Friday, 27 February 2009

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman





The Graveyard Book is Neil Gaiman's latest foray into the world of children's novels. Or rather as Neil himself would put it this is his second "for all ages" book. As the sharper readers may have guessed, The Graveyard Book is a riff on Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Books and tells the tale of Bod, a boy who lives in a cemetery and has been raised by the ghosts who inhabit it. Also it has been released in two editions, one with illustrations by Chris Riddell and one with long-time Gaiman collaborater Dave McKean on artistic duties.

His first venture into this field, Coraline was a marvellously twisted tale and set the bar high. Also Coraline has just been made into an animated feature film by the wonderful Henry Sellick, the genius behind The Nightmare Before Christmas, which will undoubtedly seal it's status a a modern classic. So how does The Graveyard Book measure up?

To begin, structurally this is a very different novel to Coraline. Whereas that book told a tightly focused and plotted tale, The Graveyard Book is more episodic. Each chapter deals with a different adventure in Bod's childhood and as whole the novel traces his story from birth to adulthood. Many of the chapters could stand alone as short stories, and indeed I was not to surprised to discover in the Afterword that initally this is how the book began, with Chapters 1 and 4 appearing in this fashion. Thankfully though, the books never feels bitty and crafts an intrguing tale. Despite each chapter being self-contained, the overall plot's momentum is sustained and it builts steadily to a satisfying conclusion. Gaiman demonstrates his natural flair for story-telling in this regard; he really understands how to make the episodic chapters work in concert, with each chapter revealing at little of more Bod's world and leaving you keen to journey further with the character. It is one of those 'just one more chapter' books you'' find hard to put down.

The book comfortably achieves a pleasant balance of both horror and humour, and like the Kipling stories that inspired it, whimsy and humanity. There's nothing in here that will terrify younger readers too much but there's lots that will delight to anyone who loves spectres and spooks. The story weaves a pleasing magical world that could exist close to ours; I have no doubt that many children will now be looking for ghoul gates in their local boneyards and will have know by heart the chant to summon a friendly night-gaunt. Indeed, I must confess that on a recent photography shoot I did keep an eye for the former.

While it is obvious that Neil is bouncing a literary ball off the wall of The Jungle Books, with several chapters parralleling Kipling, The Graveyard Book also reminded me of the works of R. Chetwynd-Hayes. Like many of Chetwynd-Hayes' stories, there is a similar sense of ghoulish fun, a shared fascination with the private life of ghosts and monsters and the same mixing of a fantastic supernatural world with a mundane suburban England. Also like Chetwynd-Hayes, The Graveyard Book features those usually overlooked undead horrors, ghouls.

This is a charming little book and my biggest criticism is that it wasn't longer! The world it creates and the story it tells is so beguiling, I'm sure many adult readers will, like myself, be wishing for more. The book's universe certainly has great scope and while I appreciate it's length was probaly determined by the 'for-all-ages' rubric, I still wish there was more. Sadly as it tells a coming of age story, there isn't really room for a sequel.

I do have one niggle though, and that's his description of the night-gaunts. Gaiman describes them as being brown and possessing black obsidian eyes... but as any reader of HP Lovecraft knows night-gaunts are black and do not "wear a face where faces should be found". I know this a minor point, but speaking as a fellow who has a five foot Cthulhu head mounted on his wall, I can't help feeling that he should have either stuck to HPL's conception of the creatures or called them something else.

Also as a novel for all ages, anyone waiting for the next American Gods may be disappointed. Those of you were disappointed to find that Anansi Boys was a comic novel, will probably feel that The Graveyard Book is another slight offering from Gaiman. But one must take this book on its own terms. And while it's great book for children and the ideal gift for a younger relative, this a novel anyone can enjoy. Although it may be short in length, it's long in imagination, rich in humour and deep in heart.

Also the illustrations in both versions are wonderful and beautifully compliment the story. On one hand they will appeal to children, and on the other will please book lovers no end. They also certainly lend the book the air of an old school classic.

All in all, this is a worthy sucessor to Coraline. And while it's very much typical Gaiman in some regards, it never feels like just more of the same, except in terms of quality. It's one of those cosy little books whose world will become a favorite place to revisit for many readers.

And if you enjoy The Graveyard Book and are after some more ghoulish good fun, I'd recommend checking out R.Chtwynd-Hayes' The Monster Club.


Wednesday, 25 February 2009

The Devil's Coming



We've added a new tale of terror to the level of Hypnogoria which we are coming to think of as the Library.

Find it here -http://www.hypnogoria.com/html/devilscoming.html

This little story by G Septimus is a prequel to Arthur Miller's The Crucible. And if you're not familiar with this classic drama, I heartily recommend seeing or reading it. (Or just click the above link to read the Wikipedia summary).

It took Tom alot of messing about to get permission to reprint it on the site, and I got through a fair number of black chickens to get the illustration photo.... So we hope you enjoy it!





Saturday, 21 February 2009

JASON AD 2009



So at last it’s here - the long awaited reboot/reimagining/remake of the seminal slasher Friday 13th! And while it’s cleaning up at the box office, this film seems to have sharply divided horror fans right down the middle as cleaning as a machete blow from Jason himself…

Now it’s fair to say we’re currently living through a period of Hollywood remake hell. Recent years have brought us a plethora of needless remakes from the competent but pointless new version of The Omen to outright atrocities like Neil ‘I should have known better’ LaBute’s The Wicker Man. So when it was announced that Friday 13th was getting the remake treatment, many were quick to cry foul. And when it was revealed that Michael Bay was to have a hand in the production and Marcus Nispel, who has previous form in the remake game, was to direct, a lot of fans were bracing themselves for the worst.

However, for me these announcements actually gave me some hope for the project. Bay’s involvement at least guaranteed a decent budget and for all the flaws of 2003’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Nispel demonstrated a confident feel for the genre. While his film falls squarely into the superfluous remake category, it was well constructed with a decent pace, suspense and a gloriously grimy, grungy atmosphere.

Of course it couldn’t hold a candle to the 1974 original, but that film is a truly unique piece of cinematic savagery that no director could ever possibly hope to match. Even director Tobe Hooper couldn’t ever replicate its intensity in his other works. It really was a case of catching lightning in a bottle. But Nispel gave it a shot and gave it his best. He wisely didn’t attempt to catch the same gruelling documentary feel of the original and instead retold the story in a more conventional horror idiom. If the original is like finding yourself trapped in a deserted house which you discover is really haunted, Nispel’s remake was like going on a high end ghost train ride.

Now the original Friday 13th ranks alongside the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre in the Great Horror Movies Hall of Fame but it is a very different kind of bloodbath. Although it is an undoubted genre classic, it isn’t the unique cinema experience that the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre is.

Although it’s often written off as a Halloween knock off with extra added gore, the 1980 film is more accurately a splatter version of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians. And in terms of its construction, it’s a horror rollercoaster ride. So considering what Nispel delivered with his previous venture in the remake field, to me at least, he seemed an ideal candidate to helm a new version of Friday 13th. If he could bring the same high production values and direction to the table, then surely we’d get the remake we’d all like to see…

Or would we? Judging from the mixed critical reactions, it would seem that for a significant proportion of viewers simply recreating the original with a modern gloss is simply not enough. Now before getting on the actual review of the movie, let me lay out what I wanted from this remake.

Firstly, although generally the announcement of a remake makes me groan, I actually thought the idea of remaking Friday 13th was a reasonable proposition. And here’s why – remakes can be divided roughly into three categories. The first is what I’ll term the ‘Blasphemy!” camp, where studios decide that it would be a great idea to redo a classic and fail to realise that some films are unique. Films like Wings of Desire, Psycho or The Wicker Man are classic because of their originality of vision and construction and you’d be an idiot to try. You can’t top perfection which is why even the most coke addled movie exec would shy away from attempting a remake of the likes of Some Like it Hot, It’s A Wonderful Life, The Sound of Music or Casablanca. And even if you do manage to turn out a decent new version like, for example, Zack Synder’s Dawn of the Dead, everyone will say it’s not a patch on the original and still wonder why they bothered.

The second camp is what I’ll call ‘the Retold Tales’. These are the endless versions of well known stories – you can remake Frankenstein ad infinitum. Now we are not just talking about multiple adaptations of a same literary source here. Generally when studios decide to do another version of a novel generally they refer back to the original adaptation rather than the literary source. If you hunt through the archive and have a gander at my review of James Whale’s Frankenstein, you see how the 1931 film creates the template for all subsequent cinema adaptations of Mary Shelley’s gothic tale. Similarly the 1939 Basil Rathbone version of The Hound of the Baskervilles sets out the blueprint for all following Holmes films.

Some stories you can tell over and over again. Naturally this will yield mixed results but you can end several films that may lay claim to be the best version. For example which of these are better - the Siegel or Kaufman version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers? Which vision of The Thing do you favour – Hawks or Carpenter? Or which of the three editions of The 30 Steps?

Now the third category is the most nebulous - “The Recurring Formula”. Here we have movies and whole series of film that all feature the same basic plot outline and/or the same character. The good illustration of this category is the canon of Mummy films. The original 1932 Karloff picture created the bare bones of the Mummy concept and storyline, it was then semi-remade, or rather what we’d called rebooted these days as The Mummy’s Hand which gave us the classic bandage wrapped horror. Now it’s subsequent Universal sequels are all basics further remakes. The later Hammer Mummy cycle repeats this trend of sequels being essentially a new film from the same template. And nearly all other Mummy flicks, bar the handful drawing on Bram Stoker’s The Jewel of Seven Stars, are pretty much reworkings of the formula perfected The Mummy’s Hand.

Now it’s into this category I’d place the new Friday 13th. As great as the original is, it isn’t a complete and original cinematic vision which places it safely out the ‘Blasphemy’ camp. And we are not dealing will a “Retold Tale’ either as the Nispel version doesn’t recreate the plot of the first movie. Now the first Friday does have a cracking plot – the whodunit element really adds to the suspense and lifts the film from being a knock-off of Halloween to standing alongside it as a seminal slasher. And it’s the strength of the story that would qualify as remake in the second the category. But they couldn’t retell the original story without risking alienating their prospective audience. Partly this is because the original twist ending that it’s Mrs Voorhees carrying out the slayings is now just too well known, but more importantly, in the public consciousness the formula for a Friday 13th is firmly established - for the average cinemagoer Friday 13th = Jason + hockey mask.

The thing about formula derived movies is that it’s the way you tell ‘em that counts. Or to put it another it ain’t what you do, but the way that you it do. It doesn’t matter how hoary the formula is provided you can use it effectively or inventively. For example, Alien uses the same formula as 1958’s It! The Terror From Beyond Space but to wildly different results. So all I really expected from the Nispel version was a good solid rendering of a Jason rampage, well shot and directed with plenty of kills and thrills. I wanted to see the formula treated in a serious rather hokey manner. I wanted to see inventive kills and most importantly to Jason to be a threatening figure. What I didn’t want to see was the formula broken with needless reimaginings such as recasting it in a torture porn mould. I didn’t want any oh-so post modern semi-ironic humour. And I definitely didn’t want a long examination of Jason’s backstory that destroys the character …. Rob Zombie I’m looking at you!

And thankfully the movie lived to all these expectations! I really had a blast with this flick. It takes plot elements from the first few films in the original franchise and weaves a solid story from them. Its dynamically shot and builds a great atmosphere, with the locations really giving us the sense of being out in the wilderness – the original’s screenwriter Victor Miller stated that an important element for any Friday 13th story is that characters should be isolated.

More importantly Nispel executes the formula perfectly; the film moves at a cracking pace and you’re never left waiting long for the next slice of action. – avoiding that the perennial pit fall of slasher movies. The characters may be slight but they are well sketched in and have a few more dimensions that the usual shreddies that populate such movies. And their performances are good too, Travis Van Winkle plays a perfect prick and Jared Padalecki makes a sympathetic hero.

Now it’s true that the movie is pretty predictable – indeed trawling various reviews on the net it’s probably the #1 complaint. However with a formula-based film of course it’s going to be predictable and partly that’s the point. We go to Jason movies to see him slice and dice, in same way we settle down with a Sherlock Holmes to see him solve a mystery. The formula doesn’t really make a big deal of the game of guessing who will survive - the real surprises in a Friday film are he carries out the kills, not which order it happens in. In this new version we get a fine mix of kills that are both inventive and pay homage to the franchise’s past classics. And although if you are familiar with the slasher genre, you’ll have no trouble guessing who’s for the chop next, the movie does manage to throw in a few surprises in when they happen.

Of course the real key to the formula is the portrayal of Jason himself. Derek Mears throws himself into the role and really brings the character to life with his subtle body language. Some fans seem to have had a lot of problems with the version presented in this film, but personally I really liked the leaner and fast moving Jason. I also had no problem with him laying the odd trap as it gives the character a sense of intelligence and cunning. Some fans though have felt it was adding Jigsaw elements to him. Now if he’s been creating elaborate Dr Phibes styles kills, fair enough but the occasional man trap fits in with the concept of Jason as the ultimate hunter of humans.

Similarly I didn’t have any beef with Jason having a network of tunnels under Camp Crystal Lake. Jason may have started life as just another masked psycho but now he’s a truly archetypal monster with more in common with a fairy tale ogre than Norman Bates. And as such it’s appropriate that he has a lair beneath the earth. For me these new additions add a just the right amount of freshness to Jason, without damaging the character concept and ultimately enhance his menace.

SPOILER WARNING!





The most contentious issue of the new Jason however is that fact that he took a hostage. Now there are those who have denounced this for as sheer heresy, but I felt in the context of the plot it provided a genuinely unexpected twist. And while I agree on principle that Jason wouldn’t take hostages, I wouldn’t say the abduction is this movie was entirely contrary to his character. It’s well established that Jason has a powerful connection with his mother so it does make psychological sense that he would kidnap a girl who he thinks resembles her. And it’s no more illogical than Ginny being able to impersonate Pamela Voorhees in the finale of Friday 13th Part 2.





SPOILER OVER

All in all, this Friday 13th was a great deal of fun and promises a bright future for the franchise. Now it’s not really that scary – but hey I’m a desensitised bastard and in the packed theatre where I saw it people were jumping and screaming like crazy. And in all honesty I didn’t expect it to really give me the chills. But it did deliver the thrills and kills I wanted. And I did have a few niggles with it. To start with there’s the usual dumbness of the characters but that’s such a very common failing in horror movies it doesn’t really count. Secondly I would have liked more use of the Manfredini’s iconic ki ki ki … ma ma ma music, but I understand why they didn’t use it more – you really don’t want the soundtrack telegraphing Jason’s presence all the time and wrecking the he pops up from nowhere moments. And finally, it could have been bloodier. But considering that Jason is the MPAA what nunchucks are the BBFC, I’m not surprised they kept the gore brief. But I understand that the DVD will feature an unrated cut the splatter left in. (Incidentally the production blog here intriguingly announces that the DVD release will feature an alternative version of the film …)

Overall I’d count this remake a real success. It’s not the perfect horror movie but it’s a terrific Friday 13th movie and paves the way for future instalments. My only real criticism of the movie is that it perhaps just played too safe and I think the formula could stand being a little more edgy, with a little more character developments and a little unpredictable. But I do respect the fact that Nispel and co. chose not to take too many risks and stuck very closely to the classic elements of the original films. However I do wonder whether the alternative DVD cut mentioned above will rectify this. As it stands though, this is a movie (or perhaps I should say ‘the theatrical cut’) not only honours the spirit of the franchise but has Friday 13th written all the way through it like a stick of rock. It’s a solid addition to the canon and a great start to a whole new saga…


PS On the way I earwigged the following mind-mangling exchange …

Girl 1– I’m glad we didn’t see this at Halloween!
Girl 2 – Why?
Girl 1– Because that’s when he comes out isn’t it!
Girl 2 – Err I think you’re thinking of Michael Myers from the … well, from the Halloween films…
Girl 1– Oh so that wasn’t Michael???
Girl 2 – No, that was Jason. Michael’s a different film series. The clue’s in the title…
Girl 1– Oh I see … I was wondering why they’d turned into a redneck….

PPS Paramount & New Line – YOU STILL SUCK!!!



Friday, 20 February 2009

His Name Was Jason




Like many of you out there, I’ve been looking forward to the new Friday 13th remake/reboot. And other than the thrill of having Jason returning to the silver screen, I did hope the new movie would trigger a re-release of the original franchise films. So far Paramount have released editions that have had no remastering and very little in the way of the special features, so the forthcoming remake would seem like the ideal time to issue the entire Jason saga uncut, digitally polished and with plenty of bonus material…

And lo Paramount did re-release all eight Friday films in their catalogue! However bar some remastering of the first couple of movies, the only change made was to the DVD sleeves. And if I can just stop you now before you all start shouting “Boo! Paramount you SUCK!”, I have to point out that New Line, who own the rights to the last two films Jason Goes to Hell and Jason X have been equally shoddy, if not worst. They haven't bothered to re-release either flick and even allowed Jason Goes To Hell to be out of print in the UK at the time of the remake’s release.

However where the parent studios have faltered, in steps Starz and Anchor Bay with the release of a ninety minute documentary His Name Was Jason: 30 Years of Friday 13th. Featuring interviews with a veritable galaxy of talking heads including cast, crew and fans of the franchise, and hosted by the legendary Tom Savini, this documentary seemed to perfectly fit the DVD releases’ Special Features vacuum…

Now it has to be said that this is a fantastically entertaining tour through the history of the world’s #1 slasher saga. Most of the major players are interviewed and we get a host of fascinating recollections and anecdotes. And of course there are plenty of clips from the original movies to illustrate the material plus a great many backstage and production stills to boot. If you are a fan of the series, you’ll love this, and if you’re not a fan, then this documentary is the perfect introduction to the blood soaked saga.

However if you’re either a die-hard Jason fanatic or just a cinema, you may come away from this wanting a little more. This production was originally made for US television and it really does show in the format and content as it’s very much geared up for the casual viewer. And while the light and frothy tone is *OBLIGATORY BAD PUN ALERT* bloody good fun, at times I did wish for a tighter and more serious approach. There is a tendency to skip from one topic to another rather rapidly, and often I wanted to hear a bit more on some subjects. For example, it would have been nice to hear about the franchises run-ins with the MPAA in more detail. And a good deal more critical commentary on the individual films would have been very welcome in the style of Going To Pieces –The Rise & Fall of the Slasher Film or Halloween: 25 Years of Terror. Considering the huge number of people involved with movies interviewed, it’s hard not feel that this was a bit of a missed opportunity. It looks like we’ll have to wait a while longer for the definitive Friday retrospective…

But while it may lack some critical chops, His Name Was Jason succeeds as a joyful celebration of the franchise. It’s a timely reminder of all the fun this franchise has to offer and respectfully underlines Jason’s iconic status as one of the legendary screen monsters. It’s also makes a great appetiser for the new film… All together now kiii kiii kiii … ma ma maaa


PS – Paramount & New Line – YOU SUCK! May the execs in charge of DVD releases receive machetes in unfortunate places.

Sunday, 15 February 2009

The Autopsy of Benjamin Button





No doubt you will have all heard of this movie and know it’s premise, partly due to the glut of awards nominations it’s received and but mainly because actors appear either older or younger in movies always seems to generate column inches. Even in these days where the wonders of CGI can bring the products of the most deranged imagination to the screen, well known faces getting their ages changed still seems to fascinate us far more than the latest giant robot/pirate/dinosaur. Special effects rarely raise an eyebrow now, but announce a movie in which Brad Pitt will appear as an old man and everyone sits ups.

Aside from novelty value and blatant schadenfeude, our interest in this kind of makeup wizardry reflects our cultures deeply rooted attitudes to aging. Living in a society where old age is seen as a bad thing and where the media enforces a premium on youth, it is very telling that aging effects still elicit big wows. And so, when David Fincher produces a film about a character that ages backwards you would expect that director of his calibre would have acres of material to intelligently explore with such a tale… However unfortunately this is not the case.

Now before I get on to dissecting what gone wrong, please note that the following autopsy is jam packed with spoilers. There’s more spoiler here than consumer vultures at the last day of a major retail chains liquidation sale! Normally I try to avoid spoiler in these review, but in this case it’s pretty much impossible to discuss this film’s short comings without giving away all the plot twists. I know this because I tried!

Ok then HEAVY SPOILER ALERT issued, so let’s see what’s on the slab…

The first thing that needs to be said is that Fincher has produced a remarkable film here. Visually it is stunning with lavish locations and vivid landscapes coupled with inventive camera work. Fincher also shows he is equally at home with capturing the smaller, more intimate character moments too. Indeed with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, he proves that he can direct a whole lot more than the dark fare he well known for, and has constructed a an epic film which really wants to be an enduring classic.

And praise must also be given to the cast. All to man turn in great performances, which really helps the movie build a convincing, living breathing on screen world. Equally the special effects, both visual and make up, are top notch. Button’s aging is frankly amazing but equally impressive the digital trickery bringing the locations to life.

But despite an excellent director, a strong cast, good effects and beautiful cinematography, I came out to the movie dissatisfied and somewhat deflated. So where does it all go wrong? Well, the problems lie squarely with the script. Basically the storyline simply does not sustain the close to 3 hours running time. And crucially the film’s last act really does not pay off emotionally and the ending is not nearly powerful or moving enough to justify the 2 hours plus spent getting there.

Now it could be argued that tighter editing and simply cutting down the running time would result in a more satisfying and rounded film. For example, in the movie as it is, there is a subplot about Button and his father who abandoned him at birth. At the film’s opening, we see Button Snr. dumping his newborn son, then later we see Button meeting his father in bar, and finally we have a scene where his father reveals his identity and bequeaths him his fortune. So essentially here is a subplot that’s done and dusted in 3 separate incidents and thus does feel somewhat extraneous. However, if the film was cut down it may gain some of the weight you would expect of such a plot twist.

However after much reflection, I feel that the script’s weaknesses go a good deal deeper than the long running time. Even with re-editing to bring it in under the 2 hour mark, there are still too many missteps in the script. To return to the father subplot, even in a hypothetical abridged version to achieve any real drama you would really need a few more scenes of Button meeting his father over the years. Or at least the script would have to make more of an issue of his parentage. As it stands there no reference to this question - Button never wonders who his real parents are or why they abandoned him. So as the character doesn’t care, why should we?

This underdevelopment of key plot points really comes to the fore in the last third of the film, and scuppers the film’s resolution. Whereas the first half unfolds nicely both in terms of Button’s aging and the pace of the story, by the end all the momentum has unravelled. The film loses grip on the story’s timeline and after World War Two less attention is paid to the period settings.

But the main wrecking of the finale is down to the criminally brief way we are shown Button deciding to leave his lover and their newborn daughter. Basically his daughter is born and then he fucks off! Seriously, a momentary lapse of attention and you’ll miss it. Though the script mentions his reasons for doing this – that he can’t play the father as he is getting younger and younger - it is appallingly underdeveloped. And then, adding insult to injury, the story wraps up Button’s life with him ‘youthening’ back into infancy in what is effectively a montage. What should be the big emotional pay-off is just casually tossed away.

After investing several hours in this story (and losing all feeling in your legs and arse if you see this in a cinema) the grand conclusion needless to say it falls somewhat flat. Worse though it really damages any warmth you feel for Button’s character – he appears to make the pivotal decision to leave his child very quickly and then swans about the world in a lazy montage. Aside from the reveal he sent regular postcards to his daughter there’s no sense he really cares or any of the poignancy you’d think this would warrant.

Overall the last 30 minutes of the film really make you wonder why they bothered with this whole aging backwards conceit. To begin with, there’s no explanation given for his condition, nor does Button seek any treatment for it. And no one else in the screen world seems to question his condition either. Now this I can forgive, as the film is clearly a fable rather than a fantasy/sci-fi story. But the trouble is screen writer Eric Roth doesn’t seem to have thought through the implications of the premise, and worse seems to have found precious little to say on the subject of aging, reversed or otherwise. Indeed you could easily replace Button’s condition with a childhood disease that recurs to end his life by altering a mere handful of lines.

This is one of those film projects that has been in development for a good few years, and had several directors attached to it. So I do wonder how much leeway Fincher had with the script. Judging by his previous works, I suspect the screenplay was pretty much set in stone by the time he came to the director’s chair. Indeed the film is so beautifully made I have trouble believing he wouldn’t have noticed the script’s deficiencies and created a better developed ending.

Now I’ve ragged heavily on this film, and in fairness, I suspect if I’d seen this lounging on my comfy sofa with a few large drinks, I’d be inclined to be a little more forgiving of the story weakness. But I must stress it’s not a bad movie, and there is much to enjoy in this movie. It’s more a case that it’s annoyingly flawed. Indeed if there’d been a rewrite of the last third we would be looking at a modern classic. With a stronger end, we have a film that could stand alongside the like of It’s A Wonderful Life and The Shawshank Redemption.


Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Twitter


Yes we've fallen the current plague and are now happily tweeting the day away...

Saturday, 7 February 2009

It Isn't Easy Being Green




This summer brought us a whole new slew of superhero movies. And in between Iron Man and The Dark Knight came Marvel's latest take on the Hulk, and seemingly slipped through the cracks. Sure it did decent enough bank, but really it was the other two everyone was talking about. And perhaps rightly so as both movies pushed the genre forward; Iron Man was a return to form after a series of some lacklustre comicbook offerings (Ghost Rider and Elecktra I'm looking at you), and The Dark Knight raised the bar considerable not only for super hero flicks but blockbusters in general, with Nolan proving that you can make an action film with intelligence, in-depth characters and themes, and still have massive appeal to a general audience.

As it was, I completely failed to manage to get it together to see The Incredible Hulk while it was on release, hence I caught it when it surfaced on DVD. Now I'd read the reviews which were somewhat mixed but I was still intrigued to see the movie, and I wondered whether appearing between the big two had perhaps caused it to be judged a little harshly. A common complaint seemed to be that it was just two CGI monsters knocking seven shades out of each other. Now call me cynical, but really what else were they expecting from a Hulk film? A complex meditation on the life of Mahler?

Anyhow I went in with a fairly open mind... or rather I'd tried to. The problem is that The Incredible Hulk actually is over shadowed – but not by this summer's other superhero movies, but by Ang Lee's earlier adaptation, Hulk. And a very long shadow it is too. Now the problem isn't the fact that this latest take on the Hulk is neither quite sequel or reboot. Now potentially this could have been a disaster but in fact turns out to be one of the film's strengths is that it could be seen as either and also wisely sidesteps the problem of telling the origin story yet again. The real problem is however, it's hard not to watch this movie without playing a mental game of compare and contrast as it unspools.

Of course the sixty-five pence question is this – is The Incredible Hulk better than Hulk? Now to be fair to Ang Lee's film, it's not without its merits and indeed has won some admirers. But, like most people, I found that the film just did not satisfy and felt that somewhere along the way Lee completely dropped the ball.

I wouldn't call it a bad film; I mean it's streets away from the depths of truly terrible cinema – the fifth straight to DVD instalment of a third rate slasher franchise for instance - but neither is it actually very good. Arguable there is a good film trying to get out, but that possible movie isn't a decent screen treatment of the Hulk either.

Hulk falls into that strange critical hinterland which only talented directors can reach; a strange nebulous country where a film cannot be judged clearly as neither good, bad or mediocre. A place where a film has too much merit to be classed as a mess and yet not enough flair to be deemed flawed. It is, to coin a term, the cinema of exasperation. And Hulk is the perfect example; every good point it has is evenly balanced with a lousy one. So while he have great performances from the cast, we have extraneous subplots, and while the action scenes are dynamic, the ending just fizzles.

As I said earlier this its film with a long shadow, which until the release of The Incredible Hulk, has fallen mainly over Lee's career. I'm sure I'm not alone in that further viewings of his other films have led to the detection of cracks in his directorial armour. For example, post Hulk I've started to feel there are similar pacing problems and muddled plotting in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; I mean does the film really need that bandit subplot? And when he announced Brokeback Mountain, aside from seeming like a calculated attempt to win back the arthouse crowd with it's subject matter after the Hulk debacle, I couldn't help flippantly wondering whether the gay cowboys thing was also going provide a thematic link to the film's structure when the arse falls out of the third act.

But enough beating on Ang Lee and back to it's successor. The Incredible Hulk starts well with an opening montage that fills us in with the origin story and quickly gets on with telling a new tale. And very swiftly it's hitting all the marks Lee's version missed. There's pleasing references to the wider Marvel universe, with mentions of S.H.I.E.L.D and retconning Banner's original experiments as work on the Captain America super solider serum. Furthermore the film manages to capture the spirit and looks of both the comics and TV series. We get an early Hulk-out which is both teasing as satisfying. And while Liv Tyler and William Hurt don't quite have the same dramatic weight as Jennifer Connelly and Sam Elliot, Edward Norton is electric, easily eclipsing Eric Banana, sorry, Bana. Both his performance and the script focus the movie on the real meat of the Hulk mythos - Banner's fight to control 'the raging spirit that dwells within him'. Stan Lee has always said that at heart the Hulk is simply a superhero riff on the old Jekyll and Hyde story and this movie understands that perfectly. It also understands that the Hulk is a monster, albeit a sympathetic one, and riffs on both King Kong and Karloff's portrayal of Frankenstein's creation.

Up to about the halfway point, Leterrier's film is delivering the silver screen Hulk exactly the way we've always wanted to see. However by the two thirds mark, the cracks begin to show. During production there was apparently a good deal of friction between Norton and the director and a good deal of wrangling and tussling occurred over the final cut. And sadly this is becomes very apparent in the last section of the movie. In fairness, the plot holds still together and does reach a proper conclusion but it just seems to lack the sparkle of the first half. Whereas the first two acts have verve and depth, the final section feels somewhat uninspired and descends into a by-the-numbers popcorn movie. To draw a superhero movie analogy, it starts like X-Men and ends like Fantastic Four.

As for the CGI issue, to an extent this is something of a sticky wicket as there's no real way to do the Hulk without it. And for most of the film the computer effects work is fine. But it is in the film's climax where the Hulk goes toe to toe with the Abomination that it does start to grate. On balance, the actual animation is fine, but the problem is there is just so many other CG effects. At some points during the final battle, the movie starts to look like a Pixar outing with virtually everything in shot being digital. Now while these sequences look very close to the original comics, tonally they don't really mesh with the rest of the film; you can't help feeling that it's missing the human elements which gave the earlier action scenes their impact.

As it stands though, The Incredible Hulk manages to even out at 'good'. It's just a shame there was the argy bargy between Leterrier and Norton, as really this movie could have been great. The DVD contains a weighty selection of deleted scenes and one can't help wondering what a directors cut would be like.

And is it better than Ang Lee's movie?.Well, in many ways technically Hulk is a more competent film despite it's unsatisfying nature, but Leterrier's The Incredible Hulk , for all it's flaws, is a hands down better Hulk movie.

Friday, 6 February 2009

New Pages Alert!


The first of a fresh batch of pages have been added to HYPNOGORIA! And there's more to come very soon! Plus an existing page has gotten an upgrade.


Plus as it's Friday afternoon and I'm looking forward to a debauched weekend in Mancunia, I'll even give out a hint as to where the brand spanking new page is lurking - the answer's in an old book. Too cryptic? The link is in an circle...


And while I'm here... Although when I started this blog I said I wouldn't be posting dull IT related moaning, something has come up which I feel compelled to witter about. Recently here at Hypnogoria Towers, we got a new super fast computer. And as is the way of these things , the new beast came with Vista preloaded. So I've had a good play about with it and was pleased to see a few of my XP bugbears have been fixed. For example, when you go to the Add/Remove programs, the list of installed tat is actual there with none of XP's 'please wait while the list is populated' bollocks - usually at the speed of a pensioner thumbing through Yellow Pages and always gave me the impression the OS didn't actually know what the hell was installed on it.

So Vista thus far is scoring well in my book. But... which propeller-head gibbon decided that the logical place for 'Format' on the right click menu is next to 'Safely Remove hardware'? Yes, Mircosoft I'd love to accidentally erase my portable HD when trying to unplug it. Well done! Still I suppose we can take comfort from the fact that this piece of design tomfoolery implies that should Bill Gates ever hold the world to ransom with a doomsday machine, there will be a large, masterplan-foiling, red self destruct button clearly visible...

What else? Oh yeah, there's a review of The Incredible Hulk in the works which may get posted tomorrow, hangover permitting...

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Straight On Till Morning





Stop! Hammer time!

Now when you think of Hammer Films, what springs to mind? Usually its the late great Peter Cushing in Victorian garb, Chris Lee snarling in a cloak and painful red contact lenses and the Home Counties doubling for Transylvania under a fog of dry ice.

But Hammer, despite it's House of Horror tag, made a great many films outside the genre. They produced a nice line of psycho thrillers, ventured successfully into scifi and put togther a line of period action adventure films (such as an old favourite of mine The Devil Ship Pirates). They even ventured in comedy, with their three films based on the popular TV sitcom On The Buses netting Hammer record profits. All in the all the studio had more up it's sleeve than gothic sets and Kensington Gore.

However in 1972, they produced Straight On Till Morning, perhaps there most unusual film of all. The trailer says it all .... "A Love Story from Hammer"! Now before you rush off to Youtube to check it out, be warned it's rotten with spoilers! Like many trailers from this period, it's not so much there are spoiling clips in it, but rather the whole piece plays like a three minute abridgement of the movie.

Now I discovered this film whilst working my way through the Ultimate Hammer Collection DVD boxset. It wasn't a title I'd heard much if anything about and assumed it would be one of their dark thrillers like Fear In The Night or Paranoiac. So I slapped it in and discovered a real little gem. A weird and disturbing film but a gem nevertheless. And I would suggest that if you fancy seeing this movie, avoid the trailer and any online research and go into it as fresh as I did.

So is it really a love story? Yes, kind of. Is it a psycho thriller? Again yes, but only kind of in that there is a psychopathic killer in it. So what exactly is this movie? I think it's probably best described as a kitchen sink psychodrama; Dennis Potter is a better touchstone than Alfred Hitchcock for the styles and themes of this movie.

The basic story goes something like this... Once upon a time, Brenda (Rita Tushingham), a rather simple and dreamy sort of girl, decides to move to London in search of love, but on arriving there discovers, like so many provincial kids do, that the streets are not paved with gold and opportunities. However by chance she meeets Clive (Shane Briant), who is attractive, debonair and rich, seeminly the handsome prince she has been looking for. And remarkably the pair form a friendship. It become clear that Clive is in many ways as child-like as Brenda; for example they rechristen each other Wendy and Peter. But, and you knew there was a 'but' coming, Clive/Peter is actually a deeply disturbed young man, and where as Brenda/Wendy is somewhat neurotic, he's violently psychopathic.

Now this film's strength is that it never descends into the usual cat and mouse tactics. The story is firmly grounded in social realism - there are no heroes or villians here, simply ordinary people. The film always remains firmly a character-driven drama and Peter's crimes are strongly woven into a background that paints a vivid portrait of early '70s London. In many ways, it is a kitchen sink drama which just happens to feature a psycho killer. Rita Tushingham of course was was a veteran of this particular school of dramatics, and her casting very much backs up the movie's kitchen sink credentials.

In construction, the level of performance from the cast elevate it from the usual thriller/horror fare. Director Peter Collinson artfully lenses the piece with a mix of experimental and traditional cinematography which captures both the tension between the traditional society and the post '60s permissive culture, and the fractured psyches of the characters.

Furthermore the way the film riffs on the Peter Pan story illuminates wider social and personal concerns. Brenda and Clive both do not want to grow up in the traditional sense; like J.M. Barrie's hero both long for the independence of adulthood but want no truck with the seemingly harsh society which demands them to leave behind the magic of adventures and fairy stories. I mentioned the late great Dennis Potter earlier, and the film's dramatic exploration of the tension between the ideals presented in the world of fiction and often cruel realities of modern society is very reminiscent of Pennies From Heaven and The Singing Detective.

This is a much overlooked film with alot to offer the discerning viewer. I think there are a few reasons why it's reputation is so low which I'd like to address. Firstly I think being a fairly unique piece in the Hammer catalogue it has bemused and disappointed generations of Hammer fans as it is neither a straight horror or a psychothriller. And by the same token it's probably been overlooked by cinefiles who have the impression it is a very minor entry from Hammer in either genre.

Secondly from trawling reviews online, a problem alot of peole have with this film is that the characters are fairly unlikeable and generally the film is somewhat bleak. Now both charges are true but likeable characters and happy endings do not a good film make. Really all that is required is that a film presents charcters that are interesting and reaches a satisfying conclusion, and Straight On Till Morning has both. However if you are expecting standard Hammer fare, you will find with the lack of clearly defined heroes and villains troubling, the tone down-beat and find the ending a problem.

As for the characters, we don't shouldn't really be expecting Peter to be likeable but the fact he isn't the usual screen villains wrong-foots some audiences. I think the realism of his derrangment strikes some as uncomfortable and disturbing rather expected pleasantly frightening.

Brenda is more complicated. The common problem seems to be that people find Tushingham's character to be hopelessly wet, and seem to get very cross with her naviety. Some have even called the film misogynistic seeing Brenda as a weak and demeaning female stereotype. However I'd argue that this view is missing the point - Brenda isn't meant to be a reflection of the young newly empowered '70s woman. Rather she's is a working class girl who has been brought up with narrow and repressed values, a character type probably still very much the norm at the time outside major metropolitian areas at the time. And that I think was the point. At the time the social breakthroughs of the '60s where still trickling down through the country and a great many idelaistic and naive young people were galloping off to Swinging London rather than waiting for the '60s to hit their small towns.

Also I think that part of the reason some reviewers are so unsympathetic to Brenda is simply that the script and Tushingham's performance creates such a realistic naive character, she provides an unwelcome reminder of our own embarassing youthful naviety.

But at the end of the day this film is presenting a dramatic story in a very realistic style, and does not flinch from making the audience uncomfortable. If you approach this as a piece of serious drama, you shouldn't have many of the above problems. However be warned you still may find some scenes disturbing.

However there is a strange kind of magic amid the bleakness. And more surprisingly there is tenderness in the Peter and Wendy relationship. It's strong social underpinnings, give the horror elements a real weight, and the blend of naviety and corruption make it a rather haunting film that lingers in the mind. It is admittedly a weird little film, but one that deserved a far better reputation and makes for very rewarding viewing. Leave any genre expectations by the door and check it out.

One final note - this is an early '70s film and contains all manner of haircuts and clothes that you may find amusing. Indeed some wags have suggest Shane Briant's barnet deserved a horror franchise all of its own. So if you respond to the sight of flares, dragon tooth collars and feathercut mops with a chuckle, watch an episode of of Man About The House or The Mod Squad first and get the fashion hilarity out of your system!

Sunday, 1 February 2009

House of Dracula




Stone me it's finally here! Bet you all thought old Jim had forgotten. No such luck matey! At long last, here's the review of the final movie in the Universal Frankenstein saga ...

It's 1945, and the curtain falls of the Universal monsters. Back for this final hurrah were most of the personel from House of Frankenstein . Erle C. Kenton was back in the director's chair, Chaney, Strange and Carradine reprised their roles as Larry Talbot, the Monster, and Dracula. The trailer even recycled the 'count the monsters' gimmick used for it's predecessor .

However this movie is a very diferent kettle of monsters. The script is far better, Kenton's direction sports a good deal more flair and Carradine - obligatory pun alert! - really gets his teeth into the role of the Lord of the Undead.

The story this time around flows nicely, focusing on Talbot and Dracula seeking a cure for their conditions from Onslow Stevens' Dr Edelmann. However the Count soon reverts to type and corrupts the good Doctor via a blood transfusion. Edelman is soon periodically transforming into a Mr Hyde style mad scientist...

Naturally there is a continuity gap, there's no explanation for Dracula's return from staking in the previous film. And as we've come to expect from these monster rallies, the plot doesn't really do all five creatures credit. To start with this film's Hunchback, Nurse Nina isn't really a monster. Aside from being quite attractive - nop seriously she is - Nina is a sympathetic character and can be definitely classed as one of the heroes in this story. Secondly, Frankenstein's monster has even less to do than in House of Frankenstein, and again most of what little screen time it has is spent on a lab table before the inevitable rampage in the film's finale.

It is a shame the Monster has so little relevence to the plot, but frankly this is somewhat forgivable as a stronger film does result. Unlike the almost anthology film structure of the previous movie, House of Dracula builds up suspense and pace steadily right up to the final climax.

On the whole the script is far better. As prevoiusly stated Carradine's Dracula really shines, portraying the Count as intelligent, sinister and a real force of evil. Dr Edlemann's character is really great, and interestingly is both hero and villain at different points during the movie. Plus his experiments, both as a good physician and evil scientist actually make sense too. Thankfully there's none of the musical brains routine that robbed sanity from Ghost of Frankenstein and Niemann's schemes here.

Performance-wise, as previously stated Carradine really delivers the goods as Dracula and Chaney is dependable as ever. However the stand out turn comes from Onslow Stevens who excels as both the goodly doctor and Hyde-style villain. His character gives the film an original twist and his stellar performance really holds the movie together.

Overall House of Dracula is a satisfying end to the series. There's some fine locations, a cracking plot and plenty of creepy images. Admittedly it never scales the heights of the earliest entries in the saga but it's marked improvement over the later entries.