Category Archives: Films

RetView #24 – War of the Worlds (1953)

Title: War of the Worlds

Year of Release: 1953

Director: Byron Haskin

Length: 85 minutes

Starring: Gene Barry, Ann Robinson, Les Tremayne

war of the worlds

I know, I’m genre-hopping again. Much like The Fly the classic 1953 version of War of the Worlds isn’t as much of a horror film as it is a pure sci-fi flick. But it is considered one of the greatest of all time, and contains all the elements considered typical of horror movies – tension, suspense, conflict, and the threat of imminent death, right down to the spooky music. Not least, it was such a significant event in the history of cinema that I feel it would be a huge mistake not to include it in this series. So here we are.

This Paramount Pictures production was the first in a slew of film adaptations based on HG Wells’ groundbreaking 1897 novel of the same name, which was also the source material of the controversial Orson Welles radio drama that sparked widespread panic throughout America in October 1938 because everyone assumed it was an actual broadcast rather than a play and legitimately thought it was the end of the world. At its core, War of the Worlds is a straight-up alien invasion story, which in a Cold War setting becomes a direct metaphor for the perceived threat of communism and the detrimental effect it could have on the Western way of life. This is perhaps what sets this version apart from subsequent adaptations and makes it such an interesting case study. That and the fact that the release exploited the deep impression left on the public’s psyche by the infamous radio play 15 years previously meaning that the market was already primed long before the film even came out.

If you aren’t familiar with the premise, it’s simple, yet terrifying. The aliens come. Martians, to be exact. You know, from Mars. At first, everyone thinks earth is simply being pounded by meteors, so groups of people head to the impact sites for a closer look. As you do. At a crash site near Linda Rosa, California, well-known scientist Dr. Clayton Forrester (Barry), who’d been on a fishing trip, meets star-struck young waif Sylvia Van Buren (Robinson). The shameless flirting commences instantaneously.

Sylvia: You didn’t wear glasses on the Time cover.

Dr. Forrester: They’re really for long distance. When I want to look at something close, I take them off.

*Takes off glasses and leans in, which isn’t creepy at all.

After the initial excitement of the crashed ‘meteorite’ subsides, everyone files off leaving three men to guard the crash site. No sooner has everyone gone, a hatch opens in what is now clearly NOT a meteorite, a futuristic weapon emerges, incinerates the guards, and simultaneously shuts down all the technology in the town via an electromagnetic pulse. Wowzer. And that’s just the start of it. Someone calls the army and they roll up all guns blazing only to be met with death rays a-plenty. Carnage ensues just as reports begin to filter through (it’s unclear how, given the tech-fucking effects of that pesky electromagnetic pulse) that similar objects have crash landed all over the world. The condition is now critical. Before we know it, a full-on war breaks out (yep, a war of the worlds). Mankind, even when using the atomic bomb, prove no match for the alien invaders and are soon reduced to running around in a blind panic trying to stay alive. Many of the world’s capital cities are now aflame, and in the chaos Dr Forrester and the God-fearing Sylvia become separated. They find each other again in a church, but just when they face certain death the Martians abruptly start keeling over and dying. Apparently, they are unable to deal with the germs and bacteria in the earth’s atmosphere to which people have ‘long since grown immune.’ A little bit anti-climactic but it was as easy as that, the quasi-religious take-away message apparently being that where man (and nuclear weapons) fail, the smallest and most innocuous things sometimes succeed, so we should never lose hope. The stupidly unlikely romantic sub-plot is maintained right to the bitter end, so I guess there’s also some observation to be made about the all-conquering power of love, something which went right over my head.

At the time, War of the Worlds was celebrated for its use of movie-making technology, winning an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects. Okay, there were no other nominees that year, but it still won. Producer George Pal originally wanted to shoot the entire final third in 3D, but that plan was blackballed for being too expensive. Instead, the alien ships were superimposed over stock footage. It might sound tacky, but there’s a lot to admire. Whatever trickery was used results in a beautifully dark, apocalyptic landscape against which people are portrayed as being awfully weak and vulnerable. Not least the US Marine who catches fire. You don’t often see people catching fire in movies from 1953. Many of the visual techniques used became industry standards for years to come, the echoes of which are still being felt today. A bona fide classic people will still be watching in another 65 years.

Trivia Corner:

As a homage to the 1938 radio broadcast, at one point voice specialist Paul Frees appears on-screen as a radio reporter and does a pretty convincing vocal impersonation of Orson Welles.

 

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RetView #23 – Shocker (1989)

Title: Shocker

Year of Release: 1989

Director: Wes Craven

Length: 110 minutes

Starring: Peter Berg, Mitch Pileggi, Michael Murphy, Heather Langenkamp, John Tesh

shocker

I was 15 when Shocker came out, and so at PAA (Peak Appreciation Age) for horror movies. And a lot of other things, including heavy metal. One of the most attractive things for me about this movie was the soundtrack, which featured Megadeth covering Alice Cooper’s No More Mr. Nice Guy alongside songs by Bonfire and Iggy Pop. Most impressively, the title track was recorded by The Dudes of Wrath, a supergroup consisting of Paul Stanley (Kiss), Vivian Campbell and Rudy Sarzo (Whitesnake) and Tommy Lee (Motley Crue). It even featured powerhouse songwriter Desmond Child and members of Van Halen on backing vocals. All this considered, Shocker was a perfect storm of my two main obsessions coming together. Metal and horror. Although dubbed a critical and commercial failure at the time (though not really, as it raked in $16.6 million at the Box Office against a $5 million budget) it has since gained cult status, and deservedly so.

Parallels are often drawn between Shocker and Wes Craven’s seminal A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. While the former is much more light-hearted, often venturing into campy horror comedy territory, there are similarities. In his 2004 book Wes Craven: The Art of Horror, writer John Kenneth Muir says, “Shocker was basically Craven’s response to the Freddy Krueger film series and to Universal Studios, which informed him they wanted their very own horror franchise à la A Nightmare on Elm Street. Accordingly, moments in Shocker echo Craven’s earlier milestone film. Both films open with grisly serial killers working in their den of evil, both feature non-believing parents who also happen to serve on the local police, and both films also dramatize the now-expected ‘rubber reality’ dream sequences.”

In Shocker, the Freddy Krueger role is taken by a new anti-hero, Horace Pinker (Pileggi, later to make it big as Walter Skinner in the X Files) who appears to highschool footballer Jonathan Parker (Berg) in his dreams. This proves to be nothing but a precursor, when Horace (isn’t it more endearing when savage comic villains are referred to by their first name? Freddy, Jason, etc) then butchers most of Jonathan’s foster family, much to the chagrin of his police detective foster dad (Murphy). Using his dreams, Jonathan leads a police squad right to Horace’s door, but the killer escapes, brutally murdering all the cops in the process (except his foster dad, who yells at him). He then kills Peter’s girlfriend in revenge (Langenkamp, from A Nightmare on Elm Street. Obviously a favourite of Craven’s, she was also cast in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare). Shortly afterwards, he is finally apprehended and it transpires that he is actually Peter’s biological father (bummer!). He is then sent to the electric chair. What his executioners don’t know, however, is that Horace has struck a deal with the devil. The chair doesn’t actually kill him, but ‘frees’ him and turns him into pure electricity, enabling him to continue his killing spree by hopping from body to body. Jonathan eventually wins through, with the help of his dead girlfriend, by trapping his nemesis dad inside a television set leaving the path open for a sequel. The much-touted sequel, which was supposed to be the second instalment in a horror franchise to rival A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday 13th never materialized, probably due to a combination of mixed reviews and shifting audience attitudes.

Some critics disagree, with Horrornews.net going so far as to call him ‘lame’ but IMHO Pileggi plays a remarkably convincing baddie, and with his bald head and trim physique is eerily reminiscent of a young Dana White. He does suffer a little from ‘Freddy Krueger Syndrome’ with all the banter and wisecracks (“C’mon boy, let’s take a ride in my volts wagon!”). However, despite its cult classic status, this film is not without its problems. One of the main sticking points is its length. At 110 minutes, it far exceeds the average 90 minute running time for this kind of genre staple and takes quite a while before it gets going. I blame the editors for that. Maybe a slightly shorter, more streamlined version would have fared better.

Trivia Corner:

According to Craven, the film was severely cut for an R (15) rating. It took around thirteen submissions to the MPAA before it was awarded an R instead of an X (18) which would have limited its appeal. Some of the scenes that were cut included Pinker spitting out fingers that he bit off of a prison guard and a longer and more graphic electrocution. An uncut version has never been released.


RetView #22 – The Descent (2005)

Title: The Descent

Year of Release: 2005

Director: Neil Marshall

Length: 100 mins

Starring: Shauna MacDonald, Alex Reid, Natalie Mendoza, Saskia Mulder

SAW_1Sheet_Comps

Following the runaway success of Dog Soldiers, British director Neil Marshall was inundated with offers to make films in a similar vein. Anxious not to be typecast, he was initially reluctant but finally agreed to make The Descent because the two projects were, “Very different.” He did, however, insist on making drastic changes to the script to make them even more different. The film was originally to feature a mixed cast, but realizing how common that is, Marshall opted on an all-female cast instead. The decision proved to be a masterstroke, winning the film plaudits and instantly setting it apart from many of its contemporaries. Discussing the film after its release, Marshall says, “We wanted to show all these terrible things in the cave: dark, drowning, claustrophobia. Then, when it couldn’t get any worse, make it worse.”

In a bid to overcome a recent tragedy in which her husband and young daughter are killed, Sarah (MacDonald) meets a group of friends. They decide to go caving together in the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina. Not my idea of a fun time, but ya know. No sooner are they underground, then a cave-in traps them there. Then it transpires that the cave system is unmapped, and that one of their number, Juno (Mendoza) had led them there deliberately so they could become the first people to explore it. This means rescue is impossible, and they are going to have to find their own way out. Whilst seeking a way out they make several discoveries that would indicate that all might not be as it seems, among them cave paintings, a mass of animal bones, and some old climbing equipment. So far, so weird. Things then take a turn for the gross when one of the girls takes a tumble and breaks her leg. I don’t know why open compound fractures (where the bone sticks out of the shattered limb) are so common in movies, but they are and the rest of us have to stomach them. While the rest of the girls are debating how to get themselves out of this mess, Sarah spies a pale, humanoid creature drinking from a subterranean pond. This, my friends, is our first glimpse of a ‘Crawler.’ Hideously deformed, carnivorous, cave-dwelling creatures who were once people, we are led to believe, but have been underground for so long they have mutated and evolved differently to the rest of us. Blind, they have enhanced senses of hearing and smell to compensate. They’re sprightly little fuckers, too. A bit like a cross between the inbreds in the Wrong Turn series and mini-golems. They aren’t very friendly, either, and soon attack our little group of transgressors. Suffice to say, it doesn’t go well for the girls. Juno accidentally stabs Beth (Reid) in the neck and leaves her to die, before later running into Sarah and lying about the whole thing. It is also revealed that Juno had an affair with Sarah’s husband before his death. After a confrontation, Sarah leaves her nemesis at the mercy of the Crawlers and makes good her escape, finding a way out of the cave and back to civilization. Except, in a brilliant twist ending, her ‘escape’ as actually a hallucination, and when she wakes up she’s in just as much trouble as her friends. More, in fact.

Whilst it is set in North America, The Descent was actually made in the UK. The exterior shots were filmed in Scotland, and the interior at Pinewood Studios, as it was deemed too expensive, problematic and risky to film in a real cave system. I don’t know what this says about different audiences, but it is interesting to note here that the US version ends with Sarah’s escape, leaving out the part where she wakes up still strapped in the caves. It was suggested in Entertainment Weekly magazine that this was done because after such an emotionally draining cinematic experience, American audiences wouldn’t appreciate the ‘uber hopeless’ finale. Evidently, however, British audiences prefer their endings to be uber hopeless. The more hopeless and depressing the better. Something else about this film that fucks with your head a little is the depiction of the Crawlers, who count females and vulnerable-yet-still-nasty children amongst their number which obviously means they’ve been multiplying down there. The Descent was followed in 2009 by a sequel, again staring Shauna MacDonald. However, despite having a much bigger budget, this was a comparative failure and struggled to break even.

Trivia Corner

The film’s marketing campaign in the UK was disrupted by the London bombings of July 2005. Advertisements on the city’s public transport system had included posters carrying the quote, “Outright terror… bold and brilliant,” and depicting a terrified woman screaming in a tunnel. The posters were recalled, and the campaign reworked to exclude the word “terror” from advertised reviews of the movie. The distributor’s marketing chief, Anna Butler, said of the new approach, “We changed tack to concentrate on the women involved all standing together and fighting back. That seemed to chime with the prevailing mood of defiance that set in the weekend after the bombs.”

 


#RetView 21 – The Fog (1980)

Title: The Fog

Year of Release: 1980

Director: John Carpenter

Length: 89 minutes

Starring: Adrienne Barbeau, Jamie Lee Curtis, Hal Holbrook, Janet Leigh

The Fog

Along with The Howling and An American Werewolf in London, this is one of the films that shaped (or warped) my formative years. Following the success of Halloween two years earlier, John Carpenter was considered hot shit in Hollywood and virtually given free license to do what he wanted on the Fog, albeit on a pretty modest budget. He didn’t disappoint. Being sandwiched between Halloween and Escape from New York, the Fog is often overlooked, but remains one of the jewels in Carpenter’s crown.

As the Californian coastal town of Antonio Bay nears its hundredth anniversary, paranormal activity mysteriously begins to rocket. When a huge chunk of masonry falls out of a wall in his church, town priest Father Malone (Holbrook) finds his grandfather’s journal hidden in the alcove. When he reads it, he uncovers a terrible secret. The original townsfolk, led by Malone’s grandfather, deliberately sank a clipper ship, the Elizabeth Dane, and plundered it for gold, which was then used to establish the town and build the church. Cut to the present day, and a fishing boat is out at sea when it is engulfed by a mysterious glowing fog. You guessed it, there’s something in there. Specifically, it’s the Elizabeth Dane, and her very angry (and very dead) crew.

The heart and soul of San Antonio is the local radio station, seemingly managed by Stevie Wayne (Barbeau) all on her lonesome. The radio station is set up in an old lighthouse, meaning Stevie is in pole position to see the glowing fog, which suspiciously moves against the wind, approach the town. Weatherman Dan helpfully calls to tell her about it, but unfortunately, Weatherman Dan could make a strong case for being the stupidest man in the world and is dead moments later. Instead of just calling it a night and going home, Stevie then takes to the airwaves to implore any passing strangers to go to her house, address provided, to save her son who is stuck there with the soon-to-be-dead babysitter. A short time later, she apparently gives up on him altogether and shifts her attention to saving the villagers instead who have gathered for a Centenary celebration. In an apparent attempt to help the crew of the Elizabeth Dane find them quicker, she tells them all to gather in the church where an epic showdown takes place.

As well as writing, directing, and even pulling off a brief cameo role, John Carpenter also composed the musical score. I didn’t notice the significance until I sat down and actually listened to it. It consists of the usual deep, ominous, brooding tones, which are then mimicked by lighter tones. Same chords, different tones. When I thought about it, that effect conjured up the notion of being stalked or followed, which I imagine to be an effective tool to use on the subconscious whether intentional or otherwise. The music is instrumental (boom!) in making the Fog such an atmospheric, satisfying, well-made chiller. The plot is ultimately a tad predictable, but there’s just enough gore and jump scares to keep things interesting.

The fate of the Elizabeth Dane is said to be based on that of an actual wrecking which took place off the coast of California near the town of Goleta in the 19th century. This particular kind of skulduggery appears to have been mercifully rare in America. However, it was a lot more prevalent in Britain.

John Carpenter also claimed to be partly inspired by a visit to Stonehenge with his co-writer/producer (and then-girlfriend), Debra Hill while in England promoting Assault on Precinct 13 in 1977. They visited the site in the late afternoon, and saw an eerie fog in the distance. Though carpenter and Hill worked together on The Fog, Halloween and several other projects, by the time the Fog came to be filmed Carpenter was married to Adrienne Barbeau. Unusually, both Carpenter and Hill were involved in the 2005 remake starring Selma Blair and Tom Welling, which managed to stay more-or-less faithful to the original.

Trivia Corner

Worried the film might flop, the distribution company, AVCO Embassy Pictures, spent around $3 million on advertising and promotion, mostly on TV, radio and print ads. They also spent a considerable amount installing fog machines in the lobbies of cinemas where the film was showing. That was almost three times the amount the film cost to make. However, the gamble paid off as it generated over $21 million at the Box Office.


The Amazon Prime Horror Binge

I was never going to pay for Amazon Prime. But then I accidentally signed up for a month’s free trial so I didn’t have to. First on the agenda was, obviously, ordering lots of crap which had been in or around my shopping basket for ages to take advantage of the free next-day postage. Then, being a huge horror movie nut, it was over to Amazon Prime Video to see what was what.

Hide and Go Kill (2008, 72 mins)

Hide and Go Kill

Stumbling across this was a pleasant surprise, and something of a coincidence because I’d just finished writing a story based on the same weird Internet ritual, hitori kakurenbo, which roughly translates as ‘hide and seek alone.’ Search for it if you want the grisly details. If you’re a fan of J-Horror as I am, you’ll know that all the most twisted shit starts in Japanese classrooms, and this is no different. Here, there’s a girl remembering her absent friend who, after being jilted by her lover and bullied at school, becomes obsessed with a mysterious blog about the aforementioned Internet ritual. Word of the blog spreads, and soon the horror takes hold. The film is an anthology of sorts, each segment following a different person’s experience with said blog. True, it’s a somewhat familiar template and in places is slightly derivative of certain other J-Horror staples, but it’s still worthy of your time.

7/10

Countrycide (2017, 69 mins)

OK, I wasn’t expecting much from this. Especially after reading some scathing reviews online. However, nothing could have prepared me for just how bad this no-budget affair would be. It starts with a torture porn scenario lifted straight out of a dodgy exploitation flick as we see a woman running (or trying to run) through the woods sporting a nasty bear trap injury to her leg. The film then flashes back two days and we discover she was on her way to a wedding with her new boyfriend when they decided to stop off and camp for a night. And that’s where it all goes pear-shaped. Hallucinations, rampaging rednecks, local wildlife, and the afore-mentioned bear trap all conspire to piss on their parade before it properly gets started. If any of that is appealing to you, don’t be fooled. Nothing about this film is appealing. Not least the fact that it appears to have been filmed on someone’s iPhone. Total crap. The only reason it’s getting two points is because someone went to the effort of making it, and hard work should always be rewarded.

2/10

Death Valley (2015, 94 mins)

A few criticisms here right off the bat. Firstly, there have been at least three other films with the same title. Some imagination would have been nice. Also, the description on IMDB and Amazon Prime is just plain wrong. Four strangers aren’t on a ‘drunken wedding dash’ at all. Four strangers are going to a music festival. Sigh. Anyway, when said strangers’ car breaks down they blag a lift with some more strangers in an RV who think it would be a good idea to take the RV off-road and into the desert. Now I’m not an expert, but I do know that most vehicles like to be on roads. Obviously, the RV comes a cropper and then they all take peyote and party on down in the middle of nowhere. I mean, the desert must be a dangerous enough place as it is without compounding things by being stupid as fuck. Within minutes one of them drops dead of an overdose, another one gets bitten by a snake, and the rest are hopelessly lost. And that’s about it. From there, everything just fizzles out. A lame plot is salvaged only by some breathtaking cinematography and generally high production values.

5/10

Our Last Weekend (2011, 82 mins)

Four minutes in and I have no idea what’s going on. There are two people arguing, a threesome, and someone’s making a salad. Despite what you may think, the most entertaining of these three threads is the argument. It’s a Spanish language film, and Amazon’s subtitling skills are woefully exposed (“I’ll break your teeth and pull your eyes off!”). Google translate would do a better job. Twelve minutes in, there’s someone peeing in the woods, someone else has been caught cheating, and we’re all off to a villa for a party. Things are looking up. It’s freezing, though. Not even sunny. Everyone’s walking around in shorts and bikinis trying to pretend otherwise, but it’s obviously the middle of winter. Probably cheaper to film in the off-season. Back to the plot, and despite the hedonistic atmosphere, all is not well. A creepy dude in a blue onesie keeps popping up everywhere and a drunken local lets slip that there’s a secret military base nearby. Then the group accidentally runs someone over (shades of I Know What You Did Last Summer) and things take a very surreal turn indeed. I think the makers were aiming for arty, but what we get is more weird and confusing. They do deserve some credit for at least trying to be original.

3.5/10

Webcast (2018, 92 mins)

webcast-movie-poster

Let’s be honest, there’s been a few missteps in this experiment. It’s partly my own fault. I was choosing films primarily based on the synopsis, without factoring in other pertinent information like their IMDB listing notes or their score on Rotten Tomatoes. Any decent writer can make a film sound good in a three-line synopsis. But as it’s my last chance (the free trial is ending) I made an informed decision, and opted for this one. It’s picked up some good reviews, and I’m a huge fan of the found footage format. Shoot me. So here, a young couple researching a missing person cold case become convinced that one of their neighbours has kidnapped a(nother) teenage girl and decide to run a surveillance operation on him. As you do. And that’s just the start of the shenanigans. In many ways, this is a typical British film; small town paranoia, suburban secrets, clandestine cults, general weirdness. If this film were an album it would be by Pink Floyd or Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. Written and directed by Paul McGhie who, according to his website, usually specializes in wedding videos, this is another no-budget effort which has its moments but is ultimately let down by the ambiguous ending.

6/10

Conclusion: As a platform, Amazon Prime Video might be in its infancy and could well improve in the future but for now, Netflix doesn’t have much to worry about. The Zon would do well to invest in some real quality, rather than focusing on quantity in order to build their library. By the way, I was going to leave these reviews on the site, but apparently I’m not eligible to leave reviews, probably because I haven’t spent more than $50 in the past six hours and I don’t have a dog called Gerald.

So here they are.


RetView #20 – Race With the Devil (1975)

Title: Race with the Devil

Year of Release: 1975

Director: Jack Starrett

Length: 88 minutes

Starring: Peter Fonda, Warren Oates, Loretta Switt, Lara Parker, RG Armstrong

RACEWITHTHEDEVIL

Race with the Devil is the rarest of things; an action/horror/road movie mash-up of epic proportions. American audiences loved their car chases in the seventies. For a while, that was the whole point of making films and often, any plot or storyline was aimed primarily at manufacturing situations where people got behind the wheels of cars (or in this case, motorhomes) and chased each other around. Just look at that poster. They witnessed an unspeakable act! It screams, stopping just short of adding, “And that’s why they got in the ve-hicle so we could have us a good ole chase!”

After some suitably ominous music, we are introduced to motorcycle dealership owner Frank Stewart (Oates) who, along with his friend and keen motorcross racer Roger Marsh (Fonda) is preparing to head out to Aspen, Colarado, on a ski holiday. Along for the ride are their wives (Switt and Parker) and a belligerent little dog called Ginger. After being on the road for a while they find a quiet, secluded place to spend the night. While drinking beer and shooting the shit outside the motorhome, Frank and Roger see a fire burning in the distance. On going to investigate, they find a bunch of people dressed in robes, dancing around said fire and chanting which is all very reminiscent of Maiden’s Number of the Beast (“I feel drawn toward the chanting hordes, they seem to mesmerize, can’t avoid their eyes”).

When half the Satanists get naked, Frank and Roger settle down to watch what they anticipate will be a vast, open-air orgy, but things take a sinister turn when one of the naked women is stabbed to death by a dude in a mask, and apparently offered up as a human sacrifice. Just then, the interlopers are discovered by the newly-naked Satanists and lo and behold, we have our chase. Frank and the gang drive the motorhome through a river, up a hill through a forest, and then cross country (it’s a motorhome, not a fucking tank!) before eventually winding up in a small town where they report the unspeakable act they witnessed to the local sheriff (Armstrong). But isn’t there something slightly off about that sheriff? Of course there is. You know the drill. In fact, everyone they meet seems a little ‘out there,’ from the librarian to the mechanic fixing their window, which riffs off the whole generational hippy paranoia thing that was going on at the time. Vietnam, Watergate, race riots, Jesus Christ Superstar, post-Woodstock America was a deeply troubled place.

Things escalate when the group leave town and spend the night at a camp site populated by yet more iffy individuals where Ginger comes a cropper and they find rattlesnakes in the cupboards. That’s enough to ruin anybody’s holiday. Before long, they really are engaged in a race with the Devil. Or, more accurately, the Devil’s mates. The last quarter is one long adrenaline-filled smash ‘em up as the increasingly frustrated cult members try their hardest to prevent the Frank and company making it the real police leading to some pretty impressive stunt driving. At one point, a Dodge pickup truck pursues them for about three miles on two wheels. I shit you not. The supernatural elements do feel a bit tacked on, giving you the impression that these people could be being chased by anybody – cult members, rednecks, bikers, hippies, rogue penguins, aliens. But nevertheless, it’s thrilling, and sometimes chilling, stuff.

Race with the Devil was directed by Jack Starrett (perhaps best known for his roles in Blazing Saddles and as asshole deputy Art Gault in First Blood) who made his name acting in a slew of biker movies in the late sixties and early-seventies. Conveniently, this dove-tailed with Fonda’s appearance in the legendary Easy Rider and several other notable contributions to the genre. It could have been preordained that these two were going to work together at some point, and when they did, motorcycles were going to be involved. Starrett even has a cameo role here as a gas station attendant. Interestingly, he later claimed to have hired actual, real-life satanists as cult member extras, though this statement may have been a publicity stunt. I mean, how the heck would he find them? You can’t just put out a call for satanists who wouldn’t mind being in a Hollywood movie. If it was a publicity stunt, it worked. Though it received mixed reviews, the movie tapped into the American psyche and was a huge success, drawing over $12 million at the Box Office from a modest budget of $1.75 million. It was released just when home video was taking off, bringing in another $6 million-plus in rentals, and was re-issued as a double feature in 2011 with another Peter Fonda film, Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry. It isn’t often talked about these days, which is a shame as it’s definitely worth a punt.

Trivia Corner:

According to IMDB, some of the chase scenes involving the motorhome and its steadily degenerating condition were used as stock footage in eighties TV classic The Fall Guy.

 


RetView #19 – Train to Busan (2016)

Title: Train to Busan

Year of Release: 2016

Director: Yeon Sang-ho

Length: 118 mins

Starring: Gong Yoo, Ma Dong-seok, Jung Yu-mi, Kim Su-an

traintobusanposter-701000

South Korea have done quite well off the back of the whole J-Horror explosion, making several good additions to the wider Asian horror genre. Among the standouts have been Don’t Click (2012), I Saw the Devil (2010), Thirst (2009), and the Wailing (2016). What really put South Korea on the map, however, was Train to Busan. This is one of the more recent examples in the #RetView series, only premiering at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. I generally lean toward movies more than a decade old, and I only make exceptions in special cases. Train to Busan is certainly one of those. It went on to be nominated for a slew of awards, even winning a couple, filled theaters, and became a surprise hit all over the world. Sold.

The film starts predictably enough with a ‘minor leak’ at a biochemical facility. Always a concern. You know the situation isn’t going to improve from there. It certainly doesn’t improve much for a deer we see mown down by a truck driver. But don’t worry, no animals were harmed in the making of this movie because the very dead, very milky-eyed buck is soon back up on its feet. This prologue gives enough clues as to what’s happening, and going to happen, that you don’t even have to turn on the subtitles if you don’t want to. Oblivious to the zombified deer, Seok-woo (Yoo), a divorced workaholic fund manager, is asking his disinterested colleagues what to buy his young daughter, Su-an (really Su-an) for her birthday. Apparently, he has a ton of money but is low on parenting skills. It’s eventually decided that for her birthday, all Su-an wants is to visit her mother in Busan (South Korea’s so-called second city, putting it on a par with Birmingham, I guess). Seok-woo reluctantly agrees, and they board a train at Seoul station with a random assortment of other passengers including a tough, working class husband and his heavily-pregnant wife, a nasty, self-centered CEO, and a baseball team who, luckily enough, have brought their bats. They’re going to need them.

As the train departs the station we see a young woman with a wound to her leg convulsing who then turns into a zombie. The virus quickly spreads throughout the train, and indeed the country, one memorable scene showing the (so far) unaffected glued to their smartphones watching news reports and footage uploaded onto social media. From there, the film turns into a survival horror as the survivors not only have to protect themselves from the zombies trapped on the train with them, but also those on the outside as everywhere they stop seems to be overrun.

An interesting point comes in the first third when the snarling, blood crazed zombies storm through the train. The few citizens who are left lock the doors of the carriages, and for a few moments we see that the only thing separating the people from the zombie hordes is a sheet of glass. The contrast is stark. They are so close together, yet so far apart. I couldn’t help wondering if this was a handy metaphor not just for rich and poor, but for North and South Korea. In fact, you could go one step further and see the mindless zombies as representing the creeping threat of communism as a whole. Zombies have always been good for metaphors.

On paper it’s hard to explain what makes Train to Busan so good. You can point to certain elements like the cinematography and the musical score, which certainly contribute, along with the fine acting and superb special effects. But I think the one thing that sets it apart from most other zombie movies, and most other movies period, is its energy and vitality. And I do realize how ironic that might sound when talking about the undead who generally speaking, apart from the 28 films, aren’t exactly renowned for their energy or vitality. Despite the bulk of the action being confined to a couple of train carriages, director Yeon Sang-ho, who made his name in animation, does a superb job of picking you up and sweeping you along with the flow. It’s icky and claustrophobic, but only when it has to be and more by design than necessity. There is gore a-plenty, but a strong sense of morality pervades with an even mix of good guys and bad guys, and lot of fun to be had, too. Word is that the movie is currently being remade in English by Gaumont. Because apparently, what the world needs right now is yet another English-language zombie film.

Trivia Corner

Shortly after Train to Busan dropped, an animated prequel, written and directed by Yeon Sang-ho was released. Featuring an entirely new cast of characters, Seoul Station explains how a homeless man was the source of the infection. Not the deer, then. Seoul Station currently boasts a 100% approval rating on review aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes.


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