August 31, 2011

Häxan (1922)

In the early days of cinema, Danish film industry flourished with great success, beginning with the founding in 1906 of Nordisk Films Kompagni, the country's first filmmaking company. In five years, Denmark was now competing against the American, French and German film industries in the European market. This was the Golden Age of Danish Cinema, where figures such as actress Asta Nielsen and director Carl Theodor Dreyer began their careers. In those days, a young actor named Benjamin Christensen began his career in the film industry, and soon found himself beginning a career as a director as well. While by 1914 the Golden Age was reaching its end, Christensen still found some success with his two first films. In 1918, Christensen found a copy of the "Malleus Maleficarum", the book that inquisitors used as guide to deal with witches. Inspired by the horrors and superstition of the middle ages, Christensen conceived a film about how the misunderstanding of mental illness could lead to the infamous witch-hunts. The result was a legendary film: "Häxan".

Combining different documentary techniques such as slideshow and dramatization of events, "Häxan" ("Witch", though the film is also called in English "Witchcraft through the Ages"), examines the history of witchcraft during the Middle Ages, detailing the practices of witches and the ideas about them and demons that inquisitors of the time had. This is done initially with illustrations, paintings and intertitles, even a large scale model of the medieval view of the solar system is employed. Later, a dramatization takes place depicting several vignettes that cover several superstitions about witches. In these dramatizations we see a coven of witches, a black mass, and a group of monks being terrorized by the Devil (played by Christensen himself). Later, "Häxan" takes the form of a narrative fiction, in which an old woman (Maren Pedersen) is accused of witchcraft and her trial at the Inquisition is shown. In the final part Christensen shows vignettes about what his thesis: that mental illness was misunderstood as witchcraft in the Middle Ages.

Written by Christensen himself, "Häxan" is at the same time a serious documentary and a horror film, fusing both reality and fiction to construct what could be considered as one of the earliest examples of a film essay. The script, result of a big work of research on Christensen's part, is highly informative and does a great job in describing the beliefs and superstitions regarding witchcraft in the Middle Ages; certainly, Christensen knew his subject well, and the dramatizations, while definitely aimed to shock the audience, have a certain degree of authenticity (considering the knowledge available at the time of its release, of course). Christensen's fictional narrative is also quite good, well structured and faithful to historical records, or well, as faithful as it can be to suit Christensen's purpose. As a film essay, "Häxan" elaborates on a point, with each scene building up on Christensen's thesis on witchcraft and insanity; and while it's certainly an interesting observation, the director is a tad heavy handed on the repeated exposition of his point of view.

Where "Häxan" truly shines is in the remarkable way that Christensen built up the whole thing, displaying a level of originality that made the film unique. Documentaries were nothing new in 1922 (after all, cinema began with documentaries), but way Christensen employed the very diverse techniques to create his movie was so unusual that even today the film escapes a proper classification. It is a documentary that explores a complete new way to pose a topic. As written above, it's more a film essay on the topic of witchcraft than a documentary per se; so to elaborate on his morbid subject, Christensen conceived vignettes of shocking horror to truly portray witchcraft the way inquisitors saw it. The enormous amount of care done in the art design (Richard Louw), and the remarkable work of cinematography (by Johan Ankerstjerne) result in a powerfully atmospheric movie, one with a beauty so mesmerizing that truly seems like arisen from the depths of the Hell it depicts. At the time, it was the most expensive Danish film, and it shows.

Benjamin Christensen conceives pretty amazing set pieces that rival those of German Expressionism in their dark, ominous atmosphere. The cast does a great job as well, even when several were not professional actors (including Maren Pedersen, arguably the protagonist of the core dramatization). It's interesting to find Danish filmmaker Alice O'Fredericks as a nun, role she played on the film besides working as Christensen's script supervisor. In general, Christensen's level of care in his production is a testament of the interest he had in the theme. And perhaps this interest also explains what could be considered as one of the film's flaws: Christensen's narrative seems to ramble over its points a tad too much for its own good, resulting in a very slow rhythm that can be tiring at times. It's worth to point out that in 1968 the film was cut to 77 minutes for a re-release, with an added narration by author William S. Burroughs. It is this version the one that got the title "Witchcraft through the Ages". It's an interesting curiosity, though in no way an improvement over Christensen's vision.

Haunting, sombre, and visually beautiful, "Häxan" proved to be a controversial film because of its depictions of nudity and violence; however, director Benjamin Christensen managed to keep his vision almost intact and the result was one of the most unique and strange movies ever made. Half documentary, half horror film, "Häxan" showcases a collection of unforgettable images that can be disturbing and beautiful at the same time. The images of hell, the black mass, and the remarkable interrogation scenes (that may have given an idea or two to Carl Theodor Dreyer) are a testament of Benjamin Christensen's talent. Unfortunately, most of his films seem to be lost (at this moment), but at least "Häxan" survives to posterity as one of the earliest and most amazing film essays ever done.

Watch "Häxan" (1922) at Cult Reviews.

Naboer (2005) @ Cult Reviews!

From time to time, the really cool website Cult Reviews invites me to contribute the site with a review, and once again I have written a piece that just recently got published there; this time for "Naboer" (2005), director Pål Sletaune's contribution to the horror filmography of his native Norway. Keeping up the good work in their dedication to the weird, the strange and the shocking of cinema, chief reviewers Vomitron and Perfesser Deviant continue bringing up reviews, interviews and information about the beloved horror genre, making Cult Reviews the site to go to satisfy that interest on the dark side of cinema. As for "Naboer", it's a terrific example of the new generation of Norwegian horror, in which director Sletaune has crafted a claustrophobic, suffocating atmosphere inside an apartment where bizarre things happen. If your first though was "Polanski" then you are on the right track about the kind of horror Sletaune attempts in "Naboer", though on a decidedly more sexual vein. To know more on it, check out the post at Cult Reviews.

Like my previous contribution, "Due Occhi Diabolici", this review of "Naboer" is part of a series of posts dedicated to the Mr. Horror Presents DVD collection. Known as the foremost horror guru of The Netherlands and Belgium, Jan Doense has built up his reputation as a horror film critic due to his constant work supporting horror filmmaking. Par tof this efforts have been the Amsterdam Fantastic Film Festival (formerly The Weekend of Terror) for example. In his “Mr. Horror Presents” label, Doense releases on DVD a collection of his personal recommendations, modern horror classics that had no previous release on the Benelux countries, but that definitely deserve a watch. In my personal opinion, this effort is quite worth of recognition, as while one may agree or disagree with Doense's opinions, it's great for the fans to be able to acquire some of those films. At Cult Reviews, severeal of the movies of the collection have been reviewed recently, like Jeff Lieberman's "Blue Sunshine", his more recent "Satan's Little Helper", and Scott Spiegel's "Intruder". For a complete of reviews on Mr. Horror releases check here.

On the greater scheme of things, Perfesser Deviant has written reviews of Conor MacMahon's "Dead Meat" and Tripp Reid's "Manticore"; while Marco Freitas has published an interview with filmmaker Michael Schroeder. Finally, Vomitro himself has chronicled his encounter with the bizarre "Dracula Vs. Frankenstein". More of the good stuff can be found at your favourite site on the weird and the strange of cinema Cult Reviews.

So, keep supporting Cult Reviews!


August 29, 2011

E tu vivrai nel terrore - L'aldilà (1981)

After making himself a career directing comedies, spaghetti westerns and giallos, Italian director Lucio Fulci finally achieved worldwide recognition in 1979 with "Zombi 2", his very own take on the then popular zombie subgenre (the "2" of the title being the result of it being marketed as a sequel to Romero's 1978 horror classic "Dawn of the Dead"). Fulci would return to the horror genre the following year with the violent "Paura Nella Città Dei Morti Viventi" ("City of the Living Dead"), where he would use the zombie subgenre to explore metaphysical concepts such as Hell and the after life in a vein closer to surrealism in film. What Fulci started in "City of the Living Dead" would be further expanded in his follow-up, "L'aldilà" ("The Beyond"), the second film in the so-called "Gates of Hell" thematic trilogy ("Quella villa accanto al cimitero" or "House by the Cemetery" would be the third one). Amongs Fulci's varied filmography, "L'aldilà" has achieved cult status and is often considered to be his masterpiece. And not without a reason.

The story begins in Louisiana, 1927, where an enraged mob gathers outside the Seven Doors Hotel decided to lynch an artist named Schewick (Antoine Saint-John), as he is being accused of practicing witchcraft. Schewick is brutally crucified and as a result, one of the Seven Doors of Hell is opened. The doors connect the world of the dead with the world of the living so, the townspeople decide to seal the basement in the hope of keeping the evil forces trapped inside. 54 years after Schewick's death, a young woman named Liza (Catriona MacColl) arrives from New York after inheriting the Seven Doors hotel. Liza has plans to reopen the hotel for business, but her renovation works reactivate the portal to Hell and soon strange accidents begin to take place. Dr. John McCabe (David Warbeck) arrives to the scene to help an injured worker and becomes friends with Liza. Both of them will have to face the evil force that has crossed the portal, and their only help comes from a strange blind woman (Sarah Keller) who seems to know a lot about what's going on.

Based on a story by famed Italian writer Dardano Sacchetti (Fulci's regular collaborator, and a man who wrote scripts for many of the important Italian horror filmmakers during the 70s and 80s) and adapted to the screen by Giorgio Mariuzzo, Lucio Fulci and Sacchetti himself, "L'aldilà" is a nightmarish story of supernatural horror that, while initially looking like a typical horror film, it soon moves further into the oneiric realm as the story unfolds. Highly symbolic and surreal, the storyline is diffuse, almost non-linear, more interested in the effect of its visual imagery than on having a traditional narrative. The overall effect is akin to experiencing a nightmare, where logic is less important than the atmosphere and symbolism transmitted through its images. The zombie film is used just as basis for what is a dark meditation on the afterworld. It's certainly a highly ambitious and risky idea, but Fulci and Sacchetti craft a powerful story that, while probably incoherent at first sight, truly transmits the feeling of being a nightmare put on film.

While in "L'aldilà" director Lucio Fulci moves to more metaphysical concepts thematically, stylistically he remains faithful to the same carefully detailed gore he had showed before. However, in "L'aldilà" he takes his penchant for violent gore to a higher artistic level, resulting in creative set pieces that are not only disturbing and horrifying, but also owners of a strange ethereal beauty. Despite the obvious low-budget the film had, Germano Natali's special effects are for the most part pretty effective (though a scene involving spiders is particularly poor). "L'aldilà" is also benefited by a very good work of cinematography by Sergio Salvati (another of Fulci's regular collaborators), who truly captures an ominous atmosphere of dread and enhances the sensation of being watching a nightmare come true. Fulci's narrative is, like the screenplay, more symbolic than linear, and so it may initially seem disjointed. Nevertheless, there is a strong artistic vision that gives coherence to the story as an atmospheric tale of horror.

Certainly, one of the weakest elements in "L'aldilà" is the acting, which is not really the best that can found in Italian horror. To make things worse, the work of dubbing (common in Italian films of the period) done in the film is terrible, and makes the actors sound even worse than they probably did originally. Nevertheless, it's worth to point out that British actress Catriona MacColl delivers a fairly good performance as Liza, the main character, and really keeps the film on float despite the mess the dubbing is (MacColl appears in the three "Gates of Hell" film). Italian actress Ciniza Monreale also does a good job, playing the mysterious blind woman Emily. While the dubbing does damage their performances, it's safe to say that both are really good in their characters, and deliver the best performances of the move. Sadly, the same can't be said of actor David Warbeck, who comes up as bland and uneven. In fact, Al Cliver (a familiar name in Italian horror) makes a better and more charismatic performance despite having a small role.

"L'aldilà" received a quite cold reception when it was initially released in the U.S. in 1983 (two years after its European premiere), but this can be adjudicated to the fact that it arrived with an awful dubbing, a different musical score and heavily censored (in a version titled "Seven Doors of Death"), all in all resulting in a much different movie than what Fulci intended. While certainly "L'aldilà" is not exactly without its flaws, it's a bold supernatural horror movie that attempts to go beyond the typical clichés of its genre and succeeds in creating a highly atmospheric experience. Perhaps its most difficult trait is the deliberately elliptical narrative, which may appear as loose at best and illogical at worst. However, the diverse holes in the narrative symbolize the bending of logic and reality as the supernatural forces begin to affect the normal world. As written above, "L'aldilà" is built following the logic of a nightmare: the narrative patterned in symbols instead of in a chained sequence of events.

While probably a difficult film given its loose structure and ambitious storyline, "L'aldilà" is a quite rewarding horror film thanks to its ominous atmosphere and it's cleverly conceived graphic gory sequences. All the elements that are part of Fulci's style appear at its best in the movie, and it wouldn't be exaggerated to call "L'aldilà" as the epitome of his highly idiosyncratic vision of horror. Certainly the strange and atypical way the plot is structured may turn off some viewers, but once one gets captured by its nightmarish surreal beauty, "L'aldilà" is a powerful oneiric experience. "L'aldilà", or "The Beyond", is a terrific masterpiece of horror that fans of the genre should not miss. It's really a beautiful, haunting and influential example of metaphysical horror.


August 26, 2011

Delicatessen (1991)

In the late 70s, french director Jean-Pierre Jeunet and designer Marc Caro met at a film festival and found they had a lot in common regarding their view on visual arts. Wit Jeunet being an animator, and Caro a comic book artist, their friendship soon became an artistic team that would spend the following decade making short films and TV commercials where the duo was able to develop their artistic style and master the cinema language, perfecting their storytelling abilities and visual design skills. All done in order to prepare themselves to begin a full-time career in film-making. Their joint efforts finally payed back in 1991, when Jeunet and Caro were finally able to take their craft to the level of a full feature length film, in the project that would become their breakthrough in the film industry and the proper beginning of their careers as filmmakers: the post-apocalyptic black comedy "Delicatessen". Zany, whimsical, a times morbid, at times sweet, "Delicatessen" would introduce the talents of Jeunet and Caro to the world.

The world of "Delicatessen" is a dark bleak post-apocalyptic France where apparently there is no law and food is incredibly sparse (to the point that grain is now being used as currency). In this desolated urban nightmare, the residents of an old, dilapidated apartment building located in the middle of nowhere have a solution to the hunger that roams the world thanks to the schemes of their landlord, the butcher Clapet (Jean-Claude Dreyfus). The butcher's solution is to kill the building's handyman and use him as meat to feed his bizarre group of tenants; and after that Clapet offers again the position of handyman to outsiders, in order to find more fresh meat. One day, former clown Louison (Dominique Pinon) arrives to the building and gets the handyman position, and soon it is set that he'll be the next victim; however, the butcher's daughter Julie (Marie-Laure Dougnac) has fallen in love with Louison, and she will do whatever is necessary to help the naive clown to survive and stop the madness of her father's delicatessen.

Written by Gilles Adrien (who also wrote several of the previous Jeunet & Caro shorts), along directors Jeunet & Caro themselves, "Delicatessen" is a wonderfully imaginative tale of sweet romance and hilarious black comedy that gives an unexpected light-hearted twist to a topic one may normally found a tad morbid for a comedy: cannibalism. And surprisingly, it all works bizarrely fine, not only because of the whimsical, surrealist and almost absurd tone that the story has, but also because of the detailed assortment of strange yet very human characters that populate the world of "Delicatessen". This collection of human oddities truly become the movie's soul, adding a lot of charm and heart to the film with their highly detailed antics and traits, as if each one has a small but necessary piece in a complex machine. The story, stripped down to its most basic, it is actually a very simple one; however, the darkly humorous tone and the charm of its characters transform it into a weird yet enjoyable experience.

Nevertheless, it is in the visual aspect where the film truly shines and becomes simply sublime, with Jeunet and Caro's highly imaginative style appearing all over the place. Dividing responsibilities, director Marc Caro got full control of the production design and the visual elements of the movie, and so in "Delicatessen" Caro's highly inventive artistic vision results in a vibrant imagery that seems to be the dark offspring of Cinéma du look and a heavily retro-futurist vibe, creating a movie that could be described as a moving canvas. Highly atmospheric, the french duo puts to great use the work of cinematographer Darius Khondji, mixing techniques and showing a huge range of their artistic influences that go from German Expressionism to 40s modernism, resulting in one of the most beautiful looking movies ever done. Jeunet's visual narrative is slick and coherent in tone, giving substance to Caro's style, saving the film from being a hollow visual fest. It could be said that Jeunet's work is keeping the many elements of the film working nicely in the right place. And he succeeds.

As written above, it's in the characters and their antics where the "Delicatessen"'s soul is, and the ensemble of actors playing them really made a terrific job in the film. Leading the cast is Dominique Pinon (who would become one of Jeunet's regular collaborators), delivering a subtle and charming performance as the ex-clown Louison. Pinon gives the character a very human touch, essential for the kind of character he is playing, and this human touch coupled with his facial expressiveness at times makes him like the spiritual heir of the kind of silent film comedy that Chaplin used to do. Truly believable in the role, Pinon handles the film's sardonic situations with a great comedic timing and a lot of physical expression. The same can be said of Marie-Laure Dougnac, who plays Louison's love interest Julie, and captures the sweetness and naiveté of her character in a very natural way. Jean-Claude Dreyfus as Clapet the Butcher is simply delightful as the story's "villian", and achieves equal levels of nastiness and hilarity with his work.

Basically every member of the cast delivers an unforgettable performance no matter how long or short is their screen time (Silvie Laguna for example, is really wonderful), and this is truly a testament not only of the cast's skill, but also of the writers' wit and love for the project. "Delicatessen" is a solid debut by this two skillful french artists, and it already shows why the two quickly became an important team in the French fantasy cinema. Their very own brand of surrealist fantasy flows freely through the film making a unique visual fest (although to be fair, it definitely goes a over-the-top at times, particularly at the end), and while it doesn't reach the artistic level of their superior follow-up (the 1995 dark tale of science fiction "La Cité Des Enfants Perdus"), it's still a nicely done movie that delivers good entertainment and showcases its director's narrative talents. While its subject matter may be difficult to stomach, "Delicatessen"'s whimsical tone and lavish visual style make this filmic dish an exquisite oddity.

Unlike their later films, maybe "Delicatessen" won't be everyone's cup of tea, as its surreal fantasy may seem at times too close to absurd to be enjoyable. However, those with a taste for the bizarre will find a great movie in this French comedy. While "Delicatessen" still shows the excess of the young and raw talent of Jeunet & Caro, it's not hard to see why they became known worldwide after this initial success, as this movie shows the enormous potential of their skills as filmmakers. This brilliant mixture of genres is definitely a very recommended movie, and like "La Cité Des Enfants Perdus" ("The City of the Lost Children" in English), "Delicatessen" is an essential gem of French cinema of the 90s.


August 23, 2011

The Relic (1997)

Authors Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child found the perfect niche for their collaborative writing in the techno-thriller genre, novels where a vast amount of technical detail is important part of the prose. Amongst their work, the series of novels with Agent Pendergast have proved to be their most popular, with eleven published novels to date. "Relic", the first of the series, became a bestseller very quickly, and naturally, negotiation began for a movie adaptation with director Peter Hyams at the helm. Hyams at the time had gone from making several science fiction movies ("Capricorn One", "Outland" and "2010"), to direct several thrillers in the 80s and 90s, including two action films with Belgian actor Jean-Claude Van Damme in the 90s ("Timecop" and "Sudden Death"). "The Relic", as the film was retitled, was released in 1997 (two years after the book), and while several major changes took place from novel to film (Pendergast is omitted entirely to begin with), the resulting horror film was not really bad.

"The Relic" begins when an strangely abandoned ship arrives on the Illinoins River. Chicago PD homicide detective Vincent D'Agosta (Tom Sizemore) is sent to investigate the ship, which contained cargo for the Museum of Natural History in Chicago. Looking for the missing crew, D'Agosta finds their severed heads in the bilge hatch. At the Museum, Dr. Margo Green (Penelope Ann Miller) examines the cargo sent and only finds a statue of the mythical beast Kothoga. When a security guard is murdered in the same gruesome manner as the ship's crew, Detective D'Agosta suspects that there may be a link to the crime at the ship. The Museum is planning a gala opening for its latest exhibition, "Superstition", so it's on its best interest that D'Agosta's investigation ends soon. The police finds and kills a deranged homeless man hiding in the basement and the case is considered closed. However, D'Agosta is not convinced of this, and takes his men for a final search through the basement, when they are attacked by an enormous monster: Kothoga.

Preston and Child's novel was adapted to the screen by a team of scriptwriters consisting of Amy Holden Jones, John Raffo, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver. Moving away from its techno-thriller roots, "The Relic" film version takes a decidedly more straightforward horror approach: it is a creature feature in the most classic style, with a monster roaming free and hunting a group trapped in a dark and sealed location, in this case, the halls of the Museum of Natural History. "The Relic" is certainly very traditional in its approach to this formula, perhaps too traditional for its own good; however, the little details and ideas that "dress" the plot are what keep things fresh and interesting, and almost make up for the lack of originality in its formula. The Museum by night is a wonderful setting for a monster movie, and the creature mythology and origins are a nice twist as well. Character development is kept at a pretty basic level, though Detective D'Agosta has interesting bits when his extreme superstitiousness faces the Museum's "Supersition"'s exhibit.

However, while the plot may be formulaic, director Peter Hyams plays with it to his favor and builds up in "The Relic" an effectively atmospheric film that takes full advantage of its setting to deliver a simple but entertaining monster movie. As expected, Hyams is also the cinematographer of the film, and while his work in this field is often labeled as poorly lit, his style actually works favorably for the kind of horror he attempts in "The Relic". His low-key lighting enhances the ominous atmosphere of the Museum, and increases the tension and suspense by having the monster Kothoga lurking in the dark for the most part of the film (traces of Ridley Scott's "Alien" can be felt). An effective craftsman, Hyams creates a couple of pretty interesting set pieces in which this terror of what lurks in the shadows is exploited to good effect and elevate the film from the rest. "The Relic" is also a tad gorier than other mainstream horror films of the same period, an element that along the dark cinematography give the film a nice grizzly style.

Leading the cast is Tom Siezemore as Detective Vincent D'Agosta, playing a superstitious yet hard-working detective, basically an extension of the tough guy persona that Sizemore had been built through the 90s. in "The Relic" Sizemore delivers a good, effective performance, believable and natural though to be fair, without showing anything really outstanding. However, Sizemore manages to carry the weight of the film with strength. As his counterpart, Penelope Ann Miller is a bit less successful, as while her performance is not particularly bad, she seems just average, sleepwalking through her role as if she preferred to be somewhere else. Granted, a lot of this may be the result of the sad fact that their roles are pretty much the typical stock characters of the modern monster movie, so there's the tough guy who must face his secret fears and the sexy scientist who must put up a good fight with the monster. The rest of the characters are also of the classic variety of supporting characters that make up good victims for mythical beasts so, nothing truly new here.

Certainly, the apparent lack of originality in "The Relic" basic elements make it sound like a typical B-movie with relatively known actors, and clichéd situations. However, as written above, the little details are what make "The Relic" to rise from the norm and deliver good entertainment. Hyams crafts his movie with a deeply somber seriousness: there is no place for cheesy humor, juvenile roles or witty postmodern references; "The Relic" may be nothing more than a simple creature feature, but it takes its subject seriously, and with as much realism as its fantastic roots allow it to have (perhaps an inherited trait from its techno-thriller origins). This approach works nicely with the grizzly gore and Hyam's dark cinematography, giving the film an atmosphere akin to a descent into a Lovecraftian nightmare. And this is maybe why Hyams' faithfulness to the monster movie formula actually works in "The Relic": the built-up atmosphere is so effective that a move away from the expected may feel like a betrayal to the genre.

American columnist William Safire recommended that one should avoid clichés like the plague, however, and specially when working within a defined genre, sometimes clichés are what work best. The secret being not what happens, but how it happens. In "The Relic", director Peter Hyams takes a clichéd storyline and delivers a well-crafted tale of horror that, while certainly will not change the face of the horror genre, at least delivers its fair share of scares and entertainment. And sometimes that's all that's needed. While perhaps of little resemblance to Child and Preston's techno-thriller, "The Relic" is definitely one of the better monster movies that came out in the 90s. Dark, creepy and ominous, "The Relic" is an underrated minor gem, and a highlight in Peter Hyams' uneven career.


August 19, 2011

Braindead (1992)

In the early 80s, a passionate young man from New Zealand named Peter Jackson struggled to complete his first independent film, a science fiction story that mixed splatter horror and bizarre comedy. Finally released in 1987 as "Bad Taste", the movie quickly became a cult favourite and revealed Jackson as a promising new talent. He'd follow up "Bad Taste" with an offbeat movie even more bizarre than his debut, "Meet the Feebles", a black comedy starring puppets that further cemented Jackson's reputation as a cult filmmaker. For his third film, Jackson had a go at a more traditional horror storyline: a zombie film. However, his outlandish style and energetic filmmaking took the sub-genre beyond and resulted in one of the most amazing and original zombie films ever made, "Braindead". Released in 1992, "Braindead" (or "Dead Alive" as it was known in the U.S) is a deliriously insane mix of splatter horror and romantic comedy that knows no boundaries when it comes to gore. Peter Jackson's first bloody masterpiece.

Set in Wellington, New Zealand, during the summer of 1957, "Braindead" tells the story of Lionel Cosgrove (Timothy Balme), a young man who has spent most of his life under the oppressive control of his domineering mother Vera (Elizabeth Moody). One day, Lionel meets the shopkeeper's beautiful daughter Paquita (Diana Peñalver), whom is convinced that Lionel is her one true love that the Tarot cards prophesied. Feeling attracted to her, Lionel ends up having a date with her at the Zoo. His mother follows them but she is accidentally bitten by the highly aggressive Sumatran Rat Monkey, a strange creature from the legendary Skull Island. The accident disrupts Lionel's date and, to Vera's pleasure, he decides to take care of his mother's wound. However, her recovery is not exactly successful and the poisonous bite of the creature turns Vera into a flesh-eating zombie. Lionel, determined to take care of his mother, locks her in the basement, but all hell's break loose when she begins to devour their neighbors.

Written by Jackson and regular collaborators Fran Walsh and Stephen Sinclair, "Braindead" is a darkly humorous take on the zombie genre that balances perfectly the slapstick comedy and the splatter horror. Jackson and company have crafted in "Braindead" a highly inventive storyline that keeps getting more and more outlandish as it develops, and yet manages to remain coherent in both its tone and style, without getting ridiculous or tedious (quite a feat given its theme). They certainly never miss a chance to go over-the-top, but the playful, whimsical tone the story allows such excesses. Interestingly, the characters are very well defined, and behind the gallons of blood and the dismembered body parts, there is a well developed complexity in the relationship between Lionel, his mom and Paquita. The core conflict of the film being not just to survive the zombie rampage, but Lionel's fight to be free from his mother. However, the most remarkable thing about "Braindead" is simply how genuinely funny it is.

And a lot of credit for this must go to Jackson's work of direction, which showcases a great comedic timing and a pretty good knowledge of how to develop his plot. While "Braindead" is not the first film to have over-the-top comic-book violence as source of laughs, however, Jackson does it with intelligence, embracing the camp and the absurd outrageousness of the story without taking it too seriously. Bizarre and subversive, yet full of a charming naiveté, "Braindead" is a wild roller-coaster ride of non-stop laughs and gore. Cinematographer Murray Milne showcases a highly dynamic camera-work that truly makes the most of its haunting location: the Cosgroves' old mansion. A lot of credit must go to Richard Taylor (later founder of Weta Workshops) and his special effects team, who create a remarkably outstanding piece of work, specially considering the relatively low budget of the production. The highly imaginative set pieces that Jackson creates would not be the same without the work of both Milne and Taylor.

Regarding the cast, the performances are of great quality, and the actors really make a great job with the screenplay. In his feature film debut, Timothy Balme is great as the shy, and socially awkward Lionel Cosgrove, the unlikely hero of this story. With a everyman look and natural charm, Balme is perfectly believable both as a dedicated son and as zombie killing machine. Balme also displays a terrific talent for slapstick comedy through the film, specially in a scene involving a park and a baby cart. The beautiful Spanish actress Diana Peñalver makes a fitting romantic interest for Lionel, playing the high spirited Paquita with a joy and energy that contrasts nicely with the bumbling character developed by Balme. Elizabeth Moody plays Vera, and she does it with such a great passion and power in her delivery that is difficult not to hate her character. Nevertheless, actors Ian Watkin and Stuart Devenie are definitely the scene stealers of the film; Watkin, as the despicable uncle trying to get Lionel's money, and Devenie, in a small but very memorable scene as the town's priest.

Peter Jackson's "Braindead" has earned a reputation as one of the goriest films of all time. While the movie certainly makes a good argument for the title, what makes the difference between "Braindead" and other gory horror films may be the fact that despite the looks, it's not really gratuitous. It's not gore for gore's sake, but the actual use of guts and blood for slapstick. Like Sam Raimi did in "Evil Dead 2", the gore in excess is taken as another element of absurd in the manner of grand guignol theater. Things that could be labeled as gross, sick or disgusting, become the source of comedy under Jackson's narrative, which seems to be trying to outdo itself in terms of outrageousness each time (and boy it succeeds!). The macabre humor of Peter Jackson may be hard to stomach at first, but in "Braindead" he achieves a balance between mainstream accessibility and his trademark taste for the bizarre. And the most amazing thing is that after all the guts and gore, there's a charming love story that works swiftly hidden beneath the blood.

Years later, Jackson become a well-known name thanks to the strong drama film "Heavenly Creatures" and of course, his magnum opus, the adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy novel "The Lord of the Rings". However, for many horror fans he was already a major talent to follow way before his mainstream breakthrough, being the mastermind behind three splatter cult classics where low budget was in no way a limit for a fertile imagination. Despite being lesser known that "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, "Bad Taste", "Meet the Feebles" and "Braindead" remain an early trilogy of offbeat horror and comedy that still can deliver its good share of laughs, and showcase the rising talent of Peter Jackson. Of the three, "Braindead" is without a doubt, the crowning achievement. And one hell of a bloody crowning achievement!


August 12, 2011

The Secret of Roan Inish (1994)

Selkies, mythological creatures found in Faroese, Icelandic, Irish, and Scottish folklore, perfectly represent how important was the sea for such cultures. Having their origin in Pictish or Celtic myths, selkies are marine shapeshifters, they are seals able to shed their skins to show off their human form. Stories of selkies interacting with humans are common in seaside towns, though often the stories concerning them are romantic tragedies. This is because selkies can only return to their seal form by wearing their skin again, and if they lose it, they are unable of returning home. Given these conditions, their romantic liaisons with humans in the stories are particularly complicated. Rosalie K. Fry's novel, "Secret of the Ron Mor Skerry" is a story dealing with this kind of relationships, as it deals with the selkies legends and their relationship with Scottish seaside towns. With a change of setting to Ireland and the new title of "The Secret of Roan Inish", American filmmaker John Sayles offers his particular vision of the selkie legend.

Set in the 1940s, "The Secret of Roan Inish" is the story of Fiona Coneely (Jeni Courtney), a young girl living with her father in a big city in post-War Ireland. Her father Jim (Dave Duffy) is having a hard time after Fiona's mother died, and is often depressed at pubs. Convinced that this is no life for Fiona, she is sent with her grandparents who live in a seaside town. Living with them, she gets closer to her grandfather Hugh (Mick Lally), who tells her stories about her family's past in Roan Inish, a small island near Donegal which has a strong, mythical link to the Coneely family story: legend says they descend from a beautiful selkie woman. Unfortunately, the Coneelys were forced to evacuate Roan Inish during the War's years, and the island became a reminder of a tragic past, as during the evacuation Fiona's baby brother Jamie (Cillian Byrne) was lost at the sea. Intrigued by all this information, Fiona decides to visit Roan Inish with her grandfather, and in one of those trips, she begins to suspect that her little brother Jamie may still be alive.

Adapted to the screen by director John Sayles himself, "The Secret of Roan Inish" is a family film that works as a fairy tale, with Fiona's attempt to find her brother being the motor of the film. However, it is also a story of rediscovering traditions, with Fiona getting in touch with the life the Coneelys left in Roan Inish. The screenplay is filled with a desire to embrace the past and return to it, as in her adventure to discover her brother's fate she also reconnects with her ancestral land. The stories her grandfather Hugh tells are memories from that mythical past in which the connection with the land and the sea was stronger. Sayles uses the figure of the selkie to symbolize this connection, and Fiona's quest to find her brother becomes also a quest to discover her own identity, lost amidst the sea of time and progress. Built up as a fairy tale, or better said, as a legend, "The Secret of Roan Inish" explores this discovery with a children's point of view, open to fantasy and imbued with a great sense of wonder.

At the helm of "The Secret of Roan Inish", John Sayles opts for a slow pace, a strongly visual narrative and most importantly, a mythical atmosphere, achieving pretty much a feeling akin to that of listening to legends or tall stories. With a remarkable work by cinematographer Haskell Wexler, Sayles captures beautiful images from rural landscapes in County Donegal, Ireland, which contribute to the rich atmosphere of magic and legend the movie has. By exploiting the natural beauty of his location, Sayles brings to life a mythical Ireland in which legends are true. However, all this is done with a restrained, subtle approach that treats its subject matter with great seriousness. While a fantasy film, it's not spectacular; and while a children's film, it's not simplistic. It treats its audience with intelligence, and manages to narrate a children's story without a sense of shallowness or artificiality. However, despite building up a powerful atmosphere of legend, at times this mythical tale fails to engage.

The cast is for the most part good, specially the young ones. As the lead character Fiona, Jeni Courtney is remarkable as the plucky girl full of curiosity and stubborn willpower, set to discover the secrets of her ancestral home. "The Secret of Roan Inish" is completely told from her perspective, and she manages to portray that mix of naiveté and sense of wonder that her character requires. As her grandfather Hugh, Mick Lally amazingly captures the spirit of an oral storyteller, and his narrative of the Roan Inish legends is a great pleasure to listen. Eileen Colgan plays her wife Tess, though her delivery is a tad too hammy and stereotypical for her own good. As Fiona's brother Jamie (seen in flashbacks), Cillian Byrne is quite natural and believable in his delivery, quite a feat for his young age. Perhaps the weakest link would be Fergal McElherron, who plays Jeni's ancestor (also seen in flashbacks) who is saved by a female Selkie (Susan Lynch), whom easily overshadows him with a strongly emotional though silent performance.

In "The Secret of Roan Inish", director John Sayles seems set to capture the sensation of listening to ancient Celtic legends, and for the most part he succeeds, particularly in the several flashbacks that detail the tall tales grandfather Hugh tells to Fiona. The whole atmosphere of myth, the slow pace, the lyric beauty of the images coupled with Mick Lally's pleasant narrative perfectly convey the idealized, romantic view of old Ireland that Sayles (an American of Irish descent) wants the audience to long for. However, this effect is perhaps less successful in Fiona's own adventure, not because of lack of atmosphere, but because of an anti-climatic resolution. Sayle's narrative style is, while slow and restrained, completely appropriate for the kind of children's tale he is telling, treating his young characters with intelligence and developing a mythical tone. The problem is that as the conclusion is reached, the magic and atmosphere are somewhat lost in a quite anti-climatic finale. Its last third, where all loose ends are tied, is surprisingly unengaging.

This doesn't mean it's a bad ending, just a slightly disappointing one. Given its mythical tone, Fiona's adventure could had required a bit more of flavor. However, despite this minor quibble, John Sayles' "The Secret of Roan Inish" succeeds in making a children's film that is neither patronizing nor superficial, and that certainly has appealing for mature audiences as well. A portrait of an Ireland vibrant with magic, "The Secret of Roan Inish" seems to claim for a return to the past, to the purity of origin, and the spiritual connection to the homeland. Since Sayles is of Irish decent, it's not hard to see where he is going, and the visual beauty of his painting of the romantic Irishness he longs for, could pretty much symbolize the romantic homeland we all long for.


August 08, 2011

Irish Destiny (1926)

In 1916, a group of Irish republicans mounted an insurrection with the goal of ending centuries of British rule over Ireland and the creation of an independent Irish Republic. The Easter Rising, as it came to be known, was quickly suppressed but its influence was enormously significant: it became the seed for the declaration of Independence in 1919 and the subsequent war against the United Kingdome of Great Britain. The Irish War of Independence lasted from 1919 to 1922, and resulted in the separation of Ireland from the United Kingdom and the instauration of the Republic of Ireland. Naturally, the Irish War of Independence became an important theme for the arts of the new republic, and cinema was not the exception. While the war took its toll in the nascent Irish film industry, the year of 1926 saw the release of the first film inspired by the war of independence: George Dewhurst's "Irish Destiny". Considered lost for many years, the film was rediscovered in 1991, offering a glimpse of the Republic of Ireland's early years.

With the Irish War of Independence as background, "Irish Destiny" is the tale of Denis O'Hara (Paddy Dunne Cullinan), a young man leading a normal life in a small Irish town. Denis is in love with the Moira Barry (Frances Macnamarra), who is the town's teacher. However, he is also aware of the situation of his country so, when given the chance, Denis decides to join the Irish Republican Army in the war of independence. As a member of a group of Irish Volunteers, Denis fights under the orders of Captain Kelly (Kit O'Malley) against the British Army branch known as the Black & Tans. The discovery of plans for a raid at the IRA headquarters, prompts Captain Kelly to send Denis to Dublin and warn the heads of the movement. So, Denis rushes to Dublin in order to fulfill his mission, but in the meantime, the villainous Gilbert Beecher (Brian Magowan) begins to court Moira. To complicate things, Denis gets shot by the Black & Tans, and ends up wounded at a Dublin's hospital. Everyone at home now believes him death, much to the dismay of his mother (Daisy Campbell) and Moira.

Written and produced by Isaac J. Eppel, "Irish Destiny" is at its core, a pretty basic melodrama of romance and heroism during wartime, designed to exalt the ideals of the war of Independence and the values of Irish people (in which of course rests the Irish destiny). Denis, an everyman representing the promising Irish youth, decides to put duty to his country as his main priority and risks his life and happiness in order to do the right thing. While this may sound like bordering propaganda, Eppel's story never tries to be anything more than a harmless tale of romance and adventure. In fact, this unwillingness to go further is actually a problem of the screenplay of "Irish Destiny", as it feels too archaic, even for its time. Interestingly, the British army is not really demonized, and it could even be argued that they receive a fair treatment. The true villains in Denis' life are actually fellow Irishmen: Beecher and his gang of poteen-makers, whom indifferent to the cause, just take advantage of the situation for their own benefit.

Directed by British filmmaker George Dewhurst (who would direct the very first version of "Sweeney Todd" that same year), "Irish Destiny" is particularly notable because of one single reason: the use of real footage from the burnings of Cork in 1920, and of the Customs House in 1921. While narratively those events are only referred to set the historical time-frame of the film, the images shown work as a time capsule from Dublin during the war, and are of invaluable for historical reasons. Also of great interest are the vistas of Dublin that Dewhurst and cinematographer Joe Rosenthal capture, specially during Denis' arrival to the city: a series of scenes following Denis riding a motorcycle through Dublin's streets, where Trinity College and St. Stephen's Greens can be spotted. Other than that, Dewhurst's film is pretty traditional in its approach to melodrama, and does little to improve its simplistic screenplay. Though there are some interesting ideas scattered through the film, for the most part the narrative is sloppy and static.

Acting in "Irish Destiny" is a mixed bag: though there are pretty good performances in the film, there are some that are not that lucky, and amongst them is unfortunately the one from the film's protagonist, Paddy Dunne Cullinan. As Denis, Cullinan looks wooden and stiff, and his emotional range is pretty limited. While he looks the part of the hero, his acting leaves a lot to be desired, and this severely compromises the film's success. As her love interest, Frances Macnamarra is slightly better, not much of an improvement though she certainly looks more natural than her stiff counterpart. A better performance is the one given by Brian Magowan, as the vicious Beecher. While his role is certainly one-dimensional, Magowan adds a lot of personality to his character with his facial gestures. It's not difficult to buy him as a sly and treacherous fella. In the supporting roles, Kit O'Malley and Evelyn Henchey are remarkably good. Henchey in particular is a much more natural and attractive presence in the film than Macnamarra.

Probably the main problem of "Irish Destiny" is how simple it is, and this is taking into account its release date. While by 1926 silent cinema had reached the peak of its art, George Dewhurst's war melodrama feels as a movie 10 years older than its true age, from a time where cinema's language was still in development. Static and terribly stage-bound, its narrative is pretty conventional to the point of being dull. Though as written above, a lot of the blame must go to the Eppel's screenplay, which follows the pretty basic pattern of American's early adventure films, complete with the last minute rescue. Character development is minimal, as they remain the classic archetypes of adventure films: good looking hero, damsel in distress, and treacherous villain. Perhaps more care while developing the story would had improved the results, as the film is not entirely without redeeming qualities. Unfortunately, those good ideas are lost in a movie that even for 1926 can't help but feeling dated and a tad archaic.

Invaluable as a historical record of Ireland's history, yet marred by an unsophisticated and crude narrative, George Dewhurst's "Irish Destiny" is a difficult film to judge. On one hand it's filled with some amazing shots of 1920s Dublin (not to mention its use of historical footage), yet on the other its stylistic problems are undeniable. In the end, the best recommendation would be to approach this piece of Irish history with an open mind, and expect, perhaps not a classic masterpiece of cinema, but a window to a turning point in the history of Ireland. While as a war melodrama it may fall flat, as a time-capsule and a memory of the city of Dublin, "Irish Destiny" is a magnificent piece of work. For all the movie's flaws, the image of Denis riding through Grafton street in his motorbike has an undeniably haunting beauty.

Watch "Irish Destiny" (1926)