Videodrome (1983)

videodrome

★★★★

David Cronenberg’s seminal 1983 body horror Videodrome begins with a shot of a TV screen and ends with its main character re-enacting what he’s just seen played out on another screen. In-between, there are scenes of extreme brutality, physiological weirdness, philosophical debate, and sexual ambiguity, but Cronenberg repeatedly returns to the relationship between the screen and the viewer, assembling a caustic appraisal of society’s growing reliance on technology, and the uneasy way it infects and affects our everyday behaviour. Though the film is now over 30 years old (and, for the most part, looks it), its relevance only grows with the passing of time.

Max Renn (James Woods) is president of local TV station CIVIC-TV and on the hunt for something groundbreaking to offer his viewers. “It’s soft. Something too… soft about it,” he opines of content brought to him by his staff. “I’m lookin’ for something that’ll break through, you know?” That something turns out to be Videodrome. Plotless, shot in Malaysia, and depicting seemingly real scenes of sexual torture, the show borders on snuff, but Max wants it. Meanwhile, he defends his philosophy on a talk show where he meets radio host Nicki Brand (Deborah Harry of Blondie fame), explaining that he provides a safe outlet for society’s darker fantasies.

As Max and Nicki strike up a relationship, their sadomasochistic encounters signal a queasy journey into a circus of body horror. Released just two years after Cronenberg made Scanners (with its exploding heads and sinister psychics), and eight years after Rabid (with its phallic mutations), Videodrome is a distillation of everything the Canadian director represents. At the time, Videodrome was by far Cronenberg’s most sophisticated offering, and saw the writer-director expertly navigating themes of voyeurism and violence through a prism of intelligent horror.

With the help of special effects expert Rick Baker, Cronenberg draws us into a terrifying nightmare where technology and flesh combine. After discovering Videodrome is broadcasting out of Pittsburgh, Max attempts to track down its creators, then encounters the mysterious Bianca (Sonja Smits), who’s continuing the work of her father, Professor Brian O’Blivion (Jack Creley), a pop culture analyst who dreamed of a world where TV replaces reality. And when Max returns home, he suffers horrific hallucinations in which a gaping slit like a VCR opens in his torso. Bianca tells him that watching Videodrome causes viewers to develop brain tumours in which reality and fiction become horrifically distorted.

“We’re entering savage new times,” remarks one character in Videodrome’s mindfuck third act, and he’s not wrong. There are pulsating, groaning betamax tapes, guns welded to hands, and fleshy arm-grenades, all lovingly crafted by Baker’s team of effects mavericks; schlocky but they stand the test of time. Under it all, though, runs a sinister undercurrent that tackles ideas about violence against women, our culpability as viewers, the power of the voyeur, and even the question of what defines reality. It makes for an uncomfortable watch, and Cronenberg’s film is at times unbelievably quiet and restrained, which could test some viewers’ concentration spans.

If Videodrome sets out to do anything, though, it’s to test its audience. It wants to provoke and question; it demands we confront ourselves and ask why we keep watching. In the early ’80s, most viewers weren’t ready for something so self-aware (Videodrome bombed on release, making just $2.1m on its $5.9m budget), but modern, media-savvy audiences will appreciate its febrile subtext. Now, we really do rely on technology to survive, and most of us have our phones welded to our hands in much the same way Max’s gun becomes welded to his. In that respect, Videodrome is shockingly prescient, predicting how we have become physically and psychologically bonded with technology.

While Woods and Harry are fantastic, they inevitably play second fiddle to the impressive prosthetics and hotbed of ideas. Woods plays Max as wide-eyed and naïve even as he chases dark dreams. He’s almost a noir detective, navigating our nightmares and shuddering at what he finds. It’s also through Max that Cronenberg continuously challenges us to distinguish the real from the artificial. His film refuses to do so, shooting the ‘real world’ and Max’s hallucinations in the same way so that it’s impossible to tell them apart. That’s sort of the point. Nowadays, we’re unable to distinguish between a piece of plastic and the real world, existing in social media bubbles, emotionally attached to our inboxes and news feeds.

Ahead of Pixar’s WALL-E (with its tech-reliant space humans) and even the more recent Nightcrawler (with its carnage-obsessed TV execs), Videodrome offers a chilling glimpse into a possible future – and it’s a future that seems more and more possible with every passing year. At 87 minutes, Videodrome is a short, sharp jab to the solar plexus. Cronenberg has called making the film “cathartic”, but watching it is another matter. A bracing, unnerving watch, Videodrome is packed full of stark, intelligent ideas. It wriggles under the skin and stays there for days.

This review originally ran at Frame Rated.

Krampus (2015)

krampus

★★★

It’s impossible to talk about Christmas horror movies without referencing Gremlins, and Krampus knows that. Boasting a similar ‘family fight festive critters’ premise to Joe Dante’s 1984 classic, it’s got a similarly dark sense of humour, not least when its menagerie of creatures are finally unveiled after a shadowy build-up. While director Michael Dougherty (who previously made decent 2007 Halloween anthology Trick ‘R Treat) is clearly enamoured with Gremlins and seems to want to recapture that film’s mischievous sense of fun, Krampus ends up being a very different beast, for better and worse.

We meet xx-year-old Billy (xx xx) in the days leading up to Christmas. Billy’s at a difficult age when he’s starting to question Santa’s existence, and his parents’ inability to give him a firm answer either way only contributes to his morose spirit. When his extended family arrive to stay for the holidays, things worsen, particularly when Billy’s bully cousins (xx and xx) get their hands on his heartfelt letter to Santa, which contains personal (and not particularly complimentary) observations about pretty much every family member.

Despite Dougherty’s form in horror territory, Krampus is most confident in these opening moments, which introduce our central family in all their warring glory. Great aunt xx (xx xx) is a mouthy alcoholic, while Billy’s aunt and uncle (xx and xx) rub his mother xx (Toni Collette) and father xx (Adam Scott) up the wrong way by merely existing. Only Billy’s German grandmother, Omi (xx xx), keeps to herself, but her silence comes heavy with the suggestion she’s hiding something from her family. Recalling the manic domestic scenes of Home Alone and any number of other John Hughes movies, Krampus’ opening 30 minutes are assured and funny, expertly making us care for the family despite and because of its obvious disfunction.

When Billy’s letter is read out at the dinner table, though, Billy’s so upset he tears it up and throws it out the window. The next morning, the entire street has lost power and a fearsome blizzard has transformed the neighbourhood into a frozen wasteland. Stranded in the house, the family continue to irritate one another, until one family member goes missing, prompting an unsuccessful search and, eventually, the revelation that Billy’s actions have inadvertently summoned Krampus, an anti-Santa straight out of German folklore who preys on anybody who’s given up on Christmas.

As horror premises go, it’s a doozy, and Dougherty goes to great pains to squeeze every drop of tension out of it. Initially, the tension-cranking is effective, particularly during one scene from the trailer in which Billy’s sister xx (xx xx) hides under a car only to be confronted by a creepy jack-in-the-box. After its assured opening, though, Krampus hesitates, and its second act becomes a tiresome exercise in over-long tension-building (even if it is punctuated with a brilliant bit of chimney barminess that finally gets the snowball of terror rolling).

It’s a good hour before Krampus’ alternately giggling, slavering, shambling monsters are finally revealed. The horned Krampus itself is genuinely horrifying, accomplished using puppetry and prosthetics (with a dash of CGI), while its army of scampering menaces are both ridiculous and terrifying. They’re also, for the most part, lovingly created using old-school prosthetics, which adds the kind of grounded weirdness to the film surely last seen in the Child’s Play series. When these bizarre anomalies break out, the scenes of carnage are impressively handled, providing just enough gore, levity and goo to sate horror appetites.

Part of the problem, though, is that Krampus gets confused over who its lead character is. After sticking closely to Billy and establishing his conflict, the narrative constantly switches between different family members until we’re left in something of a muddle. Meanwhile, Krampus ends up being more freaky than truly scary, and it’s most surprising just how bleak Dougherty’s film quickly becomes. The director has talked about Krampus as a horror movie in the Amblin mould, citing films like Gremlins and The Goonies as tonal touchstones, but despite Great Aunt xx delivering sardonic quips between sips from her hip flash, Krampus isn’t afraid of striding headfirst into pure horror terrain, and when that happens, the chuckles all but disappear completely.

When you throw in a beautiful but unnecessary animated segment, characters doing frustratingly silly things (would you send /your/ daughter out into a blizzard alone?), and an ending that tries too hard to be clever instead of settling for genuine emotion, Krampus winds up being a mixed bag of toys. There’s no shortage of chill-inducing weirdness (see the snowmen), but Dougherty seems so intent on creating something unpredictable and unsettling that he forgets what made the film’s first 30 minutes so strong – the bond between its dysfunctional family.

With Gremlins 3 looking more likely than ever, Krampus provides an entertaining diversion as we await Gizmo and co’s return. Dougherty comes so close to greatness that it’s upsetting when he comes up short. Still, between Krampus’ monster set-pieces, domestic banter, and a spirited turn by young xx (Billy), there’s much to love here. A few years from now, Krampus will have earned its place as a festive cult classic, which is just where it belongs.

This review originally ran at Frame Rated.

Clueless (1996)

clueless

★★★★

If you were a teenager in the ’90s, there’s a pretty big possibility you still use lines from Clueless in your everyday life. Between “As if!” and “You’re a virgin who can’t drive”, the trend-setting 1995 teen flick was like the best earworm ever, wriggling its way into the lives and minds of young adults everywhere. Better yet, with its timely exploration of a new breed of cosmopolitan teen, it guaranteed that even non-American viewers felt like they’d lived through (or at the very least survived) US high school.

That was 20 years ago. It’s almost impossible to believe that two decades have passed since Cher Horowitz (Alicia Silverstone) catwalked onto our screens, dolled up to the nines and blissfully unaware of just how ridiculous she seemed. Despite her surface-level absurdity (she uses a computer to select her outfits and frets about her designer frock when held at gunpoint), she quickly became the Hollywood prototype for attractive young women with hidden depths – see also 2001’s even perkier bombshell, Elle Woods, in Legally Blonde.

Off screen, Silverstone became the go-to girl whenever a ’90s director was looking to cast the role of a smart-mouthed, self-aware youngster in their movie. Described by her Clueless director, Amy Heckerling, as having “that Marilyn Monroe thing”, Silverstone blitzed the 1996 MTV Movie Awards and, aged just 19, she signed an $8-10m multiple movie deal with Columbia TriStar. Meanwhile, her production company, First Kiss Productions, was given a first-look option on the studio’s projects. The decade was hers for the taking.

Perhaps more impressively, Clueless represents a huge leap in the evolution of the teen flick. Seizing on the yuppie dramas of the 1980s (headlined by stars like Tom Cruise and Michael J. Fox), it dared to do something different to the films of John Hughes, the Brat Pack and their imitators. Though a dash of Hughes’ kids v adults formula is evident in Cher’s battle through teendom (not least in her somewhat misguided attempt to help her lawyer father), director-writer Amy Heckerling’s priorities lay elsewhere.

Heckerling made a significant contribution to the ’80s teen flick scene with the gritty Fast Times At Ridgemont High (1982), proving she had an impressive grasp on how youngsters think and – vitally – what they think is cool. Though Clueless is a very different film to Ridgemont, it retains that self-awareness. Inspired by Jane Austen’s 1815 novel Emma, it transfers the plight of its unlucky-in-love protagonist (renamed Cher) to present day Beverly Hills. As Cher and her friends navigate high school, love and the challenges of transforming a “tragically unhip” girl (Brittany Murphy) into the next hot thing, they drop quotable one-liners like nobody’s business.

With its zeitgeisty soundtrack, OTT fashion and knowing sense of humour, Clueless became the sleeper hit of 1995, transforming its modest $12m budget into a US box office haul of $56m. It was a critical darling, too, and rightfully so. Heckerling’s zingers-packed script packs satire in by the closet-load, but there’s heart, too – Cher’s matchmaking marks her out as surprisingly selfless, while her burgeoning romance with step-brother Josh (Paul Rudd) is just the right side of sweet. And Heckerling never idolises her affluent young protagonists, instead portraying them as borderline alien, revelling in passed-on wealth and possessing bubblegum priorities. If the ’80s belonged to the yuppies, the ’90s belonged to their kids. Times, they were a-changing, and Clueless effortlessly tapped into that evolution.

It helped that the early ’90s were a wasteland for movie teenagers, with only Boyz N The Hood (1991), Don’t Tell Mom The Babysitter’s Death (1991) and Dazed & Confused (1993) offering movie-going teens something to spend their money on. We have Clueless to thank for the youth boom that followed. There was 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), which took the Clueless route by reinterpreting The Taming Of The Shrew, while Cruel Intentions (1999) went edgy, adapting Dangerous Liaisons for teens. The steamy result saw Sarah Michelle Gellar shattering her good-girl Buffy image (purring: “You can put it anywhere”) and Ryan Phillippe establishing himself as hunk du jour. We can probably even thank Clueless for The Craft (1996), with its far darker visions of American teendom, and the ensuing slasher movie revival.

Clueless became a phenomenon unto itself, but it became a blessing and a curse for everybody involved. Silverstone made a few disastrous movie choices (erotic thriller The Babysitter, crime caper Excess Baggage), and donning the cape as Batgirl in 1997’s Batman & Robin single-handedly derailed her burgeoning career. In must have been a bit of a sore that, by that point, many of her Clueless co-stars were enjoying moderate success on the Clueless TV series, which she turned down to focus on her movie career.

Unlike, say, Jennifer Lawrence, whose smart movie choices have helped her avoid pigeon-holing, Silverstone has become forever synonymous with Clueless – so much so that her most successful endeavour post-1995 was short-lived 2003 series Miss Match, in which her divorce attorney was basically Cher grown up. Co-star Brittany Murphy enjoyed success in a series of romcoms before her tragic death in 2009, but perhaps the biggest star to emerge from Clueless was actually Paul Rudd. He bumbled around a couple of romcoms in the mid-to-late ’90s before finding a home as a lovable man-child in Judd Apatow’s comedy barn. And, of course, he’s shaken his image up once more by joining Marvel, transforming into scarily credible hero Ant-Man, replete with six pack and designer stubble.

Its outrageous fashion and outmoded tech should date Clueless horrendously, but there’s charm in its pre-internet naivety. If Clueless were made today, you can bet Cher would have a Twitter following in the millions and her own reality TV crew dutifully following her every move. In retrospect, there’s something almost twee about her mid-’90s one-woman crusades. In 2012, Heckerling and Silverstone reunited for horror comedy Vamps, about a couple of socialite vampires (un)living in New York City, but they failed to re-capture the same lightning in the bottle that made Clueless such a huge hit, which is perhaps sign enough that it’s something special.

This review originally ran at Frame Rated.

The best films of Sundance 2017

Over 10 days, I watched 26 movies at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Some were awesome, some weren’t, but here are eight of my favourites…


Call Me By Your Name

Call Me by Your Name - Still 1Forget The Lone Ranger and The Man From UNCLE, Armie Hammer finally lands a role that reveals the full breadth of his talent in Luca Guadagnino’s third feature (after I Am Love and A Bigger Splash). As an academic who spends the summer of ’83 in northern Italy with a professor and his family, Hammer is breezily charismatic, his enigmatic brainbox soon catching the eye of 17-year-old professor’s son Elio (Timothée Chalamet, fantastic), with whom he shares an adjoining bedroom. Their friendship gradually deepens into something more profound, and amid the apricot trees and watchful ruins of the Italian Riviera, Guadagnino unspools a transcendent love story brimming with warmth, passion and feeling. Unmissable.

 

Thoroughbred

anya-taylor-joy-thoroughbred“The only thing worse than being incompetent, unkind or evil,” says Amanda (Olivia Cooke) midway through this savage teen drama, “is being indecisive.” Deadly observations are Amanda’s thing, especially when – as in this case – she accompanies them with vase-smashing violence. A borderline sociopath with a murky past, Amanda’s cold-hard-truth approach to life first repulses, then beguiles study buddy Lilly (Anya Taylor-Joy), who’s got a few secrets of her own – and an irritating step-father she daydreams about killing. Expertly playing with light and dark, director Cory Finley’s stark debut is a moody semi-chamber piece that delights in Heathers-esque wit and dreamy visuals – and a firecracker final turn from Anton Yelchin. It’ll haunt you for days.


An Inconvenient Sequel

an-inconvenient-sequel-al-goreIt’s not quite Gore vs Trump, but the newly-inaugurated US President casts a long shadow over this follow-up to 2006’s Oscar-winning doc An Inconvenient Truth. In a year when Trump was on everybody’s lips at Sundance, the current White House resident punctuates this engaging if not entirely revelatory sequel by appearing in news footage and sound bites, threatening more dark times ahead. Elsewhere, An Inconvenient Sequel catches up with Al Gore’s anti-global warming campaign a decade after he first unveiled his Powerpoint presentation, revealing the devastating toll it has already taken on the polar ice-caps and cities like New York. It’s a brisk, engaging watch.

 

Manifesto

Manifesto - Still 3You want weird? How about Cate Blanchett playing 13 different characters in one film? Want MORE weird? How about Cate Blanchett playing 13 different characters then reciting the art manifestos of scholars like Jim Jarmusch, Andre Breton and Claes Oldenburg? That’s the hook in German artist/director Julian Rosefeldt’s second feature, inspired by his own art installation (currently touring the globe) and a bold, beautiful, surprisingly funny sermon on the current state of the creative landscape. Naturally, it’s all about Blanchett – whether playing a homeless man, a newsreader, a punk or a puppeteer, she’s utterly riveting, ensuring that while Manifesto may challenge more mainstream audiences, it’ll captivate those with an appetite for audacious cinematic experimentation.


Beatriz At Dinner

beatriz-at-dinnerSalma Hayek delivers a career-best performance as the titular holistic practitioner in this radiant comic drama from director Miguel Arteta. Mousy and watchful, Beatriz offers Buddha hugs to everybody she meets, but butts heads with ruthless businessman Doug Strutt (John Lithgow) when she’s inadvertently invited to a client’s ritzy dinner party. At first playing as a fish-out-of-water comedy, Mike White’s script incrementally pulls focus on Beatriz, revealing a woman whose admirable if steely beliefs make her unexpectedly formidable. Hayek has never been better, glowing with a quiet magnetism, while Lithgow is terrifyingly plausible as the Trump-like Strutt. There are echoes of White’s TV series Enlightened here, and Beatriz At Dinner boasts the same lingering power – and, in light of the presidential election, it couldn’t be more timely.


Beach Rats

beach-rats-movie-jphNotable for its remarkable central performance by Brit newcomer Harris Dickinson, this gritty, Brooklyn-set drama caused a flurry of controversy over its exploration of sexual identity, but the ambiguity director Eliza Hittman paddles in perfectly mirrors her film’s roving teen protag. In a mesmerising and, uh, revealing turn, Dickinson plays teen Frankie, who kills time smoking, doping and chasing girls by day – then surfing the internet for older men by night. Shooting on grainy 16mm, Hittman follows Frankie from beaches and bedrooms to the dark woods he uses as cover for gay hook-ups. Her camera lingers lovingly on Dickinson, whose troubled eyes at once hint at Frankie’s seeming denial over his sexuality, then at his lack of awareness at how his actions impact others. At once brutal and empathetic toward a floundering young man, Hittman’s film will inevitably be spoken about in the same breaths as Mysterious Skin and Moonlight.


Before I Fall

nullThe YA adap craze may be waning, but it was far from dead at Sundance – a bit like Before I Fall’s high school heroine who, after a car accident, keeps reliving the same day she and her friends seemingly died. Yeah, Groundhog Day comparisons are there for the taking, but director Ry Russo-Young squeezes the time-loop hook for all it’s worth. As Samantha (the excellent Zoey Deutch) runs the gamut of frustration, smoky-eyed rebellion and beyond, there are surprises at every turn in an atmospheric exploration of fate and redemption. Russo-Young plumbs honest emotion with minimal sugar-dipping, while shouting out to everything from Carrie and Mean Girls to Pretty Little Liars. And, yes, Groundhog Day.

 

The Big Sick

the-big-sick-movieSilicon Valley star Kumail Nanjiani co-wrote this comedy drama, basing it on his real-life relationship, which goes part way to explaining why its warmth and wit earned him rave reviews at this year’s Sundance. Kumail plays a version of himself, a soft-spoken Pakistani-American and wannabe stand-up comic whose mother is so desperate for him to marry that she spends most of her time setting him up with suitable Pakistani women. But when Kumail falls for non-Muslim Emily (Zoe Kazan), he risks losing his family in the name of love. The Big Sick was produced by Judd Apatow, and the comedy mogul’s influence manifests in the film’s winsomely awkward comedy – particularly the hour-long segment in which Kumail attempts to win over Emily’s parents (a brilliantly cast Holly Hunter and Ray Romano). Though it’s long at two hours, this should rightly make an even bigger star of Kumail, who has a gift for incendiary one-liners and bumbling charisma.

Lights Out (2016)

teresa-palmer-in-lights-out-2016The devilish conceit at the heart of 2013 short Lights Out was so scary it went viral on YouTube, prompting horror guru James Wan (Insidious) to hire its director – Sweden’s David F. Sandberg, next making Annabelle 2 – to expand it into a feature, and in the process deliver one of the scariest, most surprising films of 2016. The conceit? Basically: lights on, you’re safe. Lights out, something’s gonna get you. Something that crouches in dark doorways, hugging shadows before pouncing.

That’s what happens to the step-father of gutsy loner Rebecca (Teresa Palmer, bucking Final Girl cliches with an appealingly edgy performance), whose death forces Rebecca to confront her estranged mother (Maria Bello, terrifically tragic) and protect her step-brother Martin (Gabriel Bateman). Which is harder than it sounds when every dark crevice could harbour a murderous entity.

Ably stepping up to the feature game, Sandberg excels at bleeding every gloomy corner of tension, and his innovative light tricks rivet, particularly a nifty shot involving a firearm. Yes, it’s basically 80 minutes of the same gimmick, but with characters you care about and a poignant denouement, this is horror with guts as well as gore. Even better news? Sandberg’s already on board for a sequel.

This review originally appeared in Horrorville Issue #2.

Worst To Best: Bruce Willis

Die Hard (1988)

The Film: The action movie to end all action movies – and one of the coolest Christmas films ever made. Officer John McClane (Willis) attempts to free his wife’s high-rise workplace from evil terrorists, who are headed up by the eeevil (cos he’s British) Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman).

Willis Genius: We’d never had an action hero like this before. A wise guy. A tough nut. A one-liner machine. Willis goes through a gruellingly physical performance, coins ever-quotable lines and looks super-cool doing it – and he makes it look EFFORTLESS. This is why he’s a ledge.