The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

 ★★★★★ 

Five kids in a van pass by an old deserted house that used to belong to one of their families. The neighbours house isn’t quite so deserted. And so the scene is set for one of the most influential horror films, loosely based on the exploits of Ed Gein, also the inspiration to Psycho amongst others.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is very cleverly put together and although it’s served as inspiration for so many films that came after, those pretenders really miss the point and have none of the attention to detail in both setting and narrative, while dragging themselves down with unnecessary exposition. The recent remake is a case in point. As a slasher, it’s adequate, but this original was never supposed to be a mere slasher.

The five teens have very little backstory and from beginning to end we learn very little about them. No angst, in other words. A sulky cripple feeling left out is the most we get. This actually makes them more human and the eventual attacks more savage. Normal people on a road trip don’t pick that moment to play out all lives tragedies, so these regular kids seem more real. Other characters in the early part of the film are also given only the barest material to get through the scene, meaning there might be genuine surprises toward the end and even if you do see them coming, the film never tried to trip you up in the first place so it feels right. There’s also a surprising amount of humour. Again there’s no over-playing the irony, but it’s there and should make you laugh albeit guiltily.

That commitment to its own story is old fashioned film making, as are hints at what’s to come. Instead of the modern style of talking about feelings and morals, these teens discuss how the old slaughterhouse despatched the cattle, worry about trivial meanings in horoscopes or find evidence of ritualistic killing, all of which subtly screams “run!”, but they pay it no heed. Instead of opening their hearts, we learn how their hearts will be opened! It’s a fascinating example of just how good cinema was in the 70s; old fashioned methods with new independence. Why modern versions can’t see that balance, I’ll never understand.

Everything is in the preparation in this film. The house they wander up to to ask for help (not the wisest move) is astonishing in the detail. Bones and feathers, grime and decay, all litter the place. It looks like they’ve wandered into a pit of death, and the host ain’t too friendly either. Leatherface’s entrance is simple but devastatingly effective. His massive frame suddenly fills the a doorway and he immediately clobbers his first victim with a sledgehammer then slams the door shut! No music here and throughout the film also just let the images linger. That’s right for this film, but I’m not saying music isn’t right in general; Hitchcock’s take on the Gein story in Psycho racks up the tension using the exact opposite method.

More killings follow and none are gratuitous. Leatherface kills like a slaughter man kills cattle (as we learned earlier) and we don’t really see much. With that setting, the marvellous sound design and simple reactions from the victims, our imagination fills in the blanks. I don’t about you, but I need to have words with my imagination; it’s far too descriptive…

The last act of the film, which I previously hated, is actually a further descent into depravity in perfect keeping with the rest of the film. Grandad’s the best killer of all apparently, but his decrepit efforts are hilarious and disturbing at the same time. The shot of the victims desperate eyeball is fantastic as she makes a last desperate bid for sanity.

Those perverse final images of Leatherface whirling his chainsaw around confirm what the earlier scenes suggested. That he is scarier and more tangible than almost any other screen horror villain I can think of. I reckon if you check his fridges you’ll find both Jason and Freddy! But not Michael. He is another matter entirely.

[.REC]

 ★★★★☆ 

A young reporter and her cameraman accompany the Spanish fire service to a routine call. Before they know it they are trapped in an apartment block by the authorities who refuse to let them out until an unspecified health scare has been neutralised.

Yet another home movie. What is it with film-makers today? Are tripods too damn expensive? Released around the same time as Cloverfield and Diary of The Dead, and featuring a well-worn situation, originality was never going to be this movies strong point. But strong points it does have, comparing favourably with the other “authentic” handheld movies this year and The Blair Witch, probably to blame for the idea in the first place. In fact this is possibly the best horror movie released since The Descent.

The story is very basic, with only a handful of characters. The latter at least is unusual for a zombie movie, but in an enclosed space, it’s more effective and apart from two, all the infected victims are characters we’ve been introduced to so it has more punch. The tension is heightened by the shadows of the people outside playing on the windows showing civilisation and safety is in spitting distance.

It’s a credit to [.REC], Diary and Cloverfield that all of them have been able to use the same basic idea without treading on each others toes and finding some hook: Diary, the least entertaining, had the most ambition with multi-source post-edited material and a bonkers cameraman; Cloverfield stretched the conceit to breaking point but had the nice idea of including bits of the previous recordings form a happier time; but [.REC] perhaps uses it to best effect, reducing it to a simple P.O.V. from Pablo the cameraman, making for a terrifying tour of a haunted house. It’ll be a while before I peak in any lofts!

You might assume that the DTS sound is limited because it’s supposed to be an in-camera recording, but it’s used very well. As the infected grab at the mike and muffle the sound; or you hear a scream from behind and Pablo spins around to look, the scream runs through your room. Visually there’s plenty of jumps and shadows to explore. The light on the camera and night vision are used brilliantly.

The last act reveals some substance, with a play on the regular viral infection now including The Vatican dealing with a case of possession. So plenty of sequel bait!

There are very few, if any, films that have actually scared me properly, especially in recent years. That’s why I say it’s the best since The Descent. They still don’t have the power to make me sleep with the light on, but still, no films between those two have had me on the edge of my seat, jumping like a loon as much as this!

Mindripper (aka Outpost)

 ★★☆☆☆ 

Scientists have created a virus in an underground lab and find some guy dying in the mountains so inject him with it. Months later he starts to mutate and picks off the staff. Meanwhile Lance Henriksen’s doctor had resigned and is looking forward to a camping trip with his son, daughter and her boyfriend, but after a distressed call from his old colleague he decides to check on the facility.

Mind Ripper? The only ripping going on is off better films: the basic story of a mutant getting even more mutanty and a trapped facility is The Thing; the facility and staff (bonkers general, action woman) is Day of the Dead; but the absolute cream comes from Aliens. The sound is the same for a start! The gentle hum in the background, echoed random drum beats, motion sensor blip-blip, sudden blares of trumpets… it’s so blatant I bet you could listen to Aliens, watch this and it would fit!

That’s not all they take from Aliens though. The creature (with a spike for a tongue, like a second jaw from you-know-what) sneaks around the ducting (oh, that’s more Alien… but he’s got a Bruce Willis Die Hard vest. Whatever, stick ’em on the list! Picky? You bet I bloody am.), they manage to fit in multi-camera P.O.V. and a facility in lockdown. There was even a bit where they realise the thing is above them, and past victims are still alive, hung on a wall in a “nest” of cabling until it chooses to eat their brains.

Urgh. It’s all joined together by inane dialogue and a childish plot. Early on an alarm goes off as the comatose experiment starts to go wrong and they ring Lance immediately! I mean, they barely even check why the pissing alarm is going off. They just pick up the phone. And he comes! What the…

Ok, good points. Erm… hold on. Let me think. Oh, the make-up on Barney isn’t bad. That’s the creature. They call him THOR (Transmuted Human Or-Ganism), but I preferred to call him Barney. It made it funny. And there’s a brief moment toward the end where I couldn’t think where they’d stolen that bit from, so I have to concede they came up with it all on their own. They even switched off the Aliens soundtrack, bless them. Then they almost redeemed the whole thing with a really sick joke, but… no. They prefer a happy bonding moment instead. They definitely screw it up at the finale when they escape the facility, but so does Barney. How he got out, God knows.

Thank goodness for Lance Henriksen and Giovanni Ribisi, who are predictably good. To be fair the others aren’t terrible, but if you’re given shit to say you may be accused of being shit yourself. There is the father/son bonding sub-plot which is just cringeworthy, but not as much as the shoehorned in teen angst.

Avoid, avoid, avoid, avoid. This was a Wes Craven production so I should have known. By produced I think he handed over a pile of his favourite movies to a 12 year old kid (we’ll call him “director”) and told him to re-enact the best bits.

The DVD is hilarious from the normally dependable Anchor Bay. Bad framing, grainy quality, but somehow they thought it was worth DTS. But the best bit are the film notes. They make it sound like a classic! They called the script “elegant”. And it “recalls The Thing and Hollow Man”.  I see the link with Hollow Man, but that came out five years later.

Whatever.

Mr. Brooks

 ★★★★☆ 

Kevin Costner plays Earl Brooks, a successful business man who’s just won a Man of the Year award, has a beautiful house, a great wife and a gorgeous daughter. Everything is perfect. Except Mr. Brooks has an addiction to killing and he’s constantly fighting temptation to give in. Two years have passed since his last kill and Marshall (who the hell is Marshall, you say!) thinks they deserve a treat.

Mr. Brooks is a great film that unashamedly revels in its subject and is darkly funny. It should easily appeal to Dexter fans being from the killers point of view and making the bastard likeable! But there’s no cosy way out here. Brooks will kill anyone he takes a fancy to. It’s Costner’s best role for years, easily, and he seems to have a lot of fun with it, letting his guard down to show Earl is, like any addict, prone to obsessive emotions; Marshall both tempts and calms him luckily. His double-act with William Hurt is a joy.

Hold on… I’ve gotten ahead of myself. A double-act? Two killers? No. This is Fight Club style, embodied conscience territory and it’s very well written. Marshall pops up at all sorts of awkward moments and Earl talks to him, though this is only for the viewers benefit as other characters don’t even suspect Earl may be barking. Repeat viewings should reveal all sorts about the character that is easy to miss first time around. It’s not so much a split personality as a partnership. They make independent decisions and congratulate each other, or argue. Marshall even comforts Earl in one moment and has a mardy fit in another! Of course, it’s all Earl which just makes the sick depths of his mind all the more fascinating.

His killings are meticulous and perfect down to the last detail. Well, they should be. He’s a little out of practice and a voyeur captures his endeavours on camera and blackmails him. But actually he just wants to join in. Marshall isn’t happy, but Earl has a plan. To further complicate matters, millionaire Det. Atwood (Demi Moore, actually quite good. I know, it’s just vulgar. “Demi Moore” and “good” in the same sentence) is getting closer to catching the notorious Thumbprint Killer (Brooks) through the same voyeur. Meanwhile an escaped convict is after her, while she’s dealing with a messy divorce.

Complicated? Not really, but the film does rather have a lot of plates to keep spinning. (And I haven’t even mentioned the daughter, dropping out of school because of a secret. Marshall thinks she’s lying… just how far does the secret go?). Towards the end all the threads crash together and annoyingly cripple the film for a good period of time. Thankfully the last act takes the threads and ties them up beautifully with much relish, so much so, you may find yourself cheering him on. Before you feel guilty, you’ll also be cheering for Atwood, who gives the film a good kick up the arse a couple of times, just as it becomes too much about Earl and Marshall. She has two major action sequences and they are very well staged, especially a gunfight neat the end.

I sat watching the entire thing with a huge grin. Highly recommended. It isn’t going to set the world on fire, but it has enough ideas to carve it’s own niche in a busy genre.

The R1 DVD has a DTS sound mix and for the most part, being a drama, there’s nothing to test your speakers. Except for the gunfight I mentioned which has incredible punch.

I enjoyed this so much I found myself hoping for a sequel, which I don’t usually do. With Costner involved, who never does sequels, I thought it was finished. But it seems they always wanted this to be a trilogy, which would work so well. They say it depends on box office and DVD. The former was a washout, but here’s hoping it finds a second life.

The Orphange (El Olfanato)

 ★★★★☆ 

Laura (Belén Rueda) returns to the abandoned orphanage where she spent her childhood, intending to reopen it with her husband and young son, Simon. Simon has several imaginary friends, but are they so make-believe? Or in fact, former residents? Soon after, he disappears and in desperation Laura tries to believe in his stories in the hope they will lead her to him.

The Orphanage is a good old fashioned ghost story. Produced by Guillermo del Toro, this is a perfect companion to Pan’s Labyrinth or his earlier Devil’s Backbone. The story is detailed and in fact, director Juan Antonio Bayona spends as much time on the back story as on the scares, both combining to make one very memorable film. Nothing original really, but ghost films like this are few and far between, especially ones that get it so right.

It is frequently and genuinely scary, though not gory (except for one brief moment), relying instead on suggestion and sound. The DVD mix is superb with the creaky old building groaning so much you’ll think someone is crawling around your own house. As with a lot of stories of this type, it perhaps loses a little pace in the third act as it has to start to tie everything up, however, tie up it does and in the most beautiful fashion. Maybe you’ll guess the outcome, but you should still find it a moving conclusion. The story is clever enough to offer a variety of interpretations and as such I expect it will keep coming back to me. One scene in particular with the sinister, masked Tomas is very ambiguous. It’s got a great cast and Belén Rueda’s brilliant and intense performance as Laura unravels especially holds it all together.

Elegantly written and the photography is wonderful throughout varied weather and seasons. Inside, the house always seems warm, but with scary potential. That can’t have been straightforward because after all, for the story to work, we have to believe it can be a welcoming home for children, not just a hell mouth, so to speak. However, it is foreboding, especially in a greenish night vision sequence that will have you biting your finger nails down to nothing!

If you haven’t tried foreign films before, this and Del Toro’s others are an excellent place to start. Hollywood forgot how to make scary yet substantial films ages ago and so you’re selling yourself short by ignoring Spanish and Asian releases.

From Dusk Till Dawn

 ★★★★☆ 

I love this movie. One of my favourite horrors when you need to see some straightforward balls-out vampire killing action!

I wish I could have seen it without knowing what it actually was, because the shock of the switch from thriller to horror would have been great fun. It’s great that Rodriguez put full effort into that first half to give us well rounded characters, because a problem with a lot of horror films is the thin characters. What’s also lacking is a sense of humour, but last section is full of laughs, especially Tom Savini trying to hide his new teeth! Or the vamp that disintegrates on a pool table and his eyes roll into the pockets!

Speaking of which, the gore never gets boring. So many gags, you could watch this several times and still see something new and disgusting. The script is fantastic, full of quotable lines, but you need a good cast to deliver it and this lot are dead-on. Even Tarantino, working to his, erm, strengths. Juliette Lewis I thought would be wrong, but she strikes a good tone between schoolgirl and temptress to Richie’s nightmare. Harvey Kietel is as dependable as ever and Clooney is obviously having a riot. Well, I say “obviously”, but the outtakes show him frequently pissed off and without his usual humour, so maybe it just proves what a good actor he actually is. And it does no harm to have room for cult favourites like the afore mentioned Tom Savini and Fred Williamson.

Everything oozes confidences in this movie. All the scenes have that little extra they didn’t actually need, but looks cool anyway. It will possibly always stand as Rodriguez’ best film because it’s the most perfect fit for his seat of the pants directing style and there aren’t many stories that can stand such a change in tone and still work fully committed to both styles.

“And I don’t want to hear anything about “I don’t believe in vampires” because I don’t believe in vampires, but I believe in my own two eyes, and what I saw is fucking vampires!”

28 Weeks Later

 ★★★★☆ 

Following the events of 28 Days Later, a devastated Britain is being repopulated now that the Rage virus is under control. But a family coming back together proves disastrous and it’s on the move again.

28 Weeks Later starts with an incredible sequence featuring survivors in a farmhouse coming under a vicious attack. Dom (Robert Carlyle) is the only survivor, leaving his wife for dead, running from what can only be described as a swarm of infected. The shot of them sweeping down the hill is incredible.

The missus pops up later on surviving because she is a carrier; unaffected by the virus but still contagious. Her son is the same and 28 weeks after the outbreak, he and his older sister return to Britain and their dad, now living and working in the green zone. This family is the films focus and strength. While they expand the story logically and present a terrifyingly feasible Britain completely broken, the story stays grounded by sticking with the family.

It’s incredibly bleak and gory. A sequence with a helicopter and field full of infected should go down as a horror classic! This visceral, in-your-face style in unrelenting, an improvement on the original I feel. There are holes in the story if you want to be picky, but first and foremost this is entertainment.

28 Days Later and the remake of Dawn of the Dead caused debate amongst horror fans about what type of zombie they thought was correct: runners or shufflers. I prefer the latter, but I think the full speed zombies can be excused here because they aren’t dead; they’re poorly.

But regardless of your opinion, this compares rather too well with its contemporaries. I liked Diary of the Dead, but what that film gains in social commentary it loses in sheer entertainment value against this. Romero needs to step up a gear and show his slow zombies are still a viable threat in cinema. His touch of humour was desperately needed here.

Otherwise, this is a great sequel. It takes what made the original great and expands on it. And the end is still open so maybe a franchise beckons.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

 ★★★★★ 

image

Mesmerising, haunting, beautiful and challenging. A remarkable film about a remarkable man (well, two). I cannot recommend it enough.

The plot is very simple and all you need to know is in the title, which is so long it doubles as a synopsis. Jesse James, in the twilight of his career, is unsportingly shot in the back by young Robert Ford, who had grown up idolising James and dreaming of riding with his gang. The story starts with Robert trying to ingratiate himself with Jesse having been introduced by Charley Ford, his brother. Jesse’s original gang has been decimated and he now rides with anyone who wants to come along. They do one more train robbery and then Frank James leaves. This was pretty much Jesse’s last robbery, though he speaks continually of doing more, despite his paranoia (oft justified) making him unstable. All the while the relationship between himself and the obsessed Robert is getting more and more complicated.

This is an unusual film. A western about a notorious thief, murderer and folk hero yet has very little solid action across it’s two and a half hour runtime. Instead of gunplay, we get a thoughtful work of art, quietly narrated, and with some of the most beautiful photography seen since at least Dances With Wolves, possibly earlier. You may think it sounds slow, but it is absolutely engrossing, the time flies by and it never loses focus or confidence in its themes and characters. The pacing is just perfect.

This is in no small way thanks to the brilliant cast. Sam Rockwell plays Charley Ford, always on the sidelines, becoming more panicky. Sam Shepard has a relatively tiny role as Frank James, but he seems to resonate throughout the story. At the centre are the two main men and both Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck are astonishing. Pitt is incredible; an air of quiet almost constant authority, broken by sporadic violence and a maniacal laugh, but still demands your sympathy. Affleck’s is a nervy and slimy character, who never seems comfortable, perhaps until the end, when the consequences of his actions change him. Note that comfortable is not necessarily happy.

Overall the story deals with the notion of celebrity and media, so has a clear relevance today. Jesse James is at once an outlaw and a hero, struggling to balance a true and worthwhile family life with psychopathic obsessions, paranoia and depression; Ford has grown up hearing about the hero and meets the charismatic outlaw and he’s a constant mess of emotions. His act of cowardice (born out of fear) is briefly congratulated, but quickly ridiculed, eventually leading to his own rather more random assassination.

This film is not for everyone, but everyone should try it. You may be surprised. On a side note, I was intrigued to notice that Ridley Scott was a producer. Reviews of his biographical true story American Gangster often noted that although it is very good in general, it has little of his original flair and could be accused of being pedestrian. Almost like he used to sacrifice story for flair, now it’s the other way around. Not to take anything away from Scott, but with this film director Andrew Dominik proves you can have both. I’m particularly fond of a trick he uses where the edges of the frame are soft focus (much like the photographs from the era); the whole film looks gorgeous and the very final shot lives on in your mind.

Payback: Straight Up – The Director’s Cut

 ★★★★☆ 

Payback was released in 1999, based on a book called The Hunter by Richard Stark, the same source material for John Boorman’s Point Blank starring Lee Marvin.

When Payback came out I really liked it, though flawed and a bit of a mess. It was the same story, but low key and to the point. And the point was usually being used to batter someone, grimy, violent little film that it is! But the film I saw in 1999 wasn’t what was originally intended. Apparently it didn’t test well, so Brian Helgeland the director was kicked off because he refused to change it, a new section filmed with a new ending and the whole thing edited different. Now Brian has gone back to his original footage and pieced it back to how it originally was. I did like that theatrical version, so I was reluctant to get Straight Up, especially when you think he directed The Sin Eater, so maybe he doesn’t know what the heck he is doing and perhaps the theatrical Payback was a rescue job.

On the contrary, Straight Up is better than the standard Payback. Leaner and meaner, it harks back to the 1970s (Helgeland’s original intention) and removes a lot of stuff that was added just to spell things out to the audience. It’s lost some humour, but the stark brutality makes more sense. The theatrical version was always a bit silly, especially the absurd kidnapping sub-plot, now entirely excised.

If you like gritty 1970s style crime films, I recommend this. If you’ve seen the original Payback, I really recommend it, if only for novelty value. But if you don’t fit either of those slots, I still implore you to give this a try. The DVD includes extra features that give a fantastic glimpse into the bonkers world of Hollywood. Payback demonstrates all that is right and wrong and right again with the filmmaking business, and the ‘Making of’ featurette is one of the best I’ve seen.

Normally in situations like these you have to wait until someone dies (Orson Welles for Touch of Evil) or it becomes tit for tat grudge crap (The Exorcist: Dominion) before you see definitive (or hacked!) versions. Here though, the ‘making of’ is made up of interviews by people with only positive things to say about the whole affair, including Mel Gibson. They still stick strongly to their original intentions, but I think the fact Straight Up exists at all is miraculous. They are all gracious about each others opinions, so it’s a pleasant half hour. Parts of the interviews, especially the composer of the new score, are often quite moving even. And Brian Helgeland has the last line and tearfully puts everything in perspective, especially if you were starting to think of Gibson as the villainous producer.