Archive for the ‘Older releases’ Category

Berberian_Sound_Studio

Berberian Sound Studio is the second directorial outing for Peter Strickland, who also wrote the screenplay. It is interesting and entertaining, what I guess could be considered a postmodern horror movie. Toby Jones plays Gilderoy, a British sound engineer, who arrives at an Italian film studio believing they are making a film about equestrianism, though in fact they are making a giallo – a pulpish horror movie. Gilderoy, who is short, drably dressed, rather meek, and lives with his mother, finds himself being pushed around by two tall sharply-dressed Italians, Francesco the producer (Cosimo Fusco) and Giancarlo Santini the director (Antonio Mancino).

The film they are making is supposedly an historical drama about the mistreatment of women who were believed to be witches, but Gilderoy is uncomfortable with the scenes that he is creating the sound effects for. Nonetheless he gets on with it, and we get to see the mechanics of sound production for this kind of film. There are intricate sound maps, indicating the sounds that are required at particular times, and for which scenes. Microphones are positioned and swapped, dials are turned and buttons pressed. All manner of fruits and vegetables are recruited for the purpose of creating the sound accompaniment to torture and gore. We see blades slicing through melons and being twisted in marrows, roots being pulled from radishes, and some sort of red-coloured item being pulped in a blender (the sound of a chainsaw). At no time, however, do we see any of the actual visuals for the film.

Santini tries to convince Gilderoy of the serious intent of the movie, emphasising that the horrific scenes are necessary for historical accuracy. However, the concern about the historical mistreatment of women seems to be at odds with the way that Francesco and – especially – Santini treat the female voiceover artists. There are perhaps two events that represent a significant turning point in the narrative. Firstly, Gilderoy balks when asked to create the sound effect of a red hot poker being inserted into a woman’s vagina. Secondly, after being given the runaround over his expenses one of the voiceover artists, Claudia (Eugenia Caruso), tells him that being rude and aggressive is the only way to get what you want at the studio.

From this point on the narrative becomes increasingly disorienting and the barriers between fiction and reality start to dissolve. There is a definite influence of David Lynch in the way things develop, and I was also reminded a little bit of the Ealing classic Dead of Night. As is appropriate for a story about a sound engineer, sound is used effectively throughout. At various places, whilst Gilderoy is trying to sort out his expenses, or whilst we are contemplating the sound maps on the wall, the audio accompaniment makes these mundanities seem like the background to something mysterious and terrible.

For all its accomplishments, Berberian Sound Studio does not pack the punch of a David Lynch movie, but it is enjoyable enough and a fun deconstruction of the unseen elements of a horror movie. Toby Jones is excellent as Gilderoy and has been justly rewarded at several film festivals.

Rating: 8/10

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Colonel Blimp (2)

UK 1943

Directors: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

Screenplay: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

Running time: 163 minutes

 

**SPOILERS ARE INCLUDED**

Arguably, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is the greatest of the great films made by the fabulous duo Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. It was restored in 1983 and again in 2011. Among the additional features with the most recent version is an interesting and informative piece by  Martin Scorcese describing the process of restoration.

The film is an original story based on David Low’s cartoon character from the 1930s, depicting a pompous and jingoistic red-faced old buffer, who issues ridiculous and often self-contradictory pronouncements from the Turkish bath at his club. For many years, the term “Blimpish” was often used in Britain to refer to somebody holding such attitudes, though it is less often heard now. Powell and Pressburger’s character, played brilliantly in three different ages by Roger Livesy, is not actually named “Blimp”, nor does he die, and nor is he a colonel (he eventually attains the rank of Major-General). The character of Clive Wynne-Candy is, in fact, a far more human and sympathetic individual than his cartoon counterpart.

The story begins in World War 2. A group of Home Guard soldiers are preparing for a training exercise. Lieutenant “Spud” Wilson (James McKechnie) has learned from a woman nicknamed “Mata Hari”, close to the top brass, that the exercise is to begin at midnight. Reckoning that initiative counts for more than rules in modern warfare, he leads his men in a pre-emptive strike on Wynne-Candy’s club, capturing the Major-General himself and all the other officers. Wynne-Candy is elderly, bald, plump, and sports a large walrus moustache. He is apoplectic at the intrusion, uttering the immortal words: “Yer damn young fool, war begins at midnight!” He knocks Spud into the pool, then jumps in after him and the two disappear beneath the water.

We then see a much younger Wynne-Candy emerge from the pool: it is now 1902, and our young officer is on leave from the Boer War. He and his fellow young officers are brash and loud, to the annoyance of the older patrons of the baths. However, despite his youth Wynne-Candy has distinguished himself in battle, earning the highest award for bravery, the Victoria Cross. He receives a letter from a British woman in Berlin called Edith Hunter (Deborah Kerr). She is concerned about a German by the name of Kaunitz (David Ward) who is spreading “lies” about British behaviour in the Boer war, such as the story that they are operating concentration camps. She wants Candy to go to Berlin to counter the propaganda. Candy’s superiors tell him not to go, but he ignores them.

In Berlin, Candy tries to tease Kauntiz, who he knows from an earlier encounter, but it escalates into an argument in which Candy manages to insult the honour of the entire German army. He gets drawn into a duel with the Germans’ champion, Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook). The depiction of this is one of the great cinematic moments. There is a long lead up to the duel itself, building the tension but also emphasising the absurdity of the whole enterprise. Then, as sabres start to clash, the camera zooms out and upwards, away from the action, and through the roof of the building itself, so that we are looking down on the compound as snow falls beautifully from the sky.

The story picks up in a hospital where both duellists are recovering from their wounds. Wynne-Candy’s face is bandaged: his upper lip has been almost severed and he subsequently grows an ample moustache in order to cover the scar. It is a neat element of the story, building an empathetic bridge with the older Wynne-Candy who we saw at the start of the film. During their stay at the hospital, and over countless games of cards, the two officers become friends. Moreover, Theo and Edith Hunter fall in love, and she stays in Berlin to marry him. Candy is delighted for them both, but only when he returns to London does he realise that he too has fallen for her. He deals with his feelings by going on a hunting tour and we see the walls of his room in London filling up with the animal-head trophies. In one of the DVD/Blu-Ray extras, Stephen Fry notes that this scene is so politically incorrect as to be almost inconceivable in a modern movie. However, this scene is not just about Candy’s loneliness or his enjoyment of hunting; it also reminds us that Britain at this point in history had the largest empire the world has ever seen (the trophies all come from empire countries).  The reminder is a salutary one, as the First World War is just around the corner.

When the Great War breaks out, Candy again serves his country. However, his old-fashioned notions of honour are beginning to look dated. He treats the interrogation of a German prisoner like a chat between gentlemen. The German remains silent and Candy is called on business. Once he has gone, a South African member of the British Army takes over and makes it clear that his methods of questioning will be less refined (these methods are left to the viewers’ imaginations). Candy views Britain’s victory in World War 1 as a demonstration that “right is might” – honourable methods will always defeat dirty tricks such as poisoned gas. He meets a nurse – Barbara – who bears a striking resemblance to Edith (also played by Deborah Kerr), and the two get married. Theo is held as a prisoner of war in Derbyshire, but when hostilities cease Candy takes him to a dinner where various British dignitaries are present. They all represent different parts of the British Empire, and try to assure Theo that Britain holds no grudges and just wants to help rebuild Germany as a trading partner.

When the Second World War breaks out Theo seeks refuge in Britain, as he despises the Nazis. Sadly, his two sons have joined the National Socialist Party. When he recounts how they did not attend Edith’s funeral, he appends this with a quiet “Heil Hitler” that manages to be both pitiful and vitriolic. He is reunited with Candy, whose own wife has also died in the intervening years. Following the fall of Dunkirk Candy is due to give a speech via the BBC, but this is cancelled by the powers-that-be, who have read it in advance. Theo tells Candy some home truths from the perspective of a man who has lived under the Nazis: if Britain clings to old-fashioned notions of honourable warfare, they cannot expect the enemy to do the same. In fact, the enemy will laugh at them and despise them. Only by being prepared to fight dirty will the allies be able defeat the tyranny of Nazism. Candy is dropped by the regular Army but obtains a senior position in the homeguard, at which point the film comes full circle.

The Mata Hari referred to in the opening turns out to be his driver, Angela, who resembles both Edith and Barbara (and is also played by Deborah Kerr). Spud Wilson is her boyfriend, and when she realises the trick he is going to pull she tries to stop him. In the final scene, Candy remembers how he ignored orders as a young officer, as well as the trouble it caused, and his anger dissipates. He vows to follow the actions of his own Commanding Officer by inviting Spud to dinner. As Spud and his men march past in the street, Candy raises his arm in salute.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp works on several levels. The escalating argument between Candy and Kaunitz in 1902 can be seen as a microcosm of the absurdities that can cause conflict between nations. By contrast, the friendship of Candy and Theo shows how the people of different nations are not really all that different, and asks us to consider why, if individuals can get along like this, why can’t their countries? The film also gives a salutary reminder that before and after the First World War Britain held a large portion of the world under its dominion. And, of course, the core message that honourable methods could not defeat the Nazis would not have been lost on the audience in 1943.

But this is not just a film about war and political attitudes. It is a film about ageing and understanding. When we first encounter Clive Wynne-Candy it would be easy to dismiss him as a blinkered old duffer, which is no doubt what Spud Wilson thinks he is. By the end of the film we realise that Major-General Candy is a man who deserves our respect, just as he was respected by his German counterpart Theo.  The increasingly vicious nature of warfare may have rendered his ideas of honour redundant, but perhaps we should simply be appalled by modern warfare rather than by notions of honour. Moreover, for all his faults – which include the hardly unique matter of believing the one-sided propaganda of his own nation – Wynne-Candy was a man who stood up to be counted when it really mattered. He lived, he loved, and was a good friend to Theo, who would undoubtedly have been deported but for his intervention.

On the technical side, the way that Theo and Clive Wynn-Candy age through the three phases of the film is truly masterly. Especially in the case of the latter, despite all the advances in make-up and prosthetics since 1943 I struggle to think of any film that has so convincingly depicted youth, middle age and old age with the same actor. Roger Livesy himself gives the performance of a lifetime as Candy. It was also a stroke of genius to use a young Deborah Kerr to represent a different woman in each time period, thus emphasising the love that Candy had for Edith, Edith who married his friend Theo.

One of the accompanying features to the 2011 DVD/Blu-Ray mentions that Winston Churchill was aghast at some of the film’s content and wanted to block its release. To his great credit, J. Arthur Rank, head of the Rank Organisation, stood up to Churchill and the film was released. Perhaps Churchill’s objection was not so surprising: As Stephen Fry points out, to some degree Churchill himself was Colonel Blimp.

Rating: 10/10

 

Hunter_ver3

 

Australia 2011

Director: Daniel Nettheim

102 minutes

 

The landscape of the Australian outback has contributed to many cinematic gems, such as Walkabout, Wake in Fright, and the Mad Max series. Based on a novel by Julia Leigh, Daniel Nettheim’s The Hunter adds to this trove of fine Australian landscape movies, only this time we are not in the outback but the forests and mountains of Tasmania. The action starts, however, in a lounge at Paris Orly airport, where Willem Dafoe’s Martin, some kind of mercenary hunter, is being briefed by the representative of a shadowy biotech company. His task is to find and kill the last Tasmanian tiger, bring back vital samples of blood, tissue, and organs, but to dispose of the carcass so that it will never be found.

Arriving in Tasmania, Martin takes accommodation at the home of the Armstrong family. However, Jarrah Armstrong, a scientist and an environmental activist, has long been missing in the wilds. His wife, Lucy (Frances O’Connor), spends most of her time in bed, dosed up on all manner of medication that is brought in by the rather ambiguous figure of Jack (Sam Neill), who lives nearby. Martin’s initial interactions are with Lucy’s children, nicknamed “Sass” and “Bike” (Morgana Davies and Finn Woodlock). Martin tells Jack and the children that he is a university researcher investigating the Tasmanian Devil.

At the local bar, Martin meets a group of loggers who make it clear that newcomers are not welcome. After his first day in the hills Martin discovers that his vehicle has been vandalised. Later, after Martin has managed to cure Lucy of her drug dependency, the loggers return to threaten the Armstrongs and their friends, who have been celebrating a ban on logging. Although Martin continues to pose as a university researcher, the young boy Bike seems to intuit that he is searching for the tiger. Bike gives him clues as to where the tiger might be which, after a while, Martin starts to take seriously. But why does Bike know where the tiger can be found?

The Hunter is possibly not a film for those who like their action fast: there are various scenes of Martin tracking carefully through the wilds, setting traps, waiting, and looking thoughtful. However, throughout the entire film there is always a palpable sense of underlying menace, and eventually this menace takes physical form. Dafoe is utterly convincing as Martin, the hunter. He looks suitably tough, a man who can handle himself when alone in the wild, but who can also stand up to human adversaries. Despite this, Martin also seems to be quite cultured. Early on we seem him luxuriating in a nice bath whilst listening to opera. When he arrives at the Armstrongs’ home, he is clearly perturbed at the filthy bathtub he is presented with, as well as the lack of hot water. He fixes the broken generator in order that he can get hot water and also power up his computer. The difficult task of mending the generator gives him the opportunity to bond a little with Bike, who rarely speaks. As he spends time with the Armstrongs, Martin’s character softens and becomes more likeable. We are left to wonder if he will find the tiger and, if so, whether he will really kill it. How will we feel about him if he does?

This is a very effective slow-burn thriller that also delivers an ecological message, but without ramming it down the audience’s throats. If you didn’t see it on release it is well worth searching out.

Rating: 8/10

 

The-shout-poster

UK 1978

Director: Jerzy Skolimowski

86 minutes

 

Based on a short story by Robert Graves, The Shout is a very atmospheric horror picture full of striking sounds and images. The opening scenes occur at a psychiatric hospital, where various people are organising a game of cricket in the grounds. Quite who are the patients and who are the staff is never entirely clear. Inside the scorekeepers’ hut, Crossley (Alan Bates) begins to tell Robert Graves (Tim Curry) an extraordinary “true” story. But is this story really true or is it the delusion of a mental patient (Crossley himself admits to occasionally modifying his tale, so as to keep it fresh in the telling)?

At any rate, the film shifts to the countryside where Crossley accosts Anthony Fielding (John Hurt) following a church service, claiming to be a traveller who has been walking for two days. That Hurt is about to have his life turned upside down is strongly hinted by the fact that he has been engaging in a little philandering whilst his wife Rachel (Susannah York) waits at home. Crossley invites himself in for lunch, during which he claims to have spent 18 years among the Aborigines in Australia. He says that the Aborigines permit the killing of their newly-born children, and that he himself has killed two of his own. Not exactly ideal dinner table talk at the best of times, this particularly upsets Rachel as, we learn, she and Anthony have not managed to have any children together. Apparently overcome by a migraine, Crossley is given a bed to rest on, at Rachel’s insistence. Thereafter, he becomes difficult to budge and starts to come between Anthony and Rachel. At one point he tells Anthony that he has learned Aboriginal magic, and has spent 18 years developing a shout so powerful that it can kill. Anthony scoffs at this and Crossley gets angry. He tells Anthony that he will demonstrate the shout for him, but that he had better stuff up his ears with cotton wool or wax. The next morning, they set out for the beach together where Crossley does indeed give his demonstration…

The Shout could be seen as a bit of a shaggy dog story were it not for the excellent performances from all involved. In particular, Alan Bates is absolutely outstanding as Crossley. From the moment he makes contact with Anthony he is a dark, brooding, and dangerous presence. Nonetheless, director Jerzy Skolimowski teases the audience throughout by switching between this horrifying tale and the ongoing cricket match at the psychiatric hospital (in one scene a patient is heard muttering Shakespeare’s words “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”). Skolimowski also makes great use of sound and image to build the atmosphere. As the opening credits role we see a grainy shot of a dark figure walking down a hill. The accompanying music is largely subsumed beneath the sound of the harsh wind. Anthony himself is a musician, who we see experimenting with sounds in his recording studio (at one point he places a microphone inside a jam jar, around which a fly is buzzing). Then there is the shout itself where, in addition to the supernatural sound produced, we see Crossley prepare himself by stretching out his arms and leaning backwards at an impossible angle. It is a really striking shot, and once the shout begins the camera focuses in on Crossley’s mouth. I won’t spoil things by describing the aftermath of the shout, but it is a scene well worth seeing.

Rating: 8/10

 

The Shout is currently showing at the British Film Institute as part of the Made In Britain: Jeremy Thomas season. The next showings are 6th April (21:00) and 15th April (18:30).

 

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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

DeadOfNight1

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

Blood_for_Irina_Poster

USA: 2012

A modern vampire tale, Blood for Irina is a perfect illustration of how visual style can only take you so far. In an early interior shot we see Irina’s motel room suffused in red light, a scene reminiscent of Dario Argento’s Suspiria. Not long afterwards Irina (Shauna Henry) is shown walking along a deserted street that seems to be bathed in an orange/red colour which, according to the director’s DVD commentary, is a direct influence of Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. These early scenes, combined with a suitably atmospheric soundtrack, were very successful in creating an eerie, otherworldly, mood.

Irina is a woman with a terrible bloodlust, although whether she is an actual member of the undead, as opposed to a deranged person, is something that is never fully established. What we do see is that, shortly after dispatching her victims, Irina vomits up the blood she has swallowed. She seems to be a very sick vampire. After sinking her teeth into the neck of a man she has enticed back to her room, and feeding on his ravaged neck, Irina rushes to the bathroom and begins throwing up blood into the sink. It is at this point that a note of worry creeps into the viewers mind that the film is going to drag. We get a slow-motion shot of blood falling from Irina’s mouth, seen from the point-of-view of the plughole. This seems to go on forever, and from hereon in there are many other slow-motion shots and extended scenes that really needed to end sooner.

Although the film was shot with dialogue, this was all cut from the final version. Whether the inclusion of dialogue would have improved matters is far from certain, as much of the acting is frankly rather unconvincing. One scene that does work quite well occurs near the end, after Irina has brought Pink (Carrie Gemmell), an isolated young woman on the streets, back to her room. Irina bites into her own arm and then feeds her blood to the stranger she has picked up. Then Irina begins to feed on Pink’s blood, during which the camera lingers on Pink’s expression, which is one of ecstatic pleasure (the classic equating of vampiric behaviour with sexual activity).

However, this by no means rescues the viewer from the tedium that has descended by this point. I literally had to fight against drooping eyelids on a couple of occasions. This is a shame, because Chris Alexander does seem to have an eye for some visually arresting shots. According to the director’s commentary the movie was made with no budget, so it perhaps sounds a little churlish to criticise; but whether a film has no budget or a huge budget, the viewers’ only real criterion is whether or not they enjoyed it. In this case I didn’t.

Rating: 4/10

Rome_Open_City

In August 1943 Rome became an “open city”, abandoning all defensive efforts in the expectation that it would no longer be bombed. The following year, Rossellini began shooting a documentary about a priest who was involved with the Italian resistance. Partway through, he decided to combine this with another story about the resistance activities of children in Rome. Thus was born his neorealist classic Rome Open City.

The story revolves around the Nazis’ attempt to capture the leader of the resistance, Georgi Manfredi (Marcello Pagliero), who has been hiding out in a multi-occupant tenement block. One of the other occupants is Pina (Anna Magnani), pregnant by another resistance fighter, Francesco (Francesco Grandjacquet), who she is due to marry the next day. Father Don Pietro (Aldo Fabrizi), who is to perform the ceremony, gets called upon to deliver a package of money for the resistance. Shortly afterwards the streets are rocked by an explosion, which turns out to have caused by the local children bombing a Nazi target. The following day, the day of the wedding, the Nazis come for all the men.

In the tradition of Italian neorealisim, Rossellini adopts documentary-style shooting in the exterior shots. The one outstanding exception to this occurs following the children’s evening bombing raid, when we see them silhouetted against the light in the background as they come running over the brow of a hill, heading towards the viewer. It is a truly glorious moment. And of course the backdrop for all the outdoor scenes is not a studio set, but the actual city of Rome as it was in 1944. Many of the performers were not professional actors, but everyone is suited to their role, and we feel that we could be eavesdropping on genuine conversations.

As is so often the case with serious subjects, the impact of the most tragic moments is rendered all the more powerful by the inclusion of some quite comic scenes. However, when we get to the torture scenes, despite the fact we see almost nothing of what is actually happening these really make the viewer squirm. The whole process of torture is overseen by the Nazi Major Bergmann (Harry Feist), whose camp portrayal is hard to imagine being allowed in a serious modern film but nonetheless serves here to make his character even more chilling.

Rating: 9/10

Showing at the British Film Institute until 5th April 2014.