With a few scheduling issues we’re not able to bring you a fresh new podcast in our usual time slot, so to tide you over please accept this selection of our favourite reviews from the fourth year of our podcast. Normal service will be resumed shortly.
So, another entry into the “Drew Tries Horror Again” series. But before I go further I’d like to ask a question. It will no doubt sound like I’m being facetious (and, to be honest, I probably am a little), but: are horror films meant to be scary? I know that being straight-up frightening isn’t the be-all and end-all of a horror film; atmosphere and tension can play a large part, too, but aren’t they supposed to be, y’know, horrifying? I ask because I wonder if somewhere along the line I’ve fundamentally misunderstood them, given how few have made me even a little scared. (So few, I suspect, that even those that have in some way unsettled me can be dismissed as a statistical anomaly). Maybe the problem is me expecting them to be frightening?
This I doubt, however, given that some videogames and plenty of books over the years have been able to exert that response in me. And a misunderstanding of purpose certainly doesn’t excuse the typically piss-poor acting, writing and direction most of the genre seems to exhibit. I do still try, on occasion, though, hoping that I will find that elusive film that will shit me right up.
Which (while I suspect you can all guess where this is heading) brings me to Hereditary, the latest “horror” film to pique my interest and persuade me to test its wares. Certainly the trailer looked interesting, and the idea of the link between the happenings in the house and the detailed miniatures created by Toni Collette’s character had the potential to be creepy.
Sadly, the miniatures more or less have bugger all to do with anything that happens in the film, and seem to mostly have been added to create stylish trailers and posters. (OK, you could argue that the framing of the shots matches those little dioramas, but the visuals, like everything else, are empty and dull). “The miniatures match Collette’s character’s preoccupations!” Mind. Blowing.
There has been so much breathless hyperbole associated with Hereditary, with newspapers and other websites carrying ridiculous headlines like ”Hereditary ‘scientifically proven’ to be scariest movie of the year”, “People Are Calling This New Movie The “Scariest Horror Film Ever Made” And It’s Leaving Them Terrified” and ”‘Scariest Horror Film In Years’ Is So Terrifying People Are Crying At Cinema”. These reports, like this film, are absolute, grade-A, horseshit.
Toni Collette plays Annie Graham, an artist from a family with an almost comically extensive history of mental illness, married to Gabriel Byrne’s Steve, and mother to Peter and Charlie, who are definitely… human. The film begins with the funeral of Annie’s mother, an apparently unpleasant woman, whose influence persists in Annie’s life after her death, and seems to be affecting her family, particularly her daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro); a creepy idiot child who chops the head off of dead birds with scissors and has to be constantly reminded not to eat nuts, despite having a potentially fatal nut allergy. Her son Peter (Alex Wolff) seems less affected at first, at least until further tragedy strikes, but maybe that’s because his entire character motivation seems to be “cannabis”.
As things get worse for Annie, she starts visiting a bereavement support group, where she meets Joan (Ann Dowd), an on the surface friendly woman who begins to exert her own influence over the family. Mysteries are uncovered because, of course, everything is not as it seems (most notably that this seemed like an interesting and creepy film).
Hereditary doesn’t even have the good grace to be the sort of really bad horror film whose plot and story you can ridicule and enjoy tearing apart. If only it could rise to such a basic level of interest, but this is just astonishingly, almost maliciously, dull. It lacks jump scares. Excellent. The positives end there. There is no atmosphere. There is no tension. There aren’t even characters, nor, and I’d have accepted this due to the utter absence of anything else, are there stereotypes, archetypes nor even ciphers. There are just some people who are there.
The acting is… well, something that happens in other films. Saving for Gabriel Byrne, who doesn’t appear to have given this even minimal effort and wishes he was in another film, the acting is terrible, especially a spectacularly awful turn from the normally dependable Toni Collette.
I’m aware as I say this that I am, in fact, turning this into the sort of terrible horror film whose plot and story you can tear apart and, honestly, it’s too dull to deserve it, so I’ll stop now. I will just add, though, that this film has made me wonder if I’m a psychopath, because two related scenes, scenes that are supposed to be utterly horrifying, made me laugh. Like, a lot. Like, tears in my eyes laughing.
Also, in this film’s world corpses don’t smell? Screw this film.
The Day of the Jackal
After France withdrew from Algeria and granted the country independence in the 1960s, several attempts were made to assassinate the French president, Charles de Gaulle, by the right wing paramilitary OSA (Organisation Armée Secrète, or “Secret Armed Organisation”), a French “patriot” group who accused de Gaulle of disloyalty and treason to the French Republic.
After another failed attempt (the film recreates this real attempt) in 1962, the OAS look to an outsider who whose existence will be known to only a select few, and who therefore cannot be betrayed by French police infiltrators, or by torturing OAS members.
The assassin they hire is Edward Fox’s Chacal, The Jackal, presumably British but whose identity is entirely unknown, beyond a reputation for efficiency. He gets to work meticulously planning the assassination, and making all necessary preparations.
The French authorities are oblivious, but they begin to get the idea that the OAS is planning something and, since they’ve tried numerous times already, it’s a fairly good bet that what they’re planning is the assassination of the president.
What follows is a race against time for the police, and a match between the implacable, methodical, capable and highly intelligent Deputy Commissioner, Claude Lebel (Michael Lonsdale), and the implacable, methodical, capable and highly intelligent Jackal. And it’s fascinating.
The Day of the Jackal cleaves very close to Forsyth’s novel, but is one of the very few literary adaptations that are actually, to my mind at least, better than the source as a little of the unnecessary fat is trimmed off, leaving a relatively sedately paced but taut and lean thriller behind. The two leads are simply tremendous; Fox’s killer is so clinical, free largely from emotion (yet not, somehow, from charisma), yet is captivating to watch. And so satisfying is his preparation to watch (so expertly paced by director Fred Zinnemann and editor Ralph Kemplen) that it’s quite easy to fall into the trap of wanting him to succeed (until you remember the whole “cold-blooded murderer” thing, even if de Gaulle was an asshat).
Michael Lonsdale’s stoic Lebel is perhaps my favourite screen detective ever; his unassuming yet assured manner (though unlike the Jackal he does seem to be affected by stress and emotion at times), his quiet tolerance of the doubts and insults of his oafish and supercilious superiors and, above all, his methodical investigation. I have referenced many times before on the podcast, and likely will do so again, just how much I enjoy the fact that Lebel’s pursuit of the Jackal relies almost entirely on hard work, clear thinking, intelligence and experience, and not on tawdry things like serendipity, uncommon luck or, in the case of some of the worst example, something largely indistinguishable from magic or a deus ex machina.
This is not a film that I think I will ever tire of watching. Not even Richard Gere can sully this for me.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
The latest from the Coen brothers, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs comes to you courtesy of Netflix, which in retrospect seems a good fit for this slightly less commercial endeavour, being an anthology sextet of short stories set among the American Old West.
Fronted by Tim Blake Nelson as the self-proclaimed “San Saba Songbird” himself, the first segment of Scruggs is by far and away the most engaging; the cautionary tale of an upbeat, archly pragmatic gunslinger with improbable aim and a penchant for song. Now, I must confess to being no great fan of Tim Blake Nelson’s dramatic stylings; indeed I consider him to have almost single-handedly ruined Syriana in his mere moments of screen time. With this in mind I was not particularly looking forward to the Coen’s latest, being as the scant marketing I had seen seemed to revolve entirely around his visage.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I found this to be by some margin the most enjoyable twenty minutes on offer, at times rivalling the Coen’s best darkly comedic moments and setting a wonderful tone that I was eager to see sustained throughout the remaining five tales.
That I was eager to see sustained.
The second section, starring James Franco as a bank robber, shares some of the first segment’s dark humour and engaging character, albeit somewhat diluted. Any fears that this particular story might not have sufficient steam to carry the necessary momentum are alleviated by it being the most brief, and in the absence of any meaningful context or message it does at least have the good grace to exit the building at a brisk pace.
So far so interesting. At this point I was enjoying watching the Coen’s cut loose and having a bit of a play around.
Sadly, the remainder of the sections are of very variable quality, lack almost any sense of humour, and at least two of them could stand to lose 25% of their run time. Contrary to the opening tales, these segments offer little that is engaging beside some admittedly wonderful individual performances, and in one instance we watch Liam Neeson commit to film one of the most starkly cynical vignettes in human history.
In particular I found myself wishing I could spend more time with Bill Heck and Zoe Kazan in their incarnations from the fifth tale on offer, but again we are treated to a resolution of sorts that callously deprives us of any such hope. The more I’ve thought about it over the last 24 hours the odder this whole approach to the movie seems. In the absence of much traditional narrative (or, for the most part, levity), it feels at times as though the purpose here is to demonstrate just how well the Coens have mastered the art of character by callously disposing of them just as easily as they appear to conjure them.
Which is not to say there is nothing to enjoy here; again, as brief as the time we spend with them may be there are some wonderful characters embodied in wonderful performances, and the comic moments that come are often as inspired as one could hope for. I’m just kind of worried that the point of it all may be as downbeat as I fear it is, or that even worse there may be no point at all.
Operation Kid Brother
This daring enterprise casts Sean Connery’s real life brother Neil Connery as a plastic surgeon cum master hypnotist who is drafted into MI5 in a film where he’s the brother of a famous secret agent, at which point my brain shuts down and cannot parse any more of this film. With a plethora of ex-Bond supporting actors returning, including Adolfo Celi’s I Can’t Believe It’s Not Largo, this is quite the most blatant and strangest cash-in we’ve seen. It’s fascinatingly nonsensical and well worth excavating if you’re a fan of bafflingly dreadful cinema.
*batteries not included
batteries not included is a delightful little tale of how some cute little aliens, looking like miniaturised versions of the classic flying saucer style UFOs, come to the aid of some people in a tale reminiscent of The Elves and the Shoemaker. Well, I say delightful. I mean horrifying, at least when you add in the poverty, dementia, corporate thuggery, immoral businessmen, sports-derived brain damage, assault, stillborn babies, arson and attempted murder. Cheery cheery cheery.
In a plot point lifted from Herbie Rides Again and reused in Up (Pixar’s Brad Bird, part of the creative team on Up, was one of the writers for this film), an unscrupulous real estate magnate finds that his plans for his towering new development in New York’s East Village are endangered by the final hold-outs; the tenants of the final extant tenement building. These tenants are the pregnant soon to be single mother Marisa (Elizabeth Peña), artist Mason (Dennis Boutsikaris), simple-minded superintendent Harry (Frank McRae) and Frank and Faye Riley (Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy), the oldest residents and proprietors of the café housed on the building’s ground floor. They have been bribed and harassed but won’t leave, and now, with permit and tax deadlines looming, the developer has sent in Michael Carmine’s Carlos, a thug who aspires to upward mobility, to force them out.
After their restaurant is trashed a dejected Frank considers leaving for a retirement home, something he does not desire to do but considers may be for the best especially as Faye is suffering from advanced dementia. During the night, though, visitors arrive. From outer space! Sentient, metal-based lifeforms who are looking for power and supplies in order to start a family. These little fellas are dab hands at repair and fix up much of the damage done by Carlos and his goons, giving the tenants renewed hope and new allies.
As the cute little extra-terrestrials help out in the restaurant and around the building things take a far darker turn than you might expect, with revelations of dead children, now and in the past; fears for soon to be born children; the difficulties of watching your partner being lost to the perniciousness that is dementia; the poor, elderly and vulnerable being largely abandoned by society and, if that weren’t enough, a greedy businessman willing to have someone’s home burnt to the ground so they don’t have to pay more tax, and not caring whether or not they’re at home when the fire starts. There’s a bit more, too. In this children’s film about sweet little toy spaceships.
For the most part the effects stand up: there’s some really charming puppetry and models used for the Fix-Its, as the aliens are dubbed, and, aside from some terrible fake photographs in the opening sequence (made to look even worse when juxtaposed with genuine photographs of Cronyn and Tandy, married in real life for more than fifty years), the only real problem is with the matting, which, to be fair, still has the potential to look incredibly dodgy today.
But it’s the story that’s compelling. It would be very easy for this to be corny or cheesy, and it’s perhaps Dennis Boutsikaris’s tortured artist that comes closest to breaking the tone (not aided by the cartoonish take on his electrocution), but for the most part the cast play this earnestly, with Cronyn and Tandy adding real gravitas and even Michael Carmine allowed to imbue the broadly written Carlos with a little depth and character progression.
I’m quite pleased that we finished with *batteries not included (though I’ll admit that’s not entirely chance) as, for me, it’s the best film we’ve talked about in this episode. Like the best family films this works on a level for children and a different level for adults, with some crossover, though given its themes and topics it definitely tends much more towards the adult side of things. By which I probably mean cute little robots aside this is probably horrifying for kids (though I have no recollection of that from my childhood so maybe that other stuff just sails over your head if you’re otherwise unfamiliar).
So what am I saying? Well, for me anyway, the best kids’ film in this selection is very much the one really not for kids. What a conclusion!
There was quite the buzz about Mandy amongst weird film Twitter, where we’ve been known to hang out, so much that it leaked into the mainstream. As much as something like this can, at least. So, what’s the deal with Panos Cosmatos’ second outing, a mere eight years after his debut? Well, I’m not completely sure, to be honest, but let’s discover that together, shall we?
Red Miller (Nic Cage) is a lumberjack, and he’s okay. For a short while, anyway. Living in a remote cabin with his artsy girlfriend Mandy (Andrea Riseborough), the unconventional pair seem very much in love and happy. For a short while, anyway. Cue cult leader Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache)’s appearance, taking a passing fancy to Mandy and issuing orders to his assorted hangers on, freaks and geeks to procure her for some crazy mystical nonsense reasons that he may or may not believe, but his followers certainly do.
The gang, including three Hellraiser-esque bikers who are, for a short while, anyway, introduced as actual blood-drinking demons, bring Mandy back to their lair, but even after a drug-addled indoctrination she’s not compliant with their wishes. The obvious next step – incinerate her in front of a helpless Red and leave him for dead. However, he doesn’t die, and with the added indignity of them ripping his favourite shirt, it’s enough to set him off on a roaring rampage of revenge.
Stopping off at Bill Duke’s home to pick up some murder supplies, he’s told of the rumours of how dangerous this lot are, in case he needed more warning than he’s already witnessed, and hints are thrown around about Red’s past that imply some of the particular set of skills that will make him a nightmare for people that burn his loved ones to death. So begins the cavalcade of vengeance, and framed like that, Mandy sounds like a fairly standard revenge flick.
It is not.
Where to start? Visually, I suppose may be the easiest – it’s quite the most aggressively graded film I’m ever seen, making Suspiria seem like a muted exercise in restraint. It’s a disorienting deluge of colour overlays that’s by turns disgusting, pretty, distracting and engaging. It’s bizarre.
Perhaps most notably, however, it’s a Nic Cage turn that sets, or at least comes very close to setting a new high water mark for “full Nic Cage”. His transformation from content hippy to frothing madman makes for a remarkable set of scenes, culminating in the bathroom meltdown you may have seen on your Twitter account, with the remaining hour or so being no less memorable, particularly when combined with the extreme visuals on display.
It makes what would otherwise be a series of slightly odd vignettes of violence become something truly memorable and remarkable, albeit in ways that I still cannot yet work out if they should be sorted into the bucket marked “genius” or the bucket marked “abysmal”.
I’ll say this – it’s clearly far from perfect, with cult leader Linus Roache in particular being a nonentity that did not make for compelling viewing, and the half hour-ish stretch where he’s given reign in the scenes with the cult members and the abduction of Mandy and so on came quite close to exhausting my patience. At about 2 hours, this film is about half an hour too long, and it’s this half hour, in particular when there’s no motivation, creed or logic behind the cult and their actions other than Kanye West levels of crazy. Coming after the slow start establishing Mandy and Red’s peaceful life, I was getting a tad annoyed with the deliberate quirkyness and about to mentally check out before it switches gear and turns into a more whacked out Crank film.
The last hour is a mesmerisingly insane riot of sequences that, whether you’re onboard or not absolutely demand attention, with action and visuals that left me in gales of laughter. I’m assuming we’re not to take this seriously. Surely? Actually, I’m not sure of anything this film, or Nic Cage in general does. When he’s interviewed, he doesn’t seem like a maniac, and gives broadly sensible reasons for playing certain characters the way he does. Yet this is clearly the work of a madman.
That’s not fair. It’s the work of an entire team of mad people, dedicated to artisanally crafting a mad film. Your boring, conventional judgements of “good” or “bad” are not an axis this film chooses to grade itself on. It’s shooting for “memorable”, and it’s most certainly that.
Bonkers. Couldn’t make it up. Particularly the Cheddar Goblin.
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
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