Don’t Look Now

Donald Sutherland in Don't Look Now

 

 

 

 

It seems an odd thing to say, but most films aren’t really that cinematic. Most films, you could close your eyes and follow them. Not so with Nicolas Roeg’s “arthouse horror”. Close your eyes and you’re lost. In fact, even with your eyes open, all is not as it appears. Take the infamous love-making scene played out between grieving parents Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie. It’s not the “were they doing it for real” question that marks it out as significant but the fact that Roeg keeps intercutting this ultimate example of living in the now with scenes from a few minutes later – when the duo are absent-mindedly getting dressed, ready to go out. This scene is emblematic of the film, which hovers between the here and the not-here, the what-they-are and the what-they’re-not. Look at what’s on offer – a loving couple whose marriage seems to be on the rocks; a recently dead daughter who appears to be popping up all over Venice, itself a city hanging between two states, the water and the sky. Then there’s the two weird sisters, one who sees (she’s clairvoyant) but doesn’t see (she’s blind); the crumbling church Sutherland is restoring, which hovers between existence and extinction; a man of the cloth who seems more worldly than any other character in the film – the examples go on and on. And they all add up to one of the most psychologically complex, visually distinctive horror movies ever made. Do look now.

© Steve Morrissey 2007

 

Don’t Look Now – at Amazon

 

 

 

The Phantom of the Opera

 

 

Gaston Leroux’s famous story of the Phantom – who lives in the bowels of the Paris opera house, falls for a pretty singer and wreaks terrible revenge when she won’t play footsie – seems to have a strange effect on artists. Leroux went super-gothic – very pretty girl, monstrous beast, subterranean caverns, stygian doom, death by fire and water and so on. And everyone since has more or less kept up the melodramatic pace, right down to Andrew Lloyd Webber – ‘the phantom of the opera is there/Inside your mind’ cackle, twirl. This 1925 silent film is actually the best of the lot – it’s got Lon ‘Man Of A Thousand Faces’ Chaney in it for a start. And there’s nothing decorous or abstract about his make-up – a grinning skull, a cavernous blowhole for a nose, eyes popping out of his face. Not pretty. Unlike our lovely heroine (Mary Philbin). And unlike the fabulous sets depicting the Opera House and the Phantom’s lair, shot in part in two-strip Technicolor – quite a sight in the silent era. Add to that a booming recording of Carl Davis’s reworked score, if you’re watching a recently restored print, and it’s quite a sound now as well.

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

The Phantom of the Opera – at Amazon this is the Milestone version, the best of many available right now.

 

For the BFI version with the Carl Davis score mentioned above (warning: it’s Region 2 and expensive if you live outside the UK) click here.

 

 

Eraserhead

 

 

 

David Lynch’s first full length film was made piecemeal between 1971 and 1977 and is the perfect visual accompaniment to an era obsessed with industrial decay – check out the music of Cabaret Voltaire or Throbbing Gristle for the aural equivalent. It follows a passive, expressionless man with a perpendicular hairstyle through a succession of grim, clanking scenarios back to his home, where his livid girlfriend and their newborn child – a cross between ET and something that might crawl up your urethra and start living in your insides – seem to be waging psychic war on him. Is he schizophrenic? Are we viewing these scenes from inside his mind? Lynch won’t say, never has. But as with so many films Lynch has made since, there appears to be a piece of information missing. If only we knew what it was, everything would make sense. And it’s this voyeuristic straining after the bits we can’t quite see as much as the puzzlement over the bits we can (what’s going on with the radiators in Eraserhead, for example) that has driven Lynch’s best films since, with Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive and his last great film, Inland Empire, all eliciting similar murmurs of baffled appreciation. And here, in Eraserhead, is the motherlode.

© Steve Morrissey 2007

 

Eraserhead – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Audition

 

 

The horror film has a special use for the young female body. How often does one crescendo with some girl in a tight white T shirt – if not Jessica Biel then someone pretty similar – running endlessly, screamingly away from a scaggy male assailant with a hook/axe/chainsaw/knife? Meanwhile a man with a Steadicam aimed right at the young woman’s breasts in turn runs backwards away from her, to the nodding appreciation of the largely male audience. Audition turns the tables – a sad sack of a Japanese salaryman pretends to be a producer holding auditions for a film. In reality he’s doing try-outs for something more permanent and less well paid – a wife. And soon he’s found the ideal candidate (played by ex-model Eihi Shiina), a former ballet dancer, young, frugal, demure and beautiful. Not just his ideal woman, but some sort of universal ideal of objectified womanhood too. But before he has a chance even to consider whether it’s appropriate to ask her to slip her top off, she’s pounced – the biter is bit. And what transpires then is so gruesome and so disproportionate that you’ve got to wonder what this poor, sad-eyed man did to deserve such a fate. The answer, of course, is nothing, personally. He’s the payback for all those girls, all those T-shirts, all those dark, scream-filled woods. Enjoy.

© Steve Morrissey 2007

 

Audition – at Amazon

 

 

Maniac

 

 

In deep, deep, deep homage to 1980s horror, here’s a pungent, standout film that’s entirely enjoyable as long as you love seeing women’s scalps being removed – a quick razor to the forehead and they peel straight off, it seems.

A remake of William Lustig’s 1980 film of the same name, 2013’s Maniac makes one crucial and utterly transformative change – the point of view is through the eyes of a seriously disturbed serial killer (is there any other type?).

Directors and stars are what reviews usually concentrate on but the key players here are writers Alexandre Aja and Grégory Levasseur, whose Switchblade Romance in 2003 proved to the world that the French were adept at producing gut-shuddering horror if they wanted to.

They’ve done the same here, turning Frank, the 1980 villain of the piece (now played by Elijah Wood) into a Norman Bates figure, a psycho bent out of whack by a mother more interested in sating her libido than bringing up her child, who would be watching while she went at it.

Now older but still tormented by images of his mother being done every which way by strangers, Frank constructs his ideal, more virginal, women from shop mannequins which he’s tastefully accoutred with real female scalps.

Into this scenario arrives one day Anna (Nora Arnezeder) a blonde photographer, kittenishly cute, pretty as hell, her nipples tantalisingly visible through her T shirt as she makes Frank’s accidental acquaintance. He’s smitten, as were a good number of people in the audience when I saw this film last night. And from here springs the drama – is he going to fall in love and reform, or is his psychotic tendency going to get the upper hand?

As I said, we’re deep in the 1980s here – all men are rapists/killers, the city is evil, there’s a Basket Case grungy unwholesomeness to everything. On top of this there’s the soundtrack, by some French guy called Rob, a mix of early John Carpenter, Giorgio Moroder, those soundtracks that Goblin did for Dario Argento. Over the end credits I think we heard Goldfrapp in their electropop phase. You get the picture. But the soundtrack is more than just an accompaniment to the film; it’s as integral to the film as the soundtrack to Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive was, perhaps more so, bringing a bright unnerving jollity to proceedings, though there’s bubble and trouble down in the bass.

The film is aiming for classic status, clearly. I mean mannequins, a Tooth Fairy-style collector of bits of women, overtones of House of Wax, all rewrapped in a subjective point of view. Here director Franck Khalfoun comes into his own, keeping things fast-moving and moody, though he cheats a little here and there. There are a few too many conveniently placed mirrors allowing us to catch glimpses of Frank. And our plucky madman also has convenient flashbacks, imagined idealised moments with the lovely Anna, plus out-of-body moments when he’s doing the actual killing.

I suppose if you’ve gone to the expense of hiring Frodo, you might as well get some shots of his face, or else what’s the point? To his credit, Wood does a lot with very little here, mumbling and muttering, lots of heavy breathing but he doesn’t overdo it. Which is crucial, because the last thing the writers/director of this singular movie want is for audiences to start identifying with the bad guy.

After three Lord of the Rings films and now a third of the way through appearing in three Hobbit films, Wood is clearly in Tolkien disavowal mode, repositioning himself away from the Shire by effectively saying “I’m bloody horrible, me.” He is. The middle-aged hardened film reviewer sitting next to me frequently had to put his hands over his eyes as Wood’s Frank did his stuff. This is probably not your ideal date movie.

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

Maniac – at Amazon

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Faust

Emil Jannings as Mephisto in Faust

It says a lot about the continuing differences between the Old World and the New that not one of the many stabs at a straightforward cinematic version of Faust is American. The tale of the old man who sells his soul to have his youth back and then uses his new vigour to ruin a beautiful young girl’s life is a European staple, but probably not the sort of thing Tom Hanks’s agent is going to beat down Meg Ryan’s door with – in the New World you can have it all; in the Old it comes at a cost.

No matter, the German F.W. Murnau made this version in 1926, in the days when any country could make a silent film and show it anywhere in the world – no dubbing or subtitling required, of course. Now, I’m not going to pretend that Murnau’s liberties with the original text will make Goethe scholars happy. Nor will his Expressionist vision completely satisfy the Matrix generation either. But give yourself a few minutes of adjustment – and you will find yourself enjoying the fantastic special effects, the gothic extravagance of his actors’ gestures and Murnau’s flat refusal to be Naturalistic, unless he absolutely has to be. Look at the way Mephistopheles hovers over the sleepy German hamlet, all billowing malevolence – it’s a remarkable and haunting image and all done in camera, with models (obvious models at that). If only more films were like this.

Hollywood snapped Murnau up, and his actors, and showed them the sort of excess that modern film stars can only dream about. By the late Twenties Emil Jannings (the operatic and impish Mephistopheles) was among the most famous actors in the world. But by 1931 the careers of Jannings and Camilla Horn (who plays the pre-Raphaelite Gretchen) were over, killed by the talkies that exposed their accents, and Murnau had died in a car crash.

The garden of earthly delights followed by the day of reckoning – how Faustian is that? Maybe the Americans are just being cautious.

© Steve Morrissey 2001

Faust – at Amazon