Kill List

Ben Wheatley’s Kill List is a bizarre combination of a hyper-masculine hitman movie, all-too familiar domestic drama and something else entirely different (which would ruin the surprise if I mentioned it).

Kill List begins with Jay (Neil Maskell) having a domestic with his wife Shel (MyAnna Buring). Money is tight and Jay hasn’t worked for eight months due to a possibly non-existent back problem. And their jacuzzi is broken. Jay is also annoyed that Shel has invited his friend Gal (Michael Smiley) round for dinner. This escalates into a number of aggressive arguments, played out in front of their young son, culminating in an incredibly awkward row over dinner. In the aftermath, Gal suggests to Jay that they take on one more lucrative pay-day because, of course, they are hit-men. Strangely, the job has been organized by Shel. Things get even stranger when Gal’s almost catatonic date Fiona scrawls a bizarre symbol onto the back of their bathroom mirror.

The pair get started on the job after meeting with their employer in a run-down seaside hotel. Three targets seems like a simple enough job, but as Jay and Gal pursue them things start to get mighty strange. Why do two of their targets seem reconciled to their fates? What happened on their last job in Kiev? Who is the mysterious Fiona?

Wheatley’s skilled direction gives what could have been a run-of-the-mill hit-man film a terrifying edge. The camera angles are odd and intrusive, the editing is unconventional and the soundtrack is unpleasantly droney. The script, co-written with his wife Amy Jump, brilliantly captures the awkward interchanges between a couple under strain and the odd couple friendship between Jay and Gal.

Kill List is by no means perfect. There are a couple of unexplained plot points and the final stages of the film don’t necessarily make sense. However the film is remarkably intense, brutally violent and darkly funny. Maskell, Buring and Smiley all revel in Wheatley and Jump’s excellent script. The film may not find a massive audience at the cinema (at the time of writing its only showing on four screens in London) but it will undoubtedly feature on many best of year lists and propel Wheatley into the big-time.

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The House of the Devil

In a quite pleasant way The House of the Devil offers few surprises. Director Ti West has crafted a beautiful homage to the countless straight-to-video horror films of the 70s & 80s, and in doing so has stuck religiously to the often hackneyed cornerstones which defined these features. The House of the Devil has it all – beautiful teen babysitter, desolate country house, creepy owner, mother in the attic and satanic rituals. However West skillfully manipulates these elements to create an atmospheric and spookily fun horror flick.

Sick of living with her dirty roommate who frequently has noisy sex in their shared room,  Samantha Hughes (Jocelin Donahue) decides to move out. She finds the perfect apartment and an understanding Landlady (Dee Wallace, star of canine horror film Cujo), but can’t afford the rent. So, being an industrious undergraduate, she decides to do some babysitting to raise some cash and calls the number on one advertisement posted around her strangely deserted campus. Later that night Samantha and her friend arrive at the deserted country house of Mr Ullman, who upon answering the door turns out to be freakishly tall. Uh-oh. He then explains that he doesn’t actually have a child that needs looking after, but rather his elderly Mother who is somewhere upstairs. Double Uh-oh.  You  don’t need to be Kim Newman to see where this is going.

In the hands of a lazy horror director, The House of the Devil could have ended up like many other horror films of its ilk- unimaginative and dull. However West packs the film full of neat flourishes from voyeuristic shots of Samantha to subtle references to the impending lunar eclipse, which luckily enough is best viewed from the town that Samantha lives in! He is also confident enough in his directorial skill to slowly build up the tension to the extent that nothing that scary or horrific happens for almost the first hour. It makes the final 30 minutes, where it all kicks off, far more rewarding.

The House of the Devil only took just over $100,000 at the box office. The film deserved more than that. Ti West is a talented director (even Cabin Fever 2, which West disowned citing massive studio interference, has some nice touches amidst its complete awfulness) who will hopefully carry on making well crafted horror films that actually get seen by a few more people.

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The Skin I Live In

Pedro Almodovar’s latest film is a brilliantly perverted horror tale that will make you think twice about ever going under the knife.

Plastic surgeon Robert Ledgard has developed a new form of synthetic skin. He also keeps the beautiful Vera (Elena Anaya) locked in a room in his mansion, under constant surveillance. His housekeeper Marilla (Marisa Paredes) is aware of this arrangement and seems happy. In fact, everything seems strangely normal until a man dressed as a Tiger (yep!) turns up at the door. Then an act of violence forces everyone to asses their part in this perplexing arrangement.

The act of violence throws up a number of increasingly strange questions: Why is there someone locked in a room? How did she get there? Why does she look like Ledgard’s deceased wife? And what happened to Ledgard’s daughter?

Thankfully Almodovar answers these questions with aplomb as The Skin I Live In skillfully twists and turns it’s way through the increasingly bizarre life of Ledgard and his beautiful house ‘guest’.

Almodovar’s direction is creative and full of colour but with a sterile sheen. It is as if the germ-free environment of Ledgard’s operating theatre has seeped out and taken over Spain. It is a brilliant touch, and suggests that in Ledgard’s world no-one is safe from his scalpel.

The performances are equally clinical. Banderas’ matinee idol looks give his Dr. Frankenstein-esque character an added level of menace, whilst Elena Anaya gives an enjoyably distant performance as someone not quite sure who she is.

With its mixture of confused identities and bizarre body horror, The Skin I Live In reminded me of a cross between David Lynch’s Lost Highway and David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers. Its great fun, nicely creepy and highly original. Recommended.

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Cycle-in Cinema: The Princess Bride

The screen, bikes and a rainbow.

On Sunday a few friends and I braved a typically damp and chilly August evening in London to go to Hackney City Farm to watch The Princess Bride.  However, this was a screening with a difference as it was put on by not-for-profit educational project Magnificent Revolution . Magnificent Revolution aim to create greater awareness of energy usage, power production and climate change by using bicycle powered generators to demonstrate how much energy it takes to power everyday things we take for granted- including the cinema!

It’s a clever idea and a fun way to watch a film. It took twelve bikes to power The Princess Bride, with people constantly swapping. I willingly took my turn, only to be interrupted after a couple of minutes by the young lad who owned the bike and who wanted another go. I couldn’t really tell a small child to go away and not be greedy, so I had to relinquish the bike. At least I tried.

The Princess Bride turned out to be the ideal film for the event- a cult classic that is suitably fun and easy to follow, a positive given the inevitable distractions that occur when cyclists swap over and shortages in power cause the sound to periodically drop out! Next up for Cycle-in Cinema is a screening of the cod-piece-tastic Labyrinth. Thermals might be in order, as it is taking place on the 2nd October. Brrr!

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A while back I watched Ealing Studio’s classic horror film Dead of Night. The film is notable for is portmanteau structure of five spooky tales within a broader, and spookier story. Structurally the film works brilliantly, with the guests of a stately home questioning a man who arrives at the house not knowing how he got there, but sure that he has met every guest before. The man’s ability to predict the comings and goings of the guests gradually convinces each person that something strange is happening, which in turn leads them to reveal their own unexplained story to the group. It’s a real masterpiece and highly influential within the horror genre.

On paper, George A. Romero and Stephen King’s 1982 sleeper hit Creepshow shares much with Dead of Night as it operates within a broad horror frame with shorter films inside of it. Unfortunately Creepshow’s framing story is largely inconsequential, unlike the truly creepy and affecting events in Dead of Night. Creepshow begins with an everyday American lad having his ‘Creepshow’ comic confiscated by his mean and abusive Father. Horrible Dad believes ‘Creepshow’ to be “crap” and a bad influence on his son. In hindsight, abusive Dad is probably right as when the son returns to his room he summons up the ghoulish crypt-keeper from his comic, who invites him on a spooky journey through the stories in ‘Creepshow’. Potentially Spook-tastic!

What follows are five short tales that range from moderately spine-chilling to plain silly, including a zombie pensioner, mutant plants, seaweed Rick James-esqe ghosts, a yeti and someone pretending to be Howard Hughes. These elements sound fun on paper, and on the whole they are. In fact that film is nothing more than fun; there’s very little creep in this show. The film is at its best during its silliest moments- Stephen King makes a surprisingly good yokel in the second film ‘The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill’ and Leslie Nielsen has a great time as a deranged psychopath in ‘Something to Tide You Over’. The film falls flat when it tries to go for the straightforward scares in the other stories because the script just isn’t that scary. This is a shame because there is a lot about Creepshow to like; Its short stories do sometimes capture the reckless fun of a comic book and Romero throws in some nice visual flourishes that remind you of the film’s inspiration (even if it owes an awful lot to Dead of Night). My recommendation: Watch Creepshow and then watch Dead of Night to see a real creepshow.

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Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills

Last week the ‘West Memphis Three’ were released from prison after spending 18 years behind bars for a crime they didn’t commit. In 1994 Jessie Misskelly, Jr., Jason Baldwin and Damian Echols were convicted of the murders of three young boys the previous year. Despite protesting their innocence throughout the trials, the three were eventually convicted, with Misskelly and Baldwin sentenced to life imprisonment and Echols sentenced to death. Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, released in 1996, documents this case.

The film begins with a shock: police footage of the crime scene showing the naked bodies of three young boys left by a river bank. It is a startling and deeply sad image and sets the tone for the rest of the film- shocking event after shocking event.

However the shocks are never as graphic as in the film’s opening minutes. Paradise Lost is largely confined to footage of the trials of the West Memphis Three and the almost farcical nature of the flawed judicial process which led to three teenagers being convicted of an unbelievably savage set of killings. Even though the evidence linking the boys to the murders was minimal and the interview techniques were questionable, the boys were seemingly convicted because of their appearances. All three were in some way outsiders in their town, be it through listening to heavy metal, wearing black clothes or getting into trouble with the police. This played a major part in the prosecution’s case against the three, even with the mounting evidence that they were unconnected with the crime.

At times it seems as if Paradise Lost is nothing more than an incredibly biased version of the West Memphis Three’s trials. The case for the defense is so strong, and the prosecution’s so weak, that you cannot help thinking that the Directors must have left out some key information implicating the boys with the murder. It would be wrong to assume that Paradise Lost is a completely balanced film, but the recent release of Misskelly, Baldwin and Echols vindicates the conviction of those who knew the three to be innocent. Paradise Lost is a brilliant depiction of what happens when the judicial process fails and allows hysteria and moral panic to prevail. It also shows the power of film to push for change- in this case drum up wide support for the West Memphis Three. However, the West Memphis Three’s release also brings with it the obvious problem- the killer of the young boys is still at large.

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Super 8

It would be fair to say that JJ Abrams’ self written and directed film Super 8 is a homage to creature features, adventure films, Steven Spielberg, growing up and film-making itself. To his credit he almost pulls it off in under two hours. Almost.

For the first hour, Super 8 is a perfect and loving synthesis of the above elements. A brief prologue presents the death of protagonist Joe Lamb’s Mother and the subsequent distance between him and his Father. The film then jumps forward four months to the beginning of the Summer vacation as Joe and his group of nerdy friends embark on the ultimate Summer project: the production of a zombie horror movie.  In a few moments Abrams brilliantly captures the sense of anticipation and opportunity that the Summer break brings for all children, which is magnified for Joe after his Mother’s death.

Charles, the film’s director, unhappy with the film’s lack of depth and characterization, constantly changes the script. With the project seemingly in artistic turmoil, the gang are given a sudden lift by the incredible rehearsal performance of new cast member Alice. Her maturity and acting ability bring some of the cast to tears, and as they prepare to film for real at a creepily remote railway station, a massive freight train comes round the bend. Realizing the opportunity to include this in their film, the cast begin recording just as a car drives onto the tracks and causes the train to derail in spectacular and deafening fashion. Something unseen then escapes from one of the transportation carriages. The Air Force then immediately arrive to clean up and the kids escape, later deciding to use the increasingly chaotic scenes in their town as the backdrop for new scenes in their movie. It’s a brilliant first half.

Unfortunately Super 8 isn’t able to live up to the remarkably high standards set in its first half. The focus gradually moves away from the kids and begins to take in the wider town as it struggles to deal with the alien threat. After so carefully developing the dynamic between the friends in the film’s opening, Abrams’ decision to widen the film’s scope to include Government conspiracy plots and the subsequent police investigation into the mysterious creature seemed like a waste. I found that the film’s initial excitement rested completely on how the gang interpreted and acted upon their extreme situation. As teenagers, their inability to fully understand the implications of the alien threat, let alone their own emotions, gave the film a genuine sense of excitement and freshness-it was nice to feel left in the dark about the world beyond the dynamics of the group.  As soon as the adults step in and start to investigate the situation, the innocence and naivety of the film is instantly reduced, making for a far less effective piece of cinema.

That said, Super 8 is still a great film. Even with its imperfections, it is still a far more thoughtful, exciting and touching film that the vast majority of Summer blockbusters. The performances of the young cast are all excellent, the monster is well imagined and the ‘set pieces’ are thrilling and shocking. The film shows great reverence to the blockbusters of yesteryear and JJ Abrams seems like he has the potential to make something truly brilliant (Star Trek aside) in the future.

Also, make sure you hang around for the credits, where the final cut of the kids’ zombie/disaster/horror film is shown in its full glory.

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