Tag Archives: film

Retview #47 – The Grudge (2004)

Title: The Grudge

Year of Release: 2004

Director: Takashi Shimizu

Length: 91 mins

Starring: Sarah Michelle Gellar, Jason Behr, Bill Pullman, KaDee Strickland, Takako Fuji

First up, let’s address the big fuck off elephant in the room and put to bed any lingering speculation; this is the 2004 Hollywood remake of the 2002 J-Horror classic Ju-On: The Grudge, not the original (though both were written and directed by Takashi Shimizu). I was torn as to which version to write about for this series, this one winning on account of having Sarah Michelle Gellar in it who, when this first came out, was riding the crest of a Buffy the Vampire Slayer-shaped wave. Yes, I’m that shallow. This project came at an interesting junction in her career as she was trying to capitalize on her Buffy fame but in serious danger of being typecast as a modern day scream queen after earlier roles in the teen classics I know What You Did Last Summer and Scream 2 (both 1997).

Hiring Shimizu for this project was a masterstroke, as the movie largely keeps it’s Japanese flavour. Being filmed in Tokyo and featuring several notable Japanese stars also helped. Yuya Ozeki, Takako Fuji and Takashi Matsuyama all appeared in the two Japanese films upon which this was based, reprising their roles as the doomed Saeki family. The movie is also notable for an appearance by Ted raimi, younger brother of Sam, one of the film’s producers and creator of the legendary Evil Dead series. This version of The Grudge distributed by Columbia Pictures was itself followed by two sequels in Grudge 2 (2006) and Grudge 3 (2009), the latter going straight-to-video, but has very little to do with The Grudge (2020) which is known in the trade as a sidequel, a totally different movie (with the same name) taking place concurrently with events in the original series. Is that clear? Good. Let’s move on.

Somewhat unusually, the movie is told in a non-linear fashion and features several storylines that end up converging. The first thing we see is expat college professor Peter Kirk (Pullman) jump out of a window to his death, which instantly draws the viewer in and makes them ask WTF is going on. It soon transpires that a local housewife, Kayako (Fuji), had fallen hopelessly in love with him and been murdered by her jealous husband as a result, along with their young son, Toshio. From here on in, Gellar steals the show as Karen Davis, an American expat living in Tokyo with her boyfriend (Behr) charged with filling in for another worker, Yoko, who seems to have neglected her duties in looking after dementia-suffering patient Emma. At the house, Karen encounters the ghost of Toshio sealed up in a wardrobe and witnesses Kayako’s spirit descending from the ceiling to claim Emma. All very unsettling. When the police arrive they find the bodies of the Williams family who had unwittingly moved into the cursed house in the attic, along with Kayako’s jawbone, and the family of vengeful ghosts set out to tear it up some more. Watch out for the infamous shower scene which is probably second only to the original Psycho (1960) in the all-time list of infamous shower scenes. Now, if you found the above synopsis confusing at all, critic Roger Ebert simplifies things massively in his scathing 1-star review, “There is a haunted house, and everybody who enters it will have unspeakable things happen to them.” There you are, then.

Despite this, and a few other negative reviews, The Grudge was a huge initial success. On its opening weekend alone, it grossed $39 million, becoming the first horror film since House on Haunted Hill (1999) to top the Halloween box office and, until the 2009 Friday the 13th remake, had the highest grossing opening weekend in history for a horror remake. On May 17, 2005, the unrated director’s cut was released on DVD. Notably, this version included several scenes that were cut (including one where Takeo drags Kayako’s body through the house whilst carrying a box cutter, implying this was the instrument he used to kill her) from the original in order to achieve a lower rating from the MPAA. Incidentally, this version of the film was used on the theatrical run in Japan, which only goes to show just how hardcore Japanese audiences are. If you are a fan of J-Horror you might appreciate this or this.

Trivia Corner:

Jason Behr and KaDee Strickland met on set and began dating due to their mutual interest in Japanese culture (which is why they accepted their roles in the film) eventually marrying two years later despite not sharing any scenes together in the film.


RetView #46 – Threads (1984)

Title: Threads

Year of Release: 1984

Director: Mick Jackson

Length: 112 mins

Starring: Karen Meaghr, Reece Dinsdale

If you grew up in the 1980’s, you inevitably grew up in the looming shadow of the Cold War and all the associated bullshit. The prospect of nuclear Armageddon was never far from anyone’s thoughts, the tragedy being that none of us even knew it at the time. That highly-strung, stressed-out climate, the antithesis (or the antidote) to eighties excess and extravagance, was just normal to us. We didn’t know anything different. When Frankie Goes to Hollywood hit the charts with Two Tribes and the news was full of Thatcher and Reagan having crisis meetings, not many of us could put the pieces together and grasp the true implications. Only in retrospect are we able to put things into context, and see that we were born into a world of fear and oppression. This acclaimed BBC film does a pretty good job of depicting your worst nightmare in that it shows, “The full horror of nuclear war and its aftermath.” In many ways it served as a British version of The Day After, which had been released the year before and was nominated for no less than seven BAFTA awards, winning four of them.

Jimmy (Dinsdale, perhaps best known for his role in the Brit comedy classic Home to Roost, which debuted the following year) is a working class lad living with his parents and trying to scrape a living in Sheffield. Nothing glamorous about that. All he wants is to build a life for him and his pregnant girlfriend, Ruth (Meaghr). But rising tensions in the Middle East trigger the apocalypse, and soon World War Three between the US and the Soviet Union erupts. Britain is caught in the crossfire, with places like Sheffield in particular being targets because of their industrial heritage.

After an unremarkable opening sequence, despite its heavy use of stock footage the middle section of the film is gritty, fast-moving and harrowing, mirroring what (I imagine) it would be like if anything like this ever befell us in real life. On seeing a mushroom cloud in the distance, one of Jimmy’s colleagues looks up says, and in a tone filled with equal parts wonder and resignation, “They’ve done it.” Amidst the ensuing carnage, East and West trade blows in a seismic race to destroy each other and we are witness to widespread devastation, confusion, and blind panic, all summed up in a scene where we see a woman pissing herself in the street, which nicely demonstrates her newfound “who cares now?” attitude.

The scale of the carnage means that simply waiting for the emergency services to restore order is out of the question, chaos ensues, and it is up to those left in the wreckage to find ways to survive. For me, this is where the movie really comes into its own. Most of the population is dying slowly as a result of radiation poisoning, the power grid is down, and dwindling food stocks are controlled by a decimated central government typified by one official who says, “What’s the point of wasting food on people who are going to die anyway?”

The hangry masses are soon deposited in detention camps, Jimmy goes looking for Ruth and promptly disappears, while Ruth herself teams up with one of Jimmy’s old workmates and chows down on a dead sheep they find in the rubble. We never see Jimmy again. Instead, for the rest of the film we are left wondering what might have happened to him, this crude but effective plot device giving the viewer some insight into the uncertainty Ruth must be feeling. Months pass, Ruth has her baby, and the country struggles to achieve some sense of normality amid the misery and destruction. There is something to be said about the strength and resilience of the human spirit, yet there can be no escaping the futility to it all. The prize for survival is another day of hardship and despair.

Raw, powerful, and thought-provoking, Threads is a snapshot both of how things used to be and how things could have been, illustrating the latent fear that permeated society and, by extension, popular culture, in the heady eighties. This is grim in the extreme, but war is never glamorous or pretty and Threads does an excellent job of conveying that harsh reality. The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw hailed it as a “masterpiece,” going on to say that, “It wasn’t until I saw Threads that I found something on screen that could make me break out in a cold, shivering sweat,” while Sam Troy of Empire gave the film a perfect score, stating that it, “Teaches an unforgettable lesson in true horror.”

Trivia Corner

As part of their preparation, writer Barry Hines and director Mick Jackson travelled extensively throughout the UK and US consulting leading doctors, scientists and psychologists gathering intel to help them recreate the most realistic depiction of nuclear war possible. At one point Hines visited a Home Office training centre for ‘official survivors’ which, he said, showed just, “how disorganised [post-war reconstruction] would be.”


RetView #43 – Outpost (2008)

Title: Outpost

Year of Release: 2008

Director: Steve Barker

Length: 90 mins

outpost

Starring: Ray Stevenson, Julian Wadham, Richard Brake, Michael Smiley

I talked about my fondness for undead Nazi films in my post about the 1977 Peter Cushing vehicle Shock Waves. There’s something fundamentally terrifying about the juxtaposition of two evils, and the unholy malevolence that just won’t die. Outpost is a great example of this creepy sub-genre, and has all the elements you would look for in such a movie; symbolism, violence, action, gun fights, violence, survivalism, machismo, and violence. And did I mention the violence? Shortly after its release, debutant director Steve Barker described it simply as, “A boy’s film. It’s a good old fashioned siege horror.” That pretty much sums it up.

The film opens in a bar (always a great place to start a film) in some unnamed, war-torn location where corporate engineer and scientist Hunt (Wadham) is recruiting a career-mercenary going by the name DC (Stevenson) and a crack team of ex-soldiers. The proposed mission is to protect Hunt as he ventures into an Eastern Europe war zone in search of Nazi gold. Sounds simple enough. But along the way, they stumble across a forgotten World War II bunker (the outpost) and decide to investigate. When they do, they discover that the outpost was apparently used by the SS to carry out experiments fusing science with the occult. The result of these shadowy experiments was the creation of a battalion of bloodthirsty, unkillable, vengeance-crazed Nazi zombies who begin hunting down the intrepid team of mercenaries and picking them off one-by-one. Heads are crushed, eye balls are plucked out, nails are hammered into flesh, and people are stabbed in the mouth with swords. That’s just for starters.

Of course, the discovery of the outpost is all-too convenient, and it soon becomes apparent that the entire purpose of Hunt’s mission was to recover the machinery developed by the SS at the behest of the company he worked for which ‘could be worth billions.’ Some of them discuss leaving. Which would have been a good idea. Except by then, of course, it’s too late and shit is going off.

Sample dialogue:

Q: Did you kill him?

A: Well, his brains are all over the wall. That’s good enough for me.

The clever thing about this movie is that fact that much like the SS experimenters it describes, it attempts to blend fact and fiction (or, in another sense, science and the occult). The Nazis were renowned proponents of the supernatural and allegedly did indeed conduct experiments to produce regenerating ‘super soldiers’ as well as lots of other gruesome stuff. Try a Google search using the term ‘Nazi human experiments’ and you’ll see what I mean. The film even references the Philadelphia Experiment, an alleged disastrous attempt by the US military to ‘cloak’ the SS Eldridge. However, logic seems to be the enemy here. At one point, we see the nasty unkillable Germans demonstrating the unnerving ability to spontaneously appear and disappear wherever they want. But later, they are held back by a door. Still, who needs logic, eh?

Despite the occasional plot hole, Outpost is widely acknowledged as a classic budget Brit horror in the vein of Dog Soldiers and 28 Days Later. It’s a deliciously taught and atmospheric offering which ticks most horror fan boxes and gathered a sizeable cult following. The acting is decent, the writing (by Rae Brunton) tight, and though the dialogue is a little cheesy at times, the kills come thick and fast and all involved from the actors to the lighting engineers make the most of their limited budget. Most of the action takes place inside the bunker, giving an oppressive, claustrophobic feel to proceedings. The cinematography and is top notch, combining with the funky lighting and other special effects to make your skin crawl as if you were really in that grimy concrete-lined underground hole, waiting for death to find you. At times, it’s almost like you are playing a live action RPG rather than watching a movie.

Outpost spawned two sequels, Outpost II: Black Sun (2012), which was released direct-to-DVD, a medium where the first film did especially well, prompting a modest UK cinema run, and a prequel entitled Outpost: Rise of the Spetsnaz (2013). The first film was largely well-received, with www.manlymovie.net saying, “Outpost is a minimalistic Brit horror film in all aspects, with a narrow scope and little in the way of flashy special effects. It’s also really, really damn good, and just as satisfyingly violent and gory as any contemporary horror picture.” However, both sequels were widely panned. Personally, I found both of them more than watchable. But then again, I’m easily pleased.

Trivia Corner

Scottish couple Arabella Croft and Kieran Parker re-mortgaged their Glasgow home in order to raise £200,000 to finance production, which they did via their company Black Camel Pictures.


RetView #41 – Megan is Missing (2011)

Title: Megan is Missing

Year of Release: 2011

Director: Michael Goi

Length: 89 mins

Starring: Amber Perkins, Rachel Quinn, Dean Waite

The story behind Megan is Missing is almost as remarkable as the film itself. Despite being initially released in 2011 it was shot in the found footage format made famous by the Blair Witch Project (1999) five years earlier on a miniscule budget of around $30k. Writer/Director Michael Goi claimed the reason for the gap between production and release was down to the objectionable subject matter. He simply couldn’t find anyone to distribute it until Anchor Bay stepped up. Due to the budgetary constraints involved, and to give the movie a ‘raw’ feeling, it was made over the course of a week by a crew of just five using only minimal equipment. It was claimed that this drive for authenticity was also the reasoning behind using largely juvenile, unknown actors, though it’s difficult to see many Hollywood A-listers (or even Z-listers) signing on to a project by a newbie director when those kinds of figures are being bandied around. It was originally marketed as an educational film about the dangers of the internet with Goi stating his desire for it to serve as a ‘wake up call’ to parents. However, it later found considerable traction in the teen horror market.

The story follows popular Californian high-school student Megan Stewart (Rachel Quinn) who meets up with ‘Josh,’ a boy she had been interacting with online, and subsequently vanishes without trace prompting her less-popular best friend Amy Herman (Amber Perkins) to set out to find her. The first half of the film provides an unflinching snapshot into the complicated, overlapping lives of teens in the technological age where bullying and peer pressure is rife, interspersed with regular bouts of slut-shaming, social exclusion and a plethora of other disturbing yet apparently all-too common practices. It’s difficult to watch and not recognize something of yourself in there somewhere, and credit has to be given where it’s due for shining a light on some of the more damaging aspects of teenage life. If you have kids that age, this is what they deal with on a daily basis but never tell you about, and it’s fucking terrifying. All this occurs before the watershed point about two-thirds through where everything is ramped up several hundred notches. Goi later issued a trigger warning for prospective viewers stating: “Do not watch the movie in the middle of the night. Do not watch the movie alone. And if you see the words ‘photo number one’ pop up on your screen, you have about four seconds to shut off the movie before you start seeing things that maybe you don’t want to see.”

As the movie is played out entirely on a screen (or a screen within a screen) through a clumsy combination of supposedly recovered video tapes, photographs, and news reports, it technically belongs to the Computer Screen (aka Desktop Film) genre, which has risen to prominence on the back of increased use of social media. In November 2020, the film became a pop culture sensation after it went viral on social media platform TikTok, where it found its largest audience since release. Users began posting their reactions as the film progresses, with many calling it “traumatizing.” To date, the hashtag for the film has over 84 million views, much of the attention seemingly stemming from persistent rumours that the footage is real. It’s not. But nevertheless, the movie has been dogged by controversey since its release, spawned no end of debate, and firmly divided opinion. An article on Thought Catalogue says, “Everyone has those scenes from the end of the movie etched into their mind forever. This is one of the scariest movies from the past 10 years and no one talks about it,” while HorrorNews.net said that the first portion of the film “really works,” although they felt that the final twenty-two minutes “went a little overboard.” Film critic Jamie Dexter perhaps puts it best saying, “It took days for me to shake the horrible feeling this movie left in me, but that just means it was effective in what it set out to do.”

That final third is definitely hard to watch. I think the most difficult thing to reconcile is the fact that **spoiler alert** he gets away with it. After being put through over 80 minutes of debilitating psychological trauma, the viewer is entitled to expect some retribution, some kind of payback because no evil deed goes unpunished, right? Right? Yeah, we all know that isn’t always the case in real life. But this is a film, dammit. Somebody had control over it. And that somebody could easily have made ‘Josh’ fall over a tree root and bang his head on a rock or something at the end. But no. This is the kind of nightmare scenario we read about in newspapers, presented to us in vivid, unflinching, excruciating detail. Indeed, Goi based the film on real life cases of child abduction. Most of the criticism, apart from that concerning the content, was directed at the unprofessional, ‘thrown together’ feel, completely missing the fact that this was the intention from the start. Goi was going for the kind of gritty realism you just don’t get with massive budgets and slick Hollywood production. He succeeded.

If you haven’t seen it yet, you can watch it here. Viewer discretion is advised.

Trivia Corner

The movie was banned by New Zealand’s Office of Film and Literature Classification on the grounds of containing sexual violence and sexual conduct involving young people to such an extent and degree that if it was released it would be ‘injurious to the public good’. The officials went on to say that the movie relished the spectacle of one girl’s ordeal, including a three-minute rape scene, and that it sexualized the lives of teenaged girls to a “highly exploitative degree.” Whilst I deplore censorship in any form, to be fair they weren’t far off the mark there.


Retview #39 – They Live (1988)

Title: They Live

Year of Release: 1988

Director: John Carpenter

Length: 94 mins

Starring: “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, Keith David, Meg Foster, Peter Jason

they live

And now we arrive at yet another worthy entry in this series for horror maestro John Carpenter following The Fog, The Thing and Christine, and we haven’t even come to Halloween yet. Despite making back its entire budget of $3 million in its first weekend in theatres, upon release They Live offering was largely met with lukewarm reviews and indifference. Richard Harrington wrote in The Washington Post, “It’s just John Carpenter as usual, trying to dig deep with a toy shovel. The plot for They Live is full of black holes, the acting is wretched, the effects are second-rate.”

Ouch.

However, like so many other Carpenter films, They Live soon gathered traction and built a dedicated cult following further down the line. Since then, it has become known in underground circles as a bona fide sci-fi horror classic in the vein of Terminator and Robocop, containing all the elements essential for such an illustrious title such as satire, social commentary, a healthy dose of humour and, of course, some explosions. Its cultural impact is so profound that more than three decades after it came out, those perma-woke hipsters over at Rolling Stone are still writing articles about it.

The plot is pretty basic. Renowned wrestling star Roddy Piper, now sadly departed, plays Nada, a good-natured drifter who befriends construction worker Frank Armitage (David, who also played Kurt Russell’s sidekick in The Thing). Near a soup kitchen in a local shanty town he discovers a church full of scientific equipment, shortly thereafter the entire place is razed to the ground by police and Nada salvages a box of sunglasses. He steals one pair, and hides the rest in a dumpster.  Upon trying out the glasses the first thing he notices is that all the ads that surround us in our daily lives are really vehicles for hidden subversive messages or commands like ‘obey’ and ‘marry and reproduce.’ And that’s just the beginning. The glasses also allow him to see for the first time that the legions of yuppies populating Los Angeles, and presumably the rest of the world are, in fact, aliens. When the nasty aliens learn that Nada is well on the way to uncovering the truth, he essentially takes TV worker Holly Thompson (Foster) hostage, until she throws him through a window. Now a fugitive, Nada meets Armitage and, after a marathon six-minute street fight, finally succeeds in forcing a pair of sunglasses on his disbelieving buddy. Now alert to the truth, the two pair up to try to stop the alien invasion.

The idea for the movie came from a short story by Ray Nelson called “Eight o’clock in the Morning,” which was originally published in the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1963. It was later developed into a comic with the much snappier title Nada which was published in the Alien Encounters anthology in 1986. Carpenter acquired the film rights to both the original short story and the comic book, and used them as the basis for the screenplay which he wrote under the pseudonym Frank Armitage, which was also the name of David’s character. The name is actually an allusion to H.P. Lovecraft, one of carpenter’s favourite writers, who named a character in his classic The Dunwich Horror Henry Armitage. Ironically, most Lovecraftian horror involves a hidden or unseen world, a core element of They Live.

In the years since it came out, the movie has been taken as a metaphor for Reagan’s America, with Carpenter himself throwing fuel on the fire in various interviews. In a nutshell, the more political elements of the movie are derived from the director’s growing distaste with 1980’s commercialisation and consumerism, especially the economic policies promoted by the president which were dubbed Reaganomics. Carpenter once said, “I began watching TV again [and] quickly realized that everything we see is designed to sell us something.”

In keeping with the OTT eighties trend of cramming as many naff one-liners in each film as was humanly possible, Piper’s peak comes with the sublime, “I’ve come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubblegum,” second only to, “Life’s a bitch. And she’s back in heat.”

A remake has been mooted since around 2010 but details remain elusive. One thing is certain, if any cult movie would benefit from a big-budget, modern-day makeover, it’s this one.

Trivia Corner

Even politically-conscious pop punk stalwarts Green Day paid homage to They Live in the video for their single Back in the USA from the 2017 compilation Greatest Hits: God’s Favourite Band.


RetView #35 – Hide and Go Kill (2008)

Title: Hide and Go Kill

Year of Release: 2008

Director: Tomoya Kainuma

Length: 72 mins

Starring: Saki Yamaguchi, Haruka Misaki, Rui Ono, Aimirora

Hide and Go Kill

I’ve been quietly obsessed with internet rituals for a few years now, ever since I stumbled across something about the mysterious death of Elisa Lam online. Merging technology and the paranormal, which could be a metaphor for Japanese horror itself, internet rituals (or games) have cropped up in my writing several times, not least in my forthcoming novella Tethered, and Hitori Kakurenbo which translates to ‘hide and seek alone’ and was my contribution to 100 Word Horrors 2. Hide and Go Kill is based on the same ritual. In true urban legend fashion, the details vary between sources but in a nutshell, the instructions are as follows:

Get a doll, remove the stuffing, replace it with rice, throw in some of your blood or nail clippings (gross) then sew it back up with red thread and give it a name. Preferably something good and scary. At 3 am, turn off all the lights but leave on the TV then go to the bathroom, fill a bucket full of water, and place the doll inside. Saying “I see you (name),” stab the doll with a sharp knife, then go and hide. If you manage to perform the ritual correctly, you’ll soon start to experience certain unexplained phenomena like hearing noises from an empty room and then, you guessed it, the doll will come to find you, hence the name ‘hide and seek alone.’ Either that, or you might commit suicide or disappear without trace. Good times had by all!

The movie version opens with one of those simple yet spooky white-on-black introduction sequences consisting of what’s (I think) meant to be an exchange between several people on the comment section a blog, one of whom is explaining that a friend of theirs played hide and seek alone and didn’t come out of it very well. The film proper begins in a Japanese classroom. If you’re a fan of J-Horror as I am, you’ll know that all the best twisted shit starts in Japanese classrooms, and Hide and Go Kill is no different. Here, there’s a girl called Midori (model and actress Yamaguchi) reading a blog on her phone and remembering her absent friend, Fumika, who after being jilted by her lover and bullied at school discovered the Lonely Girl blog and tried repeatedly to persuade Midori to play hide and seek alone (“Fuck the fuck off, Fumika!”). Eventually she succumbs, of course she does. The blog, and by extension, the game, spreads, and the horror takes hold. The film is essentially an anthology of sorts, each segment following a different person’s experience with the common denominator being the blog (poorly translated in the movie as a ‘mobile novel’) and the ritual it pertains to, culminating with the origin story. True, this movie follows a popular template and in places is slightly derivative of certain J-Horror staples, notably Ringu. Also, the subtitles are atrocious.

***OMINOUS MUSIC!***

In a scathing review, BloodyGoodHorror.com  said, “It’s boring. Real boring. Each story also has to show how the characters first learned about this stupid game. In each case, it’s through some text-message released novel called “Lonely Girl”. As described in the film, “Lonely Girl” is so dark and twisted that very few people would read it. Problem is, every single fucking person in the movie reads it. As do all of their friends.”

Well, you know what they say about opinions.

Mine happens to be that while it is far from perfect, Hide and Go Kill isn’t completely without merit. In fact, as a concept it’s pretty damn good. At the time of release over a decade ago it was quite innovative, and it benefits greatly from the general skin-crawling creepiness so often associated with J-horror. Mood. You won’t find much about it online, apart from a few mixed reviews and a very basic IMDB listing. I couldn’t, anyway. Despite spawning a sequel a couple of years later (Hide and Go Kill 2 or, alternatively, Creepy Hide and Seek, which has to be the worst name for a movie ever) it’s almost like the film slipped completely under the radar. However, if by chance you have Amazon Prime you can watch it in full there. Don’t forget to turn on the subtitles, unless you happen to be fluent in Japanese.

Trivia Corner:

Word is that the movie spawned the ritual, rather than the other way around. Clever producers or PR people invented the game and floated it out to popular message boards as a form of guerrilla marketing where it soon took on a life of its own.

Tethered is available for pre-order now on Terror Tract Publishing.


RetView #30 – Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Title: Night of the Living Dead

Year of Release: 1968

Director: George A. Romero

Length: 96 mins

Starring: Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Marilyn Eastman, Karl Hardman, Russell Streiner, Kyra Schon

night of the living dead

Few films have had anything like the same impact on the horror genre as Night of the Living Dead. It was the brainchild of New Yorker George A. Romero who, until then, been involved mainly in producing short films and TV commercials. In his late-twenties, he and a group of friends (many of whom appear in the film) decided to form a company called Image Ten Productions, Night of the Living Dead being one of their first projects.

According to Romero, the story was inspired by the post-apocalyptic Richard Matheson novel I am Legend, about vampire-like creatures roaming the earth after a plague, and was designed to capitalize on the film industry’s ‘thirst for the bizarre.’ Produced on a shoestring, the film had an original budget of just $6000, raised by the ten members of the newly-formed production company, before additional funding was found to stretch the budget to $114,000. It became an instant drive-in hit, and soon recouped over 250 times its budget. However, Romero himself saw little of this, thanks to his lack of industry knowledge regarding distribution deals.

The plot follows a brother and sister, Barbra (O’Dea) and Johnny (Streiner), who travel to Pennsylvania to visit their father’s grave. In the cemetery, they are attacked by a ghoulish stranger. He makes short work of poor Johnny, and chases Barbra on foot. The understandably shaken woman makes her way to a nearby remote farmhouse where she is attacked again (not her day) before being rescued by Ben (Jones) who fights off the assailants and takes Barbra inside the farmhouse. The pragmatic Ben then sets about boarding up the doors and windows, while Barbra has a not-so-quiet meltdown in the corner. They then discover a family hiding out in the cellar and are joined by a teenaged couple who turn up seeking refuge after hearing an emergency call about a series of brutal murders, and the cast is complete.

But not for long.

As you’ve probably guessed, the zombie hordes spend the rest of the movie trying to break into the farmhouse and picking off the small gaggle of survivors one-by-one. Obviously, that’s a drastic oversimplification, but you get the drift. As things develop, the horror gradually, and terrifyingly, shifts from those on the outside trying to get in, to those already inside, not least the daughter, Karen (Schon) who has been bitten by a ghoul (Romero’s original name for what we now know as zombies) and spends most of the film in a catatonic state. Until the end, and if you’ve ever seen a zombie movie before, you can probably guess what happens then. This is the mechanism that poses many of the questions which make the final third of the film so effective. To what lengths would you go to save a loved one? Where would you draw the line? And what do you do when you realize that innocence and beauty mask a ruthless monster? And you’re stuck with it? As Jones says in one of the most memorable lines of the film, “It must be tough for a kid when her old man is this stupid. Now go and be boss down there [in the cellar]. I’m boss up here.”

Add to the mix a satisfyingly gory, ruinous climax and a twist ending and you have a piece of cinematic history. That said, I imagine modern audiences, raised on the sequels and rip-off’s, might be a touch disappointed with what they find here. This is the archetypal indie movie; raw, gritty, and about as far from the glitz and glamour of Hollywood as it’s possible to get. That, for me, is part of its strength. It might seem predictable now, but only because you’ve seen the best parts replicated so many times in other places from likes of Shock Waves and Train to Busan to the Walking Dead. Imagine seeing this back in 1968, when the Vietnam War was still raging and the American political landscape was still struggling to come to terms with the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. The latter, forever associated with the civil rights movement, makes the casting of Duane Jones as Ben even more interesting. At that time, it was highly unusual to see a black male lead dominating a cast of white folk. While some saw the choice as controversial, Romero distanced himself from any controversy by maintaining that Jones ‘simply gave the best audition.’ Jones’ performance is certainly remarkable, and it’s a surprise to me that he didn’t go on to greater things. That could be because he was also a director and teacher, and maybe that was where his true passions lay. Tragically, he died from a cardiac arrest on July 22nd 1988 at the age of just 51. It is also worth noting that Night of the Living Dead was released at the height of the Space Race between America and the Soviet Union which was still very high in the public consciousness, and various allusions are made to Venus probes and radiation as being possible causes of the zombie apocalypse.

Despite its being heavily criticized upon its release for allegedly being exploitative and excessively gory, Night of the Living Dead quickly garnered critical acclaim and became a much-loved horror classic, birthing many of the familiar horror tropes we still see today. Its success led to five sequels between 1978 and 2000, all directed by Romero (along with two remakes and scores of imitations) and it was eventually selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry, as a film deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

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Trivia Corner:

In the scene where the zombies are eating bodies in the burned-out truck, they were actually eating roasted ham covered in chocolate sauce, which was used as a substitute for blood. This was obviously only possible because the film was shot in black and white. Elsewhere, entrails used in the film were donated by one of the actors who owned a chain of butcher shops.


RetView #29 – Turistas (2006)

Title: Turista (Paradise Lost)

Year of Release: 2006

Director: John Stockwell

Length: 95 minutes (uncut)

Starring: Josh Duhamel, Melissa George, Olivia Wilde, Desmond Askew, Max Brown

Turistas

A lot of horror movies play on mankind’s basic fear of the unknown. Some do it with more flair and panache than others, and manage to tick another box by catering to the kind of inherent xenophobia seemingly prevalent in the vast majority of cinema goers. Foreigners bad! Anything can happen over there! Ain’t you done heard the stories? This is why such classics as Severance, Hostel, Train to Busan and any number of Japanese offeringsJapanese offerings end up being so revered by western audiences. Not only do they exploit our dove-tailing fears of foreigners and the unknown, but they also provide a welcome splash of the weird and exotic, the colourful and vibrant. If we’re lucky. In any case, we can console ourselves with the fact that you won’t find any of that stuff over ‘ere, mate. This effectively creates a welcome sense of distance and separation between you and your horror. It makes the whole thing not only more believable but more enjoyable, because it’s never going to happen to you. Is it?

Turistas (Portuguese, Spanish, and Italian for ‘Tourist,’ in case you couldn’t work it out) follows the adventures of a group of hip young American backpackers trekking through Brazil. As soon as the premise is established, you know bad shit is soon going to befall them. The only question is, what kind of bad shit are we talking about? It all becomes a bit more clear a few minutes in when their coach crashes and they hook up with a couple of wise-cracking English blokes (Askew and Brown) and an Australian girl (George). Together, the newly-expanded group of wayward thrill-seekers find a beach bar and proceed to get wasted. They mix with the locals and much cavorting and hilarity ensues, until they all wake up the next morning and find they’re drinks were spiked and they’ve all been robbed (bloody foreigners!). With no phones, no money, and very little hope, they start walking. They soon find themselves in a tiny village, but incur the wrath of the locals when they chase down a kid they see sporting one of their baseball hats. An ally called Kiko, who may or may not be on the level, takes pity on them and whisks them away to a safe house deep in the jungle. Whether he has their best interests at heart or not is rendered immaterial when he dives into a river and bangs his head, knocking himself unconscious. The turistas carry him to the ‘safe house,’ which is deserted, but not for long, as pretty soon some crackhead hoodlums arrive by helicopter. Chief among them is a power-mad physician who proceeds to drug the unfortunate travellers (again), strap them to beds or lock them in cages, and extract their organs one-by-one to sell on the black market. The trip of a lifetime to Brazil then turns into a horrifying battle for survival.

On its release, Turistas (re-named Paradise Lost in the UK, Ireland and France) was met with mixed reviews. Fangoria magazine claimed it was, “Better and scarier than Hostel,” while the New York Times dismissed it as, “Plain stupid.” Being filmed on location in Brazil means it is visually breathtaking, and there is some stunning underwater photography on show. Gore hounds will be happy with the surgery scenes in the unrated version, which leave little to the imagination and are definitely not for the squeamish. According to IMBD, these scenes were performed by an actual surgeon for authenticity. Most of the sequence was cut for the theatrical release, as was an earlier eye-gouging scene.

Turistas uk edition

Interestingly, Turistas was largely boycotted in Brazil because of the negative image it portrays of the country, and star Josh Duhamel, who later found a home in the Transformer films, was coerced into offering the Brazilian government and people a grovelling apology during a subsequent appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Perhaps owing to the mixed reviews and the associated controversy, Turistas was only a modest box office success, bringing in a reported $14.7 million from a budget of $10 million. But don’t let the figures sway you, this is a cut above average.

Trivia Corner:

Desmond Askew (who plays Finn) first shot to fame as a naughty schoolboy in the promo video for Wham’s 1983 hit single Bad Boys. Sticking with the same theme, he later starred in legendary British school drama Grange Hill.


RetView #28 – The Terror (1963)

Title: The Terror

Year of Release: 1963

Director: Roger Corman

Length: 82 mins

Starring: Jack Nicholson, Boris Karloff, Sandra Knight, Dick Miller, Jonathan Haze

the terror

The story goes that when production wrapped on The Raven, eager to capitalize on the burgeoning horror genre, director and producer Roger Corman (who achieved fame adapting the stories of Edgar Allan Poe for cinema) wanted to utilize some leftover sets before they were destroyed. Star Boris Karloff was still contracted for a further three days, so Corman struck a deal which amounted to a paying him a small sum of money along with a deferred payment of $15,000 should the new project go on to make more than $150,000. He then enlisted the help of a young Jack Nicholson, who had also just finished working on The Raven and was busy climbing the rungs of the Hollywood ladder, commissioned Leo Gordon to write a very basic script, and a movie was born.

The Terror was filmed on such a shoe-string budget and incorporated such a liberal attitude that Corman often looked to enroll ‘guest’ directors while he was doing other things. Francis Ford Coppola lent his hand to some scenes, and a 26-year old Jack Nicholson virtually directed himself. He plays Andre Duvalier, a French soldier who, in 1806, becomes lost in the Confederation of the Rhine (an amalgamation of client states belonging to the First French Empire created after the Battle of Austerlitz). On the brink of exhaustion, he is saved by a beautiful maiden by the name of Helene (Knight) who shows him where he can find fresh drinking water. Duvalier then has a fight with a bird and almost drowns in the sea. When he comes around, he finds himself in a cabin in the forest being tended to by a weird old lady who might very well be a witch. Helene isn’t there, but the feisty bird he rumbled with earlier is, which is probably all the guy needed. Thoroughly freaked, he sneaks out in the dead of night and heads off into the forest where he meets up with Helene again. This time, in a roundabout way, she leads him to a creepy old castle where he runs into Baron Von Leppe (Karloff) and his henchman, Stefan (Miller). Seeing her portrait on the wall, Duvalier asks about the girl, only to be told the portrait isn’t anyone called Helene at all, but his wife, Ilsa, who he had murdered some years previously when he caught her cheating with a yokel. Even that doesn’t phase Duvalier who loudly proclaims, “With all due respect Baron, for a ghost she’s a very active young woman!” That night, he looks out of the window to see Helene/Ilsa walking in the grounds, and goes out to find her. By this time, I couldn’t help wondering if there was anything a French soldier wouldn’t do to get his end away. He flat-out refuses to leave the castle, and sets about trying to solve the mystery, which only deepens when a disembodied voice leads him to the crypt. Nothing good ever happens in crypts in films. Or in real life, I imagine. Don’t go in the crypt. Does he go in the crypt? I think you know the answer to that. He can’t fucking wait to get in that crypt.

Though much-maligned, and often completely overlooked, for me the Terror stands out for many reasons. Firstly, the ingenuity and sheer resourcefulness of Corman, who pulled out every stop to get the thing done. He saw an opportunity and followed it through, and deserves bucket loads of credit for that. It was a very DIY punk thing to do. Apparently, he never did pay Karloff that promised $15,000, because, he claims, the movie never made the stipulated $150,000. Despite the weak script, much of which was probably written on the hoof or at least partially improvised, the dovetailing performances of Karloff and Nicholson, two screen legends, are remarkable. Finally, the gothic setting is absolutely gorgeous. That castle is straight out of a dream, or a nightmare, the numerous neglected rooms full of dusty trinkets and secret passages act as fitting visual metaphors for the Baron’s moral decay and worsening mental state.

Since someone forgot to include a copyright notice in the credits, today, the original version of the film is in the public domain. To navigate this problem, in the early 1990’s, Corman enlisted Dick Miller to reprise his role and shoot new scenes to frame the action from the original movie, which is then presented in flashback. This extended the running time to 91 minutes. To make matters even more confusing, depending on where it was released, the Terror was alternatively known as The Haunting, The Castle of Terror, and Lady of the Shadows. Given the options, The Terror is probably the most uninspired title they could have gone with. If this film was an object, it would be one of those weird little dusty ornaments you find in an elderly relatives house after they die. Totally worthless in a practical sense, but never-the-less curious, bizarre and not without charm.

Trivia Corner:

The uniform worn by Jack Nicholson was previously worn by Marlon Brando when he played Napoleon Bonaparte in the 1954 epic Desiree.


RetView #25 – 28 Days Later (2002)

Title: 28 Days Later

Year of Release: 2002

Director: Danny Boyle

Length: 113 mins

Starring: Cillian Murphy, Naomie Harris, Christopher Eccleston, Noah Huntley

28-days-later-poster_960_640_80

Few post-millennium horror movies have generated as much debate and column inches as 28 Days Later. Based on the novel by Alex ‘The Beach’ Garland, it is often credited with kick-starting an ailing zombie genre as well as breathing life into a British film industry which had become saturated with warm, fuzzy Love Actually cash-ins. In 2007, Stylus magazine voted it the second best zombie movie of all time (after Dawn of the Dead) while a poll in Time Out magazine a decade later ranked it the 97th best British movie of all time. Director Danny Boyle has been involved in some of the most iconic British movies in history. His career started in earnest with cult classic Shallow Grave in 1994. He then directed Trainspotting, A Life Less Ordinary and The Beach, before slotting 28 Days Later on his cv. Afterwards, he went on to produce the sequel, 28 Weeks Later, as well as direct Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours, and the acclaimed biopic, Steve Jobs. He won widespread acclaim for making the zombies in 28 Days Later ‘fast,’ as opposed to the kind of shambling oddities popularized by George A Romero’s genre-defining zombie films, which proved all the more terrifying.

The film opens with archival footage of riots, chaos and atrocities, setting the tone nicely for what follows. The main story arc begins in earnest when a group of animal rights activists break into a research facility to free some chimpanzees. However, unbeknownst to them, the chimpanzees aren’t cute and cuddly any more. Far from it. They’ve been infected with a rage-inducing virus, and once freed they waste no time setting about the activists who then go on to infect everyone else. 28 Days later (geddit?) injured bicycle courier Jim (Murphy, allegedly third choice for the role behind Ewan McGregor and Ryan Gosling) awakes from a coma in a hospital to find it deserted. Walking out into London, he finds much the same state of affairs. The streets are empty, cars and shops have been abandoned, and there are no people. Anywhere. He finds a newspaper telling of an evacuation, stumbles across a church where a mass suicide seems to have taken place, and is then attacked by a priest, who he whacks upside the head with a carrier bag full of Pepsi cans, all of which must be very unsettling for the poor guy. He eventually runs into a pair of survivors (Harris and Huntley) who tell him of an outbreak which has led to a nationwide, and possible worldwide societal collapse. After a miss-hap during which one of the trio is killed, the others hook up with a taxi driver and his daughter and they decamp for Manchester, where they hope to find the, ‘answer to infection.’ They are eventually taken to a fortified compound by a group of soldiers, where the ‘answer to infection’ isn’t what they thought it was. Instead of salvation, they are faced with oblivion.

The last half an hour or so offers a bleak yet well-observed and perfectly plausible assessment of what life might actually be like if (or when) the apocalypse comes and people regress to ‘kill or be killed’ mode. It’s interesting to note that fellow survivors pose more of a threat than the undead, this theory being at the very core of survivalism. Boyle ingeniously inserts flashes of the narrative from The Beach here, in that the focus is on a fractious group struggling to establish an alternative society under constant threat of attack, whether it be from outsiders, sharks, armed drug dealers, or these ‘fast’ zombies.

28 Days Later is famed for its depiction of post-apocalyptic London, which was achieved largely by filming early on Sunday mornings and shutting off sections of the city for short periods to minimize disruption. The ending is a hastily re-hashed alternative. The original, which hinged on the death of a major character, was deemed by test audiences to be too bleak. It’s an apocalyptic horror film for crying out loud. It is, however, one of several available as bonus content on some DVD and Blu-ray releases.

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Trivia Corner:

The Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, Wales, doubled for the interior of Wembley Stadium because at the time of filming, the ‘new’ Wembley was still under construction. Visual effects were used to turn the seats the right colour.


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