Monday, 26 March 2012

Burrishoole Abbey

As mentioned in my post about Abney Park Cemetery, I like wandering around graveyards – the older the better - and taking photos. I’ve been staying outside Newport, County Mayo with friends for the last few days, and much to my morbid delight was able to visit the ruins of Burrishoole Abbey and the cemetery that surrounds it. Situated upon a sheltered shore just outside the town, the abbey was founded in 1470 by Richard de Burgo of Turlough - Lord MacWilliam Oughter - and apparently built without the permission of the Pope. In 1793 the roof of the abbey collapsed and because almost all the friaries and abbeys across Ireland were suppressed in the wake of the Reformation in the 16th century, it was never rebuilt. All that remains today is the rather gothic looking church and the eastern wall of the cloister, while the grounds are still used as a cemetery.

The close proximity of the cemetery to the sea and the eerie atmosphere such combined imagery evokes, really reminded me of the setting for The Woman in Black (1989). Being the horror aficionado that I am, I tried to find out if there were any reported hauntings or spooky tales about the place, but sadly these proved elusive. I did however read a gruesome story about the brutal deaths of several nuns at the hands of British soldiers in the vicinity of the abbey.

In 1563, Sister Honoria De Burgo (Nora Burke) daughter of Richard an Ierain (Iron Dick) – the second husband of pirate queen Grace Ó Malley (Granuaile) – built a small convent close to the abbey where she lived with her fellow sisters. Around 1580 she and the other sisters fled from marauding British soldiers and sought sanctuary in the mountains. When they thought it safe to return to the convent, they were seized by the soldiers, stripped, beaten to death and their bodies thrown into a boat. One of the sisters, Magaen, managed to escape, and when she reached the shore she hid in the forest. Seeking refuge inside a hollow tree, she was found dead the following day and eventually buried alongside her sisters. Perhaps they still wander the grounds of the abbey and the surrounding shore?

Here are a few photos of the place for your enjoyment.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Audiodrome #6: Blood & Black Lace

The latest instalment of Audiodrome: Music in Film is now up over at This month I check out Carlo Rustichelli’s rather swanky and often spooky score for Mario Bava’s ravishing giallo blueprint, Blood & Black Lace (1964); AKA Sei donne per l'assassino (6 Women for the Murderer). Infused with the sultry rhythms of the tango, Rustichelli’s music highlights the more sensual aspects of Bava’s lurid film about a sadistic killer preying upon the models of an elite fashion house.

Skip on over to Paracinema to read it and listen to a track, and let’s chat about Rustichelli, Bava and giallo soundtracks!

While you’re there, why not think about ordering yourself a copy of the brand-spanking-new issue of Paracinema Magazine. With articles such as When Life Gives You Razor Blades: Bloody Vengeance in Hobo with a Shotgun by Christine Makepeace; Revenge is a Dish Best Served Raw and Wriggling: Park Chan-Wook’s Vengeance Trilogy by Samm Deighan; Going Back Home: Post-Vietnam Masculinity in Rolling Thunder by Adam Blomquist and Chainsawing Well is the Best Revenge: Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2‘s Texas Sized Vengeance by Zachary Kelley, this issue’s focus is purely on the theme of revenge in genre cinema.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

'Shadow' Director to "Give New Blood to the Giallo"

Italian rock musician turned horror director Federico Zampaglione’s eagerly-awaited third feature, Tulpa, has just gone into production. Zampaglione should be familiar to fans of Italian horror as the director of Shadow (2009), a film that was hailed as a true return to form for Italian horror – an aspect of that country’s already rapidly dwindling cinematic output, long thought to have exhaled its last breath with Michele Soavi’s ravishing Dellamorte Dellamore (1994). Tulpa, should please fans of Argento, Bava, Martino et al as it’s been described as a “neo-giallo with strong psycho-sexual tones and scenes of extreme violence.” The film's production company has released these stills, from which we can see just how much of a vintage giallo feel Zampaglione is aiming for...

The story revolves around Lisa Boeri, (portrayed by the director’s partner Claudia Gerini), a respectable and upwardly mobile businesswoman by day, who frequents the notorious sex club ‘Tulpa’ by night in search of ‘dangerous forms of pleasure.’ When her various lovers are brutally murdered, she attempts to evade public scandal and is plunged into an increasingly nightmarish web of paranoia, bloodshed and shadowy psychosis. Gerini has said that this is “the most challenging and controversial role of my career.”

Currently in its second week of production in Rome, Tulpa is based on a story by genre veteran Dardano Sacchetti, who has scripted some of the most distinctive – and infamous – Italian horror films. His work includes Cat O' Nine Tails (1971), Bay of Blood (1971), Shock (1977) Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979) City of the Living Dead (1980) The Beyond (1981), The House by the Cemetery (1981), The New York Ripper (1982), A Blade in the Dark (1983), Demons (1985), Demons 2 (1986), and The Church (1989), among many others. Quite a list, isn’t it?

Zampaglione's 'Shadow' exudes a creepy gothic atmosphere
'Shadow' recalls the moody looking work of Michele Soavi
Federico Zampaglione has drawn comparisons with the likes of Rob Zombie in his native Italy; his work in music and film drawing from the same adoration of the horror genre as Zombie’s. His debut film Nero bifamiliare (2007) was a noir-tinged and darkly comedic domestic drama about a couple's new life in the country coming under threat by their mysterious neighbours. His second feature Shadow (2009) however was the one that put him on the horror map, marking him as a director whose influences stem strongly from Italy’s rich genre cinema, and it drew comparisons with the work of Dario Argento and Michele Soavi. The director has commented on his latest venture, revealing: “I’m very excited to start shooting Tulpa, but I’m aware it’s a very difficult film to make. I need to maintain a constant creepy and oppressive atmosphere, and the violence is actually very, very graphic. I have to prove myself. It’s a real challenge, but I’ll do my best to give new blood to the Italian Giallo.”

A seven-minute teaser clip of Tulpa was recently shown at FrightFest Glasgow, and was apparently greeted with enthusiastic applause. With the lurid promise of this feature, coupled with the success of Shadow, the pressure is certainly on for Zampaglione. Can he pick up where Michele Soavi and arguably Dario Argento left off in his attempts to breathe new life into Italian horror cinema? I for one can’t wait to find out!

There has been a number of interesting genre films of late that have worn their Italo-horror influences with dazzling pride. The likes of Julia’s Eyes (2010) and Amer (2009), while not strictly speaking actual gialli, certainly acknowledged their dept to the likes of Argento and Bava, with Amer – a twisted tale of sexual awakening - actually emerging as a loving homage to the visual language of the giallo. With directors such as these and Zampaglione, here’s hoping Italian horror is set for a long overdue resurgence.

You can read my interview with the makers of Amer here.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Interview with Reg Traviss - Director of Psychosis

Reg Traviss and Charisma Carpenter
Director Reg Traviss’s horror debut Psychosis is an old-fashioned feeling film that possesses many of the traits which made many old British horror films so distinctive and unsettling. The twisted tale of an American writer (played by Charisma Carpenter) spending time in a sprawling house in the English countryside while recovering from a nervous breakdown, it evokes an off-kilter and edgy sensibility reminiscent of the Hammer House of Horror/Tales of the Unexpected era of British chillers. Is something sinister and supernatural afoot in the house, or could the bloody events be figments of a fractured mind? Given that many of the films I’ve reviewed this month have featured characters with ambiguous psychological profiles further unhinged by spooky houses, I thought it might be appropriate to post this interview with the director of Psychosis; which I conducted back in 2010.*

Psychosis is your first horror film. What made you want to make a horror film?

I’ve always liked horror films. An American Werewolf in London was one of my favourite films for years. In particular though, I used to love the Hammer Horror films and the Hammer House of Horror TV films which were on during the 80s. I always wanted to make a horror film and recreate something which people felt struck a chord in terms of style and genre. I suppose I also wanted to bring something to the fans of horror, hopefully something that is a little different to most contemporary films.

Where did the idea for Psychosis come from? 

It was originally a short story called Dream House, written in 1974 by Michael Armstrong, the writer director behind British horror classics such as The Haunted House of Horror (1969) and Mark of the Devil (1970). The story was made into a short film in 1980, back when cinemas would run B-Movies before or a after a main feature. I saw it in about 1984 when I was about seven years old. It had been cut-in alongside three other shorts and a wraparound story which then formed an anthology horror movie called Screamtime (1983). The story had always stuck with me, as among other things, such as the atmosphere, I just really loved the twist. We approached Michael and obtained an option on his original story. I then went about adapting it.

The genesis of 'Psychosis'
How did you tackle the adaptation? Did it change much in the page to screen process?

The film resembles the final draft of the script very closely. Nothing changed really other than scenes being cut during the film edit, as is normally the case. I wanted to take Michael’s original story – the twist and premise mostly – and turn it into something new, but with nods to the genre. Really I only kept the initial premise and the twist, although I did create a kind of double twist too. I wrote several new subplots, several main supporting characters and generally changed quite a lot, including the main character.

How have you attempted to bring a fresh twist to the ‘haunted house’ tale?

I think the fresh twist to the ‘haunted house’ tale was always there in the original, which was why I always liked it. It was different to the rest but still simple. It was my intention to keep that simple sensibility which many British horrors and thrillers had back in the 70s, which relied on suspense and clever trickery and then I brought to it several intricate layers, possible red-herrings, to compliment the simplicity of the twist and make it appetising for a modern audience. I like the audience to think, and I think audiences like that too.

Obviously the location of the house is important to the story – what drew you to shoot in this particular house?

I actually based the house in the script around the real house. The house in the original story from 1974 was just a suburban detached house. My girlfriend, who was the film’s costume designer, and I were invited to spend a weekend in the country house of some friends. The weekend had echoes of a Hammer House or Tales of the Unexpected too - other guests included a psychic and an astrologer. Over dinner on the first night I told them about this idea for a film I had and they said I should look at Shapwick House, which was the old manor in the nearby village. I thought it was perfect. The house has a history of hauntings and exorcisms. A witch was also burned there hundreds of years ago. The oldest part of the house dates back to 1492 and it’s very isolated. I wrote my adaptation of the story around the house and we went about arranging the permission with the current owner.

Shapwick House
Any spooky occurrences while you were there?

There were various reports of bumps-in-the-night while we were there. Also, one afternoon the clapper-loader took his daily call from the lab back in London. They told him that the previous day’s rushes were good, although there was an over-exposed person in the back ground of one of the takes. I never saw it personally in the end, but that’s what happened.

How did you go about involving Charisma Carpenter? What do you think she brings to the role that another actress couldn’t?

I knew that whoever was going to play Susan was going to have to be very good indeed and would need to have an in depth understanding of the character and story, and of course the ability and experience to implement it. We had considered and screen-tested about half a dozen actresses. I think Charisma understood the story and character of Susan really well, and also we both clicked  and have since become good friends. Susan’s character and journey is a complex one and Charisma and I talked for hours on end before she got the job. She had a lot of ideas and suggestions which made me know instinctively that she was the person for the role – no question at all – she just knew the character, and knew how that character would behave and react. I was aware of Charisma’s previous work and so was also convinced that she could pull it off creatively on screen. Also, on a smaller note, I quite liked the fact that she is part of the tradition of cult US horror. That felt like a good mix to me, being that my treatment for Psychosis was that it would be reminiscent of UK cult horror. We have this American character finding herself in this creepy English setting – so it seemed right to cast an American actress. Charisma brought a lot to this film.

Reg Traviss and Charisma Carpenter on set
What can this film offer viewers that other contemporary horror films cannot?

I think it offers viewers a contemporary film which has definite echoes of Tales of the Unexpected and Hammer House of Horror and all of those off-the wall British horrors and psychological thrillers of the late 60s through to the early 80s. But the style and homage aspects are not forced upon the viewer. It’s not a genre-piece; it’s just set within that kind of 'reality.' I think Psychosis offers all of this to the viewer; it’s almost like an appreciation of weird, creepy Englishness, but as a contemporary, serious horror movie. The story is very layered and it’s not predictable, especially not the twist. It offers a lot of questions and in a lot of ways the audience can interpret much of the film in different ways, which I think is good.

Films such as The Haunting and The Innocents relied on suggestiveness and ambiguity to illicit shivers from the audience. How have you approached the subject matter in Psychosis?

I approached Psychosis in a similar way using ambiguity for the most part, but decided from the outset to have bursts of violence also. So it’s a combination of the two, and I felt that this contrast was important as it mirrored the main character’s state of mind and her surreal journey. The suddenness of the violence following periods of suggestiveness was crucial really, not simply to make the audience jump but because it was integral to the story.

The Innocents (1961)
The idea of a character experiencing supposed supernatural encounters while those around her believe she is losing her mind has been tackled before in various horror movies. How have you approached this subject? How do you explore it in new ways? 

That’s a tricky one to answer without giving away the twist. I suppose the main way that I approached this idea was that there is very little supernatural going on around her and although much of that may appear to be supernatural, it isn’t, and I avoided conning the audience. The answers and clues are all there – hopefully though most people will only realise that either at the end of the film or hopefully during their second viewing.

*This interview, which appears in its entirety here, was part of a feature I wrote for Gorezone Magazine, when I still contributed to it (for my sins) back in 2010. The final piece used only excerpts of this interview and appeared in issue 58.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

The Woman in Black (2012)

Dir. James Watkins

A young lawyer travels to a remote village to conduct an inventory of a deceased client’s possessions. He gradually realises that the dead client is connected to a sinister spectral woman – the sight of whom preludes the death of a child - that is terrorizing the local population.

The Woman in Black is an exercise in slow burning horror, and the narrative unfolds with a degree of odiousness and suggestion appropriate for such a traditional ghost tale. From the outset, grief is the overarching theme that binds the story together in this version of Susan Hill’s classic chiller. From the genuinely unsettling opening scene - depicting the suicide of three young girls as they leap from the window of their nursery, accompanied by the sound of their mother’s screaming – to the protagonist’s sustained anguish at the death of his wife; the notion of grief as an escapable snare hangs heavy over proceedings. The film unravels as a spooky and, for the most part, highly effective throwback to the gothic heydays of Hammer Horror. As this take is also obviously designed for the contemporary multiplex crowd, it is laced with jump moments, but they never seem contrived, and they enhance the ‘old school’ ghost-ride feel. Whereas the original film elicited icy spine-chilliness by revealing the eponymous character in open spaces during daylight hours (the juxtaposition of which proving incredibly effective), Watkins' take relegates her firmly to the shadows for the most part; we catch brief, corner-of-the-eye glimpses of her here and there, usually through fairly subtle use of CGI, which isn’t as tacky as it sounds. She’s usually reflected in or appears outside of a window, or seen lingering on the periphery of the screen.

For the most part Jane Goldman’s screenplay sticks closely to the source material, and indeed the original adaptation, however much less time is spent on the story before it moves into the creepy confines of the house. That said, the plot which unfolds in this update is much more detailed and throws up frequent surprises for those already familiar with the story. It arguably even develops certain aspects of the original such as the sinister connection of the titular woman to the deaths of children in the local area. Beginning with quiet moodiness and gradually cranking up the tension, The Woman in Black eventually hurtles towards its climax as a race against time ensues to try and break the curse that enshrouds the house and its surrounding land. A major departure that helps to build suspense occurs when Arthur wades out into the marsh to retrieve a body in an effort to provide peace for a tortured soul. This scene exudes a claustrophobic immediacy and provides some powerful imagery.

Due to the generous budget, Watkins is able to effectively convey the isolation of Eel Marsh house with expansive shots of the causeway that leads to it. The house itself appears as a throwback to prior Hammer abodes, perched atop a craggy island and engulfed by mist. Whereas the house in Herbert Wise’s Nigel Kneale-scripted version was a much less gothic locale due to its modernist use of electricity, enhancing it with a unique atmosphere all of its own; the house in Watkins’ film is somewhere the Prince of Darkness himself wouldn’t seem out of place.

As Arthur Kipps, Daniel Radcliffe has to carry the film, and he does an admirable job. Due to his character’s circumstances he carries the weight of the world on his shoulders and Radcliffe aptly conveys Kipps’ sense of loss and sadness before his life is thrown into turmoil by the creepy encounters in the story and he’s terrified almost to the brink of insanity. While the bittersweet ending is a much ‘happier’ one than the original, it works perfectly well within the context of this particular adaptation and its overt melancholy romanticism; however it also highlights just how shocking, and daring, the ending of the 1989 version is. The Woman in Black offers a refreshing throwback to gothic chillers of yore for those who have grown tired of, well, whatever current horror fad stalks the local multiplex. Like many great ghost tales, it provides not only chills and thrills, but something of an emotional impact, too.

Monday, 12 March 2012

The Haunting

Dir. Robert Wise

A parapsychologist seeking proof of the existence of the supernatural invites a select group of people to join him at the reputedly haunted Hill House. Once there, the group experience sinister events that not only threaten their sanity, but their very lives… Are these occurrences the result of a genuine haunting, or are they conjured by the unstable mind of one of the guests?

Director Robert Wise was a protégé of Val Lewton’s in the 1940s, and made his directorial debut on Lewton’s production of Mademoiselle Fifi, before working on the moody horror films Curse of the Cat People and The Body Snatcher. Shortly after he filmed West Side Story, Wise thought it high time he paid tribute to the man who gave him his start in the film business. In Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, Wise found the perfect blend of understated horror and icy atmospherics with which to pay homage to the distinctive low key, suggestive approach to horror utilised by Lewton. The horror throughout The Haunting is conjured by masterful subtlety instilled in Wise by his former teacher. Strange noises emanating from within the house, off-kilter camera angles to enhance the strange atmosphere and crisp black and white cinematography, courtesy of Davis Boulton, that accentuates every shadow, all combine to chilling effect throughout.

Like in most classic haunted house films, the imposing house in this film is also a character in its own right. Throughout the screenplay various conversations and dialogue between characters work to personify the house – Eleanor (Julie Harris) whispers lines such as “It’s staring at me” and “It’s waiting for me”, while the opening narration explains that the house was “born bad.” It also has a rich history which adds to its formidable reputation – madness, suicide and mysterious deaths have plagued its inhabitants. Odd camera angles suggest something is always present and watching the guests, particularly Eleanor, and the use of creepy sound effects elicits moody suspense. The interior of the house is incredibly atmospheric; long dark hallways and giant rooms seem to swallow up the people who wander through them. That Wise decided to film The Haunting in black and white during a time when colour was very much in vogue, really adds to its striking look.

The dead are not quiet in Hill House.”

The group, with the exception of Luke (Russ Tamblyn) – who is set to inherit the house - were chosen because they all experienced supernatural occurrences and exhibit strange psychic tendencies; Theo (Claire Bloom) has ESP, while Eleanor was spooked by a violent poltergeist when she was a young girl: an event she is still in denial of. Time is spent developing the characters and exploring group dynamics before proceedings plunge into outright terror. To begin with, the group, with the exception of Dr Markway (Richard Johnson), are sceptical about the reputed haunting of the house. Markway utilises a scientific approach to his investigation which results in rational explanations offered for the weird occurrences which abound within the walls of Hill House; though he does warn that a closed mind is the worst form of defence against the supernatural. They suggest that as the building is made up of weird angles, doors are hung off centre so appear to close when no one is looking, and draughts contribute to the odd cold spots felt in various rooms and hallways. Dialogue is used to evoke a sense of foreboding too, as talk of phantom dogs, ghostly muttering in the night and the suggestion that whatever stalks throughout the house is actively trying to separate the group, adds to the ominous tone.

The Haunting unravels not just as a haunted house yarn, but a detailed character study. Eleanor is a fascinating, wonderfully layered character. In any other film, she’d be the hysterical, nervous wreck like Barbara in Night of the Living Dead or Veronica Cartwright in Alien. As she is our way into the story and we’re privy to her thoughts, she’s immediately signalled as the protagonist; and a compelling, unconventional one at that. While she is obviously fraught, over emotional and easily unnerved, she is also strong willed. Eleanor has spent her adult life caring for her ill mother and has led a repressed, sheltered existence, longing for independence. This repression extends to her sexuality, and we learn that when she was young, she was plagued by a poltergeist. Given her pubescent age when this happened, the possible haunting becomes bound up in notions of traumatic sexual awakening, much like it did in The Exorcist and Poltergeist, with the onset of puberty and eventual sexual repression connected to the sinister occurrences. Internal monologue sheds more light on what makes her tick. She is uptight and neurotic, but she knows it and it fuels her need for acceptance. Her fondness for Dr Markway resembles a student-professor crush, highlighting her adolescent naivety. It’s interesting that when she realises he is married, things take a turn for the worse in the house, and her hope of a fresh start drastically dims.

Eleanor’s relationship with Theo is also an interesting one, and provides the film with yet another suggestive facet open to interpretation. The conversations between the two women, and Theo’s apparent jealousy of Eleanor’s childish crush on Dr Markway, understatedly suggest Theo’s lesbianism. As these exchanges are so understated, they’re arguably open to interpretation, but they provide the characters with so much depth and nuance. In any other film, the self-assured and liberated Theo might eventually end up in bed with man-about-town Luke. Not so in The Haunting.

Wise’s distinctly Lewtonesque approach results in various ambiguities, such as whether or not the haunting is paranormal, or psychological. Far from detracting from the impact of the goose bump-inducing horror conjured in later scenes, this ambiguity adds to the complexity of the film. A number of moments exemplify Wise’s subtle approach to spine-chilling effect, such as the scene that follows Nell and Theo’s decision to share a room as they were spooked by loud noises the night before. During the night, Eleanor awakens to hear what sounds like a child being severely reprimanded by a booming voice in the next room. Terrified, she insists that Theo holds her hand, and as the noises continue and moonlight on patterned wallpaper creates demonic faces, Nell realises that it isn’t Theo holding her hand… What is perhaps the most memorable moment, and one that certainly seems to crush any remaining ambiguity, comes when the four are huddled in the study, taking it in turns to stay awake and keep watch, only to be tormented by a presence that thunders down the hallway outside and pushes up against the door trying to get at them. The shots of the door buckling under the weight of some unseen, ghastly force are effectively realised and unforgettable, and the ear-splitting sound effects become pulse-pounding. Little details scattered throughout the mise-en-scene add to the uneasy atmosphere such as the ‘suffer the children’ mural on the wall of the nursery and the Byron-esque sketches of demons and tortured souls in a child’s book. At one point, Eleanor even looks like the statue we see in the greenhouse earlier when she falls asleep kneeling at the couch Theo is sleeping on.

The Haunting is a masterfully constructed chiller that still retains its power to unsettle. The initially quiet, unassuming approach Wise utilises to create slow-burning tension eventually gives way to an all out, yet still credible and affecting, assault on the senses. A shining example of the ‘less is more’ approach to horror, and one to watch alone with the lights off…

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Red State

Dir. Kevin Smith

When three teenage friends answer an online invitation for sex, they are kidnapped by a sinister fundamentalist Christian group who plan on punishing them, Old Testament style, for their sexual ‘deviancy.’

The prospect of Kevin Smith addressing the extremes of fundamentalist Christianity through the conventions of horror cinema is, for this writer anyway, an utterly irresistible one. Smith already addressed the extremity of organised religion in Dogma, which, while rather plodding and uneven, was still an interesting departure for the director, famed for his lo-fi slacker-driven stories. While Red State may be a different beast entirely, it also sadly slides into unevenness as the plot eventually crumbles under weighty speeches and a limp, exposition-heavy finale. Differing from the usual religious horror, the threat in Red State comes not from Satan or the occult, but from fundamentalist God-fearers who believe their faith entitles them to carry out atrocities against humanity in the name of God. Inspired by the downright abhorrent, unsavoury and homophobic Westboro Baptist church, Smith’s film has so much promise, and while he does attempt to address heated topics such as the picketing of gay funerals by religious extremists and the indoctrination of the young into what is essentially a religious cult, his first foray into horror sadly runs out of ammunition before trundling into a half-hearted and underdeveloped slump. This could have been such a powerful film about the extremes of fundamentalist Christianity and an exploration of the frighteningly real attitudes of a dangerous minority. Instead it just unravels to deliver increasing disappointment.

It is essentially a film of two parts. The first is a genuinely taut and distressing horror narrative inspired by religious extremism and filtered through torture porn aesthetics. The three teens who find themselves abducted by the bible bashing right-wingers are somewhat typical slasher types with no real substance; the only characterisation afforded them is their keenness to get laid. This is surprising given Smith’s penchant for creating usually quite three dimensional characters with pointed opinions and biting wit. When their lives are endangered however, we root for them on a purely human level and because their captors are utterly unreasonable and deluded by their beliefs. The scene in which one of the teens awakens from drug-induced unconsciousness, bound up in a cage and being wheeled into a fiery homosexual-condemning sermon conducted by the Fred Phelps-inspired Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), is expertly constructed, as queasy tension steadily smoulders towards bloody ignition. With surprising subtlety our attention is drawn to the figure standing under a white sheet in front of a huge cross. A little like that scene in Audition, we gradually realise that someone is under the sheet. Feebly struggling. Tension mounts as Cooper’s vitriolic sermon and hateful comments about homosexuality continue to spit forth, and the overwhelmingly troubling revelation of what’s under the sheet - a captive man accused of being gay, lashed to the cross with reams of plastic wrap - ends with a sickeningly brutal death. That this violent and despicable brand of homophobia still exists in the States adds to the impact Red State makes early on. This scene is unflinching in its intensity and demonstrates Smith’s astounding ability to create tension and get the pulse racing. Alas, this intensity soon abates and is distinctly lacking from the rest of the film, which unfolds as a darkly comic siege narrative heavily inspired by Waco. The self-righteous fundamentalists eventually engage in a violent shoot out with ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) agents led by John Goodman.

Tension is initially generated by the congregation’s deluded self-righteousness and the way in which Abin Cooper whips them into a worrying frenzy with his onslaught of anti-gay bile, ‘supported’ by quotes from the good book. However, proceedings soon run out of steam and Red State becomes rather muddled and uneven. As the siege continues, the feeling that it is completely futile becomes overwhelming. By peopling his story with unsavoury characters we just can’t relate to, perhaps what Smith is saying is that society has become so distorted by extremism and corruption, that it is best to just detach yourself from it. The state cops are painted in the same unflattering light as the cult, and Smith touches on how religion and politics are still intertwined in contemporary US society, but doesn’t really explore this concept in much depth. In the end, the film exhibits a rather nihilistic outlook, as various protagonists are killed; though Smith must be praised for refusing to conform to horror conventions. Mention must also be made of Michael Parks’ charismatic performance as Abin Cooper. Smith openly acknowledges that this character is based on the Westboro Baptist Church pastor, Fred Phelps; infamous for picketing the funerals of not only gay people, but also soldiers – who he claims were killed by God as judgement for the US’s acceptance of homosexuality. Cooper’s Phelps-like unreasonableness and belief that he is entitled to cleanse America of gays rightly gets the blood boiling. It’s too bad the bordering on slap-stick ending dilutes his power to unsettle.

While all the ingredients for a highly emotive and provocative story are evident in Red State, it simply doesn’t live up to its potential. Far from a bad film though, and never anything less than entertaining, it just lacks the powerful impact such heated subject matter warrants.

Paracinema 15

Issue 15 of Paracinema Magazine is now available to pre-order. Look at it, ain’t it pretty? The cover illustration is by Alex Fine and this feisty issue is rather special as it focuses on the theme of revenge. Amongst the articles on offer are the likes of When Life Gives You Razor Blades: Bloody Vengeance in Hobo with a Shotgun by Christine Makepeace (Paracinema’s editor), Revenge is a Dish Best Served Raw and Wriggling: Park Chan-Wook’s Vengeance Trilogy by Samm Deighan, Going Back Home: Post-Vietnam Masculinity in Rolling Thunder by Adam Blomquist, You Want It, You Got It: The Grim and Gritty Extremes of Punisher: War Zone by Patrick Smith and much more; including pieces on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 and A Nightmare on Elm Street.

Head over to to pre-order your copy now. Oh, and while you’re at it – why not head over to TLA and vote for Paracinema Magazine, as it’s been nominated for a lovely award in the best website/blog/podcast/whatever category. Go on, support independent publishing and a magazine that is produced by fans of genre cinema, for fans of genre cinema.

Friday, 2 March 2012

The Sorcerers

Dir. Michael Reeves

An elderly scientist and his wife create a device that enables them to control the mind of a young man and share the sensations of his experiences. It isn’t long though before the wife, drunk on power and obsessed with experiencing new things, begins to indulge her increasingly perverse desires, including murder.

Reeves’ penultimate film is a curiously irresistible blend of horror and sci-fi, filtered through a cynical snapshot of swinging sixties London – and the seemingly moral vacuum its inhabitants occupied – spiced up with various ‘mad scientist’ movie tropes. While it may be overshadowed by his last film The Witchfinder General, The Sorcerers exhibits as idiosyncratic and bleak an outlook on the corruptible nature of humanity as the Vincent Price starring classic. While both films peer into the depths of what causes normal people to do corrupt, despicable things, due to its then-contemporary setting, The Sorcerers makes much more of an impact in this regard. As the initially benign old couple begin to wade out of their depth the longer their experiment continues, the more things get out of hand. The Sorcerers arguably acts as a sly metaphor for cinema and the experience it provides to its audience, with Dr Monserrat and his wife Estelle (Boris Karloff and Catherine Lacey), much like the detached viewer, abandoning their own lives and momentarily escaping into a new world experiencing sensations through someone else.

While Mike (Ian Ogilvy) isn’t particularly likeable, that he is forced to carry out such wicked actions against, and even oblivious, to his own will, generates a certain degree of sympathy for him, and poses provocative questions about free will and predestination. When Dr Monserrat initially created the device, it was with the intention of providing certain experiences to those no longer capable of such things; such as the poor and the elderly. The flipside of course is that the person who is actually living the experiences on behalf of the mind-controller, no longer has any control or free will. Their life is not their own. Both the Monserrats and Mike discard their responsibilities to pursue selfish needs. Mike constantly abandons his friends without a thought for their feelings, and Estelle increasingly cares less about the consequences of her selfish actions.

While Lacey and Karloff are relegated to their small flat for the majority of the film, sitting around a table emoting as they experience life through Mike and spitting expository and at times rather heavy-handed dialogue, they still prove rather compelling to watch. In lesser hands, these moments would become pantomime. Boris Karloff actually plays against type here and he imbues Dr Monserrat with a quiet dignity. Far from the mad scientist he initially appears to be, he forms the moral conscience of the film, helplessly watching as his wife delves deeper into her increasingly dark and diabolical instincts and living out her depraved fantasies through Mike. Generational conflict is evident throughout proceedings, with the Monserrats viewing young people with disdain for their seemingly loose morals – as evident in the first scene where Dr Monserrat glares witheringly at a canoodling couple – and eventually as mere commodities through which they can live out their own desires.

The story uncoils in a Pete Walker-esque London – all grimy nightclubs, dingy bedsits, greasy spoon cafes and murky back alleys. The heavy stylisation dates the film somewhat, but Reeves still manages to create a few memorable moments such as the psychedelic hypnosis scene; all kaleidoscopic lighting, ferocious zooms and frenzied editing. While Reeves was only 23 when he made The Sorcerers, his view of the swinging sixties is predominately one of utter contempt. Aside from Karloff, characters act selfishly and without a thought of repercussion or consequence. The Sorcerers provides a subversive look at the love generation and the abandoned morals left in its wake.

Despite what the credits say, the original story and screenplay was actually conceived and written by John Burke; however when Reeves and Tom Baker re-wrote sections of it at Karloff's behest, Burke’s credit as screenwriter was relegated to ‘Based on an idea by.’

You can read more about this here.