Amalgam: no-budget home movie is surprisingly complex in plot and visual effects

Craig Murray, “Amalgam” (2007)

Using just a handycam and his own home as set to make a black-and-white film on next-to-no budget starring himself and a few friends, Craig Murray creates a sinister yet surprisingly comples psycho-slasher flick that looks part “Repulsion”, part “Tetsuo: Iron Man”, part “M” and all extended experimental art / horror music clip. As far as I can tell, the film is a study of an unnamed man (Murray) tormented by recurring images of a giant blonde doll that attacks him at regular intervals in his house and throws him all over bathroom fixtures and other furniture. In between those occasions, he himself attacks, tortures and kills girlfriends and other young women who visit him; then, overcome with remorse, he forces himself to eat their flesh and internal organs, throwing up in disgust while doing so, and later feeling shame and disgust at what he has done.

Shot entirely at home with many close-ups of household fixtures, the film has an extreme claustrophobic feel. Shots are frequently jumpy and Murray uses his camera in astonishing ways, at times facing the ceiling or wall and twirling it around to disorient viewers and give them a sense of the unreality that plagues the protagonist. In scenes just after the doll giant has bashed him, the images are chopped up and sliced so they often appear no more than slews of moving grey shades of unidentifiable objects flashing against a black background. Stop-motion animation is used in some scenes, especially in the film’s introductory sequence of images, and when the man finds himself crawling in naught but his underwear along the street. About three-quarters of the way through the film, when the man ventures outside at night, his odyssey becomes delirious and the images flash back and forth and flicker quite a bit; you can just see the man looking unwell and unfocussed but of what dark demons he is suffering from, you can only imagine how intense they are.

There is no dialogue which has the effect of heightening the horror of the film as we never find out why the man acts the way he does or whether the doll giant is for real or a projection of his sick mind. We can only see his need and desire for company and to connect with other humans, and the self-disgust he feels when he has killed someone who offers him love. Instead of dialogue, Murray uses music from different acts including the post-rock band Mogwai: the music varies from dark, cavernous psychedelic post-rock sometimes reminiscent of Godspeed You Black Emperor to ambient and, in the torture scenes, needling chainsaw noise and power electronics. The music generally jells well with the various scenes and heightens suspense and horror appropriately when needed.

There doesn’t appear to be much plot development although at one point in the film the man decapitates the doll tormentor so there is the possibility that he may change for the better, though that will probably take a long time. There is the possibility that all the murders he commits take place in his mind as the house he lives in doesn’t descend into a cesspit of dried carcasses and blood but bedsheets always look crisp, the furniture ends up in good nick and the bathroom is periodically spotless. I can’t imagine the fellow being house-proud if there’s so much real carnage going on so it’s likely he is giving vent to repressed murderous fantasies.

Not a palatable film, that’s true, but Murray has created a visually impressive work and makes a slim and potentially banal plot look substantial and complicated, all on a frail shoe-string budget. He is well worth watching if only to see how he can deploy his talents in something longer and more dependent on a strong story-line.

Begotten: film explores Christian and pagan myths of fertility in cycle of birth, death and rebirth

Edmund Elias Merhige, “Begotten” (1989)

A remarkable student film that explores Christian and pre-Christian creation / fertility / life cycle myths, “Begotten” was inspired by a near-death experience director E Elias Merhige had after a car accident at the age of nineteen. For a 72-minute film, “Begotten” has a straightforward plot: a suffering god, alone in a derelict building, sacrifices himself and from his remains emerges an earth goddess who impregnates herself with his semen. She gives birth to a son and abandons him. He is soon found by ragged nomads: the son dispenses largesse to them and they gladly take it. They torture and burn him and leave him for dead. The mother returns for the son and starts taking him away but the nomads return and overpower them both.

With regard to plot, the film is very slow and often repetitive and viewers must decide for themselves what the motives of the nomads might be. Why would they want to kill something that helps them, does them no harm and even offers no resistance when they beat it? Logic and rationality would have no place here. It’s only at the very end of the film that everything that’s gone before starts to make sense. Death is required for the cycle of life to renew itself. This lesson must be learned again and again and so perhaps that’s why the film labours over the initial suicide scene, the birth of the son and a later scene of sexual violation. The film is deeply immersive and viewers who are prepared to take the mickey when it comes to plot and character development will find themselves transported to another realm altogether, especially if watching the film late at night.

The outstanding feature of “Begotten” is its cinematography and look of the film. For a moment early on I thought this might be similar to Carl Theodor Dreyer’s film “Vampyr” in look (Dreyer used bleached film-stock to achieve a bright and unnatural psychedelic effect). Merhige’s treatment of the film to produce something that looks so aged as to resemble an archaeological artefact breathtakingly original: he photographed his work on 16-mm B&W reversal film and then rephotographed it frame by frame on B&W negatives through density filters (Phil Hall, “Begotten Not Forgotten” http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/3.12/streetcred.html?pg=14). The flickering twilight result has mysterious two-dimensional shadows and much shadow play, looks incredibly abstract in style and partakes of a strong sinister Expressionist poetry in its scenes of full-moon night-sky and needle-like birch trees.

In addition to the deliberately aged look of the film-stock, Merhige uses slow-motion tracking and movements in several scenes to bring out the weird, unearthly aspects of the plot and the cast of characters. In some scenes, images may be layered over one another and animation might have been used. Scenes tend to look very staged with characters not usually facing one another and repetition and slow movements suggest a ritualistic aspect to sections of the plot. A mix of scenes filmed from far away and close-up with some tracking and panning of the camera is usual: the close-ups can be very in-yer-face – that early scene in which the goddess impregnates herself will sure blow away a lot of male viewers!

Dialogue is non-existent which also enhances the Expressionist tone of “Begotten”; instead what we get is an eerie soundtrack, reminiscent of a black metal / ambient / musique concrete soundscape, of night crickets, a tinny guitar rumble, grunting, found sounds and other ambient noises relevant to the scenes against which they appear. The lack of dialogue helps to turn its main characters into symbols or stereotypes and makes the film representative of various creation myths that revolve around gods giving of or being forced to give up their material being for the benefit of humankind: I think of how Aztec gods had to sacrifice their blood to get the sun going across the sky, of Osiris being cut up by Set and being put back together again by his wife Isis, and of Lemminkainen’s mother having to drag her son’s dismembered body from a river and singing him back to life in the Finnish epic “Kalevala”. In Greek mythology, Gaia castrates Uranus to allow their children room on Earth; later, one of these children, Kronos, swallows his children to avoid being usurped by one of them but the youngest child, Zeus, escapes Kronos’s appetite and ends up overthrowing his father anyway. Zeus himself swallows his first wife Metis to thwart a prophecy about Metis’s first-born child overthrowing Zeus if it were a boy. Needless to say, the first-born turned out to be a girl.

Pain, suffering and death occurring over and over yet the life-force continually resurrecting and reasserting itself is a major theme: no matter how depressing “Begotten” gets, no matter how dreadful the violence or ghoulish and unthinking the ragged nomads are, there’s always hope of new life, a new beginning, at the end. Perhaps it’s this aspect of the film that gives it its unique flavour and force. Film lovers must see “Begotten” at least once for its intense vision, beauty and imagination.

 

 

Zoetrope: Kafka short story inspires a film about how science, industry, bureaucracy and politics oppress a victim

Charlie Deaux, “Zoetrope” (1999)

Based on my favourite Franz Kafka short story “In the Penal Colony”, this is a stunning-looking short piece about a man’s last hours in prison. The title refers to a toy that first appears out of smoke and which could actually be the spaceship in which the plot proceeds; after the first few minutes in which we are introduced to the unnamed protagonist (Michael Bradley), we catch glimpses of the zoetrope’s monstrous outlines popping in and out of the rest of the short. Our man is held in a prison for reasons unknown; we learn he has suffered incarceration for a long time, is clearly deranged as a result and continues to suffer humiliation and torture from his jailers of whom the main one (Nigel Bonfield) taunts him with portentous mumbo-jumbo philosophy. The chief jailer counts down slowly to the prisoner’s final punishment: the question is whether the prisoner will willingly submit to his torturers or try to escape once and for all.

The acting ranges from minimal to slightly campy as Bradley either paces his cell madly and desperately or freezes in periodic cataleptic trances and as Bonfield prowls his stage around a tattooing machine, all the while purring his threats. The film’s technical chops are its highlight: filmed in sharp B&W film-stock, it has a definite steampunk style with images of a watch’s internal operations regularly flashing up on screen. Live action and animation are blended together to give a strong sense of the victim’s desperation and fear. Editing ranges from slow to super-fast and in-between these extremes; after the halfway point, the editing becomes frenetic and lovely if minimal images flash up and down repeatedly while your mind struggles to register their presence. Hundreds of clear objects zip past your eyes until your orbs hurt but unfortunately blinking is no option, else you’ll miss a lot of very beautiful and poetic imagery.

The film’s look is crisp and the art direction and cinematography are done well. Although the victim is naked, his nudity is shown tastefully with judicious use of contrasting light and shadow. The haunting and sparse atmospheric industrial-style music, created by Brian Williams of the British one-man dark ambient band Lustmord, suits the film’s oppressive style and theme perfectly.

It’s clear that science, politics, red tape and industry have combined to destroy Bradley’s man with no pangs of conscience; that’s ultimately its horrible premise. Bradley is left with no chance of escape from a ground-level Hell. Once the shocking climax has spent itself, Bonfield turns his attention onto another prospective death-row victim. Perhaps this is the real horror of “Zoetrope”: the prisoner’s dilemma turns out to be one of many such tortures Bonfield’s jailer visits on various similar victims as he chooses. What kind of monstrous society could have given birth to such an institution in which prisoners on death row for no good reason are selected at random to be tortured and driven relentlessly to madness and existential pain before dying?

As for the “In the Penal Colony” inspiration, it’s used very sparingly though chillingly. I must admit to not feeling altogether happy about the way it was used; I did feel “Zoetrope”, good as it is, could have been even better if it had drawn on more of the themes of the original short story and its perverted black humour. I am surprised not many film-makers have taken up this short story as an inspiration for a film. As of this time of writing I had heard that a young Iranian director Narges Kalhor, the daughter of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s political advisor, had made a film based on the story and I am keen to see it if and when it becomes available.

Salo or the 120 days of Sodom: gruelling film of corruption, unfettered freedom and abuse of power that turn humans into machines

Pier Paolo Pasolini, “Salò or the 120 days of Sodom” / “Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma” (1975)

Grim and harrowing to watch but an excellent and actually quite beautiful film (visually anyway) about corruption, the abuse of power and how having absolute freedom in the sense of being free from social restraints and conventions reduces humans to robots: this is the stupendous “Salo o le 120 giornate di Sodoma” (“Solo or the 120 days of Sodom”). The film was Pasolini’s last before his lynching death in 1975 and is based on the Marquis de Sade’s “The 120 Days of Sodom” but set in Mussolini-ruled Italy in the early 1940s. Four fascist middle-aged captains of society known as the Bishop, the President, the Manager and the Duke, representing respectively the Church, government, industry and aristocracy, agree to marry one another’s teenage daughters (this decision signifies the incestuous links among the various elites of society) as the prelude to a series of debauched acts at a country villa. Gangsters are hired to abduct eighteen teenage boys and girls of good family background and bring them to the villa. Four brothel madams are also hired to tell tales of excessive sexual dissipation to psyche up the men, teenagers and soldiers into eager participation in various sexual acts that include coprophagia, sodomy, rape, a golden shower and unspeakable tortures.

The film divides into four sections: Antechamber of Hell, Circle of Manias, Circle of Shit and Circle of Blood; and each section more or less begins with a woman or woman-like figure getting dressed and attending to one’s toilette. The film emphasises repetition which not only forces the viewer to become immersed in its proceedings but highlights the loss of vitality and creativity in fascist societies in which governments and the institutions allied with them insist on digging themselves and their people further into a pit of evil. In each section there is a mock wedding, of which the most memorable is the wedding that takes place in Circle of Shit as it’s followed by the reception in which shit is served to the guests. There is a highly ritualistic aspect to the activities that go on in the villa, to the point where everything seems highly fetishistic; and almost as fetishistic is the detail of the lavish furnishings and interiors of the villa and the care with which the adult characters often dress and comport themselves.

Plot as it exists is weak because it’s all about repetition as the four men descend deeper into their own degradation; each successive perversion delivers less satisfaction than the one before it. Rules set up to monitor and punish the teenagers for insubordination are eventually torn up and tossed away; all the teenagers are subjected to cruel and violent punishments in Circle of Blood. The acting seems quite stylised: the men declaim and talk at each other and everyone else and, save for a few soldiers and girls, no-one really communicates. Close-ups of actors’ faces are used frequently in the film and viewers see how deranged and terrifying the men, especially the Duke, look. Scenes often have a staged, diorama-like look, and the dining-room scene with the camera looking to the back of the room where there is a stair-case across the length of the table with people sitting on either side of it (but not at it) is repeated several times. Colours and outlines are fairly soft and the few outdoor scenes look soft enough as to be slightly melancholy. Although “Salo …” was made over 35 years ago, the film still has a contemporary look due in part to the open spaces of the villa, the sometimes minimalist, sometimes opulent style of the furniture, interiors and artwork used and the attention given to the actors’ clothes and accessories. Even the cars in the film don’t look very outdated though they are obviously of their period (early 1940s). The overall visual style of the film is precise and cold.

The pace is relentless with each successive violation and just when you think the film couldn’t get worse after the coprophagia and the golden shower scene, it goes up (or down?) another notch: our Gang of Four holds an arse inspection of the children and then dress in drag for yet another mock wedding ritual. In the Circle of Blood, the men’s moral corruption infects the children finally: they rat on one another, forcing the men to run about hysterically extirpating signs of rebellion about the villa. This section of the film details how the general public becomes desensitised to the abuse and corruption and willingly joins in.

The violence is not overt and is actually done tastefully and respectfully: all the torture scenes occur out of shot or are viewed elliptically through someone’s blocked point of view. Of course there is much nudity, male and female, but again actual scenes of sexual intercourse occur out of shot, in shadow or in a tasteful way. The violence and perversions usually serve a symbolic purpose: the consumption of human faeces may refer to the excessive emphasis on materialism in Western society and the use of a rule-book to punish young people in hideously sadistic ways might refer to bureaucracy as a mechanism for turning people into cyphers and robots.

Of all chilling moments in a film brimming with them, perhaps the worst comes at the end where the men take turns in watching the young people being tortured from the comfort of a plush chair in front of a window as though watching TV. The soldiers in the room yawn and engage in idle pastimes like dancing. This says something about entertainment in our lives: the more sensationalised and pornographic it is, the more numb and robotic we become, the more our vitality and creativity are sapped. And it’s obvious that the four libertines have become so jaded that they are unable to stop themselves wallowing in their own filth. Freedom is wasted on them: behaving as if governed by instinct, their minds and imaginations filled with pollution, the adults claw into their own rut deeper, digging their own graves as it were. Also horrific is the fact that none of the children rebel though the film makes clear they are repelled by what they have to do and two girls stage their own personal rebellion by secretly becoming lovers. (Note that most sexual activity in the film is done doggy-style with the libertines at times preventing or punishing sexual intercourse in the face-to-face missionary position, to prevent intimacy and individual expression.)

Insititutions like religion and education are mocked and overturned: the wedding rituals mock religion, important rites of passage and celebrations as joyful phenomena; the use of brothel madams to lecture the teenagers mocks the notion of education and acquiring wisdom from elders; the sexual activity mocks people generally when they have choice and live in a fairly wealthy society. All too often people choose the easy way out: a life of hedonism and immediate sensual pleasures with no compassion or generosity for others.

Forgive me for sounding perverse but I wish the film had continued beyond the two soldiers dancing: when all the children have been killed, what next would the libertines and the brothel madams do? In the closeted environment of the country villa, I envisage that they would bring in animals, in particular fine thoroughbred horses, on which to inflict acts of bestiality. This would symbolise the effects of fascism on the natural environment, how a political system that privileges an elite and allows it extreme freedom to indulge its selfish materialist appetites eventually plunders the Earth’s resources. Then Death becomes the ultimate option for satisfaction and what could be more appropriate for our Gang of Four, having sated themselves, to turn on one another with sexual, even cannibalistic, ferocity?

This is one film that continues to be more relevant than it was when it was first released: it is still a powerful criticism of Western democratic society as it is structured today, bleeding from the inside with governments, academia and news media increasingly beholden to private corporations and the military, and all presiding over populations that they force to consume ever more infantile and superficial culture. If ever a film came close to documenting the decline and fall of Western civilisation, “Salo …” is it.

The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello: beautiful layered Gothic steampunk film steers viewers into a heart of darkness

Anthony Lucas, “The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello” (2004)

A nominee for a Best Animated Short Film Oscar in 2006, this is a visually beautiful and richly layered Gothic steampunk adventure story that is equal parts Lovecraftian and Conradesque horror. Young navigator Morello (voiced by Joel Edgerton) in the industrial city of Gothia accepts a commission to help fly a dirigible to parts unknown. He does this partly to atone for a previous voyage in which, due to a mistake he made, a crewman fell to his death. Morello leaves his wife Emilia at home as she is needed at a hospital to nurse patients dying from a mysterious plague.

An eccentric scientist Claude Belgon joins the crew and the ship chugs away; it crashes into an abandoned vessel and the crew quickly transfer to that vehicle. In his regular radio correspondence with his wife, Morello hears her hacking coughs and realises she has contracted plague. Nevertheless the men continue their journey despite one man also sickening from plague and they soon come across several sky islands. By accident, they discover that the boiled blood of a strange creature on one island cures the sick crew-member so they collect cocoons and take them back on board the ship. While on the journey home, Morello realises that crew-members are mysteriously vanishing and stumbles across the awful truth about the hatched larvae from the cocoons and their link to the disappearances.

The story is very focussed, not too complicated, and the pace moderately fast. The animation is a mix of layered 2D pictures and cut-outs made to resemble 3D objects and the characters themselves appear as silhouette cut-outs reminiscent of an Indonesian wayang shadow-puppet play. The use of first-person narrative makes the film resemble a Joseph Conrad novel and Joel Edgerton’s measured and refined tones make his young navigator a sensitive character. Morello does tend to be passive and easily influenced by the sinister Dr Belgon and the blustery Captain Griswald, and this passivity brings a touch of J G Ballard to the proceedings. The mix of Australian and near-English accents brings a salty nineteenth-century flavour to much of the film. The story gradually transforms from the thrill of adventure in its first half to quietly macabre and devastating in its second half, topped by an open-ended conclusion in which Morello, in the manner of a Ballardian hero, submits to the advice of the malevolent Belgon in the near-hopeless belief that by so doing he will save his wife’s life if not his own.

Themes of sacrificing one’s own life for the greater good of society and the advancement of scientific knowledge, and of the moral dilemma that faces Morello when he discovers what the last larva from the cocoons needs to survive – yes, if he kills it, he’ll save his own life but not his wife’s life; if he allows it to live, then he must offer himself to it – give “… Jasper Morello” a deep, dark intensity befitting its Victorian Goth look of sepia, blue and grey tones. Belgon is a typical mad-scientist type who embodies Conrad’s Kurtzian hero: his thirst for knowledge and fame drives him to commit heinous acts of murder. Interestingly the film has as its climax a conflict between Belgon and Morello that forces Morello into choosing whether or not he should repeat a past mistake, and it is this choice that determines whether Morello becomes his own man, albeit with horrifying consequences.

Morello’s passive nature, the switch from Jules Verne adventure to macabre horror and the anti-climactic cliffhanger ending probably counted against the film in competition for the Best Animated Short Oscar but I find this is a very immersive short piece of great intensity, technical detail, bittersweet tragedy and many allusions to great horror and science fiction writing: depending on where viewers are coming from, they can probably find hints of Edgar Allan Poe, H P Lovecraft, Bram Stoker, H G Wells and Bruce Sterling. The film is aimed at a general audience though it is very creepy and chilling for young children, and it’s well worth watching a few times to appreciate its distinctive animation.

 

 

 

The Awakening: tasty little film of death and how suddenly it comes

Ignacio Cerdà, Ethan Jacobson, Francisco Stohr, “The Awakening” (1991)

This 8-minute short is the first of three films forming a trilogy about death and how we are subject to elements beyond our control. In this short, these elements include time, objects and our own bodies. A student dozes off in class briefly and when he wakes, he finds the teacher and all his classmates frozen in time and space. He investigates and discovers the roll call has his name left off. He realises he is trapped in the classroom. Strange images of crucifixes and an eye atop a pyramid (this latter image appearing on a US dollar bill the student is observing when the film opens) and snatches of childhood memories flood his mind. His mind clears and he sees a commotion: someone is on the floor, apparently dying, and people are trying desperately to revive him. The student leans over and recognises the victim.

The whole film is very dream-like and surreal especially with the image of the eye and the pyramid suddenly appearing in full and precise detail on the blackboard and the student aware that the frozen figures before him are looking at him and through him. There is no dialogue and the music alternates between overly melodramatic and glitchy-electronic, reminiscent of crickets making a constant clicking and buzzing noise, creating a creepy mysterious atmosphere throughout the film. The student, wandering warily around the still classroom, starts to panic and his face twists under the strange images invading his mind. His face expresses startled horror as he realises what has happened to him. All the terror and suspense that appear are expressed in the student’s body language which up to the climax was very effective indeed; at the climax, the full horror doesn’t appear to hit the student, at least not in his face anyway, and he retreats into a dazed, passive state that continues to the end.

Although the setting is very ordinary and banal, and the student is no-one special – the teacher, played by Cerdà, even hands him an assignment marked “F” – the whole short is very unsettling with a sinister mood. Excellent camerawork which immerses viewers into the plot by assuming the student’s point of view at several points during the short including the horrific climax and its brief denouement helps to infuse suspense in what is otherwise a predictable little story. Experienced horror fans are sure to see the film’s revelation a mile away once the student wakes up from his snooze.

The music does tend to overwhelm the film especially during its most dramatic parts and viewers are left to wonder at the significance of the image of the eye and the pyramid in the film. According to Wikipedia, this is a representation of the Eye of Providence and in Christian mediaeval lore symbolises the Trinity of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit; in other ideological contexts and belief systems such as Freemasonry, it also symbolises the all-seeing God who observes our thoughts and actions. Is it possible that in communing with the dollar bill, the student actually does see God or something of God’s power? Does God give him a foretaste of what is to happen to him?

Quite a good little short, filled with mystery and deep symbolism, “The Awakening” is a small tasty appetiser into the world of Nacho Cerdà.

 

True demon movie hiding in “Kakurenbo: Hide and Seek” but weak story and characters need more work to bring out the monsters

Shuhei Morita, “Kakurenbo: Hide and Seek” (2004)

A very lavish short film that uses cel-shaded animation to render the CG imagery three-dimensional, “Kakurenbo” has a definite dark layered look and atmosphere and features considerable detailing in its backgrounds and non-human characters. The major weaknesses of the film are in the plot and the child characters, of whom there are too many for the film to describe adequately beyond stereotype. Seven children descend into the concrete depths of Tokyo to find a place called Demon City to play a game of hide-and-seek. One of the children, Hikora, is looking for his sister Sorincha who disappeared in this area while playing the same game. The rules of the game are basic – the youngsters have to wear fox masks as they play – but as the children wander through the shadows and dimly lit gloom, one boy disturbs a statue by hitting it with a stick, and before you know it, the kids are being chased by bizarre demon monsters sprung right out of Japanese Buddhist nightmare myths. The kids are picked off one by one until Hikora finds himself alone with a small girl. He discovers to his horror who the girl is and what she plans for him, and what happens to all the children who have come into Demon City and been defeated by its monsters.

Demon City looks much bigger than it really is and the buildings seem to be of different architectural styles but then most of the film is shrouded in darkness so perhaps my mind is being overactive and filling in the blackest parts with images of Indian Hindu temples runing riot in carvings and statues of animal-headed gods and leering goggle-eyed demons. Pity though that the same level of detail doesn’t apply to the seven children who could be clones of one another apart from size, shape and hair colour. Indeed, two kids actually are clones – they’re identical twins! – but whether they are boy or girl twins, does it really matter? English-language dubbing turns the kids into teenagers of Scooby-Doo country: their strangled talk seems trite and inappropriate for the film’s ambitious visual settings. Even Hikora, who should be the most developed character, comes off as an underdone stereotype with limited emotion and motivation. The use of fox masks obviously cuts down on the amount of work the animators would have had to do to individualise the seven children and create a range of emotions for each and every one of them but at the same time the masks dehumanise them and force viewers instead to scrutinise the children’s body language for expression. Ah, big mistake there! – the children’s bodies aren’t very expressive at all and there is so much shadow (lights in Demon City are dim for a reason) that even body outlines can be hard to discern.

The one-track plot flits from one group of children to another as they are separated into three groups and each group is pursued by a different demon. The action gets repetitive and the film stalls in parts where a child is caught by a demon and the scene fades into black. For a film of its nature, there’s no build-up in tension towards the scene where Hikora is the only one left standing: one expects a lot of quick and sharp editing in the scenes where demons corner children and the kids make narrow escapes only to find themselves in dead ends and the monsters bearing down on them. A lot of screaming and wailing might be expected too but apart from one teenage boy who exhibits a lot of bravado but is actually a scaredy-cat, the children meet their fate grimly with very little vocalisation and not much pleading or bargaining. The twins especially are mute beings.

Anyone who’s played hide-and-seek won’t be too surprised at what happens to Hikora but the conclusion does come across as more anti-climactic trite than creepy and horrific. Overall this is a good-looking little anime that could have been tightened up with respect to plot and its characterisation worked at to bring out the child characters’ individual quirks and motivations for playing the game. Deeper characterisation could have enlivened the film with teenage gang rivalry, jealousies and fights over girls, and one-upmanship. As the kids quarrel and fight over which street to turn into, the monsters stalk them silently. The game itself could be expanded into something more than just hide-and-seek: there should be different levels of proficiency, treasures to search for and weapons to pick up to fight the monsters. I’m really surprised the game in this anime isn’t designed like a computer game that gets more complicated the deeper you go into it. No lessons are learnt, no skills are picked up. If there is a deeper message in “Kakurenbo”, it may be that the game, childish though it is, represents the gradual loss of carefree innocence that children used to have in a pre-industrial age and the destiny of all those who venture into Demon City is the destiny of children when they leave school or university and are acknowledged as adults: enslavement in a machine society. The demons represent those adults responsible for preparing young people to take up their appointed slots in the giant factory system that is modern Japan.

There is a real demon movie hiding in “Kakurenbo” but it’s going to take a lot of work for future animators to seek it out.

Rubber Johnny: small dense film in which a universe of transformation and realised ambitions is contained

Chris Cunningham, “Rubber Johnny” (2005)

Started small as a commercial based on the idea of a raver’s body morphing into different shapes as he dances, then changing into a music video clip and for all I know this concept may still be growing: as it is, “Rubber Johnny” is a surprise packet that packs a lot of meaning into its short time, be it just under four minutes (in the short version) or striking six minutes (long version). The concept will resonate very strongly with all the misfits out yonder – you know who you are – who harbour secret talents and way-out abilities invisible to all but their close pet animals. A teenage boy, born terribly deformed and crippled, barely able to speak and shunned by his family, is made to live in a dark basement with only a chihuahua for company. A psychologist talks down to him and tries to calm him when he gets frustrated and becomes violent. Left alone, the youngster springs to life in another dimension, breaking and dancing in his wheelchair and using it as a launch-pad to fly off into inner space where as Master of his own Universe he fends off lightning beams travelling at the speed of … well, light. The chihuahua watches silently, taking in everything and knowing not to breathe a word out to anyone as he’ll simply be disbelieved.

Shot on a home camera with infra-red photography and using rapid editing, the film has a very dank and grungy look which appears very realistic and has fooled some people into thinking an actual crippled boy really was filmed. Certainly the introductory scene with the psychologist, blurry at first and then blacked out for the most part when the boy lashes out, appears close to realism. Shots of the fluorescent light tube lend further realism and establish the small-scale garage-like nature of the boy’s confines.

After the opening credits, the film proper, set to original music by the English electronic act Aphex Twin (the music itself is remixes of two tracks from his 2001 album “drukQs” and is energetic and rhythmic if minimal and hard on the ears), starts and zooms off into another reality. An interruption halfway through the film by the boy’s father conveniently breaks the film into two distinct halves: if the first half is merely electrifying with the boy contorting his body and spinning his wheelchair, the second half is sheer mindfuck with the boy using the camera as his unwilling dance partner, crashing repeatedly into the glass, leaving bits of flesh and fluid behind and in the process changing his body into one shape after another like bouncing plasticine.

The latter half of the film could be interpreted more pessimistically: the boy, in slamming himself against the camera repeatedly, is trying to annihilate himself and blend in with his darkness after being told off by his father in the intermission. Whether he’s acting violently and trying to obliterate himself or is just reacting to the cocaine he’s snorted and working off the energy and stimulation, the result is the same: the boy is attempting some kind of self-transformation in which mind and body dissolve and become one with the greater universe – or void. Another possibility is that the boy becomes aware he is being watched and tries to break through the glass (and the “fourth wall”) to force viewers to enter into his world fully rather than watch him as though he were a zoo exhibit.

The only complaint I have is the end credits come all too quickly and the fate of the boy remains uncertain as the family decides to shove him into an institution. It’s hard not to feel pity for the boy as he gets pushed from one hell-hole to another. The concept behind “Rubber Johnny” is worth expanding into a longer film, perhaps to no more than 60 – 70 minutes maximum; any longer and the film would have to be built around a definite story-based narrative that would include the character’s origins which would rob the film of its energy, mystery and suspense. The film is definitely worth repeat watching at least until Cunningham brings out his first full-length feature film which at this time of writing is a question of when, not if.

Psycho (dir. Gus van Sant): a decent remake with a different message from the original film

Gus van Sant, “Psycho” (1998)

A shot-for-shot remake of the Hitchcock original with much the same dialogue and even reconstructions of the original sets, this film is actually not bad at all. It somehow seems a different movie in parts because van Sant has been able to do some things with the original characters that Hitchcock was never able to do. The remake even improves on aspects of the original and may be seen as a commentary on it. Perhaps the unfortunate thing is that the remake can’t stand as an independent film in its own right but will always refer to the original and never escape comparisons: little details like the opening credits, copying the original’s opening credits in graphics and style, and the use of Bernard Herrmann’s score throughout the remake in almost unchanged form link van Sant’s homage too closely to the original. A small director’s cameo near the start of the film in which van Sant is being lectured to by Hitchcock while Marion (Anne Heche) rushes back to work also ties the two movies together for better and for worse.

Surprisingly the shot-for-shot remake has significant changes from the original. The characters of Marion and Lila are swapped over in essence: in the first film, Marion is the lovable bad girl the audience warms to, and Lila is the one-dimensional and unappealing  good girl; in the second film, Marion becomes a good girl who feels trapped in a romance going nowhere and who yearns for a bit of freedom from her routine and passivity while Lila (Julianne Moore) is a headstrong, independent woman who needs neither man nor romance to define her. As a result Janet Leigh’s Marian is punished for wanting to determine her destiny and Anne Heche’s Marian is punished for failing to take charge of her destiny. The remake shows up how much attitudes toward women’s freedom to decide their own fates and make right or wrong choices have changed in over 40 years. At the same time, Heche’s Marian is a less memorable and sympathetic character than Leigh’s was: her facial expressions and body language suggest a self-centred woman who conforms for the sake of appearances and who might be jealous of free-wheeling tough-girl Lila.

Because Lila is a strong character in van Sant’s remake, the plot becomes a more balanced creature instead of the top-heavy structure it was in 1960. Lila wants to solve the mystery of Marion’s disappearance for personal reasons: she’s a woman who wants to get to the bottom of things, whereas her earlier incarnation felt obliged to Marion’s employer to retrieve and return the money Marion had stolen. Moore’s Lila drags Marion’s flame Sam (Viggo Mortensen) along for the ride; Sam is a passive comic foil for Moore – a constant running joke through the film’s second half is Lila’s rejection of Sam as boyfriend material.

The film’s ending is less jarring than it was in the original, not least because it pays more attention to Lila’s reaction and near-breakdown when she finally hears that Marion and private detective Arbogast (William H Macy) are both dead. The psychologist (Robert Forster) is less didactic in his delivery and the atmosphere in the police station where he gives his report is soft and less intimidating than in the original film. Van Sant’s portrayal of the police is more positive than Hitchcock’s depiction: in the Hitchcock world, police and other authority figures were corrupt, unhelpful and inefficient; in van Sant’s interpretation, the police are at least diligent in enforcing the law and are generally benevolent if human after all. Even the creepy officer who rattles Marion early on is only doing his job. Significantly van Sant cuts out a church scene in which Lila and Sam appeal to the town sheriff for help a second time and the sheriff simply tells them to get on with their own lives.

The major weakness of the remake is in Vince Vaughan’s casting as hotel proprietor Norman Bates: Vaughan looks wrong for the role and is unable to convey the nervy bird-like behaviour tics that Anthony Perkins mustered so well. The role calls for someone tall, skinny and angular who can look nervous and insecure and who can change facial expressions and emotions from one extreme to the other in a matter of seconds. Vaughan tries hard in the role but looks too much like a man in control of himself and appears too self-assured. Van Sant gives his Bates a lot of back-story: the association with birds is much stronger with a live aviary and Bates is revealed as a gun-nut obsessed with fighting, war and pornography in late scenes. A masturbation scene which says very little about Bates’s inhibited sexuality appears elsewhere in the movie.

As Hitchcock used black-and-white film, van Sant goes to town with the use of colour with particular shades like green, orange and yellow used to symbolise evil and danger. An interesting use of colour comes in the setting of Mrs Bates’s bedroom: like everything associated with her son, the room is decked out in green and orange yet the windows are framed in curtains of red (signifying sexuality and passion) and when Lila opens the closet door, clothes in shades of pink, white and other colours except Norman’s signature tones appear. The wardrobe contents, the drapes and little statues around the room tell viewers that Mrs Bates probably won’t resemble the psychologist’s description of her. The green-orange-yellow motif extends to the landscape at the end of the film when Marion’s car is towed away from the swamp: it suggests that there may be many more people like Bates at large in its part of the world.

The central theme about the place of women in the world and how they are defined by themselves and their society remains strong. Van Sant’s “Psycho” suggests it is only by taking control of their destiny and defining themselves that women can survive with integrity. Marion’s brief fling with freedom and self-determination, shaken by her encounters with the police officer, the car dealer and Bates himself, ends because she retreats back into her normal routine of letting others define and control her. (As in the first movie though, her employer and his client are prepared to overlook her embezzlement.)  If only van Sant had heeded his film’s advice and made it a film independent of its Hitchcock parent: details such as the music soundtrack and the dialogue, some of which has dated as it was based on social expectations of women in the late 1950s, should have been adapted for a 1990s audience.

Anxiety about industrialisation and technology and their effects on individuals and society in “Tetsuo: The Iron Man”

Shinya Tsukamoto, “Tetsuo: The Iron Man” (1989)

Once again Tsukamoto has remade “Tetsuo: The Iron Man” in the form of “Tetsuo: Bullet Man”, the previous remake having been “Tetsuo: Body Hammer” in 1991, so it’s worth looking at what the 1989 student film original, made on a budget of less than US$1,000, might mean for current audiences. The plot is very basic and uses a cast of six actors of whom three play major characters. An unnamed youth usually known as the Metal Fetishist (Tsukamoto) panics after mutilating himself with a steel tube and runs out onto the road. A car driven by an unnamed salaryman (Tomorowo Taguchi) knocks down the youngster; the salaryman and his girlfriend passenger (Kei Fujiwara) believe he is dead so they dump his body in a forest. Later the salaryman begins to transform into a scrap-metal monster and realises that the Metal Fetishist isn’t dead after all but is controlling his metamorphosis and channelling his rage and frustration into something very sinister indeed.

The use of black-and-white film is effective in detailing the grimy industrial environment of urban Tokyo where the salaryman and the fetishist live: the textures of cables, wires, toxic goop and industrial waste look so detailed they take on a very inhuman life of their own. Fast-forwarding, lightning-fast edits, flashbacks, close-up images (some so close up that you can see saliva hanging off teeth in mouths), nightmare scenes, stop-motion animation and the odd sequence that has no relation to the plot make for a fast-paced film that ratchets up the tension to the moment when the salaryman is forced to admit to his sin and face off against the Metal Fetishist. Cables and wires shudder with a malevolent tentacle demon soul and pullulate like hypersexed parasite bacteria in a new host victim.

Many taboos and assumptions particular to modern Japanese culture come in for a hatchet job: the post-1945 notion that technology is humanity’s friend and servant gets a good hammering and the salaryman’s demonstration of anger may well be a cutting comment on expectations of male white-collar workers in 1980s Japanese society as compliant and uncomplaining cogs in a machine network that exploits them and their efforts. Social beliefs about Japanese women as meek and mild also get roasted: the two females in this film are transformed by their contact with the Metal Fetishist into ravenous sexual predators. The salaryman has a nightmare about his girlfriend anally raping him with a penis that’s part-python/part-electric cable. Some viewers might interpret the portrayal of women in “Tetsuo …” as indicative of dislike and distrust of women and their sexuality but this depiction is part of a greater criticism Tsukamoto makes which might unintentionally reflect his own views on how men and women should treat each other. It should be said that at the very moment the salaryman and his girlfriend meet the Metal Fetishist a bit too head-on, the youth has cursed them with his flesh-metal fusion obsession; from then on everything about the couple including their dreams and thoughts is manipulated by him to torment them, and this includes turning their expectations of each other upside-down. This suggests that contact with industrial society and its values warps natural human drives and turns them into unnatural, monstrous phenomena.

There’s plenty of hilarious black humour in scenes where the Metal Fetishist, meeting the salaryman in person for the first time, presents him with a bouquet of flowers and a female train commuter under the fetishist’s control early in the film pursues and harasses the salaryman relentlessly, pausing only to peek at herself in her mirror and fix her hair a bit. The funniest and most disturbing scenes involve the salaryman with his big Black-and-Decker pecker chasing his girlfriend around their apartment; she knifes him and he drills her in a mutual orgasmic bloodbath. Apart from taking the term “screwing” to its most logical extreme, this part of the film may say something about how the sexual act has become mechanised and robbed of human emotion in a technological society. Equally lunatic and twisted is the fight between the Metal Fetishist and the salaryman: this battle of sexual penetration metaphors ends in an ultimate orgasm where corporeal boundaries are literally dissolved and the pair bring forth a new offspring. The true purpose of sexual intercourse in the industrial environment is to generate more machine beings to spread the contagion of technology throughout the world: the new creature with both the Metal Fetishist and the salaryman at its helm rides off to conquer the Tokyo suburban wilderness.

The soundtrack is important in this film: one comic moment comes when the salaryman spoon-feeds his girlfriend and as she drags the food off his fork with her teeth, metal-scraping noises can be heard. The music by Chu Ishikawa is a bouncy industrial rock pop that suits the film’s frenetic pace and the dense montages of images that each last for a split-second.

The undercurrents of “Tetsuo …” are at once malevolent, pessimistic, cartoony and absurd; the subconscious human fears that it dredges up can be very confronting for many people. Jokes and ideas are taken to their logical extreme that milks them as much for laughs as for horror. This is a definitely a film for people who like being challenged and confronted with ideas and themes that riff on the deepest human fears and anxieties. Humour is used to allay some of these anxieties and make what could have been a highly intense film more bearable but its resolution, which may be a surprise to some viewers and is at once funny and sinister, is firm and uncompromising about the eventual fate of humanity.