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2001 A Space Odyssey
Battle of Algiers
My Top Ten Horror Films
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
The Haunting (1963 of course)
Bride of Frankenstein
Cat People (1942)
An American Werewolf in London
The Amityville Horror (1979)
The Last House on the Left (1972)
One great scene in search of a movie... One great scene in search of a movie... One great....
Every time I watch this movie (which is not often, I promise...) I want it to be so much better. But that one outstanding mid-section the kidnapping, rape and murder of two teenage girls is the whole basis for this film's entire reputation. And deservedly so: it is a sequence of undeniable skill and raw power. The rest of the film, however, is just not very good. Badly shot, badly written and with head-shakingly bad use of 'comic' relief, the film betrays the lack of experience in first time writer-director Wes Craven. Had the rest of the film been made in the style of that unforgettable midsection, we would probably be looking at a five-star rating now. Alas, it is never to be...
The torture-rape-murder sequence certainly justifies that memorable tagline. The rough, grainy cinéma vérité style and that incredible 'performance' by Sandra Cassell really do give this the appearance of reality. I use inverted commas around the word performance since, if the stories are to be believed, Cassell was genuinely frightened and upset in that scene and it certainly shows. The moment when Grantham (the actress) calms and comforts Cassell (the actress) during their humiliation is heartrending and utterly harrowing, lending this scene an almost unbearable sense of tragedy and horror. Craven's use of a lachrymose ballad (penned by star Hess) merely adds to the effect, as does Hess's startling performance as sadistic thug Krug. (In fact, all of the principal actors with the exception of Sheffler are excellent.) Overall, this is a sequence that just gels, in spite of Craven's inexperience, and one that lingers in the mind long after watching it. Craven then (amazingly) tops this moment with a protracted and painful murder sequence in which Grantham is mutilated and disembowelled by the Manson-like group. Again, the realism of the scene hits you at gut level: raw, hand-held camera-work, ugly, messy special effects and convincing acting all round gives the moment an incredible punch.
But from then on it's sadly downhill. Had Craven been allowed to have his scalpel-torture finale instead of the more Grand Guignol chainsaw one, then maybe this would have been a slightly more effective film. But as it is, The Last House on the Left is one truly great sequence surrounded by amateurish crap, albeit still preferable to the recent, crappier remake.
Film: *** Nastiness: ****
Day of the Woman (1978)
A serious movie, despite its grindhouse trappings...
With its deliciously nasty title and salacious video sleeve, Meir Zarchi's (arguably) misunderstood drama I Spit on Your Grave was bound to get caught up in the moral panic over horror videos in the early 80s. There is no doubt about it, though: Zarchi's film is at times incredibly unpleasant to watch I'm referring, of course, to the lengthy series of graphic rape scenes that make up around 20 minutes of the movie's first act. However, if one can overlook the length of this section (to which I will return shortly) then hopefully one can see I Spit for what it actually is: a well-shot, well-paced and intensely dramatic movie. Perhaps if the film hadn't been given such a sensationalistic alternate title it may have developed a more serious reputation; saying that, its undeniably exploitative plot and the overall effect was always going to work against it.
The plot of I Spit is both rudimentary and highly familiar: a beautiful writer, Jennifer Hills (Keaton), arrives at an idyllic country retreat to write her next novel. There, she is harassed and ultimately attacked by a group of moronic louts, who think they've left her for dead at the house. However, Jennifer recovers and, without even bothering with the police, plots her violent revenge...
There was a time when defending this film would cause intense suspicion, but thanks to the passage of time and a glossy Hollywood remake, the original can now be defended without being branded a sick individual. First, let's consider the film's few flaws. A suitable starting point would be the duration of the rape section, which is for many viewers unnecessarily long. I'm going to gloss over the issue of eroticism, which is neither the point nor the effect of this section (granted, this is true of the video sleeve), an argument which has already been convincingly won by academics such as Carol Clover. What is open to debate, though, is whether this sequence needs to be so long. Jennifer is raped not once but on four separate occasions, each sequence more traumatic and horrific than the last. On the one hand, one can argue that the length of this section is a crucial misjudgement on the director's part, a misjudgement that opens him up to the charge of morbid fascination with the act of rape. This sequence would probably be just as harrowing if it was cut down to ten or even five minutes, but in its uncut form it does seem unnecessarily long. On the other hand, one can argue that a rape scene should not let the viewer off the hook; surely the point is to emphasise the ugliness, the gruelling nature of the act? Indeed, it is only the audience's alignment with Jennifer (rather than the rapists) that stops this sequence from being gratuitously long and leering.
However, the one major flaw in the movie is the character of Matthew, the halfwit 'village idiot' character goaded by his friends into raping Jennifer. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this from a thematic point-of-view (Straw Dogs uses this motif to add complexity to a debate about human nature, for example), here the character comes straight out of a Farrelli Brothers movie: with his buttoned-up shirt and sailor hat, Matthew is a teenager's caricature of a 'retard' rather than a convincing character. This is not to say that the other gang members are brilliant portraits of rural cretinism (here the film certainly suffers in comparison to Deliverance); they're not, but they are sufficiently realised to explore male 'pack' types: the alpha male, the sadistic right hand man and the sheep who mindlessly joins in, all of whom (in this movie) see rape as both sport and as a means of suppressing (or taking out their resentment on) intelligent, independent and successful women.
Did this film deserve a place on the DPP list? Obviously this was (and still is) strong stuff, but it is certainly not obscene. More to the point, neither does it merit censorship in today's more liberal climate; the BBFC's decision to trim the rape sequence is unlikely to reduce its impact on actual or potential rapists, who would presumably find it stimulating regardless. One thing is for sure, if you are avoiding this film under the misapprehension that it is sleazy, rape-condoning trash, you may be surprised to discover a movie of considerable intelligence and skill inside the lurid packaging.
Film: **** Nastiness: ****
La casa sperduta nel parco (1980)
Stylish sleaze (with killer disco moves)!
I am probably the only person (apart from Ruggero Deodato, perhaps) who will ever give this film such a high rating. There is no doubt about it: this rip-off of The Last House on the Left is a trashy, sleazy movie, but for an exploitation film it has a sense of style and élan that sets it apart from other such efforts in the genre. (Even as I write this review I cannot believe I am using words like 'élan'...) But for some reason that I will try to explain, I really loved this movie.
The plot of Park sees two working class low-lifes (Hess and Radice) gate crashing the party of some chic Manhattan socialites. Initially there is fun and flirtation, but when the snobbish jibes get too close to the bone, Alex (Hess) becomes a little touchy and turns psycho with his cutthroat razor...
With its stylish New York setting and cheesy disco score by Cannibal Holocaust composer Riz Ortolani, The House on the Edge of the Park makes for glossy, tongue-in-cheek grindhouse fare. The film is well-directed by Deodato, fresh from the controversy of Cannibal Holocaust, and sees another bravura performance from Hess as the Krug-like Alex. It is also surprisingly tense and well-paced, giving it a slight edge over that other Last House rip-off, Late Night Trains (1974). But like its model, at the centre of this film is a prolonged torture-humiliation sequence that still makes this movie a cause for concern with the British censors: in it, a pretty young partygoer is sadistically menaced by Alex and his razor, while he croons her name in incredibly disturbing fashion. It is a shocking and unpleasant scene to be sure, but this is, after all, a horror movie. Apart from this one scene it would be difficult to explain why this film had such problems with the BBFC and the DPP. It must have been the overall concept (working class thugs invading a middle class home) and the depiction of violence against women (although there is plenty of violence against men, too). Of course, it's more likely to have been the ambiguity of some of the female characters, who find these louts strangely exciting and fascinating, but especially Alex with his brooding, Neanderthal presence. At any rate, the film is still heavily cut in Britain and has yet to find a strong fanbase along the lines of other exploitation movies.
Well, I like it!
Film: **** Nastiness: ****
Faces of Death (1978)
This is one of the few Video Nasties that fully deserved its place on the final DPP list. As an individual who ideologically opposes censorship, I found myself surprisingly shocked by the BBFC's decision to pass this (albeit with minor cuts) for DVD, and even today it is one of the few Video Nasties that I cannot watch without needing to turn it off. While I agree that adults should have the right to view whatever they wish (as long as the work in question does not break the law), I do find myself wondering what kind of person enjoys watching this sort of material. (Even as I write I cannot help but shake my head at my own hypocrisy...) This grisly, macabre compilation of both real-life and faked death footage belongs to a subgenre of the documentary film known as 'mondo', initiated in 1966 by the Italian exploitation film Mondo Cane (although the recording of actual human death goes right back to the dawn of cinema). Along with the video Executions, Faces of Death represents the most extreme and disgusting end of this subgenre (that I'm aware of at any rate), and presents a string of death-themed scenes including suicide, accidents and execution. The fact that some scenes (most famously a death row electrocution and the eating of 'live' monkey brains) are faked does little to reduce the impact of this film, which from start to finish reeks of both death and exploitation. What surprises me is not so much that Faces of Death presents itself as a serious documentary (complete with a bogus doctor narrating in serious tones), but that the BBFC's regulations allow for the use of real-life death footage in this clearly exploitative context. And yet they ban video documentaries such as Hooligans and Terrorists, Sickos and Other Wackos for having no discernible educational context. At least such material has the courage (stupidity?) to present itself for what it is: sick morons stringing together repugnant images for the entertainment of other sick morons. Indeed, such a distinction marks hard-core pornography and the Lovers' Guide style of 'sex education' videos that emerged during the late 1980s, when 'documentarians' realised they could make '18' rated sex tapes as long as the action was interspersed by some 'expert' providing an academic commentary.
Unsurprisingly, Faces of Death does not illuminate the subject of its title; rather than revealing historical, cultural and spiritual truths about mortality, it merely serves to emphasise the ugly faces of humanity.
Film: * (out of 5) Nastiness: ***** (out of 5)
Lisa, Lisa (1974)
In its trailer, Axe promises to be another slice of rural American Gothic in the vein of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and Psycho (1960), but bears more of a resemblance to two other films on the final DPP list, The Last House on the Left (1972) and Fight for Your Life (1977). Unfortunately, and despite its claims to be as good as Chain Saw Massacre, Axe comes as a major disappointment. After watching Stephen Thrower's glowing review on the excellent DVD Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide, I was expecting a 'beautiful and well-made' little gem that could hold its own against Polanski's Repulsion (1965). I should have kept in mind that this is the guy who loves and defends Jess Franco movies. Far from being the 'well made and beautiful' art film Thrower would have us believe, Axe is a very poor movie in almost every respect. Its premise is familiar but has great potential: three low-life criminals on the run from the police hide out in the country farmhouse inhabited by a near-mute, neurotic girl and her invalid grandfather. Even before the criminals arrive it is clear that the girl, Lisa (Leslie Lee), is capable of extreme behaviour, which makes an inventive change from the usual, 'normal' household invaded by violent outsiders.
However, this one spark of inspiration quickly becomes forgotten during the course of an incredibly plodding, amateurishly-made movie. Most of the blame lies with writer-director-editor Friedel, for whom this was clearly a labour of love. The script is weak, with bland, stereotypical bad guys and flat dialogue; the direction is hopeless with regards to telling the story and creating tension, while the editing only compounds the flaws in both of these departments. (The interminable opening and closing credits are a good indication of the film's deadly slow pacing.) Then there's the acting: Jack Canon comes off 'best' (a relative term) out of the three villains, playing the leader of the gang, while Friedel easily gives the movie's worst turn as Billy, the criminal with a conscience but an atrocious beard-and-hair combo. Even the actor playing Lisa's invalid grandfather gives a more emotive, engaging performance. Yes, Friedel is bested by a man playing a fully-paralysed mute. Lee, however, is surprisingly effective as the enigmatic Lisa, and it's a shame she didn't have a better script and director at her service. There is something in her performance that recalls Camille Keaton in I Spit on Your Grave (1978) or Zoe Tamerlis in Ms. 45 (1981), but unfortunately this film is far too weak to stand up against these superior movies.
So why did this end up on the DPP list? As has been pointed out by others, one can only assume that the film's title and the misleading video sleeve were to blame, suggesting something along the lines of The Driller Killer (1979) or The Toolbox Murders (1977). It's unlikely that any of the film's few murder scenes would have made an impression on any of the MPs watching the Nasties compilation in the House of Commons, nor for that matter anyone renting this out in the hope of an evening's entertainment. As Thrower pointed out in his review, had the film been released under its original title, Lisa, Lisa, this probably wouldn't have come near the Video Nasties list; better still, it may never have come near my DVD player.
Film: * (out of 5) Nastiness: * (out of 5)
Chi sei? (1974)
Chi Sei? (Beyond the Door)
This surprisingly effective, low-budget rip-off of "Rosemary's Baby" and "The Exorcist" features an unrestrained performance by Juliet Mills as a woman who discovers she is pregnant with the Devil's offspring.
After a somewhat ambiguous and arbitrary prologue which sees Mills flee midway through some kind of black magic rite, the plot sees ominous satanist Dimitri (Richard Johnson, of "The Haunting" and "Zombi 2" fame) making a pact with the Devil: if he agrees to help deliver Mills' evil child his life will be prolonged. The film then charts the pregnancy/possession of Mills and the not-surprising breakdown of her family unit.
Once the possession gets underway, "Chi Sei?" offers a series of shock sequences stolen straight out of "The Exorcist": Mills speaks in a man's voice, levitates, vomits half-masticated spinach down her nightdress, turns her head 360 degrees, etc. (In fact, these scenes were so similar in content that Warner Bros. took the film-makers to court for an alleged $2 million.)It is in these scenes that Mills' performance is delightfully uninhibited and gleefully unpleasant, contrasting nicely to Johnson's brooding midwife.
However, aside from these effective shock sequences, the film is fairly inept and - bizarrely - quite dull. For an Italian exploitation film this takes a while to get going, with far too much screen time dedicated to painting a portrait of Mills' family life. (The jazz-funk score doesn't particularly sit well with the subject matter, either.) Then comes the unlikely response of Mills' husband to her transformation - the man seems utterly unfazed by the yellow eyes, green skin and preternatural strength his wife develops as her pregnancy ensues.
The worst thing about the movie, however, is its blatant conservative and misogynistic view of womanhood: pregnancy is clearly seen here as something entirely abject, into which men are co-erced into taking part. The film's most horrifying image is Johnson slamming his fists onto Mills' stomach in an attempt to get the demon child out into the world.
Harsh Times (2005)
Dog, this film is whack
Christian Bale stars as a psychopathic (surprise, surprise), white trash, ex-army gangsta with aspirations to join the LAPD. His black ops past, together with his taste for firearms and drugs, make him a severely unstable 'homey' to hang with, as his childhood friend quickly discovers.
For a quality actor who devotes so much energy and passion to his roles, it is surprising how many duff movies Bale chooses to star in. In this "Boyz n the Hood"-meets-"8 Mile" drama he is badly miscast, to the point that his character comes across as a middle-class high school kid who hasn't grown up, pretending to be Snoop Dogg in front of his friends. Admittedly, when he comes over all Patrick Bateman, Bale delivers the goods but in his conversations with his best friend - or "dog"/"blood"/"homey"/"dude" - he sounds utterly absurd. However, this has more to do with an atrocious script, seemingly written by a high school drama group that has OD'd on their hip hop albums.
Dam' Christian, this is one for the bargain basement, dog.
Casino Royale (2006)
Possibly the best Bond film yet...
For those of you weighing up whether or not to see this film, I am a great, great fan of James Bond films and heartily recommend this film. In fact, I can only think of two negative points to the movie: the title tune (which is appalling) and a scene in which Bond has a convenient gadget in his glove compartment which has echoes of the old 60s Batman TV show.
Reasons for watching this film:
1. Not only does Daniel Craig meet the demands of the role, he arguably does as well as Connery in the role.
2. The action sequences are unbelievable, and the fight scenes are realistic.
3. Bond has more depth here than in any other Bond film since OHMSS.
4. The chemistry between Craig and Eva Green is believable and gripping.
Some people are going to hate this film, but if you like OHMSS you are quite likely to enjoy this.
9 Songs (2004)
Badly out of tune
It is always pleasing to see society progress and become increasingly more liberal in its views. The cinema seems to be doing so at any rate, particularly regarding the current art-house fad for showing explicit sexual imagery. Over the past ten years or so, films like Baise-Moi, Intimacy, The Idiots and Romance have featured hardcore material with the intention of 'saying something' about human sexual relationships. Rarely do they actually say anything of interest, and 9 Songs is certainly no exception.
9 Songs tells the 'story' of an Englishman (Keiran O'Brien) who embarks on a sexual relationship with a slightly kooky American girl (Margot Stilley). And that's it. Oh, and they go to some concerts. After trudging laboriously through the usual clichés (a weekend away; some kinky experimentation; episodes of boredom; the heroine experimenting with her sexuality; jealousy, etc.), the film ends with the predictable split.
If the dazzling unoriginality of the relationship itself isn't bad enough, then there is the mind-numbingly awful dialogue. Then there are the various lazy devices used to fill up the very slight (though humorous) running time of 69 minutes: the dull and pointless framing device (O'Brien recalls the relationship while on some expedition); the boring cutaways to live gigs (nine in all, hence the title) and scenes of 'crazy' behaviour (taking drugs, skinny-dipping). The film is very sloppily constructed and written, relying too much on improvisation from two incapable actors.
Which brings us to the sex. 9 Songs is the most sexually explicit mainstream film to be released in Britain. It features lingering shots of fellatio, penetration, ejaculation and so on, leaving very little out. True, it has pushed the boundaries of what is acceptable in commercial cinema, but unfortunately it is all for nought. The sex is explicit, but deeply unerotic. Winterbottom's cheap-looking photography/videography looks like some grainy home movie; worse, it looks like the grainy home movie of a very stealthy pervert, making the act of watching this movie feel extraordinarily uncomfortable. The film also gives no real insights into what makes humans tick as sexual companions; for that, look to the latter part of Gaspar Noe's Irreversible (2001), in which we see a realistic portrait of a relationship. Here, the couple is dull and lifeless, even when undergoing daring sexual explorations.
But surely the music saves it? Well, no it doesn't. If this film can make sex boring, then it's not going to be hard to make pop music deadening to sit through. Wobbling long shots and a muffled soundtrack reduce some good songs to the tedious plot-fillers they are.
Can someone tell me what happened to the Winterbottom of Jude or 24 Hour Party People, as he seems to have left the building (or should I say bedroom?). This film has no redeeming features whatsoever. Even its length falls short: this is the longest, most boring 69 minutes of sex you'll ever endure.
Often considered a second-rate Sergio Leone, Sergio Corbucci made some of the finest Italian Westerns of the 1960s, including this cult classic. While not possessing the grandiose widescreen beauty of the Dollars trilogy (1964-66) or Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Django is a smaller and much grungier affair.
With its laconic anti-hero and central plot of a gunfighter caught between two warring factions, Django obviously owes much to A Fistful of Dollars (1964). However, Django makes the violence of that film seem relatively tame: in this movie we see a woman being stripped and viciously flogged, as well as the infamous moment where a curate has his ear cut off and is forced to eat it. (Even Tarantino didn't go that far thirty years later...) Corbucci also outdoes Clint Eastwood's beating in Fistful by having his hero's hands bashed to a bloody pulp by the end of a rifle. (This moment may or may not be the origin of the film's title, in which case it would be a fairly sick joke.)
Sporting stunning production design by Carlo (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) Simi, Django takes place in a sea of mud, an adequate setting for the film's villains: a gang of hood-wearing sadists whose appearance and behaviour recall the Klu-Klux Klan.
Corbucci would go on to direct the even more impressive The Big Silence (1967), although he would always live under Leone's shadow and remain a director of cheap Italian exploitation.