Saturday, 21 March 2015

Devil's Advocates Presents 'Suspiria'

Devil's Advocates is a book series devoted to exploring the classics of horror cinema. Contributors to Devil's Advocates come from the worlds of academia, journalism and fiction, but all have one thing in common: a passion for the horror film and for sharing that passion.

Each instalment delves into a specific horror film, exploring everything from its conception to its impact on genre cinema and wider popular culture. Titles thus far include Let the Right One In by Anne Billson, Witchfinder General by Ian Cooper, SAW by Benjamin Poole, The Descent by James Marriott and Carrie by Neil Mitchell.

Excitingly, a forthcoming addition to the series will peer into Dario Argento’s occult classic, Suspiria. Author Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a visiting fellow at the Institute of Social Research at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia. Her other books include Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study (McFarland, 2011) and Found Footage Horror Films: Fear and the Appearance of Reality (McFarland, 2013). Here’s what Alexandra says about Suspiria and what we can expect from her forthcoming book…

As one of the most globally recognisable instances of 20th century Eurohorror, Dario Argento's Suspiria (1976) is poetic, chaotic, and intriguing. The cult reputation of Argento's baroque nightmare is reflected in the critical praise it continues to receive almost 40 years after its original release, and it appears regularly on lists of the greatest horror films ever. For fans and critics alike, Suspiria is as mesmerising as it is impenetrable: the impact of Argento's notorious disinterest in matters of plot and characterisation combines with Suspiria's aggressive stylistic hyperactivity to render it a movie that needs to be experienced through the body as much as through emotion or the intellect. For its many fans, Suspiria is synonymous with European horror more broadly, and Argento himself is by far the most famous of all the Italian horror directors. If there was any doubt of his status as one of the great horror auteurs, Argento's international reputation was solidified well beyond the realms of cult fandom in the 1990s with retrospectives at both the American Museum of the Moving Image and the British Film Institute. This book considers the complex ways that Argento weaves together light, sound and cinema history to construct one of the most breathtaking horror movies of all time, a film as fascinating as it is ultimately unfathomable.  

You can pre-order a copy here, and keep up to date with Alexandra here. For further information on Devil’s Advocates, go here

Monday, 16 March 2015

Starry Eyes

2014
Kevin Kolsch & Dennis Widmyer

And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” Friedrich Nietzsche

Starry Eyes is a powerful, deeply unsettling rumination on the cost of fame and stardom and the monstrous things desperately ambitious people are prepared to do in order to obtain it.

Unfurling as a blood-dark character study, the narrative follows Sarah (Alexandra Essoe), a young, eager-to-prove-herself Hollywood actress whose encounter with a sinister production company sends her reeling downwards into a harrowing maelstrom of despair, madness, diabolism and body-horror, as she attempts to make her dreams of fame a reality. At any cost.

Head over to Exquisite Terror to read my full review. 

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

13th Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Awards


The Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Award nominations have just been announced. Now in their thirteenth year, the awards honour ‘the best in classic horror research, creativity and film preservation.’ Much to my surprise and delight, I’ve been nominated (for a second time) for an award in the Best Article category. The article, 'Family Man' (a look at Tobe Hooper’s meaty representations of the family unit in all its deadly, dysfunctional and dynamic forms), was published in issue 20 of Diabolique Magazine in March/April, 2014.


If you feel like it, please vote for me. You can vote for as many or as few nominees/categories as you like.

Check out all the nominees here.

Please also consider voting for these fine folks; then just copy and paste the below into an email to taraco@aol.com. Remember to include your name to ensure your vote counts. Polls close at midnight on Sunday 19th April. Good luck, everyone!

11. BEST BOOK OF 2014 - SUBVERSIVE HORROR CINEMA: Countercultural Messages of Films from Frankenstein to the Present, by Jon Towlson (McFarland, softcover, 256 pages, $45). Brings insight and social analysis to films rare and familiar.

12. BEST MAGAZINE OF 2014 - Paracinema

13. BEST ARTICLE (Please select two; one will win) – ‘Family Man’ by James Gracey, DIABOLIQUE #20. How the films of Tobe Hooper disrupted the traditional film family.

Please also consider voting for ‘Lady Impunity’ by Max Weinstein, DIABOLIQUE #22. The blood-filled legacy of the life of Countess Elizabeth Bathory.

15. BEST ALL-AROUND ISSUE – DIABOLIQUE #22: Dark side of feminine horror, from Carmilla to childbirth to Bathory.

17. BEST COVER - DIABOLIQUE #22 by Robert Aragon.

It Follows

2014
Dir. David Robert Mitchell

Like one, that on a lonesome road 
Doth walk in fear and dread, 
And having once turned round, walks on, 
And turns no more his head; 
Because he knows a frightful fiend 
Doth close behind him tread - Samuel Taylor Coleridge

After Jay (Maika Monroe) and her boyfriend have sex, he tells her that he has passed a curse onto her and now something will begin to follow her. And when it catches up with her, it will kill her. Sure enough, she begins to experience an inescapable feeling that someone, or something, is after her…

It Follows is an insidiously creepy, yet beautifully produced shocker, moments of which will haunt you for some time afterwards. Blurring the line between sex and death, it taps into some very dark and primal fears indeed - abandonment, betrayal of loved ones, social ostracism. Most obviously it mines that very specific fear of being pursued so relentlessly by something unknowable, harmful and unreasoning; that unshakable fear that someone or something is creeping up behind you, getting closer and closer, until you can’t resist the urge and must turn and look… It also entrenches itself in the logic of grim and bloody fairy tales in which innocent youngsters are abandoned by parental figures to survive and figure out the ways of the world alone as they’re pursued by unspeakable evils salivating to do them harm.

The atmosphere of slow-mounting dread is evident from the beginning as a panicky opening scene immediately pulls us into the story and forcibly submerges us, breathless with tension, until a shock climax of horrifyingly grotesque imagery reveals what happens when the follower catches up to the followed. We never see what the girl is running from, only that she is terrified enough to run helplessly, half-dressed past her own father on the way to her car in an attempt to escape ‘something’ that gives the impression of being very close. Adding to the odd, ominous feeling throughout is the fact that much of the action takes place in daylight hours, and in places one would expect to find relative safety when being followed by someone or something unknown - buildings bustling with people, bland suburban streets at early dusk as neighbours arrive home from work or take the groceries out of their cars. It's this mix of mundane and otherworldly that imbues It Follows with much of its effectiveness.



Many horror films feature unsettling subtexts regarding sexuality and sexual angst - just look at the sex equals death conservatism of the majority of 80's slashers. This forms the core of It Follows. A sexual act instigates untold terror when a curse is passed between lovers, and there’s a fascinating subtext concerning the dangers of casual sex and STDs and the increasingly harrowing effects they can have in today’s culture of cyber-bullying, sexual assaults going ‘viral’, victim-blaming tabloids and sexual shaming on social media platforms. Mitchell’s script carefully lingers on the moral implications of the situation as Jay agonises over whether or not she can bring herself to pass on her predicament to someone else. Her boyfriend assures her she’ll have no problems doing so as she’s ‘so pretty.’

Underpinning the fairy tale aspects is the almost complete absence of parental figures; Jay’s alcoholic mother is often glimpsed around the house, but she is never shown to engage with her daughters. It isn’t necessarily an unloving relationship they have, as Jay and her sister seem protective of her - they discuss how telling her about certain things is not an option, she just couldn’t handle it. They appear to accept her and her flaws. That her father is only depicted as a figure in a long-ago taken photo suggests that his absence - be it through death or divorce - may be the reason for their mother’s alcoholism. The film is peppered with little subtleties such as this, which makes for a rich and immersive experience. The fractured family unit speaks of how a younger generation has had to grow up fast and learn to survive with little guidance or instruction, with peers substituting for absent parent figures.


Distinct echoes of Cat People (1942) as Jay is menaced in a swimming pool by an unseen presence
Before it’s torn apart and rendered utterly terrifying, writer/director David Robert Mitchell creates a world instantly familiar in its reassuring mundanity, peopled by normal, likeable characters. The screenplay also takes time to concern itself with the romantic entanglements and fluctuating dynamics within the group of teenaged characters, thus helping to put flesh on their bones and urgency in their plight. A strange sadness, perhaps a lamentation of lost childhood, wafts throughout, as adolescent characters face unimaginable horrors just beyond, but oftentimes within their cosy, tree-lined suburban environs, as they emerge into adulthood and experience firsthand its myriad dangers and traumas. There’s something about the autumn that speaks of the malaise of years spent in beige-tinted suburbia, longing for life to begin and stuff to happen. Are we ever ready for when it does?

Mitchell creates a subtle mythology around the otherworldly stalker. We know that only those who are cursed can see it, and that the curse is passed from one individual to another by sexual intercourse. The only way to escape is to pass the curse along to someone else. In an effort to catch up to them, the follower takes on the guise of people its victims know and love, but we never find out what it is, where it came from or even how it came to being. For all we know, it’s an ageless, timeless thing that has just always been following marked individuals across the globe. The influence of Halloween seeps throughout It Follows and like John Carpenter (and indeed the likes of Jacques Tourneur, Val Lewton and Robert Wise before them), Mitchell knows that the less his audience know about this unrelenting pursuer, the more sinister it is, the more power it wields over us and the more terrified the we are of it. HP Lovecraft said it best when he wrote “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”



We glimpse it in various forms - some genuinely unsettling - but the most terrifying thing about it is its sole intention: to violently destroy whoever it is following. Its purposeful, measured pace ratchets up the tension and Mitchell utilises wide angled shots - again reminiscent of John Carpenter’s Halloween - to suggest the presence of something lurking in the shadowy periphery of the screen, watching, steadily approaching. Wraith-like camerawork enhances tension by gliding back and forth between the different viewpoints (and perceptions) of characters, and there’s an uneasy quietness to the composition of many shots. Danger isn’t heralded, it is gradually suggested.

As genuinely terrifying as it is, It Follows is also a film brimming with moments of exquisite, unselfconscious beauty. As mentioned, there are strong visual echoes of John Carpenter’s Halloween, with its quiet, suburban setting resplendent in the forlorn shades of autumn, and of Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, with its ethereal, oddly dreamy atmosphere and frequently sun-dappled cinematography. Even the night scenes are lit with the familiar - and oddly comforting - orange glow of street lights. When things turn horrific and start to encroach upon this setting, the unsettling impact is undeniable. There is frequently striking imagery such as the girl sitting alone on a beach lit by her car headlights and the sprawling mass of blood in the swimming pool. The highly atmospheric score comes courtesy of Disasterpiece (Rich Vreeland) and segues between airy, Tangerine Dream-inspired prettiness, stark electronic drones which chill the back of the neck, and full-on panicked intensity.

A potent and near-perfect modern horror.

Monday, 2 March 2015

Audiodrome: Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer’s abstract sci-fi chiller follows the gruesome exploits of an extraterrestrial predator disguised as a beautiful woman (Scarlett Johansson) who feeds on the lifeforce of unsuspecting men she abducts while driving around Scotland. A provocative rumination on the idea of what it is to be human, the film features a fittingly moody score courtesy of Micachu And The Shapes front-woman, Mica Levi.

The classically trained Levi cites John Cage, strip-club music and euphoric dance as her main influences for this, her first film score. Pulsing between sensual and sinister, her music for Under the Skin creates a chilling sense of space and cosmic vastness.

Head over to Paracinema to read my full appraisal and listen to a track.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

My Bloody Valentine (2009)

Dir. Patrick Lussier

A remake of the classic 1981 slasher of the same name, My Bloody Valentine actually improves upon the original with a decent script, likeable cast (including Jensen Ackles, Jaime King, Kerr Smith and Tom Atkins) and buckets of atmospheric tension. While released well after the post-Scream slasher boom of the late nineties/early noughties, but in the midst of a (still on-going) classic horror remake phase, My Bloody Valentine attempted to set itself apart by filming in 3D - it arguably initiated the current trend of 3D films.

While it boasts irresistible retro-slasher leanings, it doesn't do so in a smug, post-ironic manner; it takes itself seriously and at its core is a decent mystery regarding the killer’s identity. Various red herrings are successfully established and Todd Farmer’s screenplay is mindful enough to examine the effect of the ensuing paranoia and mistrust on the residents of the small town community, vulnerable and isolated as it is. A number of scenes feature graphic violence but only after a satisfying build up of tension. Lussier has evidently applied his skills as an editor (he frequently edits films for Wes Craven) to his direction, as My Bloody Valentine has a number of highly suspenseful chase scenes. Like the original, it makes great use of its claustrophobic mine setting and also renders the work-places and homes of the townspeople unsafe spaces - a particularly effective scene plays out in the local supermarket after dark as two characters are menaced in the aisles by the brutal killer. A number of other set-pieces stand out, including the massacre at the sleazy motel and the scene in which Tom (Ackles) finds himself trapped in a storage cage as the killer closes in.

Like last year’s post-modern sequel to The Town That Dreaded Sundown, My Bloody Valentine takes time to examine the effect of tragedy upon the small town in which the bloody story unfolds. With the reports of the mining accident and the initial murder spree that stemmed from it (depicted during the opening credits) and the threat of the mine shutting down with the return to the town of its deceased owner’s son Tom, the screenplay touches on the plight of communities which rely on coal mining as their main economy. Interestingly, 2009 (the year the film was released) saw a massive fall in the production and exportation of coal in the US. Farmer’s screenplay depicts the dangerous conditions faced by coal miners on a daily basis and how working in such potentially volatile conditions can effect their health and mental well-being. Don't you just love slashers with social commentary? The strange sadness often inherent in small towns is also evoked, countered by a strong sense of place and community, and certain characters ruminate on past regrets (such as never having lived anywhere else), while Tom struggles to regain the trust of his community after leaving the town years prior in the midst of tragic circumstances. The result of this means we actually care for the characters, which works to up the tension when they come under threat. The varying dynamics between the characters portrayed by Ackles, King and Smith are particularly engrossing. Their shared history, which is of course complex, really works to flesh them out.

My Bloody Valentine is one of the better horror remakes of recent times, though for some reason it is always unjustly overlooked. With its small town setting, formidable antagonist, careful characterisation and frequently creepy atmosphere, it’s an effective update of the classic slasher film formula.

My Bloody Valentine (1981)

Dir. George Mihalka

Slasher films typically feature a cast of teenaged characters cavorting in an isolated location and falling victim to a (usually) masked psychopath brandishing various sharp implements. The teens are systematically picked off until only one (usually) female character is left. She’s nearly always someone who abstains from indulging in drugs, alcohol and pre-marital sex - unlike her peers - and must use her resourcefulness to defeat the killer. Highly conservative in their morality, slashers feature a sex equals death formula, with killers avenging past misdeeds committed against them or someone close to them, and sating their bloodlust by offing copulating couples. For hardened horror fans such as myself, they offer a strange sense of comfort due to their familiar structure and conventions, which rarely change from title to title. Of course, it’s always great when a slasher deviates from the rigid formula, but as long as there’s tension, atmosphere and a suitably menacing antagonist, one usually knows what to expect.

Not all slasher films feature horny, drunken, pot-tokin' teens however. Some also feature horny, drunken, pot-tokin' adults, too. My Bloody Valentine is one such slasher - and also one of the better slashers released in the early eighties after the success of Halloween. It features a cast of hard-working, hard-partying small town miners and their girlfriends who fall victim to a psychotic killer decked out in full mining garb. After a Valentine’s Day party, the revellers decide to take their girlfriends on a tour of the mines, unaware of the imposing figure who skulks after them. Combining tension, spooky atmospherics and fair-enough attempts to flesh out paper thin characters, My Bloody Valentine is classic, good-ole fashioned slasher goodness, with a lot of heart. Sorry, couldn’t resist.

Once the surprisingly detailed back-story has been established and the main characters introduced, John Beaird’s screenplay briefly explores their dynamics, singling out several red-herrings, and effectively establishes the small town setting. Tension builds slowly but surely and the scenes that take place in the mines are unsettlingly claustrophobic. A particularly unnerving chase scene culminates in the locker rooms of the mining facility, with an unfortunate victim terrorised as mining overalls and gas masks drop from the ceiling around her before she’s eventually cornered and killed by the pick-axe wielding brute. Even more disturbing are the scenes in which the killer is glimpsed stalking around the quiet town at night...

My Bloody Valentine was heavily edited upon release - Paramount were still reeling from the critical backlash of Friday the 13th and insisted that the violence be toned down. The myriad cuts result in slightly uneven pacing, and strip the film of many of its gruesome delights. A recent special edition release has reinstated these cuts, ensuring My Bloody Valentine’s status as a classic 80s slasher remains intact. While it isn’t particularly original in terms of its plot or execution, it has withstood the test of time and emerged as one of the stronger slasher flicks of this time, thanks mainly to its creepy atmosphere, taut suspense and terrifying killer.

Friday, 13 February 2015

Happy Friday the 13th!

Stay out of those woods... "We ain't gonna stand for any weirdness out here!"