Monday, 9 July 2012

Bloody Blow (Canada, 2012); Dir. Rémy Couture & Joseph Elfassi

The other day I received a message from a young friend. She's an inquisitive girl a penchant for controversial material; be it Charles Manson's curtailed music career, accounts of the Brooklyn Vampire or the writings of Satanic supercrank Anton Lavey.

Anyway, she sent me a link to the short film I've embedded above and wanted my impressions. Being an egotist who hides behind a facade of false modesty I was of course happy to oblige.

I'll confess that beforehand I'd never heard of Rémy Couture, the French Canadian filmmaker and special effects artist who was arrested in 2009 on charges of obscenity relating to a series of extreme horror shorts he'd made a few years before and made available on his website His trial has already been adjourned a number of times but is currently scheduled to start in December 2012.

Couture's oeuvre, so to speak, explores the transgression of taboos. He's steeped in horror history and cites such works as Hellraiser and Cannibal Holocaust amongst his formative influences. As a effects artist he's been involved with some major Hollywood productions and at least prior to his arrest was much sought after.

Now personally I've don't have any great interest in the more radical forms of body horror; it's something I've dipped into for curiosity's sake but hardly a place I care to spend much time. It's not really a question of taste more that it often appears banal and a bit silly.

So Bloody Blow, the film Couture recently released to promote his ongoing legal fight, was never likely to float my boat. It's a short vignette in which Couure's occasional collaborator Zombie Boy (model and artist Ricky Genest) is held for interrogation by the authorities. After being seduced by a goth temptress Zombie Boy tucks into some raw brains and is then executed. The piece closes with a reminder of the charges of corrupting morals Couture is facing and the admonition 'ART IS NOT A CRIME' written in smeared blood.

My initial response was not so much of disgust as supercilious disregard for the film's merits. Yes, it's giving expression to the nihilistic, sociopathic urges that reside beneath the veneer of civilised society, but it's doing so in a fairly crass and obvious way with the specific intention of trying to provoke disgust. In the past eighteen months I've watched uncut versions of the aforesaid Cannibal Holocaust and Srđan Spasojević's A Serbian Film and both were more shockingly effective in that regard, although in the case of Cannibal Holocaust I abhor the cruelty with which this was achieved.

However, on a second viewing I realised I'd overreacted. Bloody Blow may be graphic in its depiction of cannibalism but the whole scenario so cartoonish that it's really not that offensive. It put me in mind of the kind of thing found in EC's horror comics during the fifties and it seems laughable that sixty years later the censorship debate appears to have progressed so little. If this is reflective of Couture's earlier work it's hard to see what all the fuss is about.

But there's something else I wanted to touch upon which sadly may have some influence upon Couture's trial, as it again centres around the dissemination of horrific material over the internet...

Last month police in Hamburg arrested and extradited Luka Magnotta, a Canadian porn star and model wanted on suspicion of killing and dismembering Jin Lun, a Chinese student, and then sending his severed limbs to the offices of various political parties and elementary schools.

As if this wasn't disturbing enough Magnotta also uploaded an alleged video of the murder and dismemberment to, a website which publishes videos and photos of real-life death and mutilation obtained from various sources. According to the site's owner Mark Marek it does so because people have a right to know the "real, uncensored truth".

Marek removed the video and notified the police when he realised its provenance (although they took some persuading to believe him), but in some quarters it's raised serious questions about the extent to which society is becoming desensitised to extreme violence and horror in the internet age. Lest we imagine that this is a phenomena that more directly applies to troubled Canadian souls accustomed to long, dark winters, bear in mind how only a few months ago the front pages of British newspapers carried pictures of the barely alive Muammar Gaddafi being dragged to his execution.

Are we at risk of being 'corrupted' by such material? I think it's important to distinguish between morbid curiosity and the propensity to be depraved or corrupted (if such a thing exists). Who hasn't been guilty of some form of ghoulish rubbernecking at some point in their lives?

Let me give you an example from personal experience. On the evening of Sunday 15th April 1984 I was staying at my grandmother's in Bath. Despite being a devout Christian my gran had a penchant for trashy American and Australian soaps and I think we were watching Dynasty on BBC1. It was only the following day that I learnt how Tommy Cooper had collapsed and died on Live From Her Majesty's on ITV.

This incident had always fascinated me; along with the death of a boy I knew in a joyriding accident a couple of years later it seemed to encapsulate the concept of death in my childhood. So one bored afternoon a few months ago I decided to search for a clip of it online and suffice to say I quickly found it. There I was finally watching the moment a comedy legend slipped this mortal coil. It left me feeling sick and empty; I'd never care to see that again.

I'm by no means a portrait of sanity but I'm fairly confident I'm not a homicidal killer either. As human beings we have an ambivalence about death and the circumstances that lead to it; it appalls and fascinates us. 

What's more the macabre and the moving image have an association almost as old as the cinema itself. One of the earliest films produced by the Edison Company was Electrocuting an Elephant in 1903. The dubious delights of can be seen as a continuation of the mondo filmmaking tradition that began (with Mondo Cane) in the early sixties and woud lead to such work as the infamous Faces of Death series the following decade. 

Granted, these films made much use of faked material whereas, if the evidence to be believed, some of the bestgore clips have proven to be all too genuine. But the fact remains mondo and its descendants satiate an essential curiosity that some (by no means all) people feel. Accepting that you'll never extinguish this the onus is on the proprietors of such websites to ensure they moderate them with vigilance, although I guess there are no guarantees on that score.

Yet notwithstanding morbid curiosity do depictions of extreme violence, real or imaginary, carry the potential to deprave and corrupt? Well actually, yes, I suspect they probably do... to a limited extent. Take any case of abhorrent crime that's been given any serious study or investigation - the James Bulger killers for example - and you'll find a wealth of psychological factors, environmental factors and formative incidents that could have drawn those individuals towards sociopathic behaviour. Of these film, tv and video are just a single element, but they're potent mediums that can be recorded and replayed, unlike most experiences.

It's argued that the distinction between entertainment and reality is growing blurred but the evidence for any commensurate increase in violent crime is sketchy at best (though government agencies grow ever more sophisticated in their manipulation of statistics). Compare that to millions of kids undermining their prospects with insane dreams of instant celebrity sold to them by tv 'talent' shows and you can't help but be struck by the irony; nobody calls for these to be banned.

Implicit within the notion of a social contract between the individual and the state - and its utilitarian basis - is the faith that freedoms, however idiosyncratic, won't be curtailed unless it's for the greater good of society. Yet censorship undermines this trust and dilutes our liberty through specious evidence of our corruptibility.

I'm reminded of the research the academic Martin Barker did into the 'moral panic' surrounding video nasties in the early eighties, where a minority of puritanical zealots resorted to flimsy evidence, lies and obfuscation to arrive at the introduction of the 1984 Video Recordings Act. These weren't people acting for the greater good; their objective was social control and history has shown we ought to be very wary of that.

The problem these moral crusaders face nowadays is that the internet makes it all but impossible to enforce censorship, so instead they seek scapegoats. If successfully convicted it could be that Rémy Couture is just the first and set a disturbing precedent.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Storage 24 (UK, 2012); Dir. Johannes Roberts

Well, it finally happened: I got to see a Johannes Roberts film at my local cinema. If somebody had told me this when I sat shaking my head in dismay at the singular incompetence of Sanitarium I wouldn't have credited it. Hopefully it's not the end of the journey but he appears to have arrived somewhere.

Storage 24 is a nuts and bolts sci-fi exploitation movie. The premise is a simple one: a US cargo plane has crashed somewhere in London, possibly shot down, for reasons unknown. Part of the wreckage has landed in the grounds of the titular secure storage warehouse, including a mysterious container which has broken open, releasing a nasty monster which seeks refuge in the building.

It also causes a power failure, meaning that those who happen to venture inside - including Noel Clarke, the girlfriend he's just acrimoniously split from and attendant friends - find themselves trapped in there with the beast.

We've seen it all many times before of course, from The Thing From Another World onwards. Like a number of Jo's films the debt to John Carpenter (Assault on Precinct Thirteen, The Thing) in particular is clear, indeed his last film F (reviewed on this blog last year) was built around the same conceit of characters being picked off and dismembered by mysterious assailants.

Perhaps surprising then that for the first time (to my recollection) he wasn't directing from one of his own scripts but that of star and producer Noel Clarke, although I do wonder how much rewriting may have been done during development.

Clarke is an interesting leading man and indeed an interesting figure on the British film scene. He may not be the most talented actor or writer out there, nor for that matter a conventionally attractive one, but he goes about his business with conviction and good humour and most importantly gets films made.

If I had one particular criticism to make of him though it's that he didn't exert more influence on the film's bland casting; it's not that I don't believe a black man would have a white girlfriend and best friend but it would have been nice to see another black face or two in there. Maybe it was a sop to the film's financiers who felt there was risk enough having a black star without adding more colour.

Another shortcoming is the film's monster. I was nervous when I heard Johannes and Noel mention in interviews how they'd made a point of making the creature more conspicuous than in similar films (e.g. Alien), although intrigued when comparisons were drawn with the Marvel Comics character Venom. If by that they meant it would evoke the worst excesses of nineties comics then I'm afraid they're right.

And yet despite these weaknesses Storage 24 is an effective and enjoyable effort. There's no pretension to it; this is a film that knows it's a B movie and that the priority is to deliver thrills and gore. We've got a fairly good idea what's going to happen right from the outset, but like The Thing, Alien or countless inferior films the very concept exploits the vicarious appeal of cinema - like the characters we're sealed in for the duration.

One aspect I would have liked to see made more of were the hints of what's going on in the outside world while this drama unfolds, but in fairness that might undermine the final twist.

It probably reveals something of Universal's modesty of ambitions for the film that they've released it up against one of the summer's big movies (The Amazing Spider-Man). Sure enough there were less than a dozen in the audience when I saw it and although Epsom is hardly a cultural barometer most likely Storage 24 will have to wait until its dvd release to do any serious business. Which perhaps makes Roberts and Clarke's talk in interviews of a possible sequel seem a mite optimistic.

Still, stranger things have happened and while I think I preferred F's relative originality this is time well spent.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Cactus Jack [aka The Villain] (US, 1979); Dir. Hal Needham

Sometimes you want to go right back to the beginning; before it became complicated, before all the doubts, disappointments and cynicism. When every day felt new and different yet comfortingly the same.

Although I was born in London my earliest memories are of High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire. I can just about recall standing with my mum beside my sister's cot when I was two years old, nearly three. Gradually the impressions grow more substantial; Christmases and birthdays, my first day at school (what a miserable old git that headmaster was), climbing to the top of the apple tree in our back garden, finishing third in a race on sports day because, while in the lead, I'd stopped to watch my fellow competitors!

It feels so vivid and real compared to later years and perhaps a part of me died when we moved away the summer before I turned eight. I know I'd never feel quite so sure of myself again.  Maybe that's why I've felt the urge to revisit it a couple of times in the last few years, to recapture that earlier idea of myself.

What a strange sensation to rely on the memories of a quarter century earlier to retrace old routes; the walk from the station to our old street was disrupted by a new housing development where once there had been a furniture factory (High Wycombe was the original home of G-Plan). On the other hand I wasn't sorry to see that a footpath where my mum had been assaulted on her way home from a PTA meeting was now blocked off. Revisiting the school (okay, trespassing) it was reassuring to find that some concrete playground equipment I'd remembered being installed so many years before remained intact.

Half lost in revelries of things past, like George Bowling in Orwell's Coming Up for Air, yet feeling oddly displaced and vagrant like a character in a seventies Wenders film, I wandered and wondered about those childhood haunts. At one point I fancied I might have seen a girl (now woman) I went to school with. I knew she still lived in our old street as our families continued to swap Christmas cards. Funny how one speculates; if fate had been different and we'd not moved away I'd often thought perhaps we would have become sweethearts. Diana Witham, whatever you're doing now, if you should happen to read this, I send you a virtual kiss.

But I've digressed indulgently. I wanted to tell you about my first ever trip to the movies...

I was five years old. It was a Saturday lunchtime and my dad, having just returned from working a night shift in London, asked me if I'd like to go to the cinema. There was a Spider-Man film playing -  actually a feature length episode of the Nicholas Hammond tv series that was given theatrical distribution, although clearly I wasn't au fait with the particulars at the time - and I jumped at the chance of this new and exciting experience.

So off we went. In the foyer my dad bought me a large bag of jelly gums and we settled down in the darkness of the auditorium, close to an exit, for the presentation.

But here's the thing: it swiftly became clear that the film we were watching wasn't Spider-Man; not unless the web slinger had swapped his blue and red spandex for a stetson and spurs. You see it was actually a double feature, the first half of which was a slapstick comedy western in which a black-clad villainous cowboy was continually thwarted in his attempts to stop a young couple travelling cross-country in a wagon. I wasn't disappointed and found it quite entertaining, although perhaps my enjoyment wasn't that apparent as my dad kept checking if I was alright.

When the second Spider-Man feature finally began it seemed dull by comparison and I don't think we stayed more than fifteen minutes, with me carelessly leaving the bag of sweets behind (seriously, that's caused me guilt ever since). Looking back I wonder if my father had expected Spidey to be on first and decided by that point I'd probably had enough, but I've never asked him and not being the sentimental type I doubt he has a strong recollection of the experience.

Now for years afterwards I had no idea about the identity of this film. Then, during my final year at university I happened to mention it to a housemate and fellow film student who was a few years older. Remarkably he could recall this very double bill doing the rounds and informed me it was a comedy known over here as Cactus Jack...

If thirty years ago I'd tried to explain how, on deciding on a whim to watch this film again, I could summon it through the ether after a few taps on my keyboard, then thirty minutes later transfer the video file onto a tiny data stick and play it on my tv it would have been conclusive proof of my insanity. The passage of time has been generous to cinephiles, enabling us to revisit works would have once been consigned to oblivion (or at least the vaults). The same cannot be said of Cactus Jack and  watching it again I begin to understand why my dad hadn't felt inclined to linger around long after.

Frankly it's a terrible attempt at comedy, more notable for the stars involved than any artistic merit. The thin storyline was much as I recalled; Cactus Jack (Kirk Douglas) is a cartoon villain in the old West who's hired to steal money that the ravishing Charming Jones (Ann-Margret) is taking back to her father under the guard of a Handsome Stranger (Arnold Schwarzenegger).

During the course of their journey Cactus Jack is repeatedly foiled in his wild and and ingenious attempts to curtail their progress in a style that deliberately recalls Wile E. Coyote in the Road Runner cartoons. He's flattened by boulders, falls from great heights, gets hit by a train and - the gag that I still recalled from all those years before - watches incredulous as Charming and Handsome Stranger's wagon travels through a false tunnel which he'd painted onto a solid rock face.

I can understand why these innocent laughs would have appealed to the five year-old me but to the older viewer they soon grow tedious and there's very little else to recommend here. None of those involved are particularly gifted comedians, although Douglas makes a game attempt to ham it up as the buffoon villain and, for a man who was by then 62, had kept himself in impressively good shape to withstand the pratfalls.

The allure of Ann-Margret's Charming was understandably lost to me the first time around and I couldn't help but reflect how we make sense of a film relative to our own experiences. When I first watched it I'd assumed she and Handsome were a couple yet to worldlier eyes her character is clearly something of a slut who spends much of the time unsuccessfully trying to seduce Arnie's naive hero.

As for Mr Schwarzenegger the obvious remark is that few could have imagined this stilted performer with his thick accent would a decade later be the biggest star in movies. Truth be told he's really no better or worse than the other leads and at least offers something a little bit different from the generic norm. Schwarzenegger's entire career was built on canny choices which allowed him to work within his limitations. Only the most pompous snob can deny his screen presence.

And really that's all there is to say, except that one surmises the only way this lacklustre effort could have ever got a release is as a support feature. Yet that distant past where a little boy first discovered the silver screen really is a foreign country, the film I watched then was a quite different one.

In the words of Thomas Wolfe you can't go home again.