Top 10(ish) of 2021

I’ve been pretty hesitant to hit the cinema over recent months. So I decided I would delay my best of 2021 list until I was able to see everything I wanted to in the safety of my own home. So it is even later than usual. I saw just under 100 films released in 2021. Here’s what I loved.

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This year I have less honourable mentions than usual, but the quality of them is higher. After a really slow start, Godzilla vs Kong was so damn fun and delivered just what I was after in a film with that title. My blockbuster of choice that didn’t make the main list. The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, but for me this franchise continues to be the crowning jewel of the Waniverse, considering religion and horror in an interesting way. Stillwater takes some problematic turns, but it lingered with me longer than basically anything else this year, making me ponder the intersection of parenting and forgiveness. The first 40 odd minutes of The French Dispatch were my favourite Wes Anderson film ever, it fades after that but still worthwhile. Raya and the Last Dragon was my favourite animation of the year, driven by very un-Disney worldbuilding; The Strings was fuckin frightening &  arty indie horror while The Unholy was an unfairly maligned more mainstream effort in the genre.

10. Passing

passing

Not everything works here. But what does is some of the strongest filmmaking and performances of last year. I loved the 4:3 aspect ratio, black and white shooting. Lighting is used really intelligently throughout to emphasise the themes of race and ‘passing.’ An unsettling look at various facets of racism. Tessa Thompson is such a wonderful performer, and she always has such great patter with her co-stars. Neither are flashy performances, but both her and Negga are excellent here. An intellectual, thoughtful script. The adaptation is perhaps an even greater credit to Rebecca Hall than her direction (which is also very good).

9. Shiva Baby

Shiva baby

There was so much buzz about this film, but it was still a surprise. Has this almost genre film feeling high concept vibe. An atmosphere that builds and builds over the course of a day. Almost real-time in the way that that layers of pressure and bullshit cascade upon a person. A stark look at just how hard it is to navigate the world underneath those layers. Rachel Sennott brings all that out in a great lead performance. She is able to convey so much just through her face. There’s a sweetness brought to proceedings by the presence of Molly Gordon as a potential love interest, that cuts through what might otherwise have been too intense a mood. Great pop and chemistry between the characters. Also has a strange harsh, sharp score that the film uses really well.

8. Superhero films I wanted on this list

There is really no similarity between these two films. Which is a recommendation in itself. Another sign that superhero flicks can still sit out of the homogenous MCU mould (a mould that produces a lot of films I really dig) and head in different creative areas.

Venom: Let There be Carnage

venom 2 poster

Is this film as good as the others on this list, or even the first film in the series? No. But no two films have ever had the same swagger as these two films and I just want to honour that uniqueness by including it here. This is also by far the funniest comedy of last year. It is a great continuation of the (very homoerotic) relationship between Eddie Brock and the symbiote Venom. Leaning into something that was there in the first film, and then led to an entire internet’s worth of memes. The very intentional queer romance vibes that turns into here is the best kind of fan service. It’s also a surprisingly fantastic script that is legitimately beautiful at times. A film cut with humour, but never undercut by it.

The Eternals

eternals poster

I’m a little bemused by the response to this one. It feels like the really different MCU film everyone has been crying out for. Looks fuckin spectacular. Goes some intense places that are really well conveyed – it’s a wide ranging script with actual ideas. Legitimately sci-fi in terms of genre. Mixed with a globetrotting getting the band back together structure. The action is heavily CGI, but you can still feel the impact of it, and sense how it is all unfolding. Very much ambitious in story and scope, anchored in true-to-life emotion.

7. Streaming facilitated horror

There are certainly legitimate questions as to the effect that streaming has had on the cinematic landscape. But on occasion, it is undeniable that the usurping of the long-held status quo has resulted in experiments and form & function that we would not have otherwise been treated to. Like these.

The Amusement Park

Amusement park

How else but for streaming would a 2021 release be an educational film made by a master of horror in 1975 but never released? The film was commissioned by the Lutheran Society to highlight the horrors of ageing, but they never released it because it was too intense (not sure what they were expecting commissioning George A. Romero). The film itself is fascinating and radical. This is an attempt to make the viewer truly feel what it is to be elderly. To elicit sympathy, more through the aggressive ignoring of one’s existence than any harsh attacks (though those are there too). The everyday embarrassments and rejections. An absurdist, creative horror experience.

Fear Street: 1994

Fear Street: 1978

Fear Street: 1666

fear street

A horror trilogy, with the instalments released a week apart. An extremely cool, simple idea, which would have never been possible with a cinematic release. Thankfully all three films are well worth checking out too (my personal ranking is 1666, 1994, 1978). Director Leigh Janiak manages to take these films a really wide range of places, whilst always maintaining a YA vibe. Which is really impressive in the horror genre. A trilogy with frank sexuality, which is very open in its queerness. The entire experience is meticulously thought out and constructed around an intergenerational class divide. Mixes in mystery and tension with different subgenres of horror (slasher, witch film) in a really cool way.

6. Another Round

another round

A clever, super astute (and enjoyable) examination of all the roles alcohol plays in our lives. From the joys of race-walking your mates when plastered; to the risking your job lows. It’s often slightly absurd, and very very funny. Four mates decide to live life just a little tipsy at all times. The subtle changes on their lives are really cleverly done. Mads Mikkelsen is one of those dudes who is just a total movie star. Ultimately manages to be both life-affirming and super melancholy.

5. The Forever Purge

Forvever purge

The peak (to date) of the best contemporary horror franchise. A really tactile experience. Interesting that they chose to starkly differentiate this entry with the rural settings, rather than the usual urban focus. Weight lent by really good character actors. The Purge is shown to be as horrific as it should be. But then the aftermath of the night that follows: the tension, release, then tension again, is something not seen in the franchise before. Gruesome and grounded in the current political environment. It’s a series that continues to be more nuanced than anticipated. Some of it is a little clunky as a metaphor. But the whole is so arresting, with a fab diverse range of heroes, that it is absolutely worth checking out.

4. The Rescue

the rescue

The filmmakers behind Free Solo nail it again basically. I wasn’t particularly invested in the material and only watched it because of the directors. There’s a deep curiosity from them that makes this so essential. That’s ultimately what elevates this recap of events that feel like they’ve been told to death. Even in a pretty talking-head heavy approach, there’s a heart to this. Something that is drawn out, that was never apparent at the time, is the deep hopelessness of the situation. How that infected people trying to save the trapped children. Also the scrappiness and motley crew vibe. And then the utterly bonkers solution that was landed on. Staggering documentary filmmaking.

3. West Side Story

west side story

Spielberg is probably the greatest blockbuster filmmaker ever, and it is fascinating to see him bring that sensibility to a classical musical remake. He immerses us in an evocative inner city of decades past. One that doesn’t really exist except in imaginations now. A film that is both rousing and earthy. There’s some bravura staging that sit alongside Spielberg’s greatest set pieces – the start of the community dance for example. A flat male lead is well and truly drowned out by Rachel Zegler, and the supporting ensemble. Not to mention some quieter moments with Rita Moreno that are lovely and beautiful. Feels like very classical filmmaking, with just the right amount of modern sensibilities added in. Ends incredibly strong.

2. First Cow

First cow

This 1820 set Western feels like the ultimate pandemic film in a way – has been new in some way for years now. The second 4:3 aspect ratio film in the list, there’s an almost painterly beauty to the imagery. Whilst at other times the visual approach also lends intimacy and intensity to other sequences. Great use of music, as well as silence. Feels very evocative of the downtrodden, harsh existence the west must have been. “This ain’t a place for cows” as one character remarks. It’s also a different west visually, lush and moist. That aids in what functions as a reframing of the mythical qualities of America. A film that slowly develops and unfolds, drawing you in ever closer to the main characters. It’s a portrait of two people, their closeness both in proximity but also spiritually. Just like #1 on this list, it’s also a wonderful film about food. A vibe film, but so much more.

1. Pig

pig

The journey I went on while watching this film: invested in this guy and his relationship to the pig – one of the great films about food – really making me reflect on some shit from my past. A strangely, delightfully pulpy thriller. Resonated very strongly with me emotionally. A film that gets under your skin. I’m not the hugest late career Nic Cage guy, but he creates a character of immense depth here. There’s some really nice texture to this and the way it unfolds is delightfully unexpected. Repurposes the thriller style chase to dramatic ends. The whole thing has a very well-judged emotional pitch too.

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The 2021 guide to good Christmas shit on Aussie streaming

The third annual Christmas stuff on Aussie streaming bonanza!

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I’ve always loved Christmas films and TV, even as I got older. There’s something about those simple, lovely themes that I do think can add some beauty to what has become an overwhelming consumerist vibe to the season. All of these have something of that vibe of togetherness, love, and reflection, though not always in the most obvious of ways.

Stan

Our little Aussie streaming service that could (little in the sense that it’s owned by a massive local media conglomerate) loves Christmas. They also tag their stuff really well on here and have selections of Christmas TV episodes really well curated.  

  • It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) – I wrote a full review of this one a whiles back that you can read here. It’s a radical Christmas classic.
  • Community: ‘Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas’(season 2, episode 11): This rules. The spirit of the season examined through the exploration of one (Muslim) person’s mental health and search for the meaning of Christmas. A hilarious take on the Christmas musical in super cool stop motion animation.
  • Parks and Recreation: ‘Ron and Diane’ (season 5, episode 9): The Parks and Rec Christmas episodes probably don’t stand alone as well as some others. But this still has giggly awed at woodworking royalty Ron Swanson which is beautiful. And the focus on Jerry Gergich, always an underrated supporting character, and his famous Christmas party is a cute way to bring in those traditional themes.
  • The O.C.: ‘The Best Chrismukkah Ever’ (season 1, episode 13):  This was in the brief golden period when this show’s dynamic was so sharp. Seth Cohen’s energy comes to the fore here with the made-up holiday and Summer/Anna. Even now, so far removed from this show the music still rules. And Ben McKenzie gives a good emotional performance here as Ryan, which delivers a lot of the thematic goods.
  • Bad Moms 2 (2017) – This is a solid film that never quite lives up to the promise of having a hitchhiking Susan Sarandon play the mother of Kathryn Hahn (what film could). But this is a decent comedy that is actually pretty thematically rich – zeroing in on the mental load on women during the season. Let’s face it, Christmas can be fuckin stressful and most of that falls on mums. Those themes, some really nice performances and some interesting romantic stuff make it worth a look.
  • Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol (2010) – Generally I would frown on the themes of Dickens’ masterpiece being updated. But this does that in a way that totally reframes them, but is respectful – ponders the nature of memory and kids moving on from Christmas among other ideas. Done in a way that enhances the original’s melancholy messaging. Michael Gambon is having a great time just hamming it up. A creative adaptation that leans into the sci-fi vibes. It’s legitimately emotional and beautiful.
  • The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air: ‘Deck the Halls’ (season 1, episode 15) – In which Will is aghast at Ashleigh’s lack of Christmas spirit. Often the comedy in this show doesn’t hold up now. But this is very funny. Will Smith is great. And this Is that outsider character of his brashly indoctrinating someone he cares about into Christmas really hums. He’s a young and fearless performer here. Evander Holyfield also pops up for an all-time classic cameo.
  • Batman: The Animated Series: ‘Christmas with the Joker’ (season 1, episode 38) – Starts with the Joker busting out of Arkham singing his own version of Jingle Bells. So that’s pretty sweet. It’s such a stunning looking show. Robin filled with Christmas cheer (and desperate to watch It’s a Wonderful Life) is a very good counterpoint to the Bruce Wayne vibes.

Netflix

The kings of Christmas schmaltz continue to flood their service with seasonal stuff, their own and older stuff too.

  • A Very Murray Christmas (2015) – I’ve watched this every December since it came out. Murray’s schtick, which can be hit and miss for me, works really well in this. There are some cool songs that add to the storytelling and Sofia Coppola infuses some of her visual style in here as well. Importantly it’s also super funny.  
  • The Christmas Chronicles (2018) – AKA Kurt Russell Santa The Movie. This is actually quite a meaningful take on the Christmas mythos. Plus it looks really ace and is well acted all round. A lovely sense of magic and wonder to the world created here. Another favourite I watch pretty much every year.
  • The Christmas Chronicles 2 (2020) – Not as good as the first, but a more than worthwhile continuation of the characters and themes. Slick but in a not altogether bad way as there’s plenty of charm here. Goldie Hawn brings such joy and compliments Russell’s Santa very well. Leans into the elf stuff here, giving us loads more of that mythology.
  • Klaus (2019) – This is an absolutely stunning looking animation. There is an interesting out of time quality to this, there’s no hint as to when it is set. It’s a different take on the character of Santa too, how they reframe it. The film at times falls into the pitfalls of contemporary animation and having too modern a sensibility, with glib winking montages making multiple appearances. But that take on Santa and the really quite poignant ending make it worthwhile.
  • Holidate (2020) – Not strictly a Christmas movie. But it features and in terms of schmaltzy rom-coms this is extremely good. Plus there’s a grand romantic Christmas payoff. The sublime casting helps a lot, Emma Roberts is always ace (seeing her spit “fucking holidays” whilst smoking a durry makes this worth a watch by itself) and Like Bracey is solid too. It’s kinda raunchy and there are loads of good laughs.
  • Jingle Jangle (2020) – Love the storytime feel to this one. The whole vibe around the songs is great too. Musically interesting, great dancing and it flows beautifully with the film. Design and costuming are absolutely spot on. There are some charming relationships built up throughout the film as well, particularly a grandfather-granddaughter one.
  • Black Christmas (2019) – This is a solid Christmas slasher that has the added bonus of making a certain subset of horrible dudes irrationally angry. A rare proudly (if unsubtly) feminist flick that would fit rather nicely in a Christmas horror marathon.
  • Brooklyn Nine-Nine: ‘Captain Latvia’ (season 4, episode 10) – Has everything you need – Latvian gun runners, a Jingle All the Way riff and a carolling competition. Is the best, and most Christmassy, of the series’ seasonal episodes. Also stands alone easily so can be watched in isolation.  
  • Nailed It! Holiday! – Nailed It absolutely rules. It is somehow the kindest reality show that pokes fun at people truly awful at what they are attempting. Charming, unserious and Nicole Byers is the perfect host.
    • ‘We’re Scrooged’ (season 2, episode 1): A Christmas Carol themed episode with co-host Jason Mantzoukas. I haven’t always been the biggest fan of his comedic energy. But he’s fucking hilarious here. And there’s some delightful riffs on Dickens’ work. The hosts, and I, basically had a laughing fit at one of the cakes presented.
    • ‘A Classic Christmas’ (season 2, episode 2): The great Maya Rudolph brings a dry wit to this one that complements Byers and Jacques absolutely perfectly. I could listen to Rudolph riff over stellar incompetence such as not being able to open the fridge every day of the year. 
  • Stuff mentioned elsewhere that’s also available on Netflix: Community: ‘Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas’ (see the Stan section), Parks and Recreation: ‘Ron and Diane’ (see the Stan section).

Disney +

Maybe the other kings of Christmas content, as far as sheer volume goes.

  • The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) – The best Muppets movie and one of the better adaptations of Dickens’ work (which is one of my favourite pieces of art ever). So charming. Captures that snowbound sense of (northern) Christmas. Shows the class situation of the masses well too and Michael Caine is a really excellent Scrooge. It’s a very funny script but laces it with direct lines from the book to give it the Dickens vibe. Never shies away from the absurdity that it’s the Muppets doing this story.
  • A Christmas Carol (2009) – Robert Zemeckis is the man and this is a criminally underrated adaptation of the source material. The performance (or four) from Carrey is the best use of his wonderful physicality in the last 20-odd years. And it doesn’t forget this is a ghost story, some of the horror beats are chilling. The script is an excellent, emotionally resonant rendering of Dickens’ novella.
  • One Magic Christmas (1985) – First the good stuff (and it’s mostly really good stuff). Harry Dean Stanton as a cowboy Christmas angel! An excellent Mary Steenburgen performance as an utterly worn-down mother figure, in a film that is super concerned with class. Another film that digs into the load on mothers at this time of year. Quite an adult film thematically. Now the bad (which is a bit of a spoiler): The film has a woman believe her whole family is dead, so she’ll get some Christmas spirit… that’s super super fucked up. But the fact I still recommend this shows how strong (and original) those good elements are.
  • Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmas (1999)Donald Duck is the worst fuckin character. But despite that, this Disney anthology is a good, easy Christmas watch. Some nice slapstick and traditional Christmas messages presented in a slightly different way. And the final segment functions as a quite sad indictment of what the consumerist nature of Christmas forces us into.  
  • Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983) –Scrooge being cast as Ebenezer Scrooge is spectacular (funny that). And Goofy mmakes a great, silly Marley. Especially once the three spirits stuff starts, this rules hard. Absolutely crushes the messaging through all three. Gets really bleak and frightening (seriously I will never understand how Dickens’ book came to be for kids) but the second half of this is as good as any of the other adaptations on the list. Amazing it’s only 26 minutes long, but feels faithful.
  • Santa’s Workshop (1932) – A rad little short. Old fashioned Disney hand-drawn animation and music at its best. It’s all nice and jauntily done, particularly the lovely rhyming script.
  • Winnie the Pooh: A Very Merry Christmas (2002) – A good one for the smallest of Christmas fans. Uses carols well and Eeyore is quite funny. Some of the messaging – spirit over presents – is really nice.
  • Duck the Halls: A Mickey Mouse Christmas Special (2016) – First off, this is not as really young kid friendly as I was expecting. So that’s worth being aware of. But it’s also unexpectedly anarchic. Has a lot of little jokes more aimed at parents, which didn’t bother me like it often does. Uses music, both traditional and new, really well and the animation styling is cool too.
  • The Simpsons – I was sort of surprised when I went looking that there were actually very few Christmas episodes in the show’s golden age. The ones that do exist are only ok really and I think in a way the show is too cynical to totally embrace the spirit of the season. But these two are decent enough if you really want a fix:
    • ‘Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire’ (season 1, episode 1): Rough as guts animation and voiceover. But it’s a passable Christmas storyline with a nice finish to it.
    • ‘Miracle on Evergreen Terrace’ (season 9, episode 11): Nice and Christmassy with lots of the iconography. A reasonable arc for Bart too which is rarely a strength of the show.

Amazon Prime Video

As evidenced by the small list of stuff only they have, Christmas is not a prime focus of these big evil folks at the moment.

  • The Field Guide to Evil (2018) – This is a good not great horror anthology, held together by the commitment to the folklore vibe. But importantly for the purposes of this piece, the fifth short from Greece titled ‘Whatever Happened to Panagas the Pagan’ is a Christmas story. A very cool little one at that, with a nice mixture of and new themes and imagery. The creature is super creepy too.
  • Stuff mentioned elsewhere that’s also available on Prime Video: Parks and Recreation: ‘Ron and Diane’ (see the Stan section), Bad Moms 2 (see the Stan section), Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol (see the Stan section).

Tubi

A new service for this year’s list – Tubi is a really fun, free (though ad supported) streaming service. Traditionally known for their genre/lower budget stuff, there’s some really interesting pockets of Christmas viewing to be had.

  • Jack Frost (1997) – Stories about killer snowmen should be fun, and this one really is. An absolute silly delight. Plays in the slasher space. Incorporates Christmas iconography very very well (and bloodily). Though one word of warning: there is one crappy assault scene in here involving the Shannon Elizabeth character.
  • A Christmas Carol (1984) I don’t say this lightly: this is the supreme adaptation of the Dickens novella. George C. Scott as Scrooge nails the world-weariness, frustration, and coldness of the character. It’s a super-rich characterisation. A very strong piece of adaptation that is brought to life in a really atmospheric way. Gets to the melancholy of the story, which is so important – that recognition of time wasted. Has the class politics of the Dickens, but also the emotion. A masterpiece.

Shudder

Horror streamers Shudder have a small, but interesting selection of Christmas stuff. What I watched was a mixed bag, but loved these couple.

  • A Creepshow Horror Special (2020) – This has a delightfully off-kilter vibe to it. It creeps along for a while, with no real Christmas content. But the moment it reveals the Christmas connection is a brilliant little beat! An awesome reframing of the department store Santa.  The whole thing weird and funny, really helped along by a wonderful performance from Anna Camp and some super funny effects & costuming.
  • Saint (2010) – A surprising Christmas horror. Playfully gruesome and schlocky. Really like the way the film infuses mythology into the (mainly) contemporary setting. Turns into a fun little buddy-cop jaunt at the end. Charming and super Christmassy.

Paramount +

Not too many folks have jumped aboard this service. And I see why to be honest. But these are two of my absolute favourite new additions to this list. So grab a free trial and check these two out.

  • Hey Arnold!: ‘Arnold’s Christmas’ (season 1, episode 20) – this absolutely crushes and is my favourite new addition to this year’s list. Helga is a perfect character to be a cipher for Scroogey Christmas commercialism. It looks great – snowy city streets and decorations. Uses some heavy shit to convey its message – we’re talking Vietnam War flashbacks and families being separated. A refugee story, which is pretty bloody apt for Christmas. Close to perfection as a piece of Christmas media. I cried.
  • The Twilight Zone: ‘Night of the Meek’(season 2, episode 11) Bloody radical stuff. Drenched in Christmas from the start. Opens with a department store Santa on the turps. The emotion is really raw in this thing. It’s well realised and slick, with a very good script. Stark depiction of alcoholism and super class conscious. It’s a great take on the magic and spirit of Christmas.

SBS on Demand

  • Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010) – This sparse, snowbound horror succeeds wonderfully at what it is trying to do. A great, taut little storyline drives a film that is as much about family as anything else (just like Christmas). A truly original, stylishly shot film that has some fantastically creepy moments. Cool, unique father/son tale too.

YouTube

  • Santa Clause (1898) – A fun little curio. Directed by British film pioneer George Albert Smith, this is a one minute 16 second long piece of early cinema trickery as Santa visits a couple of kids. You can see a nice copy from the BFI here.   
  • Star Wars Christmas Special (1978) – I can’t in good conscience recommend you sit down and watch this. As a piece of art it’s wildly misjudged. But it’s a hilariously ‘good-bad’ choice to have on in the background as you wrap presents or even at a Christmas party. It’s well known that Disney will never release this officially. But given the version here has been up for 6 years and been watched a couple of million times, it’s clear they don’t give a shit enough to have it pulled down.
  • A Luchagore Christmas (2015) – Two minutes of very atmospheric Christmas horror. Cool set dressing that gets darker quickly. Really dig the reinterpretation of Christmas imagery and tropes here, particularly the carol on the soundtrack. There’s a rad, gross kicker to finish it off. You can watch it here.

If you’d like to see more regular writing from me, I’d love for you to head here and subscribe to my Five Rad Films newsletter. It’s an occasional (every 3-4 weeks) look at the last five films I’ve seen I rated 4 stars or above.

Why I Watch Horror

Filmy people will (understandably) reject the question. But I am often asked why I watch horror by those around me. Here’s four semi-formed thoughts as to why.

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conjuring couple

Horror allows us to ruminate on the supernatural and the unknown. In many horror films, the supernatural is plainly real. There is life after death and power is wielded from beyond. In something like The Conjuring franchise God and the Devil exist and are able to exert power on earth. These films, particularly The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It (2021) sit at the intersection of these kind of powers, and how humans can possibly hope to interreact or counteract those forces. Horror also allows us to grapple with physical things that may be true. Pondering whether there is life beyond earth in a universe that is apparently endless can leave us feeling alone and shit scared. Strangely, aliens in film, while making elements of that fear more tangible, can also be almost comforting as the concreteness of them allows them to be explored in a new way. They can provide real danger and menace, but they can also be defeated. Horror films can answer the ‘is there x’ in the first 5 mins and spend the rest of that time looking at how the fuck that operates and how it effects characters.

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descent

Horror is a physical experience. Apart from a ‘side splitting’ comedy, film is rarely a physical experience. In horror there is tension and release. Often the former is long and the latter sudden. Watching a decent horror film is never a flat line. It is up and down. Terror and comfort. Total engagement. Horror comes in short bursts. Though at times this physical element can go too far. The claustrophobia of The Descent is an experience that was too oppressive for some viewers (though loved by many). Horror is concerned with the physical form in many ways. It’s destruction or its transcendence (sometimes both). But more than any other genre, it makes the viewer more aware of their body. How it tightens, grips the seats or even how the eyes can be averted to a part of the screen that is perceived as safer (how many viewers have taken a spell looking at the exit sign to the side of the cinema screen rather than at the film unfolding). Nothing in cinema compares to getting caught out by a jump scare – the absolute and immediate rush of adrenalin and fear, the sharp relief and then so often the awareness and embarrassment of sheepishly looking around to see who noticed that the film really got you.

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purge anarchy

Horror is a way of engaging with the fucked-up world in a safe way. It’s not quite that crime fiction thing of being comforted by the bad guy always getting caught so we are safe. It’s something realer and often more unsettling than that. Horror is often drawn from fact and some of the best of the genre does not shy away from the fact that the bad guy does not always get caught. Great horror can grapple with murder, sexual assault and other real-life horrors in a thought-provoking way. It can examine and illuminate. This can happen in a few different ways. Something like Ti West’s The Sacrament (2013), or even Justin Kurzel’s Snowtown (2011), immerses us in an event that has been repeated in passing endlessly. But these films dwell on that horror and make us feel a tiny percentage of what the people there would have been feeling. Strangely this deeper engagement with real life horror and real-life horrific people is often perceived as more disrespectful than passing mentions or flat out pretending an event did not occur and that it did not irreparably change people and places (a debate most recently seen here around the release of Kurzel’s Nitram (2021)). The Purge franchise has evolved to fit this description too. What was initially a just a cool high concept idea has evolved alongside the rapidly changing world. Embracing head-on the sweeping tide of conservatism and Trumpism, incorporating the real-life atmosphere more and more into the events and messaging of the film. Along the way, and perhaps as a result, growing into the best contemporary horror franchise there is.

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lake placid

Horror is comforting. All genre thick with iconography comes with a level of comfort. Even horror. There’s reassurance in that surface level familiarity. Hats and guns in the western, chases in action, cops and baddies in crime films.  Here it’s basements or grotesquely oversized animals that charm and strangely comfort. The classic Universal Monsters series trades heavily on this, and films like House of Frankenstein (1944) are predicated almost solely on this. This underappreciated classic is a jaunt of characters such as Dracula and the Wolfman, with charming effects and playful tropes (quicksand!). And that’s really all there is to it. That stuff is a warm blanket to horror fans. This is repurposed and taken to an extreme in something like the Hotel Transylvania series or even the playful takes on horror from The Muppets and Lego Star Wars that we’ve seen this October. We also see more modern creature features trade in, and update this. Something like Anaconda (1997) or particularly Lake Placid (1999) are charming in the scripts they choose to lay their gigantic killers against. The creativity of the visuals and the kills make the horror fan feel at home.

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If you’d like to see more regular writing from me, I’d love for you to head here and subscribe to my Five Rad Films newsletter. It’s an occasional (every 3-4 weeks) look at the last five films I’ve seen I rated 4 stars or above.

Jason X

Over six years ago I reviewed the first nine films in the Friday the 13th franchise on this blog. For some reason I never got around to reviewing the final entry. I thought Halloween season was as good a time as any (obviously wrote this last bit a couple of months ago and only just getting around to finally posting this now).

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Jason X poster

Jason X (2001) hasn’t quite achieved total cult status yet. But there has been something of a warming to the film over recent years. Honestly, it’s hard to see why.

Futuristic Jason in space is an utterly wild, and inspired, place to take this franchise. More the pity then that they made it so incredibly boring. Opening text on the screen informs us the location is ‘Crystal Lake Research Facility’. Which is awesome. The short prelude sees Jason and scientist Rowan LaFontaine cryogenically frozen, then ending up thawed out on a spaceship in the 2400s. Which is also awesome. For the most part though, what follows is tepid rather than awesome. Almost as if they wanted to give this silliest of concepts a relatively straight presentation for some reason. It also becomes apparent that a not very imaginatively put together spaceship is a less engaging locale for a slasher than a camp in the woods. There’s less places for the characters to explore and escape to, and less texture to the visuals.

Jason X

Curiously Jason is essentially invincible now. Which makes him a less interesting figure. Especially given his occasional vulnerable moments throughout the franchise is something that set him apart from his villainous contemporaries. Whilst it is clear Jason is never going to ‘die’ before the last few minutes, this lack of vulnerability makes him a really flat figure. But on the positive side, the design of Jason (both of them I guess) rules hard. It fits in with the setting and the vibe of what a better version of this film would look like. The reanimated version late in the film (uber-Jason I believe) looks harsh and metallic and rad. There are one or two fun moments through the film – the first kill which is the only one where the creators tapped into any sort of creativity with this stuff; and the dated CGI is actually rather charming rather than distracting. But wow what a bloody let down.  

Uber Jason

Verdict: How in the world do you make Jason In Space this incredibly dull. It’s certainly not the worst of the franchise. But it is the most disappointing. Schooner of Carlton Draught

  1. Friday the 13th Part VII
  2. Jason Goes to Hell
  3. Friday the 13th Part 2
  4. Jason Lives: Friday the 13th Part VI
  5. Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter
  6. Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan
  7. Friday the 13th
  8. Jason X
  9. Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning
  10. Friday the 13th Part III

If you’d like to see more regular writing from me, I’d love for you to head here and subscribe to my Five Rad Films newsletter. It’s an occasional (every 3-4 weeks) look at the last five films I’ve seen I rated 4 stars or above.

Five Short 1001 Reviews: Project A Part II, The Last Wave, The War Game, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and Seven Chances

Five films off the 1001 Films to See Before You Die list. One paragraph each. That’s it.

***

project a part 2

Project A: Part II (1987), directed by Jackie Chan – In which new police boss Jackie Chan attempts to straighten out the incompetent, crooked team he is in charge of. And choosing to take on the formerly protected big gangster in town too. Similar to the first of these, this features some of Chan’s best, most beautifully structured action sequences. There is a gritty, hard-hitting feeling to it that is not always there in his work. The period setting and narrative seriousness also seem to strip the sequences back. Not so much about flair as about blokey one-upmanship. If anything the film could have done with more fight scenes. The narrative is simple, but cleanly done, basically all that is needed for an action film. Though Chan’s amusing side does come out, even if it is more measured here – subtle situations and hijinks. The wild stunts are another highpoint to this and serve to show just how much of a true creative Chan is. Verdict: Pint of Kilkenny

the last wave

The Last Wave (1977), directed by Peter Weir – Similar to Walkabout (1977) from six years earlier, this is another Aussie classic that reminds us our film culture is weirder than often given credit for. The atmosphere is immediately disquieting. Loud thunder over a perfect sky. And weather as atmosphere is an ever-present through the whole film. The routine is made to feel ominous. A hand reaching out to remove a plug puts you on edge. It’s a creepy film, weaving in elements of sci-fi and horror to great effect. People from dreams appear in real life. Almost sci-fi through an Indigenous Australian framing, dreamtime as sci-fi tropes. An approach that often feels respectful, but on occasions does veer into uneasy territory. It doesn’t always work. But worth checking out thanks to the unique approach, as well as the Richard Chamberlain, David Gulpilil lead duo at its core. A great example of how two onscreen energies working well together can enhance the thematic weight of a film. Verdict: Stubby of Reschs

the war game

The War Game (1966), directed by Peter Watkins – Extremely early look at the aftermath of a nuclear incident. Opens with a very matter of fact documentary style, but that does loosen a little. In fact the lack of commitment to the faux documentary – qualifiers like ‘should Britain ever do this’ and ‘if there was a war’ – serve to lessen the intensity of the end product. It’s distancing. But that’s not to say it is not harrowing at times. Enhanced by the incredible makeup work chiefly amongst the general technical proficiency. Above anything else, this is a procedural, digging into the minutiae of the chaos and response. Makes clear the evil on both sides and the general absurdity of nuclear weaponry in general. Briefly examines the endorsement or comfort level of the populace in that too.   Verdict: Stubby of Reschs

017.TIF

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), directed by Pedro Almodovar –  Almodovar is in rambunctious mode here. From the plotting, to the characters to his use of music (early on here opera is infused into the most mundane of scenes). The approach to conveying this sense of a number of women on the verge is to imbue things with an almost mania. Which works for the most part. Characters are added to the swirling pot in a kind of cacophony of hectic activity and irrational decisions. But even with all of that, it often feels like an oddly uncharismatic film from Almodovar. This is despite the solid script, which settles into lovely farce after a while. A baggy shirted, very young Antonio Banderas is good as a wide-eyed, naïve, bit of a dick. Whilst in the lead Carmen Maura is very funny, whilst also grounding the entire thing. Verdict: Stubby of Reschs 

seven chances

Seven Chances (1925), directed by Buster Keaton – This opens really cleverly. Passing of the seasons and a growing dog used to show how Keaton cannot share his emotions. Not exactly straight into the slapstick. But it doesn’t take long and there’s plenty of it – no one in cinema history has been able to walk into the wrong location quite like him. Keaton has always been about more than just slapstick and this film shows that very well. He does wry very well and he shows a fair bit of acting range here. There’s a couple of rightly iconic sequences, as Buster is chased through the streets. The action is big and beautifully shot, showcasing the athleticism of the lead. Quirky in jokes – repetition of the number 7 and funny consideration of time. It’s a wonderful ride, even if the end result is perhaps really charming rather than all-time classic. Verdict: Pint of Kilkenny

Progress: 156/1001

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Universal Monsters ranking

After getting my hands on the full Universal Monsters set, a watchthrough of the entire deal was in order. My favourite stayed the same, but there were loads of pleasant surprises in here. I would say the top 22 here are at least worth a watch, whilst the top 11 are highly recommended classical goodness.

***

Mummys tomb poster

31. The Mummy’s Tomb (1942), Harold Young– The Mummy’s Hand set the template for what a crappy Mummy sequel looks like. This film perfects that formula. It uses more than a sixth of the running time excerpting and rehashing the previous film to kick things off. The whole thing is bog standard and goes through the motions blandly. And the performances and the look of the Mummy are worse than the earlier films. Whatever the opposite of electric storytelling is, this is that. 

Invisible mans revenge poster

30. The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944), Ford Beebe – Bloody rough. Lacks the high concept of the couple that come before it in this series and geez it shows. A bland outing that feels like the laziest possible take on this character. The one saving grace – no surprises it’s a visual thing – is a very cool and creepy shot of him splashing water on his face.

Revenge of the creature poster

29. Revenge of the Creature (1955), Jack Arnold – A very very flat experience and the only low point in the Creature films. The standard trope of the creature grabbing a random woman again plays here. But for whatever reason it really bothered me this time out. And there is not enough of the action and underwater choreography that are such a highlight of the other two ‘Creature’ films. A very poor script, even by the standards of this franchise.

the invisible man returns poster

28. The Invisible Man Returns (1940), Joe May – The first one is not a film that lends itself to a follow up and that shows here. Retains the original’s real-to-life vibes but this is really quite bleak. Amazing effects but used to a flat overall effect. There’s a descent into madness that just feels tired here. A super uninteresting story.

spanish dracula poster

27. Dracula (1931), Enrique Tovar Avalos & George Melford – The Spanish version, shot on the same sets as the ‘western’ one is an interesting curiosity, but probably more worthwhile in that sense than as a piece of entertainment. Shares a lot of the same craft as Browning’s film, but also lacks a lot of the pop. Particularly the performances – old mate looks like a home-brand Lugosi and that comment goes for the performance too. He doesn’t have the presence. It’s a bloated, wooden and flat film. Rarely criticisms associated with this franchise, even the lesser entries. 

son of frankenstein poster

26. Son of Frankenstein (1939), Rowland V. Lee – This is one of the few sequels with much of a reputation, but this was really disappointing and kicks off a duo of crappy Frankenstein entries. Opens atmospherically, with Basil Rathbone doing the fish out of water thing nicely. But that character grows into something blander that we’ve seen before and whilst the atmosphere endures and the film looks amazing (one of the best visual experiences of the franchise), there’s little else to recommend it. The usually excellent Lugosi is bad here and it too often feels like a poor pastiche of the first film. But with added bummer of the monster being uninteresting and only a minor focus.

Frankenstein meets the wolfman poster

25. Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), Roy William Neill – The most promising title in the whole franchise fails to deliver. Which sucks even more given it has the spookiest opening in the franchise when some dudes decide to rob the Wolf Man’s grave. But after that barely anything happens. Chaney is the best actor in the franchise but he’s not great here, particularly the weird pantomime movement he has as the Wolf Man for some reason. The monster emerging from the ice is another cool moment. Lugosi plays the monster here and he looks utterly ridiculous and moves that way too. A shallowness to the characters cruels this one.

the mummys hand poster

24. The Mummy’s Hand (1940), Christy Cabanne – This is not a great sequel. There are some nice elements to grab a hold of – the set design is rad, Eduardo Ciannelli gives an excellent performance and the reworked mummy design is super creepy at times. But outside of that, this sets the tone for what a crappy Mummy sequel looks like – the plot is an almost comical rehash of the first, the comedy writing is tiresome and most egregiously of all there’s too much time spent on annoying Americans rather than cool mummy shit.

Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man poster

23. Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1952), Charles Lamont – Definitely the weakest of the Abbott and Costello Universal entries. Starts nicely with them graduating detective school. But the way the Invisible Man character is incorporated feels flimsy and a bit of a waste. Whilst the leads are good, the material is just not there. Really drags despite the occasional funny visual gag. 

phantom of the opera poster

22. Phantom of the Opera (1943), Arthur Lubin – Always been difficult to see why they include this. In colour, WTF! But it’s solid. Looks stunning for its age – genuinely looks as if it was made 20 or so years later. Thematic tension between a life of artistry and one of ‘normalcy’ is nicely drawn. I’m no fan of opera but the music is pretty good here. The comedy is a bit shit and the all important reveal scene is a dud. But despite those drawbacks and it being an ill-fit in the franchise, this is entertaining enough.

she wolf of london poster

21. She-Wolf of London (1946), Jean Yarbrough – Quite a measured film. Turn of the century London, vaguely commenting on class and status. It’s an interesting approach but not exactly why you watch a werewolf film. Good sense of mystery though around who the werewolf is. There’s some interesting twists and machinations, just wish they were popping up in a better film. 

ghost of frankenstein poster

20. The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), Erle C. Kenton – This one is passable – mainly due to some fun creepy moments with the monster. Loved when it emerged from the sulphur pit in particular. Yet another son of Dr Frankenstein feels pretty tired by this point. But other elements of the plotting are stronger. Some of the broad paranoia from the village about being cursed by the family is astutely done and the general ups and downs of where this goes are fun too.

mummys curse poster

19. The Mummy’s Curse (1944), Leslie Goodwin – Apparently 1944 was a good year for Mummy sequels. This is pretty atmospheric, especially early on. The barroom chat about bayous, swamps and missing mummies early on really resonates. And the flashbacks that have been pretty crappy throughout the series are really nicely done and creatively edited with the main film. There’s a suitably overacted Egyptian priest character that actually adds a decent amount to the plotting. Some great shots, not least of which is Princess Ananka rising from the ground. It’s a great physical performance from Virginia Christine. Though one downside to this one is that the mummy looks super crappy.

werewolf of london

18. Werewolf of London (1935), Stuart Walker – Almost sits a little outside the Universal Monsters house style. Which is not altogether a bad thing. Fun and quirky opening set in the Himalayas. In many ways feels like a proto-Monsters film. The science, costuming and themes are all there, but it’s a little raw and lacks the distinctive character. Looks different with some lovely on location shooting. Quite dark and grounded too.

abbott and costello meet the mummy poster

17. Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955), Charles Lamont – As with the work a lot of very old school comedians, takes a while to really get used to the comedic sensibility. But after the first, hilarious interaction with the Mummy, this is pretty funny and rather charming. Obviously it’s hard to compare to the more straight horror films here. But the settings, atmosphere and characters are all analogous and add a little something. Needed more Mummy though.

mummys ghost poster

16. The Mummy’s Ghost (1944), Reginald Le Borg – the first couple of Mummy sequels are dire. Thankfully this is an acceptable romp. It’s a simple story of seeking to resurrect the Mummy’s girlfriend. Which is at least a little different to the earlier films. It’s a touch light on incidence, but this time around the obvious beats feel comforting rather than grating. There’s a good, early John Carradine performance too. This closes with a hell of a shocking ending that came totally as a surprise and that I really dug.

bride of frankenstein poster

15. Bride of Frankenstein (1935), James Whale – Much like Whale’s first film in this series, when this is good it’s wonderfully inspired – the framing device featuring Mary Shelley and another poignant scene that mirrors the one in the original (in this case with a blind character). Plus the Bride is one of the greatest looking characters ever rendered onscreen. But she is only in the film for about four minutes (literally). The characters, both human and monster, don’t ring true – either simply in the world of this film or in comparison to where they ended up in the first. It gets interestingly very dark and the notion of a corrupted science partnership feels super modern. But it’s all just fine.

house of dracula poster

14. House of Dracula (1945), Erle C. Kenton – This one feels like a really key tipping point in the franchise’s growing obsession with immortality as a thematic concern. This has some wonderful music and the setup of all these monsters rocking up at the same place for treatment is delightfully quaint. The storytelling is a little unclear and the ending is pretty unsatisfying. Which is a shame because there’s some really good stuff here, it looks sharp full of shadows & moonlight, and the hunchback woman character feels unique and provides the heart of the film.

invisible agent poster

13. Invisible Agent (1942), Edwin L. Marin – Quite good, though one can’t help wonder what could have been done with such a stunning central idea – Invisible Man deployed in war. The wartime spy vibe is fab and it’s really well performed. A youngish Peter Lorre even shows up giving a deliciously sneering performance, tough unfortunately as a Japanese man. That wartime spy vibe is where most of the richness originates. Even though it could have done more with that, it’s still a thrilling atmosphere to be relatively immersed in.

frankenstein poster

12. Frankenstein (1931), James Whale – When this is good, it’s really fucking good. There are a couple of sequences in this film as good as anything else in the entire franchise – the entire “it’s alive!!!” bit as the storm rages outside; and the monster’s interaction with the little girl. There’s a reasonable amount of filler throughout the rest of the film though, and it often clunks, which makes this middling as far as the classic originals go.

invisible man poster

11. The Invisible Man (1933), James Whale – Whale gives us a different feel here to the other corners of the Universal Monsters world. This is grounded and real to life with a meaner streak than we’re used to. The character design is still some of the best in the franchise (the initial reveal remains jaw dropping) and the entire opening third is atmospheric as shit. It’s an effects masterpiece. Where it falls down a little is in the plotting. Feels that Whale was so busy thinking of the atmospheric and visual possibilities he neglected to create something above average on the story front.

invisible woman poster

10. The Invisible Woman (1940), A. Edward Sutherland – The best of the ‘invisible’ films also has the most sense of fun. It’s a tricky tonal balance to pull off, but Sutherland is really assured here. Even weaves in a mobster subplot without losing his handle on things. Wonderful design and keeps the themes interesting despite the lighter vibe overall. The effects are stunning, they get better with every one of these films.

abbott and costello meet frankenstein

9. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), Charles Barton – Bloody hell this is fun. And good. This one taught me that it’s not just slapstick with Abbott and Costello. So much of the humour comes from the quieter moments, the dialogue and wordplay. Great to see Lugosi back as Dracula here, clearly having loads of fun. It’s a brilliant comedic script that weaves in the horror stuff really nicely. Plus, there’s also some delightful adventure beats and it’s fun to see Chaney Jr’s Lawrence Talbot almost in the heroic lead role in those sequences.

the mummy poster

8. The Mummy (1932), Karl Freund – This is one of the original batch of classics that fits into the really good rather than all-time classic category. The main reason to catch this one is Karloff, who gives a performance as good as any of his here. It’s quite subtle work from him too with his physicality straddling that line between human and non-human. There’s also some quite modern and creative shooting of the scares – your eye is drawn to the Mummy in the background, waiting for the movement. However, it’s let down by some of the story beats being not just over-familiar, but better done elsewhere.

draculas daughter

7. Dracula’s Daughter (1936), Lambert Hillyer – A good example of a sequel in a super mainstream series that does just the right amount of things differently. Edward Van Sloan’s Van Helsing provides some continuity. But this is very much the story of the titular daughter, or more accurately the Countess Marya Zaleska. Absolutely the woman wielding the most power up until this point in the franchise (and probably just overall). The script stands out amongst these films – it’s cerebral and interested in the world and people. Really great characters too, both new and returning.

creature walks among us poster

6. The Creature Walks Among Us (1956), John Sherwood –  A lovely surprise after the bloody dire first sequel to The Creature From The Black Lagoon. Early on builds tension in really creative ways. There’s an extended sonar sequence that feels super innovative. Has a super strong second half driven by some more sci-fi feeling plot beats that see the creature evolving into something more human. Even the philosophical scripting and relationship angles work well. The action and underwater sequences are tops as well. A really wacky sequel that also functions as a meditation on the shittiness of man (as all good monster flicks should).

son of dracula

5. Son of Dracula (1943), Robert Siodmak – One key takeaway from this experience – the Dracula series of films is the standout. And if you wanted to tackle a smaller version of my undertaking, I’d work through those. This film is a big reason why. There’s something super charming about it – cobwebs being wiped away to reveal the title, Count Alucard being Dracula backwards. Super atmospheric and leans into the mystical more than most of these films. Actually gives something to consider on a thematic level. And the performance from Lon Chaney Jr is as good as any he gives in the entire franchise – super smarmy and creepy. Amazing effects, particular the ones involving the bat transformations. It’s probably the film here that looks the most modern and cool overall actually.

creature from the black lagoon poster

4. Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), Jack Arnold – Probably the most underrated of the main classics. Perhaps cause of how late it came. The design of the creature still stands up and is probably the design pinnacle of the series. There’s a nice mix of high concept and pulp storytelling here. But where it really shines (and again outshines any other film listed) is in the action, particularly the underwater shooting, choreography and use of space.

house of frankenstein poster

3. House of Frankenstein (1944), Erle C. Kenton – A fantastic monster mashup (it has quicksand and everything!). The find of this whole experience and one I think I’ll return to often. Brilliant effects in the service of character and atmosphere. Really creepy and dark in places, John Carradine is really impactful in that regard. Plays almost like an anthology, crossing tones and vibes throughout but somehow feeling both ramshackle and cohesive.

dracula poster

2. Dracula (1931), Tod Browning – To me this is sublime classic Hollywood storytelling. Really bloody artful and atmospheric. And Browning elicits the best ensemble of performances of any film on this list. Lugosi is rightfully iconic. His schtick is simultaneously rigid and incredibly menacing. While Edward Van Sloan’s Professor Van Helsing is a cerebral hero and it’s a wonderful performance. This film is also plot and incident heavy throughout, not a slow build like some of the others.

the wolf man poster

1. The Wolf Man (1941), George Waggner – This is an utterly charming experience. Opens with a close up of the dictionary definition of lycanthropy and then jumps to a very fake castle. But somehow that functions as an immersive start. There’s a poignancy to the familial relationship as well as in Lawrence Talbot’s plight (which would carry through a lot of later films, mainly thanks to Lon Chaney Jr’s excellent performances). There’s a denseness to the plotting and characters here that sets it apart. As well as the wonderful effect of the werewolf transformation that is still a marvel of filmmaking trickery. The eventual costume feels more lo-fi than a lot of the franchise, but again, it’s charming.  Leans into the mystery genre in a really fun way too.

***

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Black Sunday

I like giallo films, but also don’t watch them that often. It’s just not something I feel in the mood for very much. So when I was searching for a horror 1001 film to review alongside the Universal list, I jumped on the only Mario Bava film on the list. As I mentioned I haven’t watched loads of giallo. But of the big names, it’s Bava’s films that I gave been most taken with.

***

black sunday poster

The entry in the ‘1001 Movies to See Before You Die’ book for Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (1960) notes: ‘The plot is the usual mix of secret passages, family curses, and sudden deaths, but Bava crams every frame with fascinating, horrid detail.’ The usual mix referred to there is one of the film’s predominant attractions. Even though this is a horror film, there’s comfort to be taken in some of these locations and storylines being brought to life by such a fantastic filmmaker, albeit one at the start of their career (and that youthfulness probably shows). The sets are reminiscent of the Universal Monsters films (or perhaps I just have them on my mind) and the makeup is bloody excellent. But as for every frame being filled with fascinating, horrid detail, it is more like 40% of frames. Those that are certainly are memorable – see the gnarly opening with a witch having a mask of nails hammered onto her face. In fact the opening period of the film promises a much more interesting experience than what follows. Grounded in traditional Christian stuff like Satan, hell and witches, a mythic feeling thread that could have been kept at the forefront more. Certainly the film lacks narrative drive throughout and having something like that to lean into a little more could have compensated for that.

Black Sunday does suffer coming to it as a fan of Bava’s other work. Nothing really sets this apart. Not the electric proto-slasher energy of Bay of Blood (1971) or the eye popping bold creativity of Blood and Black Lace (1964) or even just the charming tweaking of genre tropes in Five Dolls for an August Moon (1970). There is no similar achievement for this one which is best described as gothic solidity. It’s not a film that really holds the viewer’s interest. Perhaps because outside of the few high points that are shocking for a film of this age, it all feels too familiar. There’s no intrigue about what is happening here. The creepy imagery is perhaps what possibly sets it apart from those superior films mentioned above. And it is enhanced beautifully by the black and white shooting – it is a stunning looking film. Particularly at the start and when Asa awakes, her face pock-marked from the execution. There are also moments of style and imagery throughout that take you aback and snap attention back to the screen. Unfortunately the narrative is not there to maintain attention in between those arresting visual moments.

black sunday mask

Verdict: There’s no denying the artistry here. But this feels too low key throughout and is pretty dated. The visuals are definitely noteworthy but it’s only a firm recommendation for those intrigued by the gothic or big Bava fans. Stubby of Reschs

Progress: 151/1001

***

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Top 10(ish) of 2020

Time has come to wrap up a cinema year like no other. That’s true even for me, with my break of cinema-going of only around 4 and a half months being yet another reminder of how lucky I’ve been in terms of pandemic life. There’s certainly something of a different vibe to the list, even smaller scale than usual. The drought of big releases actually resulted in digging deeper and a broader consideration of what constituted a new release. Both good things I think. Ended up watching about 110 films from 2020. Here’s thoughts on my favourite 10(ish).

***

As always, we take a deep breath and start with the honourable mentions: in a year uniquely bereft of the superhero film the cerebral Superman: Red Son and not-cerebral Bloodshot gave us a different take on the tired genre; plus despite its major flaws Wonder Woman 1984 took the very fun route with a huge property in a way that was refreshing. Twas a great year for the rom-com with The Love Birds, The Broken Hearts Gallery, Emma (rom-com right?) and yes Holidate all brought me joy. Keeping with the seasonal theme, The Christmas Chronicles 2 was an excellent follow-up that I seemed to like lots more than other folks. Horror was good as always – the small scale and creative Sweetheart, haunted dress film In Fabric, bombastically mainstream and relevant The Invisible Man and the clever fairy tale reimagining Gretel & Hansel all really worthwhile. Just Mercy and The Way Back were bloody good takes on dramas we’ve seen before and Spike Lee’s super bold Da 5 Bloods was one we haven’t seen before. And I’ll close with one I think I’m in the minority on: Downhill was tops, excellently performed and I liked it more than the film it’s based on.

10. Sea Fever

sea-fever

Textural, regional aquatic horror trading in superstition and creeping fear. Appreciated the way in which it weaves in faith and Christian iconography, the impact of those when combined with labour, and overlaid with a setting as mythological as the open seas. One of those films that took on a new meaning in this pandemic age even if filmed beforehand. Love how the unknown, natural danger is subtly introduced. Shocking turns of events abound. Features very strong performances from Hermione Corfield, Dougray Scott and Jack Hickey amongst others. Really quite emotional and ends fantastically. Super atmospheric stuff.

9. Capone

capone

Utterly absurd and pretty fantastic. Capone is a mythic figure, and rarely has one of those been explored onscreen in a manner such as this. There’s something almost unhinged about the filmmaking choices here. The gross elements that you probably heard about are some of the weakest, as they mask an intelligent and poignant examination of a man getting old and losing their faculties. There are subtle horror elements too – Capone is essentially decaying, losing what once made him great and feared. Tom Hardy’s Al Capone vigorously defending The Wizard of Oz to Matt Dillon is maybe the funniest and most inspired scene of the year. All in all this is a fever dream of weirdness and excellence. Evocative and rocking a fab Tom Hardy performance. 

8. Queer History

We still need loads more, but it feels like every year there are a greater number and a greater variety of stories of LGBTQI history showing up on screens. These two excellent films serve as a tiny example of that variety.

Ellie and Abbie (and Ellie’s Dead Aunt)

ellie and abbie

The history in this one comes from the titular dead aunt. Having a lesbian aunt giving love advice to a teenager just coming out from beyond the grave is a choice that could have gone either way. But it is one of the strongest elements of this excellent Australian comedy and is also used to shed light on LGBTQI history in this country. And brings the generational differences between queer people to life in a playful way.  Super funny, with a delightful tone. Specifically it contains the optimal level of awkwardness for a teen film. And it’s super well performed throughout.

Circus of Books

circus of books

A chronicle of the role a gay bookshop plays in early(ish) gay history and the surprising owners of the store. Elevated by the relationship between filmmaker daughter and parent subjects – exchanges such as “well mum you’re not someone who makes documentaries” “well neither are you!” and “I don’t like all this filming …. I don’t know what you’re going to come up with from all of this” really change the vibe. Fascinating and sharply made history. Weaves in a lot. Interviews with siblings. Unique and maddening perspective on the AIDS crisis. Portrait of people who are both strait-laced and fuckin radical at the same time. Complex people, extending to their hostility and struggles in response to their son coming out.

7. The Lighthouse

the lighthouse

What a strange film. The unfamiliar sound design and intriguing visual style are immediately immersive rather than distancing. It all feels really finely crafted but is not pretentious about it. Both Robert Pattinson and particularly Willem Dafoe handle the tough material fantastically well. The horror elements, though designed to be mysterious rather than invoke terror, are folded into the landscape and vibe seamlessly. Has a strange quality where it feels meandering but is actually meticulously constructed. Singular stuff. A daft masculine pissing contest the likes of which we have rarely seen.

6. The Assistant

the assistent

It’s not often that a film that is pulled from the headlines topical (focusses on sexual harassment in a studio office) is as methodical as this. Initially focusses on establishing office minutiae and general rudeness of a self-importance work environment. Snippets of meaningless camaraderie that don’t really mean anything humming in the background. Then it moves into laying bare the power and structure of the machine that is used against people in this situation. It’s a very clever expose on dynamics, brutal bullying and how they are enabled and excused. Kitty Green is excellent in a tricky lead role. An intriguing, tough experience of death by a thousand cuts.

5. Film History We Finally Got

Documentary film about film is a tough medium. The lazy (though on occasions merited) critique that it feels like a DVD extra is right there. But when the subject is fascinating and care and creativity are injected into the filmmaking, it can spark. Such is the case with these two, that finally made their way to wide release in Australia this year.

Varda by Agnes

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I’ll caveat this one by saying this choice speaks to my adoration of the life and career of Varda. It’s probably not the best place to start if you are new to her work. But for those of us who held Agnes Varda so dear, it is the perfect ending point, showing so much of the passion and personality that made her one of cinema’s most essential directors. Varda seems almost wearied here, summarising her life’s worth. In that sense it’s a fitting follow up to Faces Places.  She has always been a filmmaker totally attuned to the world around her, and the way she looks back in this film shows that has always been the case. An artist to the end, a great film about filmmaking that closes on a profound note.  

Horror Noire

horror noire

“We’ve always loved horror… unfortunately horror hasn’t always loved us.” Stark filmmaking, invested in history both filmic and real life. Examines the horror genre through a wholly African American lens. Helped along by a perfect selection of talking heads. The personal impact of specific films articulated in a range of ways. The breaking down of tropes and their clear explanation is almost academic at times. But in a good way. Plus it has Jordan Peele talking about People Under the Stairs so it’s worth it just for that. The arrival of this film was the undoubted high point of Shudder’s first year in Australia.

4. Dark Waters

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Sometimes when things have been done well a shitload before, we forget to acknowledge when they are done exceptionally again. That feels like the case here as Todd Haynes helms this incredible Mark Ruffalo led film based on real life lawyer vs corporate conspiracy drama. Ruffalo absolutely stars in this, but it is really well acted across the board. The failings of self-regulation is not exactly a foolproof recipe for sterling cinema. But it is elevated to the moon in the hands of Haynes. Even the long stretches of exposition are somehow delivered with a light touch, even coming across poetic at times. A great score. Storytelling that ruthlessly exposes the evils of industrialisation and capitalism. It’s also a human tale – the pursuit of justice overwhelms the life of Robert Bilott (played by Ruffalo), but he performs inarguable good. But where is the balance there, both for Bilott and his family? 

3. ‘Elevated Action’

There’s a certain segment of people who frustrate the rest of us by referring to horror they deem worthy of legitimate consideration and criticism as ‘elevated horror’. I dislike the term for many reasons, so the name of this entry is somewhat tongue in cheek. I love straight action films and quite a few of them have appeared on these end of year lists. But these two films stand out for me because of the non-action elements that differentiate them a little.

The Old Guard

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The script and clever ideas being examined set this one apart. It also features loads of kickarse violence, with Charlize Theron doling loads of it out. A couple of high concept set pieces stand out (a chase and a sequence in a plane) but every piece of action is smartly shot, easy to follow and kind of beautiful. Super interesting mythology built up here – focuses on immortal beings who are not really superheros. An action script that engages with themes and ideas very well. Concept of being incredibly incredibly old is far from a new one but it’s very cleverly presented and explored here. Can tell Gina Prince-Blythewood has been at it for a very long time because this is put together so well, particularly in the use of music and cleanness of the shooting.

Tenet

tenet

Chris Nolan’s silly, awesomely overwrought time travelling riff on James Bond shenanigans is utterly fab. Right from the beginning, the large-scale action is electric. Narratively it builds up a mystique, and some of that is definitely confusing. But that never took away from my glee. The vagueness and archness of the dialogue could be off-putting and it’s a film that probably takes itself too seriously. Still loved it though. It’s an incredibly smooth film. The lead performers suit the vibe of the thing really well. This is whacky in a way that I would not have expected from the director involved.

2. Babyteeth

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This film covers familiar ground – teenager facing both terminal illness and young love. But there’s something about how it presents this material that we’ve seen before which works so well. At its best when working at the level of change and emotion, there’s a radical disinterest here towards narrative beats that feels revelatory. The doomed pairing at the heart of the film is nicely complex for a teen relationship. And the interest of director Shannon Murphy here is not so much on the relationship itself but on the impact of it on the terminally ill Milla’s soon to be grieving parents. However the result of this unique buildup is that when the emotions are examined in a more straightforward way, the effect is almost unbearable. And at the heart of this is a performance by Ben Mendelsohn that is almost certainly the best of his career.

1. A Hidden Life

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This was one of those years where my #1 film was not a close thing. Terrence Malick is one of the three most essential filmmakers to my journey of loving film. A Hidden Life may be his best. Slightly more narrative focused, but really it’s just a clarity of theme which drives the film, one containing lashings of his artistry and poetry. Takes some of that unique montage style of his and spreads it over three hours. That thematic clarity makes for crushing impact as the film crescendos, a tale of personal integrity in the face of evil that has rarely been presented with such purpose. But it’s a more complex hero story than that suggests. Shows the isolating impact of the main character’s choices on those he loves the most. That ostracisation is a real focus of Malick here. Some of the greatest war films have shown that war is hell. But this film tells us that even opening yourself up to the possibility of war is. A stark, sad even harsh film that totally wrecked me.

The 2020 guide to good Christmas shit on Aussie streaming

This is an update of a list I put together last year of Christmas films and TV streaming in Australia. I was hoping this would be a bigger update. But I ran out of time as with everything and more frustratingly, a lot of the additional things I watched for this one ended up being super crappy.

This is certainly not comprehensive, I barely touch on some of the Christmas related stuff on some of the services available, but I’ve tried to get a mix of stuff on a few different services.

***

I’ve always loved Christmas films and TV, even as I got older. There’s something about those simple, lovely themes that I do think can add some beauty to what has become an overwhelming consumerist vibe to the season. All of these have something of that vibe of togetherness, love and reflection, though not always in the most obvious of ways.

Stan

  • It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) – I wrote a full review of this one last year that you can read here. It’s an absolute classic.
  • Christmas TV – One of the cool things Stan does is curate the Christmas episodes of a huge number of TV shows. Some favourites (episode numbers here are how they appear in the Stan Christmas collections, not standard ep numbering):
    • Community: ‘Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas’ (ep 2): This may be my favourite thing on this entire list. The spirit of the season examined through the exploration of one (Muslim) person’s mental health and search for the meaning of Christmas. A hilarious take on the Christmas musical in super cool stop motion animation.
    • Parks and Recreation: ‘Ron and Diane’ (ep 3): The Parks and Rec Christmas episodes probably don’t stand alone as well as some others. But this still has giggly awed at woodworking royalty Ron Swanson which is beautiful. And the focus on Jerry Gergich, always an underrated supporting character, and his famous Christmas party is a cute way to bring in those traditional themes.
    • The O.C.: ‘The Best Chrismukkah Ever’ (ep 1): This was in the brief golden period when this show’s dynamic was so sharp. Seth Cohen’s energy comes to the fore here with the made up holiday and Summer/Anna. Even now, so far removed from this show the music still rules. And Ben McKenzie gives a good emotional performance here as Ryan, which delivers a lot of the thematic goods.
  • Bad Moms 2 (2017) – This is a solid film that never quite lives up to the promise of having a hitchhiking Susan Sarandon play the mother of Kathryn Hahn (what film could). But this is a decent comedy that is actually pretty thematically rich – zeroing in on the mental load on women during the season. Let’s face it, Christmas can be fuckin stressful and most of that falls on mums. Those themes, some really nice performances and some interesting romantic stuff make it worth a look. Note: This one is also on Aussie Netflix.

Netflix

  • A Very Murray Christmas (2015) – I’ve watched this every December since it came out. Murray’s schtick, which can be hit and miss for me, works really well in this. There are some cool songs that add to the storytelling and Sofia Coppola infuses some of her visual style in here as well. Importantly it’s also super funny.  
  • The Christmas Chronicles (2018) – AKA Kurt Russell Santa The Movie. This is actually quite a meaningful take on the Christmas mythos. Plus it looks really ace and is well acted all round. A lovely sense of magic and wonder to the world created here. Another favourite I watch pretty much every year.
  • The Christmas Chronicles 2 (2020) – Not as good as the first, but a more than worthwhile continuation of the characters and themes. Slick but in a not altogether bad way as there’s plenty of charm here. Goldie Hawn brings such joy and compliments Russell’s Santa very well. Leans into the elf stuff here, giving us loads more of that mythology.
  • Klaus (2019) – This is an absolutely stunning looking animation. There is an interesting out of time quality to this, there’s no hint as to when it is set. It’s a different take on the character of Santa too, how they reframe it. The film at times falls into the pitfalls of contemporary animation and having too modern a sensibility, with glib winking montages making multiple appearances. But that take on Santa and the really quite poignant ending make it worthwhile.
  • The Polar Express (2004) – I’m certainly in the minority with this one as most people hate it. But I think it’s excellent. Something about the sensibility of it appeals. Christmas vibes and themes (particularly the role of belief in the season) mixed with some adventure film beats. One of the great cinema Santa’s Workshops too.
  • Holidate (2020) – Not strictly a Christmas movie. But it features and in terms of schmaltzy rom-coms this is extremely good. Plus there’s a grand romantic Christmas payoff. The sublime casting helps a lot, Emma Roberts is always ace (seeing her spit “fucking holidays” whilst smoking a durry makes this worth a watch by itself) and Like Bracey is solid too. It’s kinda raunchy and there are loads of good laughs.
  • Jingle Jangle (2020) – Love the storytime vibe to this one. The whole vibe around the songs is great too. Musically interesting, great dancing and they flow beautifully with the film. Design and costuming is absolutely spot on. There’s some charming relationships built up throughout the film as well, particularly a grandfather-granddaughter one.
  • The Grinch (2018) – I revisited the Jim Carrey film and was struck by just how much it massively sucked. Then out of the blue my eldest chose this animated version for movie night. I intended to watch the first 10 minutes then get some stuff down but ended up watching it all. Cumberbatch is a bland main voice. But aside from that it’s colourful, wry, fun and even a little thoughtful. It’s also pleasant for adult viewers which I don’t usually associated with Zeuss adaptations and the messaging is lovely but not laboured.  
  • Nailed It! Holiday! – Nailed It absolutely rules. It is somehow the kindest reality show that pokes fun at people truly awful at what they are attempting. Charming, unserious and Nicole Byers is the perfect host.
    • ‘We’re Scrooged’ (season 2, ep 1): A Christmas Carol themed episode with co-host Jason Mantzoukas. I haven’t always been the biggest fan of his comedic energy. But he’s fucking hilarious here. And there’s some delightful riffs on Dickens’ work. The hosts, and I, basically had a laughing fit at one of the cakes presented.
    • ‘A Classic Christmas’ (season 2, ep 2): The great Maya Rudolph brings a dry wit to this one that complements Byers and Jacques absolutely perfectly. I could listen to Rudolph riff over stellar incompetence such as not being able to open the fridge every day of the year. 

Disney +

  • The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) – The best Muppets movie and maybe the best adaptation of Dickens’ work (which is one of my favourite pieces of art ever). So charming. Captures that snowbound sense of (northern) Christmas. Shows the class situation of the masses well too and Michael Caine is a really excellent Scrooge. It’s a very funny script but laces it with direct lines from the book to give it the Dickens vibe. Never shies away from the absurdity that it’s the Muppets doing this story.
  • A Christmas Carol (2009) – Robert Zemeckis is the man and this is a criminally underrated adaptation of the source material. The performance (or four) from Carrey is the best use of his wonderful physicality in the last 20-odd years. And it doesn’t forget this is a ghost story, some of the horror beats are chilling. The script is an excellent, emotionally resonant rendering of Dickens’ novella.
  • One Magic Christmas (1985) – First the good stuff (and it’s mostly really good stuff). Harry Dean Stanton as a cowboy Christmas angel! An excellent Mary Steenburgen performance as an utterly worn-down mother figure, in a film that is super concerned with class. Another film that digs into the load on mothers at this time of year. Quite an adult film thematically. Now the bad (which is a bit of a spoiler): The film has a woman believe her whole family is dead so she’ll get some Christmas spirit… that’s super super fucked up. But the fact I still recommend this shows how strong (and original) those good elements are.
  • Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmas (1999)Donald Duck is the worst fuckin character. But despite that, this Disney anthology is a good, easy Christmas watch. Some nice slapstick and traditional Christmas messages presented in a slightly different way. And the final segment functions as a quite sad indictment of what the consumerist nature of Christmas forces us into.  
  • Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983) – Until the ghosts appear, this is not great at all. Aside from Scrooge being amazing casting as Ebenezer Scrooge (funny that). Looks a little cheap and some of the changes fuck up the messaging. But once the three ghosts stuff starts, this rules hard. Absolutely crushes the messaging through all three. Gets really bleak and frightening (seriously I will never understand how Dickens’ book came to be for kids) but the second half of this is as good as any of the other adaptations on the list.
  • Santa’s Workshop (1932) – A rad little short. Old fashioned Disney hand-drawn animation and music at its best. It’s all nice and jauntily done, particularly the lovely rhyming script.
  • Winnie the Pooh: A Very Merry Christmas (2002) – A good one for the smallest of Christmas fans. Uses carols well and Eeyore is quite funny. Some of the messaging – spirit over presents – is really nice.
  • The Simpsons – I was sort of surprised when I went looking that there were actually very few Christmas episodes in the show’s golden age. The ones that do exist are only ok really and I think in a way the show is too cynical to totally embrace the spirit of the season. But these two are decent enough if you really want a fix:
    • ‘Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire’ (season 1, ep 1): Rough as guts animation and voiceover. But it’s a passable Christmas storyline with a nice finish to it.
    • ‘Miracle on Evergreen Terrace’ (season 9, ep 11): Nice and Christmassy with lots of the iconography. A reasonable arc for Bart too which is rarely a a strength of the show.

Amazon Prime Video

  • The Field Guide to Evil (2018) – This is a good not great horror anthology, held together by the commitment to the folklore vibe. And importantly for the purposes of this piece, the fifth short from Greece titled ‘Whatever Happened to Panagas the Pagan’ is a Christmas story. A very cool little one at that, with a nice mixture of and new themes and imagery. The creature is super creepy too.
  • Black Christmas (2019) – This is a solid Christmas slasher that has the added bonus of making a certain subset of horrible dudes irrationally angry. A rare proudly (if unsubtly) feminist flick that would fit rather nicely in a Christmas horror marathon.
  • Jack Frost (1997) – Stories about killer snowmen should be fun, and this one really is. An absolute silly delight. Plays in the slasher space. Incorporates Christmas iconography very very well (and bloodily). Though one word of warning: there is one crappy assault scene in here involving the Shannon Elizabeth character.

SBS on Demand

  • Tangerine (2015) – Recently revisited this one and it was much more Christmassy than I recall. This is all about Christmas themes as we generally don’t see them: something in the personal drama of the film that speaks to the heightened nature of the season, notions of chosen family, burdens of oppressive family, Christmas for migrant communities and the way that all the shit coming to a head at Christmas causes us to reflect.

YouTube

  • Santa Clause (1898) – A fun little curio. Directed by British film pioneer George Albert Smith, this is a one minute 16 second long piece of early cinema trickery as Santa visits a couple of kids. You can see a nice copy from the BFI here.   
  • Star Wars Christmas Special (1978) – I can’t in good conscience recommend you sit down and watch this. As a piece of art it’s wildly misjudged. But it’s a hilariously ‘good-bad’ choice to have on in the background as you wrap presents or even at a Christmas party. It’s well known that Disney will never release this officially. But given the version here has been up for 5 years and been watched a couple of million times, it’s clear they don’t give a shit enough to have it pulled down.
  • A Luchagore Christmas (2015) – Two minutes of very atmospheric Christmas horror. Cool set dressing that gets darker quickly. Really dig the reinterpretation of Christmas imagery and tropes here, particularly the carol on the soundtrack. There’s a rad, gross kicker to finish it off. You can watch it here.

Grappling with The Nightingale

This piece started as a quickly jotted down review intended to Letterboxd. But once I started jotting, I just kept going. And it evolved into something that I don’t think is quite a review (though elements of that remain), but more an attempt to work through my feelings of a film that greatly challenged me, but that also has creative shortcomings. One that I just wasn’t sure what I thought about it. This also evolved over the course of a few edits from a quite personal exploration of my feelings (that version of the piece probably fitted better with the title) to where it ended up which is more of a consideration of how the film approaches colonialism and it as an example of genre.

Just a few content warnings for this piece, the film depicts sexual assault and pretty extreme violence (including against a baby) and I discuss those elements below.

***

‘Colonisation is a brutal process, one in which everyone involved is debased.’ – Larissa Behrendt on The Nightingale

The first 30 minutes of The Nightingale are nigh on unwatchable. There’s a sense over this period that the film almost goes a little too far. But as Sam Langford pointed out in their astute analysis of the film on Junkee, the overwhelming nature is really the point and speaks to what the film is trying to say about colonialism generally, and specifically in Tasmania. Over this initial half hour of the film, the film shows the main character Clare being viciously sexually assaulted twice and then in a shocking punctuation point, her baby is murdered in front of her. There are different dimensions to both of the assault scenes. The first is all anger. A deliberate assault in which Sam Clafin’s Hawkins lords his power over Clare in a number of ways, culminating in the vicious physicality of the assault. The second assault is characterised by the methodical enjoyment. Preening over the details as a way to torture Clare’s husband Aidan, who is in the room with her. The sounds of sniggering intermingled with a baby’s crying and a husband’s wailing. Perhaps one aspect of that ‘too far’ thought is the way that we are situated inside the cramped room whilst rape and infanticide are being committed. The effect is not to make one feel complicit, though there are definitely hints of that as Clare looks straight as the camera during the second assault. It’s more being too close to these acts. Being held and forced to watch, as if looking away will be a betrayal of some sort.

“Whitefella way is shit way” – Billy

There is a sense that what Kent is attempting to sketch with the film is a picture of colonialism in its numerous violent manifestations. Run of the mill military bullying, the war being raged against the indigenous population, the sexual assault, the rampant misogyny. All are manifestations of colonialist control. It’s a film concerned with power dynamics, and it is not always Clare that is the victim. The overall racial prejudice of the time is starkly rendered through lynching and horrific language. But the writing of Billy, Clare’s tracker and the main indigenous character is at times lacking. The framing and arc of their relationship is ham fisted. At times their dynamic takes on a borderline ‘buddy’ dynamic in terms of the beats and way it evolves in a way that feels somewhat rote. They fight, they need each other at times, they let each other down, they hold each other up and they eventually deeply connect. Though there is a certain poignancy to elements of their relationship toward the end – particularly when Billy heals Clare (using methods that she had shortly before dismissed as “hocus pocus”). And that poignant payoff masks some of the issues of how the duo is written for the most part. At times (though not always, and especially on first viewing) Billy feels like a plot device rather than a fully formed character and agent in the film. There are also instances when the two also situated as equal victims of the colonialist crusade in a way that feels uncomfortable (without diminishing Clare’s personal ordeal in the film). As they sit by a fire, Clare pits her oppression as an Irishwoman against that of Billy. Coming in the midst of a journey through a stolen land, where black bodies have been seen hung from trees and claiming that you’ve “civilised the land, got rid of the blacks” is the main pitch to your commander when trying to score a promotion. Clare pushes this sense of being wronged so far that all Billy can exasperate is “bloody white people”.

‘The woods in The Nightingale are a dystopian maze of mayhem and terror’ – Inkoo Kang on The Nightingale

One thing often missed in considerations of the film is just how neatly it fits in the horror genre. Both as a period rape revenge film (with much of the structural template of that subgenre embraced), as nature horror and also in the use of dreams, that definitely play and are presented as supernatural, even if that is not the intended literal interpretation. Even in this film Kent shows that her strongest attributes are as a horror director. The film crafts a pit of dread and unease in the stomachs of its viewers that lasts the entire run time of the film. And even if the film is not totally immersed in the genre at all times, that’s an attribute that sits squarely at the heart of so much horror. Many films can achieve this for a short period, often through a sensory assault. But here there is a sustained intentionally oppressive atmosphere for the viewer. This is achieved in a number of ways. There is a share of that sensory assault, but also the vulnerability of Clare situated throughout in almost purely masculine environments, the revenge dynamic and perhaps most successfully the natural environment the characters find themselves enveloped by. Horrifying masses in the fog, the dead stalking through the forest, dreams springing to life, nightmares that haunt and invade, awakening at one’s lowest point cradled, dwarfed and awed by a fallen tree and attempts to escape the physical. All of these intermingle and dictate the middle act of the film (and well into the third act too) in a labyrinthine way. Nature it seems is both a oppressor and a potential avenue of escape – on more than one occasion the point of view of a character looks to the sky as they are assaulted, perhaps to the ‘heavens’, perhaps as a longing to be freed from their physical pain.

The morning after her second violent assault and the murder of her family, The Nightingale threatens to be a truly great rape revenge film, mainly through Aisling Franciosi’s performance as Clare. Franciosi’s face is pure spite, hate, anger and rage. She marches, motivated through the landscape full of incendiary action. For better or worse however the film does not maintain this fiery headlong march into action, preferring to delve into the reality of travelling through inland Tasmania at the time and that broader view of colonialism. Having said that, Kent does circle back to the beats of the subgenre a couple of times, most notably when Clare and Billy catch up with the first of the men she is hunting. Clare methodically stalks this already wounded man, via horseback and then on foot, eventually landing on top of him and stabbing the living fuck out of him over and over again, the camera lingering on her blood-splattered face. A clear moment of catharsis for the character and one enhanced by the shock of how it is portrayed for the audience.

At the risk of not considering the film as it was made, it’s interesting to ponder if it would have felt a more coherent vision if it more often leant into the simple generic tropes and provided a similarly simple sense of catharsis and release. As it is The Nightingale is messy, uneven and brutal and perhaps all the more worthy because of all that. A more straightforward horror film wouldn’t have given the multifaceted look at colonialism that Kent attempts and so often succeeds in bringing to the screen. As it is, it is Billy’s proclamation “I’m still here you bastards and I’m not going anywhere” delivered both as a personal statement and a broader claim, that probably lingers longest in the mind.