Killing Ground (Australia, 2016) and Don’t Breathe (US, 2016)

Unhappy New Year in Australia

Two critically appreciated horror-thrillers with very different audience reaction: Killing Ground‘s rated 5.8 on imdb and seems to have taken little at the box office; Don’t Breathe gets a 7.1 and took nearly $150m worldwide. Both are superbly well made but for me there’s a crucial difference that makes the Australian film far superior: I cared about the characters.

 

Just deserts?

In the American film, which cost approximately 10 times more to make, the three protagonists are burglars. In Australia, the protagonists are an ‘in love’ couple celebrating New Year in the Outback. Writer-director Damien Power ensures this isn’t sickly-sweet and he’s aided by excellent characterisation by Harriet Dyer and Ian Meadows. Aaron Pedersen adds some charisma as the lumpen proletariat and although the film’s been compared to Deliverance (US, 1972), the film isn’t really about class. So as the burglars break in to a blind man’s house I’m quite happy for him to terrorise them (they have to be quiet hence ‘don’t breathe’). It is true that the narrative configures our sympathy with the youngsters as we learn more about the apparent victim but it’s too late by then; ‘too late’ for me but not most apparently.

Power’s film has plenty of suspense but it becomes clear he’s more interested in the relationship of the lovers; Dyer’s Sam proposes early in the film. How does such a romantic commitment stand up to life-threatening circumstances? Most of the violence is handled well and the worse is off screen though I thought the fate of the baby was miscalculated (I’m not entirely sure what happened as it was pretty dark).

The director of Don’t Breathe, Fede Alvarez (who co-wrote with Rodo Sayagues), handles the darkness well when the blind guy cuts the power to take away the youngsters’ advantage of sight. We’re in Silence of the Lambs (US, 1991) territory with our ‘heroes’ floundering in the dark but we can see as its shot (or post-produced more like) with filters that signifies ‘pitch black’ whilst we can clearly see what’s going on. It’s far better than the ‘day for night’ technique used in Hollywood’s heyday.

Don’t Breathe‘s slated for a sequel (Alvarez has directed the flop The Girl in the Spider’s Web, UK-Swede-Germany-Canada-US, 2018) but I’d rather see Power get another shot; he’s only directed a short since. Hopefully this won’t need to be in Hollywood but unfortunately that’s the path to take to get the finance. I can’t fathom why imdb voters prefer the American film as the Australian is much more emotionally involving; I guess it is because the former has more visceral thrills which is what youngsters tend to be more interested in.

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The White Reindeer (Valkoinen peura, Finland, 1952) – LIFF5

Vampiric lust in a cold climate

The White Reindeer is a weird amalgam of Finnish folklore and what appears to my untutored eyes to be ethnographic filmmaking. However, a quick glance along the casts’ filmographies shows that most of the cast are actors and their adeptness in the frozen north with reindeer and skis is obviously born of their culture. The glimpses of Sami life are probably the most fascinating aspect of the film from the reindeer races, the weddings and reindeer herding. Director Erik Blomberg (who also coproduced, co-wrote and photographed!) brings visual flare to what must have been a tough shoot. Only occasionally is the mise en scene compromised; for example, at the climax there are already ski-tracks visible – presumably from previous takes.

The narrative, a mythic tale designed to demonise (literally) sexually voracious women, is less than gripping. The startling images make up for the lack and Bergstrom seemed to me to use the top of the frame for more action than is usual. This gave a sense of the immense landscape; one exceptionally spectacular shot was of a herd of reindeer flowing into the distance (below).

Eyes are drawn to the top of the frame by the flowing reindeer

In addition, the transition scene – the cursed woman turns into a white reindeer – uses negative effectively. The soundtrack, which I take to be Finnish/Sami folksongs, adds to the eerie otherworldliness of the images though the sound was compromised by distortion in the bass (cinema’s fault – the Vue, Leeds – not the film’s). The White Reindeer was, for me, eye-opening drama in which the milieux is more important than the narrative.

Orphée (France, 1950)

La grande mort

One of the key tenets of surrealism was to annoy the bourgeoisie who have to find profound meaning in their art. To provoke annoyance the surrealists relied upon dreams as the ‘legislators of truth’. Although Cocteau was part of the surrealist movement he was often supposed to be a dilettante; however, as  he said: “I have been accused of jumping from branch to branch. Well I have – but always in the same tree”. Hence although there are surrealist elements in Orphée its narrative has a logic that isn’t found in the classic surrealist films of the 1920s. In Orphée there’s no doubt that death lies beyond the mirror but it also seems to be a dream world that Cocteau brilliantly articulates through a variety of techniques.

One such is using back projection which includes a character engaged in conversation with another who is in the foreground. There’s also superb moment where Orpheus and Heurtebise, whilst in the realm of death, struggle along a wall to reach a corner where they appear to fly down the other side. The ‘underworld’ is accessed through mirrors and the transitions through them are done superbly using judicious angles and editing; there’s none of the plasticity of CGI.

Despite this brilliance I’ve never liked the film as Orpheus himself is a misogynist. However, I noticed this time (my third viewing) that he describes himself, toward the end, as ‘insufferably smug’, and early in the film he says that ‘we shouldn’t think to hard as it would become confusing’ (I paraphrase). In other words, it is typical surrealism playing with expectations that art should be meaningful and indicating that the ‘film’ knows Orpheus is pretty dislikable. On the other hand, unliked most surrealist films, it’s relatively easy to understand Orphée: it’s a commentary on the ‘agonies’ of the creative artist both socially (at the start Orpheus is ostracised by his peers because he is successful) and intellectually (the difficulty of creation).

María Casares’ ‘angel of death’ is particularly striking and in one moment of visual brilliance, when she is accused of loving Orphee, her dress suddenly turns from black to white. And it is such cinematic moments that stick in the mind from Orphée, not Jean Marais’ ‘insufferable’ Orpheus.

Mother Joan of the Angels (Matka Joanna od Aniolów (Poland, 1961)

Taking the devil out of horror

Mother Joan of the Angels is a sort of sequel to The Devils (UK, 1971), Ken Russells’ hysterical and extravagant adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudon (1952) which was based on actual events that occurred in the 1630s. ‘Sequel’ because it deals with the aftermath of Grandier’s (Oliver Reed) death although it is based on Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz’s novella written in 1943 whilst incarcerated in a concentration camp. The stylistic contrasts between the film could not be more striking as director Jerzy Kawalerowicz and Tadeusz Konwicki’s adaptation eschews full frontal representation of sexual repression in favour of restraint. The stylisation in the earlier film is through Jerzy Wójcik’s stark and beautiful black and white cinematography and some striking set pieces (as in the still above).

This version of the ‘devils of Loudon’ focuses more on the conflicted, unworldly Father Suryn, who arrives to exorcise Mother Joan, rather than the sexual repression of the nuns. Mieczyslaw Voit’s haunted performance as Suryn makes it clear from the start that he is unlikely to be up to the task. In one heavily stylised scene he asks a local rabbi for help: the conversation between the two, where each character (both played by Voit) occupy the same space in the frame after the edit, emphasises the priest’s inner conflict. The rabbi asks if the devil ruled the world it would explain why there is so much evil.

Unlike the elaborate design (by Derek Jarman) of Russell’s film, the setting is a muddy and pitted expanse of ground between the locals’ inn and the convent. In the middle there’s a burnt out stake, that saw the last of Grandier, that is a reminder of the Church’s violence. Unsurprisingly the Catholic church condemned the film but the Polish authorities were happy with its anti-religious stance; Cannes awarded it the Special Jury Prize.

Apparently this is Kawalerowicz’s most stylised film as he was, predominantly, a commercial filmmaker; he’d made Night Train a couple of years before which is equally good. Mother Joan of the Angels is brilliant on so many levels: direction, performance, mise en scene and the portrayal of the psychological damage that religion can wreak. What stands out, however, is the chiaroscuro cinematography that seemingly effortlessly presents a real space as abstract.

Bone Tomahawk (US-UK, 2015)

Not your average ‘Indian’

S. Craig Zahler’s debut as a director (he also scripted) is less a Western than an outback horror movie, though the tropes of the former are present. A posse of four ill-matched men go after some particularly savage ‘Indians’ who have kidnapped one of the pursuers’ wife. So far so conventional and the unspoken male creed of ‘what a man’s gotta do…’ underpins the men’s bravery. The landscape, a mixture of scrub and glorious vistas, is typical of the genre too though the setting, in the last decade of the 19th century, is later than ‘classic’ Westerns.

The (for me) dread hand of Tarantino is present in some of the dialogue that seems to be trying to be clever but that’s never over-bearing and it’s delivered brilliantly by the cast. The actors are the main reason to see this film unless you wish to be grossed out. Kurt Russell’s rugged visage was designed to be a sheriff and Richard Jenkins’ garrulous old man is a delight.

The film risks going back to the reactionary ‘Indian as savage’ trope but Zahler’s careful to distinguish the savages with ‘authentic’ Native Americans. And savage they are ‘treating’ us to the ‘best’ dismemberment I’ve seen in film; if that’s your bag.

One bright spot, in terms of it being a Western, is Lili Simmons’s character, the abducted wife. Although marginalised for much of the film she does get a great speech where she talks about the problems of the frontier (which had disappeared by 1890) not being the terrain or ‘Indians’, but male stupidity. The ‘men’s gotta do…’ is certainly stupid in some contexts and the narrative stretches too far in allowing them to do it; even in the context of a genre film, it is not believable.

The film is overlong, some of the dialogue could have been trimmed, but is worth seeing for the cast but if you’re squeamish avoid the last half hour.

The Little Stranger (Ireland-UK-France, 2018)

Decline and fall

The film version of Sarah Waters’ novel seems to me to be a rare example of Todorov’s ‘fantastic’, a ‘genre’ in which the supernatural happenings may have natural causes. This is in contrast to the novel where the ghostly goings on are more obviously really ghostly. Set in the post-war era the Ayres’ stately home is falling into dilapidation symbolising the shift from the old deferent order to the Labour government of the Welfare State. Domhnall Gleeson’s socially mobile doctor inveigles himself into the Ayres’ household having become entranced by the house when visiting once as a child. Ruth Wilson plays the sister hauled back to nurse her brother, injured during the war.

Lenny Abrahamson’s direction is solid and I liked the way the Gothic horror elements slowly infiltrated the movie; even the house, at first, seemed to me to be innocuous. The scene where Charlotte Rampling’s mother gets trapped in her room is genuinely scary and Ole Bratt Birkeland’s cinematography is suitably atmospheric.

Spoiler alert: ‘who is the little stranger?’ remains a question in the book but the film is more direct in the final scene where the doctor, as a child, remains in the house. In addition, the death of the sister is more directly dramatised, more than hinting at the perpetrator. Otherwise the film is a faithful adaptation of a good novel but it is good there are divergences otherwise what would be the (artistic) point?

Train to Busan (Busanhaeng, South Korea, 2016)

They are going to get you

It’s 50 years since George A. Romero revitalised the zombie movie with Night of the Living Dead and Yeon Sang-ho show’s there’s satirical life in it still with this entertaining bloodfest. The spin is ‘zombies on a train’ and the social satire is at the expense of corporate Korea, though I guess hedge fund executives are the same everywhere.

Horror, particularly of the gory kind, tends to become less appealing as you age not because you become squeamish but you’ve been taken out of your visceral comfort zone often enough thank you. Yeon’s direction, though, as is often the case in Korean cinema, is kinetic enough to grab the attention and the characters are well-drawn enough to be both sympathetic and hated. It’s difficult to hate zombies as they know not what they do so a good human villain is necessary.

The protagonist is taking his neglected daughter to Busan when the shit hits the train and he convincingly regains his humanity whilst battering back the undead hordes. Ma Dong-seok’s working class hero is a great character channeling the humour of The Good, the Bad and the Weird into the pathos of a man trying to do the right thing.

Train to Busan was Yeon Sang-ho’s first live action feature; it followed Seoul Station which is described as a sequel in places but its links to the later film is simply ‘zombies in Korea’. A genuine sequel is following.