Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Bug (2006).

I have just finished watching...

Director William Friedkin denies it belongs to the horror genre and yet it has about ten times more frightening an impact than The Hamiltons - for which this DVD had a trailer, coincidentally.

Adapted from a play, with a small cast and practically one-room setting, Bug charts the descent into madness of lonely waitress Agnes White (the phenomenal Ashley Judd), after starting a relationship with a shy but odd drifter named Peter (Michael Shannon, who played the same role onstage and is as equally brilliant as Judd, here).

Peter is ex military and is bubbling with conspiracy theories and paranoia; Agnes is part-destroyed by losing her young son and having suffered an abusive marriage. She starts listening to and believing Peter's rants about a secret government experiment on soldiers during the Gulf War.

In no time at all, the pair have alienated the one friend Agnes had and are convinced their motel suite, then their own bodies, are infested with millions of tiny US government bred insects.

Peter ripping out a tooth he believes to harbour an egg sack. Tooth horror might be my least favourite kind...

The thing is, we the audience are never told the absolute truth. Yes, these two seem completely cuckoo, but there are many little signposts within the movie that actually corroborate Peter's stories.

By the end of the film, the suite has been covered in foil and bug capture devices.

There's no going back after some final conclusions are drawn. In two magnificently deranged monologues, connections are made between all of the information we have learnt about Agnes; and even to us, sitting in our non foil covered rooms, it kinda makes sense. The climax of the movie is heartbreaking, completely nuts, and perfect.

If you watch this and enjoy it, then I urge you to watch it again, as it definitely benefits from a second viewing. The director's commentary is also worth a listen for the hypnotic voice of mister Friedkin, guiding us soothingly through what is a dark, surprisingly moving film.

Monday, December 28, 2009

The Hamiltons (2006)

Totally spoiler heavy.
Sorry, but I'm blowing this thing wide open.

My local film rental place is closing. It's sad but I'm a LOVEFiLMer, so it's partly my fault. Anyway, they are selling off all their stock, so I managed to pick up two films I was interested in seeing. The Hamiltons was one of them.

Slipped inside the case was a piece of paper, with this typed on it:
"Michael Recommends:
A rare beast this, with first-time directing team the 'Butcher Brothers' shedding new light on an old legend in a smart, uncompromising fashion.
While it's not exactly terrifying it is definitely original and unerringly brutal. Leagues ahead of 'gorno' pics like SAW and HOSTEL, this entwines its inherent nastiness with a web of American-indie smarts. The results are both surprising and strangely satisfying."

I don't know who Michael is - presumably an employee. What I do know, is that he's talking bollocks.

Having not paid attention when reading the above, the "new light on an old legend" went over my pretty lil' head. Therefore, I went into this assuming it was about a family of fucked-up homicidal teenagers - and this is how it is played, until the final reveal.

Before dealing with that however, let's talk about the film generally.

Four young adults - and whatever it is they keep locked in the basement - have to fend for themselves in a new town after both parents die (we aren't told how). David, the eldest, seems to have needlessly adopted a ridiculous side-parting in his hair since becoming the man of the house. The twins Wendell and Darlene, have an incestuous relationship which is only marginally more disconcerting than the girl's complete lack of acting ability. The youngest sibling, Francis, sees what is going on in his home and hates it, spending most of the film wandering around or laying on his bed looking tortured.

All of them know, if not are directly involved with the family's pastime of picking up people who won't be missed, taking them home and killing them.

However, within the household there are varying degrees of comfort with this arrangement. Francis wants to help the girls he finds strung up in the basement, David reluctantly goes about his murders with a sense of duty and the twins make their kills into games, enjoying and getting off on them.

This sounds like ample fodder, right? Wrong. The plot is paper thin, with nothing much of anything happening. The closest we get to tension is when Francis seems on the brink of going to the authorities... but then doesn't. Ah well!

And the closest we get to the "unerringly brutal" of which Michael speaks, is this shot:

I don't know about you, but that doesn't do an awful lot for me.

A lot of the worst crimes are committed off screen - which is fine, it's an indie film and the FX budget wasn't huge, I can understand that. Yet in order to make hidden atrocities work, the viewer needs to (a) care about what was happening, and (b) care about who it is happening to. Apologies, the Butcher Brothers, but this just wasn't the case here. It's not brutal, it's a series of faintly grisly scenes which punctuate an otherwise dull, poorly acted 86 minutes.

The most interesting thing about The Hamiltons, is the twist. Interesting in the sense that it made me yell: "WHAT?! Fucking vampires?!" as this happened...

Yup. They are a family of vamps. Or... humans with some kind of vamp/blood related disease. They aren't mindless killers man, they're just trying to survive. Oh jesus.

The big unveiling of "Lenny"? The thing that's been screaming and rattling the bars of its cage underneath the house for the entire movie? Well, judging by the heavily pregnant mother in early footage of the family, we assume it's the infant in some form. In what form though? I was hoping for some fucked up mutated foetus thing, some gooey effects if we're lucky. What did we actually get?

Aw, his little blood soaked bedroom.

Build build build aaaaaand...

Yeah, that's Lenny. I literally wrote "LOL @ Lenny" in my notes, which about sums it up I think.

So on a re-watch (NB: I wouldn't have bothered if I didn't have to cap it), the viewer picks up on Francis running his tongue across his teeth, being off his food and zoning out in a restaurant when faced with rare, bloody meat. Whereas previously we'd assumed he was in some kind of shock from the knowledge of what his family are up to, in hindsight it's clear he is undergoing a change.

Something like the vampire equivalent of puberty? I don't know, they don't tell us, we don't ultimately care.

By the end of the film Francis seems all of sudden fine with what he is, though. He's friends with his siblings again and they all pack up and move town. The last line is David greeting their new neighbours and introducing the clan as "the Thompsons". Please god don't let that be a set up for a sequel.

Saturday, December 19, 2009


I couldn't quite believe it when I crossed paths with the news that Dan O'Bannon had passed away, on December 17. Sadly, it was true.

Dark Star, the Alien films, Dead & Buried, The Return of the Living Dead (also directed), Lifeforce and Total Recall... to name but a few of the films this man had a hand in creating as a screenwriter.

Let's all watch at least one of his films and salute the genius that was mister O'Bannon. You will be missed, sir.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Wicker Man (1973).

Final Girl Film Club ahoy!

I believe this was chosen before the passing of Edward Woodward, so it was a sad and fitting tribute to be watching one of his films.

[As an aside, Edgar Wright's piece on Woodward was the best one I read. It can be found here]

The Wicker Man, directed by Robin Hardy, was another film that my Dad recommended to me when he realised I was becoming a horror film enthusiast.

I was relatively young when I first watched it and recall finding it quite... dull. I didn't get why a horror film would have songs in it and the subtle layering of the small town creepiness wasn't to my unrefined palate back then. I do, however, remember the ending sucker-punching me. It's odd thinking about how different and genre-naive my opinions were back then.

So, re-watching many, many years later was an interesting experience. Small town based chills are now one of my favourite types and bizarrely, during the opening act of this film I was very much reminded of Dead and Buried (review here) despiteThe Wicker Man predating it by eight years. The songs in the film I now see as adding to the eerie, rather than taking away from it.

The plot, if you somehow aren't familiar, concerns Sergeant Neil Howie (Woodward) a devoutly Christian police officer, who is sent to investigate a case of a missing child on the island of Summerisle.

Where is Rowan Morrison?

From the moment he arrives the locals act suspiciously cagey: denying facts Howie knows to be true, contradicting themselves and generally being aggravatingly unhelpful.

As the Sergeant's investigation progresses, he begins to not only uncover the truth and lies regarding Rowan's alleged disappearance, but also learns of the inhabitants' neo-pagan beliefs. His traditional sensibilities are increasingly horrified at what he witnesses: public copulation, Christian churches left in ruin, school children being educated about "phallic symbols". Then, at the film's shocking conclusion, all remaining mysteries are explained and Howie is led screaming to his sacrificial death as the islanders look on, singing merrily.

"Come, it is time to keep your appointment with the Wicker Man."
- Lord Summerisle.
The film unfolds more as a mystery to begin with, displaying instance upon instance of off-kilter behaviour from the Summerisle folk. The pace is steady, answering some questions but raising even more as we follow the trail of breadcrumbs along with Howie.

Whatever happened to traditional confectionery?

Why does the village chemist have a jar of foreskins? (And where did he get them from?!).

What's with the creepy animal masks?

What exactly do the May Day celebrations involve, apart from the island's owner prancing about in a long black wig?

Upon meeting Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee, impressive in all aspects including his hair and wardrobe) Howie encounters the apex of the island's weirdness.

Howie: "But, they're naked...!"
Lord Summerisle: "Well, naturally. It's much too dangerous to jump through fire with your clothes on."
Where he thought he would find co-operation from the owner and magistrate of the island, the policeman instead finds a charismatic leader who speaks of old gods, divinity lessons and appears as "raving mad" as everyone else.
Lord Summerisle: "Do sit down, Sergeant. Shocks are so much better absorbed with the knees bent."
No review of this film can pass without a mention of the infamous Britt Ekland nude scene.

In an attempt to seduce Howie, Willow (Ekland) the sexually liberated landlord's daughter, casts a spell by dancing around the room adjoining the one in which the virginal policeman is staying. She sings, bangs on the walls and he - who is engaged to be married and a believer in abstinence until the wedding night - is tested to his limits as he paces, sweats and presses himself against the wall in return. Somehow however, he ultimately resists Willow's charms. Unfortunately, he just should have gone for it, because his self control ultimately proves to be one of the nails in his own coffin.

I definitely didn't appreciate this sequence way back when. It's more than just a pretty woman dancing around with no clothes on; it is charged with eroticism and in a very simple, beautiful way shows the battle between sexuality and repression.

The spell, in song form, is named 'Willow's Song' and is rightly lauded as one of the best in the film. Watch the whole thing on Youtube here.

For something classed as a horror film, the horrific only comes into play right at the end, where Howie learns of his fate. I would be tempted, if it were not for this final scenes, to deny that this is a horror film at all. However, the building dread, from the ritual preparation of the policeman before his sacrifice; his anger which turns into begging for mercy that in turn becomes him screaming for his life; the islanders' terrifying conviction in what they are doing and the image of the Wicker Man itself are undeniably frightening elements. I may not have been convinced of the film's cult status when I first saw it, yet Howie's screaming stayed the fuck with me.

The Wicker Man is a quintessentially British film that may not make it onto everybody's 'ultimate horror' list, and yet anyone calling themselves a fan of the genre certainly needs to see it. I'm pleased I have had a chance to watch the film again, now that I am old enough and wise enough to "get it". Horror films may not be advised viewing for young'uns first and foremost due to potentially scary content, but it is also a case of needing a little life and genre experience to fully appreciate them, too!

Going to end on this image, because I capped it and adore it, even though it didn't fit into the review anywhere. It's too good not to include.