Antiviral

Caleb Landry Jones in Antiviral

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

29 February

 

 

Rare Disease Day

This day every leap year is Rare Disease Day. Initially chosen because the day itself is rare, and to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Orphan Drug Act in the USA (which makes it easier for therapies for designated diseases to be developed), it was first observed in 2008. When there isn’t a 29 February in the year, the day is observed on the last day of the month. A rare disease is technically defined as one found in fewer than five people in 10,000, but there are more well known rare diseases than might at first be thought – cystic fibrosis, conjoined twins, Creutzfeld Jakob disease to name three beginning with the letter C. The day is largely used to raise awareness and increase access to facilities and treatment, but is also seen as an opportunity for lobbying and fund-raising. The organisation’s website is at www.rarediseaseday.org

 

 

 

Antiviral (2012, dir: Brandon Cronenberg)

Meet Syd. He works at a strange medical facility which deals in celebrity infections. Not the curing of infections that celebrities have, but the culturing and selling on of infections – herpes seems to be a favourite – which a particular celebrity has had, the idea being that the adoring fan will buy anything, and especially something so intimately connected with fame. So that’s Syd’s job – selling famous people’s diseases. He’s at the fragrant high end of a market which, lower down the pecking order, deals in cloned celebrity muscle tissue, offered up on the black market at a handsome price to the fanbase. They eat it, apparently. In films where the “hero” works in some highly mechanised and not particularly savoury occupation, at some point he generally makes a break for it, or sets about bringing about a revolution. Syd does neither. Instead he sneaks some infection home from work inside his own bloodstream, with the intention of either doing some black market trading, or having his own private facetime with a celebrity virus, we’re not sure at first. But Syd’s theft has consequences, and he’s soon fighting the very thing that other people are fighting to get.
The time is the near future; the place is a sort of aseptic steampunk version of the present; the influences are the dystopia of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and the body horror of David Cronenberg. And the director is Cronenberg’s son, Brandon, who could be accused of having cloned his dad’s sensibility, if we were being cruel. I suspect that Cronenberg Sr had some ancillary input in Antiviral – the technical work, the mis en scene, and the support cast are all perfect – but there is more going on here than Mini-Me horror. Cronenberg Jr builds a convincing universe, uses his cast well (Caleb Landry Jones as the pasty salesman/technician/thief; Malcolm McDowell affirming the Kubrick connection; Sarah Gadon blonde and charismatic as the Madonna/Gaga-esque star the plot hinges on). Brandon Cronenberg also has his own vision, tells his own story and follows his theme of vampiric celebrity culture – they live on us, though fans believe it’s the opposite – through to its pitiless satirical conclusion (OK, that last bit is definitely the father’s style too). More importantly, he fuses the clean-tech high modernist sci-fi look – the opening shot is of a white light and white is the key colour throughout – with something much more organic, wet, dark, even hairy. Enjoy.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The directorial debut of another Cronenberg auteur
  • Powerful, disturbing body horror
  • Old-fashioned physical special effects extremely well used
  • Part of the rise and rise of Caleb Landry Jones

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Antiviral – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Host

Bae Doo-na, Byun Hee-bong and Song Kang-ho in The Host

 

In Memories of Murder, the South Korean director Bong Joon-ho made an interesting point about the police procedural – that no matter how “tortured” the cop/protagonist, no matter how broken his background, how fractured his family life, how severe his problem with drink, he always remains a hero. Not in Memories of Murder he doesn’t. Nor did the case get solved by inspiration, Sherlock Holmes-ian deduction, or even solid police work – it was mostly luck, that’s when the cops weren’t beating information out of people. The Host is Bong’s observations on the creature feature, another home for the hero. But, again, not here. Bong first gives us a bit of Godzilla-style backstory – toxic waste pouring into Seoul’s River Han has caused a hideous mutation to take place. Meanwhile, on dry land, we meet the family that’s going to be most closely affected once the creature decides to crawl out of the river and go postal – among them a drunken, no-good dad, a horrible sniping brother and a worthy, decent sister who, we learn, was an Olympic archer. In Hollywood there would be only one possible outcome here – that the decent girl would eventually rise to become the hero character. But will she in South Korea? What, for instance is the significance of the fact that she only won a bronze medal when she was at the Olympics? Is the monster going to offer her a chance to go for gold?

Bong takes time to introduce his characters, works within the obviously limited budget to deliver a creature that’s a piece of work, all tail and mouth, as horrible as it is athletic as it is intriguing. And then he plays the intrigue game with the characters, shifting the focus and our expectations from one to the next, sharing out redemption between them, because redemption and heroism are also often linked, he’s making clear. But like Memories of Murder, the strength of The Host is that you can ignore all this “commentary on a genre” aspect entirely and watch it as a straight-out creature feature and it’s very good indeed – fresh, thrilling, tense, humane, even funny now and again – there’s nothing arched or forced.

Films like this are often referred to as a Hollywood calling card, which is a tremendously Victorian way of putting things, but in Bong’s case his film is more like fan-fiction – he clearly knows his sources but is taking things into his own universe, in his own way, as well as he can with the money to hand. If Hollywood wants him, it’s most likely going to be on his terms.

 

 

 

The Host – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

 

 

The Tunnel

Bel Deliá and a dead person in The Tunnel

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

2 August

 

Tower Subway opens, 1870

On this day in 1870, the Tower Subway opened in London, UK. Running under the River Thames between Tower Hill on the north bank and Tooley Street on the south, it is a 1,340 foot (410m) tunnel and was the first built under a river expressly to carry a train. Though it caused a lot of excitement at the time, the tunnel was only narrow, at just over 6.5 feet (2.026m) wide, and its tiny train did not have much room for passengers. The company that built it went bust and the tunnel closed at the end of the year it had opened, though it re-opened shortly afterwards as a foot tunnel. This was popular, though narrow – “it is not advisable for any but the very briefest of Her Majesty’s lieges to attempt the passage in high-heeled boots, or with a hat to which he attaches any particular value,” wrote Charles Dickens after using it. In 1897, suffering a loss of traffic after a toll-less Tower Bridge opened just down the river three years before, it closed again. It was at first used for hydraulic power. Now it is used for water mains and telecoms cables.

 

 

 

The Tunnel (2011, dir: Carlo Ledesma)

The mock-doc horror movie has proved to be remarkably resilient, rumours of its death having been on the wind even as The Blair Witch Project was first taking wing. The Tunnel clearly owes a debt to the 1999 movie, but that isn’t a bad thing when it’s done this well. The story is a fairly straightforward one and it elegantly entirely justifies the constant presence of a camera – often a credulity-straining presence in this sort of film. Yes I’m thinking of Cloverfield. Because the group of unlucky souls we are following are an Australian news crew entering a network of disused tunnels to find out whether the stories of homeless people disappearing down there are true. The tunnels, it seems, are about to be converted into some vast underground water storage facility. And that’s all you need to know before plunging in yourself. What you’ll find is a film that has arrived late at the mock-doc party and a director (Carlo Ledesma) and writers (Enzo Tedeschi, Julian Harvey) who know they’re going to be judged to a much more exacting standard than the mock-dockers who have gone before. The conceit they wheel out being that we’re watching a post-event assemblage of material, put together for broadcast purposes – so interviews with the survivors, plus bits of YouTube and plenty of CCTV are spliced into the standard handycam footage of… well let’s just say bad stuff.
Whether we need convincing this much, I’m not sure, but the actors add another layer of believability. They’re uniformly excellent, notably Bel Deliá as a punchy, no-nonsense newshound. One of the others, Steve Davis, is in fact a cameraman and the footage we’re watching is the footage he shot. None of this would matter – nor would the fact that the film debuted on BitTorrent with viewers invited to pay what they thought it was worth – if the film wasn’t any good. But it is good, and is even confident enough to do not very much at all for a considerable amount of time (see: The Exorcist and Paranormal Activity for some reasons why this is a good idea) until bits of equipment start disappearing and someone suddenly goes missing.
The great advantage of low-budget shooting methods is that you don’t need to worry too much about special effects. And with the low light levels you’d naturally expect to find in tunnels, it doesn’t take much to generate proper “boo” shocks. Kudos to the writing/production team for deciding to shoot in subterranean Sydney, and for sticking hard to their original rationale. The result is a grim, creepy and atmospheric horror film worth watching at night in the dark on your own.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The crazy BitTorrent angle
  • The believable cast
  • The no-budget inventiveness
  • It’s scary

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Tunnel – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Machine Girl

Asami and Minase Yashiro in The Machine Girl

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

25 July

 

Gavrilo Princip born, 1894

On this day in 1894, the man who started the First World War was born, in Obljaj, Bosnia and Herzegovina, to a family of serf farmers, Serbian Orthodox Christians.

Gavrilo Princip didn’t go to school till he was nine, but was bright and a quick learner. His brother, sensing a family member who could lift the entire clan out of poverty, encouraged Gavrilo to move to Sarajevo when he was 13, using money earned as a manual labourer to put his younger brother through merchant school.

Gavrilo became a passionate campaigner for Yugoslavian unification and against the rule of the Austro-Hungarians. Thrown out of school for political agitating, Gavrilo tried to join the Black Hand, one of the foremost Serbian guerrilla bands trying to rid the country of its imperial rulers. But they wouldn’t have him, on account of his size and puniness. However he did manage to join the Serbian Chetnik Organisation and was trained in bomb-making, swordsmanship and shooting.

With tensions rising in the area, the Austro-Hungarians declared a state of emergency in Sarajevo, which propelled Gavrilo and fellow conspirators towards the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, nephew of the Austro-Hungarian Emperor.

The attempt, on the morning of 28 June 1914, was a catalogue of failure, with none of the six assassins managing to hit their target. However, by a complete fluke, Princip happened upon the Archduke’s car as he made his way across town later. In fact it stalled right in front of him, giving him a shot on target from around 1.5m (5 feet).

His bullets killed both the Archduke and his wife.

 

 

 

The Machine Girl (2008, dir: Noboru Igushi)

Before the opening credits on The Machine Girl have even rolled we’ve met our heroine, Ami, a slip of a girl in a school uniform who has saved a young boy from menacing thugs by blowing them away with what looks like a First World War machine gun, apparently an extension of her arm. But not blown away just any old how. She does it by dismantling their heads bit by bit with a targeted line of bullets, fountains of blood gushing into the air, flops of gore hitting the camera lens.
The credits out of the way, the mood established, we roll backwards in time to discover how a nice meek Japanese miss became a ruthless bloodthirsty killer. Revenge is the answer, for the death of her brother, though really the plot is not the thing in this patchwork of grindhouse and anime held together with blood, gore and an eye for the absurd.

Here’s how she lost her arm: Ami went to the house of the bully who was tormenting her brother, to speak to his parents. They responded by deep-frying her arm. “It’s hot,” she observes. “It fried up nicely,” they reply.

And this is just where the madness is getting going, about 30 minutes in, once the framework of a plot has been established on which to hang the festoons of offal that follow.

How about a chef being fed a sushi of human fingers? Or a father being given a hair conditioner made of his son’s blood? (Is it any surprise to learn that the director used to churn out enema fetish videos?)

But unlike many more western stabs into this territory – the Tarantino/Rodriguez Grindhouse experiments being the most high profile – The Machine Girl never lets on that it’s comedy.

This is all the more impressive when you consider that its lead character, Minase Yashiro, youthful “gravure idol” (a pin-up, basically), is making her debut, and never goes further than offering a hint of panty to satisfy the, let’s face it, largely male audience.

At various points the amputation does get a bit too much, but then the director rescues the film with another moment of bravura slaughter, climaxing in a finale that does special things with a bra the likes of which you probably won’t have seen before.

It’s a comic book collection of offcuts, a resource book of nastiness for Hollywood magpies to pick over, the deliberate 1970s production values, wilfully bad syncing, obviously poorly staged fights all adding to the sense that we’re being entertained as much by Iguchi’s (and our own) sense of cinema history as by the film itself. Those Female Convict Scorpion films of the 1970s have a lot to answer for.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A kickass debut by Minase Yashiro
  • One of the most inventive gore feasts you will see
  • The brilliant practical special effects
  • The Japanese return the Grindhouse compliment

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Machine Girl – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Human Centipede

Dieter Laser in The Human Centipede

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

21 June

 

Josef Mengele’s remains identified, 1985

On this day in 1985 it was finally ascertained that remains exhumed from a grave in Brazil were those of Josef Mengele. Later DNA testing in 1992 confirmed this original identification from dental records. Mengele had died after suffering a stroke and drowning while swimming in the coastal resort of Bertioga. He was 67 and had been living in South America ever since fleeing the concentration camp Auschwitz at the end of the Second World War, where his experiments on inmates had earned him the nickname the “Angel of Death”. Mengele’s special field of interest was twins and he performed any number of experiments to prove the supremacy of nature over nurture (the better to bolster the Nazi’s theories about racial supremacy). These included infecting one twin with a disease, amputating limbs, the injection of chloroform into the heart and in one particularly gruesome case the sewing together of Gypsy children to try and make conjoined twins. These unfortunates died of gangrene.

 

 

 

The Human Centipede (First Sequence) (2009, dir: Tom Six)

When buzz about The Human Centipede first started being generated online, the film was being talked about as a new peak of torture porn, perhaps as the ultimate torture porn. In fact it’s an old form of torture porn, revived. As evidence, here’s Dieter Laser, as Dr Heiter, a smock-coated, severe Teutonic doctor, leather boots, gaunt face, long pitiless limbs, the twitch, the embodiment of the cruel Nazi medical man who’s putting his undoubtedly brilliant skills to fiendish ends. Admittedly, writer/director Tom Six has come up with something new for this updated Mengele to do, though it isn’t a long way from the Angel of Death’s original practices. He’s going to sew together three innocent tourists he’s kidnapped, the mouth of one connecting with the anus of the next, then that one’s mouth sewn onto the anus of the one in front. To make a centipede, one whose shit passes from first person to second to third. Why? To create an internet buzz, bums on seats, make a name for Six, make money, nothing more.

But what’s admirable about the way Six does it is that he follows his logic through mercilessly. The film lacks the guile it would have had if it had been made by Hollywood. We see naked women, but they’re naked because they’re being readied for an operation, the fact that we occasionally cop a glance of a sideboob more accidental than intentional (I’m absolutely not saying it’s not intentional though). The remorseless logic of the operation is followed through too – once three people are connected thusly, how do they interact? What happens if one wants to go left when the other wants to go right? What if something serious happens to one of them (like it hasn’t already)? Six also introduces a fascinating political element in the shape of the two cops who come to check out the mad doctor’s remote facility and who threaten to stop him in his tracks. The cops are clearly 1968 refugees – “Hitler’s children” – and what Six reserves for them shows that there’s a keen cultural intelligence at work. Like most torture porn films, The Human Centipede is really a comedy, Six coming up with increasingly horrible things to show the audience and then basically daring them not to groan. Laughter is the only way out. The cue being Dr Heiter breaking off from his medical work to expound at length on his strange domestic pet, the so-called Three-Dog. Yes, yes, yes, he’d worked up a prototype. Barking.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • One of the most infamous films of recent years
  • Dieter Laser’s grim-faced performance
  • Tom Six’s ingenious screenplay
  • A very very dark comedy

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Human Centipede (First Sequence) – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Splice

Come to mummy: Sarah Polley and offspring in Splice

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

16 June

 

Lord Byron and house guests read Fantasmagoriana, 1816

While on holiday in Switzerland in 1816, Lord Byron and his house guests grew sick of the weather of the “year without a summer”, as 1816 came to be known. Volcanic activity on the other side of the world and the historically low solar activity were precipitating famine in Europe, flooding in Asia and other weather catastrophes. But for this party it meant excessive rain, gloom and little to do. To entertain each other, they started reading a collection of German and French gothic stories called Fantasmagoriana. Published only three years earlier in French, the book contained stories with titles such as La Morte Fiancée (The Death Bride) and Le Revenant (The Revenant). The readers included Byron, Mary Godwin, Percy Shelley, John William Polidori and Claire Clairmont. “We will each write a ghost story,” Mary Godwin remembers Byron commanding. And they did, Polidori writing The Vampyre, the first work of recognisable vampire fiction, while Godwin (with addenda by her future husband Shelley), inspired by the news of the great electric advance of galvanism, came up with Frankenstein: or The Modern Prometheus, after having “a waking dream” during which she imagined it, on 16 June.

 

 

 

Splice (2009, dir: Vincenzo Natali)

Why does RoboCop clump about like that, when he’s a cyborg who can jump great heights, has finesse when it comes to aiming a weapon and can run like a gazelle? The answer is: to remind us that he is a Frankenstein creation. Thud. No such sonic clues come from Vincenzo Natali, who spends a huge amount of time and effort distracting us from the fact that his story is about another Frankenstein creation – a hybrid human built by a nerd and his nerdy girlfriend. See, a couple, couldn’t be a Frankenstein story, could it? Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley play the scientist couple and, from the first shots of a slightly overweight Polley, it’s obvious that Natali has pulled his crew in on a no-budget, last-minute, just-got-the-money-and-the-window arrangement. The weight comes and goes as the film progresses, doubtless because Natali was shooting asequentially. This is not an unfair pop at Polley, not at all. In fact it’s a hallmark of low-budget high-concept films that some or all of the actors look chubby – they’re in “downtime” and are often there to lend a name and do a friend a favour – before they go back on the punishing diets that make them lean lollipop heads. In this case Polley for a fellow Canadian, the director of the cult film Cube perhaps also having another little wonder up his sleeve. He does, with this story of scientists who splice DNA together to produce a hybrid human, incubate it, birth it, then stand back and watch as it – her, actually – develops at a freakish speed. Dren (that’s “nerd” backwards) then throws the “parents” into familiar roles – she is loving and protective, he more wary (surely he’s not asking “Is it mine?”) and in a quick succession of cute vignettes, Natali delivers the sort of “bringing up baby” film that families used to shoot on domestic Super 8, but here is caught on the brightest, most aseptic film stock.
Except this isn’t a “big aah” home movie; it’s a horror film, and what the couple have actually created is something that becomes more terrifying by the day. Dren grows at speed, letting on that she can breathe underwater at one point (there are other revelations, in spoiler territory) and subtly shifting her allegiances – as the scientists’ “little girl” arrives at puberty she falls for dad, starts to see mother as a rival (hello Doctor Freud). To reveal how it all pans out would destroy the fun of watching it, but as Splice moves towards its finale, it never quite ties up all the ideas it has let loose en route. Maybe that’s because the ethics of scientific experimentation on animal or human forms resists easy good/bad categorisation. Fixing a wonky heart is good; growing a second head isn’t. But if you can ignore that, and its generic running-around ending, this is a fabulous looking film, the two leads live up to their billing, as does Delphine Chaneac (yes, it’s a human being playing Dren, amazingly) and there has been a fascinating examination of what it means to be a human. It’s all about love, apparently. Well, it might be.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • There’s never a dull film from Vincenzo Natali, director of Cube
  • Tetsuo Nagata’s bright clean cinematography
  • Delphine Chaneac’s amazingly lithe performance
  • The remarkable effects work – CG and physical

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Splice – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Alien

Sigourney Weaver and cat in Alien

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

6 June

 

Alexis St Martin shot in the stomach, 1822

On this day in the 1822, a 20-year-old Canadian called Alexis Bidagan St Martin was shot in the stomach at close range at a fur trading post on Mackinac Island, Canada. He survived the musket blast and the wound healed, leaving a hole, a fistula, in his side which led right into his stomach. The man treating him, US army sergeant William Beaumont, noticed that all the food that St Martin ate was re-appearing from the fistula. Matters improved, St Martin’s digestion returned to normal though the wound healed to form a perfect conduit from the stomach to the outside world – the hole in the stomach had attached itself to the edge of the hole in the skin. Beaumont realised he had a window onto digestion itself, very poorly understood at the time, and set about a series of experiments which essentially entailed attaching bits of food to a string and dropping them in through the fistula into St Martin’s stomach. St Martin was a poor man and Beaumont had employed him as his servant, one of his duties being to put up with these experiments. They went on for the next 11 years. Beaumont published his findings, Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice, and the Physiology of Digestion, which was a groundbreaking work on the digestive system. Once out of Beaumont’s employ, St Martin moved to Quebec and refused to take part in any more experiments, though Beaumont frequently suggested it. Beaumont died in 1853; St Martin lived to be 78, dying in 1880.

 

 

 

Alien (1979, dir: Ridley Scott)

Is Alien the most important sci-fi film of the 1970s? No, that’s Star Wars, obviously. But, like Star Wars, Alien is trying to break free of the shiny new world of sci-fi that had been dominant until then, in which clean-limbed astronauts in pristine space gear had adventures in aseptic spaces, while computers whirred diligently in the background, doing the hard work. Star Wars did it by returning sci-fi to the world of 1930s serials – Flash Gordon being a prime reference – while Alien did it by going even further back, to the gothic haunted house horror. The modern iteration of the gothic haunted house horror is the “kids in the woods” movie. And what we’re watching in Alien is an absolutely standard crew of isolated individuals – jockish guys (one of them speccy and scientific) and a couple of girls (one of them feisty and hot) being slaughtered one after the other. The sort of thing you can see in a thousand permutation on The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (from 1974).

Except Alien really is a film that’s more than the sum of its parts. Dan O’Bannon wrote the original story with Ronald Shusett, but the uncredited work of Walter Hill and David Giler is also significant, adding extra grunt where required – we’re in the world of “hard sci-fi”. The work of the artist HR Giger is key, his organic, knobbly, dirty designs for the alien inspiring the grungy ethos of the film. As for the actors, most of them could be swapped about – it doesn’t have to be John Hurt whose stomach is the incubator for the first alien we see, nor does it really have to be Yaphet Kotto, Veronica Cartwright or even Tom Skerrit doing what they do. They’re there, and so is much of their dialogue, to add a blue-collar atmosphere to a genre that, until then, tried to maintain that class disappeared on lift-off. But Ian Holm, as the methodical, company-droid no one knows is even a droid, his way with cool superciliousness makes him key. And so is Sigourney Weaver, who laid down the template for tough action heroines who also look good in their underwear. As for Ridley Scott’s direction, it’s a masterclass, first in character set-up, then in mood manipulation and shock management (the cat), and finally in misdirection – if we realise early on we’re watching a horror movie then of course it’s going to be Weaver who’s the “final girl” and of course she’s going to end up in a white T shirt, uniform of all “final girls”. But we don’t realise that.

In a world before DVD or even widespread VHS, Scott understands that his audience is in a big dark room together and that the only impression that matters is the one they leave with. So he’s got the licence to take it slow – no death-before-the-opening-credits stuff here. Alien is horror pastiche polished till it shines, then hidden beneath a sci-fi overcoat, then dirtied up. Along with other 1970s sci-fi films such as Dark Star and Silent Running, it marked the arrival of a new era in scuffed sci-fi. And let’s not forget that this crew of innocents – some much more innocent than others – are on a ship called the Nostromo, named after Joseph Conrad’s book. Another of Conrad’s books, Heart of Darkness, about another ship with a variously innocent crew, was being turned by Francis Ford Coppola into Apocalypse Now just as Scott was doing his thing with Nostromo. What would Conrad have thought about that?

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • One of the key sci-fi movies
  • The film that made Sigourney Weaver
  • HR Giger’s design work
  • Ridley Scott’s cool careful direction

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Alien – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Teeth

Bad idea: Jess Weixler and Josh Pais in Teeth

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

3 June

 

Valerie Solanas tries to kill Andy Warhol, 1968

On this day in the 1968, the feminist writer Valerie Solanas went to the Factory, artist Andy Warhol’s studio in New York, and fired three shots at him from a gun she had just bought.

Two missed and one wounded him. She also shot the art critic Mario Amaya and attempted to shoot Warhol’s manager, Fred Hughes, but the gun jammed. She then turned herself in to the police.

Solanas had in fact set out to shoot Maurice Girodias, owner of the Olympia Press – who had offered to publish her work – but hadn’t been able to find him, and so had altered course for Warhol, who had taken a film script of hers, Up Your Ass, and promptly lost it.

She was convinced both men were out to destroy her. Solanas had been supporting herself through prostitution while embarking on a career as an avant garde writer. Her most famous work is the SCUM Manifesto (which stands for The Society for Cutting Up Men), an extremist form of feminism which describes the average male as “obsessed with screwing; he’ll swim through a river of snot, wade nostril-deep through a mile of vomit, if he thinks there’ll be a friendly pussy awaiting him.”

The Manifesto continues: “there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and destroy the male sex.”

For her crimes Solanas was sentenced to three years in prison, and spent a year of it in a mental hospital, where she received treatment for paranoid schizophrenia.

 

 

 

Teeth (2007, dir: Mitchell Lichtenstein)

Teeth is a film about a girl whose vulva bites – the vagina dentata of legend – made by Mitchell Lichtenstein, the son of the New York pop artist Roy Lichtenstein.

Mitchell is just about the right age (born 1956) to have experienced that first shock wave of feminism in the late 1960s, against which Pussy Riot and the like look like warm-up artists.

But I’m not telling you the plot – our girl, a sweet blonde called Dawn (Jess Weixler), a chastity advocate at her high school, finds herself drawn to Tobey (Hale Appleman), also a booster for virginity, an attraction which is going to lead to serious squirms later in the movie. Meanwhile, at home, Dawn has a stepbrother who lost the tip of his finger as a toddler. How he lost that tip can be guessed at, and whether he’s going to go back to where he lost it is another one of the small joys of this mad film.

The movie neatly divides into two parts – part one is a John Waters-inspired satire of modern suburban manners, and Weixler is all you could hope for as the dewy and lovely young woman simply trying to negotiate the murky waters of sex, inadequately armed with the “Just Say No” gang’s standard-issue weapon – ignorance.

In part two Lichtenstein goes for a kind of zombie bake-off excess, ladling on shocks, gore, OMG laughs and even the odd sputtering guffaw.

It’s not perfect – there’s the distinct impression that Lichtenstein is letting us know that he’s slumming it – but he’s clearly picked up a thing or two about striking visuals from his dad (or maybe his mother – who knows?) and Lichtenstein understands the value of dropping a severed penis into the mix when things start to flag, which they rarely do. And how accommodating that the most jockish of genres – we were pretty much at the height of the torture porn thing when Teeth debuted – should find room for a film that guys really, really won’t enjoy watching half as much as their girlfriends.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A good fun, bloody shocker
  • Jess Weixler’s perfect performance
  • A trenchant satire on the purity ring culture
  • A vagina with teeth

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Teeth – Watch it now at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate

 

 

 

Black Death

Eddie Redmayne and Sean Bean in Black Death

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

27 May

 

Bubonic plague breaks out in California, 1907

On this day in 1907, bubonic plague broke out in California, USA. The disease had ravaged the known world twice before, first in the 6th century, the so-called Justinian plague. It then reoccurred most famously in the pandemic starting in Mongolia and spreading across Asia into Europe, killing a third of the population between 1340 and 1400, the Black Death. In the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries it had erupted frequently though less devastatingly, and even in the 20th century it was not unknown – Australia had 12 major outbreaks between 1900 and 1925. In 1907, San Francisco was just recovering from the 1900 to 1904 outbreak of plague – the third global plague pandemic had been raging since 1855 – which had been exacerbated by a mayor who wouldn’t admit there was a problem because he feared the impact on business, when a sailor crossing San Francisco Bay on a ferry was diagnosed with the disease. The plague took hold, with the New York Times reporting that “it looked for a time as if the city were to be decimated as was mediaeval Europe.” It was also around this time that the theory started to gain currency that bubonic plague was spread by rats. The city started a massive public health campaign, concentrating from 1908 on exterminating rats. By the following year the plague was gone.

 

 

 

Black Death (2010, dir: Christopher Smith)

Director Christopher Smith’s follow-up to the brain-befuddling Triangle – which ingeniously managed to mix time travel with child welfare – is another exercise in altered mindsets, this time locating us firmly in the Middle Ages, where plague is rampant and people will do the most irrational things to try and stop it. Sean Bean is the film’s star, a solid hunk of matter off which superstition is deflected, playing the leader of a band of trusties who are on a mission to find out why a certain small village has been immune to the depredations of the bubonic disease. Working to some extent in the tradition of Michael Reeves, of Witchfinder General fame, Smith locates us firmly within the ideology of the time and switches allegiances expertly between the Christians (led by the brutal Bean and his ideological warhorse, a monk played by Eddie Redmayne) and the no less brutal pagans (for that is what they are) led by the attractive Carice Van Houten, last seen in Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book. At almost every turn Black Death seems ready to plunge into the coconuts and excess of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, yet it never does. Some of that is down to Bean, playing it dourly straight as the utterly driven, entirely humourless leader of this weird gang of professional cutthroats. But most of it is down to Smith’s control of mood, the way he infuses everything with a feeling of portent and dread. So give the film a chance to get past its shaky start and its feverish rhythms. Once it slows down and stretches out it becomes a much more meditative, much more interesting analysis of life in a time so beset by an external threat – anyone could die, for no apparent reason, at any time – that it undermined all the certainties, gave birth to ugly extremisms. This also entails ignoring Bean’s oddly inappropriate mid-Atlantic accent. Surely his flinty native Sheffield voice would have been a better fit for a film dealing in merciless inevitability. Fans of Lord of the Rings will easily go for the beards on horseback ambience, but this film is really more in keeping with The Wicker Man‘s uneasy examination of the excesses of blind faith.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Another interesting genre movie by Christopher Smith
  • Because it’s more interested in ideology than buboes
  • Old school, and effective, effects
  • Sebastian Edschmid’s appropriately murky cinematography

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Black Death – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Theatre of Blood

Vincent Price and Diana Rigg in Theatre of Blood

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

21 May

 

Sam Jaffe born, 1901

On this day in 1901, one of the great characters of Hollywood was born, in Harlem, New York. Sam Jaffe, not to be confused with the actor of the same name, dropped out of high school and, thanks to his brother-in-law being a producer, got a job as an office boy at Paramount.

He rose quickly and by 22 was production manager on films directed by such luminaries as Lubitsch, Von Sternberg and Mamoulian. Having dated Clara Bow and saved Paramount studios financially by inventing the “night for day” system of shooting – which used the nightime streets (plus massive amounts of lighting) as sets rather than the incapacitated studios (being refitted for talkies) – Jaffe worked briefly at Columbia in the 1930s. Then he went solo and went on to become an agent for Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, David Niven, Fritz Lang, Stanley Kubrick and others. It was Jaffe who took out insurance in case Humphrey Bogart was shot by his own wife while making Casablanca. He also became in independent producer, until the McCarthy enquiries into Communist sympathisers holed his business below the waterline.

He moved to London in 1959 and officially retired, though continued producing projects that took his fancy, making films such as 1966’s Born Free and 1973’s Theatre of Blood. Otherwise he studied and collected art. He returned to Los Angeles in the 1980s and became an avid student at UCLA’s perpetual learning (PLATO) project. He died aged 99 in 2000.

 

 

 

Theatre of Blood (1973, dir: Douglas Hickox)

As the British movie industry went into one of its periodic flop-sweats in the early 1970s, it turned to soft porn, smutty humour and feature-length versions of TV comedies to bale it out. The Hammer studio continued making horror films, with more breasts. The comedy series Carry On carried on, also with more breasts.

Which makes Theatre of Blood something of an oddity – a witty horror film eschewing nudity, with a big cast of familiar actors, sumptuous sets, good locations, all the things that say “proper movie”. And a movie star – Vincent Price, hot off the back of the Dr Phibes films, which also mixed high camp and comedy.

Here, Price is playing a dreadful old ham actor, no stretch, who is working his way through the critics who cruelly denied him an acting award, on account of the fact that he’s no damn good. Undaunted by fickle opinion, Edward Kendal Sheridan Lionheart continues to believe he is the best interpreter of Shakespeare – all other playwrights are beneath him – ever to have trodden the boards. And so he kills them all, these critics, one by one, in scenes lifted from Shakespeare, loosely adapted by Lionheart and his aide whose bubble perm and moustache combo appears to have been borrowed from ELO’s Jeff Lynne. The aide is in fact Lionheart’s daughter in disguise, played by Diana Rigg, and I’m not sure if we’re meant to know it’s her or whether it’s all part of some big reveal.

The deaths of the actors are fairly gruesome – one is drowned in a vat of wine, another gets a spear through the chest, another is electrocuted in a hairdresser’s chair… but I’m spoiling the fun. And it is fun, watching ripe British talent such as Harry Andrews, Michael Hordern and Robert Morley getting a few minutes in the spotlight before they shuffle off this mortal coil. Fun but not funny, I must say. Camp rather than hilarious, much as director Douglas Hickox’s previous film, Entertaining Mr Sloane, had been (well worth a gander if you haven’t seen it).

Other little joys include shots of London, after decades of post-War decline, just poised on the beginning of the decades-long climb back to being one of the glittering global capitals. There’s also Wolfgang Suschitzky’s cinematography, which really lifts this from out of the normal rut of British films of the early 1970s (he’d worked similar magic on Get Carter two years earlier).

If you were going to make a shortlist of Price’s best films, then this, along with Witchfinder General, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Raven and House of Wax (possibly the first Phibes film) would be high on any shortlist, because it is Price playing Price, a man who has spent so long in grand guignol mode that he isn’t sure where the off switch is.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • One of Vincent Price’s best films
  • Wolfgang Suschitzky’s cinematography
  • The cast is all top drawer
  • Because the 2014 restoration is so good

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Theatre of Blood – at Amazon

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