When it comes to the representation of vampires on the screen in the last several years, audiences have been given only a couple choices. The Twilight saga has obviously dominated theater screens, a series that offers glimpses of the vampire’s Gothic roots, but too often loses itself in tired mythology and treacly teen angst. Conversely, there are films like 30 Days Of Night and Daybreakers, which take almost the complete opposite approach, offering hard-‘R’ bloodshed and vampiric forces that are closer to savage, feral animals. Byzantium, the new film from director Neil Jordon, manages to find a nice middle ground between the two sides, and in doing so injects some life into the vampire film, returning the creatures to their more romantically-charged origins while also providing an edge and some emotional weight in surprising new places.
Jordon has a history both with vampires and with the darkly fantastical, having helmed the Little Red Riding Hood reworking The Company Of Wolves in the ’80s and Interview With A Vampire in the ’90s. Those films brought a strong sexual undercurrent to their fantastical subject matter, and while there is some of that here, the focus is more on an unconventional relationship between a mother and daughter, and how the daughter, despite being 200 years old, is finally experiencing the adolescent yearning for independence. The twist is that the mother and daughter are both vampires, on the run from an ancient undead society. Jordon orchestrates everything in a calm, non-showy manner, oftentimes simply letting the spectacular quality of the images speak for themselves without a need for extensive explanation (a mountain of blood waterfalls is one of the most striking cinematic sights of the year). Still, it’s the impressive performances from Saoirse Ronan and Gemma Arterton, as the daughter and mother, respectively, that really gives the film more emotional pull than films of this sort have typically shown. Only the finale feels a little off, with all the loose threads coming together almost too quickly, the motivations of sinister pursuers never really explained in any satisfactory way. Bizarrely, the film hasn’t been given much of a chance for success, with a release on VOD along with a very limited theatrical run. That’s unfortunate, because Byzantium is one of the better vampire films to come around in a good while, and it deserves a wider audience. 8/10.
The normally quite-prolific South Korean filmmaker Kim Ki-duk took a longer break than usual around the turn of the last decade. His latest film can be seen then as something of an overdue return, but the results suggest that he needs a little more time to get back in the swing of things. Lee Jeong-jin plays Gang-Do, a violent loan shark who collect to collect overdue payments from debtors. When they don’t have the money to pay, Gang-Do offers to cripple them and then collect on the insurance money later on, a prospect from which he almost seems to take delight. A complication is thrown into his lonely life with the sudden arrival of a mysterious woman, who claims to be his mother. Initially suspicious of her intentions, Gang-Do tests her intentions in a series of increasingly disturbing ways (this is the second film I’ve seen recently where the main character has a perverse maternal obsession, the other being Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives). Eventually though, he comes to accept her into his life, and her presence pushes Gang-Do down a road of forgiveness and personal redemption. For other characters though, the only thing on their mind is vengeance.
This is familiar territory in the world of South Korean cinema, perhaps best exemplified by Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance trilogy, a series of films I don’t even find all that amazing, but ones that look like masterpieces in comparison to Kim’s work here. Gone is the gentle, sure hand evidenced in films like Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring and 3-Iron, replaced by something more aggressive, and anonymous. The world of Pieta is an ugly one, filled with sadistic violence, eye-rolling character actions, and forced religious allegory (the central relationship between mother and son is supposed to evoke the famous Michelangelo sculpture of the Virgin Mary holding the body of Jesus, an idea evidenced by the film’s poster). Maybe I’ve seen a little too many of these kinds of films from South Korea, and am therefore possibly a little weary of new entries, but Kim’s film doesn’t do much to dismiss the feeling that it’s late to the game. I won’t claim to be an expert on Kim’s body of work, but when I’ve finished watching his films in the past, I’ve been astounded by the originality and complete directorial command evident onscreen. After finishing Pieta, there was only a strange feeling of emptiness. 4/10.
It’s not too often that a mainstream horror film will come along and claim both widespread critical and commercial approval, but such is the case with the latest effort from director James Wan, of Saw and Insidious fame. Supposedly inspired by true events, this film stars Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga as the real-life paranormal investigating duo Ed and Lorraine Warren, who are tasked with investigating an isolated country home plagued by a possibly demonic presence. The film’s first half focuses both on detailing the back-story of the Warrens and the gradual escalation of terror at the country home, before bringing everything together for a second half that blends together just about every genre cliché in the book. Shadows behind doors, creepy ghost children, prolonged silences, sudden loud bangs, people being flung around rooms, demented dolls, dark basements, hidden passageways, demonic possessions. All of those are here and more, with the film borrowing liberally from a good number of horror classics (The Exorcist, The Amityville Horror, Poltergeist, and The Changeling are just a few of the films from which The Conjuring lifts riffs wholesale). Certainly Wan has assembled enough pieces together here to make an effective horror film, but does it all add up to something special in the end? My feeling is that no, it doesn’t, not by a long shot.
I suppose I should make something clear: if all you’re looking for is a workmanlike ghostly chiller, this is as acceptable a choice as you’re likely to find nowadays. My disappointment with the film stems from me going into it expecting something more substantial and original, and finding something completely dependent on recycling the best riffs from past films. The Conjuring is all surface and no depth, its only real virtue the orchestration of a handful of “scare” moments. Despite the constant references to classic ’70s horror cinema, the filmmakers never seem to realize that those films had some substance to go along with the scares. As a director, Wan gets the look and tone of the film right, but he doesn’t bring along anything new or interesting to make you forget that all you’re watching is a cheap imitation of what has come before. And in order for a horror film to be truly exemplary, something that can stand the test of time, it needs to have its own identity. Wan clearly has enough talent to orchestrate an effective horror film, but at this point he’s missing the imagination necessary to elevate anything above just being a barely-passable diversion. 5/10.
This is the first film in Criterion’s Eclipse collection When Horror Came To Shochiku, a set of four films from a brief period in the 1960s when major Japanese film studio Shochiku, typically associated with more conventional fare, tried their hand at horror cinema. However, to call this film anywhere close to a work of horror would be incredibly generous. It’s more of a giant monster flick, clearly modeled in the same vein as Godzilla, only here the monster in question is a giant space chicken. But Godzilla this is definitely not; apart from some very brief talk about atomic bomb testing, there is very little in the film that approaches the melancholy social commentary of that 1954 classic. The X From Outer Space is a much less serious, and clearly a work firmly grounded in the 1960s, with its kitschy soundtrack and garish, psychedelic colors.
Patience is necessary for the first 45 minutes, which is devoted mostly to a monotonous space mission to Mars and the establishment of a love triangle that’s mainly remarkable for how little consequence it carries for most of the film and how important a role it plays in the closing moments. While unable to reach the planet, the astronauts do recover an small alien lifeform to bring back to Earth, and it’s with the introduction of this creature, who quickly balloons in size to towering heights, where the film starts to pick up some goofy momentum. Regardless of the quality of the rest of the film, and it really isn’t much good, it’s a real pleasure to watch the giant chicken creature rampage around, demolishing incredibly cheesy models and casually deflecting whatever the filmmakers throw at it. Perhaps sensing that the film is best watched for campy fun, Criterion wisely included an English audio track on the DVD. Rare is the day when I’ll endorse watching a dubbed version of a film, but because the film is already close to impossible to take seriously, you might as well try to maximize your enjoyment of it as much as possible. 4/10.
The second film in Criterion’s Eclipse collection When Horror Came To Shochiku. Especially when compared to the first film in the collection, the goofy The X From Outer Space, this is a much more successful attempt at horror from Shochiku, a slightly-insane mash-up of various elements from other classics of horror cinema, most noticeably The Thing From Another World, The Blob, and, of course, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. The film opens with an ominous plane trip that somehow manages to combine blood-red skies, suicidal birds, political intrigue, a slightly-effeminate hijacker, a bomb threat, and an eventual fiery crash, all in the span of about 10 minutes. After the plane crashes in the middle of nowhere, the survivors attempt to gather their wits together while waiting for a rescue crew. Meanwhile, the hijacker runs off with a hostage and stumbles upon an alien spaceship. The occupant of the ship, a gelatinous blob, takes possession of his body by opening a rift in his forehead and oozing into it, turning him into a sinister zombie vampire. The survivors are forced to fight back as the alien steadily picks them off one by one, while all the time there is a feeling of a more widespread danger lurking in the background.
As you can probably guess from that plot description, Goke, Body Snatcher From Hell (or, as the Criterion liner notes reliably inform me the film’s most ardent fans call it, Vagina-Face Apocalypse) treads dangerously close to flying completely off the rails. It stays on track for a couple reasons. One is that director Hajima Sato has a deft touch in generating suspense and atmosphere; even with dated special effects and creaky performances threatening to break the mood, Sato manages to maintain a steady tone. Another is that, like most of the best horror, there is a message underneath all the gruesomeness, that humanity, instead of focusing together against an outside threat, chose to fight with each other instead, and now everyone has to bear the consequences. It’s not the most original or subtle message, but I appreciate that it’s there, and the film is not afraid to follow through on its apocalyptic scenario all the way to the end. Perhaps most importantly, despite the looming shadow of its influences, the film manages to distinguish itself from the pack, to become something more than just a collection of the best bits from other, more well-known films. Shochiku may have stumbled out of the gate with The X From Outer Space, but the studio quickly righted itself with this effort. 8/10.
Top five first-time viewings in July 2013:
Goke, Body Snatcher From Hell