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Christmas Horror

Thursday December 27, 2007 in films | 70s cinema

Made in 1974, Black Christmas is a particularly nasty US horror. Coming a few years before Halloween, it looks like John Carpenter made copious notes after seeing this film before he went on to make his better known classic. Many of Halloween‘s most remembered themes turn up in Black Christmas. The seemingly safe sleepy neighbourhood, the ruthless maniac, the college kids who get more than they bargained for, inept police officers, the disturbingly open ending – this film appears to set the blueprint for every horror that’s followed since the mid 70s.

Black Christmas

Black Christmas was shown recently on Film 4, but it’s unlikely you’ll see it on any of the more mainstrean channels. It’s a little too blood curdling and there’s strong language that’s still shocking today. A young girl is terrorised by nuisance phone calls. The police attempt to trace them, telling her to keep the menace talking for as long as she can while an expert chases around the local telephone exchange trying to discover where they are coming from. They eventually find out – the calls are coming from inside the house and the madman is revealed to be camping out in the attic. (Incidentally, a plot stolen by a later and another better remembered film called When a Stranger Calls).

Unlike Halloween, there’s no comfort in the fact that the monster might be something supernatural and unworldly – something that isn’t really out there. Black Christmas features a very real and ultimately more disturbing killer. The bogeyman is there alright. Worth catching for horror completists, and to see Margot Kidder in a pre Superman role. The film was remade in 2006 (as was When a Stranger Calls), but the remake disappeared without trace. Accept no imitations.

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House of Whipcord

Monday December 10, 2007 in films | 70s cinema

As somebody who has spent a lot of idle time watching most horror film of the 60s and 70s, House of Whipcord has always passed me by. Made in 1974, it’s such an obscure film that I don’t recall it ever being shown on UK television. It took a recent bout of ‘flu and Amazon DVD rental to get it to fall into my hands.

House of Whipcord

I suspect that one of the reasons that House of Whipcord hasn’t been seen much on television is because at times it is laughably so low budget. Directed by Pete Walker, who also directed Tiffany Jones – the film based on a Daily Mail cartoon – the cast is full of unknown, and particularly weak, actors. The only faces I recognised were Celia Imrie, usually starring with Victoria Wood, and Ray Brooks, most recently seen as Pauline Fowler’s husband (and murderer) in Eastenders. The film features the amount of mild nudity you would expect in a British “X” film of the early 70s, but unlike the lavish Hammer costume dramas of that era, House of Whipcord appears to be filmed on a whipround from Walker’s local pub.

The film concerns a house that has been set up as a private “correction centre”; girls are kidnapped, imprisoned and punished by wardens who could give Prisoner Cell Block H a run for their money. If you don’t tow the line, it’s three shots and you’re out in the House of Whipcord. First punishment is two weeks of solitary in a rat-infested hole, second a serious lashing and it’s curtains for the third. A young French model (Penny Irving) is taken for Correction, with nasty results, although her pretend accent is so absurd that it’s difficult to sympathise with her.

It’s difficult to get through this film; it’s partly hilarious and partly disturbing. You need to shift down into the right gear, and I was crunching the clutch for ages before I found it. Walker’s message is that taking the law into your own hands will lead to crazy results. He still gets that message across. A bit more thought and budget and this could have been a truly great film. Instead, it’s little more than an oddity, but many of the scenes have a chilling and worrying inevitability about them. And it does lend itself to the dare of the best horror films. The main character doesn’t always get away…

Still worth watching for the terrifying Sheila Keith, who appeared in Walker’s other 1974 film Frightmare, Patrick Barr as the decrepid and blind chess-playing judge, and Ray Brooks’ half-hearted acting, totally unconcerned that a friend of his is about to be murdered:

“Excuse me, is there a prison round here, a sort of house of correction?”
“No, sorry”
“Okay, thanks!”

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Atonement

Sunday September 9, 2007 in films | recent cinema

The film of Ian McEwan’s Atonement is a masterpiece – a true cinema classic.

Keira Knightley in Atonement

The 2001 novel is a favourite of mine, and Joe Wright (director) and Christopher Hampton (screenplay) lose nothing of the power and potency of the book. In many ways they succeed in improving upon it.

A blistering hot afternoon like yesterday might not be the best time for a trip to the cinema, but I have to take these chances when they come, and besides – like McEwan’s opening chapters the film brilliantly recreates a very similar summer day in 1935. Hot, still days where people think nothing of plunging into cool water; which is essentially what kickstarts the events in Atonement.

A young girl called Briony (Saoirse Ronan) witnesses three incidents that lead her to form conclusions surrounding a fourth. When her cousin is assaulted, she accuses a young man called Robbie Turner (James McAvoy) of the brutal deed. Wright emphasises the strength of fiction in Briony’s word and how her imagination can filter the truth into something else. The sound of typewriters echo through the film’s soundtrack, their sound hammering their importance in this story into us. And is is the typed word that gets Robbie into trouble; when a sexually explicit letter to Briony’s sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) accidentally falls into Briony’s hands and she later witnesses a sexual encounter between Robbie and Cecilia – in a library, another world of fiction and shaped truths – her imagination goes into overload.

Following Robbie’s arrest the film jumps ahead to the wartime settings of London and Dunkirk. Anyone who has read the book knows to expect that things continue not to be as they seem and Wright really begins to shine here as an artist. The long sweeping shot of troops on the beach at Dunkirk is already becoming something of legend and it really is that good; the scene of Robbie walking through this hell-like vision is breathtaking – visually stunning and also managing to add to some of the intellectual themes of the book. Soldiers play at an abandoned funfair, a broken doll’s house sits abandoned, a ferris wheel turns oblivious to the devastation around it. I want to see this part of the movie again and again to fully appreciate its brilliance.

The film (like the book) will no doubt attract some criticism for its ending, which features Vanessa Redgrave as the now dying Briony, now a celebrated author, in the present day. We’re asked bluntly to think about truth and fiction, what we have just witnessed for two hours, how we would possibly want Briony’s ending to be any different. There is a stunning scene involving the 18 year old Briony (Romola Garai) – now a nurse in wartime London as part of her self-imposed atonement – and a dying French soldier that I think holds the key to the whole story. It’s about misunderstandings and lies, and how sometimes we can do nothing other than give in to them.

What’s best about the whole experience is that a great novel is turned into a fantastic and cinematically clever film. Visually, water plays a part in several key scenes. Cecilia diving into a pond to provide the beginning to Briony’s misunderstandings, Briony jumping into a river to force Robbie to rescue her, a final tragic scene during an air raid in London and the two lovers on an empty beach, embracing as the waves rush around them. This last image one of the most moving I have seen in cinema for some time.

Please see this film – there are excellent performances all round and Joe Wright is a director to watch in the future. It’s unadulterated rich, stunning cinema.

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Into the Labyrinth

Wednesday July 25, 2007 in films | recent cinema

I had it all planned out…

This is my favourite time of the year for lounging, and due to a combination of having the house to myself for a while and being in the middle of a transition period (I am starting a new job in August), I’d decided to take it easy over a long stretch of summer evenings, reading in the garden as the sun set in front of me…

Well it hasn’t quite turned out that way, and it’s mostly been snatched moments in between rain, wind and cold. It’s cold now, and although not yet seven o’ clock I’m inside. No sunset worth seeing tonight.

But the nights drawing in a little quicker than expected has meant that I’ve finally got round to seeing Pan’s Labyrinth. This is a film that caught my eye sometime ago, and following several passionate recommendations from the film critic Mark Kermode (a man I have the greatest respect for, despite his extraordinary hairstyle) I decided to rent the DVD.

Pan’s Labyrinth, or El Laberinto Del Fauno, is a Spanish language film by the director Guillermo del Toro. I was expecting out and out fantasy from the trailers I’d seen and this is satisfied by a large part of the film. There’s some extraordinary imaginary creatures, both charming and terrifying. Perhaps the most well known image from the film is … well … this one:

Pan's Labyrinth

But this definitely isn’t for children; apart from the fantasy scenes being the stuff of disturbing nightmares there’s worse to come. The backdrop of the film is fascist Spain in 1944, and the fantasy world that a young girl called Ofelia buries herself in only hides her momentarily from brutal reality. Her mother is heavily pregnant and both are in the charge of a sadistic army captain called Vidal, brilliantly played by Sergi L√≥pez. Rebels haunt the nearby woods and Vidal makes it his duty to destroy them, resulting in some unforgettably powerful scenes in recent cinema.

Pan’s Labyrinth is an incredible film; Ofelia is scolded for the books she loves reading and the fantasy world she creates, but I left the film wanting to join her to forget the terrible darkness of the Second World War. It also made me question myself; did I find fairytale scares as chilling as real human brutality, was I enjoying cinematic violence (both real and imaginary) in equal measures – what’s real and what’s imaginary on the cinema screen?

Ultimately this film asked me, if you indulge in fairy tales and then meet a real life bogeyman, what do you do? The most frightening thing to face of all…

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No, But I've Seen the Movie...

Thursday July 12, 2007 in films | books

Inspired by Booking Through Thursday. What’s the best translation of a book to a film? Or the worst?

Recently we were watching Brad Pitt in Troy. Apparently it’s loosely based on The Iliad, and I found it a very enjoyable film and much underrated – although I won’t claim to really know the ins and outs of Homer’s epic until I’ve actually read it.

Similarly, although I’ve watched all of the Lord of the Rings films, I’ll claim no knowledge of Tolkein’s trilogy until I’ve finally got round to reading the books. And I wanted to pass on Notes on a Scandal because I’ve read the book already, although – strapped into my seat on a flight recently – I had no choice but to endure this tedious film.

But what makes a good literary adaptation, and can something successfully jump from the page to the screen? Here follows a selection of what I think are good screen versions of classics – and yes – I’ve only chosen ones where I’ve read the book as well.

The Remains of the Day (1993)

I liked Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel so much I always thought it would never make a good film, but the Merchant-Ivory adaptation succeeds in enriching the book. Mostly for Anthony Hopkins, and although I’m not really a fan of the actor I think his interpretation of Stevens is masterful, subtle and moving.

Trivia: an earlier version of the film starring John Cleese had been planned and abandoned. Somewhere out there in an alternative universe is either a classic or an appallingly bad movie.

Oliver! (1968)

This might be controversial, but I think that Carol Reed’s screen adaptation of Lionel Bart’s musical version of Dickens’ novel is far superior to the much lauded David Lean film of Oliver Twist. When I was at college, one of the tutors gave an excellent lecture about the film, saying that although it took liberties with the book, it was essentially Dickensian. His point was that it captures the spirit and effortless charm of Dickens much more so than Lean’s rather worthy and dull film, and I agree.

Far From the Madding Crowd (1967)

I like John Schlesinger’s film, although it does now have a tendency to bark “look, it’s 1967!” at you. Darlings of the era Julie Christie and Terence Stamp are cast in the leads, and Stamp plays Sergeant Troy like he’s been paying too much attention to Sergeant Pepper. But it’s a very likeable film, and both Peter Finch and Alan Bates are excellent as Bathsheba’s other suitors. Compare and contrast with Polanski’s 1980 version of Tess, a film I’ve always found rather cold.

Our Mutual Friend (1998)

More Dickens. This is the BBC TV adaptation from a few years ago, which starred David Morrissey as the murderous schoolteacher Bradley Headstone. Rather good indeed. Unfortunately Mr Morrissey is now best known for the rather comical Basic Instinct 2.

The Trial (1962)

Orson Welles’ almost forgotten black and white film of Kafka’s classic, starring a very well cast Anthony Perkins as Joseph K.

The Time Machine (1960)

My introduction to H.G. Wells and science fiction. George Pal’s film adds a couple of charming touches to the original, such as the shop dummy opposite the time traveller’s house that appears to change its own costumes as the time machine races on. Rod Taylor is effective in the role, and even though the Morlocks don’t stand up to the test of time it’s still worth seeing.

1984 (1954)

This is the television adaptation of Orwell’s novel, scripted by Nigel Kneale and starring Peter Cushing and Donald Pleasence. It’s far superior to the better known John Hurt film.

Brighton Rock (1947)

Richard Attenborough stars as Pinkie Brown. I came to Graham Greene’s novel late, after seeing this film a few times. A great period piece.

And the worst? Fortunately they fade from memory, although I do get bored with the countless film and TV Jane Austen adaptations which all merge into one endless round of bonnets, Bath and banquets.

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