First published by Little White Lies
Diary – Day 2, Friday 27th August
Day Two is also Day Tobe, as Mr Hooper visited the UK for the first time in 18 years to grace the Festival with his presence as the inaugural Total Icon – an idea inspired by the popular (and vocal) appearance last year of horror legend John Landis. After a special screening of his 1974 classic The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (TCSM) – a film which just never grows old, and still awes with its finely honed mood of uneasy hysteria – Hooper came on stage to be interviewed by Total Film’s Jamie Graham, and then took questions from the audience. He discussed, amongst other things, the dark humour in TCSM that went unnoticed for its first seven or eight years, the damage done to his career by rumours that Poltergeist was really Stephen Spielberg’s film (“the film feels like me”), and his conviction that the Noughties remake of TCSM “was not in the proper context” – although he did admit being partial to the “shot of Jessica Biel’s ass.” Before all this, though, came…
Hooper’s feature debut was not in fact TCSM, but a little known student film from 1969 named Eggshells, barely seen or remembered and assumed lost until a print of it recently resurfaced and started doing the festival rounds, fully restored and remastered. And while it may feature a haunted house of sorts, far from being horror, this is a poetic time capsule of countercultural life in Austin, Texas. Part vérité (including footage of actual anti-Vietnam protests), part freakout fantasy (with simple animation, hallucinatory colour filtering, timelapse photography and abstract flights of fancy), it follows a group of young artists and lovers living in a commune house as they must decide whether to marry into the very society from which they have rebelled, or else just to disappear in a puff of smoke along with the end of their era.
Experimental and free-flowing, Eggshells is more a series of episodic sketches than a conventional narrative. The pace at times meanders, and several scenes (including a psychedelic sex scene) play out a little too long, but there is no mistaking Hooper’s phenomenally well-developed directorial skillls, as well as his desire to expand not just our minds but the very forms of cinema – and the film’s score of tribal jazz, psych folk, musique concrète and ambient sounds is simply amazing. Too bad, though, that the Empire had the sound cranked up so intensely loud that much of the dialogue was distorted into an inaudible rumble. An elegy like this for times passing (and now past) needs to be played a little quieter, to match the fey melancholy of its themes.
Isle of Dogs
The title of Tammi Sutton’s Isle of Dogs does not refer to the eponymous area of London (which in fact plays no part in the film), but rather to Britain’s insular mainland as a dog-eat-dog world. The alpha canine here is Darius (Andrew Howard), a volatile thug of a gangland leader who metes out viciously violent punishments upon anyone who crosses him. So when he discovers that Nadia (Barbara Nedeljakova), the Russian woman whom he rescued from prostitution to become his wife/slave, is sleeping behind his back with Riley (Edward Hogg), he sets in motion a plan for revenge that soon spirals chaotically out of control, leaving behind a bloody trail of corpses. “She dies tonight,” is the film’s opening line – and so will many others, not least because several secondary, barely integrated characters appear in the film apparently for the sole purpose of raising its bodycount.
Isle of Dogs is a genre hybrid. It starts as an elegant, erotic noir, then switches to British gangster flick, and then to masked-and-gloved giallo and baroque melodrama of domestic dysfunction – and reflecting the film’s generic fluidity is an eclectic score that blends Tarantino-esque surf guitar with spaghetti western motifs and spooky choirs. These musical themes (composed in part by Sutton’s boyfriend) are so relentlessly ever-present and so high in the sound mix that they at times drown out the character’s lines, including a (presumably) crucial exchange between Darius and Riley in a pub where the film’s Faustian pact is first laid out. One suspects, however, that no unheard dialogue could adequately explain away Riley’s increasingly irrational conduct in the face of unfolding events. These characters behave according to the demands of the plot’s artifices rather than any psychological plausibility – and so we are never able to take their actions, or indeed the consequences of those actions, at all seriously. Every surprise feels contrived, the many twists soon become tied in knots, and all the comings and goings, all the rug-pulling revelations, all the skeletons in the closet and expository flashbacks, end up resembling little more than a daft farce.
“Just one second is all I needed,” is the film’s final line. So why then, some viewers will wonder, did we have to sit through 90 whole minutes of somewhat unengaging and entirely unnecessary convolutions to get there? Still, at least it is a stylish production.
Call a film F, in particular when that letter expressly stands for ‘Fail’, and you are practically inviting a cruel critical response – yet despite its setting in the world of contemporary education, there is something attractively oldschool about Johannes Roberts’ hoodie horror, be it the the Eighties-style masked slash-and-dash in a comprehensive’s corridors, youth-on-teacher violence that harks back to Class of 1984, The Principal and One Eight Seven, or the Argento-aping soundtrack of echoing whispers and hummed nursery tunes.
Eleven months after being physically assaulted by a pupil in his own class and hung out to dry by the school authorities, English teacher Robert Anderson (David Schofield) is a broken man – estranged from his beloved wife and daughter, addicted to the bottle, and unhealthily obsessed with the growth in adolescent violence. So when one night his school comes under murderous attack from a gang of silent, hooded youths, it is the realisation of all Robert’s worst nightmares.
F effortlessly converts Noughties anxieties about the generation gap into genre thrills, while bringing an unusual psychological resonance to all the breathless cat-and-mouse by focussing not on the identities and motives of the faceless assailants, but instead on the creepy, somewhat unhinged persona of the teacher whose fears appear to have conjured them. If the dilemma-driven ending seems to come out of nowhere, it will also send your mind back through the film’s empty rooms and hallways in search of a rational explanation for everything that has happened. Boasting a wonderfully hangdog central performance and gore that is all the more effective for its infrequency, Roberts’ film is a solid A minus.
With its horseback riding, street shootouts, guitar-and-horns soundtrack, and new hero in town by the name of Shane, Patrick Hughes’ Red Hill is a western transplanted to the changing landscape of Victoria’s High Country in Australia – and it is also a tense revenger leavened with some dark humour.
Gun-shy cop Shane Cooper (Ryan Kwanten) is ‘a blow-in from the big smoke’, having just relocated to the country so that his wife Alice (Claire van der Boom) can enjoy a quiet, stress-free pregnancy – but on Shane’s first day at work, convicted murderer Jimmy Conway (Tommy Lewis) breaks out of jail. Gruff local police captain Old Bill (Steve Bisley) quickly forms an armed posse to stop the escaped native tracker from getting into town – but over one long night, both a burn-scarred Conway and an errant big cat will visit a bloody vengeance on the community, even as Shane will at last stand up in his saddle and become the law.
There have been reported sightings of black panther ‘cryptids’ in Australia since at least the end of World War II, but in a film featuring an Aborigine (played, significantly, by the star of 1978’s The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith) with a righteous grudge against the local constabulary, it is hard not to think of those other ‘Black Panthers’, the African-American activists of the Sixties and Seventies who who were known for their armed tactics against police racism, brutality and injustice. And so writer/director Patrick Hughes finds a way to make his imported tropes (from the oater and ‘nature’s revenge’ horror) reflect upon a nation’s unresolved issues with its colonial past, as well as upon the disruptive dangers of introduced species (be they white settler, city cop or bloodthirsty feline). Most important of all, though, Red Hill offers one deftly handled genre thrill after another, making Shane’s comeback a whole lot of fun.
Alien Vs. Ninja
The first film to emerge from Sushi Typhoon, Nikkatsu studio’s new extreme gore label, has a title that says pretty much everything you need to know. For Seiji Chiba’s Alien Vs. Ninja is all at once a cheapie ‘mockbuster’ rip-off of Alien Vs Predator, an Outlander-style imagining of 16th century warriors facing ‘monsters’ from even further afield than the ‘foreign land’ that has introduced guns (not to mention genre cinema) to Japan – and an excuse for some wildly over-the-top extra-terrestrial ass-kicking. All of which the film certainly delivers, with the fight scenes in particular proving both inventive and highly effective – and if the idea of armed assassins bashing it out against space creatures does not appeal, you cannot complain that the film was in any way falsely advertised.
To ridicule Alien Vs. Ninja for its ropey CGI, its man-in-a-rubber-suit creature FX, and the anachronistic black-plastic-and-vinyl bondage gear sported by the ninjas, would be to approach the film in entirely the wrong spirit. Yet while this film shares the anything-goes splattercore sensibility of Tokyo Gore Police and Vampire Girl Vs. Frankenstein Girl, it is neither fast enough nor visually inventive enough to distract from the emptiness of its plot. A couple of clownish characters (the cowardly ninja Nezumi, and a gay villager with eyepatch and fan), apparently intended as comic relief, simply fail to translate as in any way funny, while everyone else is too broadly drawn to keep the viewer engaged even for the film’s relatively brief duration. As for the decision to give a bloodthirsty alien the head of a dolphin, think of it as revenge for The Cove…