Archive for March, 2014

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USA 1932

Director: Todd Browning

64 minutes

The historical elements of the following review were written with the help of the BFI (British Film Institute) programme notes

Currently showing as part of the BFI’s season Hollywood Babylon: Early Talkies Before the Censor, Todd Browning’s Freaks is one of the most controversial movies ever made. Based on Tod Robbins’ short story Spurs (1923), Freaks concerns a sideshow midget who falls for a beautiful trapeze artist, except that she is only interested in his money. Browning, who had worked in a travelling circus, sold MGM the idea of filming the story using real people with deformities. Keen to get into the growing horror market, the studio bought into the idea.

The first sign of trouble came after a disastrous preview, whereupon some retakes were shot and 30 minutes were cut from the film. Upon release the film was a major flop. Whilst people were quite happy to accept monsters based on make-up, they had trouble dealing with real “freaks”. MGM fiddled about with the film further, adding a ludicrous prologue in the form of a scroll, which was apparently intended to educate the viewing public into understanding the plight of the people they were about to see. They also added an epilogue so that the film would have a “happy ending” (some current versions of the film show this but others don’t). Despite this, for a long time Freaks was considered beyond the pale by many people. Some countries – including Britain – banned it altogether. Eventually, following a 1962 screening at Cannes and the film’s rediscovery by the counter-culture Freaks began to be reappraised and critically accepted.

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** SPOILER WARNING**

In the opening scene of Freaks a sideshow barker is preparing a crowd for the deformed people they are about to see, simultaneously reminding them that they are deserving of our sympathy whilst also hyping up the prospect of something horrific. As the crowd gathers round an exhibit a woman screams, and at this point we flashback to an earlier period at the circus. We are introduced to Hans and Frieda (Harry and Daisy Earles), a couple of circus midgets (to use the terminology of those times) who are engaged to be married. Unfortunately for Frieda, Hans appears to be smitten with Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), a beautiful trapeze artist more than twice his size. Cleopatra humours him, but when she learns that he is in possession of a considerable inheritance then she really begins to lead Hans on, and the little man leaves Frieda. Meanwhile, Cleopatra has actually begun an affair with the circus strongman, Hercules (Henry Victor). Eventually, Hans and Cleopatra marry. There is a celebration with lots of drinking, and the assembled freaks announce their acceptance of Cleopatra as one of their number, chanting “We accept her, we accept her. One of us, one of us. Gooble-gobble, gooble-gobble”. Cleopatra is suddenly horrified, and when she is handed a goblet of wine she tosses it over one of the little people.

Shortly after, Hans becomes ill, but Cleopatra is found to be poisoning him with the connivance of Hercules. During a stormy night the various freaks exact their revenge on Cleopatra and Hercules. The latter is last seen lying in wet mud, with a knife in his side, as the rain pours down and various small and deformed people come writhing through the dirt towards him. Then we cut back to the present time and the sideshow barker is telling the audience that no-one knows exactly what happened to Cleopatra to make her the way she now is, at which point the camera pans down to show her as a grotesque: no legs, and with her lower half tarred and feathered to look like a duck.

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In all honesty, some of the acting in Freaks is not of the highest quality – one consequence of casting around for non-actors to play the deformed circus people. Nonetheless, there is a raw honesty in the way Browning portrays them. They are shown sympathetically, but not in a patronising way. There is one particular scene that takes place outdoors, where a group of performers encounter two strangers, one of whom is horribly prejudiced but one of whom behaves in a kindly way. Fortunately, the latter prevails. Elsewhere, we see the performers going about their daily business, alternately squabbling and laughing, just like anybody else might.

In essence, it is Cleopatra and Hercules that are the monsters in this film. In fact, in some ways it is perhaps unfair to label this as a “horror” film, as – viewed through modern sensibilities – the term is unkind to those people who, through a quirk of fate, happen to be physically different from the majority. Maybe Freaks is really a film-noir with a cast of differently-abled people. But before I veer off too far into politically correct reflections, it should be noted that the culmination of the revenge scene is quite consciously horrific. The sight of the strongman Hercules, lying wounded in the mud at night, as the storm rages, with an army of misshapen people writhing towards him with hate in their eyes, is extremely powerful and not easily forgotten (in fact, in the uncut version of the film, probably lost forever, Hercules is castrated and later seen singing in falsetto).

It is hard to imagine that Freaks could ever be remade and, as such, it is a unique contribution to the history of cinema.

Rating: 7/10

Showing at the BFI on 3rd April (20.50) and 21st April (20.50)

 

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Long before television’s Columbo familiarised us with the detective yarn where the killer is revealed at the beginning, Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler gave us the early reveal in their seminal film-noir Double Indemnity. These two great writers had a famously fractious relationship throughout the process of adapting James M. Cain’s novella, but the end result was a dark, beautifully-paced movie full of whip-sharp dialogue. The story concerns insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) who, during a routine call to the house of Mr Dietrichson, instead encounters his wife Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck) and promptly falls for her.

Phyllis has a plan to insure her husband and then arrange for his “accidental” death. It turns out that Neff, whilst considering the ways in which clients might try to commit insurance fraud, has gotten to wondering how he could pull off the perfect fraud himself. The two of them appear to be a match made in heaven (or hell). As an insurance expert, Neff knows that accidental death on a train is almost unheard of, and insurance payouts from such rare causes are twice the usual amount – the double indemnity of the title. He cooks up a plan to knock off the old man on a train but, of course, no sooner is the deed done than problems arise.

It is clear from the outset that the plan has gone badly wrong. Most of the scenes are flashbacks, but the present-time beginning of the film shows a wounded Neff making a voice recording of the whole story, including his confession to murder, for his boss Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson). The intrigue in the tale is in discovering just what went wrong and the wonderfully tight plotting does this brilliantly.

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The characterisation sets the tone for many a noir film to follow. MacMurray’s Neff is tall, handsome, and confident, but turns out to be a complete sap at the mercy of Stanwyck’s femme fatale. Much play is made of the ankle bracelet worn by Phyllis Dietrichson, which is clearly meant to indicate that this is not just a blond but a sleazy one. Almost as soon as Neff encounters her (wrapped in a towel initially) he starts making moves. For all of about two minutes she puts up some token resistance, telling him “There’s a speed limit in this state Mr. Neff. Forty-five miles an hour”. He says “How fast was I going, officer?” and she tells him “I’d say about ninety”.

The use of shadow, a classic tool of the noir film-maker, is also used to emphasise the sleaze element. In one scene we see Phyllis sitting on a couch whilst she talks to Neff. Her face is in shadow but the side lamp ensures that we are aware of the shape of her breasts through her tight white sweater. Light and shadow is also used elsewhere to great effect. In various of the office scenes the light coming through the venetian blinds throws shadow lines on the walls and floors, an effect copied in many subsequent noir movies.

As well as being an outstanding movie, Double Indemnity is also notable for one curiosity: Raymond Chandler makes his only known film appearance – for about one or two seconds – in one of the early scenes.

Rating: 10/10

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UK: 2013

Director: Richard Ayoade

93 minutes

Based on a novella by Fyodor Dostoevsky, director Richard Ayoade’s second feature is the tale of Simon (Jesse Eisenberg), a shy, lonely office worker whose fortunes take a tailspin when a bolder double of himself turns up at the company. The action in the film has been transplanted from Dostoevsky’s Russia to a grim, self-contained environment that could be anywhere. We never actually see daylight. Simon occupies a barely-furnished flat in a nondescript estate that we only ever view at night. He travels to work on a shabby near-empty underground train and works in a dystopian office environment filled with creaky old equipment and even creakier old employees. At his company, Simon’s colleagues barely notice him, especially the security guard who makes him sign in as a visitor every morning.

Simon is secretly carrying a torch for Hanna (Mia Wasikowska), who works in the photocopying office, but he can barely utter a coherent sentence in her presence. He has also been working on a paper that shows how the company could be made efficient, but has not yet managed to bring it to the attention of “The Colonel” (James Fox), who is in overall charge. One day Simon is shocked when his doppelganger, James, arrives at the company. James is everything that Simon is not: brash, bold, and confident. People notice James. Yet, bizarrely, they do not even notice that Simon and James are identical. Only when Simon specifically asks a colleague to compare their appearances does the man concede there is a resemblance. Initially, Simon and James are friendly, Simon does some favours for James, but before long James is taking credit for Simon’s work and is moving in on Hannah.

Having not read Dostoevsky’s novella I don’t know how closely Ayoade followed the original, but I didn’t feel that the film made the most from its basic premise. The problem is that there are no real surprises along the way. Things get better for James, things get worse for Simon, and that’s about it – all of which I knew before I even saw the film. There are no subplots to add interest. Other characters only exist so as to highlight the injustices that are being heaped upon Simon. There is a sense that from an early point the story is heading along tramlines.

Where the film does succeed is in its creation of a very specific atmosphere, based on being set in a time and place that is no particular time and no particular place. But whilst The Double is best described as a dark comedy, I did also feel that the darker elements somewhat overwhelmed the comedic elements. There were a few laughs, but these were just a few occasional titters in the audience around me. This would not have mattered so much if the drama itself had been stronger, but I’m afraid the various elements of the film never really came together as far as I was concerned.

Rating: 6/10

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Director: Ted Kotcheff

Australia/USA 1971 (restored 2009)

114 minutes

The primatologist Frans de Waal has written critically of “veneer theory”, the idea that human morality is just a thin layer over an amoral or immoral core. The 1971 cult film Wake in Fright, now restored and showing in some London cinemas, addresses a similar idea – if you take a cultured man out of his familiar civilised environment and place him in a much rougher place, how long will he last? The answer, apparently, is not very long.

The film opens with a slow 360-degrees panning shot of the Australian outback, demonstrating just what an extraordinarily huge wilderness this part of the world is. In the tiny town of Tiboonda schoolteacher John Grant (Gary Bond) is packing up for the Christmas holidays. Grant describes himself as a slave of the education system and means this literally. In order to get a job he has had to deposit a thousand dollar bond, and must then agree to be sent wherever the education department sends him until he has paid back the bond. Grant plans to catch the train back to Sydney to meet his girlfriend, but has to make an overnight stop at Bundanyabba (the “Yabba”), another outback town. Grant himself is a handsome man with a cut-glass accent; there is a touch of the Peter O’Toole about him. At a bar Grant meets the local policeman, Jock Crawford (Chips Rafferty), who gets Grant drunk and introduces him to the bar’s popular pastime, in which people bet large sums on the outcome of two tossed coins. After some initial wins, Grant sees an opportunity to win enough to pay back his bond. Of course, he loses all the money he has and finds himself unable to get back to Sydney.

Grant is initially taken in by Tim (Al Thomas) and then by “Doc” Tydon (Donald Pleasence). He falls into drinking with them and their male friends, and before long he is joyously engaged in a kangaroo hunt, whooping and hollering as their car careens through the outback in pursuit of the animals. When sober, however, Grant knows that he has to get out. For the men of the Yabba, who have no obvious way out, it seems that alcohol is how they get by. Their bonding is real enough, but based on immature behaviour and fuelled by booze, and the women’s role presumably is to clear up after them. To be fair, there are only three women who feature at all in Wake in Fright. There is Grant’s hotel receptionist (Maggie Dence), who seems to spend all her time sitting in front of a fan and dripping water onto her skin in a manner that seems quite erotic, although she herself appears permanently bored. There is also Tim’s wife (Sylvia Kay), who clearly is sexually frustrated. The third woman is Grant’s girlfriend (Nancy Knudsen), who only appears in his daydreams – emerging from the surf – and in the photograph he carries with him (where she his holding a surfboard). These images of water, of course, are in stark contrast to the stiflingly hot and dry environment in which Grant finds himself.

Ultimately, whilst this is not a horror movie as such, Grant’s incarceration in the Yabba is so oppressive as to be horrific. Gary Bond turns in a convincing performance as John Grant, alternating between civilised calm, drunken blokishness, and desperation. Aside from Bond, the stand-out performance here is Donald Pleasence as the educated but alcoholic Doc Tydon. Tydon, you realise, is the man that Grant could become if he stays in the Yabba.

Rating: 10/10

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Mexico 2012

Dir: Raúl Fuentes

100 mins

Watching Everybody’s got somebody…not me I could not help making comparisons with last year’s Blue is the Warmest Colour. Both stories concern a young woman, still at school, who becomes romantically involved with an older woman. However, the two films take a very different perspective on their respective relationships. In Blue is the Warmest Colour, the narrative focus is on the younger woman leaving school and her friends behind, and navigating the cultured world of her artist lover. When the relationship goes wrong, her lack of maturity means that she struggles the most to deal with the situation.

Everybody’s got somebody…not me depicts almost the opposite situation.  Andrea Portal plays Alejandra, the beautiful dark-haired publisher who is in a secret relationship with younger blond Maria (Naian Daeva). In the opening scenes we see the two engaged in some passionate night-time fumbling in Alejandra’s car and then, a few hours later, waking up in Alejandra’s apartment.  Here we see the first hint of trouble to come, as Alejandra asks free-spirited Maria not to smoke indoors. Some time later the two women are at a jazz bar, where sensible Alejandra takes some persuading to forget the rules (if indeed they are rules) and to dance in front of the stage. One of the happiest and most tender moments occurs when the two are putting on make-up together and Alejandra shows Maria the best way to do it.

It is not until perhaps a third of the way into the film that we discover how these two women came to meet. This is told in flashback. and in these scenes it becomes apparent that the younger woman is controlling the pace at which the relationship develops. In another reversal of Blue is the Warmest Colour it is the older woman who is asked to navigate the social world of the younger, and fails to do so (to some extent, is unwilling to do so). We see that the cracks in their relationship have existed from the very start. Alejandra’s penchant for quoting philosophy and poetry, initially charming, becomes condescending. Alejandra also seems the more vulnerable of the two. She is prone to jealous outbursts when Maria is speaking on the phone (which, like a typical teenager, she does regularly) and when she encounters friends in person.

In fact, Alejandra emerges as a somewhat ambiguous character. In one scene, we see her waiting for Maria outside of the latter’s school. When Maria emerges, she does not look like the young woman we first saw. With her hair tied back, and wearing a school uniform that includes a check skirt and white knee-length stockings,  she looks very much a girl rather than a woman, and we start to wonder about the nature of Alejandra’s desire. There are shades of Lolita here. At one point another lesbian tells Alejandra that she “loves sweet-talking young girls about Foucault”, which is probably quite close to the truth. However, behind all Alejandra’s jealousy and condescending behaviour, when she is hurt she seems truly hurt. We start to suspect that she always prefers much younger women but, at the same time, can never make a relationship last because she doesn’t know how to exist in their world. In case this all sounds too stereotypically tragic, the ups and downs are played with a deft touch and there are also several very funny moments too.

The performances of both lead actors are quite outstanding and enhanced by strong direction and cinematography. At various points we get close-ups of the women’s faces in which the emotions expressed appear entirely natural and believable. The film is shot in black and white and there is a great visual style throughout. In the opening scene the camera is positioned in the back seat as Alejandra drives through town. We see the back of her head in focus, but all we see outside the window are a series of unfocused lights passing by. There is another contrast with Blue is the Warmest Colour in the lovemaking scenes. In that film, the camera drew back for the love scenes, which lasted for a long time, whereas elsewhere close-ups were predominant. In Everybody’s Got Somebody…Not Me close-ups are maintained for the love scenes, which are also fairly brief and not explicit. Arguably, this approach seems less voyeuristic; that is certainly my opinion, though no doubt everyone will have their own view.

Elsewhere there seemed to be shades of Wes Anderson in the cinematography. Several scenes involved the use of symmetry, with one character appearing centre frame with other people appearing in identical positions to the left and right. There were also scenes using geometrical arrangements of objects or linear perspective. Perhaps the most striking was a scene in a near-empty cinema. We see the aisles receding into the distance, with one couple positioned on our left near the front, a single individual a row or two back on the right, and Maria and Alejandra embracing passionately in the centre of a row nearer to the back.

According to the programme notes that were provided at the British Film Institute, where this is being shown as part of its Flare (LGBT) season, the film is Raúl Fuentes’ directorial debut for a feature-length movie. That being the case, it surely heralds the arrival of a fine new talent into the world of movies.

Rating: 9/10

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Director: Scott Waugh

Running Time: 130 minutes

Based on a computer game, Need for Speed is of course entirely preposterous, but none the less enjoyable for that. Breaking Bad star Aaron Paul plays Toby Marshall, a garage owner and participant in illegal road races. After he serves time for a crime he did not commit, he is determined to expose the true culprit, his old college rival Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper). In order to do so (although it is never clear exactly how this will help), he must take part in the De Leon road race organised by “The Monarch”, some sort of video jockey played by Michael Keaton. The race itself has a £2 million prize for the winner, although quite how The Monarch has not attracted the attention of the law for organising an illegal race is also a question left unanswered. But never mind – the key thing is that Toby has only 45 hours to drive across several states in order to participate.

Any road trip worth its salt has to be made by a mismatched couple, of course, at which point enters Julia (Imogen Poots). She is a posh-speaking English rose who Toby initially disdains, until he discovers that she has petrol running through her veins. The two of them head south at breakneck speed, with the police in pursuit (as movie law dictates), not to mention Dino’s henchmen.

In essence, Need for Speed is a series of races and chases stitched together by a plot that barely makes sense, and populated by comic book characters with V8 engines for brains. The whole thing is ridiculous, and for the first twenty minutes or so I thought I had made a mistake. However, once we got past the point where Toby is released from prison the film really started to take off for me and I was able to relax and enjoy it. In fact, it is fair to say that the more ludicrous things get, and the wilder the action, the more the film succeeds as a piece of pure popcorn entertainment.

Rating: 7/10

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In his treatise on the horror genre, Danse Macabre, the great American horror writer Stephen King makes reference to a particular subcategory, the portmanteau horror film. These tell several tales within the running time. King is not, in fact, particularly positive about portmanteau films; he thinks they rarely work well. One notable exception is Ealing Studios’ Dead of Night.

I first encountered this marvellously creepy film on television as a boy, and then spent many years longing to see it again, and wondering why it never seemed to get a mention when people talked about horror movies. About 10 years ago it was shown at the British Film Institute (BFI) in London, and it gave me no end of pleasure to sit among people who seemed to appreciate the film like I did. That pleasure was repeated towards the end of 2013 when, as part of its four-month Gothic season, the BFI presented several showings of Dead of Night. Round about the same time various media outlets reported Martin Scorcese’s top 11 scariest films, a list in which Dead of Night appeared in fifth place. How thrilling to find that this little film that I once thought no-one knew about is vaunted by one of the world’s greatest directors! My perception is that this is a film whose reputation has been growing over time. Indeed, reading the reviews on IMDB suggests that this is a film that many people don’t just like but, like me, hold in some affection.

**SPOILERS FROM HEREON IN**

The great thing about Dead of Night is that it is not merely a set of disparate tales, but all of these stories take place within an overarching framework. The film involves architect Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns) who has been called out to a country house, Pilgrims Farm, for business reasons. The owner, Eliot Foley (Roland Culver), introduces Craig to various other guests who are staying there, but Craig cannot believe his eyes – he has been here before and met all these people in his dreams. One of the guests, Dr. Van Straaten (Frederick Valk), attempts to rationalise this away, but increasingly the other guests side with Craig and have their own supernatural tales to tell.

The first story comes from motor racing driver Hugh Grainger (Anthony Baird), who describes a premonition that enabled him to cheat death. The second story is told by Sally (Sally Ann Howes) who once encountered a sad little boy whilst playing sardines at a party; only the little boy turns out to be the ghost of a child who was murdered by his step-sister some years earlier. In the third story, Joan Cortland (Googie Withers) tells of how her husband Peter (Ralph Michael) was haunted by a mirror that she gave him as a present during their engagement. The mirror had once been owned by a man who murdered his wife. At this point there is some light relief. Eliot Foley tells the guests about George and Larry (Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne), two golfing obsessives who play to win the hand of the woman they both love. The loser commits suicide, but comes back to haunt his friend in comical fashion after learning that he had cheated in order to win. This lighthearted story gives way to a much darker final tale, in which a ventriloquist, Maxwell Frere (Michael Redgrave) becomes obsessed with the idea that his dummy is plotting to leave him and set up in business with another ventriloquist, Sylvester Kee (Hartley Power).

The haunted mirror and ventriloquist’s dummy stories are widely held to be the scariest of the five. In some ways the Haunted Mirror is a better story, because there is actually a narrative journey involved that has an effect on the couple. By contrast, in The Ventriloquist’s Dummy Maxwell Frere is already on the brink of a mental breakdown at the beginning, so it is a short distance to his breakdown at the end. However, there are a number of things to note about this last story. Firstly, Michael Redgrave’s portrayal of the increasingly unhinged Frere is superb. Second, Frere’s belief that his dummy has a malevolent mind of its own does not appear delusional. We see the dummy move of its own accord and we also witness it apparently biting into Frere’s hand. Third, Frere’s attitude towards his dummy appears to be that of an obsessed but rejected lover. The two are like a bitching gay couple. Is the dummy, in fact, trying to leave because of Frere’s obsession?

One of the things Dead of Night does so effectively is to ramp up the tension between each of the tales. In each interlude Walter Craig, recalling new fragments from his dream, becomes more convinced that something terrible is going to happen. At one point, terrified, he decides that the only way to break the spell is to leave the house. Dr. Van Straaten, who is convinced this is all in Craig’s mind, tells him that this would be a disastrous thing to do, as he would simply be giving in to his own delusion. At this point Eliot Foley manages to manoeuvre Craig into staying, partly by pressing a whisky into his hand and partly by beginning a lighthearted tale. This, of course, is the Golfing Story, which some describe as the weakest story of the five. However, this is to treat that story with more seriousness than it deserves. The whole point of this story is that it is meant to be a lighthearted diversion. On the one hand, it serves to keep Craig at the house. On the other hand, given that the Haunted Mirror and Ventriloquist’s Dummy stories are of a similar level of creepiness, inserting the Golfing Story between the two gives The Ventriloquist’s Dummy more power than it might otherwise have.

It is also far from clear that the Golfing Story is even meant to be a true tale. Not only does Foley indicate that he told it to lighten the mood, but the story has internal contradictions that mean it cannot be real. When Larry comes back as a ghost he tells George that he is the only person who can see him. Therefore, when George vanishes at the end and Larry saunters in the direction of Mary’s (Peggy Bryan) bedroom, there should be no point in his appearing triumphant as she would not be able to see him. Likewise, how could Eliot Foley have even come to know the story? Realising that this is just a shaggy dog story makes it easier to swallow the preposterous idea that young Mary would be remotely interested in a couple of middle-aged bores like George and Larry, or that she would be willing to marry the victor because he had won a game of golf (even in 1945 these ideas must surely have seemed ridiculous).

Following The Ventriloquist’s Dummy story Craig asks to be left alone with Dr. Van Straaten and the others leave the room. Craig is now driven by forces beyond his control and murders the psychiatrist, after which we see Craig in a bizarre surreal sequence. At this point we see Craig in bed waking from a nightmare, just as his wife arrives with breakfast. It was all a dream! Except… then the phone rings, and the caller – one Eliot Foley – invites Craig out to his country house on business. As the credits begin to roll we see the opening sequence again, in which Craig drives down a country road towards the farmhouse.

Whenever I watch Dead of Night I seem to notice something new. Most recently I realised that I had never before picked up on the opening exchange of words between Craig and Foley. As Craig gets out of his car Foley is there to greet him, but the first words come from Craig. He doesn’t say “Are you Eliot Foley?” or “I’m Walter Craig. And you must be…?” He emphatically says “You’re Eliot Foley!” (and I think there is an exclamation mark there), to which Foley says “Yes, that’s right”.

In the Hearse Driver sequence, I didn’t originally spot how the time changes on the face of the clock just before Grainger pulls open the curtains. At first, the hands are showing quarter-to-ten (at night). When the background noise vanishes and Grainger checks the clock again, it shows quarter-past-four (which turns out to be daytime). Both the long hand and the small hand are now in exactly the opposite place on the clockface (I’m not saying that has any significance, but it’s a nice kind of symmetry, if that’s the right term to use).

One aspect of Dead of Night that I have rarely, if ever, seen commented on is how well the music complements the story (or stories) throughout. The music was written by Georges Auric and performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra. In some horror movies, such as Night of the Eagle, the score can be over-emphatic which, to modern ears at least, is somewhat distracting. In this case, the music that plays over the opening credits is quite ominous, creating a mood of tension right at the start, but as soon as we see the opening shot of Walter Craig driving along a country road the music becomes quite jaunty. These shifts between light and dark recur throughout the film and never feel forced. The music is perhaps at its most effective during The Haunted Mirror. When Peter sees the wrong room in the mirror the music becomes heavy and dark, but the moment we switch back to the real room then the music is light again.

I think the framing story for the five individual tales is a brilliant device. Although people like to discuss which of the five tales is the creepiest, the thing that really puts a shiver up my spine is the final sequence as the end credits are rolling, watching Craig driving up to the house, and realising that this is all going to happen again, and perhaps go on happening forever. In the cinema I feel a vague sense of annoyance at people who are getting up out of their seats at this point. They should be savouring a sense of dread at the eternal terror that is unfolding before them!

Finally, it is worth reflecting on the fact that this was the only horror film that Ealing Studios ever made and was released over a decade before such British chillers as Night of the Eagle and Night of the Demon. There is also a lesser-known companion piece of sorts, released one year before in 1944. This film, The Halfway House, was directed by Basil Deardon and Alberto Cavalcanti, who both directed parts of Dead of Night. It also stars Mervyn Johns and Sally Ann Howes (both in Dead of Night too). The Halfway House is a ghost story, but it is not horrific; it is really a morality tale with an element of wartime propaganda. It isn’t in the same class as Dead of Night, but it does create quite an effective atmosphere and is a watchable curiosity.

Rating 9/10

Documentary – 76 minutes

USA/UK/Belarus

A member of the Belarus Free Theatre looks at his audience and tells them that scars are good. Women like men with scars. Scars are sexy. And then the punchline: In Minsk there are many men with scars.

The Belarus Free Theatre are a group of actors working without official sanction in Europe’s only dictatorship. For in Belarus there are state-approved theatre groups and anyone else is asking for trouble. The members of this group started out in state theatre, but then began working together on the material that interested them, increasingly using their drama as a form of protest. As one member tells us, the state can control what you see in film and television, and what you hear on radio, but theatre is different. Theatre takes place in the here and now, and that very immediacy gives it power. Before long members of the Free Theatre found themselves losing their jobs as a consequence of this activity, but this simply seems to have spurred their dedication. This highly affecting documentary, filmed surreptitiously and smuggled out of the country, tells the story of the group from just before 2010’s presidential elections.

The actors are encouraged by the candidacy of Andrei Sannikov. One theatre member describes the results thus: An election official goes to President Lukashenko and tells him there is good news and bad news. The good news is that he has won the election. The bad news is that no-one voted for him. After the results are announced there are protests in the main square at Minsk. The police arrive, arrest Sannikov and many others, and people are beaten up.

After this terrible event the Belarus Free Theatre continue to perform when they can, but things get harder, especially as the actors are so closely associated with the opposition movement. I could not help but be impressed and humbled by the dedication of the actors to their calling, especially in the face of the fear they so obviously felt. There is also something splendid about the fact that, conversely, a state can be so afraid of a small group of actors. I don’t believe in an afterlife, but in the event that I’m wrong I’m sure that one of Britain’s late, great, playwrights will have had pleasure from looking down and seeing these Belarusians putting on a piece titled “Being Harold Pinter”.

Eventually, some of the actors flee Belarus under forged passports, ending up in Britain where they maintain contact with their families and colleagues back home via the internet. Creating a new group here, they take a show to the Edinburgh Festival, where Natalia Koliada tells her audience that Belarus is not a sexy country. Sexy countries, she says, have oil, diamonds, mountains; Belarus is flat – no-one wants to come near us.

But the words that have really stayed with me are spoken when we see two of the exiles in a park, pacing up an incline. The man (Oleg, I think) rehearses his English: “We are walking up a hill”. His companion, who has a better grasp of the English pronunciations, repeats this: “We are walking up a hill”, she says. He tells her: “I think this is a slogan for our life”.

Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus opened the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in London on 18th March.

Rating: 8/10

As I noted in my original review of Under the Skin, this is a movie that doesn’t provide the viewer with explanations. It provides you with the images and then demands that you piece together the story yourself. Since that first review I have read an interview with director Jonathan Glazer in Sight and Sound magazine, and earlier tonight I saw the film a second time. For the past few days I have constantly had scenes from the film running through my mind, to the point that I just had to go back for another viewing. This posting isn’t so much a second review, but a slightly haphazard collection of thoughts that have occurred to me since my first viewing and, particularly, since tonight’s viewing.

One thing to note is that the film opens with a completely black screen and ends with a completely white one, a nice twist on the screenwriting rule-of-thumb that the mood at the end should be the opposite of the mood at the start. On the black screen that we begin with, a small white dot appears, getting larger (or closer), and eventually it becomes apparent that we are seeing the creation of the alien’s eye*. In the final scene we see the burnt black corpse of the alien, and then the camera tilts upwards towards the falling snow, until the screen is entirely filled with white.

Going back to the opening images again, we hear – slightly fuzzily – words being repeated. These, of course, are the alien learning the language “she” will be speaking on earth. But the background to this is rather interesting. From Glazer’s Sight and Sound interview I learned that these rehearsals were not a planned part of the film. The recordings were actually of Scarlett Johansson working on her English accent. Needless to say, this Hollywood superstar is an alien herself when placed in the streets of Glasgow so it seemed quite natural to incorporate these word rehearsals as part of the movie itself.

Previously, I suggested that the alien is storing her human victims as a food source. I have since learned that Michael Faber’s original novel was making quite a strong statement about factory farming. I don’t know how much more detail the book goes into this business of farming, but it did occur to me that the alien is having to expend an awful lot of energy to obtain her human victims. When animals obtain food, there is always a tradeoff to be made by how far an animal must travel, how much food can be carried, and the energy obtained. When I watched the alien trying to drag a body along a beach, it did strike me that this was quite a cost-intensive way of obtaining food. Even the idea of driving around in a van, seeking men who are alone, and then taking them back to a house, seemed like quite a big effort. However, that was a level of reality that I could quite easily push to the back of my mind, as the film has much more interesting things to focus on.

Incidentally, that scene on the beach was really quite extraordinary. The alien is talking to a swimmer clad in a wetsuit, when he spots someone in trouble and goes to assist. A woman is swimming out into rough sea to rescue her dog, who is being carried away from the beach. In turn, the man who is with her has spotted that she is also going to need help, and he starts swimming out to her. I have no idea how this scene was filmed, but it really did look frighteningly dangerous. I was quite concerned for the actors involved! And all the time, the alien watches completely impassively.

In the second half of the film the alien becomes vulnerable. I wasn’t quite sure exactly what brought about this change. The alien stops her van whilst on a country road. Why? Did she run out of petrol? Was there a breakdown? I wondered also whether she might have been disoriented by the fog that had descended; she certainly appeared confused once she actually began walking out in the fog.

The last part of the film seems to be touching on the theme of women’s fears, and particularly the idea that the world can be an alien place for them. A kindly Scottish man offers his assistance and the two of them end up spending time together, and ultimately going to bed together. In this scene, the impassive alien, who has mostly seemed unconcerned with human emotions, actually seems to respond to the man’s attentions. However, in the final scenes of the film the alien is hunted in a forest by a would-be rapist lorry-driver. His attempted rape is pretty ghastly to watch. Even here, though, there is one moment that reminds us that our vulnerable young woman is in fact an alien being. Whilst she is lying on the ground and he is attempting to force himself upon her, we see her eyes turn to the sky. We realise that she is captivated by the falling snowflakes, a phenomenon that she has presumably never experienced before. When the lorry driver realises that this woman is not actually human, he pours petrol over her and sets her alight. The final shot of the alien in flames reminded me of that other classic that ends with a burning in a remote part of Scotland – The Wicker Man (I’m not suggesting this was a deliberate parallel, but who knows?).

In my view, this is a film that deserves recognition at awards ceremonies. Scarlett Johansson’s performance is outstanding. In the first half she alternates between a smiling flirtatiousness that few men could resist, and an impassively blank face that gives absolutely nothing away. Later, in the lovemaking scene her behaviour indicates something that we would recognise as tenderness if she were human. Finally, her fear and bewilderment when she is trying to escape her attacker are quite palpable.

Glazer himself needs to be considered at awards time for the amazing originality of his directorial vision. Daniel Landin’s cinematography is breathtaking at times, and Mica Levi’s musical score perfectly complements the visuals and the action. Both are also deserving of awards nominations.

* In my original review I referred to the alien as “Laura”, as this is what she is called on the iMDB cast entry. However, I don’t recall that we ever hear her name in the film, so maybe this is just how she appeared in the script.

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What would it be like to live forever? This question must have crossed most people’s minds at some point. In Only Lovers Left Alive, the centuries-old vampires Adam and Eve (Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton) are responding to their immortality in different ways. Although they are lovers, they are keeping things fresh by living apart, she in Tangiers and he in the run-down city of Detroit. Eve is happily reading all the books she can lay her hands on; indeed, so practiced are her reading skills that she is flipping a page every couple of seconds. Adam, on the other hand,  is depressed. Musically skilled, in previous centuries he has given away his music to the likes of Schubert. He has also hung around with Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft. Now, though, he spends all his time at home making what he calls “funeral music”, electronic drones. Adam is losing faith in a world run by the zombies, the name that he and Eve give to humanity. He is at such a low point that he commissions the production of a single wooden bullet, and practices pointing a gun at his heart.

Adam and Eve no longer kill people (or convert them to vampires) in order to obtain blood. In Tangiers Eve obtains her blood supplies from a vampire with connections, who turns out to be the author Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), portrayed here as the author of Shakespeare’s plays. In Detroit, Adam buys his supplies from Dr. Watson (Jeffrey Wright) at the local hospital.

During a phone conversation Eve discovers how depressed Adam is, and arranges to travel back to Detroit (carefully organising her connecting flights so that she will only be travelling at night). But she has only been back in Detroit a short while when her wayward sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) shows up and throws their lives into turmoil, not least by tucking into their dwindling supply of blood.

Only Lovers Left Alive is not really a horror movie as such (indeed, because vampires typically exhibit fairly human-like qualities I would suggest they are rarely as frightening as zombies, possessed children, and demonic houses); rather, it is a supernatural romance/drama that also includes some amusing dialogue. The relationship between Adam and Eve is nicely played and quite touching, and you don’t need to be a vampire to identify with the problems caused by the unwanted arrival of an awkward family member.

The one aspect of the story that did require some suspension of disbelief was the idea that a man who has lived through the hundred years war and the black death could think that the world is getting worse, to the degree that he is contemplating suicide. Jarmusch draws a parallel between the vampires’ dependence on limited supplies of blood and humanity’s dependence on oil and water (the latter identified as the next resource to be fought over). However, such social commentary is kept to a minimum and it is the couple’s romance that is very much at the heart of the film.

Visually, Only Lovers Left Alive is always interesting to look at. Adam and Eve are tall and wan, and Adam in particular is very much the dandy (at one point Eve blames his depressive tendencies on Byron’s influence). His house, where many of the scenes take place, is like an interesting old junk shop, full of slightly outdated recording equipment, and he has an impressive collection of old guitars. We also get a glimpse of modern Detroit, which of course is in a sorry state. A scene inside the delapidated Michigan concert hall gives us a very real sense of the transitory nature of things.

Anyone seeing this movie in the hope of experiencing a few scares and thrills is likely to be disappointed, but if Byronic characters and gothic atmospherics are your thing then you are in for a treat.

Rating: 8/10