Crimson Peak (US-Canada 2015)

Tom Hiddleston and Mia Wiakowska

Thomas (Tom Hiddleston) and Edith (Mia Wasikowska), the potential couple at the centre of a gothic romance.

Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak is a companion piece for his early films The Devil’s Backbone (El espinazo del diablo, Spain-Mexico 2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (El laberinto del fauno, Spain-Mexico-US 2006) and the film he helped to produce, El orfanato (The Orphanage 2007). But whereas these films combined the ‘gothic romance’ with a Spanish Civil War story via various rich metaphors, del Toro’s new film is essentially a re-working of a classic gothic romance narrative set in the early Edwardian period. Compared to the earlier films Crimson Peak is even more beautifully conceived and designed but unfortunately does not carry the same powerful political message. It does, however, offer a worthwhile commentary on the gothic romance and the presentation of ‘phantasms’.

The narrative involves an English ‘gentleman’ and his sister, Thomas and Lucille Sharpe (played by Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain), who visit Buffalo NY where Thomas seeks investment funds from the banker Carter Cushing. Thomas wants to build a mechanical extractor for the deposits of red clay on which his family property sits in the wilds of Cumberland. The blood-red clay is valuable for firing high-quality tiles but is also threatening the foundations of the great old house and seeping through the ground like blood. Thomas and Lucille leave America without investment funds but with Cushing’s daughter Edith (Mia Wasikowska) as the new Mrs Sharpe. They return to the great gothic mansion where the rest of the narrative plays out.

Edith begins to explore the gothic house . . .

Edith begins to explore the gothic house . . .

. . . in which there is often somebody watching – here Jessica Chastain.

. . . in which there is often somebody watching – here Jessica Chastain as Lucille.

Once in the UK, Crimson Peak becomes more focused on a three-way power struggle in the classic gothic house with strict colour coding of costumes and fantastic attention to mise en scène, lighting and cinematography. The background to the production suggests that del Toro had been trying to make the film for a long time, but that he hung on until he found backers prepared to let him have the $50 million that he knew would be needed to create the spectacle that he wanted to create. This passion for the project is evident in the number of promotional videos that accompanied the film’s release, including one in which del Toro himself takes us through aspects of set design and the SFX needed to create his ‘phantasms’ – creations that are part digital effect and part traditional effects work (see the clip below).

I went to see Crimson Peak on a large multiplex screen, primarily to immerse myself in the production design and the richness of del Toro’s imagination. I wasn’t sure what kind of narrative to expect and I’m still not sure why I didn’t enjoy it more. Everything about the production is first class, including the three central performances. Del Toro’s ideas are gloriously realised in the set and I enjoyed the presentation of the phantasms. The film was shot in Canada and the one feature that didn’t work for me was the presentation of landscape. The mystery is why del Toro and his co-writer Matthew Robbins chose ‘Cumberland’ as the location for the house – and then presented it as an isolated house on a featureless snow-covered moor, so that it could really have been anywhere. There is a strong sense of landscape in British gothic stories set in the late 19th and into the 20th century. Think of The Hound of the Baskervilles, Hitchcock’s Rebecca or the more recent The Woman in Black. The landscape doesn’t have to be ‘factually correct’ but it should resonate with the story in some way. I seem to remember that del Toro shot in Northern Ireland on the Devil’s Causeway for Hellboy 2, so he has had some experience of the possibilities. Perhaps I’m just complaining because I want to see Cumbrian landscapes – I don’t worry about the Spanish locations in the earlier films, but that’s because they do seem to be part of the overall presentation of the Civil War.

Crimson Peak didn’t find the large audience that might have justified its production spend. I think that’s partly because gothic melodrama/romance is currently out of favour and is only acceptable as part of a package in which the potential horror story is strong enough on its own. By mixing the two in the way it is done here – appealing to two different audiences – del Toro has not really satisfied either. I suspect that the focus on the production design has meant that the script received less attention than it should have done. Thinking back, the ingredients are there for a great melodrama – there are narrative elements about childhood and parenting that might have come from a Wilkie Collins novel – but somehow they don’t cohere.

Perhaps Crimson Peak will become a cult film through theatrical revivals – I’m glad I saw it on a big screen.

Guillermo del Toro introduces one feature of his elaborate studio set:

. . . and here’s another:

Guillermo del Toro’s Spanish-set films are discussed in Chapter 4 of The Global Film Book.

The Midnight After (Hong Kong 2014)

The survivors in home-made protection gear prepared to take on whatever comes next in THE MIDNIGHT AFTER

The survivors in home-made protection gear prepared to take on whatever comes next in THE MIDNIGHT AFTER

Fruit Chan is the Hong Kong director best known in the UK for his independent film classic Made in Hong Kong (HK 1997) and his horror features and portmanteau film episodes such as Dumplings (HK 2004). His latest venture proved a suitably bonkers but enjoyable finale to the Asia Triennial 14 Festival screenings programme at Cornerhouse, Manchester. Chosen by festival programmers Sarah Perks and Andy Willis, both HK cinema fans, it proved to be the ‘popular cinema with a message’ that doesn’t usually get onto UK cinema screens.

The Midnight After is an adaptation (loosely, I imagine) of an internet novel that went viral and was eventually published in print form. At first glance it looks like a conventional horror genre flic. A mini-bus driver is called from his mahjong game as a substitute driver for a late-night service starting in Kowloon and heading out to Tai Po in the New Territories. The passengers are a motley crew of students, young couples and older eccentrics. Part way through the Lion tunnel something happens and the bus arrives in a deserted and apparently post-apocalyptic Tai Po. Panic gradually sets in, some members of the group break away and die in mysterious circumstances. We’ve seen it all before but Chan’s track record suggests that the usual conventions won’t deliver the usual outcomes or the usual pleasures.

I’m not going to pretend that I knew what was going on for much of the film and I certainly didn’t ‘get’ the ending – just like everyone else. I can also understand the complaints that the film is too long (123 mins is pushing it for this kind of production) but overall I enjoyed the experience.

Chan’s 1997 film was one of the last of the films exploring life for youths in Hong Kong during the final months of control from London before the ‘handover’ to China. It doesn’t take too much imagination to work out that the passengers on the minibus (and the driver) are representative of certain groups in Hong Kong society and that trying to organise themselves into a group in order to survive – and to try to understand what is happening – is a metaphor for ordinary HK residents trying to deal with the Chines authorities. On the other hand, they also behave a bit like the marooned schoolboys in Lord of the Flies and the folk getting together to fight zombies in Romero’s Living Dead films. Chan gives us some good laughs between the blood and gore and other effects. A highlight is a decoded message referring to David Bowie’s hit ‘Space Oddity’. Another reference is to the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

The ending of the film seems like it is deliberately set up for a sequel. (In fact the whole narrative feels like an extended episode or episodes of Dr Who.) The film was successful in its home market where the actors, the dialects and cultural references – as well as the political implications – make most sense. I wonder if it might also do well in other parts of East Asia. At times it reminded me of Korean and Japanese films. One website informs us that Chan released a second version of the film cut to be screened to under-18s and an obvious ploy to expand the audience. The Midnight After made HK$10 million after just 6 days on release and Chan has said that he will definitely make a sequel if the box office passes HK$30 million. To put this in perspective, the target is the equivalent of just under US$4 million. Still, this is a significant amount for a domestic HK film these days. I hope the director gets his wish. I’m just glad to have seen an enjoyable comedy-horror in ‘Scope.

Hong Kong popular cinema is discussed in both Chapter 2 and Chapter 11 in The Global Film Book. The idea of developing an internet novel into a film is explored in Chapter 2 in terms of the smash hit South Korean romantic comedy My Sassy Girl (2001).

Here’s a trailer (an English-subtitled Region 3 DVD is available from YesAsia):

Ringu (Ring, Japan 1998)

A ghost appears before Ryuji . . .

A ghost appears before Ryuji . . .

(These notes were first used for an education event in 2002)

Based on the 1991 novel (with the same title) by Suzuki Koji, the film Ringu by Nakata Hideo was released in Japan in 1998. By this time there had already been a TV adaptation in 1995.

SPOILER!

The event assumed that students had just watched the film in the cinema. If you haven’t seen the film, please watch it first. The following outline reveals the whole plot.

Synopsis

Reiko, a television journalist, interviews some high school girls who tell her a story about young people who have died after viewing a ‘weird’ videotape. Attending the funeral of her niece Tomoko, who has died suddenly, Reiko realises that she was one of the young people in the story. Reiko decides to investigate and drives down to the Izu peninsula where she views the tape left behind in a holiday cabin and becomes convinced that she herself is now in danger. Returning to Tokyo she contacts her ex-husband, a university scientist. He agrees to join the investigation, viewing the tape and tracking down a voice on the recording through its local accent and dialect.

Reiko and Ryuji discover that the tape refers to events dating back forty years to the eruption of a volcano on Oshima Island and the suicide of a psychic woman Shizuko. According to the story, Reiko will die seven days after her first viewing of the tape. Fearing her son’s safety Reiko takes Yoichi to stay with her father. She is shocked to discover Yoichi watching the tape – he tells her that Tomoko told him to.

Reiko and Ryuji travel to Oshima Island where they confront the father of Shizuko. Putting together their research and a series of psychic ‘visions’ they realise that the power of the videotape comes from Sadako, daughter of Shizuko and (possibly) Dr Ikuma, the scientist who had seduced her. They determine to go back to Izu to find Sadako’s body. Seven days after viewing the tape, Reiko returns to the cabin with only hours to go before the ‘deadline’. The pair find the well and the remains of the body. The curse appears to be lifted, but the next day Ryuji is visited by Sadako’s ghost and dies of fright. Reiko realises that she has escaped only because she copied the tape and showed it to Ryuji. She hurries off to copy it again for Yoichi . . .

Analysis

We chose this film as a case study for a number of reasons. It is an almost ‘pure’ genre film – a rarity in modern cinema. It offers a familiar kind of story, but in a very different cultural context. Ring is a Japanese horror film that draws on both the traditional Japanese ghost story and the sorts of contemporary ‘urban myths’ that we all hear being discussed amongst friends. It is a horror story without ‘gore’ and depends on building up tension through fear of the unknown. It has been suggested that the film both draws on American horror films and in turn has influenced them. Comparisons have been made with the low-budget Blair Witch Project and Ring itself has been remade in Hollywood (opened at No 1 in America in October 2002) Ring isn’t in any way a ‘difficult’ film (it is a straight commercial entertainment, but in the UK its Japanese production context kept it out of the multiplexes). It certainly benefits greatly from detailed study.

Narrative Structure

Ring is an ‘investigative’ narrative, in which the protagonist tries to find out what has happened. But the investigator is also under threat from the ‘unknown’. The narrative follows a Hollywood formula and falls into three main sections:

  • in the first act the ‘disturbance’ of the sudden deaths draws Reiko into the investigation. Her viewing and the subsequent viewing by Ryuji then place the pair in danger.
  • in the central section, the pair uncover the story of Shizuko and Sadako and realise what they must do.
  • in the third, ‘climactic’ section, the pair are in a race against time to find Sadako and lift the curse. But there is a coda to the film following the ‘false’ ending.

The three sections of the film are complemented by the triangular structure of the locations of the actions. Reiko travels from Tokyo to Izu, back to Tokyo then to Oshima, back to Izu and then back again to Tokyo.

(Unlike the detective story or ‘whodunnit’ in which the audience may have knowledge about the villain, we too know nothing about Sadako. This makes the narrative more like the ‘investigative journalist’ type story.)

Genre and narrative shape

The ‘elements’ of the story are familiar from the universal structure of the horror film. In the opening section the seemingly ‘ordinary’ pattern of events is revealed as having a sinister sub-text. Reiko’s decision to watch the tape (alone in a darkened cabin) is typically foolhardy in the context of the horror film. Reiko is unaware of how the scene is being presented to us with its shadows and disturbing soundtrack. The investigation and the race against time are again typical genre elements. The narrative is linear in the sense that the mystery is on one level resolved – but there is no happy ending and no ‘closure’.

The practice of producing a sequel to a commercial success is well-known in Hollywood, but few American films would make the requirement for a sequel so obvious (a sly nudge at the end of a narrative that has been largely resolved is much more likely). It is worth noting here that the story of Ringu was first a very successful series of novels, then a television series and finally a film. The producers made the odd decision to make a sequel, Rasen, using a different crew at the same time as making Ringu. But Rasen failed completely. Ringu 2 was then made at the same time as the ‘prequel’, ‘Ringu 0’, two years later in 2000. Ringu 2 (again directed by Nakata Hideo) was also successful. There was also a Korean re-make, before the Hollywood version.

Narration and characters

The protagonist of the film is clearly Reiko. It is important in this film that we learn about the background only as she does. True, we see Tomoko’s death at the beginning of the film, but we don’t know what has caused it. The ‘narration’ does require Reiko to go through the rather ‘clunky’ process of saying aloud what she is thinking (e.g. when she has a psychic flash in which Ryuji’s ghost (?) points to her bag to indicate that there are two tapes). Overall, however, the process of narration is quite unobtrusive. Despite the relatively slow pacing of the scenes, the narrative appears to move forward very quickly – partly because there is a great deal of plot information to absorb.

(Names: We refer to ‘Reiko’ here. This is her ‘personal’ name. Only her aunt uses this name. Her ex-husband uses her maiden ‘family name’, Asakawa – this is customary in Japan.)

Genre Iconography and setting

Ringu is a commercial Japanese film, produced in a country with a culture that mixes ‘high technology’ and modern consumer culture with traditional beliefs and customs that appear strange and exotic to many in the West. Reiko and Ryuji live in Tokyo apartments that do not look very different to those in Europe or North America. Similarly the cabin in Izu could be in the American West. Yet on Oshima Island and at Grandpa’s house in the country, the traditional style of eating at low tables and sleeping on bedrolls on the floor is still followed. The connection to a tradition of ghost narratives dating back hundreds of years is easy to accept. The choice of video and telephone technology as the source of terror appears to point towards North American films like Poltergeist or the Canadian Videodrome (the demonic tv set) and Scream (victims terrorised over the phone). But it is also possible to see television as a ‘cancerous’ growth that destroyed the Japanese film industry (in the 1950s, the world’s largest). The film effectively utilises the three central features of the Japanese environment. The large Japanese population (127 million) lives in very densely populated cities in small apartments. There is comparatively little land for agriculture, much of the interior is wooded mountain country and isolated resorts like those in Izu and on Oshima Island are popular. Finally Japan is a ‘community of islands’ and the sea is tremendously important as a source of food and communication.

Narrative and characters

One of the interesting facets of the film is the lack of information about the former relationship between Reiko and Ryuji. There is a strange scene between Yoichi and his father on the pavement outside Reiko’s apartment – Yoichi appears to be going out in the rain, at night alone, to leave his parents together. Father and son at first do not speak. Ryuji then asks if his son is going to school – clearly he does not have close contact. This prompts the question – what caused the marriage to break up? Why does Reiko turn to Ryuji for help? Is it because he is Yoichi’s father? (Think back to Yoichi’s behaviour at the funeral.) The joint parental concern certainly makes for an important element of the narrative. Or is it that Ryuji is both knowledgeable and psychic – the perfect investigator? What do we make of Reiko as the central protagonist? The filmmakers changed the book’s investigator to a woman (Pete Tombs – see Resources – states that this was important as modern Japanese horror films often use female heroes). But does she sacrifice her own independence and become reliant on Ryuji? It’s worth remembering here that Japanese ghost stories commonly feature a woman who has been abused by men. We might expect a female investigator to have more understanding of what has happened and on the island of Oshima Reiko appears to become part of the psychic process when her arm is gripped by the presence of Sadako. By contrast, in the editing suite it is her professional expertise that helps her see that the video is unusual.

Style

At first glance, the film seems to lack a definable style. Few images impress through visual composition. The most memorable are those that feature Sadako and Yoichi, the rather unnerving little boy. This observation is not a criticism of the performance of Matsushima Nanako (Reiko) or Sanada Hiroyuki (Ryuji). Rather, it is to suggest that the unobtrusive style works so well that we are swept along in the story, free from the sometimes gimmicky images of much Hollywood horror. There are few ‘expressive’ camera movements and only a handful of obvious ‘special effects’. Some critics put the style down to the low budget and it is certainly the case that in the sequel, the same director uses a more ‘expensive’ style, more akin to Western expectations of a horror film. Whether this is successful or not is a matter of taste. The overall feel of the film comes from a combination of:

  • mainly night-time shooting with good use of shadows and available light sources
  • even pacing with relatively long takes
  • muted but powerful performances by the actors
  • imaginative use of music and sound effects

(It is debatable as to whether modern Japanese films are in any way influenced by the compositions of Japanese painting styles, but it is worth noting that Japanese scripts are read from right to left and down columns, rather than scanning left to right. Notice how Reiko reads in the newspaper archives. Could this affect how Japanese audiences ‘read’ images?)

Themes

It is difficult from a European perspective to understand fully the themes of Japanese genre films. To the extent that they might ‘borrow’ ideas from Hollywood horror and ‘teen’ or ‘high school’ films, elements of films like Ring might look familiar. But Japanese culture is quite different to that in America in a number of ways:

  • the religious beliefs of Japanese people (mostly Shintoist, some Buddhists) evoke different ideas about life and death. (See Tombs (00) on the release of horror movies during the Festival of the Dead in July and August.)
  • Japan has a strong family structure and a general deference to older people. The population shows a profile much like parts of Western Europe – with people living much longer and more pressure on a smaller proportion of young people. Young people in Japan face a highly pressurised experience of education. Possibly as a result, youth sub-cultures are often represented as obsessive and extreme. ‘Teen horror/action films’ such as Battle Royale (Japan 2000) may be commenting on this phenomenon.
  • the position of women in Japanese society is also different. Although there has been a ‘liberation’ of women to match changes in the West, Japanese society is still arguably more ‘patriarchal’, expecting more forgiveness for male behaviour and more deference from women.
  • Japanese attitudes to sex and violence are quite different to those in the West. What in the West might be considered ‘hardcore’ material is more freely available. However, this does not mean the society is ‘degraded’ or that is violent or licentious. The crime rate is low by Western standards and Japanese society is generally ‘calm’ and ‘ordered’. Are any of these ‘differences’ evident in Ring? How does Ring compare with the two highly successful Western ghost stories of recent times, The Sixth Sense and The Others?

(Even by the end of Ring, the motivation for Sadako’s attacks on innocent viewers of her tape are not clear. Common themes such as revenge or lust for power become more evident in the sequel and prequel.)

Audiences

The film is targeted towards a youth audience in the sense that it picks up upon the idea of the urban myth and plays with the fascination with horror and ‘true crimes/mystery’ that has been a traditional strength of youth cinema across the world. In Japan and much of Eastern Asia, the Ring films have been massive box office sensations, matching the success of the earlier book and television versions of the narratives. Having seen the film, you can comment on whether the European tendency to put all foreign language films into an ‘arthouse’ or ‘specialist’ category is justified.

References and Further Reading

David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson (1997, 5th edition) Film Art, London and New York: McGraw Hill

Gill Branston and Roy Stafford (2002, 3rd ed) The Media Student’s Book, London: Routledge

Carol Clover (1992) Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the modern horror film, London: British Film Institute

Mark Kermode (2000) Review of Ring in Sight and Sound, September (included on DVD)

Nick Lacey (1998) Image and Representation, London: Macmillan

Nick Lacey (2000) Narrative and Genre, London: Macmillan

Kim Newman (2000) Edinburgh Festival Report on Ring, Sight and Sound, August

The ‘Guardian Unlimited’ website (www.guardian.co.uk) has three very useful articles on Ring and Japanese horror films by Pete Tombs (‘Oh, Noh… Japan has the horrors again’, 18/8/00) and Steve Rose (‘Nightmare Scenario’, 20/9/02).

Film availability

Ring, Rasen, Ring 2 and Ring 0 are all available on DVD in the UK from Tartan Video.

Essay or discussion questions on Ring

1. What makes Ring a horror film? Identify the codes and conventions of the traditional horror film that are present in this film.

2. How is the ghost of Sadako represented in the film? What are the memorable features of the ghost image? How do they refer to the narrative and any possible theme of the film?

3. Does the Japanese setting of the film mean the story is told differently than it would be in a Hollywood film? (When the Hollywood film is released you could compare the two.)

4. Is Reiko an ‘ordinary young woman’ or a ‘hero’ figure?

5. When Sadako’s body is found, the story might have ended – what is the pretext for carrying on the story? How does the director make sure we know that it will carry on – i.e. what do we expect from a final shot in a film, what don’t we get here?

6. The sequel, Ring 2 was made two years after the first film. Think back over Ring – what kinds of ‘narrative information’ were given out to provide the basis for continuing the story – e.g. is there any explanation for the death of Ryuji? Besides Reiko and Yoichi, who else knows at least something about what has happened, and may be concerned to follow up the story?

If you want to find out more about Ringu and the whole J-horror cycle of films, see this free download from The Media Student’s Book website.

A Blood Pledge (Dong-ban-ja-sal, South Korea 2009)

A cropped version of an original Korean poster.

A cropped version of an original Korean poster.

This South Korean horror film was given a UK DVD release on October 14th from Matchbox. It belongs to a form of teen horror franchise known as Yeogo goedam and re-titled as Whispering Corridors in English. This is the fifth instalment. The first was in 1998 with further films in 1999, 2003, 2005 and then 2009. Each film has a separate title as well as a reference to the franchise. The only elements in the ‘package’ that remain the same are the setting in a girls high school, a group of girls as principal characters and the theme that involves emotional relationships and some form of ‘haunting’. I haven’t seen the 4th instalment but I enjoyed all the others.

A Blood Pledge refers to the suicide pledge taken by four senior girls at a Catholic high school (are they called convents in South Korea?). One of the four does leap to her death from the school roof (the preferred method of suicide in several East Asian films) but the other three appear at school the next morning. The leap is witnessed by the dead girl’s younger sister. She begins to investigate what happened and disputes begin to develop between the other three girls who made the pact. The one who died is clearly going to come back to haunt the others.

Compared to the first film this latest instalment is a very slick and ‘clean’ presentation with fluid camerawork. Much of the action takes place at night and in their school uniforms with similar hairstyles it is sometimes difficult to distinguish the five central characters. There are numerous flashbacks and dream/nightmare sequences that are not very clearly marked as such so it’s quite easy to become confused and the experience of watching can make the viewer feel delirious. As far as horror effects are concerned, there is a lot of blood – but since several scenes are located in spotlessly clean school toilets, the overall effect is quite odd. Otherwise there are the usual bumps in the dark. The most interesting aspect of the film for me is the social commentary that appears at various times. We do learn something of some of the girls’ home lives but oddly we rarely see the teachers in the school (teachers are more involved in some of the other instalments of the franchise). The most overlooked aspect of the narrative in the reviews that I have seen is the Catholicism. I thought suicide was a mortal sin, but little seems to be made of it as an event in school.

A useful interview with Lee Choon-yun the producer (and originator) of the franchise can be found here. It seems that the initial idea came from a Japanese film from 1995 and it was attractive to Lee because he saw a means of drawing on a tradition of ‘legends’ or ‘scary stories’ that circulated in Korean schools. He also tells us that he was motivated by his own views about what he describes as the “repressive Korean education system” which turns out “‘good boys and girls’, punched from cookie-cutter moulds”. He also tells us that:

. . . a girl’s high school was an attractive setting. It’s a space that stimulates male curiosity, a place that men have never been in but are fascinated by. Conversely, for women it’s an environment that they can feel nostalgic about.

The temptation in the UK would be to sexualise the girls explicitly, especially via school uniforms, but the uniforms in this film are modest, tailored and seemingly quite expensive. Somehow, the film’s director Lee Jong-yong manages to deal with familiar social issues about teen sexuality and relationships and parental bullying alongside ‘crushes’ and petty jealousies in a measured way so that he can focus on quite long scenes of angry looks, accusations and pleadings between the girls. His previous important credits include script work on Sympathy for Mr Vengeance (2002) and as Assistant director on JSA (2000) but this isn’t a Park Chan-wook style film.

bloodpledge

The DVD is available from Amazon. I’d certainly recommend the film to anyone interested in horror, teen films or East Asian cinemas generally. It’s not necessary to have seen any of the four previous Whispering Corridors films to enjoy this one but I think you will want to see how different directors handle similar material.. I think that Memento Mori (1999)remains my favourite for the moment, but I must look out for The Voice (2005). All four earlier titles are available in a Region 2 box set heavily discounted, so if you are starting without any knowledge you can now access all five quite easily.

Sightseers (UK 2012)

Our beautiful North of England!

Our beautiful North of England!

Every year, it seems, UK critics and commentators pick out a small independent film and promote it. I do this myself to some extent, but I don’t have any influence. Sightseers has been picked out by Wendy Mitchell, Editor of Screen International, and by Sight & Sound, whose editor put the film on the cover of the November issue. It has even turned up on the ‘Top Films of the Year’ list of a Belgian critic polled by Cineuropa and the film has won prizes at three European festivals as well as a BIFA (British Independent Film Award) for its screenplay. Clearly there is something here that critics are responding to. I found the film to be an interesting exercise that somehow didn’t come together. The main disappointment for me was that it is billed as a black comedy but I didn’t find it funny. I do like traditional gothic horror films and Sightseers promises to be a modern gothic horror but doesn’t fulfil the promise.

Sightseers is an interesting mix – a road movie, a romance, a satire, a crime film and a comedy. The two central characters, Tina and Chris (played by the two principal writers Alice Lowe and Steve Oram), are 30-something social misfits. We don’t learn about Chris’s background until later on but he has acquired a caravan and a car big enough to haul it around the North of England. Tina is a dog counsellor and knitter who lives with her mother and she eagerly accepts Chris’s offer to become his muse as he travels seeking inspiration for a book he is planning.

The film is presented in ‘Scope and it does show some of the beauty of the Peak District, the Pennines, the Yorkshire Dales and the Lake District. I’ve seen it compared to Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip, which traversed some of the same roads, but whereas Winterbottom and his cinematographer seemed to capture more than just pretty images, I didn’t feel the same about Sightseers. To be fair, this isn’t a film about landscapes. The scenery is meant to supply useful plot devices and to represent a certain kind of Englishness associated with the National Trust and the perhaps more middle-class tourists who visit the National Parks. On the other hand, Chris and Tina also despise other types of tourists or even locals. They are basically misanthropes who develop a taste for dispatching people who cross them/offend them in some way. A “ginger-faced man and an angry woman”, as the news reports describe them, make an unlikely pair of serial killers.

Sightseers is directed by Ben Wheatley who has already developed a strong reputation with critics for films he has written himself, Down Terrace (2009) and Kill List (2011). His background is partly in television (like Oram and Lowe) and that background in a certain kind of contemporary TV comedy maybe the reason why Sightseers is not to my taste. I’m too old to watch BBC3 and I have avoided programmes like Little Britain or The League of Gentleman. I have enjoyed comedy horror films where the violence seems to have a point but in this case it just seems cruel – which isn’t to say that Chris and Tina aren’t an intriguing couple and several of the romance elements are explored in novel ways. Wheatley is an astute filmmaker and he has a real future ahead of him. The interview listed below is well worth a listen.

The film’s critical status meant a wider distribution than most films with this kind of budget and genre mix – through the European ‘major’ StudioCanal. However, despite the generally very good reviews, audiences have not been large and I doubt that the film has gone much beyond the core horror fanbase and those who follow the more cultish end of the British independent film scene. Sightseers opened very strongly on 92 screens but then tailed off quite dramatically by its third weekend, suggesting that word of mouth was not so good. Nevertheless it has managed over £500,000 so far which is acceptable for a UK cinema release and bodes well for a subsequent life on DVD and online – where I expect it to attract repeat viewings by fans.

Interview with Ben Wheatley.

UK trailer (WARNING: Spoilers)

 

Berberian Sound Studio (UK-Germany 2012)

Toby Jones as Gilderoy. Image © Artificial Eye

Peter Strickland’s debut feature Katalin Varga was such a striking film that I had great expectations of Berberian Sound Studio. To a large extent those expectations were fulfilled, but I also have some lingering doubts – not about the quality of the filmmaking, but about what the film offers to audiences. This is the kind of film that makes much more sense when you read the comments from fans. But I suspect that there are other audiences who don’t have the specific genre knowledge and who will be baffled . Challenging an audience is something I generally applaud, so what’s going on here?

The narrative takes a rather timid and introverted British sound recordist known simply as ‘Gilderoy’ (played by Toby Jones) on a trip to Italy to work on a film called The Equestrian Vortex. This is the mid-1970s and Gilderoy seems unaware of the tradition of the giallo – the lurid form of Italian horror/crime film which in dubbed form played in mainstream cinemas across Europe. The masters of the genre included Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento. Because of my aversion to ‘gore’ and ‘splatter films’, I’ve only seen two gialli that I remember, both by Argento. Even so, I can easily see how carefully Strickland has devised his satire – or is it an hommage? It isn’t a horror film as such, but it is disturbing as well as sometimes very funny.

Gilderoy lives at home with his mother in Dorking in deepest Surrey (and also the site of a Martian invasion in War of the Worlds). His experience is on nature documentaries and children’s films. His arrival in Italy is like the appearance of a sacrificial lamb. The film’s titular sound studio is populated by lecherous Italian production staff, beautiful young women and assorted strange characters. As one of the women points out, Gilderoy needs to assert himself if he is going to get paid. Toby Jones is perfect as the mild-mannered man who will find it hard to survive.

The film never strays out of the sound studio – except in Gilderoy’s imagination. Italian films of the 1970s were all ‘post-synched’ for every element of the soundtrack, so the ‘action’ of the film comprises voice dubbing, forms of music production and lots of foley work involving stabbing, squashing and splattering a variety of vegetables – with the pulpy remnants gradually rotting away in a bin. It doesn’t sound much to go on, but cinematographer Nick Knowland and editor Chris Dickens do a wonderful job with montages of the knobs and dials of vintage audio equipment alongside the rotting vegetables, and various actors attempting to find the right kind of scream for a woman being tortured with a red-hot poker!

The Press Notes tell us that “Peter [Strickland] himself has dabbled in sound art and electronic production as part of the trio The Sonic Catering Band. Tracks written by Strickland are featured in the film. There is a character called the ‘goblin’ in the film (voiced by a man who looks like he has escaped from an Italian golf club): Goblin was the band who provided the music for Dario Argento’s films Profundo Rosso and Suspiria. Strickland has also used the band Nurse With Wound in both this film and his earlier Katalin Varga. The sounds themselves (of the stabbing, squashing etc.) are wonderfully realised and the overall technical quality of the film is very high. Like Katalin Varga, this is a European film made by a ‘European’ Brit and a multinational cast. This time, however, the shoot was at Three Mile Island studios in East London, even though it is partly backed by German money and Screen Yorkshire supporting Warp Films (who are based in London and Sheffield). All the producers were keen to work with Peter Strickland, recognising him as a major talent.

The weakness for the general audience, apart from a lack of familiarity with all the references, is going to be the way that the narrative loses its drive in the last third. I won’t give away the ending and I think that it is an appropriate way to end this particular narrative, but it doesn’t perhaps live up to what audiences might be expecting.

Artificial Eye Pressbook

Official Artificial Eye trailer:

BIFF 2012 #2: Juan of the Dead (Juan de los muertos, Cuba/Spain 2011)

Juan (with the oar), his daughter Camilla, Vladi (with the baseball bat) and Lazaro

Is it possible to develop a sophisticated political discourse as part of a hugely funny and very gory zomcom? You bet! – and Juan of the Dead provides the evidence. I never expected to see a Cuban movie in a multiplex but now I have and with Metrodome handling UK distribution (it opens on 4th May) you’ll get the chance too (although only in ‘Key Cities’ as the current distribution jargon has it).

Inspired by both George Romero and Edgar Wright, director Alejandro Brugués offers us two middle-aged ‘jack the lads’, first spotted on their fishing raft a few hundred metres from the Malecón, Havana’s famous promenade. As Juan and Lazaro begin to despatch zombies in a matter of fact way, they see television announcements which refer to ‘dissidents’ who are causing trouble in the city. ‘Dissidents’ can only mean a yanqui plot as all Cubans know. The basic premise of the film is that in Cuba, there are three possible responses to any new problem for ordinary Cubans. First, consider opening a business, second, just ignore the problem and carry on stoically and third, steal a boat or build a raft and leave the country. Our heroes are going to consider all three and Juan is confident that he will make it since he has already survived the Mariel boatlift, war in Angola and the Special Period (after the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cuban economy went into meltdown). Zombies offer just an opportunity to make some extra money but along the way Juan will have to consider what friendship and family mean to him.

This is a truly Cuban movie with a catalogue of jokes and sight gags with a distinctly Cuban flavour. When a car won’t start, it’s because it’s a Russian Lada. The characters who aid Juan include a very camp character and his hugely-muscled partner (with one fatal weakness) – sport and gay culture being concerns in various Cuban films. The only way to find the limited funds – a $1.6 million budget – to make the film was through a co-production with Spain which means that Juan’s daughter is played by a Spanish actress and the plot requires that her mother has not only left Juan but Cuba as well. There may be some audiences who recognise that the whole film is an allegory of the failings in Cuban society (the director jokes, rather like Simon Pegg, that the Cuban population often appear like zombies) and who wonder why the authorities allow this. But there is a long tradition of satire in Cuban Cinema, most famously in the work of Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabio. The Cuban state film agency ICAIC was involved in the production and I’m sure they will be pleased by the success I feel sure that the film will find in international markets. Having said that there is a rather po-faced put-down of the film on IMDb, arguing that the film fails to offer the correct political message and thus is not a worthy successor to Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.

Of course you don’t need to know anything about Cuban cinema to enjoy the film as a romp through cleverly re-imagined tropes of the zombie movie. The cast is very good, especially Alexis Diaz de Villegas as Juan. The special effects are endearingly naff but work very well – and do stay through the credits which feature Sid Vicious and some very nice graphics. I hope the film does excellent business and raises the profile of Cuban cinema.

Official website

I quite like this ‘teaser’ trailer (mostly because it doesn’t show all the gags in the film)