Category Archives: Horror

Balada triste de trompeta (The Last Circus, Spain/France 2010)

In the opening sequence set in 1937, the circus performers are dragooned into fighting against the Nationalist rebels.

This is exactly the kind of  film that it would probably be impossible to see outside of !Viva¡ or another major festival in the UK (I think it played at Edinburgh last Summer). And yet this is not a film by an unknown director. Álex de la Iglesia is a prominent Spanish filmmaker who first appeared with Acción mutante in 1992 but most of his titles that have been released in the UK in the past ten years have made little impact, except for the English language literary adaptation, The Oxford Murders (2008). Perhaps it is not surprising. Núria Triana-Toribio opens her book Spanish National Cinema (Routledge 2003) with a comment on de la Iglesia to the effect that he is “the present, and possibly the future of Spanish Cinema. At the same time, his films may also be the death-knell of the very idea of a Spanish national cinema”. She goes on to explain that with all their references to authentic Spanish culture, no films could be more ‘castizo‘ – ‘pure’ and ‘traditional’. Yet this is all in spirit of parodying that national culture. And, of course, the full range of the references is only accessible by a local audience.

Balada triste de trompeta is a Spanish-French co-production, so presumably the French production partners thought that they were funding something that would work in the French market. I make no claims to a great knowledge of Spanish culture but I think I got enough of the references. The English title doesn’t help much as the narrative is essentially about two clowns and particularly about the ‘sad clown’ (the ‘sad trumpet ballad’ is sung on screen in a cinema at one point and the trumpet makes another crucial appearance in a different context). Where do they get these English titles from?

Initially it is 1937 and a circus troupe finds itself caught up in the Republican resistance against the Nationalist rebels in Spain. Forced to fight, the circus clown hacks down several of the enemy with his sword/machete but is then captured and eventually put to work with other prisoners after the war has ended, building the Fascist Monument to the Fallen in Valle de los Caidos. The clown’s son, Javier, now a young teenager, attempts to sabotage the building work but in the melée his father is killed and the boy wounds the Fascist colonel in charge. In 1973 the son has now fulfilled his father’s prophecy and become a ‘sad clown’ who is perpetually beaten up in the clown’s act. When he joins a new troupe he meets a particularly vicious clown who is the star attraction. This clown, Sergio, also beats up his girlfriend, the voluptuous Natalia. Javier feels compelled to intervene and is encouraged by Natalia – who nonetheless responds to Sergio’s violent sexual advances. (Natalia is played by Carolina Bang, who is married to the director.) The three-way battle eventually ends in a full-blown action sequence on top of the giant crucifix that stands above the Basilica of the Monument of the Fallen.

You certainly couldn’t accuse Álex de la Iglesia of holding back. This an extravaganza of comedy, horror, extreme violence and sexuality that is part Hitchcockian, part Todd Browning and part every schlocky horror film featuring clowns or children’s entertainers. All of this fits the extended allegory about the Civil War and its aftermath – with Natalia as Spain, Sergio as the brutal tyrannical Fascist and Javier as the anti-fascist. As one review that I read suggested, it’s almost as if de la Iglesia was trying to demonstrate to Guillermo del Toro exactly what a Spanish film about the war might look like. In one of the most bizarre scenes, Javier is reduced to acting as a gun-dog (don’t ask!) during a shoot organised by ageing Fascists and  . . . no, I won’t spoil it.

Balada triste de trompeta  won a Silver Lion at Venice in 2011 for Álex de la Iglesia as well as several other awards at different festivals. It is available as a Region 2 DVD/Blu-ray from Spain. Did I ‘enjoy’ it? I’m not sure, but I was never bored and I’m glad that I saw it. Thanks to Cornerhouse and !Viva¡ for the opportunity.

The Troll Hunter (Trolljegeren Norway 2010)

Otto Jespersen as the hunter with Johanna Mørck & Glenn Erland Tosterud as two of the three students. Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing.

We’re off to Norway this week for a few days, so what could be better preparation than a Norwegian film currently generating much goodwill internationally? The Troll Hunter is a ‘creature feature’ that doubles as a satire about aspects of Norwegian culture on several levels – and it is hugely entertaining.

This film has been described as a ‘mockumentary’ but that doesn’t feel right to me. I don’t like the ‘mock’ suggestion. The Troll Hunter is presented as a ‘serious’ story (although there is plenty of humour as well) which uses the ‘found footage’ premise underpinning films like The Blair Witch Project. I didn’t really fancy this idea at first but I soon forgot about the premise as writer-director André Øvredal focuses on the story and doesn’t feel the need to remind us of the fact that it is supposed to be a student film project every minute. The shoot used Panasonic’s AJ-HPX3700 Varicam in order to get the best coverage of night-time events (which take up much of the narrative) and to replicate the look of the kind of digital camera that film students might use on a project like this. According to the Press Notes the dialogue and actions in each scene were improvised to retain the documentary feel (although the script gave detailed outlines of what would happen). The handheld work is pretty smoothly done so after a while you tend to forget about the conceit and focus on the story.

The story begins with a trio of student filmmakers, Thomas, Joanna and Kalle, who decide to investigate a mysterious local man who is suspected as a poacher of bears. Doggedly they pursue the man and one night they follow him into a forest in the hills where they witness his real work – hunting trolls. After initially telling the students to get lost, the troll hunter eventually invites them to join him on the hunt on condition that they do exactly what he tells them without any argument. You can imagine what that leads to.

The great thing about The Troll Hunter is that it is a genuinely interesting story that explores the possibility that trolls actually exist and that the Scandinavian authorities attempt to keep the troll’s presence in the mountains and forests secret. This policy then requires a hunter to ‘manage’ the troll population and several other government personnel to ‘cover up’ whenever troll behaviour threatens to become generally known. In this scenario it isn’t surprising that the troll hunter becomes disillusioned about the way he is treated and that some of the ‘cover-ups’ are poorly executed. In a neat touch we see the troll hunter filling in a ‘Slayed Troll’ Report Form over his breakfast.

The script is very good in explaining how trolls live, what they eat and what happens when they die. Trolls are deeply embedded in Norwegian folk culture and Øvredal offers four very different creatures from the gregarious ‘Mountain Kings’ living in caves to the 200 foot tall ‘Jotnar’ roaming the most remote mountains. All four types are humanoid in appearance, moving as bi-peds, but with various ‘distorted’ features – and they don’t like Christians. This religious intolerance is well worked into the narrative. The giant troll is the most spectacular, reviving memories of Japanese monster movies and American exploitation films like Attack of the 50 foot Woman. To my untutored eye the trolls look pretty good in terms of effects. However, it’s the human characters who drive the narrative and Otto Jesperson as the hunter is terrific. He’s a famous comedian in Norway and he plays his role to perfection. There is also a nice little cameo from Robert Stoltenberg as a bogus Polish trader who supplies the Norwegian authorities with a bear carcase for their cover-up. I wonder what Poles think about the ways in which their national stereotype turns up in other European stories?

The Troll Hunter was very popular in Norway last year and is currently on release in several territories. An IMdb user from Norway worries that it is ‘too Norwegian’ but that seems to me to be one of its most important features and it joins the small but growing list of domestic popular genre films that could be described as ‘global’ in appeal. The dreaded US remake is already on the cards, so make sure that you see this version first.

The official Norwegian trailer (with English subs):

Los ojos de Julia (Julia's Eyes, Spain 2010)

Belén Rueda as Julia with bandaged eyes after an operation

Overall I think that Los ojos de Julia disappoints. It’s not that it is a bad film as such but it doesn’t have the richness and complexity of El orfanato. The comparisons are valid partly because of Belén Rueda’s central role and partly because of Guillermo del Toro’s implicit recommendation (as producer). It’s a couple of weeks since I saw the film and it hasn’t really resonated with me beyond the screening. On the other hand I did find it compelling over 112 minutes.

It’s not the same kind of film as El orfanato although there are similarities. Belén Rueda plays Julia, a woman whose sister appears to have committed suicide because she can no longer cope with the prospect of total blindness as the result of a degenerative genetic disease. Julia herself is also prone to the disease but when she visits her sister’s house she is not prepared to accept the suicide and she decides to investigate (along with her husband played by Lluís Homar – well-known in the UK for his performances for Almodóvar, including as a blind man in Broken Embraces.) Julia is convinced that there is someone watching the house – and watching her. The plot is purely generic in that it requires the protagonist to wish to be in the ‘old dark house’ even when she knows that the stress will hasten the degeneration of her sight. So everything that you might expect to appear as a thriller/horror convention does indeed pop up. I don’t really have problems with this – perhaps because I don’t watch so many Hollywood films with similar scenarios. What more can you ask for than for a film like this to make you jump and then leave you on the edge of your seat?

The performances are generally very good and the sets and cinematography/lighting are excellent. The weakness is really the script. (Guillem Morales wrote and directed the film.) It seems to have several plot holes and some of the actions of some characters seem implausible. Some audiences seem to have problems with the ending and the symbolism of ‘Julia’s eyes’ (which I won’t explain as it would spoil the plot surprises). The ending didn’t bother me but I would have liked more of the relationship between Julia and her husband – something which served El orfanato well with the equivalent characters. El orfanato has a strong thematic around the ‘missing dead’ of the Franco period. Los ojos de Julia also has an underlying theme – about the people we don’t see, those who for various reasons are invisible to most of us. This obviously also refers to the concept of loss of sight or visual impairment. Unfortunately I don’t think this is woven through the narrative as effectively as the theme in the earlier film.

In institutional terms, Los ojos de Julia is another example of a classy Spanish horror thriller with careful production design funded via several Spanish TV companies with the support of Studio Canal and its long-term Hollywood partner Universal. It would make an interesting case study for genre analysis in linking the psychological horror film (i.e. with both ‘internal’ and external terrors for the protagonist) with the thriller format exemplified by Wait Until Dark.

The UK trailer:

Psalm 21 (Sweden 2009)

Henrik Horneus (Jonas Malmsjö) is the Stockholm priest who has much to learn in Psalm 21

Psalm 21 is a Swedish horror film released on DVD by Revolver and via LOVEFiLM and iTunes on May 30 in the UK. I presume that the distributor hopes that the film will attract fans of Let the Right One In. I wish that Revolver had also organised a cinema release as this is a handsomely mounted CinemaScope movie with strong effects that I think would look good on a big screen.

In some ways it is a conventional horror film displaying many of the familiar tropes – but instead of ending with the vanquishing of evil, its story carries on and offers a different message, seemingly about the Swedish church.

The central character Henrik is a priest and we first meet him in his own church delivering a sermon that appears to entertain his audience of comfortable families from the Stockholm suburbs. But this is only after a prologue featuring a small boy who seems to terrify his mother just by looking at her. We are reminded of this when the clergyman is visited by a parishioner desperate for help who says that she can see the souls of the dead, one of whom stands behind the priest. The flashback to Henrik’s childhood will be re-visited later. He fobs off his parishioner but when he returns home we are aware that all is not well in his household. His own small son ignores him and is soon being taken away by his estranged wife. Then his housekeeper (who may be much closer to him) answers the phone and tells him that his father has died. Against her advice, he decides to drive that night to the small village where his father had been the local priest.

‘Any fule kno’ that in a horror film you don’t go out on your own in the middle of the night and of course he begins to see apparitions and is then forced to seek refuge in a dark house in the woods when his car refuses to go any further. From here on Henrik will uncover the story behind why his father died, what connection he had to the family in the dark house and, eventually, about his own childhood (memories of which he might have suppressed). I’m not sure if Psalm 21 is a ‘scary movie’. It’s more of a psychological horror than a ‘splatter fest’. The effects work (by a company that works on the Harry Potter films) is there primarily to create interesting ghost figures who appear at various points, mostly in Henrik’s dreams. All of the ghosts are known to Henrik or are associated with his father. The ‘horror climax’ features an admonition by his father about Henrik’s behaviour as a child. The father, Gabriel, is played extremely well by Per Ragnar, the older man who acts as a servant to Eli in Let the Right One In. This is a powerful scene.

The film is nicely shot with a muted colour palette and compositions that are reminiscent of both Let the Right One In and the J-horror cycle (and the US remakes) in which ghosts often materialise behind characters. Writer-director Fredrik Hiller is an established Swedish actor (he has a small role in the film) who also appeared in the Hollywood film Beowulf. Psalm 21 has taken some time to complete – it was in production at the same time as Let the Right One In and first emerged at a festival in 2009. IMdB suggests that it was released in Sweden in November 2010 but it doesn’t seem to have made the Swedish Top 20. Perhaps this means only a limited release before DVD? Hiller put his Hollywood earnings into the production and he’s now working on a Swedish zombie movie.

Here is an international trailer that gives a pretty good impression of the film’s style and tone:

As the trailer suggests, Biblical texts are as important in the film as the title implies. ‘Psalm 21’ is short and has two parts. The first is a thanksgiving to God for supporting King David. The second part celebrates God’s power and exhorts him to smite his enemies. This psalm has been interpreted and re-interpreted many times. The crux of the film’s narrative is that Henrik reads it primarily via the first part and sees it as validating a generous God, but Gabriel focuses on the second part and seems obsessed with the ‘smiting’ element. The film also suggests that in the 1970s the Swedish Church (Lutheran but not that far away from Anglicanism if I understand Wikipedia!) renounced traditional views on hell and damnation. Gabriel is presented as diehard supporter of the old view and it is this that he foists upon Henrik in response to their family issues. I won’t give the film’s ending away, but we do learn something about Henrik’s vocation and whether or not his views change after his ordeal.

Psalm 21 is an intelligent psychological horror film which will be scary for some and unsettling for all. I enjoyed watching it.

The website for the UK release is www.psalm21.co.uk

Confessions (Kokuhaku Japan 2010)

Matsu Takako as middle school teacher Moriguchi Yuko

This film is released by Third Window Films in the UK. I saw it in Bradford on a digital print but the release date does not show up in the UK Film Council box office charts. I suspect that the 2K print is only there to create a profile for the DVD release. That’s a shame because this is a film with a distinctive aesthetic that demands to be seen on a big screen. The film is however wandering round the UK with single showings in various cinemas. Check the Third Window ‘Events’ listings here. It won several prizes at Asian festivals and was the official Japanese entry for the foreign language Oscar this year – a pity it didn’t get to the final shortlist, I think.

Plot outline (no spoilers)

The ‘confessions’ of the title refer to the four parts of the film each devoted to a witness statement about the part played in the drama by each of the central characters. The first ‘confession’ provides the outline story. It comes from Moriguchi Yuko who is a teacher in a middle school in Japan teaching 7th Grade (13 year-olds?). She has a mixed gender class of typical students who don’t pay attention. She calmly announces that she is giving up teaching and she invokes the name of a well-known teaching guru – who was once her lover. She tells the class that a terrible crime has been committed. She knows who is responsible but instead of naming the two culprits who are in her class she describes them in a way which makes their identity clear. Then she announces that she has tricked them and that they will soon learn their fate. All hell breaks out.

In the other three confessions, the two culprits and a third class member who becomes implicated in the investigation of the crime have their say before a final sequence sets out the dénouement.

Commentary

I realised after the screening that I knew about the director, Nakashima Tetsuya, who was responsible for Kamikaze Girls and Memories of Matsuko. I’ve seen part of the former and Fai reported on the latter here. (Both films have been shown on Film 4 in the UK.) Fai points out that Nakashima is a former advertising director and I realise that one aspect of Confessions – the immaculate set design and cinematography – reminded me of Roy Andersson, another director who used advertising films as a way of honing a distinctive aesthetic.

Nakashima’s style (which involves colour filters and lots of slow motion here with an incessant background of pop music mixed fairly low down – and which includes a particularly whiney Radiohead track, ‘Last Flowers to Hospital’) is mixed with elements from various Japanese horror genre repertoires. The story is adapted from a best-selling novel by Minato Kanae and I recognised aspects of the mindset of the teen characters from Japanese novels I’ve read over the last few years. The obvious genre references are to Battle Royale and Nakata Hideo movies such as Dark Water and high school horror including episodes from the Grudge. (I was also reminded in some scenes of the Korean series of Whispering Corridors movies.) Confessions is a classic revenge story, so beloved of Japanese drama, but it also picks up on two of the major social issues in Japan – the pressures of a rigid ‘hothouse’ school system and the prejudice against divorce and single parents. Three of the central characters are involved in close relationships between mother and child. The third social issue is bullying in school, so this is a horror film with a brain.

Ai Hashimoto as the girl who befriends a killer

This is certainly a very well-made film. For me it teeters on the line between an arty genre movie and pretentious tosh. I’m inclined towards the former. The film is very much the kind of drama I like with good performances all round, including a very self-assured young woman, Ai Hashimoto, a young teen model who plays the crucial role of the student who befriends one of the killers. On the other hand, there is too much blood and too much CGI for my taste and the music – described in Mark Kermode’s Observer Review of the DVD as ‘super hip’ – was also not to my taste. But these are possibly three pluses for younger audiences. I’d certainly recommend the film.

BIFF 2011 #16: Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (US 1920)

Barrymore as the repulsive Hyde inveigling his way into the club where 'Miss Gina' (Nita Naldi) performs

This year’s silent feature at Saltaire’s Victoria Hall, with the ‘Mighty Wurlitzer’ accompaniment of Donald MacKenzie, was the 1920 Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. This is the John Barrymore version directed by John S. Robertson. I confess to never having come across Robertson before and I was amazed to learn via Wikipedia that he was the inspiration for the Byrds’ track ‘Old John Robertson’. He was a Canadian director who made several films a year between 1915 and 1935. In this film, however, he was easily upstaged by the amazing performance of John Barrymore in the lead.

Since I’d watched Helen of Four Gates (also 1920) only four days earlier, I spent some time reflecting on the difference between the Hollywood and the British approach to production at this time. The first few scenes of this adaptation of Stevenson’s story didn’t grab me straightaway and this gave me the opportunity to think about sets, acting styles and camerawork/editing. The Hollywood film has far more characters, more sets/locations and more rapid cutting. However, there is no location shooting and one of the limitations for me was that the sets were not really designed for movement/choreography. The still above is nicely composed, but several scenes are just played in medium shot. The film is lifted by the performance of Barrymore and by the exploitation of the more sensational aspects of the story. Barrymore’s transformation from the noble scientist Jekyll to the predatory and animal-like Hyde is astonishing. It is conveyed as much through the actor’s use of his body as by the make-up and prosthetics and on the first occasion the editing achieves an almost miraculous continuity. As several commentators have pointed out, Barrymore’s Hyde is less ‘monstrous’ but far more debauched and loathsome than some of the later characterisations.

Barrymore in Jekyll mode being advised by his partner and his solicitor.

In the still above (lifted from IMDB) there is much more detail in the decor than can be seen in the Kino DVD print but Barrymore’s stare is still very evident in the latter. Again, I think I agree with the commentators who have suggested that Hyde, though loathsome, is also strangely beguiling, while Jekyll is rather disturbingly priggish with a very odd look of concentration.

The film is now in the public domain in the US, meaning that a full-length version is available on YouTube – with an organ accompaniment. The whole thing is available here:

Overall, I think the film doesn’t manage the eroticism so evident in the 1931 Rouben Mamoulian version with Fredric March. However, it does capture the other aspects of debauchery including the degradation of the nightclub singer and the fall into opium smoking. The negative image of Chinatown is still there in the 1920s film – almost a throwback to the earlier films of ‘yellow peril’ and ‘white slavery’. I’ve not read the original story – was the opium den there as well?

The organ accompaniment was, of course, very accomplished. Most of the time I suspect that I didn’t properly appreciate it, but in the transformation scenes it seemed to heighten the effect very well.

Black Swan (US 2010)

Natalie Portman as Nina

Darren Aronofsky’s film seems to have caused quite a stir, dividing critics but, in the UK at least, drawing in large audiences. In some ways its reception resembles that of Scorsese’s Shutter Island. Certainly, Black Swan seems to draw on some very obvious sources. Powell & Pressburger is again a major source – The Red Shoes of course, but also Black Narcissus and Tales of Hoffman (even possibly Gone to Earth). Then there’s the Polanski of Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant meeting Dario Argento (Suspiria) and Brian de Palma (Carrie, Sisters) – and more, I’m sure.

I’m surprised that critics as knowledgeable as Philip French should get hung up on the plausibility of the plot. Black Swan signalled horror/melodrama to me from the get-go. Camerawork, music and production design all contribute to the delirious world of Natalie Portman’s (Nina’s) ballerina. Aronofsky introduces her descent into hysteria/schizophrenia gradually and I suspect that a second and third viewing will show just how carefully this has been organised. At the beginning of the film, there is almost a procedural structure to the process of introducing us to the ballet world and the crucial period when the company must manage the change from one principal ballerina to her successor. This is shown in parallel with the personal life of the main character – the new prima ballerina, Nina. She is shown invariably in pink with a dominating mother, usually dressed in black. Nina (the name has associations with ‘child’) seems like a little girl who is still trapped in childhood – surrounded by her stuffed toys in a kind of nursery space. Like Carrie in Stephen King’s tale the repression of her sexuality sublimated by a drive for ‘perfection’ makes her a powder keg primed to explode.

I can see that audiences without knowledge of Aronofsky might expect either a procedural melodrama around the workings of the company or a drama about the emergence of a new ‘swan’ in the form of Nina (because of course the ballet in which she will star is Swan Lake). But Aronofsky gives clues very quickly that neither of these will be the main interest of the film.

Let me count the ways. The cinematography by Matthew Libatique gives us ‘unsettling’ from the start. The handheld work covering Nina’s journey between her room, the subway and the rehearsal rooms is claustrophobic – she never seems to escape the runs (rather like those designed for laboratory mice). Within the rehearsal rooms and her twin ‘chambers’ (her bedroom and dressing room) Libatique makes good use of the mirrors of all kinds which are essential to the hard surfaces of the production design. Libatique has worked on most of Aronofsky’s films and he has also been Spike Lee’s cinematographer on recent films. He’s a New Yorker who somehow here seems to have captured the city without actually showing very much of it. During the dance sequences the camera stays with the dancers rather than offering us the conventional viewpoint of the theatre audience. This still allows a sensational sequence at the climax of the film in the dance of the Black Swan.

Production design by Thérèse DePrez (another crew member with a long history of American Independent credits) focuses on a stark colour divide – pinks and light blues for Nina’s room, black and white for virtually everything else but with blood splashing and oozing across all. I was particularly taken by the apartment to which Thomas Leroy takes Nina. It’s worth pointing out that most (all) of what we see is associated with Nina’s viewpoint – and this includes Leroy. More on this in a moment. The use of mirrors and mirrored surfaces in the design is matched by the clever near subliminal glimpses of the faces of other characters that Nina sees superimposed on her own reflections or on the faces of others.

Music is essential in expressionist cinema and when the entire narrative is built around the romantic music of Tchaikovsky, the director is being given a head start. Clint Mansell is another Aronofsky regular and I was interested to see that he had re-arranged the ballet score with Matt Dunkley and a large music department. I’m going to need several viewings/listenings (and some guidance) to work out how the music is being used.

Cassel dominates Portman

Finally (for the moment), the actors. Most of the attention has been, deservedly, on Natalie Portman. She is a very beautiful young woman, offered at one point a form of close-up where she lies in a foetal position along the breadth of the CinemaScope screen – for some reason I thought of Bardot in Le Mépris. The focus is on her body constantly – on the real and imagined damage done to it by the stresses of dancing. There is also a focus on the bodies of the other dancers and their teachers (many of whom are indeed professional ballet dancers). This is fascinating, though personally I find the disparity between the beautiful muscled legs and the scrawny upper arms of the ballerinas in close-up very unsettling. I had an urge to put a cloak around Ms Portman’s shoulders and take her out for a good meal. The film needs a strong male lead and I think Vincent Cassel is outstanding. He isn’t asked to do a great deal and much of the time he just stands or sits and looks, occasionally barking orders. I really enjoyed peering at his craggy face which seems to be developing very nicely into that of a great character star – I remember thinking how he reminded me of a young Jean Gabin or Michel Simon in all those mirror-preening shots in La haine. The physical shock of seeing a child-like Nina cowering before the power of Cassel as he loomed over her was riveting.

I found the film engrossing and satisfying. I love this kind of thing and I’m seriously considering a quick burst of Suspiria to remind me of how far Aronofsky might have gone. In the year of The Social Network and The King’s Speech, it’s good to know that films like Black Swan and Winter’s Bone are flying the flag for the expressionist genres.

I’d like to embed some clips, but YouTube is not playing ball, so you’ll have to watch them on the YouTube site:

Here’s the opening from Suspiria:

an extract from The Red Shoes ballet sequence:

and Kathleen Byron as Sister Ruth in Black Narcissus (showing what lipstick and a red dress can do for a repressed nun):

and a trailer for Black Swan that we can watch here: