Rare Exports

Knut Osa Greger as Santa Claus in Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale

 

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

 

 

6 December

 

 

Saint Nicholas dies, 343AD

On this day in 343AD (or CE if you prefer), Nikolaos of Myra died. Born in 270AD, in Patara, Greece, to rich parents, Nikolaos was a devout Christian who became a priest, then a bishop and attended the First Council of Nicea, where he was against the Arian heresy (which states that Jesus is subordinate to God), and signed the Nicene Creed, which is still the mainstream declaration of Christianity to this day. On a less bureaucratic level, Nikolaos became known for the miracles he worked during his life (bringing murdered children back to life, making wheat appear from nowhere on a ship). He also had a reputation for secret gift-giving, having saved three sisters from a life of prostitution by giving them enough money for a dowry, and for leaving coins in the shoes of poor children who left them out for him. The patron saint of sailors, merchants, archers, thieves, children, pawnbrokers and students, in various different countries, Saint Nicholas is still known as Sint Nikolaas in the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg, which is shortened to Sinterklaas, from which the English language gets Santa Claus. Because of the legacy of Nikolaos, in many parts of Europe 6 December is still the day for the exchange of gifts.

 

 

 

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010, dir: Jalmari Helander)

If you’re ever feeling overwhelmed by the sheer torrent of yuk aimed at you over the Christmas period, this Finnish film is a corrective high-pressure hose. It tells the story of the Nordic Santa, the real one, not the Coca-Cola one, a guy who eats naughty children rather than indulges them. From the get-go writer/director Jalmari Helander nails his colours to the mast, opening up his film with a sequence in which a man dismembers a pig (possibly a reindeer – it was dark), in a matter of fact way, because that’s how they live up inside the Arctic Circle. The story then springs into life when an old bearded guy is found in a hunter’s trap. He is detained and guarded and remains entirely silent except for the odd noises he makes when a child comes near. Who is the mystery man, and why are local children suddenly disappearing and reindeer turning up dead? It’s down to one local kid called Pietari (Onno Tommila) to sort things out, that’s if he can persuade his father (Jorma Tommilla, Onno’s real dad) that the guy is the real Santa, and prevent him from offloading Santa onto the company that’s been rummaging about archaeologically in a mysterious local mound. The film has a 15 viewing certificate in the UK, with the warning that it “contains frequent moderate threat”. We are in the territory of black comedy and horror, the sort of horror that will thrill children, then have them waking up in the night whimpering. At only a scant 80 minutes it’s a short film, but it’s a great one, full of pagan imagery, creepy atmospherics and depictions of an elemental approach to life. And it centres on this Santa who is genuinely unsettling, like some mad paedophile, who has “little helpers” who are about as far from cute as it’s possible to get. Rare Exports is rare indeed, and makes other attempts to refresh the Christmas offering – Billy Bob Thornton’s Bad Santa, for instance – look very thin indeed.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The antidote to sickly Christmas movies
  • From inside the Arctic Circle – which is where Santa is from
  • It’s John Carpenter’s The Thing, Christmas style
  • Helander has a real eye for the arresting image

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Byzantium

Gemma Arterton in Byzantium

 

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

 

 

26 November

 

 

Vlad the Impaler becomes ruler of Wallachia for third time, 1476

On this day in 1476, Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia became ruler of Wallachia for the third time.

His father, Vlad II, had become a member of the chivalric Order of the Dragon (Drache in German, Dracul in Romanian) in 1431. As the son, Vlad III carried the patronymic Dracula, son of Dracul (he signed himself Wladislaus Dragwlya).

Vlad III spent a good deal of his life asserting his claim on Wallachia. He was first installed as a ruler by the Ottomans – Vlad III had been brought up in the Sultan’s court as a hostage, to ensure his father’s loyalty to the Ottoman empire – and they put him on the throne to prevent encroachment by the Hungarians.

This failed. Vlad III secured his second reign by allying himself with the Hungarians against the Ottomans. He established strict rule over his new country, impaled any who stood in his way and built up a fiercely loyal special guard to protect him against assassination. This second period of rule was marked out by relentless conflict with the Ottomans who maintained that Wallachia was part of their Empire. To which Vlad responded by impaling any Ottoman soldier he found on his territory – the higher the rank, the longer the stake.

This made Vlad III a popular figure in Western Europe, where there were always worries about Ottoman plans for aggrandisement. However, Vlad III was finally routed by his own brother, Radu the Handsome, on behalf of the Ottomans, in alliance with Vlad’s own nobility.

Vlad III seems to have spent the years following his defeat as a prisoner in Hungary. In 1475 Radu died and Vlad immediately declared himself voivode (military ruler) of Wallachia. After only two months of uneasy rule Vlad III was assassinated. No one is sure exactly when, or where, or by whom.

Exactly how cruel Vlad III was, and how many of the tales of his evil deeds were political spin put about by enemies (and he had plenty) is hard to tell, though there are stories of babies being roasted and fed to their own mothers, and of 20,000 corpses impaled on the outskirts of Targoviste, Vlad’s capital, a sight which is said to have sickened the Sultan, himself a notable impaler.

 

 

 

Byzantium (2013, dir: Neil Jordan)

Since Bram Stoker borrowed the Dracula name for his 1897 novel, the character of the vampire has almost inevitably been gothic in character – favouring the night, pale, sickly of aspect, dressed in sombre colours, sexy, voracious.

Bucking that trend was the very modern, urban IKEA version found in Let the Right One In, the most influential vampire film of recent years/decades. Neil Jordan’s film is a beautiful collision of the two – on the one hand we have buxom gothic vamp Clara, played by Gemma Arterton. On the other there’s wispy Eleanor, played by Saoirse Ronan, who only drinks blood when she absolutely has to.

Are they sisters? Mother and daughter? Or eternal friends? The answer to that question is more or less the plot of the film. And while we’re following it we’re being given an object lesson in atmospherics by Neil Jordan, whose last dabble in this area was 1994’s Interview with the Vampire, starring Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise.

This is the better film, more sure of itself, less caught up in the machinations of stars and their agents. Thematically, though it’s closer to Jordan’s 1984 fairytale excursion The Company of Wolves – with the exploitation of women and class as a factor in daily (and eternal) life both ringing bells. As you might expect with a screenplay for The Company of Wolves by Angela Carter and for Byzantium by Moira Buffini, both feminists (though Buffini’s feminism is more oblique than Carter’s).

Taking notes from reactions to The Company of Wolves, perhaps, Jordan keeps his themes in the background, leaving front of curtain to the actors and production designers. And he is rewarded royally – it’s difficult to imagine better casting than Arterton and Ronan. Then there’s Caleb Landry Jones as a young man with haemophilia, Jonny Lee Miller as an utter bounder, Tom Hollander as a dithery teacher who believes Arterton might be interested in him (she is, Tom, just not in the way that you think).

As for Byzantium itself, a rundown seaside hotel somewhere on the South Coast of England, it’s a glorious rotten bundle of a place complete with an old cathode ray TV on which the girls watch old films – a Hammer horror vampire flick at one point. Very homely.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Fabulous production design by Simon Elliott
  • Really top class casting
  • Shame and Place Beyond the Pines cinematographer Sean Bobbit
  • Women as the vampires, not the victims

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

Byzantium – watch it/buy it at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate

 

 

 

 

The Raven

Artwork for the original poster of The Raven

 

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

 

 

23 November

 

 

Boris Karloff born, 1887

On this day in 1887, the great horror actor Boris Karloff was born. Disappointingly, his birth name was William Henry Pratt and he wasn’t born in some Carpathian cave but in the inner suburb of Lewisham, South London. A well educated young man with a lisp and a stutter, he dropped out while training to become a functionary of the British Empire and instead took to farm labouring before becoming an actor. He took the name Boris Karloff while in travelling repertory theatre in Canada, and after arriving in Hollywood he played a number of villain roles before getting some notice in the Oscar-nominated newspaper drama Five Star Final. The same year, 1931, saw Frankenstein hitting the screens with Karloff as the monster. He instantly became one of the most famous actors in the world. Within a handful of years he had also appeared in The Mummy and The Old Dark House, other classics from Universal’s golden horror era. Karloff loved to work and was always grateful for the opportunities the bolt-necked monster had given him. He continually sought to widen his appeal, though it was as mad scientists, deranged villains or even as the demented Captain Hook that his gifts for deadpan and the sibilant vestige of his lisp would stand him in best stead. Towards the end of his career his star waned. Whether he would have kept his career in better health by not being so ready to spoof himself, so keen to work in no matter what low quality B movie, to appear as a regular on any old TV show is debateable. What isn’t is that Karloff was a trooper and a gentleman who gave handsomely to charity and dressed up as Father Christmas every year to hand out presents to orphaned children. He worked right to the end, through emphysema and arthritis: Peter Bogdanovich cast him in his first film, Targets, as a horror actor approaching the end of his life. It was in fact Karloff’s final film (though four further Mexican films, shot earlier in 1968 would appear posthumously). He died in England, of pneumonia, and was cremated and laid to rest as William Henry Pratt in a low-key service.

 

 

 

The Raven (1963, dir: Roger Corman)

There’s a scene towards the end of the final Harry Potter film when the massed might of Hogwarts stand up for a “wands at dawn” showdown against Voldemort’s cohort. It’s a thrilling sequence that brings to mind the finale of Roger Corman’s great adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem. Like all Corman productions it was made on the cheap. But Corman always had an eye for talent going for a song, rising stars who’d work for buttons and, most of all, the main chance. All combine in The Raven, which sees the cut-price horror triumvirate of Vincent Price, Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff, rising star Jack Nicholson and genius sci-fi writer Richard Matheson (The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Twilight Zone, I Am Legend) collaborating on one of the best fantasy B movies ever made. The plot is Poe’s (sort of): a retired widower wizard named Dr Erasmus Craven (Price) is visited by a talking raven (Lorre) who claims he was turned into a bird by the most powerful magician in the world – Dr Scarabus (Karloff). After Craven returns the raven to human form, he learns that his wife isn’t dead after all; she’s shacked up with Scarabus. Apparently. So off the pair head to Scarabus’s castle for a showdown. Cue wands, wizardry, special effects and ever increasing amounts of camp. It’s here that the film comes into its own, as Karloff and Price try to outdo each other with “serious face” spoof-acting, while Lorre bounces around improvising trying to make them corpse. Corman was just off a string of Poe adaptations with Price and both are clearly enjoying the opportunity to have a bit of fun at the old drunkard’s expense. This was the first time that Lorre, Price and Karloff appeared together. And though it happened again the following year in Comedy of Terrors, the later film is not a patch on The Raven. As for Jack Nicholson – let’s just say he was yet to invent the “here’s Johnny” persona.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A great example of a Roger Corman film – cheap but full of ingenuity
  • Karloff was also in the 1935 The Raven – which is nothing like this
  • Lorre’s improvising
  • A camp classic

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

The Raven – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Pink Flamingos

Divine in Pink Flamingos

 

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

 

 

19 October

 

 

Divine born, 1945

On this day in 1945, Harris Glenn Milstead, aka Divine, was born, in Baltimore, Maryland, USA. Six months older than fellow Baltimore native John Waters, he became involved with Waters’ acting troupe the Dreamlanders in the mid 1960s and starred in Waters’ first four films, Mondo Trasho (1969), Multiple Maniacs (1970), Pink Flamingos (1972) and Female Trouble (1974). In fact it was Waters who gave Harris (or Glenn as he was known to family and school friends) the name Divine, after a character in Jean Genet’s debut novel, Our Lady of the Flowers. Waters was intent on making “the trashiest motion pictures in cinema history” and having an oversized drag queen (“the most beautiful woman in the world, almost” as Waters described him) on hand proved really useful to him. Divine had honed his drag skills dressing up as Elizabeth Taylor to host parties he held at his parents’ expense, after giving up his day job as a hairdresser (specialism: beehives). And after opening his own vintage clothing store, Divine Trash, he also had access to unusual clothes. It was Waters’ second film, Multiple Maniacs that first drew attention to Divine, but his third, Pink Flamingos, that gave Divine cult fame. Though he worked with Waters again after the first four films, Divine also branched out on his own, joining the psychedelic theatre troupe the Cockettes, starring in the play Women Behind Bars, working up his own nightclub routine (which included shouting “fuck you” at the audience and getting into a fight with another drag queen), and becoming a disco diva. The musical career yielded big results when Divine teamed up with UK production unit Stock, Aitken and Waterman. His film career without Waters (including a non-drag appearance in 1985’s noirish Trouble in Mind) was just beginning to hit its stride when Divine suddenly died, aged 42, of an enlarged heart.

 

 

Pink Flamingos (1972, dir: John Waters)

Described by its director as “an exercise in poor taste” Pink Flamingos is the most notorious movie made by Waters, and features the most infamous instance of suffering for your art by any actor. It’s the legendary “eating dog shit” scene, filmed in one uncut take, which shows a dog taking a dump, then Divine bending down, scooping it up and eating it. It’s the crowning moment of a film that’s all about being disgusting, with Divine playing Babs Johnson, “the filthiest person alive” according to the fictional local paper, who is then baited and stalked by jealous filthy wannabes Connie and Raymond Marble (old Waters hands Mink Stole and David Lochary). The plot also takes in women being kidnapped, inseminated and their children sold to lesbians, heroin dealers who sell smack to very young children, incidents of flashing, the famous scene in which a couple have sex on top of a live chicken (which tops the dog shit sequence for sheer grimness), as well as more routine dismemberment and cop-killing. Pink Flamingos became a cult hit on the midnight movies circuit, initially playing with Jodorowsky’s El Topo, receiving the cult seal of approval by being banned in a few countries and has still not been seen uncut in many territories. A sequel was planned, but Divine, having done his bit for posterity and art, refused to take part.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The “eating dog shit” scene – once seen, never forgotten
  • John Waters’s breakthrough movie
  • A key signifier of middle class taste realigning towards genre and trash
  • Props to Divine who gave the world the line “fuck you very much”

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

Pink Flamingos – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Jaws

Richard Dreyfuss, Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw in Jaws

 

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

 

 

18 October

 

 

Moby-Dick published, 1851

On this day in 1851, Herman Melville published what is considered to be one of the great American novels, about the elemental struggle between one Captain Ahab and the whale that once bit off his leg.

The story is told from the viewpoint of Ishmael, and “Call me Ishmael”, its opening sentence, has become one of the most recognised opening lines in literature.

The book is based on two actual events. One took place in 1820, when a sperm whale rammed and sank the Essex, a whaler that was in hot pursuit of it. The other was the killing of a mighty bull whale nicknamed Mocha Dick, an albino so called because he frequented the waters off the Chilean island of Mocha, rather than on account of his cocoa sprinkled head.

Mocha Dick had been harried by whalers from at least 1810, and it was in the late 1830s that he was killed (according to Jeremiah Reynolds’s book Mocha Dick: or the White Whale of the Pacific).

But back to Ahab, a strict, dour man with 40 years of whaling under his belt, whose obsession with the giant mythical beast takes on a biblical aspect as he leads the crew of his ship, the Pequod, to their deaths in his pursuit of the ultimate quarry.

Perhaps the same relationship can be seen between the book and its author – Melville believed it was his masterwork; the critics did not, and so the author well known for books such as Typee and Omoo started a slide towards literary oblivion, becoming rescued only by the Modernists after the First World War who saw his discursive, eclectic, jackdaw style as a precursor to experiments they were conducting.

 

 

Jaws (1975, dir: Steven Spielberg)

Jaws is the Moby-Dick of the screen, the tale of a captain obsessed with a big maritime beast translating easily from one medium to another and one species to another. Doing the translating were director Steven Spielberg and Carl Gottlieb, who rewrote a lot of Peter Benchley’s original screenplay, not forgetting Robert Shaw as the crazed Quint, Ahab in greasy modern garb.

Telling the story of a giant white shark that terrorises a holiday town, and the three men who assemble, with varying degrees of reluctance, to kill it, Jaws is the story of one man’s obsession and another man’s fear (the third man, Richard Dreyfuss, being little more than an on-screen narrator, our Ishmael).

It’s also notable for being one of the few Spielberg films with a countercultural bent. Ironically, it’s considered to be the film that changed Hollywood, sounding the death knell for those vaguely countercultural films of the early 1970s and signalling the arrival of the era of the summer blockbuster, the event movie, the movie that opens on every screen in the world simultaneously (finances permitting).

Spielberg learnt a vital lesson from his film Duel, in which lone motorist Dennis Weaver is monstered by a gigantic truck, the driver of which is never seen. We don’t see much of the shark in Jaws either, and the film is all the better for it.

And it’s why anyone who has ever seen the film has a far more complicated relationship with swimming in the sea than they used to, even in waters where you’d never find sharks – the fact that there isn’t a shark there doesn’t mean there isn’t a shark there, if you follow me.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The John Williams score – der duh
  • Robert Shaw’s Indianapolis speech, largely written by him
  • “You’re going to need a bigger boat”
  • How many films lend their names to Bond villains?

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

Jaws – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

A Serbian Film

Srdjan Todorovic in A Serbian Film

 

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

 

 

08 September

 

 

Stephen Dusan declares himself King of Serbia, 1331

 

On this day in 1331, after a brief war with his father, Stephen Dusan, aged 23, tall, handsome, intelligent and of “kingly presence”, was crowned King of All Serbian and Maritime Lands. Also known as Dusan the Mighty, the king initiated Dusan’s Code, a legal and constitutional framework of governance, later established himself Emperor of the Serbs and Greek, and went on to conquer large parts of Southern Europe. Under Stephen Dusan, Serbia became as powerful as it ever would be and acted as a bulwark against the advance of the Ottoman Empire. Also under Stephen Dusan, the local Serbian Orthodox Church became a Patriarchate (a stand-alone division of the church). This was, like his empire, short-lived, thanks again to the Ottomans, who had been encouraged into Europe by the Byzantines, sick of Dusan’s imperial ambition – the title “Emperor and Autocrat of the Serbs and Greeks, the Bulgarians and Albanians” was probably what did it. On his death, under his son, Stephen Dusan’s empire crumbled and his church dwindled, though to this day he remains a Serbian folk hero.

 

A Serbian Film (2010, dir: Srdjan Spasojevic)

A Serbian Film starts with a a grim kneetrembler, then pulls back to show that we’re watching a porn film which itself is being watched by a young boy. Then it pulls back again to reveal the boy’s parents discovering him, then again to show that the boy’s dad is one of the porn stars the boy’s been watching – Milos (Srdjan Todorovic), “the Balkan sex god, the Nikola Tesla of pornography”. This is a canny opening to a controversial, brutal film that wears its artistic pretensions – voyeurism, scopophilia – on its sleeve and then abandons them when it gets into something far deeper and uglier. Porn is clearly a metaphor for politics in A Serbian Film, as the scene towards the end where “the perfect Serbian family” is served up in a way that is likely to leave scorch marks on the cerebral cortex. This is the country where everybody was fucked by their neighbours, after all. So of course the porn is grim and thankfully mostly off-screen. A picaresque nightmare that actually improves towards the end as narrative is abandoned and director Srdjan Spasojevic surrenders to an impressionistic series of brutal images as his hero, “an artist of fuck” as a cajoling film producer calls him, is dosed up on Viagra and mind-bending drugs and pushed off into a stygian collage of no-holes-barred fuckery. Serve with a nice sauvignon blanc and some nibbles.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • After fragrant porn such as Lovelace – a palate cleanser
  • A bulletin from a country no one wants to talk about
  • Banned in New Zealand, Australia, Brazil, Norway, Germany and Spain
  • “The fascism of political correctness” – its target, according to director Spasojevic

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

A Serbian Film – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Black Rock

Lake Bell, Kate Bosworth and Katie Aselton in Black Rock

 

 

Three young women are chased around an island by three crazed ex-soldier guys in Katie Aselton’s boo-goes-there horror story which would slot nicely into the big book of feminist films if it weren’t for the gratuitous (oh come on) nudity.

Not that there’s anything wrong with god-given nakedness. But back to the film. Directed by Aselton and co-written with her partner, Mark Duplass, Black Rock takes three old schoolfriends, Aselton, Lake Bell and Katie Bosworth, sends them off to a remote island they used to visit as kids, but not before pointing out that one of the three did something bad with another of the trio’s boyfriend some years back, and that the wound is still suppurating.

Out on the island, the girls (“women” doesn’t seem quite right; “ladies” definitely not) bump into three ex-army guys, one of whom is a vague friend of a friend. But things go from uneasily friendly to extremely nasty in a short time after a bit of booze, some unwise campfire flirting with one of the soldiers, a rape attempt and retaliation in the form of a big lethal rock to the skull.

The other two guys – we have just learnt that they got dishonourable discharges for some seriously nasty shit out in Afghanistan – decides for justice in the form of death.

But I’m telling you the plot when what all you want to know about is the nudity. Well, you could say that it is justified by the story Aselton is telling, since two of the girls have swum out to a boat, failed to get into it and are now back on dry land in wet clothes and the quickest way to get warm is… take your clothes off?

Does it last long? No. Does it matter? Maybe, because though Aselton is a good actress (though her showing in The Puffy Chair is all I’m going on) I’m not sure about her as a director.

But she’s competent enough for a cat-and-mouse thriller that flirts with themes of sex, power and violence – Should women be able to cocktease for ever and get away with it? Is sex a form of power that women use over women too? – only to abandon them as the film slides into its final third.

Director Aselton moves things along briskly, gets decent “girls together” performances from her cast and knows how to squeeze atmosphere from a restless camera, minimal rig and a soundtrack of strings and washy synths.

But I’m not sure it’ll be remembered for any of those things, so much as being the film in which a female director asked her cast to get naked because the script strictly demanded it.

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

Black Rock – at Amazon

 

 

Thale

Silje Reinåmo as mythical creature Thale

 

 

So here we are in the middle of August and I still think that Thale is one of the best films I’ve seen all year. I must have watched it back in February. I’ve probably watched between 130 and 150 films since.

So why has it stuck in my head? Because of the artistic choices of its director, Aleksander Nordaas, who I see is now preparing Thale 2. I hope that a bigger budget (and I hope he has a bigger budget, a man can’t sell everything he owns to finance his second film after he’s already sold everything to finance his first) – I really hope that won’t turn his head. What Nordaas does in Thale, sometimes out of budget necessity but often not, is what makes his film so distinctive, urgent, gripping.

First a bit of plot. We’re embedded with a Scandinavian clean-up team, the guys who go in after the police have found something grisly and done their work. On job number two they discover something in a shack out in the woods, something that appears to have been left behind by an old guy. What is it? We’re not sure. Though Nordaas has primed us to think that the old guy has possibly been in the kidnap and torture game and that there might be a young woman involved.

What builds out from this set of assumptions is a remarkable story of horror, fantasy and most of all gripping tension, as Nordaas leads us up one garden path after another. We learn, for example, that there is a young lady in a hidden tank full of some gunky liquid, that she has a tube right down her throat, to help her breathe, that maybe she is not the simple kidnap victim we at first thought.

It turns out she isn’t a woman at all, though she certainly has all the functioning appurtenances, she’s some sort of mythical woodland creature, a huldra, if you know your Norwegian folklore.

I’m not going to go any further than that – the way Nordaas sets up and then confounds expectation, wringing new plot turns out of a hoary cabin-in-the-woods premise, is one of the real joys of a film which consists of a third of this sort of tease and reveal, a third of sheer tension-building, a third of release.

Other joys include the really skilful use of the camera. I don’t know what digital rig this was shot on but there is no way celluloid could have wrought images so sharp, so deep of focus, so beautiful (not on this budget, anyway). Though it’s Nordaas’s eye for an image that stands out. The soundtrack is similarly spare, evocative and right – a single cello quite often, the mournful instrument, with subsonic rumbles to indicate something off in the distance, something you possibly don’t want to come any closer.

Atmospherics and storytelling craft are what this film is about. The performances are good enough but they’re immaterial. The CGI is cheapjack stuff but they also don’t matter. It is the way that Nordaas works his material, frequently showing us something and then letting us sweat it out – early on we see cassette tape wheels spinning and hear a woman’s scream, later there’s a shot of our huldra cowering under a bed while one of the clean-up guys gets down on the floor and starts humming to her. In the first of these instances we fill in the blanks (unimaginable torture), in the second we anticipate what’s about to happen (she’s going to jump him?).

Thale is not perfect – the ending takes a lurch into Hollywood excess, swaps noisy for spooky, and is out of keeping with the rest of the film. The CGI lets it down a touch too, and it starts to become, as the PR blurb somewhere called it, “this year’s Troll Hunter”. Whoever wrote that line was obviously trying to sell a subtitled movie – no easy feat – but also possibly thought that they were offering Nordaas a compliment. But however you look at it, Thale is a much, much better film than that. A talent has landed.

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

Thale – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Nosferatu

Max Schreck as Nosferatu

Murnau’s 1922 silent expressionist classic is one of defining moments in movie-making. It borrowed its story wholesale from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, gave it the lightest of resprays and hoped no one would notice the theft. Bram Stoker’s widow noticed and sued for breach of copyright, won the case and had all the prints of Nosferatu destroyed. But the film refused to die, and rose from the undead.

Its star, who plays Count Orlok (aka Nosferatu), is one Max Schreck, “Schreck” being the German word for terror. Maximum Terror – and you thought modern Hollywood had a lock on this sort of thing. Adding to that in terms of myth-making, it was always rumoured that Schreck was in real-life a vampire too (something Willem Dafoe had a bit of fun with when he played Orlok in 2000’s Shadow of the Vampire). Whether Schreck sucked blood for fun or not in reality, his Orlok is a very unsavoury piece of work. A long way from the urbane Dracula, habitué of velvet-draped boudoirs, Orlok is bat-eared, bald and has two ratty fangs in the middle of his maw. And as he seeks a place to rest his head in Bremen, spreading plague as he goes, we’re given the distinct impression that this is one deeply troubled soul (if a vampire can be said to have a soul) for whom existence is a curse.

Director FW Murnau’s techniques in the film are noteworthy. Notice how as the action switches between desolate Carpathia and urban Bremen, Murnau on a couple of occasions intercutting the action in the two locations in montage sequence. This is routine today, but back in 1922 Murnau was one of the first to do it. What we’re watching is the book on film language as we understand today being written on the hoof.

Adding to Murnau’s technical mastery is his flair for the theatrical. Considering how quickly horror films go off the boil in terms of shock effect, the sequence where Orlok rises from his coffin while being shipped to Europe – pivoting from the feet like a man attached to a plank (surely that’s how it was done) – is remarkable for its ability, even now, to generate a “wow” if not a shudder. Back in 1922 it scared the shit out of people. Though Nosferatu can’t lay claim to being the first vampire film ever made – the Hungarian Drakula Halála beat it to the post one year before – in terms of sheer atmosphere it’s still one of the best. Maximum Terror indeed.

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

Nosferatu – at Amazon

 

 

They Crawl

Daniel Cosgrove in They Crawl

 

 

Yes, They Nest was a stupid film, but it did at least have a couple of very good squirmy moments – stuff we felt if not privileged to have seen, then at least slightly sickened by. They Crawl, I’m sad to report, doesn’t. Close reading of the credits reveals no connection in terms of cast and crew (not even SFX or stunts) between the two films, meaning there’s just a personal pronoun in common, just the They. And insects, of course. However, They Crawl does hit us with two recognisable names – Tone Loc and Mickey Rourke. But fans of the Funky Cold Medina star and the one-time contender who went off to be a boxer and lost most of his looks and savvy shouldn’t get too excited – this is “blink and miss it” cameo work.

Leaving… what? A government engineered cockroach monster that’s munching its way through as many C-list actors as the producers can afford, while some lone intrepid guy (Daniel Cosgrove) investigates what happened to his brother. Was the brother involved in some shady cult? What has the government to do with it all? Are big insects really involved? And why does an attractive cop (Tamara Davies) who actually believes this guy’s bug-eyed story have so much free police time to help him? Leaving aside the suspicion that the answers to all these questions are to be found round the back of the production offices where X Files script meetings were held, They Crawl would be a much better film with its creepy-crawly moments spread between fewer victims, with less reliance on Foundation Imaging’s step-and-repeat insect effects but most of all from even 20 minutes more work done on the screenplay.

 

© Steve Morrissey 2001

 

They Crawl – at Amazon