Friday, 5 October 2012

STRAW DOGS (1971)


The opening shot of STRAW DOGS shows children swarming together like a collection of bacteria under a microscope. This clinical perspective seems to pervade throughout the film. A self-contained society is portrayed with its codes and conventions, where law and order seems always on the verge of disintegration.

The hollow, bleak Cornish locations are used effectively to reflect the bleak aspects of the story. Sam Peckinpah uses elements of the Western: small communities; intrigue about strangers and each other’s secrets; suspicions and hatred of the unknown. Dustin Hoffman as the American outsider is an intensely vulnerable man, uncertain of his place in this remote village. The hostility is indirect at first, sarcastic even, as their games with him and his Cornish wife (Susan George) become increasingly perverse. The more he tries to psychologically outwit his tormentors the more he finds himself entrenched and humiliated. Finally, his territorial imperatives are shattered as the tormentors invade his most private realms: his bedroom and his wife.

The emphasis is on man’s propensity for violence, while the idea of having a hero as the central character is constantly questioned. The fact that Hoffman plays a sensitive mathematician and is capable of wreaking such primal revenge on this ragged bunch underlines this theme running through the film that anyone is capable of brutality and murder. Hoffman’s character is cold and cowardly. Enlightenment and vengeance comes after he is brutalised himself. In his ruthless disposal of the enemy and his responsibility for the wellbeing of the sex offender, Henry Nile (David Warner), he reveals all of his animalistic survival instincts.

It makes for uncomfortable viewing and is as complex and uncompromising as another favourite of mine, HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER. In John McNaughton’s film, the relationship between the audience and viewer is as challenging: we are asked to identify with a real killer. In both films, the protracted rape scenes seem to turn our attention back to our own voyeuristic desires. It is not titillating. Cutting back on these scenes in both films causes more harm than good.

There are brilliantly choreographed sequences, such as the bizarre church fete (intercut with a violent assault). The finely staged siege on the cottage is shot and edited with precision, each shot leading us to anticipate the next as our worse expectations are realised. This overwhelming invasion of the cottage is shot in a monochrome, misty style. I could hear shared gasps in the cinema by the close of this film. It was reminiscent of the experience of re-watching THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE with a modern audience. There are no safe outlets, or unnecessary and distracting stylisation which seems to have reconditioned modern horror audiences.

Sunday, 30 September 2012

THE AMERICAN FRIEND (1977)


This post reveals the plot of the film.

I saw this recently, and also remembered the first time I saw it at the NFT. At the time, I compared it to Hitchcock’s STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, another Patricia Highsmith adaptation. I would still classify this as a suspense/crime picture, as it adheres to established narrative and allows us to wait for an answer to the many questions the story asks us: will Jonathan (the protagonist) die sooner or later than expected? Will he receive the $97,000 for shooting the man in the subway? What shall he tell his wife if he receives the money, and most intriguing of all, why is Tom Ripley so interested in him?

We wait for answers. I think Wim Wenders succeeds in keeping our interest both in the process of resolving the suspenseful story and in our empathy towards Jonathan. Wenders plays with delaying our expectation throughout the film, until the sense of equilibrium is regained, and something more meaningful is communicated to us, which seems to exist outside of the boundaries of the plot.

The story begins with Jonathan meeting the gangster, Minot, and eventually involves him with Tom Ripley (played by Dennis Hopper). Jonathan eventually accepts the gangsters’ offer of employment as a hired killer. The crisis develops in a strangely stunted manner, all the while heightened by details of mood. These are particularly oppressive views of the environment, focussing on the rootless nature of the two main characters who appear to be travelling aimlessly (Ripley often travels to and from Europe to America).

There is a review from Pauline Kael, picking up on these instances as, “overdosing in mood… losing more in clarity than Wenders gains in depth.” She argues that plot points are “bobbled, and when there’s mayhem it isn’t clear who the participants are or what the outcome is.” When compared to classical models of suspense there is a somewhat troubling ambiguity, but I would argue that Wenders’ strategy is successful in disclosing enough information to allow us to identify with Jonathan’s muddled and unassuming point of view. When we see him for the first time, his expression is blank, sleepy. It is fitting with the general ambience of real life, this ambivalent atmosphere towards the inevitable violence and death which seems to threaten to emerge throughout the film.

Going back to the first killing in the film in the metro: we expect Jonathan to be captured. He bungles the shooting by running away from the scene having been told by Minot to stay put and try to blend in with the crowd. Then he thoughtlessly allows himself to be framed by the security camera monitors. This sequence seems to reiterate the overall fear of being identified on the mission and also establishes Jonathan’s anonymity. The camera pulls back from the CCTV monitors to reveal that there is no security operator viewing the scene. It’s an important point, showing that law and order will not be allowed to intrude on this story.

Information about Jonathan’s illness is not disclosed until much later in the film, after the dramatic setting is established, and then it’s through word of mouth only. The doctor’s report on Jonathan’s test engages us, but our level of involvement is unfocussed. It’s a way of rendering dramatic information un-dramatic, and it is more prevalent in recent cinema, I believe: I can think of Alejandro Iñárritu’s BIUTIFUL as an example of this plot distancing strategy, seemingly foregrounding on the environmental details above everything else. I think it is not as estranging as Pauline Kael suggests – Jonathan’s point of view as he waits for the first victim on the train does not obey the over-the-shoulder/shadowing of the main character we are used to in traditional suspense cinema, but it is more in keeping with Argento’s style which creates an overwhelming sense of the optical point of view.

As the film progresses, the thrust of the story seems to be more concerned about Jonathan’s survival and the consequences of the botched second killing – a bodyguard is killed alongside the intended victim. As they wait for a rebuke against the killings, Ripley and Jonathan find the pornographer-criminals’ ambulance parked near Ripley’s large country house. Then they are inexplicably seen carrying an unidentified bandaged man. Then there is a strange woman whose motives for leaving the bandaged man is not clearly explained, nor is the presence of the ambulance, nor is the arrival of Jonathan’s troubled wife in the car. I think there is a lack of causal information at these points which could have helped us to reason with the character’s behaviour, such as Ripley’s drive to the beach to “finish everything” by blowing up the ambulance containing the bodies.

Comparing this adaptation to Hitchcock’s STRANGERS ON A TRAIN is informative at this point to see how Wenders departs from the classic suspense format. Both novels were written by Patricia Highsmith (THE AMERICAN FRIEND is an adaptation of RIPLEY’S GAME). I think Wenders approach is the realistic, documentary style, while Hitchcock is of course, tightly structured and motivated by the narrative.

Wenders manages to stay close to the themes of the book, we feel closely embroiled in the repercussions of Jonathan’s crimes and his developing illness. The use of time limitations is effective here: Jonathan seeks confirmation of the doctor’s report on his blood disease. Hitchcock, however, rarely deviates from the demands of the narrative drive. There are few extraneous details in STRANGER ON A TRAIN, few unwanted details. Motivations and intentions are economically and expertly delineated in Hitchcock’s film: Robert Walker’s highly emotional performance reflects his exhaustion after a murder; his point of view defines his feelings as he stalks a victim through the fairground. Hitchcock is remarkable for his ability to incorporate psychic states of mind through costume, framing, characters within spaces, actions within spaces, while Wender’s observation of Jonathan follows his mannerisms, his contradictions, his general authenticity without clarifying his references as Hitchcock does. Ripley’s apparent motivation for using Jonathan for the contract killing is only referred to at the end of the film when he admits to feeling spurned when Jonathan first met him, when he addressed him with an impolite, “I’ve heard of you.”

Wenders appears to be more interested in documenting the character habits of Jonathan and Ripley, and not really as an observation understood primarily within the bounds of the narrative. He expands upon concepts of identity by observing the physical reality of his main characters and their environment.

Ripley: “I know less and less who I am, or who anybody is.”

I think Wenders is less successful in accommodating the mass audience’s tastes and expectations but I don’t think his ‘highbrow’ method of storytelling is unsuitable or uncommunicative. He adheres to the broader narrative structure, but also infers greater psychological meanings in the scenes described above where motivations are apparently unclear and characters somehow disconnected. In the NFT programme notes for the screening I attended, Wenders sums up this approach to the overall mood of the film:

“Highsmith’s stories originate from small fears, petty acts of cowardice, little faults that everyone knows so well they rarely notice in themselves… they don’t analyse or explain. There are only particulars and individuals, no generalisations.”

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

HEAR IS SOUND SHIT - RADIOMORGUE MUSIC



Over the past few months I've been working on sound designs & music for future horror films. Here are some samples. Anyone interested in using this should contact me... psynno@hotmail.co.uk

http://soundcloud.com/radiomorgue



Saturday, 30 June 2012

WITCHFINDER GENERAL (1968)


This film rises above the generic British horror films of the sixties and early seventies as a remarkably realistic excursion into the menacingly corrupt world of the 17th Century. The sheer drive of the protagonist’s vengeance, once confronted personally with the cruelty of Matthew Hopkins compels our attention well into the second half, and it is a credit to Michael Reeves for allowing us little time to consider the limited budget. Instead, the scope of the film takes us into beautiful and sadistic regions of our own countryside and its cruel history. The contrast of picturesque beauty and horror was highly individual.

Reeves set his story amidst the quietude of East Anglia and Suffolk locations. Using this real backdrop, the images of witch-burning and hanging are even more arresting against the idyllic serenity. Paul Ferris added more layers of feeling with his highly emotive and quite exquisite score, allowing us to understand the actions of the central characters, represented as somewhat remote but in perfect harmony with the period. This is not to say the characters do not work - we feel concern for the young lovers and their plight.

Vincent Price plays Matthew Hopkins, completing the strong dramatic unity of opposites. This must be one of the most villainous performances in cinema. Reeves struggled with Price, constantly persuading him to underplay the overtly voyeuristic and sadistic aspects of his character. I think Price manages to avoid the clichéd ‘evil’ style of performance which marred many contemporary horror films of the time, and clearly communicates to the viewer his psychopathic need for self-preservation. He dominates the film, casting an inescapable shadow over the young couple’s world. It is a foreboding presence. His demonstrations of greed and aloofness are well judged, and his teasing thuggish associate reminds us how much Hopkins actually enjoys his work.

The interiors are brilliantly atmospheric, especially the finale in the flame-lit dungeon. The skilfully choreographed torture and action scenes spare us none of the indignity of violence and death. John Coquillon’s photography faithfully recreates a sense of rural menace, from the effectively composed shots of the castle in the evening light to the engulfing darkness along the country lanes at night.

The film’s narrative builds to an internal, hellish climax. Price and Ian Ogilvy, the two leads, seem to be fused together as the final vengeful blows are delivered. As the dull hacking sounds of one man destroying another resound throughout the winding stairwells, Reeves manages to express man’s animalistic nature, reducing another human form to a butchered object. Hopkins used cruelty to reign over the fearful villagers and we understand that his terror and violence is infectious, and will come again and again. By focussing on the imagery of fire, damaged bodies, and harrowing human pain (accompanied by the sounds of crackling and screaming) Reeves confidently leads us into the same traps which await the central characters. We witness the much-needed final act of vengeance, but we are also forced to dwell on the tortured wife’s lingering cry of madness, echoing over the final images. The film vividly uncovers a hidden neurosis inside all the main characters.


Sunday, 1 April 2012

CARL DREYER’S VAMPYR




CARL DREYER’S ‘VAMPYR’

This privately financed film loosely refers to two short stories by Sheridan Le Fanu, Carmilla and Through a Glass Darkly. Carl Dreyer approached this vampire story using an experimental strategy. At the time, his reputation was of the individual artist and he was lucky enough to have free reign over the production, co-financed with Baron Nicholas de Gunzberg, a film buff who had aspirations towards becoming an actor. De Gunzberg was to take on the lead role, playing Allan Gray (the film was subtitled, The Dream of Allan Gray). The use of an almost entirely unprofessional cast was another unusual move, and the supporting actors seem to have been summoned from a recent stifling dream Dreyer had, with their ethereal physical presences.

Intuitive decisions influenced the entire production. Dreyer still addressed the formal elements of filmmaking while creating a distinctly personal and abstract mood. He sought evidence – or visual manifestations – of his feelings through a particular approach to photography. His most famous statement on the film, about “an ordinary room being completely altered when someone reports a corpse lying behind the door to this room,” expresses his objective to achieve his effects through light, sound, and temporal awareness. Atmosphere was used to communicate quite a specific understanding of the story through these formal elements. Working with his cameraman, Rudolph Mate, for instance, a new technique of veiling the lens and casting light onto it diffused normal daylight shots, emphasizing the unnerving creepiness accompanying our hero on his journey. I read that Freddie Francis used this technique again when he filmed the desert planet sequences for Dune.

Vampyr can be a confusing film. The use of shadows, signalling the presence of the supernatural also points to the lack of any substantial reality to grasp, of causes, or of antagonists. As Allan Gray embarks on his wanderings around the old mansion where he is lodging, the spectator’s relation to the screen is set up as his point of view. But this point of view is of gravity defying shadows, unreal reflections, and disembodied hands. We hear unseen animals and pitiful, low human voices. Our point of view is Allan’s and it is somehow out of true. “He is predisposed to the fantastic,” the title card says, and we experience this.

Rudolph Mate interprets Dreyer’s translucent world through his disorienting framing. Figures enter rooms after long moments, or pass behind the camera to get to the opposite side of the room (in the same frame). The camera pans away at times from important reaction shots to view the set almost as if the spiritual manifestations in the film were guiding it. Dreyer permits the atmosphere to take control at such moments. Another memorable scene occurs when the sick Lise’s father first enters Allan’s room; the system of necessary reaction shots is delayed unnaturally. We understand Allan’s isolation.

Traditional narrative cross-cutting, normally used to build the momentum of the story adds to this symbolic understanding: when Gray enters the old mansion at the start of the film, the insistent imagery of skulls, gravediggers filmed backwards and shadows are edited into this investigation into the house. This is not exactly moving the story forward, yet it effortlessly foreshadows future events in the story: Allan’s dream of death later in the film, prefiguring his own; the various deaths which occur later, of Lise’s father, and the peg-legged assistant, and the old doctor.

We are forced into a world of the inexplicable and the ephemeral, all the while, needing to be informed and satisfied. The point is, we do not lose interest even though the exposition may be as obscured as the oddly out of synch dialogue recording. Worth noting is that the sound design is consistent with the overall discordant style. When Allan meets the strange doctor on the stairs, communication is stilted:

Doctor: Did you hear that?

Allan: Yes. The child.

Doctor: The child?

Allan: Yes, the child!

Doctor: There’s no child here.

(The Doctor passes Allan on the way to another locked door).

Allan: But the dogs!

Doctor: There are no children or dogs here!

(Allan exits. The door is flung open by the wind, and the Doctor finds Marguerite Chopin emerging from the cellar. He escorts her into the house – intercut with a skull as the eyes are slowly illuminated within the shot).

Dialogue is carefully considered and used sparingly in this exchange, along with the intermittent use of natural, human and animal recordings. I’m not sure if these details are intended as part of a rigorous preconditioned design, but for me, the film’s strengths lie in the use of these discordant elements within a realistic world, and within a coherent narrative framework.

The story is set over a limited time period of two days, another use of formal rules and restrictions to heighten the sense of the uncanny intruding on reality. We are mostly uninformed throughout the film; the relationships between certain characters is still unclear, such as the doctor and the old woman vampire, Marguerite Chopin, Allan and Lise’s father’s relationship, and Allan and Lise’s relationship. Added to this, the films ordering of scenes is far from seamless. Most narrative horror usually manages to relate one scene to another with some momentum. But the details in Vampyr, like the father’s discovery of the book on vampires, or the events with Lise and her sister, or Allan’s dream of his own burial all appear to be unmotivated by previous events. The effect is, as I say, not as jarring as it sounds, or as deliberately obtuse as more experimental films. Vampyr’s logic shows a stranger, atavistic reasoning at work.

Where does the film belong? Around the same time, Browning’s Dracula (1931) seemed to have more to do with the reproduction of the Broadway theatrical version of the novel than anything else. While I admire the uncanny, gloomy artifice of the film, I always felt the film script was not as cinematic as James Whale’s Frankenstein in the same year. Robert Weine’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is as ambitious as Vampyr, but with a bizarre, painted and unrealistic expressionist design; it is successful in portraying the story’s inner horrors through a series of distorted sets, but less expressive with the camera and editing.

Vampyr has something akin to these examples; they are all modern retellings of traditional folk stories, aware of the logic of the folk imagination. This vampire folk tale is captured on screen as an undying, amorphous menace, as familiar as our everyday world, thanks to the intuitive directing of actors and use of locations. Dreyer’s feelings about the dead person on the other side of the door are expressed through the use of film techniques: long dissolves, odd compositions, meaningful superimpositions featuring skulls, scythes, expressionistic faces, extended travelling shots.

The enduring symbols of holy water, the sign of the cross, and the wooden stake are all recurring icons of vampire folklore, and they are well integrated into the flow of Vampyr’s story. Perhaps the imagery threatens to surpass our concerns for the characters, and to some extent, the plot, and predictably this led to a mixed reception when the film was premiered in Berlin in 1931. It was booed and screamed at. Nicholas de Gunzberg, who played Allan Gray and co-financed the film, believed that a group of people objected to Dreyer’s unusual representation of vampirism. The main vampire, Marguerite Chopin, is an old lady in her eighties – this goes against the grain of the genre. It also seems at odds with today’s modern vampire films, with their sleek, image-conscious and well-groomed young vampires.

Vampyr was a critical and commercial failure and Dreyer soon fell out of favour with the film industry. The film’s reputation has grown since then, and as De Gunzberg also pointed out: “The reaction in Paris was mixed. Certain people absolutely went over and over again and were fascinated by it.”

Over thirty years passed before the film was re-issued in the 1960s. Raymond Rohauer bought the rights from Nicholas de Gunzberg and Vampyr was re-released. This time the publicity was wider with regular screenings at art-house cinemas, usually as part of a horror theme alongside films like Jean Epstein’s The Fall of the House of Usher (1928), and Browning’s Dracula and Mark of the Vampire (1935). The critics who received the film this time around were much more appreciative.

It is still an elusive, dreamlike experience with a visual style all of its own.

VAMPYR: DER TRAUM DES ALLAN GRAY - Running time: 68 mins.

Director: CARL DREYER -Photography: RUDOLPH MATE, LOUIS NEE - Producers: CARL DREYER, NICHOLAS DE GUNZBERG - Screenplay: CARL DREYER, CHRISTIAN JUL (source: ‘IN A GLASS DARKLY’ and ‘CARMILLA’ by SHERIDAN LE FANU)

Release year: 1932, dubbed and titled.