Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Interview With Rob Millis, Climax Golden Twins

I recently had the privilege of interviewing Rob Millis – one half of Seattle-based experimental music group Climax Golden Twins – about their work on the soundtrack for Brad Anderson’s creepy psychological horror film, Session 9.

Head over to Paracinema’s online home to check it out.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

The Last Light

Dir. George Clarke

A maintenance man is called on to ensure an old derelict house – formerly a psychiatric hospital, no less - is securely boarded up after a reported break-in. On what is supposed to be his last day on the job, he experiences increasingly chilling occurrences. Initially believing that wayward kids are playing a prank on him, it soon becomes evident that something much more sinister is afoot…

The Last Light is director George Clarke’s third film and follows on from his low/no-budget gore-fests Battle of the Bone, (flesh hungry zombies descend on Belfast during the tumultuous ‘marching season’) and The Knackery (violent reality TV satire featuring genetically modified zombies picking off the contestants of a popular TV game show). In terms of tone and style, it couldn’t be more different and sees the indie filmmaker really mature as a storyteller, and in terms of technical expertise.

A much more atmospheric and creepy affair, his latest film is based on unsettling ‘true-life’ events from the history of his moody location: the reputedly haunted Cairndhu House, County Antrim. While writing the story Clarke visited the house with various mediums and members of the Paranormal Ulster investigative team to try and tease out untold stories from the place. Incorporating their findings into his script, Clarke wanted to recreate events that had taken place in the house. Whether or not you believe in the paranormal, there’s no denying that The Last Light still unravels as a moody, often effective and old fashioned haunted house yarn. Like all good haunted house movies will testify – the location is key and essentially a character in itself. Cairndhu House is rich with faded grandeur and creepy melancholy and is clearly a character Clarke cares deeply for. As locations in low budget horror flicks go – this one is truly convincing – and, if it’s sinister history to be believed – the real deal.

Inside the house events turn claustrophobic very quickly. Clarke utilises the early scenes to create a sense of unease and dread as Rob (Robert Render) explores the formidably dark confines of the house. The slow-burn approach is enhanced by odd and creepy sound effects and subtle glimpses (to begin with anyway) of ‘things’ skulking in the shadows and really toys with our fear of the dark. As atmospheric as it is, the plotting in the first act struggles to muster much momentum (it is essentially just Rob’s exploration of the house), and at times it is perhaps too dark and difficult to see what is happening onscreen. However the pace picks up when Rob’s wife Jo (Jo Lamont-Crawford) and her sister (Vivian Jamison) begin to worry about him and make their way to the house to find him.

Sturdy performances bolster the story in grounded realism. Rob’s wife (Lamont-Crawford, who picked up Best Supporting Actress at this year’s Yellow Fever Film Festival in Belfast) is convincingly sceptical but still reacts with practical hesitancy when she reaches the house. The kooky harbinger-of-doom sister is played with aplomb by Jamison, and as maintenance man Rob, Robert Render essentially carries the film. We see everything through his eyes and Render convinces as the initially happy go-lucky worker going about his daily routine and the eventually ground down, nervous wreck he becomes in the house.

Some breathtaking scenery of the Antrim coast features under the credits and Rob’s car journey there is reminiscent of Jack’s drive to the hotel in The Shining; the uneasy sense of isolation is nicely realised. Shades of sub-genres such as ‘hand held’ horror are swirled into the gloomy mix as Rob sometimes uses the camera on his phone to light his way and navigate through the almost tangible dark. For much of the time we’re plunged into the film seeing things firmly from his perspective, which heightens the tension and sense of foreboding. A couple of nicely timed and effective jump moments cut through the creepy atmosphere to shred at the nerves as we build to the disquieting climax

The Last Light is definitely one to watch alone in the dark on a stormy night.

Read more about the film and how it was made here.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Getting Darker: The Making Of 'The Last Light'

Northern Ireland based writer/director/producer George Clarke specialises in micro-budgeted, high-energy, special effects-driven, kung-fu/zombie mash-up gore-fests that have trail-blazed through independent film festivals around the world. His debut film, the ground-breaking Battle of the Bone, follows a group of friends stuck between warring communities and a horde of marauding zombies on the streets of Belfast during the tumultuous ‘marching season.’ Bloody carnage ensures, naturally. His follow up, the hyper-violent reality TV satire The Knackery, skulked along a similarly gore-drenched trail and boasted genetically modified zombies picking off the contestants of a popular TV game show, sloshing their innards across the screens of primetime telly.

The indie filmmaker is following up these frenetic and blackly comic cult films with a drastic change of pace that should result in an altogether more unsettling affair. His latest film, The Last Light, is based on harrowing true-life events from the history of the reputedly haunted Cairndhu House, County Antrim. If that wasn’t enough, the renegade filmmaker opted to set and film his movie in the very same house.

The Last Light, which stars Robert Render, Jo Lamont-Crawford, Vivian Jamison and Peter Meehan, revolves around a maintenance man who is called on to ensure the derelict house is securely boarded up after a reported break-in. On what is supposed to be his last day on the job, he experiences increasingly chilling occurrences. Initially believing that wayward kids are playing a prank on him, it soon becomes evident that something much more sinister is afoot…

Cairndhu House by day

Entering the house

Prior to filming in February and March this year, Clarke had been waiting 17 years for an opportunity to sneak a peek inside the house. Paranormal Ulster invited him to join them on an investigation of the council-protected Cairndhu House last October and that was all he needed to get the creative juices flowing and the idea for a spook-laden story bloomed. “Although it was pitch black inside, I was able to piece the place together in torchlight,” says the director, explaining the genesis of the story. “As always I started thinking ‘movie.’ Within a few hours, I had the basic storyline laid out, and when I got home, I just started writing.”

Much like Brad Anderson’s darkly disturbing Session 9, Clarke’s latest flick was also inspired by and written for a very specific location. Cairndhu House is situated on the weather-lashed, picturesque Antrim Coast in the very North of Ulster, and has a full-blooded history just screaming to be adapted for film. The building was originally home to Lord and Lady Dixon, before it was given over to the council, who eventually turned it into a hospital. There have been many reports of paranormal activity at the house; a young child in Victorian clothing has been seen in the background of various wedding photographs taken on the grounds of the house, a former security manager at the house made reports of loud banging and a creepy figure has been glimpsed standing at one of the windows, to name but a few ghostly occurrences.

Director George Clarke

A ghostly resident of the house

The house has had a lifelong hold over Clarke, as he explains in typically enthusiastic fashion. “When I was 13 or so, I can remember stumbling across Cairndhu House with my best friend. It was an incredible sight. I have always been drawn to this area, and its neighbouring village Ballygally. Even with all my time spent around the world, this is the place I come back to quickest.”

Another excursion to the house with Paranormal Ulster, along with a medium, afforded Clarke the opportunity to develop the premise for the film. Not just content to use it as a location, Clarke now wanted to incorporate actual events that had taken place in the house into the story. “We returned with a medium, which opened up many new avenues for the story. I took into account what he and the rest of the team were experiencing and came up with an experiment for the film that would involve recreating the sightings and hauntings in the house, filmed in the exact same spot they are said to have happened. Strangely enough, there was one particular part in the story that I had already scripted long before meeting this medium, yet he described the exact event I had written, in the room I had written it for!”

Usually when film productions claim that their set was plagued by strange occurrences - audiences tend to be quite cynical. When the cast and crew of films like The Exorcist and Poltergeist said they experienced ‘odd’ things on set, most assume it was merely a publicity stunt. In the case of The Last Light, the cast and crew are all quite open about the odd things they claimed to have experienced while wandering the dark and lonely hallways of the house. Actress Jo Lamont-Crawford reveals the house had an effect on those who left themselves open to ‘contact’ with whatever still lingered within its damp and sullen walls. “Once in Cairndhu it isn't hard to get into character,” she explains. “The house can be a bit unnerving, especially as you can't even see your own hand in front of your face in some of the rooms. When we arrived in the early morning, it was exciting. When darkness fell though, the mood of the house shifted. It is dark, cold and dusty, and it made me feel apprehensive, as I have experienced certain things throughout life that have formed the basis of my belief in the existence of spirits. Filming in Cairndhu I have seen and felt things that reinforced my beliefs.”

The dead don't like to be disturbed

Clarke and cast

According to Clarke, the darkness in the house provided the perfect setting for things to go bump in. “There is always going to be an argument in these circumstances if something goes bump or something passes the corner of your eye. Not everyone believes, and not everyone is open to seeing with their minds eye what is going on. I do, and can experience these things, and know what I see when it happens. Jo (Lamont-Crawford) and I were in the kitchen area - a place I had previously experienced negative things, and found the character of ‘Alexander’ who appears in our film. After I had explained his past to her and she cursed him for bullying the women staff, she began feeling a pushing sensation on our way out. When she told me to keep walking because she felt someone was behind us, I turned back to look and saw the shadow of a man - at least 6,4 in height, standing over us.
“I think everyone is a sceptic until something truly happens in front of them. I have seen enough from childhood to believe in the spirit world, and I don't expect everyone to be as open. But things do happen to us all and whether or not you take that as something paranormal or not, is up to you.”

Lead actor Robert Render, who has worked with Clarke a number of times before, relished the chance to work in such an atmospheric location. “The house is absolutely awesome,” the actor enthuses. “The first few days here felt really creepy, as it gets so dark in some of the rooms. After I got used to the layout of the house however, it got a lot easier to get around. I was happy to get out of there on the last day of filming though, but I was also sad to leave.”

Clarke and crew

Setting up a shot

What about the fact that the plot revolves around alleged real-life occurrences? Did this have an effect on the cast and crew? “I tried not to focus on the fact that the film may depict true events,” reveals Lamont-Crawford who plays the sceptical sister of Render’s character’s wife. “However I believe that it was because of this that I was driven out of the house one evening by an intimidating presence. That was the one and only time I felt intimidated in the house. The rest of the time I was in my element and I felt a great energy. This tends to go hand in hand with working for George though!”

According to Render, it was quite a physically demanding shoot, but also a rewarding one. “A lot of the floors were so damp and degraded, they would almost give way underneath you, so you had to be alert at all times as to where you were going and where you were stepping. Our safety was always the first priority though, and George would never make us do anything we were not comfortable with. Second priority was not to do any more damage to the house than there already was, so we took great care in that. I think all in all, it was well worth it, and even though I was there during the filming of every scene, I really cannot wait to see the finished movie!”

It is no secret that director Clarke is a huge fan of Asian cinema, particularly kung-fu films and the work of Jackie Chan. His work is also heavily influenced by the likes of George Romero and Lucio Fulci. The Last Light sees him moving away from such blood-spattered and visceral influences to concentrate on creating a quieter mix of chills. Indeed, while the idea of a haunted house film conjures up spectral memories of atmospheric masterpieces such as The Haunting, The Legend of Hell House, The Changeling and The Amityville Horror, Clarke maintains that when it came to writing and filming The Last Light, he tried to keep a clear head and not draw upon such classics. “I tried hard to avoid watching anything that was along the same lines. Movies like Buried, House On Haunted Hill, The Grudge and such like, so I wouldn't get any ideas implanted. I always try to keep it straight from my own head when shooting. One film I did want to better though was Paranormal Activity - yet only for the first half of the movie, with our use of the camera-torch.”

According to Clarke, the change in tone and pace of The Last Light, compared to his earlier films, was also brought about by the location. “I was set on losing the gore side of things. The idea of doing a classic ghost story has always played on my mind. I'm a massive fan of the old Hammer flicks, and horrors from yesteryear, so once I got this location confirmed I knew just what I wanted to do.”

Working with such a low budget, tight schedule and in a potentially dangerous location is nothing new to Clarke, in fat you could say that he thrives on such challenges. “The shoot was a 12 hour a day challenge! Very long, very draining, but a lot of fun! Apart from two days, the rest were spent in the house - pitch black even in daylight. Our only lighting was some lamps powered by a marine battery, torches and an iPad. When we were shooting, Robert’s character uses a torch for a short period of time before moving on to a Zippo lighter and matches; with the flame creating some amazing shots. Any problems that arose, we were lucky enough to overcome them through creativity or just the sheer determination to get it done.”

The Last Light is set to premiere at Clarke’s independent film festival (Yellow Fever Independent Film Festival) in Belfast's Black Box this evening (18th Sept) before being released on DVD.


Dir. Fernando Barredo Luna

The Quintanilla family head back to their old rural farmhouse near Sitges, Spain, for a quiet break during the Easter holiday. Teenage siblings Christian and July set about investigating a local urban legend relating to a series of hauntings and ghostly goings-on in a wooded labyrinth in a gated property beside their house. The pair decides to document their day-to-day investigations on video with the intention of posting the footage online at a later date.

Five days later however, the bodies of the Quintanilla family are found in the house, everyone having died in extremely bloody and mysterious circumstances.

Atrocious is the kids’ film footage presented to us as police evidence revealing the shocking events which took place during those last few tragic days. Despite the connotations its title might suggest - Atrocious is actually far from atrocious. Unfurling as the latest in a recent wave of 'found footage' films in a similar vein to The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, [REC] and so on, it takes its time to build atmosphere and intrigue before letting rip with some very stressful and creepy stuff indeed.

While it doesn’t offer us anything particularly new or groundbreaking, it still succeeds because of some effectively realised moments that take the basic template of the found footage subgenre and slightly subvert it. Taking time to introduce us to the characters (not as annoying as it sounds), director Barredo Luna generates moments of genuine tension and a slow-burning foreboding is evident from the outset. Adding to the sense of realism is the largely improvised dialogue – though at times this consists of the characters describing things we can see for ourselves, or just stating the obvious - and naturalistic performances. Argento fans will also get a kick out of the scene where the kids find some old videos in the basement and decide to watch The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. One of the most understatedly spine-chilling moments comes during the scene when the siblings are discussing local urban legends with their father’s childhood friend. He relays them the tale of the Girl of Garraf Woods - by the fire no less - and just by utilising the power of words (stuff about an old well, the devil and whispering in the darkness…), sets a creepy mood that permeates the rest of the film.

Atrocious is peppered with ominous shots that add to the sense of dread – doors into dark rooms left ajar, the night-vision footage of the gate leading into the labyrinth, an unidentified figure standing stock-still in the woods. The scenes filmed in the labyrinth are also incredibly stressful, even if they do run the risk of becoming quite repetitive. As the sibling’s sense of panic increases they flee through the maze becoming increasingly disorientated – and therefore ensuring that we also become increasingly disorientated. The long, narrow paths, tall dark trees and hedgerows take on a claustrophobic effect and the way in which it is filmed creates the impression that at any moment someone or something could jump out from the darkness where it had been patiently lurking. Testament to the look of the labyrinth, even the scenes set in it during the day are saturated in creepiness; the sun-parched trees and dead plants enhancing the wilted atmosphere of apprehension. The discovery of a spooky well echoes events in Ringu and proves to be just as unsettling.

As with The Shining, Atrocious also conjures uneasiness from within the family unit itself. Christian and July’s parents seem quite distant and there’s some brief discussion of their mother’s apparent nervousness at returning to the old house. The father is also absent for a time which casts some suspicion on him too. Why are the parents so keen for the kids to stay out of the labyrinth? What is the house’s connection with the urban legend the kids become fascinated with? All is eventually revealed in a twisted ending that, while not entirely surprising, is still satisfying and troubling and manages to become more disturbing the more you ponder it.

Atrocious (cert. 15) is released by Revolver Entertainment on 19th September 2011. DVD extras include a “Making of” feature.

Head over to the website to win a camcorder to make your own urban legend movie...

Friday, 16 September 2011

The Dead

Dirs. Howard J Ford and John Ford

When the last evacuation flight out of war-ravaged Africa crashes off the coast, the sole survivor – an American military engineer – teams up with a Ghanaian soldier searching for his son. The pair try to reach the last remaining military airport in an attempt to escape a zombie plague sweeping across the sun-burnished continent – dodging attacks from the hordes of living dead as they go.

Eschewing the usual zombie movie title ('something' of the 'something' dead), the simply, and arguably effectively titled, The Dead adopts a more thoughtful approach to the lumbering genre, and aligns itself more with the likes of Romero than Resident Evil. Despite the ultra-low budget it is filmed in the most breathtaking manner. Opening with a scene that suggests this could be the Laurence of Arabia of zombie films (man emerging slowly from stifling wilderness), the film instantly establishes its quiet, reflective mood. Beautifully photographed and sparse landscapes ensue, imbuing the film with a haunting emptiness – even the majority of zombies seen are lone ones, wandering through the purgatorial landscape.

A frenzied plane full of people attempting to escape the country crashing into the sea early on tricks us into thinking this will be a film about the usual rag-tag group of survivors evading marauding zombie masses on their way to a safe haven. It isn’t. It’s a lone survivor evading marauding zombie masses on his way to a safe haven, enhancing the film’s somewhat downbeat/'losing hope fast' mantra. A number of tensely constructed scenes perforate an otherwise reflective and languid narrative; however events become quite repetitive quite fast – our protagonists encounter the shuffling, savage and starving undead, and must act quickly to survive. The zombie attacks are pretty relentless but due to their frequency, and the way in which the lead characters never seem to be in too much peril, they become a little monotonous. Lots of convenient coincidences help the plot along, but simultaneously strip it of tension in the meantime.

Setting the story and filming in Africa seems to implicate a political subtext that for the most part is quite vague. Striking and effective scenes that could have been lifted wholesale from news footage depict the dead and dying lying by the roadside. The zombies, much like the survivors, are effectively refugees in their own country – nomadically wandering towards an out of reach destination and resolution. One character addresses the situation of warring clans ravaging Africa, by stating that everyone has put aside their differences to face the greater threat. There is brief talk of a new war between the living and the dead.

The Dead has traces of Jacques Tourneur’s moody cult classic I Walked With A Zombie in its almost poetic and atmospheric approach to its subject matter. Pacing is as somnambulant as the walking dead that populate the story, and this would be fine were it not for the tedium that sets in, lumbering the film with a mainly uninspiring second act. Its ponderous pacing and penchant for gorgeous, lingering shots may make it feel more thoughtful than it actually is (it is arguably just a variation of the most basic zombie film structure), but it still intrigues and eventually emerges as a rather thought-provoking and strangely moving meditation on the existential nature of mankind.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Paracinema Issue 13 Now Available To Pre-Order!

It’s hard to believe that Paracinema Magazine has been going for four years now. Four years in which it has consistently delivered thought provoking and increasingly exciting content on cinema that falls firmly outside the mainstream. Within its pages you’ll find passionately written pieces on the likes of blaxploitation films, Italian giallo flicks, cult oddities, extreme Asian sub-genres, horror, exploitation, B-movies and pornography, amongst other lurid and obscure delights.

Issue 13 is now available to pre-order. Amongst the tantalising pieces on offer are the likes of the cover feature Blood Is Thicker Than Fear: Maternal Madness in Horror Cinema by Ashley Avard, Dreams That You Could Never Guess: Bela Lugosi on Poverty Row, 1940-42 by Andreas Stoehr, Censoring the Centipede: How the BBFC are Sewing Our Eyes Shut by Liam Underwood and Teenage Riot: Coming of Age in Modern Cinema by Christian Sellers.

Head over to Paracinema’s online domain and pick yourself up a copy!

And if you like what you see and would like to help Paracinema continue to expand, please think about also picking up a lovingly designed Warriors t-shirt. So, not only do you get an effortlessly cool t-shirt based on an effortlessly cool cult movie – you’ll be helping Paracinema achieve wider distribution. And that, I’m sure you’ll agree, is cool.

Drive-In Movies At The Westport Arts Festival

Established in 1976, Westport Arts Festival is not only one of Ireland’s longest running festivals, but an on-going celebration of the arts in and around Ireland. With over 100 events spanning ten days, this year’s festival represents one of the most ambitious to date. Amongst the array of events at this year’s festival is a drive-in movie event. That’s right; you can watch films from the comfort and safety of your own automobile! A 200-year-old courtyard at Westport House, built by the 2nd Marquess of Sligo no less, will be transformed into a state-of-the-art drive-in movie theatre for a series of screenings of classic movies as part of the Westport Arts Festival.

This year there are ten feature films on show ensuring there will be something for everyone, from the epic western Once Upon a Time in the West to the equally epic science fiction spectacular 2001: A Space Odyssey.

For fright fans there’s the classic terror of Jaws, the ultimate horror summer blockbuster, and the darkly disturbing Dutch psychological thriller Spoorloos, a film that can be described as a genuine horror. Horror fans will also be delighted to know that the Wyatt Hotel will host a screening of the classic silent chiller Nosferatu with musical accompaniment by Aisling Smyth.

For those less inclined to the dark side of cinema, fear not - other titles to be screened at the drive-in cinema include Casablanca, Dirty Dancing, This is Spinal Tap and Harold and Maude.

The Drive-In Movie series runs from Friday, September 23 to Sunday, October 2. All screenings commence at 7.30pm in the Courtyard behind Gracie’s bar at Westport House. Admission is free, but ticketed. Parking spaces costing €20 are optional and may also be reserved online. The film soundtrack will be broadcast on FM radio.

Organised entirely by volunteers, the annual Westport Arts Festival has been a fixture in the Irish arts calendar since 1976, making it one of the longest-running festivals in the country. It has proved itself time and again to be a beacon in Clew Bay for both aspiring and internationally famous artists, performers, writers and musicians, giving them an opportunity to showcase their talents to a passionate West coast audience.

For further information, the low-down on all other festival events and to buy tickets, visit their website.

To keep up with the latest news find it on Facebook and on Twitter.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Wine of the Month: Campo Viejo’s Gran Reserva Rioja

"When the wine goes in, strange things come out" - Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller, The Piccolomini, 1799.

That is certainly true here at Behind the Couch. When the wine goes in, strange things end up in my DVD player – and I don’t mean beer mats. Sometimes the wine you’re savouring dictates what films you crave to watch, and vice versa. Ensuring the wine you’re drinking matches the tone and content of the film you’re about to watch, can make all the difference. FACT.

A recent trip to Granada, Spain, has ensured that many of the films I’ve been watching recently have been accompanied by a beauteous bottle (or two) of Campo Viejo’s Gran Reserva Rioja. I’m a big fan of the Campo Viejo range (yes, I have expensive taste, but wine in Spain is cheap, so I stocked up).

Made from Tempranillo, Graciano and Mazuelo grapes, and a carefully controlled vinification process, this exquisite biddy spends two years in two-thirds French oak casks and the rest in American oak casks. If you think the aging process stops there – stick a cork in it and think again. It then goes on to age gracefully for 36 months in the bottle. Ruby red with aromas of ripe red berry fruit and nuances of wood and spices, it provides a long finish resplendent with sweet tannins and gentle hints of coffee.

Rich and robust, it goes well with mature cheeses and as it’s Spanish, naturally it’s accompaniment with the work of, say, Amando de Ossorio will prove most pleasant indeed. The sophisticated nature of the wine also works well with the likes of the poignant and slow-burning chills of Guillermo De Toro’s Spanish-set The Devil’s Backbone. The likes of Juan Piquer Simón’s trash-fests will only work to jar the palatable nature of this wine though – the likes of Pieces should only be watched after savouring the wine. Not a moment before. The oaky flavours will also work well alongside most backwoods based slasher films, such as Just Before Dawn, Madman, The Final Terror and, of course, many of the Friday the 13th films.