Category Archives: Horror

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)

 

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.