I have to admit to not having seen this one before, despite having been a massive Lee and Cushing fan for over twenty years and knowing perfectly well that it was one of their great classics. And I've been really missing out, because it's completely brilliant. It doesn't even try to be serious - almost every single line is either totally nonsensical, a first-class horror cliché or a walloping double-entendre, and often all three at once. But it somehow manages to steer clear of actually undermining itself with too much self-conscious nodding and winking at the same time. It even had more of a budget than I'd expected, with real Chinese people (rather than westerners in make-up) playing all the Chinese characters and some pretty decent footage of the train on which most of the action takes place. Basically, it's just a hugely enjoyable romp - which is exactly what I ask for from an early '70s Cushing and Lee flick.
Both Lee and Cushing play Edwardian scientists, returning from research expeditions in China. But rather than stick within the boring constraints of conventional science in this context, the script simply makes up its own science as it goes along. According to this film, the surface of the brain is only wrinkly because we have learnt so much stuff, and it will go smooth if our memories ever happen to be sucked out through our eyes by an alien monster (which can so easily happen). Also, you can see pictures of dead people's memories by getting some fluid out of their eye and looking at it down a microscope. It is basically the Best Science Ever. And the characters are awesome! A huffy, self-righteous Lee and gentlemanly, intelligent Cushing more or less go without saying. But we also get a mad Russian orthodox monk, a fiery swash-buckling Cossack, a sexy Polish countess, a cynical female technician and any number of comic thieves, baggage-men, station attendants and so on.
Possibly best of all, though, was the resolution of the plot, which relied on a) the idea that people might build railway lines which run off the edge of a cliff (because you never know when you might need one) and b) railway staff who will just shrug their shoulders and willingly obey a telegraph from Moscow telling them to divert a train full of people onto that very line, and thus to send them plunging to their deaths. Just for good measure, when we then see the train hurtling over the cliff-edge to a fiery doom, it suddenly seems to have at least twice as many carriages as the one which we have seen rattling steadily across Siberia throughout the rest of the film. Because who cares about continuity when you can have lots and LOTS of train carriages hurtling over a cliff? Look out - there goes another one!
Some of the best lines:
Dr. Wells: "Miss Jones, I need your assistance"
Miss Jones: "Yes, well at your age I'm not surprised."
Inspector Mirov: But what if one of you is the monster?
Dr. Wells: Monster? We're British, you know!
13. 28 Days Later (2002), dir. Danny Boyle
Wow. I knew I'd really liked this film when it came out - in fact, I ended up seeing it twice while it was still in the cinema because I liked it so much, which is very rare for me. But I haven't seen it again since then, so I'd forgotten many of the details of just how absolutely awesome it is. The cinematography is really beautiful. I'd remembered vividly the early scenes of Cillian Murphy wandering around a deserted London, and they very much stood the test of time. But I'd forgotten all sorts of other absolutely breathtakingly scenes, like for example the use made of the rain during the attack-and-breakout scene at the military head-quarters. And I'd forgotten how much the music adds to the emotional impact throughout, too. That's still whirling round and round my head right now, and I'm quite tempted to get the soundtrack album actually.
I had remembered how good the characterisation was, though obviously it was still a pleasure to rediscover in detail how well-drawn all of the characters were. Though the main characters are not stuck in a single location, the focus on the interactions between a small group of people clinging together in the face of extreme danger works much like a cabin-fever story - and I am a total sucker for that scenario every time. Plenty of time is given to really getting to know all of the main characters and understanding their feelings and motivations, while the range of their experiences of scary attacks, empty sadness, horrible tension and occasional moments of sheer joy felt really well-balanced to me. The dialogue is just masterful, too, pushing the plot along nicely where it needs to, but always remaining naturalistic and emotionally truthful. Sadly, it reminds me all too forcefully of what I was hoping for from the BBC's remake of Survivors and never got - and never will get now either, given that it has been axed.
I also absolutely loved the fine detail of the world-building, and the choices of locations. Like all the notices and newspapers which we catch sight of on walls and tables and blowing around on the floor. Most of them are never focussed on directly, but the glimpses that we get do so much to evoke what has happened during the 28 days we don't see. And how clever to set the picnic and overnight stop which they have on their journey north from London in a ruined abbey, with all its evocation of a past way of life brought violently to an end. The same goes for the large country mansion used by the Major and his soldiers - OK, so our aristocracy weren't violently overthrown, but the setting throws up fantastic contrasts between the refined, luxurious world which the house evokes and what we see actually going on there during the film.
Best of all, in the hall-way of that mansion is a large copy of the famous ancient statue of Laocoön, a Trojan priest who was struck down by Athena for trying to persuade his fellow-citizens that it might possibly not be the brainiest idea to trundle some random wooden horse which the Greeks have left behind inside the walls of their city:
I'm not quite sure whether it is a permanent fixture in the house, or was put there deliberately as part of the set dressing. Googling "trafalgar house" + laocoon brings up no meaningful connection between the two, so I am working on the assumption that this is deliberate mise en scène. Even if not, the decision to focus on it so heavily in the film certainly will have been deliberate, and adds a whole bunch of extra layers to this part of the story. You don't have to know anything about the statue to see that it is an image of a human being dying in agony, which just generally helps to underscore the basic horror of the film. Meanwhile, viewers who do know Laocoön's story are invited to ponder on how everything that's happening around the statue has ultimately sprung from research which can very easily be characterised as defying the will of the gods.
Also, putting a character from the Trojan war inside a mansion under siege acts a foreshadowing for how that section of the story is going to end up. As soon as we see it, we're prompted to start asking where the Trojan horse is in all this. I think there's more than one possible answer to that. It could be Jim, Selena and Hannah, whose arrival in the house is greeted joyously by the soldiers - but ultimately turns out to be a disaster for all of them. Or it could be the infected soldier chained up in the yard. I'm not sure it really matters how you answer the question - but the fact that the statue is there to prompt it is a really great example of how thoughtfully crafted this film is. And yes, I may be slightly biased because it's also a lovely instance of the living relevance of the Classical tradition. Sue me.
The screening of 28 Days Later was actually only one half of a double-bill along with 28 Weeks Later. I've seen that before too, and indeed enjoyed it very much, so was sorely tempted to stay and see it again, especially so that I could compare the two films back to back. But I opted for a new experience over a tried-and-tested one - and I've got to say that on this particular occasion it was a real mistake...
14. Mark of the Devil (1970), dir. Michael Armstrong
See, Mark of the Devil sounded great in advance. It's all about witch-hunting in 17th-century Austria (taking its lead from the success of Witchfinder General two years earlier), and is famous for its very explicit torture scenes. It was billed in the programme with words like "notorious", "infamous" and "long-banned", which are always exciting. The director was also there to introduce the film, and he said lots of very plausible things about how much research had gone into the historical details, giving us to understand that this wasn't just titillating torture-porn - oh no! It was an exploration of the true extent of man's inhumanity to man, with a serious message for all of us. At the same time, though, he was also quite keen to emphasise how unrelenting the torture was going to be, telling us all about how previous audiences had had to be provided with sick-bags, and there had been people standing up and fainting in the aisles. This should have rung alarm bells, because if there's one thing I ought to know about horror films by now, it is that the more people feel the need to talk up how shocking the blood and gore is in advance, the worse the film is likely to be.
The thing is, the real horror of torture doesn't actually lie so much in what is physically done to the victims, awful though that obviously is. The real horror lies in the psychology that can make people behave in that way towards one another: the misogyny, the religious fanaticism, the atmosphere of ignorance and fear. A really horrifying and hard-hitting film could be made which engages fully with these issues - and Witchfinder General had made a pretty good stab at that by the standards of its day. Mark of the Devil, however, shows all the deep appreciation of the dark recesses of the human psyche which you might reasonably expect from a dead pigeon. It's just a third-rate rip-off, made by someone who didn't realise that the horror in Witchfinder General stems from the characterisation, not the torture scenes, and thought that if they simply ramped up the torture, they could make an even scarier film.
I'm doing 7-year-old children a disservice when I say that one of them could easily have written the script. In fact, your average 7-year-old could probably have come up with far better characterisation, motivation and dialogue than we got in this film. It just doesn't make sense to show a bunch of villagers sitting round in the pub at the beginning of the film, refusing to intervene while their serving-wench is stripped and tortured in front of them - and then have the same lot enthusiastically throwing down their glasses to go and storm the witch-finder's castle at the end, just because the very same serving-wench pops up again and tells them it might be a good idea. And it's like that the whole way through. There isn't a single believable character, or an emotionally-plausible line of dialogue, in the entire film.
Of course, it doesn't help that half the actors were non-English-speakers whose lines were badly dubbed in post-production. But even so, we should have been able to care about some of them. As it is, I didn't - and so therefore didn't care when they were tortured either. In fact, I spent quite a lot of the film wishing they would all get the hell on with some torture, on the grounds that it might at least liven things up a little. Generally, though, it didn't. For all the talk about sick-bags, it completely lacked any emotional impact because the plot and characters were so weak, and anyway wasn't actually all that realistic after all. If previous audiences really did vomit while watching it, I suspect that they did so mainly because it would provide a convenient excuse to run out of the auditorium, and avoid having to sit through the rest of the film.
In short, this is 90 minutes of solid torture all right. But for the audience, not for the characters. I spent the rest of the weekend having to carefully avoid the director's eye, in case I accidentally blurted out "Your film was embarrassingly dreadful! What were you thinking?" Some horror films are bad in ways which are unintentionally funny, and that is a major source of the pleasure in watching them. But this one was just a huge, steaming crock o' shite, and definitely the low point of the festival for me.
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