Stoker: psychological thriller let down by stereotyped characters and poor scripting

Park Chanwook, “Stoker” (2013)

Appropriately Chanwook Park’s Hollywood directing debut is a psychological thriller featuring an oddball protagonist who has lived a life of isolation for a long time and who carries out a devastating revenge against someone who has destroyed her family unit. (This scenario will be familiar to fans of Park’s Vengeance trilogy films.) On the eve of her 18th birthday, India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) hears that her father has died in a bizarre car accident and she and her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) duly attend her old man’s funeral and must entertain the guests at the lunch-time wake. One of those guests is Dad’s younger brother Charlie (Matthew Goode) who insinuates himself into Mum’s life and affections. For someone besotted with Evelyn’s porcelain beauty and brittle spirit, Uncle Charlie pays rather too much attention to India herself. In the meantime the house-keeper and well-meaning Aunty Gin (Jacki Weaver) disappear mysteriously and India later discovers they have been murdered. India also learns a few things about Uncle Charlie and his murky past, and how his past may be connected with her present, her relationships with her parents, separately and together, and what these mean for her future as she leaves adolescence behind.

The plot is based on the Alfred Hitchcock film “Shadow of a Doubt”, in which a character, also called Charlie, preys on a widow and her daughter, and “Stoker” contains several visual references to Hitchcock’s work (“Psycho” most notably since this is the Hitchcock film most people know). However, in spite of a fine acting performance by Wasikowska, “Stoker” comes across as rather hollow compared to Hitchcock’s work. This may be due to the script, penned by actor Wentworth Miller, that Park worked with: the dialogue isn’t very good and some scenes in which India goes to school and is bullied by male classmates do not fit well into the rest of the film. Significant characters are very stereotyped and lack depth: Kidman, in playing Evelyn, must be on a personal quest to play Blanche duBois in the “A Streetcar named Desire” production to end all such productions while Goode’s character is plain creepy from the time when India spies him observing her at Dad’s funeral right up to the climax. At least Wasikowska does an excellent job portraying India (whose middle name could be Wednesday Addams) as an outsider coping with the usual angsty teenage-girl issues like competing with her mother, coping with social ostracism at school, fending off the attentions of boys and, er … dealing with an uncle with psychopathic tendencies.

Where Park excels is in creating an atmosphere of unease and growing horror with great use of cinematography that emphasises long shots and creative panning of the camera, and beautiful visual scenes that combine the innocence of nature with the grotesque and brutal. The style of “Stoker” is rather less flamboyant and melodramatic than some of Park’s earlier films but the toned-down style suits the subject matter and its steady but sure build-up to the climax. The use of music which includes Lee Hazlewood’s song “Summer Wine” is an important element in the film’s narrative and intense atmosphere of sexual frustration and longing.

The narrative has a cyclical structure in which the same or similar visual shots bookend the film. This refers to the film’s nature-versus-nurture theme: how much of India’s character and subsequent behaviour is the product of her family genetic inheritance, and how much of her upbringing? Kidman’s character Evelyn has some poignant lines in which she talks about the reason for having children: do people have children because they hope that their children will succeed where the parents do not (or cannot)? How aware were India’s father and Charlie Stoker of her character, to the extent that the father tried to shield India from Charlie and the family way by banishing Charle and teaching the daughter hunting? If the Stoker family has a troubling relationship with psychopathy, from which there may be survival advantages (it is only because India discovers her inner psychopath that she saves her own life and Evelyn’s life), what might this say for society at large?

Strip away Park’s input and the film becomes an ordinary if creepy family drama with a tight and incestuous love triangle. A Nick Cave is needed to inject some complexity into the script so that a motivation for India being and becoming in the family way can explain why she was brought up the way she was. How the best efforts of parents often tend to reinforce psychopathic tendencies in their children rather than keeping them dormant and unrealised could also have been made clearer in the film than it is.

Battle Royale (Director’s Cut): satire on Japanese society and militaristic values with plenty of teen angst and splatter gore

Kinji Fukasaku, “Battle Royale (Director’s Cut)” (2000)

For all its extreme violence and other liberties it takes, for me this film reads like a satire of modern Japanese culture. In a future Japan, beset by supposed economic, political and social downfall and chaos, a class of Year 9 students is taken hostage and sent to a remote island where, under the watchful surveillance of their old Year 7 teacher Mr Kitano (Takeshi Kitano), the kids are forced to enact the current season of reality TV show “Battle Royale”. The rules are too, too simple: the game lasts 3 days, each player starts with a bag of food, water and a randomly chosen weapon (and girl players may take personal items like tampons) and all children must fight one another to the death until there is only one survivor. The catch is that at the end of three days, if there are more than one survivor, then all the kids die, courtesy of a self-detonating steel necklace each child competitor is forced to wear. After a wacky training video instructs the youngsters in all the rules, the children are released into the island wilderness and must set upon one another. To liven up things, Mr Kitano unleashes two transfer students, of whom one is completely psychotic, upon the class; and each half-day the teacher broadcasts via megaphones installed on the island the times of danger zones arbitarily set by the game’s controllers.

The film can be read as a maximalist criticism of the competitive schooling system in which all children are driven to compete against one another from preschool up to and including matriculation exams so that some selected students can enter the most prestigious universities in Japan. The ways in which the students react to the paramaters of the Battle Royale game underline the education system’s warping of the character of young Japanese students and its effects on them as adults and citizens, and their ability to become full human beings. That some children take advantage of the Battle Royale game merely to settle grudges and scores among themselves or to replay past childhood abuses illustrates the way in the Japanese education system subtly encourages bullying among children.

The film can also be seen as a critique of past Japanese militarism and the way in which school-children were exploited by the militaristic governments of the 1930s – 1940s. In the film, Mr Kitano is attended by various soldiers who might have come straight out of old World War II movies. Another interpretation of the film is that it criticises modern Japan’s obsession with conformity: because young people are rebelling against the social strictures imposed on them by society, the government tries to find ways of weeding out those who will not obey and the Battle Royale game is one such way. Of course, such a critique ends up being a critique of Japanese culture and society generally as the modern society is a product not just of Tokugawa-era authoritarianism, Meiji-era modernisation and the fascist / nationalist period from the 1920s to 1945, but also of the post-war years in which Japan was used by the United States as a frontline bulwark against Communism. During this period, the US allowed certain aspects of nationalistic Japanese culture to revive in exchange for military and scientific secrets (such as knowledge of chemical and biological weapons warfare) among other things

Various sub-plots play out among the students during the course of the film: three boys try to hack into the control centre and disarm the computer programs that control the necklaces everyone must wear; a lone girl, Mitsuko (Kou Shibasaki), must confront and fight hidden personal demons from her childhood; the sane transfer student, Kawada (Taro Yamamoto), wants to know why his friend Keiko acted strangely towards him before dying in a previous season of Battle Royale; groups of girls play peacemakers; and a few students refuse to play the game by committing suicide. The inclusion of suicide as a method of defying the game adds an interesting existential dimension to the film and perhaps comments on the role of suicide in Japanese society as a way in which people confront personal crises that arise because the society demands far more of them than they are willing or able to give without sacrificing their humanity.

Needless to say, there isn’t much room for character development, all the characters are stereotypes; but the teenaged actors throw themselves into their roles with surprising gusto and energy, and really do make their stereotypes come to life. Improvisation on the youngsters’ part may have played a large role along with the general attention the director and script-writers gave to the plot and sub-plots into making what could have been a ho-hum film with too many one-dimensional flashbacks, some saccharine and some rather sinister, spring to life. Plenty of black humour, splatter gore and Kitano’s own laconic and perhaps self-deprecating style of acting as Mr Kitano (ha!) add zest to the film. Much of the film takes place from the viewpoint of two students, Shunya (Tatsuya Fujiwara) and Noriko (Aki Maeda), who band together for survival and become firm comrades-in-arms.

For all these reasons, “Battle Royale” deservedly enjoys a reputation as a cult classic that has become the standard by which other similar teen flicks like “The Hunger Games” are measured … and often found wanting.

 

 

 

 

Persona: visually stunning minimalist meditation on identity, duality and the art of film-making

Ingmar Bergman, “Persona” (1966)

A visually stunning film, shot in black and white film and using contrasts of lighting and landscape to illustrate its themes of identity and the breakdown of boundaries between things thought to be separate, “Persona” is a minimalist film revolving almost entirely around two of Ingmar Bergman’s favourite actors. The plot is basic and in the hands of a hack Hollywood director could have become a campy horror lesbian porn flick. An actress, Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullman) is stricken with a psychosomatic illness that renders her completely unable to speak. A young nurse, Alma (Bibi Andersson) is assigned to Elisabet’s care. The head nurse of the hospital where Alma is caring for Elisabet suggests the two might like to stay at her seaside cottage for a while so that Elisabet can recuperate better. The two women duly go there.

The area where the cottage is located seems very remote and Alma talks constantly to keep the catatonic Elisabet’s spirits up. At first Alma engages in idle chit-chat about herself, then she opens up with deep-seated anxieties about herself and her relationship with her boyfriend, and admits to having had a fling with two young boys behind her fiance’s back. Increasingly Alma feels herself being dominated by Elisabet – she happens upon a letter Elisabet has written to her therapist and discovers that the patient has been “studying” her – and though she fights against what she believes is Elisabet’s projection of herself onto her own personality, she repeatedly succumbs to the “domination”. Elisabet for her part withdraws more and more into herself until she is incapable of responding to anything around her except through Alma. Which of the two will find the strength to break out of this unhealthy loop?

The minimalist style of the film calls forth questions about the two women that will remain forever unresolved. Is Elisabet really manipulating Alma, is her muteness deliberate – or is Alma imagining that she is being dominated because of her own insecurity and mental fragility? In one scene, Alma believes Elisabet has crept up on her during the night yet Elisabet denies having visited her in her bedroom: who is to be believed here? Is each woman suffering from an emptiness that only the other can understand and fill? Alma has had to abort a baby she probably wanted while Elisabet (according to Alma) gave birth to a child she didn’t want: the two women complement and complete each other through their female reproductive function. Is Elisabet “studying” Alma as a character she might play in a future acting role? Is Alma projecting her own imagination and experiences onto Elisabet as though suggesting a role in a future stage play?

Other themes about family and the maintenance and continuation of family relationships and connections also come to the fore; it is likely that Elisabet’s mental problem that is causing her speech blockage stems in part from deep-seated family issues, of which her ambivalence towards her son is an illustration and symptom. Another possible cause for Elisabet’s speechlessness may be her inability to empathise deeply with the suffering she sees on television (a Buddhist monk sets himself on fire in protest at the US military intervention in Vietnam) and in a famous photograph of Jewish women and children being rounded up by German Nazi soldiers; this inability also affects her relationships with her husband and son. Once Alma has guessed what Elisabet’s real problem is, she tries to make her escape. The physical escape may be easy enough but the film makes no suggestion that the mental escape is as smooth and quick.

Bergman deliberately inserted abstract elements and collages of images at the beginning, end and in the middle of the film to suggest that “Persona” itself isn’t to be taken seriously. The film is very much also about the art of film-making and the art of acting, with a message that to be effective, actors must study other people and become other people. There is a risk that in becoming another person, the actor may lose her identity and real personality. Thus Elisabet becomes completely catatonic once Alma discovers the root of Elisabet’s sickness and decides to break free of Elisabet’s hold over her.

The cinematography by Sven Nykvist is at once stunning and subtle, and while it is probably overdone it certainly emphasises the duality in the film and its characters: shots of Ullmann and Andersson together are arranged so that the actors’ faces, hands and upper bodies are overshadowing each other or can be imagined combined. The cottage setting close to the seashore hints of the land and the sea competing for domination over the other. Contrasts between light and darkness are emphasised: the actors frequently wear dark clothes to highlight this polarity. The film’s self-referential quality is highlighted in Alma’s rant to Elisabet about the latter’s ambivalent feelings toward her son, done twice: the first time from Alma’s viewpoint and the second time from Elisabet’s. It’s as if Alma is now directing Elisabet in what to say and do, what her motivations are, so that the mute woman knows what her character is to do next.

Because the film is so spare in its narrative and so open-ended in its plot and in the way it was filmed, no two people will see this and come away with the same conclusions about it. “Persona” will remain as much an enigma to viewers as Elisabet is to Alma and others around her.

 

 

 

Upstream Color: how love and hope can overcome a cycle of evil and bring about healing

Shane Carruth, “Upstream Color” (2012)

Since making “Primer”, Shane Carruth’s career as film director and producer has definitely leapt ahead. There is still a rough-edged quality to his work but it also has a new-found poetry. A definite Shane Carruth universe based on real life, yet combining certain elements of wacky sci-fi and reality in a highly eccentric style, now exists. Compared to “Primer” which was based around the familiar SF trope of time-travel and the complications it caused for the two guys who used it, “Upstream Color” has a more straightforward narrative revolving around another familiar trope of apparent mind control and the message that that trope might embody.

Kris (Amy Seimetz), a film production executive, is drugged and abducted by a thief (Thiagos Martin). In her drugged state, Kris is tricked into handing over most of her life savings to the thief. Awaking from her drugged state, Kris discovers a worm wriggling in her body. Responding to a series of low-toned drones, Kris travels to a pig farm where the farmer, who has used sampled infrasonic sound to attract specimens of a nematode worm to his farm, performs a transfusion operation to remove Kris’s worm and inject it into a sow.

Apparently healed, Kris tries to reorganise her life but finds herself unemployed and her bank accounts empty. By chance, she meets a man, Jeff (Shane Carruth), who is drawn to her. Through trial and error, the two discover that they have had similar experiences and start to feel one another’s emotions and pain. As they eventually piece together various coincidences in their lives to ascertain the nature of their mysterious link, a parallel story runs in which the pig farmer makes field recordings of sounds in and around his farm, travels astrally to observe people, and drowns a litter of piglets mothered by the sow who receives Kris’s worm. While the piglets are dying, Jeff attacks his co-workers and Kris suffers a panic attack.

Jeff and Kris come to realise that they are being controlled by the pig farmer and confront him. They contact several other people who have also been infected by nematode worms from the farm and surrounding forests, and bring them to the farm. In time, the pigs are made healthy and the nematode worm infestation disappears.

The film might be considered a metaphorical investigation of cycles of physical / sexual abuse of children and how those cycles can be broken by the victims acknowledging that their problem exists, owning the problem and finding for themselves the solution to the problem. The victims also reach out to others and educate them, and together they all work to eradicate the original cause and heal their environment and society. The pig farmer might be a metaphor for Evil or Satan and the thief might be Satan’s tool for spreading temptation throughout society. At the same time, out of suffering and its banal repetition, represented by the nematode worm’s life-cycle through innocent flowers, humans and pigs, love and hope can arise, and from those positive emotions can spring motivation to eliminate evil, heal wounded souls and spread good health and bounty.

The cinematography is very beautiful and often poetic: Carruth may not be a very experienced director but he has a distinctive, matter-of-fact style that finds unexpected beauty and art in even the most gruesome shots. Scenes in which nematode eggs are released into a creek and spread through it to infect an entire ecosystem are lyrical yet sinister. The use of close-ups and hand-held cameras gives a documentary feel to the action. The soundtrack is an essential character in the film though actual music is quite conventional: the pig farmer uses found sound to entrap and draw his victims to his farm to extract the fully grown worms and inject his pigs so the parasites can complete their life-cycles.

The romance between Kris and Jeff is very deep and complex, and the sex scene between them, filmed in a short, choppy series of close-up shots, reveals more intimacy than a hundred Hollywood romance films put together.

The film’s structuring can be confusing to viewers and the narrative has plenty of logic holes – shouldn’t the nematode life-cycle go from flower to pig (a herbivore) to human (a carnivore)? – plus there are loose ends a-plenty; but all the rough patches do not detract from a film that speaks up for the power of love and hope to overcome evil and heal society.

Frankenstein (dir. J Searle Dawley): horror films are born in short film lesson on the evils of humans playing God

J Searle Dawley, “Frankenstein” (1910)

Made by Edison Studios in 1910, this is the first adaptation of the famous Gothic horror novel by Mary Shelley onto film. If only later film-makers could have taken note of this film which boils the story down to a love triangle of Victor Frankenstein (Augustus Phillips), his bride Elizabeth (Mary Fuller) and the monster (Charles Ogle) with an apparently simple plot of love vanquishing evil. The pace is brusque and leaves no time for viewers to interpret what they see. Told with the help of title cards that inform viewers of what is about to happen, the story jumps along in connected episodes: what happens between episodes we are left to imagine. Victor goes off to university where he carries out an experiment to create a perfect human being. Instead a most foul beast arises from a skip boiling over with sulphurous fumes and evil-smelling liquids. The monster faithfully follows Victor home and sees him with his fiancée Elizabeth. Filled with jealousy, the monster plans to cause some mischief. Sure enough, on their wedding night, Victor and Elizabeth are accosted by the monster. Will the monster succeed in wrenching Victor away from his bride? Will Elizabeth spend the rest of her life mourning the loss of Victor? Will Victor and the monster sink into each other’s arms and turn up at a Gay Pride march celebrating their marriage?

The interesting aspect of the film is its psychological bent: the monster is clearly shown to be an extension of the evil in Frankenstein in the film’s climax. The full-length mirror on a wall becomes a significant character in its own right, reflecting the darkness Frankenstein sees in his own character that has led him to create the monster instead of a perfect human being. The lesson is that humans should not usurp what is God’s role alone to do: create new life from scratch. The monster acknowledges better than Victor does what a horror he is (and by extension what evil exists within Victor) and that he cannot compete with Elizabeth’s pure love for Victor.

The action takes place before a stationary camera so the whole film comes across as a stage play. Editing and the use of close-ups were to come to film-makers much later. Emotion is portrayed by exaggerated facial expressions and movements. In this respect, Ogle does a good job playing an evil monster (the title cards call him evil as though he were conceived and born in sin and cannot hope for redemption) with his wild hair and face, angular arms and legs, and loping movements. The other two major actors over-act their roles but this is to be expected in early silent films where zooming into actors’ faces to capture their expressions was not yet practised.

Remarkably the monster’s creation is shown by the use of a film of a burning stick figure running backwards. Other special effects that include the monster’s sudden and literal disappearance into thin air may appear quite crude to modern audiences but the significant thing is that at such an early stage in the development of film, special effects were being used to good effect to advance a story narrative.

In such a short film – the version I saw played over 12 to 13 minutes but the full original version ran to 16 minutes – plenty of horror can be found and viewers will be held spellbound by the action in spite of the rough quality of the film-stock, the over-acting and the amateurish look of the sets used. With this short film, the horror film genre was born. This particular short is an excellent reminder that the best horror films include plenty of psychological inquiry into the dark recesses of human nature.

 

The Banquet: a much loved cartoon with wry gallows humour

Zofia Oraczewska, “The Banquet / Bankiet” (1976)

Its style seems outdated for a short animation of its vintage but I believe this is still a much loved cartoon in Poland for its inversion of roles and what that might have said about Polish society at the time (and might still say generally about Western society today). Waiters and cooks working at a swanky hotel or palace prepare a lavish banquet for guests (one of whom looks suspiciously like Liza Minnelli) who arrive dressed in luxurious furs and glittering jewellery in chauffeured limousines. The guests eagerly race for the food – but unpleasant surprises await them and never was the saying “eat the rich” more appropriately applied as here.

The short piece is rich in gallows humour fantasy at a level that would delight and scare the very young and the old alike for different reasons: among others, the weak and powerless rise up against those who would literally consume them, heart and soul; Gothic horror meets the every-day; and the amount of mayhem and mess left behind when the waiters come to clear away the dishes might be a comment on the devastation we unthinking humans leave behind whenever we stop at or pass through a place or country.

The animation is reminiscent of Jan Svankmajer’s collages of cut-up figures set against painted backgrounds. Only the waiters and cooks are fully animated characters done in conventional children’s-cartoon style, and only they seem fully alive and alert to their surroundings. Everything else from the food to the guests either looks realistic in parts or is grotesque and crudely drawn, which suggests the food and the guests have much more in common with each other than either has to the general human collective. Thus the eater and eaten are cannibals of a sort.

The music is excellent accompaniment to the proceedings, giving away little hint of the carnage and bloodshed that will occur when the guests charge towards the groaning tables of food.

As long as there is short, succinct and intelligent animation and an audience exists for it, “The Banquet” will always have its fans.

Ichthys: a caustic commentary on institutional religion

Marek Skrobecki, “Ichthys” (2005)

For once I didn’t need to look up an English translation for the title of this Polish animation short which uses animated puppets. A man rows a boat to a distant shore, gets out and enters a cathedral. A waiter shows him to his table and the man orders the fish of the day. What follows is an amusing exercise in patience and frustration as the man waits a life-time to be served. Reward does eventually come but it carries consequences that can be interpreted on different levels relating to the nature of Roman Catholicism, spirituality and the search for meaning to life.

That the castle resembles a cathedral and the waiter a priest is no accident: the restaurant represents institutional religion which promises a great deal if people think and act in certain ways but which ultimately delivers either very little or delivers with even more conditions incumbent on individuals that they can’t refuse or avoid, or which condemn them to even more existential anguish and torment. The hungry man’s wait is torturous: as his clothes wear out and holes develop in his elbows and knees, the man’s face and body waste away and he literally falls apart: he tears off his face and his arms drop out of his sockets. He looks hungrily at the fish in the fish-tank but the creature ends up dying a natural death. When eventually the waiter returns, the customer is practically dead. The fish of the day revives the poor man but he does not realise that by taking the dish, he will be the butt of a malicious cosmic joke.

In spite of the often gorgeous colours that appear during the film’s duration and the promise of light and all’s-well-that-ends-well, the feeling that a huge con is being played out is never far away. Anyone who is familiar with Polish animation (and the animation of some other eastern European countries such as the Czech Republic) will know that Polish animation often carries a very sly black funereal humour and just when you think everything will turn out well and everybody will be happy, darkness and melancholy are never far away at all. So it is with “Ichthys”.

The animation is very well done with good pace and timing; the man’s facial contortions and comic if pathetic behaviour capture his anguish and torment. His actions are all the more pitiable when the reward is revealed and he receives it gratefully. Some viewers will anticipate what happens to him next and suspect that the waiter has known all along where the man ends up as he takes the customer’s hat and throws it into a room full of … other customers’ hats.

An excellent if very biting and sarcastic comment on the nature of institutional religion, what it demands of and extracts from people, and how it traps people in a never-ending cycle of debasement and purgatory, “Ichthys” is highly recommended viewing.

House of Wax: realism versus art and artifice in horror cult film

Andre de Toth, “House of Wax” (1953)

“House of Wax” was the movie that established Vincent Price as a horror film icon and in itself is a larger-than-life cult classic. “Professor” Henry Jarrod (Price) is a wax sculptor who pursues art, beauty and perfection in a series of life-sized wax models based on historical characters and events; his particular pride and joy is a model of Marie Antoinette in her resplendent Ancien Regime finery. Jarrod regards his sculptures as his children, more human than the real humans around him, and talks to them frequently. His partner Mathew Burke (Roy Roberts), keener on making profit out of the wax figures, proposes burning down the lot to collect insurance money but Jarrod rejects the idea. Burke goes ahead anyway, the two men fight and soon a conflagration is raging through the building where the wax works are housed. Burke escapes, the building burns down in spite of fire-fighters’ best efforts at the time (the film is set in the early 1900s) and Jarrod is presumed dead.

Cut several months later, Burke is enjoying the gains of his ill-acquired wealth with a pretty socialite Cathy Gray (Carolyn Jones) who happens to be a room-mate of a working-class girl Sue (Phyllis Kirk). Burke soon dies in mysterious circumstances and Gray follows him shortly after. Sue happens to see Gray’s murderer who pursues her through the streets of New York City. She manages to escape him. While police investigate the deaths of Burke and Gray and the disappearance of their corpses from the morgue, a new wax museum, containing figures derived from horrific crimes and scenes of murder, opens to much fanfare. Jarrod has survived the fire and with two assistants (one of whom is played by Charles Bronson, credited as Charles Buchinski, in an early role) has restored most of his figures. Phyllis, visiting the museum with her sculptor boyfriend Scott (Paul Picerni), is drawn to and freaked out by the figure of Joan of Arc who resembles Gray. For his part, Jarrod is drawn to Sue who reminds him of his beloved Marie Antoinette figure which he intends to restore with Sue’s likeness …

The original film was made in 3D which explains several rather pointless scenes in which women dance the can-can on stage and a man advertising the wax museum’s opening bangs ping-pong balls on bats at viewers and people attending the opening. There is quite a long chase sequence early in the film with Sue and Cathy’s murderer through shadowy streets that might have come straight out of an early Hitchcock film which milks suspense and terror for all these are worth. Generally the first half of the film is quite slow with very little horror but a lot of talk and character establishment; the second half of the film when very minor characters are introduced and the plot is well under way moves quickly to tie up all loose ends and resolve underlying issues.

Price delivers no less than 100% and then some in his role as Jarrod, evoking both sympathy and revulsion from viewers. His idealistic pursuit of beauty for its own sake, spurning greed and profit, is noble although creepy at the same time. There is an underlying theme of realism-versus-artifice throughout the film; the plot deliberately confuses the two in Jarrod’s pursuit of art and Sue, and in a number of characters who, though live, might as well be puppets for Jarrod to manipulate. Viewers will see the contradiction in Jarrod’s need for actual humans – and very dead ones at that – on which to base his creations and realise his ambitions of creating art. Even live humans, whether deaf-mute ones like Bronson’s Igor or live ones like Sue’s beau, end up as putty in Jarrod’s hands regardless of whether they have feeling or not. The other actors present competent performances as required by the plot and Hollywood narrative conventions imposed on it.

There may be a second theme, not fully explored in the film, of women as things to be moulded by men and then gazed upon for their beauty and art (or artifice); the characters of Cathy Gray and Sue may be compared and contrasted in this respect as well, Cathy delighting in being a plaything of rich men and shaping her body to fit into tight-waisted clothes to satisfy the fashion diktat while Sue presents a more natural and even at times feisty would-be heroine who does her own detective work and brings it to the attention of the police.

The look of the film is colourful and near-Gothic with a strong carnivalesque atmosphere. Actors wear rich and sometimes luxurious costumes and the sets are often gaudy. Sly humour and puns are incorporated into the dialogue and sometimes performances verge on camp. The character of Igor is a stock figure in horror films but Bronson manages to carry it off in a way that makes Igor genuinely sinister.

The Blair Witch Project: clever film that manipulates its audiences’ fear of the unknown and the ordinary

Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick, “The Blair Witch Project” (1998)

About fifteen years after it was made and the hype surrounding it died down, this hokey fly-on-the-wall mockumentary still stands up surprisingly well as an enjoyable B-grade horror film. Three student film-makers interested in the local lore of their rural Maryland community decide to make a documentary about a notorious local legend called the Blair Witch. This character has been responsible for causing a local man to murder several children in a house in the 1940s, a disappearance of searchers looking for a man in 1888 and other odd incidents involving ritual murder.

The intrepid student trio venture into the woods with their camping gear and promptly lose their map and bearings. They wander about in circles (though the landscape may be changing so as to give that impression); they become tired, cold, wet and hungry; they lose their tempers and self-control, and panic a great deal; they hear strange voices in the distance and find weird stick figures, bundles of faggots, slimy blue goo and some bloody body appendage bits in one of their shirts which their frazzled fevered minds interpret as supernatural Blair Witch business cards. Anything and everything they can do that’s wrong or stupid is done, and after one of them vanishes into the ether, viewers can assume the other two youngsters will soon follow in the inevitable downward spiral. (TBWP itself is based on the infamous “Cannibal Holocaust” by Ruggero Deodato, in which a film crew disappears in the Amazon rainforest, an anthropologist is sent out to discover what happened to the four people and is given their equipment and film footage by the local tribal people. He takes the film back to the film crew’s sponsors and they watch the film which reveals the horrifying fate of the film-makers.)

The film derives most of its suspense from its cinema verité style: jerky filming thanks to the use of hand-held camera, deliberately blurry and unfocused images, the camera pointing upwards or sideways, the constant obsessive filming and the actors’ actions, behaviour and language all force the audience to become more than passive voyeuristic observers. The actors themselves might be typical examples of the film’s target audience (they are all young teenagers enthusiastic about making their own home movie) so there is no need for the film-makers to force the audience to identify with the trio. In addition the three actors used their own names, lending the film the patina of faux authenticity.

The three young people constantly over-act and swear unimaginatively but the hokey goings-on fortunately don’t overpower the one positive element here and that’s the forest setting. The film-makers deliberately draw on the audience’s knowledge of fairy stories like “Hansel and Gretel” in which characters are cast out into the dark woods to survive as best they can. With clever use of filming, including filming at night, and the emphasis on close-ups and sharp night lighting, the film-makers turn ordinary forest objects like tree branches and rubbish on the ground into the extraordinary and supernatural.

A major gripe some viewers will have is that its premise and plot don’t sustain the film’s length. There’s a lot of repetition (though some of that is necessary for plot development and the maintenance of suspense and growing horror) and character development is uneven and mostly flat. When one student disappears, viewers may not feel much sympathy for him. Heather as the leader of the expedition, smug in her certainties at first but breaking down gradually throughout the film, is the most developed character and her address to the audience as if they were family members in the well-known scene where everyone can see up her nostrils is riveting viewing for its pathos. The kids engage in constant whingeing, swearing and fighting, though this is necessary as a way of covering up their fear and panic at being lost. When the film exhausts all available plot possibilities – and they don’t come more stereotyped than a derelict house in the woods – the ending is abrupt, horrifying and open to interpretation.

As a psychological study that deliberately manipulates its audience and plays with its expectations, TBWP is a good work of experimental film-making done on the cheap. It shows that there is nothing so terrifying and horrible as ordinary objects draped over with opinion, beliefs, emotion and personal and community fears.

Murdoch (Part 2): slap-dash documentary with racy tone is a damp squib

Janice Sutherland, “Murdoch (Part 2)” (2013)

As I suspected, the second half of this series turns out to be a damp squib: it’s basically a rundown of media mogul Rupert Murdoch and his News Corporation’s activities from the late 1980s to the present day. Interviews with notable politicians, acting celebrities and media personalities from across Australia, Britain and the United States are spliced together with news reels and welded into a chronological narrative by a voice-over narrator. The film’s visual style is rough-hewn and slap-dash with bright colours, bright lights and a big-band music soundtrack at particular points of the film all lending a racy touch suggestive of mid-20th century film noir crime suspense movies and TV shows replete with corrupt police officers, shady small-time politicians, thuggish gangsters and femme fatale girlfriends and call-girls with hearts of gold: the kind of world in which our man RM might have grown up in and where he first caught the scent of his future empire.

Hmm, there isn’t much analysis of what drove and continues to drive RM to absurd and surreal heights of achievement apart from people saying banalities like his work is his hobby and that he likes to back winners (in politics, not horse-racing) and that News Corporation’s culture is a reflection of his personality and what he values. Perhaps the most illuminating part of the documentary is its blow-by-blow portrayal of how over the years politicians in Australia and Britain have cozied up to RM, how he appears to pick and choose winners in general elections and how his print and TV news media outlets unashamedly barrack for those Australian and British politicians he chooses to bless. The corruptive radiation of media and politics in bed together sends out rays of harmful radioactive particles from the TV screen, DU-style, never more so than in the brief section where up-and-coming British PM hopeful David Cameron and his wife hang around RM, his son James and RM’s protégée at News International Rebekah Brookes like bad smells just before the British general elections in 2009. This might well say something about the fragility of political culture in both Australia and the United Kingdom, that it has become so dependent on the whims of one man who imagines himself as a king-maker cleaning out the filth in the political establishments of both countries.

The film notes that RM does not have a dynastic succession plan in place. RM’s children have so far not shown that they have their father’s ability, steel and personality for the kind of rapacious business he revels in. In any case, RM is surely one of a kind who came to be where he is because of particular circumstances and particular chances he took that will never be replicated. It may just be that News Corporation is now far beyond the capabilities of ordinary humans to control because it is too much the child of one man: it is his work of art, his unique creation. Also the world in which RM began his empire has changed too much because of him, and now is changing in ways that can’t sustain News Corporation, post-RM, forever because the creative forces that propelled him and his baby to the top have now become destructive.