upon Earth and the future of humanity and life itself would be in danger. From here on in, the plot focuses on Morton’s attempts to escape the influence of Ahmanet and at the same time save Halsey from the mummy’s clutches and save himself from Jekyll and Prodigium’s plans for his dissection. Ahmanet herself seeks out the knife of Set by manipulating Morton and various English folks whom she turns into zombies.

For a supposed horror film, the first in a “Dark Universe” series of films by Universal Studios resurrecting famous monsters of Hollywood legend, “The Mummy” has very little horror, and for an action thriller, “The Mummy” is as thrilling as paint drying on walls. There’s not much fun to be had, even in scenes sending up Tom Cruise’s past films in which he escapes car crashes and explosions with naught but a scratch on his handsome visage or in scenes featuring Vail as Morton’s comic foil. One doesn’t hold too much hope for what’s next in the Dark Universe.

Mash-up of all previous Alien franchise flicks delivers an uneven story in “Alien: Covenant”

Ridley Scott, “Alien: Covenant” (2017)

British director Ridley Scott must have taken all the criticisms of “Prometheus” to heart as he has delivered a new chapter in the pre-Ripley sub-set of the Alien franchise that at least boasts a half-decent story, even if it looks like a mash-up of all the other Alien films ever made plus parts of Scott’s own “Blade Runner” and “Gladiator” to boot. This second installment in the complicated meta-narrative now poses questions about the purpose of one’s existence, what it means to be human as opposed to being a robot, and the presumption of humans in playing God to the extent of colonising and terraforming far distant exoplanets for the benefit of humans (and at the expense of the native life-forms) and of creating sentient beings to be used as slaves and machines. These questions partly compensate for flaws in the film’s plot and characterisation, and enable the film to be treated with a bit more respect than its predecessor.

The spaceship Covenant is on a mission to find a new Earth-like exoplanet to settle, its colonists (most of whom exist in embryonic form in cryogenic tubes) fleeing a planet ruined by warfare and environmental catastrophe caused by human greed and selfishness. A cosmic storm damages part of the ship and causes some colonists (the adult ones) to awake from hyper-sleep. They repair the damage but lose their captain when his pod is engulfed in flames. The crew aren’t too enthusiastic about going back into deep sleep and start looking for something to do. On cue, their craft alerts them to a signal coming from a planet in the galaxy they are heading towards – and this signal is apparently human. New leader Captain Oram (Billy Crudup) decides over the objections of second-in-charge Daniels (Katherine Waterston) to go down to the planet to investigate the source of the signal. The two take a group of colonists – including the Covenant‘s resident android Walter (Michael Fassbender) down to the planet which initially presents as a paradise of high mountains, beautiful lakes, fields of wheat … but no birdsong or insect chatter.

The reasons for the lack of fauna soon become apparent as the search team is set upon and decimated in often gruesome and gory fashion by various representatives of the protean Alien species. Their space-explorer vehicle is damaged and they are forced to rely on a mysterious hooded figure who turns out to be one of the two survivors from the previous “Prometheus” flick. What the Covenant search team discover about this prophet-like figure and the activities this sinister person has been engaging in is at least intriguing as well as horrifying …

A capable cast gets thrown away not only by the necessities of the plot and overall concept but by sketchy one-dimensional characters. Even Oram and Daniels are not too well delineated themselves: by making gob-smackingly stupid decisions early on, Oram makes himself a marked man and Daniels’ character has to fight against comparison with the tougher, more world-weary Ellen Ripley of past Alien flicks. (Admittedly if the Covenant crew had more than half a brain of intelligence among them to depend on, there would be no plot and no victims for the Alien creatures to play with.) In playing the two characters of David and Walter, Fassbender has no choice but to excel, and excel he does without chewing up too much of the scenery: that’s a job for the monsters who carry it out with enthusiasm and slavering relish. The androids play their good cop / bad cop routine efficiently and through their interactions the issue of the differences between humans and robots is highlighted. For a brief moment, David is confronted with the possibility that to be fully human not only means being able to create but also being less than perfect, and that what he creates has the potential to run away from him.

In the film’s last half hour, replays of “Alien”, “Aliens” and “Alien 3” become rather too obvious to the point of banality and Daniels’ chases of not one but two aliens aboard two ships have the air of being tacked onto the film’s plot at the last minute to satisfy the bean-counters financing the film. Not for the first time (and certainly not for the last time), the critters get blasted through airlocks to join their other siblings into space junk orbit around some unfortunate planet – one wonders what David would make of all this interstellar pollution created by the unthinking and selfish human beings he comes to despise.

As in “Prometheus”, the Covenant crew make a lot of silly mistakes for the purpose of moving the plot forwards and providing meat for the gore and the violence. Silly in-jokes abound as well – was it necessary for an alien to dispose of two people in a pointless shower scene?

Nevertheless the film is beautiful to look at and the technology and special effects can be very stunning. The film ends on a cliff-hanger note that can be foreseen several hundred light-years away. One hopes the next two chapters will improve on “Alien: Covenant” though I am not holding my breath. One major improvement would be to boot Ridley Scott from the whole Alien franchise and let Neil Blomkamp (of “Chappie” and “District 9”) get on with his alternative Alien Version 3.1 in which Hicks and Newt from “Aliens” survive and somehow thrive.

Get Out: social criticism and philosophical inquiry in amongst a bizarre plot and interracial politics

Jordan Peele, “Get Out” (2017)

Jordan Peele’s comedy horror film, his first as a director, about an interracial relationship that goes awry can be seen as a timely social commentary on present-day racism and the forms it can take. Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), a man, has been in a romance with Rose Armytage (Allison Williams ), a white woman, for several months and she invites him to meet her family on their rural estate. They drive out into the boonies and he is awed by their gracious country mansion and the eccentric warmth of Rose’s parents (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener) and her brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones). One little problem: their black servants seem so passive as to be zombie-like. From the moment Chris enters the family estate, the plot builds steadily to its bizarre revelation: Rose and her folks are a front for a white supremacist cult that kidnaps black people and uses their bodies with their supposed inherent genetic abilities (such as their strength and athleticism) as vessels into which to transplant their own brains while the original owners’ brains are trapped into a permanent comatose prison.

The film’s production values are very good and transition easily from comedy to drama to B-grade horror and back again. The silly premise of brainwashing and brain-harvesting is made plausible by Peele’s targeting of white “liberal” or socially progressive hypocrites who profess empathy for black people and other victims of white or Anglocentric racism, and who immerse themselves in other people’s cultures, all to feed their own egos and self-satisfaction without considering the damage they might be doing to those they patronise. Peele plants little clues in details of the plot and the cast of characters to flesh out the plot: Rose’s dad happens to be a neurosurgeon and her mother is a psychiatrist who practises therapeutic hypnosis – this of course means Chris will be hypnotised into submission and will be subjected to invasive brain surgery, so the thrill of the plot for viewers lies in guessing how close Chris comes to realising what he’s in for and how he can save himself. The Amityville-style country house setting emphasises Chris’s total isolation from any kind of help and the danger he is in.

Plot holes galore do exist, the most obvious being that in a narrative which carefully stacks all the odds against the hero, a miracle is needed if he is to save himself. The film is not too clear on how Chris overcomes the hypnosis without being found out using stuffing from ripped upholstery to block his ears from mesmerising talk and the sound of teaspoons scraping teacups.

The cast is also very good in playing stereotypical roles and it is to Kaluuya and Williams’ credit that their characters seem very real even though at the climax and afterwards, Chris and Rose descend into one-dimensional and crude figures. Chris’s sudden violence and brutality come right out of left field and one supposes that the Armytages’ early treatment of him has ironically given him a savagery that he otherwise would not have been able to express. Rose’s remarkable transformation from indie college girl rebel to a cold-blooded freakazoid fanatic with machine gun is supremely chilling. Special mention should be made of Keener as a warm and gracious if quirky mother figure who ends up a malevolent, even vicious creature.

While on one level the film is pessimistic in insinuating that there can be no accommodation between black and white people, and black people can never, ever be sure of the attitudes of well-meaning whites towards them, on other issues the film encourages deeper inquiry into cultural appropriation, racial stereotyping and the nature and purpose of one’s existence. Many cultural innovations made by black people, especially in music (as the film’s soundtrack alludes to), have been claimed and commodified by white people. Rose’s family and fellow cult members prey on black people on the presumption that their bodies are better-looking and perform better sexually than white people’s bodies do – and because black people happen to be “cool” (because of their historical role as underdogs and oppressed victims). The cult’s quest for immortality by transplanting cult members’ brains into stolen bodies is part of a deeper quest for the significance and purpose of human existence. The film’s regrettable identification with identity politics and its concerns with other more laudable issues make it a complicated and intriguing beast and ensure its place among those cult horror flicks that are as much social criticism as cheap thriller material.

Compliance: sneering at naive workers exploited by a culture that treats them as robots and brutes

Craig Zobel, “Compliance” (2012)

Based on a series of incidents over a decade from the mid-1990s to 2004, in which a prank caller convinced the staff at various fast-food restaurants in rural areas of the US that he was a police officer and that they had to carry out various demeaning actions on fellow staff, this film demonstrates the extent to which people, especially working-class people without much education, are willing to obey authority and commit the most brutal acts. At the beginning of the film, Sandra (Ann Dowd) is a stressed-out middle-aged manager of a small-town fast-food joint who’s just been harassed by her regional manager for wasting inventory. The busy Friday shift is about to start and already the restaurant is one staff member short. The staff members themselves are a mix of people, young and old, middle class and working class, and Sandra has her hands full ordering them about and attending to the constant demands of customers. The phone rings and Sandra picks it up: the caller (Pat Healy) claims to be police officer Daniels and he is investigating a complaint about one of Sandra’s underlings in the restaurant, an attractive young blonde woman called Becky (Dreama Walker), who is alleged to have stolen a customer’s money. At his order, Sandra drags Becky into a store-room, to be kept under surveillance until the police arrive to make a formal arrest.

What follows is a horrific study in psychological horror as Becky is subjected to a strip search by Sandra and another employee, followed by extreme sexual humiliation and violence. Throughout Becky’s ordeal, Sandra continues to comply with Daniels’ orders even as they become ever more bizarre and perverted. She brings in co-worker Kevin to watch Becky but he quits the room in disgust after being ordered by Daniels to force Becky to undress again. Sandra then calls and brings in her fiancé Van to watch Becky and Daniels orders him to abuse the girl by spanking her.

The film’s story faithfully follows the details of an actual incident that occurred at a McDonald’s franchise in Mount Washington, Kentucky state, right up to the point where the police really do become involved and start tracking down the prank caller and making arrests. The rest of the film then flits through the police investigation and scenes in which Becky considers her legal options and Sandra is interviewed by a journalist about her actions and why she obeyed the prank caller.

While the outward message of the film seems obvious – that people can and do obey authority far too trustingly, even when there are clues that someone claiming to be what he is not, is not at all genuine – the plot itself, by concentrating very closely on the details of the story, fails to make the connection between class and education level on the one hand, and the extent to which people blindly follow authority on the other hand. Sandra and Van are shown to be simple people with limited schooling and equally limited options, and the other people around them are also unsophisticated and no match for the devious middle class prankster preying on them. There is a sub-text suggesting that Sandra is jealous of Becky because she is young and pretty, and that perhaps the prank call gives Sandra an opportunity to subconsciously abuse the girl which might explain why the older woman falls for the scam so readily.

The film does not show the full context in which Sandra, Becky, the rest of the staff and Van feel harassed and compelled to obey the prank caller: the fast-food restaurant staff have an unsympathetic and remote management on their backs, and are driven by work quotas they have to fulfill and a work culture that treats them like robots. In such an environment there is no need to think critically, to exercise one’s imagination, and such attributes would be discouraged anyway. There is no suggestion anywhere in the film that Sandra and her staff have been notified of prank callers in their district by their regional management even when the police discover the person posing as “Daniels” could have been harassing another fast-food establishment prior to the incident in the film.

The film could have been an effective indictment on how working-class and rural people are preyed on and made the butt of cruel pranks by knowing middle-class sociopaths, and an examination of how capitalism exploits people’s loyalty to authority and their willingness to conform and obey orders. Instead it offers a cheap opportunity for audiences to sneer at naive working people exploited by government, corporations and an ideology that regards such workers as expendable work units whose job is to make money and profits. Ultimately as Sandra faces jail time, unemployment and a lonely future, having broken off her engagement to Van, the film can do nothing more than abandon her to her fate.

Raise the Red Lantern: criticising the abuse of power by those tasked with upholding tradition

Zhang Yimou, “Raise the Red Lantern” (1991)

This is a beautiful film of minimal, even severe and classic simplicity, that lets the cruelty and jealous passions of a patriarchal system speak for themselves. Songlian (Gong Li), a beautiful and educated teenage girl must drop out of university after her tea merchant father dies and marry a wealthy landowner in northern China as his fourth wife. She goes to live with him and his other wives in his labyrinthine mansion complex. There, she must conform to the various laborious customs and traditions whose original meaning may have long been forgotten. She must contend with servants who may be well-meaning but surly and jealous of her apparent good fortune, in particular the maid Yan’er (Kong Lin) who is assigned to her as her personal maid. She also has to defer to her husband’s first wife Yuru (Jin Shuyuan), an elderly woman long past child-bearing age; second wife Zhuoyun (Cao Cuifen), seemingly friendly and obliging; and third wife Meishan (He Caifei), a former opera singer, who is upset at being usurped by a younger and more attractive bride and who might scheme at getting rid of Songlian. Over time though Songlian discovers who is the real back-stabber among the wives, and what her maid may be up to. Unfortunately Songlian’s isolation from the outside world, her frustration with the fruitlessness of her new life and the restrictions imposed by the family’s traditions and customs, and her attempts to compete with the other wives lead her to make one mistake after another, and the train of devastating events that follow as a result take their toll on her psychologically so that she is left deranged.

The story is straightforward and predictable – once Songlian discovers the House of Death and a pair of women’s slippers inside, we know already it will be used as the site of execution: the question is, who will die? – and might be boring for some viewers. None of the characters is at all attractive – all the wives compete for the master’s attention in often petty and immature ways (quite typical of harems) – and the women who seem most intimidating and threatening to Songlian tragically end up dying as a result of Songlian’s thoughtlessness, scheming and childish behaviour crossed with the dead weight of family tradition. The master himself comes across as ineffectual for the most part and one wonders whether the real rulers of this particular roost are the servants themselves, obedient to the letter of tradition rather than its spirit. No wonder the Chinese government did not like this film when it was first released: instead of the master actively throwing his weight around, the servants (analogous to government bureaucrats) apply custom (the law) in a way that is robotic and insensitive to the context it is being used in.

The film gains its power by obeying the classic “show, don’t tell” method of revealing its plot, and through it criticising the abuse of power. Much colourful symbolism is used, often achieving comic effects but also becoming repetitive and deadening. The constant raising and lowering of lanterns become cliched and that in itself reveals how custom and tradition in themselves can have deleterious effects on people’s lives. Through characters like Yan’er and Meishan, the film comments on how dreams of a better life or a former life express how women cope with an oppressive social system through escapism and, through those characters’ experiences, how such hope can be turned on them and ultimately kill them.

The architecture of the mansion and the music of the period in which the film is set (early 1920s) are significant characters in their own right: the mansion turns out to be a prison and the music reveals the yearnings and hidden passions of women wanting a better life than what they are forced to have. It seem ironic that the one woman who is finally set free through her own pride from the patriarchy portrayed in “Raise the Red Lantern” is a poor illiterate woman and not a wealthy educated one.

Spring: character study on renewal through love and connections, and beating back monsters

Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, “Spring” (2014)

A rather long and thin character study romance that’s equal parts comedy, drama and gore-blimey slimy body horror makes up this low-budget flick “Spring” whose title ends up overburdened with many layers of meaning by the time the final credits start rolling. A young Californian, Evan (Louis Taylor Pucci), has just lost his mum from cancer and follows that crisis with another when he loses his dead-end job as a restaurant cook after a fight with a customer. All at sea with no other family and no idea what to do, he accepts an invitation from friends to go travelling with them and he lands in southern Italy. He takes up a job (an illegal one, it turns out) with a farmer and strikes up a friendship with local 20-year-old girl Louise (Nadia Hilker). This friendship quickly develops into a romance, or so he thinks … it’s just that Louise behaves a bit oddly, standing him up at the most inopportune times, due to a terrible secret she carries …

The intention for this film is for it to draw its strength from the character study of the two lovebirds and the deep and complex relationship they develop. There certainly is chemistry between the two young actors who play Evan and Louise. Unfortunately much of the dialogue isn’t very convincing, especially in the drawn-out denouement where Louise explains the nature of her protean shape-shifting condition and how she needs to renew her human shape every 20 years to remain the 2,000-year-old alien-human hybrid entity she is. Parts of the action seem a bit forced at times – just how does Evan figure out in a split second that Louise needs her syringe in one horrific scene? – and the film never explains satisfactorily how in 2,000 years no-one has noticed that Louise has always looked much the same without ever ageing, or that animals and humans occasionally turn up dead in the streets, in the fields or out at sea bearing the most hideous mutilations. Come to think of it, even Louise doesn’t appear to have learned a great deal in 2,000 years on how to manage her condition; one would have thought that in all that time, she would have acquired specialised knowledge of herbs, medicines and recipes to keep her Lovecraftian love-handles at bay and everyone else from guessing the nature of her curse.

Parts of the film could have been tightened up for pace and dialogue and the running time could have been cut to about 100 minutes without too much of the plot or its message being affected. On a superficial level, the message of renewal through love and finding connections comes through clearly; on a deeper level there is an exploration of what it means to be human and mortal, and to know immortality through means other than the purely physical. Just as Evan learns to live again by making new connections and falling in love, so Louise has to learn what true immortality really means and the sacrifice she must make to achieve that. The film achieves closure when both cross into their own existential and metaphysical springs.

Filmed in southern Italy, the movie has many beautiful rural and maritime settings, and the cinematography, using filters that render outlines a bit blurry (as though to emulate the blurriness of the tragic heroine’s real looks, which viewers never see in their entirety), creates mood and feeling very effectively. One does start to care for the lovebirds and their potentially doomed romance and the climax is a satisfying and graceful close to the themes raised in the film.

Night of the Living Dead: cult horror classic is a character study and commentary on American society

George A Romero, “Night of the Living Dead” (1968)

Made on a minuscule budget, George A Romero’s famous horror film is proof that a large pot of money isn’t necessary to create a great film that still resonates with new generations of viewers nearly 50 years (as of this time of writing) later. “Night …” is essentially a character study whose plot is driven by the behaviours and motivations of the various people thrown together in a farmhouse due to an unusual emergency. A brother-sister pair visit their deceased father in a rural cemetery and are later set upon by a mysterious ghoul. The brother is killed and the sister, Barbara (Judith O’Dea), flees for her life and makes her way to the farmhouse. Ben (Duane Jones) takes her in and from this moment on, Barbara spends the rest of the film suffering from post-traumatic shock. Ben barricades the farmhouse from attacks by ghouls, at least until he discovers that a family has been sheltering in the building’s cellar. Much of the rest of the film revolves around the conflict between Ben and the family patriarch Harry Cooper (Ken Hardman) which explodes into a fight for the one rifle the besieged humans have among them when the ghouls launch a mass attack on the farmhouse.

While the plot writes itself – there is not much a group of humans in a farmhouse under attack from flesh-eating monsters can do apart from trying to prevent ingress and arguing about the best way to do this – the interest in the film stems from Romero’s casting choices and the many ways in which the film up-ends conventional Hollywood stereotypes about plot and character. Hiring a black actor to play the more sane and compassionate Ben endows the film with a social justice theme: in emergency situations, people must rely on one another for help and safety regardless of their social and economic backgrounds. The humans in the farmhouse become a metaphor for Western rationality and enlightenment surrounded and threatened by ignorance, bigotry and hatreds from white America’s dark past of its relations with black and native Americans. Harry Cooper, a white man, behaves selfishly and indirectly causes his own death. The radio that the humans depend on gives them information about how the ghouls came to be: news that the ghouls are dead people reanimated by radioactive fall-out from a fallen satellite rams home a warning about how nuclear warfare and related technologies can have dire consequences for the survival of humankind.

Ben and Harry’s argument is significant in defying audience expectations about aspects of the plot: Ben argues for safety on the building’s top level and Harry wants everyone down in the basement cellar; as it turns out, when the zombies invade the farmhouse, Ben takes refuge in the cellar! Another way in which the film defies conventional story-telling is that when US authorities finally arrive at the farmhouse to rescue any survivors, they end up killing the sole survivor of the mass zombie attack as well as the zombies themselves. This downbeat ending underlines the film’s message that in the end, death overtakes us all and what matters is how we have lived our lives before then.

The film’s minimal style and the cast’s naturalistic acting – and Barbara’s trauma – ensure that it remains fresh even after half a century since it was made. The many innovations and breaks with conventional story-telling introduced by “Night …”, along with its raw natural style and underlying message about humans, endowed with intelligence and reason but unable to work together to solve common problems because of social and cultural barriers, not only spawned an entire new genre of zombie movies but cements its status as a classic American film.