Tag Archives: horror

Kill List (2011)

9 Feb

Ben Wheatley first came to the public’s attention with online videos like ‘Cunning Stunt’, which went viral in short order. Wheatley quickly progressed to TV, directing ‘Modern Toss’, ‘The Wrong Door’ and the fifth series of ‘Ideal’. In between all this Wheatley also had time to direct his first feature, ‘Down Terrace’ (2009), a slow-burning thriller that is equal parts ‘Sexy Beast’ (2000) and ‘The Royle Family’, or a Shane Meadows crime saga. ‘Kill List’ takes a similar tack to ‘Down Terrace’, framing the action in a domestic setting, exploring themes of masculine identity, of battle-hardened men struggling to come to terms with the quotidian world.

‘Kill List’ tells the story of Jay (Neill Maskell) and Gal (Michael Smiley), two soldiers-turned-mercenaries who are still reeling from a botched job eight months prior. Jay and Gal are offered a new assignment by a shady group, requiring them to dispose of a series of seemingly unconnected targets. The realities of the job test the limits of Jay and Gal’s friendship as they and their loved ones are plunged into a morass of corruption and uncertainty.

There is a sombre efficiency to the – no pun intended – execution of ‘Kill List’ that perfectly fits its subject matter, an absence of irony that harks back to a time when crime films strove to deliver something more than empty thrills and knowing homage. There is a refreshing lack of flashy set pieces designed to outline the director’s technical prowess, occurring seemingly independent of the overall narrative and removing one from reality; the violence in ‘Kill List’ is integral to story and character progression and exists to underline the ugliness of taking a life.

Because ‘Kill List’ is violent. Very violent. Almost unbearably violent at times. But the overall effect, much like Alan Clarke’s ‘Elephant’ (1989), is to inure the viewer to what they see and make the actions of Jay and Gal seem run-of-the-mill, enabling us to see it with the same distance as they do. It is a bold approach; playing with our expectations and forcing us to examine our responses when the dust settles. There is also some elemental horror of early ‘70s vintage that delivers genuine tension and peril, a rare commodity in the Torture Porn epoch.

Smiley, best known as the mercurial bike courier Tyres in the cult ‘90s sitcom ‘Spaced, proves himself to be an accomplished dramatic actor; bringing ease, assurance and economy to his interplay with Maskell, who is a revelation as a man succumbing to his bestial impulses, for whom reality is grey and uninspiring after all he has seen and done. The film’s success hinges on the lingering tension between Jay and Gal, an enduring bond that is both sustained and undermined by their knowledge of each other, and it is brilliantly played out.

‘Kill List’ is at turns bleak, nihilistic and elegiac, examining with grisly clarity what soldiers do when they are rendered ‘extraneous’, when there are no more honourable battles left to fight and they are left to the harsh realities of the market. Wheatley succeeds in deconstructing two genres without recourse to the usual tropes, creating the most compelling British thriller for some time. There really is no telling where Wheatley will go next.

 

This is significant.

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Trash Humpers, Enter the Void and the Sensory Shocker

23 Nov

As the horror genre slides ever deeper into a formulaic torpor, two arthouse darlings may just have struck upon a whole new way of disquieting audiences – the sensory shocker. Genre purists aside, most would agree that the essence of horror is the ability to elicit fear, revulsion, panic, discomfort and uncertainty. Regardless of content, it is the emotional response that counts. In an attempt to rouse a jaded audience from its cine-literate ennui, Harmony Korine and Gaspar Noé have resorted to technical extremism in their war on convention, hijacking the means of production to initiate the next leap forward. In doing so, they have upset their staunchest defenders and added grist to their detractors’ mill – Noé’s ‘Enter the Void’ (2009) was pilloried by critics at its Cannes premiere, and Netflix – the ultimate arbiter of taste and bastion of decency – refused to distribute Korine’s ‘Trash Humpers’ (2009) due to its objectionable content. But the rancour of tastemakers only serves to vindicate their stylistic radicalism and bolster their resolve to further push the envelope. Both ‘Trash Humpers’ and ‘Enter the Void’ are designed to repel a generation weaned on high-concept spectacle, sanitized remakes and sniggering plagiarism masquerading as deconstruction – the medium itself is a weapon against the middlebrow, revelling in discomfort, occupying a cinematic hinterland populated by the damaged and abandoned.

Like fellow agent provocateur Lars Von Trier, Korine and Noé take pleasure in goading, even berating, their audience; testing the limits of its tolerance and forcing them to confront some unpleasant truths. Indeed, the sensory shocker philosophically has its roots in the Dogme ‘95 movement, which was a reaction against cinema’s growing profligacy that propounded a ‘year zero’ akin to punk rock – but alas turned out to be more of an elaborate prank against credulous critics than a creative revolution. Though their methods differ wildly, Korine and Noé share Dogme’s aesthetic intransigence; presenting ideas with an implacable purity of purpose, untainted by concessions to popular taste and sentiment. In Korine’s sly primitivism and Noé’s baroque solemnity we see this unwillingness to adulterate their vision in the face of critical derision and public rejection. In an industry that seems content to churn out an endless stream of mediocrity, ‘Enter the Void’ and ‘Trash Humpers’ only serve to highlight the Hollywood machine’s paucity of ambition and dearth of innovation.

It is a horror truism that storytellers can conjure up all manner of beasts and apparitions, but the ultimate figures of terror are the marginal and powerless – the lonely motel owner, inbred redneck, angry teenager, etc. With ‘Trash Humpers’, indie cinema’s idiot savant could be said to have taken the genre back to its heyday – which ran approximately from ‘Psycho’ (1960) to ‘Halloween’ (1978) – in his belief that the real monsters are in our midst. A twisted amalgam of ‘Man Bites Dog’ (1992) and ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ (1980), ‘Trash Humpers’ has the feel of a grisly VHS artefact retrieved from a crime scene, or the home movies of a sociopathic family. Its utter lack of technical refinement immediately removes the viewer from any accepted norms of presentation; refusing to meet them half way with its worn, washed out ‘video nasty’ visuals, intermittent bursts of static, frame rolls, on-screen functions, murky sound, sudden cuts and blackouts. ‘Trash Humpers’ is a consciously ugly, wilfully amateurish, malformed cousin of ‘Gummo’ (1997) that exemplifies Korine’s abiding love for jetsam in all its forms.

We learn that the film’s eponymous gang derives pleasure from simulating sex with garbage receptacles – or ‘trash pussies’ – but their identity is never explained. The lack of exposition makes them all the more menacing. Whether they are young people masquerading as old people or vice versa, the gang’s appearance comes across as a parody of youth culture, satirizing our stultifying obsession with the latest fad or affectation. No doubt to avoid claims that these characters are nothing more than conduits for his iconoclastic agenda, Korine strives to lend them a dimension. One gang member avers that he can ‘smell the pain’ of suburban Nashville and another implores God to guide her, but Korine draws the line at taking a stance, neither portraying them in a sympathetic light or castigating their actions. The film’s erratic tone has a disorientating effect – the banal, ludicrous and horrific mingle to the point that the distinction becomes irrelevant, lulling us into accepting their excesses by largely excluding the world beyond. It is only in the fractured snippets of everyday life occurring around them that we begin to get a sense of the gang’s complete isolation from the mainstream of society.

The gang meets a variety of classic Korine eccentrics that serves to mitigate their abnormality and place them in a social context, bolstering Korine’s assertion that you don’t need to look very far to find the detritus of a society built on the principles of predacious consumption and heedless self-gratification. ‘Trash Humpers’ is a broadside against rampant consumerism, a treatise on the nature of obsolescence – the gang is openly hostile to any symbol of youth and vitality, destroying dolls and toys while idolizing the discarded and useless to the point of erotic frenzy. They have transferred their affections to the yielding contours of plastic and steel, wallowing in a world of kitsch certainties. ‘Trash Humpers’ mercilessly slaughters sacred cows and busts taboos, from the narcissistic attention seeking of ‘reality’ TV and YouTube, to our voyeuristic obsession with celebrity, to our retreat into cultural inertia and gleeful juvenilia. Korine has created a set of monsters that hold a mirror up to the folly of a society slowly drowning in its surfeit – a new kind of predator spawned by our greed, feeding on the by-product of our abundance.

Gaspar Noé’s excoriating oeuvre explores the overlap between sex and violence – lust and revenge are equated in films like ‘I Stand Alone’ (1998) and ‘Irreversible’ (2002) – and the visceral intractability of human impulse. Coming from the opposite end of the technical spectrum as ‘Trash Humpers’, ‘Enter the Void’ has been described as a ‘psychedelic melodrama’ and a ‘metaphysical thriller’. From its seizure-inducing titles, this is an attack on the senses. Oscar (Nathaniel Brown) and his Sister, Linda (Paz de la Huerta), live in Tokyo, eking out a living as a small-time drug dealer and a lap dancer respectively. Seen from Oscar’s point of view, Oscar and his friend, Alex (Cyril Roy), discuss the Tibetan Book of the Dead on their way to a club called The Void, where Oscar is to transact a drug deal with Victor (Olly Alexander), whose mother he has an ‘arrangement’ with. As Oscar enters the tenebrous environs of the club, police swarm into the building. Oscar flees to the bathroom and hides in a stall, where he is shot after refusing to give himself up. His breathing ebbs, his vision blurs, all sound recedes and his heartbeat slows to a halt. His spirit rises from his body and hovers above the scene – much in the manner of the post-shootout scene in ‘Taxi Driver’ (1974). Devoid of form, Oscar observes those he has left behind from his existential no man’s land.

Structurally, ‘Enter the Void’ echoes Film Noir in its non-linear narrative and use of multiple flashbacks – indeed, one of the film’s primary inspirations was said to have been Robert Montgomery’s 1947 film of Raymond Chandler’s ‘Lady in the Lake’, which was shot entirely from the point of view of its protagonist. Noé recreates each stage of being with a keen eye for detail. The twittering subconscious and fractured perception of the scenes in which we occupy Oscar’s corporeal form perfectly captures his chemically impaired state; while the blurry, flickering photography and throttled sound of the ethereal scenes play like a cosmic Nickelodeon film, alternating frame rates for maximum unease. The scenes from Oscar’s past are shot from over his shoulder, as if, removed from his physical form, Oscar is watching them back in an attempt to make sense of his life. Jean-Andre Carriere and Kikuo Ohta’s production design is a work of staggering bravura, a feat not seen since ‘Blade Runner’ (1982), and the visual effects may well come to be regarded in the same light as Douglas Trumbull’s ground-breaking work on ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (1968). Tokyo is transformed into a decadent theme park, a garish Day-Glo maelstrom where all earthly pleasure can be purchased, a repository of turpitude where everything is out of kilter. ‘Enter the Void’ is a film for which the use of the term stylized is not pejorative. The film dispenses with the condescending travelogue feel of ‘Lost in Translation’ (2003), gawping in wonderment at the neon metropolis. This version of Tokyo is a simulacrum on which to dramatize man’s gluttonous death wish.

‘Enter the Void’ is a dizzying journey into the heart of corruption; a world where individual freedom is conflated with self-annihilation, whose citizens are engaged in a desperate quest for endless sensation, sheltering from its iniquities in a torrent of narcotics and meaningless sex. Like Korine, Noé doesn’t shy away from charting the bleakest recesses of the human psyche – Oscar is a composite of our failings; a greedy, self-serving Sybarite who leaves a trail of debris in his wake. There is a palpable sense of disgust for, and queasy fascination with, the mechanical act of copulation; Noé presents a series of deeply joyless sex scenes from which he defies the observer to derive any kind of erotic thrill. That Noé is able to maintain our interest in such a downcast setting over the course of the film’s lengthy meditation is a testament to his skill as a storyteller. Noé navigates the labyrinth and stares into the abyss, but ‘Enter the Void’ ultimately veers away from the brutal nihilism of ‘Irreversible’ – the film seems willing to envisage a renewal of humanity’s beleaguered spirit. ‘Enter the Void’ has astounding ambition and intellectual curiosity, dealing with concepts and ideas that most mainstream films would shrink from for fear of alienating or confusing its audience – after all, nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the public. Noé harnesses a myriad of techniques to realize his vision, creating an amazing yet horrific landscape that lingers long in the memory. It will be interesting to see how their peers respond to the gauntlet thrown down by the originators of the Sensory Shocker.

Gasp and Harm take a moment from offending your sensibilities to enjoy the sights of Skegness.

Heartless (2009)

2 Oct

Youth and subculture are perennial lightning rods for the delicate sensibilities of polite society, with each transmutation serving to stir the fear and suspicion that first rumbled onto the silver screen with the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club.

The ‘Chav Horror’ motif that was used to grisly effect in ‘Eden Lake’ seems to be developing into a sub-genre of its own, with the tracksuited ‘yobs’ as our very own version of the demented rednecks in American ‘backwoods terror’ flicks. On the surface, ‘Heartless’ sounds like just this kind of ‘Daily-Mail-reader’s-wildest-imaginings-come-to-life’ endeavour, with its marauding gangs of ‘hoodies’ terrorizing communities, gang disputes spreading beyond their traditional boundaries and ominous tower blocks housing all manner of iniquity. But this is more than a crass exploitation film, channelling tabloid outrage for a quick buck.

Jamie Morgan (Jim Sturgess) is a timid photographer born with a heart-shaped birthmark on his face. When not dodging the taunts of scornful youths, Jamie documents the neglected margins beyond the gentrified centre, rummaging through the detritus for pictorial inspiration. On one such excursion he comes into contact with a gang that is vastly different from the ones he regularly encounters, fleeing before he can investigate further. His foreboding proves to be well-founded when the gang kills his mother before his very eyes. Jamie’s despair at the morally bankrupt world around him leads to a meeting with Papa B (Joseph Mawle), who offers him a life free from ridicule, in exchange for assisting him in the creation of his Kingdom of Horror.

‘Heartless’ presents a hyper-stylized urban dystopia that bears as much relation to modern London as ‘Blade Runner’ did to Los Angeles in 1982; positively Dickensian in its portrayal of squalor. But this is by no means a criticism; the expressionistic lighting and gothic mis-en-scene of its doom-laden inner-city backdrop is so visually arresting that it compensates for any lack of veracity. The world presented in ‘Heartless’ is a landscape of the mind, an abstract plain filled with apocalyptic dread, the product of a rudderless subconscious, a fevered imagination seeing monsters lurking around every corner. Music is a useful adjunct to this, with David Julyan’s stirring collection of original songs articulating Jamie’s mental state like a running commentary.

The film’s unremitting grimness is countervailed to some extent by a dose of good old-fashioned British whimsy from the likes of Ruth Sheen and Eddie Marsan, adding to the ‘Mike Leigh meets John Milton’ feel that prevails. Sturgess brings an intensity and poignancy to the role of a man who must indulge in the corruption of the world to be accepted by it; a loner hiding behind the comfort of the camera lens like Mark Lewis in ‘Peeping Tom’ and sitting in his room plotting vengeance like Travis Bickle in ‘Taxi Driver’. Jopseh Mawle strikes a sinister note as the infernal Papa B. Though he serves as little more than a plot device delivering expository dialogue, he takes to the role with considerable élan, not falling into the trap of rehashing the typical Faustian tack of portraying him as a sybaritic sophisticate. Noel Clarke – the designated voice of ‘the kidults’ – makes a brief appearance as Jamie’s neighbour and reformed gangster, AJ; adding ‘street’ credibility to proceedings but little else.

The friendship between AJ and Jamie is something that could have been developed further; they appear together in a couple of scenes before AJ disappears, as does much of the cast as the film progresses. Which is the strongest indication that none of what transpires in the film is occurring outside the confines of Jamie’s head. From the stagey streets to the gaps in logic, ‘Heartless’ has the gaudy unreality of a vivid nightmare; like a Lynchian portrait of suburbia transposed to the decaying metropolis, there are elements that appear off kilter.

‘Heartless’ is certainly a cut above what currently passes for horror; writer/director Phillip Ridley clearly understands that the best horror is cerebral, dabbling with social, moral and philosophical issues while evoking an eeriness that is more effective than all the gore in the world. The film’s ultimate message is that horror is all around us; that Hell is human construct, a repository for our worst impulses and appetites, that we create the monsters and set these elemental conflicts in motion. ‘Heartless’ is that rarest of creatures; a British horror film that isn’t in thrall to whatever high-concept brutality is in vogue Stateside.

Would you hug this hoodie?

Horror Double Bill

16 Sep

The Host (2006)

When a toxic chemical from an American military base is dumped in the Han River, it creates a mutated behemoth that wreaks havoc on the unsuspecting citizens of Seoul. Gang-du is an ineffectual waster who works and lives in a food stand with his demanding daughter, Hyun-seo, and long-suffering father, Hee-bong. That’s about the full extent of the set up; the monster makes its first appearance fifteen minutes in, marauding through the streets and capturing Hyun-seo. Joined by his athletic sister, Nam-joo, and astringent brother, Nam-il, Gang-du vows to escape the quarantine the family has been placed under and find Hyun-seo.

Bong Joon-ho’s monster film is something of an oddity, at turns disturbing and whimsical. It quickly becomes apparent that this is far from a formulaic creature feature. Whatever the intention of the film-makers, ‘The Host’ is, no pun intended, a peculiar creature that works on any level you choose to take it. Is it a satire on genre convention, an allegory for US imperialism, a broadside against globalization, a parable on the dangers of environmental degradation, an attack on nuclear brinkmanship? Like most effective horror and sci-fi, it is sufficiently ambiguous to project all manner of metaphor and symbolism onto.

A slightly redundant subplot aside, ‘The Host’ features an engaging set of performances, stylish cinematography and snappy pacing. My chief complaint is with the monster itself, which appears too early and often and is more ‘Men in Black’ than ‘Cloverfield’. For me, it is always preferable to see the damage cause by the creature before unveiling the beast in the final reel.

The Descent (2005)

A lesson in how to shoot monsters on a budget could have been learned from British director Neil Marshall, whose ‘Dog Soldiers’ is a master class in using technical ingenuity to overcome financial constraints.

Marshall’s next entry into the ‘civilisation Vs barbarism’ canon is an equally effective genre piece. ‘The Descent’ takes the best elements of Craven, Raimi, Romero, Hooper et al. to produce a genuinely unsettling subterranean shocker, divesting itself of the flashy effects and ostentatious set pieces to put the viewer at the heart of the action.

The film begins with a jolt when lead character Sarah (Shauna McDonald) is involved in a car crash. On her recovery, Sarah joins a group of friends on a caving expedition. As the group descends into the uncharted bowels of the earth they disturb something primeval that they must do battle with to escape the caves alive.

The chaos and confusion that ensues is fantastically captured with kinetic camerawork and frenetic editing, the lack of visibility throughout is another effective tool in ramping up the tension. A cast comprising of smart, accomplished modern women is a concerted break from the usual retrograde portrayal of females in horror as imperilled scream queens there solely to boost the body count. It is also refreshing to see a film of this ilk where the group dynamic is sufficiently complex to make their fate actually mean something.

In the face of a slew of execrable remakes that have besmirched the name of horror, Neil Marshall brings a fresh perspective to a form that has become overly reliant on repetition and convention. ‘The Descent’ plays on elemental fears – the dark, confinement, nature itself – positing that manufactured adrenaline can never compete with genuine peril and terror. Much like its illustrious predecessors, it believes that, for all our modern trappings, we are essentially no different from the cave-dwelling creatures; we are a product of our environment, acting on instincts we are powerless to quell.

All things considered, it wasn't the best weekend.