Thursday 27 May 2010

Heartless (Philip Ridley, 2009) Review.

Heartless, the latest from British auteur Philip Ridley, isn't the easiest of films to review. You can approach it as a straightforward horror, but then miss the psychological drama. You could approach it as a psychological drama and miss the subtext about violence, society and corruption - not to mention the more existential explorations of life and death, and good and evil. Because 15 years after his last feature, The Passion Of Darkly Noon (1995) Ridley has created an odd, dark little film, with all of these things and more. Released in cinemas last Friday and on DVD just four days ago, it seems this is a film without much backing or confidence. But that's exactly what it should have. Because while it's no masterpiece it is a film of stunning vision, which as well as being a tender exploration of character, also features a scene where a character has his face chewed off by a man most resembling Satan. Yep. Welcome to the world of Heartless. It's time to throw definition out of the window.

Jamie Morgan (Jim Sturgess) is one of societies outcasts, born with a large, heart-shaped birthmark on the left side of his face, making acceptance from the outside world hard. One night, after spying on the photo-shoot of model Tia (Clémence Poésy), Jamie walks home, witnessing a bunch of hoodies reveal themselves to be demons. Jamie is closest to his mother (Ruth Sheen), who is burnt alive by the demons as he is forced to watch. Soon after, Jamie is led to a mysterious, scarred man named Papa B (Joseph Mawle), a devil-like figure with whom he makes a Faustian pact. If Papa B cures Jamie's face, in return he must graffiti blasphemous messages across the city from time to time. Jamie accepts and after a rebirth by fire he is visited by the Weapons Man (Eddie Marsan) who reveals the deal is not all as it seems. Just as Jamie has a chance encounter with Mia and they fall in love, he may be forced to commit a brutal, unforgivable crime...

Horrific fairytale, morality play, love story and intimately dark drama all in one, Heartless paints a deeply personal dystopia with the dingy, fiery streets of London never displaying more than five or six people on screen at a time. It's an empty, heartless place and Jamie is its lonely soul. One scene sees him confessing to A.J. (Noel Clarke) that he longs for a normal life where he can meet a girl who actually likes him, and settle down with a family. It's in these scenes that we really feel for Jamie and begin to wonder how hard it must be for him. It's a devastatingly moving scene and only renders the first scene with Papa B even more terrifying. It's terribly obvious to us that Papa B won't follow through with his side of the deal but Jamie, an innocent lost in a world of terror, is willing to take the chance. Papa B lights a molotov, throws it at Jamie's feet and burns him alive. We open, seconds later, supposedly to a corpse, horribly scarred, features unrecognizable. The corpse stands up and walks to the mirror slowly. Then something very special happens. A scene that could have been played for gore or horror is played beautifully - as Jamie peels away the scolded flesh he reveals the new, handsome him. Ridley employs an almost angelic lighting and floods it over Jamie's skin. It's a literal rebirth and the exact second Ridley becomes one of the great genre directors, elevated almost to Cronenberg status.

Soon after his meeting with the Weapons Man (Marsan truly excelling in his one scene) Jamie is told he is to kill a man by midnight, and place his heart on the steps of a nearby Church (as you've probably guessed, the title could have any number of interpretations). Jamie finds the perfect victim, a gay hustler, who he leads back to his apartment. There he talks the hustler into a strange sex act, involving a complete body wrap in cling-film. Jamie then pulls a knife from his pocket, digs it deep into the hustlers chest and rips him open - blood squirting and seeping from the body onto the white floor...

From this point the film really starts to hop between genres, and this proves to be its downfall. Ridley is a competent writer and director, his vision is unique and he clearly understands the importance of character in relation to horror and also the codes and conventions of the genre. His early establishing scenes of Jamie and Tia's relationship are well handled but the later scenes become a little too soft and a little too mushy, all the while being juxtaposed with the brutal scenes of violence. The contrast should echo the previous beauty of Jamie's lonely confession and rebirth, but they instead feel clunky and reveal what I had been dreading - that Tia is not much more than a plot device. I'm not going to spoil exactly what happens, but it will be divisive. After flip-flopping between genres what Heartless really needed to do was stick to the strength of its convictions and provide a roaring, hell-flamed finale, but it goes the other way. It's a well crafted scene, touching if you invest yourself, but it comes at the wrong time at the back end of a otherwise competent screenplay.

The ace card is Sturgess himself, delivering a poignant, memorable leading turn that anchors the whole film. Also singing a few tracks from the soundtrack, this is his show, despite the constant invention and brutality of Ridley. Quiet, reserved and desperate, he instills Jamie with a knowledge of the world but seemingly no experience in it. He wanders the night streets, slumped and alone, coming full circle by the latter scenes where he descends further into a personal hell. It's a physical and mental performance and deserves much more attention than it will likely get.

Unfortunately you've now missed you chance to see this dark oddity on the big screen, but that shouldn't put you off. It's destined to be something of a cult classic, but as Sturgess' star rises, so could the popularity of Heartless. It's not perfect, but it deserves your attention and for all its flaws ends up being one of the most original, compelling films of last year. Just don't make us wait 15 years for the next one, eh Ridley?

Monday 24 May 2010

Happy Birthday, Kristin Scott Thomas!

Kristin Scott Thomas in Petites Coupures (2003)...

Flicking through the IMDB in preparation for this article - which will be an unabashed swoon, I forewarn you - I came across an upsetting discovery. Despite making her mark in three different film industries, being nominated for BAFTA's, César's and an Oscar, and winning the hearts of audiences worldwide across a decade-spanning career, half of Kristin Scott Thomas' filmography is still unavailable in the UK. I've scoured dusty attics, charity shops, Ebay and more in a fruitless attempt to unearth even a derelict VHS of her earliest work, when she primarily worked in French language features. Writing an article which celebrates her distinctive career becomes much harder for this fact, and so this piece has changed considerably from my original intention. Rather than re-establishing praise for the likes of Four Weddings And A Funeral (Newell, 1994) and The English Patient (Minghella, 1996; for which she recieved that Oscar nom) I've decided to point you in the direction of a few performances that may have slipped you by. They won't necessarily be her best films, but they're most certainly worth the effort for her magnificent turns. So, without further ado...

1.) Under The Cherry Moon (Prince, 1986)

The number of times I've been laughed out of a room for proclaiming my love of Under The Cherry Moon is now too embarrassing to list, but I stand strong that it's Prince's finest cinematic achievement - an opulent, indulgent romance which recalls (Fellini, 1963) as much as it does Purple Rain (Magnoli, 1984). What's startling about Thomas' performance here - which is her feature debut - is the confidence with which she tackles the role of Mary, on paper a toffee-nosed, upper-class brat, and imbues her with wit and warmth. The plot finds a smooth-talker by the name of Christopher (Prince) attempting to woo this uptight socialite before she inherits $50 million from her father, but naturally he ends up falling for her. The gorgeous photography really allows the actress to shine (really, she's never looked better), but she also nails one of her best monologues toward the film's end;

"For 21 years now I've listened to you and father tell me what to do.
You've painted a picture of a perfect world and you've framed it
with hypocrisy, stubbornness and lies. And you've hung it on a
trust fund I can't get until I marry a man I don't even love. Doesn't it
matter to you and Daddy what I want? Mother, look at me.
I am your painting."

2.) Petites Coupures (Pascal Bonitzer, 2003)

An offbeat little dramedy, this largely unknown picture finds Thomas on bright comedic form, playing against the wonderful Daniel Auteuil. The film's main arc follows a few days in the life of a womanizing French journalist, Bruno (Auteuil), as he travels cross-country to deliver a letter to his uncle's wife's lover, but the highlight is of course Thomas, playing the eccentric Béatrice. She's a timid and nervous soul, outwardly sad and possibly a little bit crazy. But unlike many indie features these are not qualities which are exploited for kook's sake - these characters are deeply flawed and, despite their willingness to hurt each other, are revealed as delicate and confused beings. Béatrice has married the wrong man, and filled with self doubt she is looking for a way out. On the surface it's a simple film (some shallow comments about communism feel misplaced), but the characters are well drawn, and allow two enviably talented performers to inhabit them. Thomas is totally believable playing a woman adrift in her own whimsical (albeit painful) ocean, and once again walks away as the highlight of an already underrated film.

3.) Chromophobia (Martha Fiennes, 2005)

One thing I love about Thomas is her unfaltering ability to rise above the material she's in, and in the case of Martha Fiennes pompous London mosaic, there's much rising to be done. A cold browse through its director's phone book, Chromophobia is a deeply misjudged snoozefest which, outside of this stunning supporting turn, isn't at all worth recommending. And yet, at its centre the film does have brittle socialite Iona (Thomas), whose sleek black haircut perfectly reflects her character - one which won her numerous plaudits with the same critics who (rightly) panned the film. Iona's house is bathed in sterile white, and its claustrophobic rooms are as choking for her as they are for us. Its glass surfaces have made her self-conscious - she panics about her looks and body, slowly crumbing before her husband's uncaring eyes. A monolith with a repressed heart, Iona is the embodiment of a middle-aged woman's fears, but it's to Thomas' credit that she finds such a powerful emotional hook in such a tired, clichéd screenplay.

4.) I've Loved You So Long (Philippe Claudel, 2008)

Maddeningly snubbed by the Academy (seemingly for the crime of speaking in French), Thomas delivered her finest performance to date in the searing grief drama I've Loved You So Long. She plays Juliette Fontaine, a woman struggling to readjust to society after being released for prison. The reason for her 15 years spent incarcerated are initially undisclosed, but the frosty reception by her sister hints toward something disturbing. Thomas performance is quiet and fragile, beautifully observed by debutant Claudel, whose tale of mystery is riveting from first frame to last. Rather than playing the role for melodrama, Thomas finds in Juliette a repressed sadness, and proceeds to single out every vital emotion, playing them through weary, soulful eyes. A private woman, introduced by the lighting of a cigarette, we enter Juliette's world without prejudice. By the reactions of those around her feelings of unease slip into our subconscious, and Thomas possesses the impossible quality of foreseeing them, convincing us that by one touch of a human hand, she might break. It's a stunningly layered performance, and one I urge you to track down.

The birthday of one of our finest actresses is, without doubt, a cause for celebration. Hopefully this article will have encouraged you to seek out more of her work, and to see you out I've selected a short film by the late, great Anthony Minghella - Play (2000), based on the production by Samuel Beckett.

Tuesday 18 May 2010

Bitch Slap (Rick Jacobson, 2009) Review

Erin Cummings is bringing out the big guns in Bitch Slap...

Where do you start with a movie called Bitch Slap? To point out that it's trashy, over-the-top and unbelievably stupid is almost a compliment. To point out that the acting isn't Oscar worthy and the effects budget wasn't much more than the cost of catering should be plainly obvious. To point out that it's a film of style and not feminist substance won't exactly surprise the film community. So why don't we start with the line "I'm gonna booty-bang bitch slap your fucking ass until you're just this side of salvage." Because as well as summing up the tone of the movie quite perfectly, it's almost like a form of perverse poetry.

Indeed, the film's own (brilliant) opening credits label writers Rick Jacobson and Eric Gruendemann as Poet Laureates, and it'd be hard to argue. Basically the easiest place to start with Bitch Slap is to say that it's absurdly tongue-in-cheek and an homage to the exploitation movies of the 70s, referencing everything from Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (Meyer, 1965) to The Car (Silverstein, 1977). It's joyfully sleazy, but if you hadn't noticed that from the quote and picture above, you're probably not its target audience. After all, any film that stops mid-way through exposition to indulge us a slow-motion water fight isn't going to be for everyone.

The story follows three mysterious women - Camero (America Olivo), the psychotic wild card, Hel (Erin Cummings), the leader of the pack, and Trixie (Julia Voth), the vulnerable stripper. They arrive at a desert hideaway with their mind set on relieving an underworld kingpin of a fortune in diamonds, but along the way secrets are uncovered and true colours shown. It's a story of blood, bullets, and bountiful cleavage, and despite a rather strong plot, it's all absolute nonsense. Need more proof? How about Lucy Lawless in a cameo involving lesbian nuns? How about ex-Hercules star Kevin Sorbo as a sharp suited machine-gun toting super spy? Yeah, I thought so.

The biggest plus to Bitch Slap is the fact that it knows exactly what it is, plays it to the hilt and is helmed by a director and cast who are truly passionate about the film they're making. It crusades through layers of sex and violence with a wink n' smile that's highly infectious - if you allow yourself to get into the spirit of it. Ultimately, for those unfamiliar with exploitation, this will be hard to do. There are flaws - every location apart from the desert hideaway is shot on painfully obvious green screen, but the fact that it looks so cheap and campy (combined with the often bright and tacky colour scheme) suits the tone of the film and soon becomes half of its charm. The film clearly isn't rooted in realism - in fact, its quick-cut editing style, rampantly bloody violence and exaggerated sound design call to mind comic-books. It wouldn't take too much imagination to successfully translate this idea (or at least its style) into a graphic novel. Trash art is underrated.

Another important thing to remember about Bitch Slap is that it's an action movie first and foremost. It may be tongue-in-cheek, but that doesn't make it any less of a genre film. The screenplay wields stupidity like wit, a fine example being the mid-fight exchange between Hel and Camero: "Open wide psycho slut", "Lube my boob, skank twat", respectively. But the vital thing to remember is that the dialogue arrives mid-fight, and is really inconsequential to what the film is about. Primarily it's a crime thriller, stuffed with outrageous action, particularly in the final half hour. Perhaps the most prestigious member of the crew is Zoë Bell, best known for playing herself in Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof (2007). Here she's the stunt and fight coordinator and therefore responsible for choreographing some of the most awesome sequences of recent years. The aforementioned fight between Hel and Camero goes on for about five minutes - all high kicks, rapid-fire punches, low blows and greasy grapples. It's like watching a really sexy wrestling match, but one where people really get hurt. By the end of the superbly staged sequence shirts are ripped, faces are bloody and we realise that these women are really fighting for something. It's the scenes of violence that anchor the film and inform our feelings toward the characters. The US version of Bitch Slap is unrated and comes with an extra five minutes of footage. Somewhere out there on an editing room floor is a 130 minute cut (the UK version is 101 minutes) but that now seems lost. We can only dream of the awesome exploitation violence in that version, but from the absurdly entertaining evidence on offer here, I imagine it would be something rather special.

Does it go one contrivance too far? Absolutely. The final twist is obvious, overplayed and an overall low point. But when a film has been this much fun, does it even matter? I'm a strong believer in context and when we look at Bitch Slap as a cheaply made exploitation movie, designed to titillate and excite, it does its job. It has three sexy stars all delivering note-perfect performances for the material. It's well choreographed, directed and edited. And it's more fun than you can shake a stick at. It'll have detractors. But who cares? Bitch Slap, funnily enough, is exactly what the industry needs right now. A highly effective, low budget, nuts n' bolts trashfest with no A-List stars and no expectations, that manages to deliver plenty of thrills n' spills to its target audience. Michael Bay, take note.

Monday 17 May 2010

Valhalla Rising (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2009) Review

Conceived as a science fiction movie set in the past, this darkly intimate epic presents something of an oddity in contemporary cinema. An arthouse Norseploitation movie. Didn't see that one coming did you? Not that you necessarily should, of course. When one thinks of Vikings they think of large ships, hairy men and bloody battles and while Valhalla Rising has all of these things, it couldn't be further from your expectations. It's metaphysical, monolithic, bleak, brutal and utterly bizarre (indeed writer/director Refn cites Alejandro Jodorowsky's 1973 surreal masterpiece The Holy Mountain as an influence). But despite this, it's also rather beautiful.

Mads Mikkelsen plays One-Eye, a mute warrior, supposedly from Hell, who has been captured by Norse chief Barde (Alexander Morton). He is made to take part in a series of bloody battles before he manages to escape from his captors. He is followed by a boy named Are (Maarten Stevenson) and along the way they join a Viking troop, on their way to the Holy Land. Their ship is covered by a fog and some superstition arises about where they are truly headed. The film, broken into six chapters, labels the place they arrive at as Hell. After their arrival the film takes a series of strange turns as the Vikings and One-Eye find their true selves and are hunted by Native Indians. As stated by Refn it's a story of nature vs man, but it can also be linked to Norse mythology itself. Valhalla (a hall in which dead heroes feast with Odin) is the central theme of the film and One-Eye is Odin (the Norse God of War who placed one of his eyes into Mimir's Well) himself. Could the film be a portrayal of One-Eye's ascent to Valhalla? An ascent made complete by an ultimate act of martyrdom, in order to ensure the safety of Are? It's a film with multiple layers and readings - spiritual, religious, historic... and as such it requires multiple viewings. Refn also states how the movie is about "looking beyond the stars" and "becomes like a drug".

But of course, this can make for a pretty weary experience. Valhalla Rising is a masterfully composed piece but its constant pauses for thought are at odds with its initial promise. The film has an 18 certificate, a certificate that's pretty tough to secure with todays more liberal BBFC. But in the opening ten minutes its secured that rating with just two battle scenes. And that's it, for the rest of the movie. Bones crunch, heads are bashed in (if you thought Irreversible (Gaspar Noé, 2002) was bad, wait until you see the brain smashing in this one) and guts are spilled. It's the only violence to speak of and it's wince inducing. The rest of the film takes its time carefully unfolding and presenting us with metaphors and illusions of grandeur that can prove bothersome. It's intelligent enough and handled with skill but by the time an hour has passed you'll want the movie to stop pondering so much and start spilling some blood again. It's the one flaw in an otherwise perfect piece, but that's probably because the rest of the film is purely aesthetic.

Actually, that's only half true. A large amount of the films success lies on Mikkelsen's shoulders. He's totally silent and confined to small spaces for the duration of the film but his steely glare and upright posture are enough to make you believe that he could wipe out a small army with just his hands. Luckily he's handy with a blade and the scenes where One-Eye dispatches Vikings in a matter of seconds are heart-stopping. Some have attributed the Kuleshov Effect to his performance, and it's certainly a valid argument. A man with no past and no future, Mikkelsen makes the character believable, terrifying and layered but each viewer will bring different stories to his character. He's in nearly every shot of the film and is totally captivating - it could be a career best. The supporting cast don't quite match him but fortunately the screenplay has been stripped down to the bare essentials, with the majority of feelings evoked though the scenery.

Indeed, the real beauty does lie in the design. The location work is amazing, every shot perfectly capturing the misty Scottish mountains and clear rivers. Everything looks so natural, the dark atmosphere of the grasslands echoing the feelings and intentions of the characters. Morten Søborg's cinematography is haunting and some of the best in recent years, eclipsed only by Roger Deakins work on The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, 2007). The score by Peter Kyed and Peter Peter is rousing and provocative, using distortion and exaggerated wind effects to simultaneously chill and engage the audience, whilst also recalling The Evil Dead (Sam Raimi, 1981) and Antichrist (Lars von Trier, 2009). This will be of no consequence to the audience members that find Valhalla Rising to be both boring and pretentious however.

Ultimately it's a film that will prove to be divisive and its slow, thoughtful pacing and scenes of extreme violence are bound to ensure it never becomes anything more than a cult oddity. But it's refreshing to see such a bold, distinctive work in contemporary cinema that feels untampered with and sticks to the strength of its convictions. Depending on your point of view it's either alienating or mesmerising from start to finish. I found it to be a work of brave, brutal genuis, sometimes tedious and unsure of its footing but ultimately rewarding in a way that is all to rare today. Savor it.

Saturday 15 May 2010

For Your Consideration...No.6

The Triplets Of Belleville

If you've been following these blogs over the past couple of months, you'll have become familiar with my layout. The title of a film, coupled with an image and then a quote that sums up the movie. So imagine my annoyance when The Triplets Of Belleville (Sylvain Chomet, 2003), a complex, emotional, wonderfully detailed animation, turns out to be silent. Unaware of this fact I sat down with low expectations, and initially the film met them. The strange, almost surreal character design along with a sketchy drawing style and lack of dialogue is hard to adjust to when you don't know it's coming. I had blind-bought the movie for £3 and here I was expecting something along the lines of a French Disney caper. Instead I got one of the most pleasant surprises of recent months - a carefully plotted, quietly engaging, and ultimately rather poignant story. And as well as being better than most Disney films, it also makes a fascinatingly sly attack on them.

The story follows the elderly Madam Souza trying to rescue her grandson, Champion, when he is kidnapped midway through the Tour de France. Along with her dog Bruno, she sets off across the seas to Belleville, a giant city (clearly aping America), full of French Mafia. Along the way she meets three other elderly ladies, The Triplets Of Belleville (a song/dance act from the Sinatra period) themselves, who aid Madame Souza in her quest. All of the characters are completely silent, relying on animation and sound effects to tell the story and express emotion. The best example comes with Bruno. Early on in the film (when Champion is just a boy) a train set runs over his tail. From that moment on he barks at a train whenever it passes the house (which, for comic effect, is frequently, as the house is next to a railway line). At several points throughout the movie Bruno falls asleep and we enter his dreams - portrayed in a dark black and white. The surreal, almost Lynchian sequences are darkly comic - one dream towards the end of the film starts on a close-up of Bruno riding a stream train around a track. As the camera zooms out it is revealed that Champion, looking weary and sad, is pulling the train - and the track is built around the edge of Bruno's food bowl. It's totally bizarre and strangely complex, also achieving something very hard to do in both silent and animation cinema. It makes us form an emotional attachment to an animal as strong as the one we hold with our protagonist. It's even more of an accomplishment given the design of Bruno - he's extraordinarily plump and floppy, obscurely shaped and proportioned...

In fact, the design of all of the characters is more than a little obscure and as far away from Disney/Pixar as you can possibly get. The lanky, almost anorexic Champion has a haunted quality to his face, his large nose poking away from the rest of his gaunt features. The full impact of his character can only be felt on a re-watch however. The final shot of the movie sees an aged, equally morbid Champion watching TV, proclaiming "I think that's probably it. It's over, Grandma". This scene perfectly mirrors one earlier in the film, when Champion was young, indicating that Madame Souza is now dead and the film has been Champion reflecting on the events of his younger days. Perhaps the reason for the obscure design, particularly the mournful qualities of his character, is because they are echoing his feelings in the present? Perhaps his loneliness and sadness is what gives the film its entire tone. His reality distorts his memory. It may seem a bit of a stretch given that the film primarily focuses on Madame Souza and Bruno, but such things are trivial in a film such as The Triplets Of Belleville. It's rare that a film of this type should be so complex and demand so much thought. The least we can do is indulge it.

Then there's Madame Souza herself. A short, rotund pensioner (so yes, predating Pixar's "brave" move with Up, Pete Docter, Bob Petersen, 2009) isn't exactly the typical protagonist for an animation. But then, that assumes we're taking The Triplets Of Belleville as a film for kids. While the film is certainly watchable for a younger audience, they may have trouble dealing with some of the darker elements - a cyclist is assassinated by a gangster in the latter half of the film, albeit offscreen. The Triplets are also strangely designed, in some scenes looking more like witches than a singing act. In fact, just mentioning that I have realised what the style of the film most resembles - the illustrations of Quentin Blake (most famous for his work with the masterful Roald Dahl). An image such as this one, if it were a little more deformed, does not seem out of place with the world of Belleville:

Of course, the animation of The Triplets Of Belleville can also be read as a direct attack on Disney themselves. In fact, some (including in the films IMDB trivia) have referred to it as anti-Disney. And they would seemingly be onto something. After meeting the Triplets in the windy streets of Belleville, Madame Souza is taken to their apartment - on the way up she passes a public toilet left unflushed. The excrement (surrounded by flies) is clearly in the shape of Mickey Mouse's head. And then there's the mechanic, a short, squeaky-voiced fellow who operates the Mafia's secret cycling machine. He is noticeably mouse-like, with his large ears clearly a reference to Mickey Mouse. But the character also has a small mustache - a direct
attack to Walt Disney himself? See for yourself at 2:16 in this clip:

Finally we have an attack on Disney that could just as well be about consumer America - a picture of an unnamed character in Disneyland, with a lollipop labelled 'sucker'. A statement about our willingness to spend money on something we all know is exploitative? Creating an entire theme park to lure money (ahem, families) in? As a concept, Chomet may be onto something. Although places like Disneyland provide a good time, they are consumer capitalization. And we're the suckers.

Finally we tackle The Triplets Of Belleville and America. The sprawling metropolis that is Belleville, with its towering skyscrapers and side-streets, would obviously have been a caricature of America, even if it were not for the obese Statue Of Liberty and burger munching locals. In fairness France gets a swipe too - the Triplets eat nothing but frogs (one sequence sees them raining from the sky in a reference to Magnolia, P.T. Anderson, 1999) - whether it be starter, main or dessert. The frogs are incorporated into everything from soup to ice cream. But the citizens of Belleville are all massively overweight, stumbling over each other to get from one side of the street to the other. They don't so much walk as waddle. So why does such a seemingly angry and opposed film strike such an emotional chord?

Well depending on the individual viewer it may not. But the heart and determination of the characters, combined with the humor and exciting finale probably go some way to balancing its anti-Disney/America themes. But given that such content exists in the film it was surprising to learn that the film was nominated for the Best Animated Feature OSCAR in 2004, alongside Finding Nemo (Andrew Stanton, 2003). It's more than likely that the Academy can overlook such things and nominate the film for its positive merits. Or maybe, just maybe, The Triplets Of Belleville had a point. And it just flew right over their heads...

Friday 7 May 2010

9...10...Never Sleep Again

So today sees the release of A Nightmare On Elm Street (Samuel Bayer), the remake of Wes Craven's 1984 slasher of the same name. Starring Robert Englund as the iconic Freddy Krueger, the film set new standards in its genre. The sub-genre (serial killer stalking high school kids) was pretty much invented by John Carpenter in 1978 (Halloween) but Craven gave it a much needed bloody polish. Transferring the killer from a real physical threat into a dream stalker made the horror more personal, if more fantastical. Michael Myers tapped into our fears of home invasion - he was a killer we would all look over our shoulders for when home alone for years to come. He's a real threat - but in the world of the film he was easy to escape from. Everyone could see him and as a human being, he could be stopped. Not so with Freddy. He's already dead and nobody but the kids of Elm Street can see him. He's a force to be reckoned with and it's to the characters credit that after being worn down for so many years the original is still as chilling (if flawed) as ever. This article will provide a short profile for Freddy's screen incarnations so far - through good and bad...

1.) A Nightmare On Elm Street (Wes Craven, 1984)
A small group of teenagers (including a young Johnny Depp and Heather Langenkamp, who would reappear in Parts 3 and 7) are hunted in their nightmares by serial slasher Freddy Krueger. That's pretty much the premise for this mid 80s horror, which showcases some pretty stilted dialogue but some terrifying sequences. The badly scarred Krueger slides his metal claws along steel pipes - the piercing sound an indication of the horror to come. A sound of death. The most bloody (and famous) dispatch comes when Glen (Johnny Depp) accidentally falls asleep. He's sucked into his bed and (offscreen) is shredded to pieces. A fountain of blood gushes from the sheets to the ceiling, covering the room in a gory crimson, tiny bits of flesh still in the mix. Naturally, his girlfriend Nancy (Langenkamp) is none too pleased with the redecorating job and she proceeds to kill Freddy by pulling him out of her dream into the real world. This first installment is a pretty routine affair in terms of structure but the supernatural aspect and Freudian undertones did a lot for audiences and meant that the murders could be a little more imaginative. As could the killers backstory. In a key scene Nancy's mother takes her to the basement to explain why nobody talks about Fred Krueger. He was a child murderer on Elm Street who was caught and due to legal technicalities, was let go. The parents of the street banded together seeking justice...and burnt Krueger alive. Seems evil never dies...

2.) A Nightmare On Elm Street Part 2: Freddy's Revenge (Jack Sholder, 1985)
Largely forgotten in the Freddy canon - mainly because the Freddy canon ignored it (Part 3 picked up a few years after the original, making no mention of this underrated installment). Teenager Jesse Walsh (Mark Patton) and his girlfriend Lisa Webber (Kim Myers, back then a Meryl Streep lookalike, now a dead ringer for Natasha McElhone) are the central couple this time, but the story has a twist. Instead of stalking the nightmares of all the kids, this time Freddy focuses on just Jesse. And in a Cronenberg-esque series of events, the film turns into a body horror - with Freddy possessing Jesse, making him murder his friends, and eventually taking over his body completely. It allows for some brilliant, bloody effects - the scene where Freddy tears through Jesse's body is horribly mesmerising. Flesh tears, blood pours and Jesse looks on in horror, unable to control what is happening to him (also tying in to the films strange but interesting homosexual subtext - see also murder by shower whipping). It's one of the best sequences in the entire legacy, one of several hugely inventive sequences here scored by the brilliant Christopher Young (recently employed on Drag Me To Hell, to great effect). So its silly and the ending sucks, but if one film deserves to be reevaluated from the series it's this one.

3.) A Nightmare On Elm Street Part 3: Dream Warriors (Chuck Russell, 1987)
By far the best of the series, this installment benefits greatly from confining the kids to a therapy unit and further exploring the psychology of dreams. Anyone expecting deep psychoanalysis is obviously in the wrong place, but it's by far the most intellectually satisfying of the films - and although it does signal Freddy's descent into more jokey territory, it has some hugely inventive sequences (one of the kids being used as a literal meat puppet for example). The opening is also hugely inventive. Kristen (Patricia Arquette) is attacked by her bathroom - before she is interrupted by her mother, which reveals the dream has caused an attempted suicide. With her wrists slit Kristen falls to the floor and soon finds herself in therapy where Nancy (a returning Langenkamp) is now a psychiatrist. The kids in the hospital attempt to enter a dream together, in order to conquer Freddy. The final action sequences are excellent, employing both special effects (a stop motion skeleton) and makeup - and they have an added element as we now feel more sympathetic to Freddy. His backstory is revealed this time around - his mother was raped by one hundred criminals, making him the "son of 100 maniacs". Doomed from the beginning we now see the slasher as a victim as well as a predator. It's a non-stop rollercoaster ride and defeats the rule that the third movie in a series will always be bad.

4.) A Nightmare On Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (Renny Harlin, 1988)
The helmer of Die Hard 2: Die Harder (1990) and Cliffhanger (1993) takes on this wonderful piece of cheesy 80s fluff, complete with a martial arts training montage, rubbish fashion and female pop music - but if Top Gun (Tony Scott, 1986) can be celebrated for the exact same things, why not indulge this 4th Freddy installment? Well, because it has more plot holes than an actual cheese, awful acting, less scares and more comedy. Harlin employs some stylish direction however - a spinning aerial shot around Alice (Lisa Wilcox) is disorientating and effective and he pays loving attention to the effects. One sequence sees friend Debbie (Brooke Theiss) turned into a giant cockroach and then squashed by Freddy. It's bizarre, imaginative and incredibly freaky - the effects are jaw dropping. As Debbie's skin tears and the flesh rips apart giant insect legs emerge, bloody and gooey. Her mouth begins to extend, her eyes growing wider - until her head splits in two, revealing the cockroach. It sheds its human body not long before Freddy turns it into dust. The finale is also brilliant - Alice defats Freddy by showing him his own evil and the souls of his victims then proceed to tear him apart. It may be a little shallow but the cheese and gore factors make it hugely entertaining.

5.) A Nightmare On Elm Street: The Dream Child (Stephen Hopkins, 1989)
The most forgettable film in the Freddy series (I viewed it last week and can't remember a detail) sees Alice (Lisa Wilcox) returning, this time pregnant, and Freddy killing through the dreamlike state of her unborn child. It's a really desperate plot-line that smacks of money-grabbing. I wish I could write more about this installment but there's literally not a sequence that sticks in my mind - no deaths, no soundtrack cues, no inventive direction. I do remember, however, one of the most tedious evil kids in my movie history and a sequence in which a diving board turns into a giant claw. This is the real point in the series where Freddy was able to control his environments like a video-game, relieving any tension, as we know he's going to win. A boring, drab affair that's - shockingly! - not the worst in the series. Oh no. The worst is much more memorable for all the wrong reasons...

6.) Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare (Rachel Talalay, 1991)
Godawful. I feel ashamed to be born in the same year that this mess of a 'film' was released. So many questions are raised - how could all the teenagers in Elm Street die and nobody else in the world not know about it? How was it not a worldwide phenomenon? Why and how does Freddy suddenly have a daughter? Why is he now a superhero who can inhabit anyone, anywhere and play people like video-games? Where is the tension if Freddy can totally manipulate these environments? Why doesn't he just implode all the kids? It's so redundant and so barrel scraping that it's almost an achievement. The whole film plays out with stupid people saying stupid things until they are killed in a series of bizarre and ungory ways (there's literally a videogame sequence where a young Breckin Meyer is forced into a bright, pixellated videogame world and played like a level from Super Mario). There's zero coherence and no solid makeup or effects to make up for it - only Looney Tunes style dispatches and performances so wooden the furniture acts them offscreen. Its nothing but a promotion for lame 3D and a cash-in to a now dead franchise. It's not even entertaining in the most lame, cheesy early 90s kinda way. Any redeeming qualities? Yeah. It ends.

7.) The New Nightmare (Wes Craven, 1994)
This largely successful sixth sequel revolves around a post-modern idea not unlike Craven's 1996 classic Scream. Indeed it does feel a little too much like a precursor to that superior film and isn't half as smart as it thinks it is, but it's still so, so much better than it ever deserved to be. It winks and nods to the original, placing Heather Langenkamp (Heather Langenkamp) in the middle of a real-life Freddy crisis, when Craven begins preparation on another movie in the series. It has some really nice gags and a few solid scares (you'd think the jumping-out-of-a-closet would have become tired by now wouldn't you?) but ultimately the satire can't work if the plot doesn't make sense. And much like the rest of the franchise, this one is all over the place. It's a nice idea which can be very fun - especially in the gory, original-referencing killing of Julie (Tracy Middendorf). But because the plot is about as coherent as any other when you put your mind to it, the sharpness and wit falls a bit flat. Its worth watching for the fiery finale however, which sees Freddy as the scariest he's been since Dream Warriors. It's a fitting climax which no doubt fans were begging for - and luckily Freddy stayed dead...until now.

It was always inevitable that a remake would appear, and I don't yet know what the film is like. But I do know that it can't touch the cheesy, practical-effects driven silliness of some of the installments, or the deep, chilling, psychological terror of Parts 1 and 3. Even a totally routine slasher will be better than Freddy's Dead, but then, so is being hit by a bus. No matter if you see the remake or not, be sure to check out the original franchise, when Freddy was a true horror icon (and, sadly, a stand up comedian). And whatever you do...don't...fall...asleep...