Shiver

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Written by Stephanie | Rated: 4 Stars - A Little Beef, Horror | Posted on 11-11-2011

I tend to have a strange positive prejudice when it comes to films made in languages other than English. It’s actually a lot more sensible than most of my other prejudices (of which I have many, don’t we all?). The films that reach beyond the borders of the country that spawned them are generally of a fairly high quality, which is why they’re receiving international interest. However, when it comes to horror films, this prejudice isn’t just about expecting a film to be better shot, or to have better acting than its US counterparts. It’s about the inherent lack of familiarity with the environment, or the way the society that they are set in operates. That lack of comfort and knowledge often adds an extra frisson of tension for me. It also helps to cover up holes in characters motivations or plot points, as I can’t so easily rip something apart as unrealistic if I don’t really know the workings of the place it’s set.

My experience of Asian horror films started with Ringu in 1998 (13 years ago. Fuck, I am decrepitly old), and I went through a stage of watching as many as I could lay my hands on. It took me a fair old while to work out that it wasn’t that every single person in these films couldn’t act, or that characters didn’t give a shit about each other. It was about differences in the way people react to each other in other cultures. The Japanese simply aren’t as effusive as Americans, Koreans seem to have a strange sense of humour, the Chinese, well, Communism, you know?

Similarly, Spanish horror films seem to feature more than their fair share of women or young children in peril at the hands of a misogynistic, uncaring society. I’ve never lived in Spain, but given a lot of the films I’ve seen, I probably wouldn’t choose to go and retire alone in the countryside there. Although, realistically I doubt my, by then even more decrepit, self would hold much appeal to red blooded Spaniard men.

Shiver (Eskalofrio) was released in 2008 and centres on a young boy, Santi, who suffers from a condition that means he cannot be directly exposed to sunlight, the implications of which are beautifully captured in an opening dream sequence. He and his mother, Julia, live alone in a city in Spain and things don’t seem to be going well for them. Santi is isolated with few friends, and his condition is worsening. Julia doesn’t know what to do to make things better. So, at the behest of a Doctor, they decide to up sticks and move to a shadowy mountain village, where the sun rarely shines and Santi can run freely about the woods.

Sadly, he probably shouldn’t, for these woods are not safe. I thought that this film was going to be a body horror type affair, like last years Julia’s Eyes (another Spanish film about a woman in peril, at the hands of not-to-be-trusted men). The idea of being unable to escape the prison of one’s body is perhaps the most terrifying of all, and ripe for horror-exploitation. However, Santi’s condition becomes a backdrop, rather than a driving force in the story that unfolds.

The ‘big bad’ is revealed fairly early on, but I won’t spoil it for you here. There is nothing worse than a spoilt horror film, nothing perhaps apart from a ruined punchline. Both have the potential to destroy anything of worth and I think Shiver deserves more than that. For that same reason, I chose a screenshot, rather than the poster for the top there, as even that set off my spoiler-senses. I can say that the film doesn’t disappoint in terms of reinforcing the Spanish horror staple of women and children in peril at the hands of a male dominated community that accuses, rather than supports. Only one adult man here is of any use, and even he manages to make things worse before he attempts to make them better.

Fortunately, Santi isn’t an idiot, for the most part he realises that splitting up from friends, in the middle of nowhere, is not a good idea (it seems that, despite Scream, most idiots who populate this genre haven’t learned that yet), and he doesn’t keep things from his mother for no good reason. Their relationship is really rather sweet, and the fact that I cared about them helped me ignore some of the larger plot holes…. For there are certainly plot holes, although a late twist, and my aforementioned unfamiliarity with the Spanish system, helps to dispel some of these. I also appreciated Santi’s reaction to fear, which is exactly how I imagine I would react under similar circumstances. A true rarity in a horror film.

I wouldn’t call Shiver a classic, it certainly won’t stick with me for long and the final shot made me want to laugh more than scream. However, the characters and their actions are largely believable, it is beautifully shot and the levels of tension are high throughout, so i’d definitely recommend you seek it out if you fancy a bit of that in your life.

The Poughkeepsie Tapes

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Written by Stephanie | Rated: 1 Star - So. Much. Beef, Horror | Posted on 27-10-2011



Crime rates are dropping all over the Western world , yet the fear of crime has been steadily on the increase for years. Some of the blame for this certainly rests with the media, especially in the UK. A survey back in 2003 showed that readers of tabloid newspapers were almost twice as likely to be worried about crime as those who favoured broadsheets. A child abducted by a stranger is almost guaranteed to be front page news (especially if that child is white, and their parents are well spoken), and the murder of a young, attractive woman also tends to get a lot of publicity. When I was a young ‘un, growing up in central London, I walked myself home from school from an early age, went to the park unsupervised and played outside with friends with no question from any of our parents. All this is changing now, the distance our kids stray from home on their own has shrunk by 90% since the 70s and 43% of adults think a child shouldn’t play outdoors unsupervised until the age of 14. The real risk to children and to women actually tends to come from their own families/friends. Over the past decade, more than 20,000 American children have been killed their own family members – that is nearly four times the number of US soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet, these stories don’t get on the front pages and often don’t get reported at all. The issues behind them are simply too complicated, and it’s easier to sell papers with a picture of an ‘innocent young angel’ whose life has been ‘snatched’ by an ‘evil monster’. Bearing all this in mind, I find it hard to appreciate a film which opens with the random abduction, rape, and murder of a young girl from her own front garden.

The Poughkeepsie Tapes is a faux-documentary about a series of tapes showing brutal torture, rape and murder committed by a serial killer, found in an abandoned house. The film largely concerns itself with interviewing those involved with the investigation. We meet FBI agents, profilers, psychiatrists, ‘dismemberment experts’ and various other talking heads who discuss their various levels of disgust/interest/admiration for the ‘work’ of the killer, and the investigation to catch him. The film is clearly extremely low budget and, considering this, the acting is generally of a pretty high standard (with a couple of notable exceptions). The film is presented as if it were real and, if I didn’t know different (mainly because if it were real, it would have been an enormous news story), I could be convinced into thinking it was. I’ve never been particularly interested in the anatomy of crime, but the proliferation of the CSI franchise and those like it suggest there is a market for this kind of film. One of the characters is a retired criminal profiler, who we see using the tapes to teach a class. He talks of the effect of the work on his mental health and his story and investigation of the tapes, for me, would have been a far more interesting route to take. The only film of this ilk I’ve ever really admired was The Silence of the Lambs, and that’s because it’s about Agent Starling, with Hannibal Lector as a supporting character. We see his actions (and the actions of Buffalo Bill) through her eyes, and the film becomes so much more than a tale of a sick man because of that.

The emphasis is very much on the analysis of the murders and the man who committed them and, unsurprisingly, the other half of the film centres around the tapes themselves. As I’ve said before, I am not interested in torture porn, it holds no excitement for me. I suppose that the tapes were supposed to scare me, but all they did was made me angry that I was being asked to watch the behaviour of such a pathetic little man. There is one particular shot of a murder which is clearly supposed to freak the viewer out, but I just ended up scoffing. I watched another faux-documentary a couple of weeks ago called Lake Mungo. It had a very different feel and subject matter, but similarly didn’t scare me at all while I was watching it. However, for the next few nights I was haunted by one image, which got right under my skin. I saved reviewing The Poughkeepsie Tapes until the day after I watched it, just to check whether the same thing would happen here. It didn’t, in fact, I can feel the details of the film slipping from my mind even as I write this.

The only way I can take anything positive from films like this is if I feel like there is a larger point being made. At one point in The Poughkeepsie Tapes, a news story is kept from receiving any attention by the events of September 11th, 2001. I was hopeful that this thread would be continued and the role of the media, and what is and isn’t classed as ‘news’ would be put into the spotlight, but it wasn’t. One of the talking heads actually says toward the end that the killer would be delighted to have a documentary released about him, after all, the whole purpose of the tapes is for them to be watched (and admired?!). Despite the fact that the events in the film are entirely fictional, the feeling that the film is aggrandising the actions of the killer strikes me as irresponsible. I remain impressed at how well made the film was on a tiny budget. Sadly, I wasn’t scared once, and the only effect I can see this film having is to increase the fear in the viewer of a terrible fate befalling them or their families, increasing the disproportionate fear or crime even further. I wonder if I would have felt differently about the film if the violence wasn’t so squarely directed at women and children, but, as it is, I found it unpleasant and pointless… even if you are a fan of torture porn, the tapes are such poor quality it’s often hard to see or hear what’s happening. Despite being released in 2007, I don’t think The Poughkeepsie Tapes is available on DVD. What a shame.

The Woman

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Written by Stephanie | Rated: 3 Stars - Some Beef, Horror | Posted on 18-10-2011

The first I heard about The Woman, it was via a Youtube video of a man who was thrown out of a screening at The Sundance Film Festival as he was so incensed by it. It’s quite an interesting watch, the official from Sundance displays a masterclass in how to deal with irate customers, and the guy actually comes across as a bit of an arse. However, his arguments did nothing to make me want to watch the film. I’ve always loved horror films but the recent trend for ‘torture porn’ does not float my boat one little bit. I watch horror films because I love the feeling of being scared, adrenaline pumping, wondering when the killer is going to strike. I don’t want to see people chained up with no chance of escape while various imaginative cruelties are performed upon them. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older, but I just don’t see the fun in it, it’s just nasty for the sake of it.

The only reason I finally decided to watch The Woman was because I thought it would be interesting to write about. It’s directed and written by Lucky McKee, who was also responsible for 2002’s May. May is a rare creature indeed, a film about loneliness seen through the prism of horror. I liked it a lot, and recommend you hunt it down if it sounds like your bag. It helped to give me some faith that his new film must be about more than the angry Sundance man said it would be… and it is.

Just as May was really a film about loneliness, The Woman is really a film about domestic violence and a certain type of man who needs to feel power over women. The film centres on a family, The Cleek’s, who although initially picture postcard perfect looking, clearly have something going on under the surface. The smiles are a little too tight, the wife a little too timid, the father a little too cordial, the daughter depressed, the son disconnected… Things aren’t right, and just to drive that home, Daddy’s decided to trap a feral woman he found in the forest, so that they can “civilise” her.

The origins of the titular woman (she’s never given a name, which seems a strange omission if the goal IS to civilise her, which clearly it isn’t) are unknown to us, although it’s suggested that she was raised by wolves. Sadly Mogwli she is not, she can’t speak, she’s filthy and she eats live animals. She HAS managed to fashion quite a sexy rag ensemble for herself though, so that’s nice.

She’s locked in a cellar, and introduced to the family…. who take it well enough that we know those tight smiles hide abuse. The scenes between the female members of the family and the woman are beautifully done, the actors manage to convey a huge amount with no verbal communication. The wife (Belle) is played by Angela Bettis, who also starred in May, and she’s just as good here. The rest of the cast are excellent too, excepting the daughter, Peggy’s, teacher, who is rotten. If I tried to act, that’s what I’d look like, she’s THAT bad.

The violence is kept to a minimum early on, and, despite fears to the contrary, this isn’t torture porn. The father, Chris, seems less interested in cruelty for the sake of it, and more in power. He is as violent as he feels he needs to be, unlike the son, who seems more of an unformed psychopath, trying to emulate his father, without any of his power. Chris Cleek wants his women under his control and the hold he has over his family is terrifying. We see just enough to know how far he goes to hold onto this power, and until towards the end, it’s mostly shot (relatively) tastefully. Even the scenes of sexual violence (which are normally the one thing I can’t deal with) didn’t feel exploitative to me. The perpetrators are the pathetic ones here, not the victims.

I honestly thought I would hate The Woman, but I didn’t. It’s a film about the darkness that can lurk under a perfect surface, and has the same air of the surreal that pervaded May. Sadly, It all falls apart a bit at the end, with a slightly ‘throw enough shit at the wall, and some of it will stick’ air to it. All together though, The Woman is a tale about misogyny, rather than one that glorifies it. The women are the heroes here, and I think Lucky McKee is a man who really likes women. Sadly, there is something about the horror genre that seems to attract men that really don’t. So, it’s nice to finally see a horror film that has that air to it, and I really hope Lucky McKee (awesome name BTW) , and others like him, get to continue to make films…. Saying all that, I can’t say I particularly enjoyed it as a film experience. I’m never going to enjoy watching women be tied up and subjugated, no matter how tastefully it is shot. However, I respected it and think its heart is in the right place, and that’s just as important sometimes.

The Ward

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Written by Stephanie | Rated: 2 Stars - Tons O'Beef, Horror | Posted on 17-10-2011

How many ‘out’ lesbian Actors can you name in Hollywood? I can think of Sue Lynch and Portia De Rossi. That’s it. I Googled for some more and also got Sarah Gilbert (Darlene from Rosanne), Wanda Sykes (from Curb your Enthusiasm) and Lily Tomlin. Some mighty fine women, but none who could really sell a film on their own. The only other actress I can think of is Amber Heard, who bucks type (accepting Portia De Rossi, who would be phenomenal if she put on a few pounds) by being young and conventionally stunning. I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for Amber Heard, I really liked her in All The Boys Love Mandy Lane. She also really managed to hold her own against one of Nicholas Cage’s batshitballsoutloonyinsane performances in Drive Angry. I respect that she came out, as so few in Hollywood are willing to do, in fear, I suppose, that it will colour how audiences see them and the roles they’ll be offered. Although perhaps she’s smart enough to realise the advantage she has, as a stunning actress with a stunning girlfriend, why not embrace the USP? Can’t hurt to have something that makes you stand out from the crowd… Wouldn’t be so much in the interests of someone like, say, Jodie Foster (ALLEGEDLY). I don’t imagine she sits quite so well in the Male studioboss/audience wankbank.

Aaaaanyway, The Ward was released in 2010 and was John Carpenters’ return to film directing after 2001’s truly brain-gnawingly awful Ghosts of Mars (seriously, I tried to watch that film when I was drunk. I can watch any old shit when I am drunk and I had to turn it off after 20 minutes. It’s painful). The film starts with a young girl (the aforementioned lesbian) setting fire to a house and being taken to a Psychiactric Ward. It’s the 1960’s, so the place is grim, with cruel staff and locked doors. It’s the perfect setting for a horror film: You’re locked in, nobody believes anything you say, you’re drugged, you can’t question anything. It’s a wonder all horror films aren’t set in this place.

Fortunately, there are four other patients in the, very sparsely populated, ward. Even more fortunately, they are all attractive, not a minger among them (except one has geek glasses and one dresses like a five year old). So, you know, that helps with prettifying the scenery.

There’s a really nice feeling of dread throughout the film, with some spooky shots and jump shocks (not one of which involves a shrieking cat leaping out of a cupboard, which is my number one pet hate. In films, rather than real life… Although I wouldn’t much like it to happen for reals either).  The threat is revealed very early on, but the mystery is retained, so it doesn’t lose any of its chill. Up until the last ten minutes or so, I was loving The Ward. For me, it was John Carpenter back on form, delivering the suspense and tension of The FogHalloween and The Thing. Then, something terrible happened.

Now, if you want to watch The Ward, stop reading now. Like I say, it’s a decent little chiller up until the last ten minutes, but I can’t recommend it because of what I am about to say. However, if you DO want to watch it, look awaaaaay….

 

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‘Kay. So, there is one stock film ending that I hatehatehatehatehate. They* used it in Haute Tension, they used it in Hide and Seek, they used it in Secret Window. They’ve used it in countless other films. It never works. For those who need exposition, all these films end with the main character realising that THEY THEMSELVES are the threat, as they have some sort of ‘split personality’. Dum dum duuuuuumb. It effectively means that lots of what we’ve seen never happened. It’s akin to ending a story ‘it was all a dream’. In fact, what The Ward does, as Identity did before it, is reveal that EVERYTHING that happened on screen went on somebodys head. None of it actually happened, It WAS all a dream. It’s just so cheap and lacking in any kind of love for the art of filmmaking (“so, what’s your film about?” “it’s basically someone crazy thinking, for 75 minutes, then some dum dum duuuuumb at the end” “Great! Let’s film THAT”). To be fair to The Ward, it didn’t offend me quite as much as Identity before it. Identity had the cheek to go back inside the nutters head, after the reveal, to tell us whodunnit, IN HIS IMAGINATION. At least The Ward attempts to give us some reasoning (albiet reasoning that goes against even the little I know about how the human mind works), and it IS nicely tense for the first 75 minutes… but really John Carpenter?! I’m starting to think you should go and enjoy your retirement on a nice beach somewhere, because, this, this isn’t worth the bother.

 

*They here meaning idiot filmmakers with no respect for their audience.