Tuesday, 27 October 2015

5 - freaks - or the greatest horror film ever made

i wanted to do something about horror because it's nearly halloween so that seemed like a good reason to talk about my favourite film. a disclaimer - i was filming this at four in the morning and there is a bit of a weird, sleep-deprived rant at the end. i could have take it out, i'd already cut out twenty minutes of rambling from the original cut, but i left that part in.

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also i have a blog where i review stuff - http://pazvsstuff.blogspot.co.uk/

tales of halloween - soundtrack review...

tales of halloween is an anthology film featuring segments directed by modern-day masters of horror, including neil marshall, adam gierasch and jace anderson, darren lynn bousman and mike mendez among others. what’s unique about the film is that the producers took the same portmanteau approach to the score, with each segment utilising the talents of a different composer. the result is a soundtrack album that combines a number of different sounds and styles.

there is a really interesting combination of composers on this album, from legendary icons to contemporary standouts. the album opens with a title track from the great lalo schifrin who composed the score for films like bullitt, enter the dragon and the iconic mission impossible theme. another standout name on the album is christopher drake, perhaps best known for his work on d.c. animated features like the dark knight returns, but also composer of the score for the arkham origins videogame. then there are tracks from joseph bishara who worked on the conjuring and the vatican tapes. the listing also includes a track from sean spillane, who previously worked on the amazing soundtrack for lucky mckee’s the woman. in addition, there are also tracks from michael sean colin (killjoy goes to hell), christian henson (triangle, severance), bobby johnston (mother’s day, king of the ants), jimmy psycho (the jimmy psycho experiment), edwin wendler (unnatural), and austin wintory (grace).

as a standalone album, the tales of halloween soundtrack is a predictably mixed affair, with some tracks certainly standing out against the others. in a way, an anthology album exemplifies the central issue that has always plagued the anthology film and while there may be a common theme it’s tough to make different stories, styles and approaches work as a consistent whole. it doesn’t help that one of the two of the tracks don’t sound particularly horror-centric, like johnston’s track the night billy raised hell which morphs into an upbeat, pop-folk tune by the end reminiscent of david hess’s seminal soundtrack for the last house on the left. it’s a cool musical reference (eli roth also used some of hess’s music in cabin fever) but it’s a stark contrast to the other tracks on the album. sean spillane’s track ding dong suffers a similar awkward contrast, which is unfortunate because it’s a cool track and i love spillane’s soundtrack for the woman. then there’s wintory’s morricone-esque western theme for the weak and the wicked, which again feels like it doesn’t belong here although it’s a really great track in isolation. in some ways, the contrasting styles aren’t so much of an issue, but it makes it hard to make this album the background music at a halloween party and that seems like a missed opportunity given the subject matter.

that said, there are some really fantastic tracks on the album, with schifrin’s title track being one of the best. on the basis of that track alone, i’d be happy to see tales of halloween adapted into a tv series, in the style of something like tales from the crypt. as always, bishara brings the real scares with two typically unsettling tracks, trick and friday the 31st. i think he may be the most effective horror composer working in the field right now, although his music is tough to listen to out of context. wendler makes some interesting decisions with his track, limbchoppalooza, which sounds like the soundtrack to a 50s b-movie directed by roland emmerich. henson’s track, bad seed, has a real 80s feel, kind of like carpenter but it also really reminded me of fred myrow and malcolm seagrave’s score for phantasm. jimmy psycho’s closing number is a great way to end the album and feels like the perfect halloween party song.

some of the tracks do feel a bit derivative, and unfortunately four of these are all from the same composer. drake’s track sweet tooth is suitably haunting, but rather generic. similarly, the ransom of rusty rex, is unfortunately a little underwhelming, but he does pull it back with his third and fourth tracks, its not a fucking kid and he will never leave you, both of which have elements of herrman. henson’s track, grim grinning ghost, sounds like an approximation of burton-era elfman, if a bit darker in places. colin’s track, this means war, also sounds a bit elfman-esque, although at the same time reminded me a little of goth singer-songwriter voltaire.

in a way, the tales of halloween soundtrack needs to be either more consistent or even more contrasting and diverse, when it actually falls somewhere in the middle. that said, there is a lot to like on this album and if you enjoy horror soundtracks there will be something for you here.

aleph records released the tales of halloween - original motion picture soundtrack exclusively on itunes on october 23, 2015

Thursday, 22 October 2015


i feel like i say this a lot, but seconds may genuinely be one of the most bizarre films i’ve ever seen, in the best possible way.

seconds follows a depressed middle-aged banker called arthur hamilton (john randolph), who is approached by a shady organisation offering a second chance at life. hamilton takes them up on their offer and through extensive plastic surgery is reborn as tony wilson (not that one), now played by rock hudson. as wilson, hamilton is given a new life full of adventure and wealth and exciting new friends, but it’s only when he starts to miss his old life that he realises that going back isn’t going to be easy.

the most striking thing about seconds is how naturalistic it feels for what is essentially a high-concept sci-fi film. for the first twenty minutes we simply follow hamilton as he goes about his daily routine. we catch a train with him, we see him do a crossword puzzle, we meet his wife and are given a bit of an insight into their relationship, all of which is done in a way that seems more akin to a straight drama than a sci-fi film. what director john frankenheimer (who made a great many classic films but recently i watched that richard stanley documentary so i can only think of him as the guy who replaced stanley on the island of dr. moreau) does with this opening is establish a problem for his protagonist - that’s what movies do in the first act, they set up a problem that must be solved. what’s different here is that hamilton’s problem is primarily an existential one.

there’s nothing particularly bad about hamilton’s life; he’s not happy but he’s not miserable either. when the company calls him in to start the procedure, there’s a sense that he’s not fully compliant with this and is almost being coerced into it. the company seem more concerned with ensuring that hamilton doesn’t go back on his decision than actually making the process work and go to extraordinary lengths to ensure they have his full cooperation.

in contrast to this, there’s a kind of reality to the company that seems almost out of place but is also very effective. it reminded me of eternal sunshine of the spotless mind in places – this idea of getting a second chance at something through science, but that the organisation of the science is presented on a very human level and is therefore open to error. in addition, the way exposition is delivered in this film is masterful. the men who work for the company talk about this insane idea of giving a person a brand new body as if it’s as commonplace as removing a mole. the actors delivering this information all have a slightly different take on it and they’re fascinating to watch, so someone explaining the ins and outs of a medical/psychological transformation is never dull.

once the procedure is complete and hamilton is transformed into wilson, things become even stranger. wilson is moved to a huge house on the beach somewhere in california where he joins a community of young, successful people. except there is something not quite right about this community, and it’s this that makes wilson want to leave. in the wicker man-esque party scenes hudson does a great job portraying an old man in a young man’s body, baffled and horrified by the exuberance of youth around him.

a couple of other titles came to mind when watching the california scenes. on the one hand they reminded me of the prisoner, partly because of the scenes on beach but also because there’s a sense that wilson is trapped in a kind of holiday prison. it also really reminded me of el rey, the town that the protagonists of the getaway make it to in the last chapter of the jim thompson novel. if you haven’t read the getaway, you should read it right now, it has the best final chapter of any book ever.

at its heart, seconds is a film about big ideas and eternal questions. essentially it takes the idea of going back to relive your life and then shows us the problems this would present in reality. in a way it’s a film about being thankful for what you have, but at the same time there’s a sense of futility about all of existence and an idea that what we have will never be enough. it’s certainly a film that leaves you thinking about it afterwards, once you’ve recovered from the shock of the ending.

seconds is a really fascinating film that remains as thought-provoking and interesting now as it must have seemed on its release. frankenheimer and hudson are both on top form here and it works as both existential art film and tense sci-fi thriller. it’s a film that still seems ground-breaking in some ways, even today, and for that reason i would certainly recommend giving it a watch.

eureka entertainment release seconds on blu-ray and dvd on 26th october 2015

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

the skull

the skull is a rather strange horror movie about a possessed skull that makes people go mad and then bites them to death. if that isn't enough to spark your interest, it also features peter cushing and christopher lee playing best friends, which has to be a rare occurrence (please leave other examples of this in the comments!).

the skull follows demonologist christopher maitland (peter cushing) and his dealings with dubious antiques dealer, marco (patrick wymark). marco has recently acquired a human skull that he is convinced is the skull of the marquis de sade. it’s also possessed by the same demon that possessed the marquis and marco is understandably keen to pass it on. despite being warned off by his friend and fellow collector sir matthew phillips (christopher lee), maitland decides he needs the skull. not long after he takes it the bodies start to pile up.

the skull is an amicus production, which on the surface means it’s hammer in all but name. kim newman explains the history of amicus in a much better way than i ever could on a special feature on this release, so check that out if you’re interested in finding out more. amicus used the same stars as hammer and many of the same personnel, including director freddie francis who had worked on a number of hammer films as cinematographer. he was also the cinematographer on jack clayton’s the innocents, which is a really beautiful, creepy film. there are a couple of moments in the skull that seem like pure visual indulgence, particularly in the dream sequence, and it’s in these moments that francis really stands out as a filmmaker.

the dream sequence is by far the best moment in the film, partly because it’s unclear for most of it that it’s a dream. maitland is 'arrested' and taken to a large, empty courtroom, where a judge forces him to put a loaded gun to his head and indulge in a light-hearted game of russian roulette. it’s an incredibly tense and wonderfully weird scene that jars against the rest of the film in the best possible way.

the other highlight of the skull is the relationship between maitland and phillips as fellow collectors. while we have seen lee and cushing onscreen together many times, it seems rare to see them in such informal, even friendly circumstances as are shown here. in a key scene, maitland and phillips discuss the skull over a game of snooker, and their friendship in the scene is one of the most genuine moments in the film. i don’t know if cushing and lee were friends in real life, but they do a good job selling it here if not.

the skull is based on a short story by robert bloch (who also wrote psycho) and while the story itself is good, the fact that it’s a short really shows. at times the skull feels like it should be a shorter piece and would have fitted in well as an episode of a portmanteau movie, like dead of night or dr. terror’s house of horrors. as a feature, it sometimes doesn’t feel like there’s enough story to fill the running time. a parallel story showing the fate of the skull’s first owner helps, but even this occasionally feels like filler. as a result, the skull often feels slow-moving, particularly as it’s clear from the outset where the story is going.

the film is also let down by its climax, which is particularly hard to take seriously. it’s not an issue with the effects, just the idea of a floating skull that bites people to death is kind of ridiculous and really dissolves the tension built up by maitland’s struggle with madness.

despite the ridiculous concept, cushing plays every scene as seriously as if it were shakespeare and in very convincing as a much more vulnerable character than we are used to seeing him portray. maitland is a really interesting character, and i could quite easily have watched a film about cushing running around london solving demonology-related incidents, as that’s certainly how it’s set up at one point (possibly wishful thinking on my part). what we actually get is a character who so badly wants to believe in the existence of the supernatural that he will put himself in serious danger to prove it and that's a fascinating concept, far more interesting than the idea of the possessed skull itself.

like it's namesake in the film, the skull is more of a curiosity than a forgotten masterpiece, but there are certainly some interesting elements to enjoy and some unusual moments. it’s also worth watching simply for the dream sequence, which looks stunning on blu-ray.

eureka entertainment release the skull in dual format blu-ray and dvd on 26th october 2015

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

the naked prey

the naked prey is one of those ‘hunter becomes hunted’ films that have been popular since forever. it’s also kind of beautiful and marks a real achievement for it’s writer/director/producer/star cornel wilde.

the naked prey opens with a group of white hunters stalking elephants in nineteenth century africa. when they insult a local tribe their camp is attacked and the men are taken to the local village to receive punishment. for one of the hunters, that punishment entails becoming the human prey in a manhunt across the wild plains.

the first striking thing about this film is the opening credit ‘cornel wilde as man’, which seems an incredibly arrogant opening statement from the self-proclaimed auteur behind this film. however, the lack of a name for the main character is in keeping with the minimalist nature of the whole piece. there is barely any dialogue in this film, and most of the dialogue we do hear is not in English and not subtitled. for the most part, we watch wilde’s man trek alone across a vast, dangerous landscape that makes him and his trials seem small and insignificant in comparison. occasionally he is forced to fight his pursuers and the fights are as savage and raw as the stock wildlife footage of predators taking down their prey that is cut into the film. there is nothing noble about the violence and the struggle for survival in this film, it is simply portrayed as necessity.

of course, all this happens after we are forced to endure one of the most cruel and brutal sequences ever shot when the other hunters are tortured and killed by the tribe. perhaps the most brutal death involves a man being caked in mud then roasted slowly over a fire as he screams. it is scenes like this that caused controversy when the film was released as the obvious assumption is that the filmmaker is representing all african tribes as bloodthirsty murderers. however, as the film progresses the group of hunters in the tribe are shown in a more sympathetic light, mourning their dead companions with genuine sadness as they are picked off one by one by their wily prey. later, wilde’s character is shown as perhaps more of a callous killer than any of his pursuers as he dances with glee at the sight of the hunters almost burning alive. by the end of the film balance is restored and the two parties find a kind of mutual respect, but what’s important is that the film isn’t afraid to show the extremes on both sides.

ultimately the message wilde was trying to deliver was that in the right circumstance men are no different to animals and that there is neither glory nor shame in that, simply truth. at the same time, he tells this story in a very entertaining way. wilde’s man is the ultimate underdog, stripped of everything and challenged to survive against armed men who know the land much better than he does. it’s exciting to see him figure out how to survive against these odds and taking on the challenge of the landscape as well as that of his hunters. wilde does a fantastic job making the character and his feats believable, partly due to the fact that he is in amazing shape for a man approaching fifty. he also plays the desperation very well, which makes the story all the more compelling.

there are, of course, hundreds of films with this same setup, going all the way back to richard connell’s 1924 short story, the most dangerous game, filmed in 1932. since then there have been numerous reworkings, my personal favourite being 1994's surviving the game in which homeless ice-t is hunted by rutger hauer and gary busey (gary busey, these days a bit of a joke, delivers an amazing speech in that film). there are still elements of the most dangerous game around today, most notably in the hunger games, but the reason that the story is so frequently retold is that it’s a good story. we love to see an underdog prevail, whether it’s katniss everdeen or a naked cornel wilde. it’s also a story that will always be universal and that’s never been more clear than in the naked prey.

this is a really well-produced, beautifully shot film with some fantastic setpieces, and it’s also a thrilling 90-minute ride that looks gorgeous on blu-ray. if you like to be entertained in style and don’t mind the odd stock footage clip of animals killing each other, you should definitely give this a watch.

the naked prey is released by eureka on blu-ray on 19th october 2015

Monday, 12 October 2015

the ocean at the end of the lane - neil gaiman

i totally read a book! i've either been reading things that wouldn't really interest anyone or not reading at all for a few months so i'm very happy to be writing a book review for a change. happy might not be quite the right word though...

it's kind of appropriate that i've just posted my lanark vlog because (don't get me wrong - the ocean at the end of the lane is nothing like lanark) the ocean at the end of the lane is a lot like lanark.  i mean it's not like i read a story, its like i read a feeling.  the whole book is completely infused with pretty much one feeling, which should make it boring, but it doesn't, it makes it completely beautiful. i knew before i read it that neil gaiman kind of wrote this for his wife, amanda palmer (an amazing musician and fascinating human being, please check her out), so i was kind of expecting an unconventional love letter of a book.  and that's not there at all, not a whiff of romance or anything like it, which left me wondering. and it's really only as i've sat down to write this and express it that i realise it works not like a story, but a song.

sorry, i'm writing this in completely the wrong order, first i'm supposed to tell you about the plot: the narrator revisits the place where he grew up, and his mysterious old neighbours, the hempstocks.  as in all good books, this revisiting unlocks a door in his memory, and we discover what happened to him at the age of seven.  which was that his parents took in lodgers, and one of them killed his beloved cat.  then he and his father find the lodger dead in his father's car, and he is taken under the wing of young lettie hempstock, a child like himself, except she isn't. strange, alarming things begin to happen around him, and through his friendship with lettie he is drawn deeper and deeper into a reality that becomes a dream, a myth that becomes a reality, a pond that becomes an ocean. for fuck's sake, it's bad enough as an adult when totally unfair horrible things happen to you, when you are seven you don't even have words for how shit that is. our narrator is so terrifyingly powerless in his own world and the world which invades his own, that a happy ending begins to be unimaginable.

if you asked me to remember being seven, i could recollect only a couple of things. i have a friend from that age, and a school project book. i remember it as basically a happy time. and yet this book is kind of all the terrible, terrible things about being seven, or rather, feeling seven. when adults are unfathomably powerful. when siblings are unnecessarily cruel. when your simple understanding of the world in black and white begins to take on shades of grey, which can be the scariest thing of all.  suddenly in reading i was seven, and utterly miserable. it takes such a special kind of talent for a writer to do all that and make you want to keep reading.

i heard gaiman give a talk about this book when it was first published, so i knew maybe more than i was supposed to.  he talked about why his book coraline, featuring a girl of more or less the same age encountering similarly mythical evil and whooping its ass, is a children's book, and this is not - because children's books need to have hope, he said. so you can draw your own conclusions from that. but if you want a sweet, funny, dark fairytale, go read stardust.  if you want a thrilling, scary kid's adventure, read coraline. if you want an epic modern myth, read american gods. if you want strange, beautiful sadness, read this.

Friday, 9 October 2015

4 - lanark by alasdair gray - the best book i've ever read

as promised on twitter here's a video about my favourite book, lanark by alasdair gray. i kind of went off on a tangent here, but in case you missed the point just go find this book and read it. it will change your life, i promise.

dark matter

dark matter is a 13-part tv series set in space about a group of amnesiac space mercenaries who take on space zombies and space samurai in their quest to figure out what they’re supposed to be doing out there. yes, adding ’space’ in front of any word automatically makes it awesome.

the crew of the raza emerge from stasis to discover that not one of them can remember who they are or what they’re doing there. not knowing their own names, they refer to each other as numbers based on the order they came out of stasis and then they do their best to get along while trying to survive warring corporations and enemies from a past they don't recognise.

this central conceit of the characters having amnesia feels like a somewhat old-fashioned narrative device, but it is still effective and means that the audience comes into the story on the same page as the characters; we don’t have to try to remember huge amounts of backstory about these people because they’re learning at the same time we are. it also infuses the story with a sense of mystery from the very start, and the writers effectively weave this sense of mystery into other parts of the show. there’s the locked vault in the cargo hold that none of the crew members can figure out how to open, there’s the huge stash of weapons they appear to have been delivering before they lost their memories, and there’s the android who runs the ship and also appears to have a glitch in her programming that makes her a little more human than she should be. added to this, there are mysteries surrounding each of the characters and the show makes it clear that you should never assume anything about anyone. there are also some interesting themes being explored here, around whether people are born bad or whether they develop that way due to outside influences.

at the same time, dark matter is a hard show to get into at first and employs a number of narrative devices that, intentional or not, serve only to alienate the audience and keep their sympathies at a distance. using numbers for the character names seems like a cool idea but it’s actually incredibly confusing for the first few episodes, and becomes even more so when the characters learn their actual names. some of them even have a third name, which is even more confusing. even in the last few episodes someone would say something like ‘where’s six?’ or whatever, and i'd have to really think about which one six was. but that’s minor compared to the other alienating element, which is that at least four of the characters essentially start off being almost identical. usually shows featuring a team have one total badass – jayne in firefly, faith in buffy, the hulk in avengers … currently i can only think of joss whedon titles, but you know what i mean; there’s usually that one guy who no one will mess with and he/she is a bit moody or whatever but will do something unexpectedly cute or heartfelt one time, subverting expectations. here there are four of those characters, and while there are minor differences it does feel at times in the early episodes like they're serving the exact same function.

at the same time, the fact that four of the characters are so similar is a stroke of genius. like the characters' memories, the stereotypes they fall into act as blank slates and as the series progresses we learn that they aren’t quite as similar as they first appeared. that’s the thing with this show – it takes a while to really get going. it felt like there was something missing in the first half of the series like it was trying to find its feet, but once it does there are many cool things to enjoy here.

the first thing i really started to like about it is how much it reminded me of a number of awesome video games. the ship and some of the crew reminded me of mass effect at times and i think in many ways this is the closest thing we have to a mass effect tv show. there’s also a hint of deadspace, particularly in the episode where the team board a ghost ship overrun by space zombies. finally there’s a cyberpunk element, which is obviously a nod to the works of william gibson and bruce sterling, but at the same time really made me think of the last deus ex game.

there’s also something refreshingly retro about a show set in space. star trek is a movie franchise now, and i’m not the biggest sci-fi fan but it seems a long time since we had anything like this on tv. there are also all these other elements thrown in, like a planet that seems to be stuck in feudal japan which leads to a gunfight with samurai, and the aforementioned space zombies. it’s like the producers took the essence of those old space shows and threw in all the cool stuff from videogames and pop culture.

the best thing about dark matter far is the lead character, two (or portia lin, because like the show if i start calling people by numbers it’s going to get very confusing) who, going back to mass effect, really reminded me of commander shepard (at least, it reminded me of the way i played commander shepard anyway). she’s this supertough leader but you can see that she really cares about the other crew members and she has a lot of heart, and that this is constantly in conflict with her more violent, survivalist instincts. she also has a refreshingly realistic sexual appetite and the relationships between her character and two of the men on the ship are among the most normal and relatable that i’ve ever seen on tv, certainly for a sci-fi show. melissa o’neil does an amazing job with this character, adding a complexity to her actions that keeps you guessing about whose side she’s really on right until the final episode, and it's this performance that really holds the whole thing together.

there are many other things to like about dark matter, including some cool guest appearances from people like david hewlett (if you don't know who david hewlett is, he's in a film called nothing, which if you haven't seen you should check out immediately) and wil wheaton. in its weakest moments earlier in the series it feels like it wants to be as entertaining as firefly but lacks the wit, or it wants to be as brutal as game of thrones but lacks the conviction. however, at other times it becomes its own unique tale with its own unique characters telling their own story, and in those moments dark matter is really rather impressive.

dark matter has been renewed for a second season, so if you haven’t seen it yet i would definitely recommend checking it out on dvd. there are some cool extras too, particularly one where we are shown the moment the actors discover a major plot point on set. if you like oldschool sci-fi dark matter is worth checking out just to see people having episodic space adventures again, and equally if you were a fan of mass effect and deadspace then i predict you will find a lot to like here too.

dark matter will be released on dvd by rlj entertainment on 12th october 2015