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7.-10. Rapid-Fire Film Review Club

I'm out campaigning more than ever now, and very much need undemanding downtime when I'm not if I'm to keep on top of my day-job alongside it. Watching films is a good way to achieve that, but reviewing them not so much. So the goal here is to rattle through four film reviews in a hundred words or so each - and I'm not allowed my dinner until it's done. With a bit of luck that will clear the slate for the time being, so that I can watch another one this evening!

7. The Resident (2011), dir. Antti Jokinen

This was an early entry in the output of the revived Hammer film company, and stars Christopher Lee to boot, so I had to watch it. It is, of course, nothing like their classic Golden Age output, though. Indeed, it is a thriller rather than a horror film, about a woman who moves into a suspiciously-cheap New York apartment, only to find herself the victim of a stalker / drug rapist. As such, it reminded me of both Sleeping with the Enemy (1991) and Pacific Heights (1990).

I have to say that I wish films along these lines were not so popular. I'm pretty sure it isn't a symptom of society's powerful concern with the reality of stalking / harassment / rape, because they are not played in a serious enough manner. Indeed, if anything they serve and reinforce a collective delusion that a) only exceptional psychopaths with particular identifiable problems do this sort of thing, b) these monsters are defeatable with a few good kicks and a nail-gun and c) the defeat is the end of the matter and we don't really need to worry about whatever long-term trauma might follow afterwards. Having been a victim of (online) stalking and harassment myself, I also found it pretty disturbing to watch, and certainly wouldn't have done if not for my curiosity about nuHammer's early experiments and the presence of Christopher Lee.

Lee himself is perfectly solid. He is the elderly grandfather of the apartment block's owner, and is played at first as something of a red herring. Obviously, this being (in whatever sense) a Hammer film, we expect him to be the villain, and we are given a few shots of him peering round doorways and along corridors at the heroine to encourage this belief. But in fact he exists to provide moral criticism of the true stalker, [Spoiler (click to open)]his grandson, since he is the only person in the film apart from the heroine who finds out what he is doing. He delivers his critique from the position of a profoundly disappointed family elder, and I think it is in this light that he is given the name August - though it does share overlapping resonances with everyone's favourite Roman princeps too.

On the whole, though, even if I liked this kind of film, I don't think it is a terribly good example of it. It uses quite an effective technique at one point of rewinding the plot once we have discovered the identity of the stalker, and showing what had seemed to be friendly actions on his part the first time round for the orchestrated creep campaign they actually were. But after that it rather loses direction, and, though disturbing simply for the actions it portrays, isn't actually engaging on an emotional level because the characters aren't well-enough developed. In short - ticked off the list, won't watch again.

8. The Vault of Horror (1973), dir. Roy Ward Baker

This is an Amicus portmanteau film which I recorded off the Horror channel, and which follows their usual format of presenting a number of individual short stories within a simple framing narrative. The plots of both the individual stories and the frame are adequately outlined here. Nothing in it will be terribly surprising to anyone familiar with the genre - certainly, once the parameters of each individual story had been laid out I was able to predict its ending with unerring accuracy. But although people seem to talk about the predictability or unpredictability of plots a great deal in genre reviews, I think this is actually a bit of a red herring, equivalent to talking about 'accuracy' in reviews of historical films. Demonstrating your awareness of the issue conveys an aura of intellectualising authority on the reviewer, but in my view good characterisation, acting, story-telling and direction all do far more to win over viewers than either accuracy (for historical dramas) or clever twists (for genre stories).

Anyway, this had plenty of the stuff that actually makes for a good evening's watching, though I wouldn't in any way claim that it was outstanding. Just a nice solid example of Amicus' output, with some charmingly seventies fashions and décor and a strong cast of British character actors. Daniel Massey and Denholm Elliott are certainly worth watching, but the film is of particular interest to Doctor Who fans for including Tom Baker as a struggling artist in the final story, around a year before he was cast as the Fourth Doctor. The role of an artist of course gives him considerable scope to be shabby, bohemian, off-handedly casual and a little bit tortured, so there is plenty to see here which points the way towards his performance as the Doctor. Even more strangely, the street scene for the first story (though not Baker's) includes a mysterious-looking blue box standing on the pavement (see below). An omen, perhaps???

9. What We Do In The Shadows (2014), dir. Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement

kissmeforlonger, ms_siobhan and whatifoundthere have all been recommending this to me for ages in extremely glowing terms, and I have been dying to follow up their recommendation, but it has had only a limited release in the UK so far, so that hasn't been easy. However, on Friday I finally got to see it at the Hyde Park Picture House, and I'm very glad I did! If you haven't seen it yourself, this trailer gives an excellent sense of the whole:

As I often find myself feeling with comedies, I don't think trying to dissect it would do it any great favours. You can see what the basic joke is from the trailer, and the rest is a joy to be discovered in the cinema. I will note down one joke I particularly liked, though, partly because it appealed to my personal obsessions, and partly because of the length of time between its set-up and its pay-off. This was about the character Vladislav (played by Jemaine Clement), who isn't exactly Vlad Dracula, but is clearly modelled on him in both looks and back-story. Indeed, he has an equivalent epithet - not Vlad the Impaler in his case, but Vlad the Poker. That sounded slightly lame when it first cropped up, but a good hour later there transpired to be more to it. Fast-forward to the time-frame of the film itself, in which our vampire house-mates have made friends with a human called Stu, who works in software engineering. Stu shows Vladislav how to use Facebook - and, well, I expect you can see where this is going. Not in and of itself the greatest joke of the century - but made a good ten times funnier than it would otherwise deserve to be by the insanely extended set-up.

I also liked the use of historical pictures of demons, torture and supernatural beings to enrich the atmosphere, including some with the film's characters painted / drawn / Photoshopped into them, as appropriate. This is just aesthetically pretty on one level, but it's also the sort of touch which shows the film as very much a loving spoof, by people who know Gothic / geek culture from the inside. As of course, it entirely is.

10. Nocturna (1979), dir. Harry Hurwitz (as Harry Tampa)

ms_siobhan and I were led to this film by this entry on the trivia page for the Frank Langella Dracula, which informed us not only that five takes on the Dracula story had been released in 1979, but that one of them was also a Disco film! Unfortunately, though, it almost entirely fails to live up to the awesome Saturday Night Fever / Dracula mash-up which you are now imagining in your head. Rather, it seems to have been a vanity project for a lady called Nai Bonet, who wrote it, produced it, and starred in the leading role - and yet, as far as I can tell from the film, had remarkably little to be vain about in any of those departments. Nor, for that matter, did her director, who serves up a series of incredibly dull and static dialogue shots (though does in fairness do a bit better with the inevitable dance sequences and scenes of Nai striding idealistically through the streets of New York).

Still, with alcoholic vampires in our hands, we could at least grimace in shared horror at the gratuitous shots of Nai oiling herself after a bath, the bizarre disappearance and reappearance (usually the former) of some of her clothes, the utterly camp dancing from her blond, bemuscled and clearly coked-up male lead, and the attempts to capture 1970s New York 'street talk'. Well, in fairness, having a male vampire refer to one of his human acolytes as his "main vein" was pretty funny - but only in an ironic way which I'm not at all sure our Nai intended. Many thanks to ms_siobhan once again for plumbing the depths of cinematic kitsch with me - and for appreciating what we find along the way!

Well, that'll be a slightly later dinner than I was intending, but hey - I'm up to date, and can happily watch one of the (classic) Hammer horror films I borrowed from ms_siobhan last night while I'm eating. :-)

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( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 6th, 2015 08:30 pm (UTC)
Nocturna did also have the very wonderful Yvonne de Carlo in curlers talking about the bloodsuckers of america coming out of the coffin, and John Carradine so horror royalty of a kind but it lost all cred with its racist portrayal of the drug dealer/pimp and of course Nocturna's dirty foot....
Apr. 6th, 2015 08:55 pm (UTC)
Oh god, I had forgotten about the dirty foot! You would think after all that time spent writhing around in the bath, she might have given it a quick scrub.
Apr. 6th, 2015 09:06 pm (UTC)
Or had someone do it for her - part of the rationale behind John Waters seminal piece 12 Assholes and a Dirty Foot is that it is v rare to see a dirty foot as it is part of the fluffers jobs to get the stars 'ready for action' and that includes cleaning their feet with a baby wipe.
It must have been v low budget indeed....
Apr. 6th, 2015 09:25 pm (UTC)
Eeeee, I am so glad you liked the film! I TOTALLY DID NOT NOTICE THE POKE JOKE even after two viewings *dies of shame*

*rises again as A VAMPIRE*

Like you, I was delighted by the medieval and faux-medieval art, especially the preposterous "Beast" one with its attendant dramatic music; and I must confess that some confusing feelings happened in my pants when I saw the painted portrait of Vladislav (visible in the trailer at 0:49). According to this interview, they drew some of the "woodcuts" themselves.

Did you ever read that Harper's article I sent you? No pressure, I'm just curious to hear your thoughts if you did (and apologize in advance if I missed them).
Apr. 7th, 2015 01:34 pm (UTC)
I knew I would from the trailer! Have been dying (and likewise rising again) to see it ever since I first heard of it, and was very glad to get the chance.

Thanks also for the link to the interview. I think what Jemaine is saying there about how they tried to capture the idea of people's dramas stretching over centuries also taps into why I liked the art so much. It helps to give a feeling of verité to their stories - which sounds kind of a ludicrous thing to say about a comedy, but half the reason this works so well as comedy is because their characters are so well-drawn. Having a documented back-story, shown through the art, really helps with that.

And yes, I did read the Harper's article! Thank you so much for sending it. I really loved the approach of exploring vampire legends as a way of exploring a real landscape - kind of what I tried to do on my Wicker Man holiday a couple of years back, and what I'll be doing in Romania at the end of May.

I also have an article about Romanian vampire legends, which includes a load of oral accounts collected from villagers just before western vampire stories really made their mark in eastern Europe. It's not a great article academically, or as good a read as the one you sent, but the oral accounts themselves are fascinating. So I will send it to you in return for the Harper's one - but will have to do that tomorrow, as I'm at work now and will be out all evening.
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )

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