Amongst horror fiends, perhaps no film is more oft cited as a personal favourite or film that got people into the genre at a young age than The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). Even if it perhaps does not hold up artistically as the absolute pinnacle of the genre, it is plain to see why the film has been so impactful for so many people.
If The Exorcist (1973) is one of the finest and most artistic films ever made that also happened to be a horror film, then The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a short, sharp punch right in the face. Clocking in at 83 minutes, the film takes its time building up before unleashing a physically imposing villain upon a group of unsuspecting and essentially defenceless teens. The very last act slows down a little, trying to peel back the layers of motivation, and as a result the ferocious narrative force of the film tapers off a little. It also makes some silly, almost slapstick tonal choices that jar when juxtaposed with the intensity of the middle section. Though to its credit, the phenomenal final shot restores the feeling of terror that the middle section so chillingly creates. Right from the get-go of the film there is a feeling that something is not quite right, a disconcerting feeling that the world onscreen is off-kilter compared to the normality of our own. The voice-over that opens the film commenting on events to come and the utterly gross imagery that assault your eyes will immediately make you feel ill at ease. Thrown from there into a trip past a slaughterhouse and some detailed chat about the horrific ways cattle are slaughtered, it’s an atmosphere that never lets up, still underpinning events as they go from the eerie to the quick paced and shatteringly violent. It’s difficult to describe the feeling actually, occasionally it feels like you’re watching something whilst high, or that everyone in it is high. A gonzo horror film if you will, though that aspect of the storytelling does pass as the film progresses.
Contrary to some aspects of its reputation, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a very well made film. It is shot really nicely, with a pretty active camera, rather than a propensity for stationary shots favoured by many horror films. The camera is never frustratingly dynamic in its movements though, it always helps to add to the tension in the film, rather than aiming to cheaply build tension through obscuring parts of the action. The film relies a lot on fast paced editing to amp up the stakes as well as push the action pace-wise to a fever pitch. That editing is largely responsible for perhaps the best moment in the film, a chase scene which quickly flits between the fleeing heroine and Leatherface, culminating in a little chainsaw on door action. Thematically, the film makes some interesting connections between animal slaughter and the slaughter of the teen characters, which helps to hold interest through the first period before the murders start up. Once they do though, this theme is rife, reinforced by costuming, the method of the murders and how the bodies are disposed of. The brutality of the film takes on a new layer when considered in relation to the themes of animal slaughter, perhaps explaining why the film and some of the actions in it are so crushingly brutal and seemingly devoid of all purpose. Killing in the film feels wholly unnecessary. This aspect of the film is the one that has stayed with me since I saw the film and is one that I think is neglected in a lot of discussion of the film. As a villain, Leatherface is perhaps a little overshadowed by his reputation, in the fact that despite the violence he unleashes, he is plot-wise somewhat inconsequential. But he’s a terrifying physical presence and his jerky and inhuman movements are totally chilling.
Verdict: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is as terrifying as its reputation promises. At one point after a particularly unexpected slaying I was peeking behind my couch to double check Leatherface wasn’t back there. There are some missteps for sure, but it’s a classic of the genre and feels a lot more modern than the mid-70s proto-slasher that it is. Pint of Kilkenny
Mike Leigh is known as one of the leading lights of British social realism and Secrets and Lies (1996) is generally considered to be his best film. The film was feted at Cannes upon release and continues to be discussed and revisited extensively inside film culture and criticism.
Secrets and Lies is a film of two totally separate halves, clearly delineated by a single scene. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt so differently about two halves of the same film. The first feels very domestic and at times like an episode of a soap opera, with a strange over-acting, mugging style of performances. This half of the film is almost totally without incident, setting up the three disparate storylines you know will cohere in the end, but seeming to take an interminable amount of time getting there. However just when you feel destined for a mind-numbing experience, Leigh, along with actors Brenda Blethyn and Marianne Jean-Baptiste deliver one of the better scenes of film history. I’ll avoid giving away too much detail for fear of spoilers, but it’s is a first meeting in a cafe, apparently mostly improvised in a single take. They meet and run the gamut of emotions – apprehension, awkwardness, comfort, relief and cautious affection. The two performers establish a great dynamic and blow everything up to this point away. This scene is perhaps the single greatest argument against the notion that realist films somehow equal boring. From there, the film seems to breeze by. Not because it has gotten ‘lighter’ in any sense. If anything the heavy themes are explored in more depth from this point on. But because the film has some much needed dynamism to it as new relationships are formed and impact on all of those built up so slowly in the first half of the film. This all culminates in a family BBQ that takes up most of the film’s last half hour. Just like the cafe scene, here is a sequence that is riveting on the surface level, but which also sits atop of untold depth both thematically and in terms of wrapping up the film’s plot.
The obvious thematic concern of Secrets and Lies is a focus on identity, but the concept of class and class relations is also prevalent. Notions of identity are examined through the prism of a family, like so many, straining at the seams or already broken. Part of this is an establishment by Leigh of an example of intense familial loneliness that is actually quite devastating to behold. From there it interrogates age old themes such as what defines a person and how that definition comes in opposition to those around them. Typical themes that are examined through what I think is a relatively atypical manner (again, I’m trying hard to avoid spoilers here). Similarly traditional notions of class are both parodied via exaggeration and inverted throughout the film, always reflecting and challenging those themes of identity. There is a third, very simple theme of the film too: families are totally fucked up. The film totally nails that one. Performance-wise, the film dispenses with much of the understatement so prevalent in realist film. Brenda Blethyn’s performance is a brilliant, if strange one. Through the first half, her over the top, dottering and mentally fragile mother is frequently distracting. But seeing that aspect of the performance in a new light after the rest of the film suggests it’s an effective approach as a whole. At times she is crushingly tough to watch as newfound emotions overtake that earlier dottering quality. Timothy Spall is equally good in what is perhaps a less-showy role, his photographer character provides a unique lens for the film to be seen through, as well as attempting to provide a sense of stability to the mess of a family swirling around him. And he slays an almost Shakespearean soliloquy toward the end of the film that in lesser hands would have been cringe worthy, but here it recounts the concerns of the film as well as provoking additional consideration about them.
Verdict: In the end, the achingly dull first half of Secrets and Lies is well worth enduring for the exceptional craft and heart of the second. Perhaps on a repeat viewing, the first will actually enhance what comes after it. For a thematically dense, but not tiresome drama you can do much, much worse than this. Pint of Kilkenny
In any other year, Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) would be the biggest release by far. This year there is another franchise looming large on the horizon that comfortably takes that honour away. But an early-ish release date on the calendar and a close to perfect Marvel track record has expectation sky high for this one.
Unlike the first film, there’s no easing in to be had here. Instead, we find the crew already together, mid-battle in Eastern Europe. Being thrown in the deep end engages straight away, ramping up the exhilaration. However it also takes away a lot of the charm that was in The Avengers (2012) as the new characters were introduced and relationships established. Obviously that level of origin story grounding was never going to be required in this film. It suffers as a result though and perhaps it would have been better to have some new members of the gang to introduce from the start. In addition to the action, the overwhelming take away from the first sequences is that this will be a fun film. The gang are all cracking jokes and taking the piss out of one another. The packed screening lapped up basically every one-liner, drawing at least guffaws and on occasion applause. In the end, I actually feel this film has too many quips and jokes for its own good. Particularly toward the end, this element of the film takes over and tonally what should be a tense action packed payoff instead feels like a buddy comedy, which can’t help but lower the stakes. Ultron is a very strong villain. Even when he looks like a knock off Iron Man, the robot has a chilling presence. Following the character’s creation, the film inevitably shifts its focus elsewhere, which leaves the villain a little undercooked and the film a little slighter as a result. A similar criticism can be made of the film’s thematic focus. Stark’s creation of Ultron recalls the depth of Captain America: Winter Soldier (2014), but that is all too quickly done away with for buddy fun and the LOLs.
In comparison to most Marvel films, the action in Avengers: Age of Ultron is exceptionally fast and kinetic and not just when Quicksilver is involved. There are a bunch of great, big action sequences here and for the most part, everyone gets their chance to show off and shine a little. However, it is strange to pinpoint why Whedon chose to accelerate the action like he did, because it makes a lot of it difficult to follow. Indeed right from dropping the audience in from the get-go, the film doesn’t let up, with a huge action set piece teased in the trailers coming remarkably early. It’s a little too much, which is why when the film slows down to actually bother telling some story, some of the best sequences of the film arrive. In particular one sequence focused on Hawkeye revealing a secret side is a definite welcome change. Actually the increased presence of Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye is a major plus for this film over the first one. He brings a very human vibe to a superhero tale and his self-deprecating humour stands apart in a sea of zingy one-liners. One of the other standouts is Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver, probably outshining Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch to some degree. It’s good to see Johnson returning with a little of the charisma and charm that his Godzilla (2014) everyman was totally devoid of.
Verdict: In the end, Avengers: Age of Ultron works well as fun geek fan service and as a continuation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But it’s no more than that from a studio that we have come to expect more from, as the more interesting ideas (politics, bold sci-fi plotting) are dispensed with too quickly. Stubby of Reschs
In these days of VOD release dominance for genre films, it’s great to see an indie horror film like It Follows (2014) getting such a solid release around the world. Here in Australia it’s playing in a fair few cities and I know it has performed very well in the States too.
The film follows Jay, a young woman infected with a malady following sex with her new boyfriend. A lot has been made of the fact ‘it’ is transmitted through intercourse, resulting in an expected focus on the theme of STDs and claims that the film is anti-teen sex. The latter is not really supported by the film, but there is no doubt there is a cautionary aspect to the film in relation to STDs, though it never feels like uber-obvious preaching. On one level this thematic concern is an extension and amplification of the sexual politics of classic 80s slashers, where intercourse was usually quickly followed by a brutal death. But It Follows also reinterprets this notion and updates it for today. The film accepts that teen sex happens and that it can be really fun and grand. That can be true and ‘it’ can still be transferred through the act. On this front, and a range of others, the film feels perfectly attuned to teen life. We barely see any parents in the film, which emphasises the teen focus, not being distracted by the potential passing of judgement from the disapproving olds. And just as teenagers often do, it’s a really nice touch that most of her band of friends believe Jay’s plight pretty much straight away with very few questions asked, when there is not that much evidence to support her. Stripping away the subtext, on a surface level the threat at hand is awesomely creepy, an enemy that is slowly walking toward its prey at all times. It might not be there today or tomorrow, but it will arrive eventually. Unfortunately though, the ‘rules’ of the threat are never fully established. Occasionally ‘it’ sort of just stops, and at others it seems to slightly cheat on the walking only policy. They are minor quibbles, but once that distract from the tightness of the film and its concept.
In terms of pacing, this is surprisingly slow, and a little patchy. It actually feels a little plotless to me, not functioning as a smooth long sweep of a story, but rather hopping from one incident to the next. Wait for ‘it’ to show up, scare the bejeesus out of you, move to a new location, ‘it’ shows up again. This is totally terrifying, but it also just feels aching for a richer incidence to the narrative. However director David Robert Mitchell is totally in control of his audience, deftly placing them where he wants them. I noticed one sequence where the dialogue felt especially stilted and the atmosphere had been sucked right out of the film. Then ‘it’ all of a sudden shows up and all of the atmosphere rushes back into the film with a greater force given that Mitchell had made you complacent with the preceding scene. The camerawork is a little over-done at times, especially a repeated fondness for the camera wheeling around in a wild circle. It’s a gimmicky, too funky touch that does nothing to dial up the tension.
Whilst overall it is a little difficult to see why the film particularly necessitates the hype it has garnered (though as a fan of the genre I’m not complaining), there is no doubting there is a level of detail and artistry that sets It Follows apart. The look of the suburbia is just slightly off, adding to the whole vibe of the film. Little touches such as the furnishings all seemingly being a combination of retro and futuristic looking pieces for example. Whilst I would characterise the film is a very good one, I feel that the soundtrack is flat out great. The approach taken is a risky one and could have so easily distracted from the film or ‘signposted’ events a little too much. Instead the soundtrack by Disasterpeace lends a totally jarring and disconcerting backdrop to the imagery. In that way it is both a little similar and totally different, to Hans Zimmer’s score for Interstellar (2014). The score seems to assault you, not through sheer volume, but because there seems to be a raw physicality to it. It’s one of those soundtracks I rush straight home and look into if I buy a vinyl copy (turns out you can, though it’s a pretty limited run). The soundtrack feeds into what I would label the film’s denseness. Also fitting this mould is the incorporation of pieces of literature throughout, chiefly Dostoyevsky’s “The Idiot” and a parade of old sci-fi films on black and white telly. On a first viewing, it is hard to take in and incorporate exactly what is being said by these elements. But they function as nice window-dressing that I would like to unpack on a re-watch.
Verdict: It Follows is a really quite good and creepy as balls horror flick, albeit an overly hyped and definitely flawed one. However, if you have even the slightest interest in the use of soundtrack in film, it instantly rises to a must see experience. It may well end up being a modern classic in terms of horror soundtracks. Plus, get out there and support indie horror in cinemas. Stubby of Reschs
William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) may well be the most iconic horror film of all time. Everyone has a story of the first time they saw it, or shudders at the mere mention of the film, refusing to ever watch based on its reputation. My mum often talks about how petrified she was when my old man took her to see it when she was about 17.
Everything you’ve heard about the film don’t prepare you for just how strange it is. I was expecting a pretty mainstream horror film. But after the chilling credits music and opening shot, the film heads off for an extended Northern-Iraq set prologue. These scenes in the desert almost feel like they could be from a Terrence Malick film. The most shocking thing about watching The Exorcist for the first time for me was the ethereal and not at all mainstream vibe of the film which was so different to my expectations and so refreshing as a result. It’s unapologetically a big swirling mass of a film.
So much discourse around The Exorcist centres on the religious facets, which is unsurprising given the title. However what struck me whilst watching the film was the fact that it unfolds really through a medical prism. It is assumed by all of the characters that the issues besetting Regan are medical in nature. When Regan’s mum first approaches Father Karas regarding an exorcism (at the suggestion of doctors), even he steers her enquiries away from the spiritual realm. One part of why, despite the strangeness of the film, The Exorcist has become such a beloved horror classic, is the imagery that Friedkin and co were able to produce. Regan scuttling down the stairs, her head turning right around, or even just her appearance towards the end of the film, these are some of the most arresting and iconic images that the genre has ever brought to life. The film progresses methodically along for much of its lengthy running time, but then explodes with intensity and never lets up afterwards. The assured craftsmanship of the writing and directing ensures that none of the events of the film ever feel ludicrous or silly. The culmination of this build-up comes as a distinct pall comes over the film throughout the climactic exorcism, in as gripping a half hour odd of cinema you will ever come across.
Watching the film, you can see the similarities it has with films of a similar vintage, most notably for me The Omen (1976) – the presence of priests, a washed out colour palette and a similar feel to the domestic settings. It wheels out some traditional horror tropes as well, including the freaky attic. But having said that, by the end of the film it is plain why The Exorcist is held in such high regard, because it takes everything its contemporaries were doing, does them better and then does a whole bunch of things those other films never even attempted. The film is very classically and beautifully shot, trading in silhouettes, shadows, low and high angle shots. All of which look damn beautiful on the sharp blu-ray release that I watched. Friedkin is able to place the camera in such a way that it gets not only really pretty shots, but also creates a whole lot of tension, without ever feeling gimmicky.
One of the hallmarks of so much, but not all, really classic horror cinema is the quality of the performance. And with Linda Blair, Jason Miller and Ellen Burstyn, The Exorcist can legitimately lay claim to having three of the best the genre has ever seen. So much of the religion/medicine divide is summed up through Jason Miller’s world weary turn as Father Karras (incredibly his debut film performance), Ellen Burstyn is ultra-believable as a mother going through an absolute living nightmare, but it is Blair’s film. As the possessed Regan, she is so totally in control of her performance. Remarkably so in fact for someone of her age. The range of content she handles, innocent/inquisitive child, totally possessed force of nature, explicit sexual references and profanity, is all so well done that not once are you taken out of the world of the film.
Verdict: Not only does The Exorcist deserve its exalted reputation, it probably deserves more. I was unprepared for just how strange and iconic an experience watching this film would be, as well as blown away by the density of the material and the themes. This is a pretty great and truly unique piece of cinema. Longneck of Melbourne Bitter
- A Bug’s Life (1998), John Lasseter & Andrew Stanton – Feels like sort of a forgotten Pixar film. Yet another example of how damn clever their scripts are. In terms of world-building, this is one of their stronger films. Detail of the miniature world around and below us. Storywise, despite being original material, it sets up a very old fashioned adventure story vibe. Quite a funny film too, with the silly band of circus bugs running rampant. It is a level below the very best of Pixar, too saccharine in comparison, especially through the second half. But good Pixar is still great animation filmmaking.
- In Order of Disappearance (2014), Hans Petter Moland – Seriously, where is all the hype for this awesome film. A clever, genre/B-movie revenge script. Something so cool and simplistic as Stellan Skarsgard’s character moves from minion to minion to find out who killed his son. Bashing the snot out of one, to get the name of the next. The soundtrack is tops too, perfectly complimenting and elevating what is onscreen. The occasional silly moment is well and truly overwhelmed by one of the best genre films I’ve seen in a while. Some violent, well made and stylish shit.
- Chappie (2015), Neil Blomkamp – Freaking loved it. Found it utterly hilarious and the action sequences are excellent. So often robot action is impossible to follow. But Blomkamp nailed it. I’ve never felt an emotional connection with a robot character like I did with Chappie. Thematically and symbolically, there is so much to pull apart here, from the notions around AI to the invocation of religion. Can’t help feel that the presence of Die Antwoord turned a lot of people off. But for me, they added a uniqueness and definite authenticity. I think this is such a rich film when it’s being dismissed as the opposite.
- I Love You Phillip Morris (2009), Glenn Ficara & John Requa – Jim Carrey is such a talented guy when the material isn’t utter shite. This is a really stylish and distinctive film. At times that style’s a little overwrought, but only rarely. In the end it’s a strange mix which is a exceptionally dark comedy that’s light in filmmaking tone. Deals with suicide, homosexuality and gay sex in a frank and thoughtful way. There’s a lot of shading to the moral black and white to the film too. Ewan McGregor is good in this, but Carrey is the real star. It’s a pretty complex character study in the end and that succeeds in a major part due to Carrey’s timing, of both the comedic and dramatic varieties.
- Nas: Time is Illmatic (2014), One9 – Nas’s album is a true hip-hop classic and this film breaks down in great detail what led to it. The film is the history lesson of an album that is an unsurpassed portrait of the streets. So great to see Nas, precocious talent and very deep thinking & perceptive dude, telling these stories in his own words. This is a much watch for any fan of hip-hop. My only slight criticism is that it could have broken down the album itself a little more. Part of that is the laudable desire to not simply tell a ‘doco 101’ type story. And as a background document, it’s more than thorough.
- Stephen Fry: Today’s Russia a Literary Landscape (2014), Sarah Wallis & Paul Mitchell – Fry has gotten to the point where anything that interests him in the slightest, he can get a show made about it, no matter how niche. And this, focusing on contemporary Russian authors, is pretty niche. But really, Fry is little more than a figurehead for this hour long film. It’s the characters of the authors that hold sway, weaving in some great stories and illuminating what are some somewhat hidden pieces of Russian literature. If nothing else, it will give you some cool books to track down, though there is little broad appeal here.
Not Worth Watching:
- Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014), Matthew Vaughn – Well the one thing I was not expecting was for this to be so exceedingly boring. Can see the Kick Ass (2010) vibe and sensibility that Vaughn is trying to bring to the spy genre. But this film does not actually function as a spy film, and it’s lacking the wit and kineticism that made his earlier film such a delight. There’s also no tension, and for me a majority of the comedic sensibility fails. Samual L. Jackson’s lisping villain sums that up well. Underlying story is so neglected that even if all the loving parody trimmings landed (which they don’t) this still would not satisfy.
If you only have time to watch one In Order of Disappearance
Avoid at all costs Kingsman: The Secret Service
If there’s a film I see named by comedians as being influential more than any other, it’s Groundhog Day (1993). Similarly, the film’s director Harold Ramis and star Bill Murray, have an aura that seems to hold sway more in the comedian community compared to the broader public sentiment.
Often the exact reasons as to why these differences in standing preserve are intangible. But Groundhog Day also makes plain many of the reasons why. Whilst zany and offbeat, the film is impeccably and very tightly structured. The repeating structure is a framework from which Ramis and Murray can weave their magic. To achieve this, the script from Ramis and Danny Rubin cleverly builds slight layers on top of itself. It references and slightly tweaks aspects from the ‘day’ before. This is a major reason why the simple plot of Murray’s egotistical and rude TV weatherman Phil being stuck in a time loop, waking every day in a two-bit town that he despises, never becomes numbingly boring like so many of the film’s imitators. The script reflects the film as a whole. It is boisterous and thoughtful, as is the way the film is put together and progresses through musical choices and the editing. Not only that, what is such a tired plot structure actually feels very fresh here, with the script exploring all the nooks and crannies that the concept presents. The structure is used to novel ends, with the generic ‘arc’ or change of a character we expect in basically all films, technically compressed into a single day span.
There is little doubt that a couple of the film’s plot points jar a contemporary sensibility (or perhaps just my contemporary sensibility). For a time that Murray’s character simply uses his predicament to bed women. At one point he practically tries to rape his love interest, and whilst he does in a way get his comeuppance for these acts, it is not as direct as it maybe could have been. Later on though, the manner in which Phil respectfully interacts with Andie MacDowell’s Rita and uses his ability to re-live the same day in their relationship, feeds into the core arc of the film. Those earlier moments, simply using his ‘skill’ to get into the pants of hot women around town, don’t serve the same narrative purpose. Murray’s reputation as one of the supreme comic performers is supported by this film. Right from the get-go, you can sense his comedic timing and rhythm. His whole body conveys that, his subtle movements and just the way he carries himself. These talents allow him to have the audience in the palm of his hand, whether he’s being the jerk you love to hate or the silly clown making you roar with laughter. Whilst she does not do much of the comedic heavy lifting in a ‘straight’ role, MacDowell has a really nice naiveté to her character that suits the plot and allows the audience to better appreciate the arc of Phil. The other standout performance is Michael Shannon in a wonderful two scene or so effort, mainly because it involves a Wrestlemania reference.
Verdict: This really is an exceptionally funny film and perhaps career best work from Ramis and Murray. Whilst there are occasional beats that are now a little dated, this is one of the smartest comedy scripts ever brought to life and is one of those classics that you need to track down if you’ve never seen. Pint of Kilkenny