'Uncut!' A BFI Season of Banned and Censored Films - preview


It's a curious facet of the human psychological condition that we actively seek to do what we're told explicitly not to. As either a child or adult we're all familiar with exchange's such as this:

"DO NOT touch that!"
"Why not, mum?"
"Because you'll get hurt. And because I said so!"
"But it's just a rock?"
"Yes, but it's covered in excrement, broken glass, venomous-spiders and diseases."
"Hmm... OK, mum"

then later:

"Look at you! You touched the rock didn't you?!"
[sheepishly] "Yes!"

And now, as a an intelligent, free-thinking adult, you can experience exactly what the British Board of Film Classification has told you not to touch! The BBFC is 100 years old this year and the British Film Institute is scrutinizing the scrutinizers.

You’ve witnessed enough bland, anodyne cinema in your life and now you hanker after something else. You want to be challenged, you want to be shocked and you want to be titillated in weird, new ways. And why wouldn't you? Quite frankly you'd like to push some boundaries and have some fun. 

The BFi has heard your cries and programmed a season of films just for you. And to top it off they are hosting a debate on the role of the BBFC as Britain's chief censors and arbiters of what is permissible. All of the films have been banned or partially censored within the last century and all of them are, for whatever reason, viewable now with most of those offending elements reinstated. Times have moved on and while you can argue that the acceptance of sex, violence and unusualness on show here demonstrates a slide into moral vacuity, you could equally contest that it shows that we are all more accepting of challenging material. Yes there is plenty which is, quite rightly, taboo but there are also some things that should not have been banned at all and, in the cold light of day, pose no threat to modern society.

Here's a short preview of some of the delights on offer:

Crash (1996, dir. David Cronenberg)
Famously banned by Westminster council on the grounds that the film was "bordering on obscenity", "liable to lead to copycat action" and guilty of depicting women in a "sexually humiliating way", Crash now looks remarkably restrained and quite un-erotic today. It remains an excellent study of sexual fetish and a mind unable to find the satisfaction it craves despite pushing itself further towards destruction. It features strong performances and just the right level of icily detached direction.

The Evil Dead (1982, dir. Sam Raimi)
The vertiginous, funny, roller-coaster-speed spills and thrills of Raimi's horror classic were only relatively recently available uncut in the UK. Originally The Evil Dead received an 'X' certificate with numerous excisions. Once again, on a recent viewing of this seminal work, it is easy to see why it might have offended but most of the gore and horror is undercut by a keen and vicious streak of black humour. 

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984, dir. Steven Spielberg)
The "not as awesome of powerful as Raiders, but still watchable" action/adventure prequel suffered at the scissor-like hands of editors when the BBFC requested the removal of a scene in order to secure a more universal PG rating. It was the removal of a man's heart through his rib-cage by the particularly strong hand of the film's villain which proved problematic. Recent releases have seen the scene restored.

This is England (2006, dir. Shane Meadows)
On release, This is England earned itself an 18 certificate from the BBFC for racist language and violence. Director Meadows insisted that 15 would have been a fairer limit for it, allowing it to be seen by a secondary school audience who would have empathised with the issues presented. This Is England also serves as a valuable history lesson as well as cautionary tale. To think that the film condones racism in any way would be missing the point by a considerable margin. Yes, the naturalistic performances and stark beauty of the film intensify the emotions and impact but I can only think that a 15 year old would have benefitted from seeing the effects of racism on "real" people and communities.

The next 2 films are released on BFI DVD on November 5th 2012

Sick: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist (1997, dir. Kirby Dick)
A tough documentary to stomach for two reasons. The first is for the graphic depictions of the pain that Bob inflicts on himself: Needles, hammers and nails are used to derive sexual gratification. The second reason for uneasy viewing, is the realisation that Bob is trying to control the pain he feels from the cystic-fibrosis which is slowly killing him. Bob's humanity and intelligence shine through even as his wife dominates and sexually tortures him to the bitter end. 

Maîtresse (1975, dir. Barbet Schroeder)
Receiving a ban on initial release in the UK for it's graphic scenes of bondage and sado-masochism, Maîtresse still has the power to induce winces when the pain-giving starts. The love story between Gerard Depardieu's thief and the dominatrix (Bulle Ogier), whose house he invades, is convincing and complex. It looks great too, and the fetish fashions on display give it a curiously modern feel too.

Here's a full list of what's on in the season. Why not book yourself a ticket to something they never wanted you to see!


Flying Swords of Dragon Gate (Long men fei jia) review (2011, dir Hark Tsui)

I'm no fan of the 3D film. Something about having my eyes covered in any way while engaged with a medium that is at least 50% visual doesn't sit well. Then there is the fact that film is three-dimensional already (time is a dimension) so the name is incorrect. And lets not forget what 3D is: It's not 3D. It's several layers of flat planes which 'appear' to be differing distances in relation to the viewer. All that clever compositing effects work by the film-makers is undone by the fact that your attention is drawn right back to the fact that 'dinosaur-A' really isn't part of 'landscape-B' and the whole thing is a figment of some computer's central processor.

Having made that point I'm going to recommend you see a martial-arts epic in the wuxia tradition called Flying Swords of Dragon Gate. In 3D.

From a bravura, vertiginous, fly-through the masts and rigging of a ship-yard to an epic, and quite brilliant, fight to the death within a whirling sandstorm, the 3D process is here given a vigorous workout. FSODG is not an intelligent film, but any ounce of brain-power it had was spent solely on figuring exciting ways to use 3D to bombard the viewer with arrows, spears, fists, head and beauty.

The plot side of things goes something like this: various factions in a strife-riven China take refuge in an inn built not far from "The Dragon Gate". Viscous agents of the East and West Bureaus, brave knights who spend their life on the road, tattooed barbarians, sell-swords and flesh-eating inn-keepers all converge as the sand-storm of a lifetime engulfs them. With the revelation that the city buried under the Dragon Gate will at last be revealed by the shifting sands and disgorge its bounty of gold for the victors, the story is given some urgency.

There are subplots of love lost, mistaken identity, Machiavellian intrigue and sexual politics, but none are developed with any of the rigidity they deserve to be. Plot points come and go, sometimes serving only to provide an occasional titter, but more often than not to segue into an extravagantly choreographed fight. Provided you are happy with unclear motivations, unlikely twists and unstable characterisation you won't find anything to trouble you here.

Star power is provided by Jet Li, on enthusiastic form, and acclaimed director Hark Tsui. All of the cast are fun to watch though, especially Xun Zhou as a lady knight and Kun Chen as both a supremely nasty leader and in a parallel role as a bumbling servant. Also worthy of mention are the powerful and fun special effects, wrangled by the effects team who worked on Avatar. The aforementioned flying battle in the heart of a whirlwind of sand is a particularly exciting moment, a sort of violent Wizard of Oz dream sequence, which thrills and surprises in equal measure. All staple wuxia elements are here, from floating heroes, knights duty bound to help the weak and the pitting of lower classes against an evil and rich elite.

FSODG is a great, nonsensical fun. A rip-roaring flight of fantasy that plays fast and loose with physics, history and logic, and never fails to deliver on its promise of spectacle, action and adventure. And as a showcase for 3D it fulfills its purpose by throwing everything at the screen, including a rather ornate, gold kitchen sink. A prefect metaphor for the fact that stereoscopy can't help your story but only provide the shallow thrills that are its sole stock-in-trade.

FLYING SWORDS OF DRAGONS GATE is out in cinemas on 19th October and on 3D DVD and Blu-Ray on the 29thof October 2012.


The 10 Funniest Moments in Film: part 2

Part 1 here
6. "I'm terrified beyond capacity for rational thought" in Ghostbusters
Dr. Peter Venkman: Ray has gone bye-bye, Egon... what've you got left?
Dr. Egon Spengler: Sorry, Venkman, I'm terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought.

Why is this funny? You shouldn't analyse comedy, of course, but the humour comes from the fact that he still has enough rational thought to construct a complex statement even though he says he's terrified. It's a very pleasant spoof of any character who's ever been unrealistically rooted to the spot with fear in every horror film you've seen.

7. "Print is Dead" in Ghostbusters
Janine Melnitz: You're very handy, I can tell. I bet you like to read a lot, too.
Dr. Egon Spengler: Print is dead.
Janine Melnitz: Oh, that's very fascinating to me. I read a lot myself. Some people think I'm too intellectual but I think it's a fabulous way to spend your spare time. I also play raquetball. Do you have any hobbies?
Dr. Egon Spengler: I collect spores, molds, and fungus.

Ghostbusters! Twice! Well, it is one of the best comedy films every made. OK, print wasn't dead back in '84, but it is now! And it's funny for both those reasons. Why? Because it makes me laugh, that is why.

8. "Suck my Tits?" in This Is England
Smell: You're dead sensitive.
Are you all right?
Are you sure?
Do you want me to kiss you again?
Do you wanna suck my tits?

Wholly inappropriate, uncomfortable and weird, When Smell asks Shaun quite casually if he'd like to suck her tits the only sensible reaction is to laugh. And then be violently sick.

9. Biggus Dickus in Life of Brian
Pontius Pilate: So, yaw fatha was a Woman? Who was he?
Brian: He was a Centurion, in the Jerusalem Garrisons.
Pontius Pilate: Weally? What was his name?
Brian: 'Naughtius Maximus'.
[the Centurion laughs]
Pontius Pilate: Centuwion, do we have anyone of that name in the gawwison?
Centurion: Well, no, sir.
Pontius Pilate: Well, you sound vewy sure. Have you checked?
Centurion: Well, no, sir. Umm, I think it's a joke, sir... like, uh, 'Sillius Soddus' or... 'Biggus Dickus', sir.

As I said in Part 1, nothing is funnier than watching people trying not to laugh. Nothing!

10. Bank Robbery in Take the Money and Run
Bank Teller #1: Does this look like "gub" or "gun"?
Bank Teller #2: Gun. See? But what does "abt" mean?
Virgil: It's "act". A-C-T. Act natural. Please put fifty thousand dollars into this bag and act natural.
Bank Teller #1: Oh, I see. This is a holdup?

Take The Money And Run is probably my favourite comedy film ever, but I chose this sequence (among many hilarious ones) to show it off.


Prometheus review (2012, dir. Ridley Scott)

(Contain mild spoilers)

Prometheus isn't a horror film. It is a summer blockbuster with ideas above its station. It is a film of awe and mystery punctuated by occasional bouts of terror and action. If you want any indicator to its ambitions, the first scene is nothing less than the creation of life on Earth.

A series of ancients artefacts strewn across the globe all hold a pictogram inspired by visiting celestial beings. It is Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and her boyfriend, Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) who first put the pieces of the puzzle together. It is a star-map to a particular point in space; an invitation to meet another race. A team of scientists are assembled via funding from the powerful Weyland-Yutani corporation. The film wastes no screen-time setting up the logistics of such a trip and the team are soon en-route to the planet LV-223.

Landing fortuitously close to the only building on this barren rock, the team embark on their exploration. What they find there points to the origins of the human-race. Things fall apart when alternative agendas are revealed by the accompanying robot, David (Michael Fassbender) and the Weyland-Yutani  representative, Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron).

Prometheus is a beautiful film. Shots of the space-ship cascading through the atmosphere of the planet and an opening montage of landscapes from a young-Earth spring to mind. There are also strange moments when the cinematographer's attention seems to have been diverted and exterior scenes resemble a quarry location from a 70s episode of Doctor Who.

One needs to pay attention in this film. On the planet events unfold rapidly and the seeming innocuous disturbance of a chamber has complex ramifications later on. There is a clearly a deeper mystery at the heart of the film but creaky dialogue and occasional moments of flat-out silliness threaten to overwhelm them. Musings are made on the nature of life and death with a Christian perspective shoe-horned in when the script needs to feel like it is still edgy and relevant. With such big notions at stake the locking of all the action to one small location makes it all feel strangely parochial.

Prometheus is a good film which is only a few scenes and a couple of script redrafts away from being a great one. Stronger characterisation and better dialogue would certainly have helped. Some characters are sketched vaguely, making it hard to care for them. The film has several influences. Most notably the HP Lovecraft novella At The Mountains of Madness (which could have been a film in its own right had Guillermo Del Toro received funding) in which man discovers the own hideous nature of his creation and the malevolence of those creators. The powerful opening recalls 2001: A Space Odyssey in its scope and ambition. In terms of ideas Prometheus is every bit as important as 2001 or Solaris. I can't think of any science-fiction film which has attempted to weigh in on such lofty matters since those films, with any degree of seriousness.

Performances are uniformly strong with Fassbender and Rapace providing stand out moments, stoically carrying on through the sillier moments. In the end this is a science-fiction film which has been forced to accept summer blockbuster stylings. We should be glad that a mass-market film is attempting depth with its ideas and philosophical-musings but somewhere in its gestation something prevented it shining as bright as a new star.


Some questions to ponder:
Why do worms appear in our heroes footsteps? They seem to mutate pretty rapidly into the proto-face-hugger/snake creature. Do Meredith's eyes glow like a Bladerunner replicant when she is talking to David? Is she a robot as well? Is this why she pronounces "father" so strangely? What were the Engineers running from? Why is this ship different from the one on LV-426? Was the woken engineer angry because he met a life-form created by the people his race made? Why did the Engineer at the start willingly kill himself? Why did the engineers visit early Earth civilisations? Why are they hostile? Or did we get that wrong?


The 10 Funniest Moments in Film: part 1

1. Breaking the fourth-wall in Trading Places
Billy Ray: No thanks, guys, I already had breakfast this morning.
Mortimer Duke: This is not a "meal", Valentine. We are here to TRY to explain to you what is we do here.
Randolph Duke: We are 'commodities brokers', William. Now, what are commodities? Commodities are agricultural products... like coffee that you had for breakfast... wheat, which is used to make bread... pork bellies, which is used to make bacon, which you might find in a 'bacon and lettuce and tomato' sandwich.
[Billy Ray turns and gives a long look at the camera]

2. Tallywacker in Porky's
Balbricker: Now, Mr. Carter. I know this is completely unorthodox. But I think this is the only way to find that boy. Now, that penis had a mole on it. I'd recognize that penis anywhere. In spite of the juvenile snickers of some, this is a serious matter. That seducer and despoiler must be stopped; he's extremely dangerous. And, Mr. Carter, I'm certain that everyone in this room knows who that is. He's a contemptible little pervert who...

3. Pure disdain in This Is Spinal Tap
Tommy Pischedda: You know what the title of that book should be? "Yes, I Can If Frank Sinatra Says It's OK". 'Cause Frank calls the shots for all of those guys. Did you get to the part yet where uh... Sammy is coming out of the Copa... it's about 3 o'clock in the morning and, uh, he sees Frank? Frank's walking down Broadway by himself...
[Nigel raises the limo partition]
Fuckin' limeys.

4. Shatner in video-screen in Airplane II: The Sequel
Buck Murdock[on view-screen]: Why the hell aren't I notified about these things!
[opens door and steps out from behind screen]

5. Courage in the face of adversity in Carry On... Up The Khyber
Lady Joan Ruff-Diamond: [brushing off a collapsed ceiling] Oh dear! I seem to have got a little plastered!


Marley (2012, dir. Kevin MacDonald)

Reggae, and Bob Marley, were always off my radar. So far off my radar, I was in danger of flying planes into them. (My metaphorical and wholly imaginary job as an air-traffic controller was in jeopardy). Despite this I found myself fascinated and excited by Marley. At times it drew me close to tears. (I didn't of course, actually cry. In fact had I cried I would still probably say that “I didn't of course, cry”).

Bob Nesta Marley was only 36 years old when he died and what Marley, the film, does best is to cover the staggering amount he achieved in that time. He was born to a slightly caddish and elusive white Jamaican Royal Marine and a black Jamaican mother. Bullied in his early years, as a his mixed race boy in Jamaica, Bob's didn't have an easy start. But he turned this around in later life and blossomed into a handsome and charismatic young man with a profound talent for music.
 Marley is notably reverential to Bob but does on occasion, portray him or those around him in a negative light. Director MacDonald's mission to interview as many people as he possibly could was always going to lead to some interesting revelations. Interviewees hint that the head of Island Records, Chris Blackwell (known to some as “Whitewell”), was exploiting Bob by not paying him properly, for example. Yet Blackwell also turns up, happy to discuss his part in the legend.

Bob's own children portray him as an unreliable and often absent father. One rather bleak anecdote tells how he would race his children on the beach, winning and laughing riotously, not even slowing to let them catch up. A devotee of Rastafarianism and a committed hedonist, Bob seems to have lived a happier life than the rest of his immediate family, possibly because he cared more about football and womanising than anything else.

This exhaustive documentary captures some astounding moments, such as the shooting of Bob and his retinue by gunmen at his studios at 56 Hope Road, assuming he was a supporter of the current Jamaican prime-minister. With gunshot wounds to the chest and arm, he still honoured his commitment to a concert two days later. Another moment recalls Bob on stage with leaders of the two warring factions in Jamaica. Forcing them to hold hands, he united political enemies and brought hope to thousands with a message of peace.
Bob's effortless charm and love of life make the closing chapters harder to bear. They detail his battle with the disease afflicting “the white-man part of his body”: cancer. Positive to the last, Bob ends his days in a slow decline, smiling and joking with friends.

Kevin MacDonald's film captures a whole life and if you know little or nothing of Bob Marley this will be rectified by the end. As a documentary it may be lacking style but it is always interesting, often highly emotional and might just change the way in which you view the legend, and the real man behind it. There was more to Bob than is found here but its doubtful so much will ever be assembled again in one place.

The closing credits feature a host of Bob's fans from around the world celebrating his music. Curiously these are the only moments in the documentary which ring a little contrived and hollow.

Marley is released in cinemas and on-demand on April 20th 2012.

Break review (2009, dir. Matthias Olof Eich)

Break is a German horror film masquerading as an American film. Shot in English, and using American cars and newspapers, it was actually made in Bavaria with a German cast and crew. The film follows four young women on a trip into the Canadian rockies to escape the humdrum and, for Sarah, to recover from the upsetting end of a relationship.

break girls

A pleasant holiday of hiking, photography, skinny-dipping and confessionals is curtailed by the discovery of a pair of bloodied feet dangling from a tree. Intestines found nearby hint that bad things are “afoot”! Deliverance, Wong Turn and The Hills Have Eyes all spring to mind as obvious influences when the local rednecks turn nasty and hunt the girls mercilessly. What follows is a nasty chase through the woods and streams as they try to avoid sexual-abuse, stabbing, harpooning and shooting.

Performances are lively and earnest without being entirely convincing and direction is confident and restrained without being memorable. The girls at least look like they could be friends. The landscapes are undeniably beautiful and sumptuously photographed, providing a beautiful backdrop from which to juxtapose the unfolding horror.

Break ends satisfyingly for those who endured the frequent blood-letting and “unstoppable killer” cliches. It brings nothing new to the genre but what remains is watchable and grim, if terrorised women and mentally-ill yokels be your thing!

BREAK is released on DVD in the UK April 16, 2012. The trailer can be seen here.


Jo Nesbo's Headhunters (Hodejegerne) review (2012, dir. Morten Tyldum)

Comfortably replete with Jarlsberg Cheese, Vikingfjord Vodka and some wonderful Scandinavian pastries you could be forgiven for thinking I'd forgotten I was here to review a film. But this was just the very genial introduction to a new Norwegian film hitting UK shores in April.

I settled, satisfied, into my seat for what I expected from the trailer to be a straightforward, nuts and bolts thriller but Headhunters is much more than that. It is a surprising and hilariously tricksy film with a darkly comic and quite sadistic inner-core.

Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie) has all the trappings of a respectable businessman, complete with smart car, suits, wife and house. His snappy moves have earned him a role as a man for head-hunting the best corporate talent. Only his diminutive stature provides any level of self-doubt. However, his life is a minutely assembled and shock-proofed lie, as it transpires his fortune is amassed almost entirely from art-theft.

At a party he is introduced to the suave Clas Greve (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, known to US/UK audiences from Game of Thrones). Roger spots an opportunity to end his criminal career with the biggest theft of all, the valuable Ruebens painting at Clas's apartment. His accomplice, Ove, will sneak the painting out of the country and onto the black market.

On executing the plan things go disastrously awry. What appeared to be a simple art heist leads to questions about Roger's wife's fidelity. Then the story becomes a chase across the Norwegian country-side as Roger evades a relentless assassin. As he runs, the tension, set-pieces and improbability escalate. Traps and schemes become ever more inventive and no one can be trusted. Headhunters evolves into something wild and unpredictable. Escapades involving skewered dogs, errant tractors, a large amount of faecal matter and flying cars are some of the obstacles added to the delirious brew.

Headhunters won't set the world alight in terms of acting, direction or artistry but for 98 minutes you will laugh, wince and tremble as our hero, Roger, is wrung through the wringer and then wrung again through an ever more twisted set of wringers, each wringer more cruel and twisted than the last. A tense, hilarious and evil viewing experience which will keep you guessing.

Headhunters is released in the UK and Ireland on April 6th. Find the trailer here.


A Horrible Way To Die review (2010, dir. Adam Wingard)

Adam Wingard's 2010 film stands as an impressive achievement. Intense performances; a restrained and understated script and a twisted, thrilling tale. But undermining all of this, a few creative decisions threaten to derail the film entirely. Does what remains withstand this onslaught? Is the powerful substance more than the alienating style?

Set in Midwestern America the film is a taut horror/thriller concerning a recovering alcoholic coming to terms with a past relationship which was not what it seemed. At an alcoholic support-group, Sarah (Amy Seimetz) meets fellow troubled-soul Kevin (Joe Swanberg) who asks for a date. Meanwhile her ex-boyfriend, serial-killer Garrick (A J Bowen), has violently absconded from gaol and is making a viscera-strewn path back home.

Sarah's relationship and drinking are going well and it appears she has turned her life around. Then her past collides with her present in a wholly unexpected way. What follows presents us with a unique and daring twist on the serial killer genre. Past and present are melded without confusion as we observe first hand how Sarah and Garrick once shared a loving relationship.

And all of this would make for a simply-told, solid film were it not for the directorial style. Shot entirely with a constantly swaying, hand-held camera, even the most motion-sick resistant will find themselves challenged not to succumb to giddy nausea. The lens never looks like it is more than a few centimetres from the actors faces. The depth of field is so shallow background detail is lost in a blurred haze. Establishing shots are few, landscapes are non-existent and no opportunity is missed to de-focus or pan away from the action. This is a great shame because such a self-conscious attempt at disorientating the viewer detracts from the naturalistic performances.

If you think you can maintain your concentration through these distancing techniques then A Horrible Way To Die is an un-sensationalist story with a shocking twist. Just don't expect to walk away without a certain amount of vertigo.

Released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK on March 19th.


The Woman in Black review (2012, dir. James Watkins)

Daniel Radcliffe bears the weight of The Woman in Black almost solely on his shoulders. Despite being a recent alumnus of Hogwarts it's perhaps too large a burden. The central portion of the film has Radcliffe (as lawyer, Arthur Kipps) alone in a dilapidated house of hell. There is little to do but observe and react. When he's required to interact, with the formidable supporting cast, his weaknesses are more apparent. Not least that he looks just a smidgen too young to be a recently bereaved father and a trained lawyer.

Dispatched to settle the affairs of a recently deceased woman, Kipps arrives in a quaint but markedly rude village in the heart of the Victorian countryside where, beneath its chocolate-box veneer, dark undercurrents flow swiftly. No one wants to talk,. Kipps is warned to stay away, and the children are confined to their homes.

A high rate of infant mortality stalks the frightened streets and hushed voices speak of a vengeful spirit connected to the property of the dead woman. An apparition of a black-clad woman is said to lead youngsters away to their death. Nearby an abandoned house casts a deathly shadow over the place. The house lies across a narrow, sodden causeway precariously crossing the marsh. The path is covered cut off by the tide for several hours a day, effectively trapping visitors there should they visit at the wrong time.

The only friendly face in the village belongs to Daily (A sombre Ciaran Hinds) father grieving over the loss of his boy. Daily drives Kipps across the marsh to the house but doesn't hold with any of this “superstition nonsense”. As a lone voice of reason and science in the village he is severely outnumbered.

Writer Jane Goldman has treated the original novel by Suan Hill as a template, maintaining the bones of the plot and the sense of dread. The Woman in Black is most effective when Kipps is alone in the house, sorting through paperwork. As he works he starts to hear noises, see things in his periphery. Something is with him. Tension is carefully built as he investigates. One sequence calls to mind the 1963 film The Haunting, when. A reverberating, bassy thumping emanates from behind a locked door, ramping up the tension. And the house itself could be a twin of Hill House from that film.

Director James Watkins (director of “Broken Britain” parable Eden Lake and writer of the curious My Little Eye) paces the scares in well-timed ebbs and flows, maintaining a strong sense of foreboding. An accomplished cast bring a touch of class to a tale with little ambition other than to creep under the skin of the audience. A few well-worn tropes serve to distance the seasoned film-viewer: wind-up toys springing to clock-sprung life of their own accord; gaudy, glassy-eyed Victorian dolls observing all, and words etched in blood spewed across the walls. There is a small nod to the debate about the supernatural versus enlightenment but it is soon abandoned when the source of the terror is revealed.

The good news is that The Woman in Black does what a film under the Hammer productions banner is expected to. It provides a roller-coaster of thrills and jumps, some cheesy and some downright scary, while remaining largely free of computer generated imagery. The finale is a little wrought and sentimental, though not enough to derail what has gone before. There are moments of silliness and some straining of credibility in the effort to scare the audience. But, give in to it, leave your cynicism at home, and the hairs on the back of your neck will stand proud. You'll laugh with relief that you survived the next big “BOO!” and grab the hand of your partner. Isn't that what you want from a horror film?

UK general release: February 10th


The Haunting review (1963, dir. Robert Wise)

I pray the poor soul chancing upon this despair-smirched scrawl forgives the quality of my record. It has been four nights since last I slept. Frequent opium use has afforded little respite to my fractured sanity. I write in scarlet ink with only the flesh-coloured light of a gibbous moon. When my eyes do close I see only the vague outline of the ‘thing’. Its writhing torso accompanied by mournful ululations and discordant gibbering.

My tale starts with an invitation. A simple letter on the morning mat of an ordinary day. To sojourn in the notorious Hill House. A house born bad. I smirked and discarded the wretched thing there and then. But my old friend Dr Markway was dogged. “An experiment of tremendous important to science,” he persisted. “Vital to the disproval of parapsychological disturbances.”
I humoured him. “I’ll go. But do not expect results. Stuff and nonsense!”

A couple of days later and I ground my Plymouth Fury up the gravel drive. Hill House filled the windscreen, squatting vilely ahead. On entering I greeted Markway and the other lab-rats. I was shown to a grand room and I unpacked before we reconvened for dinner. Luke was brash and cynical, not unlike a gameshow host. Theodora was haughty and mocking in contrast to Eleanor whose demeanour was timid and mouselike. A more diverse group I could not have imagined. Markway knew what he was doing.

Now I am required to still my own hand in order to drive the ink over the page. It vibrates from memory of a primal horror witnessed over those next few nights. The booming reverberations, the gnarled forms, the mutilatedscreams. Onslaughts on reason combined in a fetid rash of terror. I saw, or thought I saw, things that were not meant to be.

And the locus of these events was Eleanor herself. Harried and hunted by a beckoning entity. I collapsed to my knees, shrieking that I could take no more. Without shame I fled, screaming as a babe, to leave the others to what fate had deigned for them.

I heard no more til many years later I learned of a cinematographic reconstruction of the ‘events’. Summoning courage from an untapped seam within, I inserted the ‘DVD’ into my digital-video display construct. My part in proceedings had, perhaps understandably, been excised. And I am convinced some of the events have been reduced in tone and intensity. Nevertheless the film was subtle, refined and rollickingly exciting. The director has employed a devilishly inventive mise-en-scène to suggest much almost without showing anything. A host of perspective tricks and vertiginous moves accentuate the fear. What remains is one of the scariest psychological horror films available to man. See it, if you be brave, and make up your own mind! And please do not confuse with the bastard remake of latter years!

I must go now. The electricity has been switched back on.


The Notorious Bettie Page

“I never thought it was shameful. It felt normal. It’s just that it was much better than pounding a typewriter eight hours a day.”

Thwack! Ow! Thwack! Ow! Thwack…! Ooh…! I’m really hammering the hell out of my keyboard. Hmm, that reminds me of something…

Bettie Mae Page made the most sordid of acts fun and wholesome. With her capacious smile and twinkling eyes, you believed she was relishing paddling the hell out of another woman’s bottom. Equally comfortable dressed in black lingerie while gagged and tied, her lolling stare challenged the viewer to find anything wrong with the image. Pornography focused on the male gaze is notoriously humour-free and po-faced; Bettie Page brought a sense of cheeky fun, dispelling the notion that she wasn’t enjoying herself too. Or possibly she saw it for how silly it all was. Sporting a distinctive, and much imitated, short fringe and jet-black hair, Bettie was renowned for glamour modelling and fetish photographs of bondage, whipping, spanking and domination during the 1950s. Bettie was also a devout Christian.

Finding success first in a fledgling Playboy magazine as Miss January 1955, Bettie’s iconic Christmas picture characterised her lack of inhibition. This image came in the middle of Bettie’s heyday as a sadomasochistic model for the brother and sister team Irving and Paula Klaw. Paula took the bulk of these images, and Irving sold them through mail order to fetish fans. Avoiding censorship by not actually featuring any pornographic or nude material, Klaw’s images featured titillating and cheesy scenes of restraint and punishment.

The FBI destroyed Klaw’s business on grounds of deviancy, using him as an example to deter others. By the turn of the 60s, Bettie’s modelling career ended and as she started attending regular Bible classes she withdrew from show business. Treatment for acute schizophrenia followed. After attacking a landlady, she was sentenced to a prison term of eight years. She didn’t know it herself, but the 80s marked an era of revival for Bettie Page with books, comics and films resurfacing to be avariciously consumed by new fans fascinated by her natural ease in front of the camera.

As Bettie-mania intensified and she learned of her new-found fame, she never allowed herself to be photographed or interviewed, preferring to be remembered as she was in the 50s. In a rare interview by the magazine that made her famous, Bettie stated that modelling had been preferable to pounding a typewriter every day. Her death from heart attack in 2008 came after years hiding from the spotlight. Her headstone reads ‘Queen of Pin-Ups’.

The Notorious Bettie Page (2005), is a curiously restrained and empty affair (no pun intended. No, make that pun intended). With the more intimate feel of a made-for-television biography and treating almost everyone as essentially innocent, it resembles Bettie’s own world view. Even a sexual assault in her college life does little to dampen her spirt. Gretchen Mol sparkles as she consumes herself with the character. The trouble is there is no flesh on the Bettie myth. Despite the film’s mission statement to tell you all about Bettie, she remains as elusive as she did in her years of hiding. And with no explanation for why she spent years playing at being tied and abused, the film portrays her as a naïve airhead. Even her later born-again Christianity is given little dissection and she becomes a catalyst for events without motive or reason. Director Mary Harron brings little visual flair aside from the innate detail of the period costumes, sets and monochrome photography.

The great interest of the film lies in the examination of 50s attitudes to pornography in the US and how they stand up compared to today. It’s obvious we’ve travelled a long road for ill or not. The longevity of Bettie’s appeal represents nostalgia not for a time before overt filth and depravity, but a desire to return to when it was (allegedly) more innocent and fun. The idiosyncratic twinkle in Bettie’s eye, unique styling and faux-naughty grin are all symbols of this golden age of good, honest, healthy perversity.