Vincent's Views

Blood Quantum

Just when you thought it’s all said and done for the zombie genre, a film comes along to inject some fresh blood. In this case, the injection is Blood Quantum, Jeff Barnaby’s brutal and nihilistic Canadian horror set in a First Nations reservation. Straightaway this is interesting, because contemporary Native Americans, one of the most deprived ethnicities in North America, receive precious little attention in cinema. Here the indigenous community take centre stage, and the narrative privilege of white people is turned on its head. Not that this is a hopeful story of indigenous people reclaiming their birthright, because this is a zombie apocalypse film. Barnaby is merciless, as central ‘heroes’ are killed off with scant regard amidst the general carnage, and inhumanity proves as evident among the people as the infected. This device will be familiar to fans of Day of the Dead and 28 Days Later…, but Blood Quantum offers a distinctive perspective in terms of its fractious community, and some genuine surprises during its final act. 

Enola Holmes

Enola Holmes could be seen as a standard period mystery, with a missing person, clues and an investigation. What makes it stand out as a sparkling romp is the smart and vibrant self-awareness, which never slips into being too clever for its own good. As the eponymous heroine, Millie Bobby Brown is a delight, dominating the screen with great command, both in terms of Enola’s interactions with her brothers Sherlock (Henry Cavill) and Mycroft (Sam Claflin), their mother Eudoria (Helena Bonham Carter) and the camera. Director Harry Bradbeer disregards the fourth wall from the opening, as Enola repeatedly addresses the audience, at one point even asking for advice! This highlighting of artifice oddly makes the film even more engaging, as it repeatedly invites the viewer along for the ride, letting us enjoy the anagrams and anachronisms even as Enola finds herself in increasingly perilous scrapes. For all the familiarity, Enola Holmes offers ample wit and originality to smile about.

The Vast of Night

2020 was a year of remarkable debuts, and few more remarkable than this absolute gem from Andrew Patterson. Set during one night in the late 1950s, The Vast of Night follows two high school students, Fay Crocker (Sierra McCormick) and Everett Sloan (Jake Horowitz), who while operating a local radio station start to pick up something strange. The strangeness of the film comes from the events that may be taking place, as well as the beautifully assured delivery. Long takes track through the town for minutes at a time, and much of the action is delivered by sound, especially people talking through radios and telephones. This runs counter-intuitive to standard film logic of show don’t tell, yet The Vast of Night achieves a great deal by telling rather than showing. The intelligent script and strong performances are aided by superb period detail, both in terms of production design and social conditions, and while there is clear homage this never overwhelms the drama. The pacing is perfect and the film wonderfully atmospheric, leaving a genuine sense of mystery and pathos.

Da 5 Bloods

Da 5 Bloods is everything you would expect from a Spike Lee Joint. Smart, fast-talking characters; sudden eruptions of violence; a strong sense of political indignation; an eclectic visual style. At times, Lee’s tale of Vietnam veterans returning to the scene of their earlier combat feels overdone, but what Da 5 Bloods lacks in subtlety it makes up for in power. The theme of legacies runs throughout the film, including the racial history of African American soldiers, the colonial legacy of the Vietnam conflict, familial ties including bloodlines and military camaraderie, national and personal trauma, while finance and immigration make appearances as well. The heady mixture can be disparate and the film lacks the focused punch of Lee’s previous film, BlacKkKlansman, but Da 5 Bloods is still a stylish, timely and urgent drama.

Extraction

On the one hand, Extraction is a very standard and almost retrograde film. It is a straightforward action movie, much like those of the 1980s and 90s that made performers like Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme stars, as established brawny beefcake Chris Hemsworth plays Tyler Rake, an exceptionally talented ex-special forces operative (aren’t they all?) who is called in to perform, wouldn’t you know it, an extraction. Rake plunges into the dangerous world of Dhaka, Bangladesh, to rescue the son of a crime lord from another crime lord, takes on an entire army and seems to blow up half the city. It also plays to white saviour expectations as almost every person of colour Rake encounters is either a helpless victim or a violent criminal. We’ve pretty much seen all this before. 

Alright mate, you take the clichés on the right, I’ll handle the rest.

However, Extraction still manages to be a wildly entertaining ride, as stunt coordinator turned director Sam Hargrave embraces the action chase thriller wholeheartedly, and brings a genuine sense of punchy style and outright nastiness to the proceedings. Action films are often sanitised, but Extraction offers brutal violence, a sense of mental as well as physical anguish, and even consequence. Hargrave gives the film a relentless pace, director of photography Newton Thomas Sigel thrusting the viewer into the heart of the Dhaka streets and propelling the viewer through gunfights, car chases and intense physical altercations. This is best expressed in a blistering twelve minute long take along alley ways, up stairways and down walls, with enemies appearing at every turn and all manner of weapons coming into the fray. Think about Extraction and there are a lot of problems. Experience it and you’re in for a hell of a ride.

True History of The Kelly Gang

True History of the Kelly Gang declares from the get go that it is not true. And yet, in some ways, it is. The events of Ned Kelly’s life have been part of cinema for nearly as long as the medium, with multiple representations, interpretations and mediations. Justin Kurzel’s film,  with a screenplay by Shaun Grant based on the novel by Peter Carey, is another of these, and not to be taken as an ‘accurate documentation’ of Ned Kelly (George McKay). Instead, it is a jagged and striking drama that tells uncomfortable truths about masculine identity, social immobility and violent oppression. Kurzel’s fragmented visual style blends the expansive and scorched Australian outback with claustrophobic interiors, where the Kelly family and others that Ned encounters, both friend and foe. Ned’s journey to outlaw legend is punctuated with effectively shocking violence as well as dark humour, resulting in a film that holds the viewer’s attention with a cruel and unflinching grip. 

HorrOctober Wrap Up

To conclude HorrOctober, I watched three different horror films in quick succession. Baskin on 30th October, and then a double bill of 2018’s Halloween as well as the first Final Destination (ho ho) on 31st October. Baskin I knew nothing about, and quickly learned that it is Turkish, beautifully designed and thoroughly freaky. From eerie dreams to a dread-drenched location to graphic gore (including serious eye trauma) and a doom-laden finale, this blend of haunting, occult and body horror left me shaken and stirred. Writer-director Can Evrenol focuses on a squad of police officers investigating a disturbance rather than teenagers who stumble into something, and this gives the film a convincing flavour. The five cops are clearly out of their depth and there were a few points when I was almost yelling ‘Run, you fucking idiots!’ However, their training, authority and, let’s face it, guns did indicates why they believe they can handle themselves. By the time they ascertain that they cannot, it’s rather late. Interwoven with the deranged and gruesome material, the film has a strong element of melancholy, which gives it a human heart that makes the fear all the deeper. As it isn’t that well known, I won’t say more about Baskin except that it is highly recommended.

I viewed and reviewed David Gordon Green’s Halloween when it came out in 2018, and as well as enjoying the film as a horror I was also impressed with its progressive gender politics. It was interesting to watch this film again soon after re-watching the 1978 original. The two films feature a similar creeping dread, judicious use of music and long takes that escalate the tension. The 2018 film is less stripped down than the original and its higher budget helps to make it much slicker. It also has some distracting comedy elements, and is at times over-stylised, but it does succeed in making Michael Myers frightening. This is partly due to Michael being an unknowable evil, the looming shape that appears and kills without warning or hesitation, just as he was in John Carpenter’s film. But it is also due to the added visceral gore of this film. Several points show bodies that have been violently broken, and this makes the danger of Michael somewhat more tactile and nasty.

Final film of the month was the much-vaunted Final Destination. I found this to be an amusingly convoluted take on a simple idea, that of Death being the killer that stalks the (incredibly 90s) group of teenagers. The film is crammed with devilish designs such as a sword in stained glass that a victim bends down in front of, as well as the Mousetrap style ‘accidents’ that occur. These elements made for an effective blend of suspense followed by gory release.

My main criticism of Final Destination is that it was somewhat over-cranked. The regular device of having a dark shadow or cloud appear behind the victims, as well as the seemingly sentient movement of liquid, made the idea of a design behind what was going on too explicit, rather than suggested. In addition, random electricity was a danger used too frequently, even though no victim was actually electrocuted. Had the deadly events occurred with a greater sense of randomness, I think it might have been scarier, suggesting that our heroes’ attempts to find meaning in these incidents might have all been in their heads. After all, what is more frightening than the random and ultimately indifferent nature of death? Then again, without that element we wouldn’t have had Tony Todd’s delicious monologue about mortality. The moral of the story, it would seem, is always listen to Candyman.

Hellraiser

Hellraiser is an odd duck. While not particularly scary it is fascinating and rich. Clive Barker’s tale of the line between pleasure and pain, as well as the line between dimensions, features some awkward locations as well rather stilted performances. It also delivers some remarkable production design and truly iconic make-up, cementing its position in body horror. Metal hooks into flesh as well as erupting bodies may seem a little dated now, but Barker creates effective atmosphere, especially during the brief appearances of the Cenobites. Skilful lighting and ample use of dry ice create a sense of the otherworldly, and the uncanny appearances of the ‘explorers in the further regions of experience’ are recognisably human and yet very overtly other. Tapping into fears from films as diverse as Us and The Fly, there is something very wrong about these creatures.

Despite the extreme moments, the film ties the horrific images and events to domesticity, drawing on the well-established trope of family being the ultimate horror. The family home makes an effective site for the film’s visceral horror, where the idea of skeletons in the closet gets taken to a literal and decidedly squishy level. What Hellraiser says about home, body and mind is unsettling and enduring. To see the distorted bodies of Frank (Oliver Smith) as well as the Cenobites is as fascinating as it is repulsive. What could that possibly feel like? To quote another iconic Barker creation, the pain must be exquisite. As is often the case, horror acts as a cautionary tale about going too far, while also expressing our innate desire to do exactly that.

Turning Screws Part Four

In a previous post, I discussed The Haunting of Bly Manor in terms of character and highlighted that it is a very melancholy show. How is it as a horror? Is it scary, or at least unsettling? I can confirm that it certainly is. Maybe not as petrifying as The Haunting of Hill House, but the production design and cinematography create an environment that is enclosing to the point of claustrophobia. This is quite a feat considering the expansive spaces of Bly Manor. The grand kitchen and dining room, where much of the action takes place, is homely and pleasant. The bedrooms as well as the entrance hall and living room are similarly tasteful, and yet the ornate panelling seems imbued with the regrets of the past. These regrets also manifest as figures that appear in the background, with little or no emphasis which may leave the viewer wondering if they were really there.

This is one of the show’s most unnerving features. At many points we see someone in the background, but the characters do not and, more importantly, with no visual emphasis it creates an untrustworthy situation. How can we trust what we see when the visual text we read presents us with something that has apparently no reason to be seen? In this way, the show becomes uncanny – both familiar in terms of the tropes of the ghost story, yet unfamiliar in that we don’t know why these figures are there. But creator Mike Flanagan and his collaborators are playing the long game, and although the first few episodes are a little shaky, as the series comes full circle everything starts to fit together.

As events unfold, the tragedy becomes clearer and the scares more overt. There is a facial effect that is especially unnerving, as the ghosts are again recognisably human but seriously inhuman. The single most frightening thing in the show is the Lady in the Lake (Kate Siegel). No swords here, but plenty of choking and drowning, including a moment with a dress that deserves mention alongside In Fabric. Furthermore, the effect of drowning is notable, presented as tragic and terrifying all at once. Sometimes the show conveys drowning in horrific detail, complete with a heartbreaking aftermath. At other points, we see characters immersed where water should not be, perception and experience created through an astute blending of visual and aural devices.

The presentation of drowning, and the wet legacy that it leaves, is among the show’s scariest features. But it is also one of the most emotional and part of what is perhaps the show’s greatest strength: putting memory on screen. Film – be it cinema or TV – can replicate the experience of memory and dreams through cuts and sudden juxtapositions that startle but are nonetheless understandable. The Haunting of Bly Manor does this extraordinarily well. Referred to as characters being ‘tucked away’, scenes are played and replayed, much as ghosts appear and disappear. Memories are thus like ghosts, emerging unexpectedly and without warning. Sometimes this is horrific, as we recall a traumatic memory. Other times it is tragic, such as the recollection of lost loves. Taken as a whole, the structure of the show proves itself to be quite ingenious as, despite the episodes having different directors, visual and narrative cues are consistently connected. Even the overall framing device proves to have great emotional weight. Come the final coda and explanation of everything we have seen, you may have had some shivers, but you could also be wiping away a tear or two.

FrightFest

I’m a little busy this weekend due to FrightFest 2020. It’s an online festival but I’m seeing and reviewing quite a few films. These reviews will appear on the review site, the Critical Movie Critics. In brief though, so far I’ve seen four films, and my views are:

A suffusive, sensual and seriously sinister blend of repression, rebellion, teen terror and occult horror.

A slow burn, drip feed delivery of menace and dread, repression, deceit and the uncovering of deep, dark secrets.

A sumptuous, handsome and bloody but clumsy, campy and ultimately unconvincing mishmash of folk horror, history and action.

A garish, confused and awful muddle of genre tropes, wretched people and nonsensical ideas around fame, recriminations and stupidity.

More to follow, as HorrOctober continues!