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Review: Texas Chainsaw (Dir: John Luessenhop, 2013)… No Massacre, No Substance

Texas-Chainsaw

The old adage, “you can never have too much of a good thing” would appear to be the mantra of Hollywood horror producers – excellence being sporadic and fleeting. Friday the 13th tops the list of saturated horror franchises with twelve movies, followed by Halloween with ten and then there are the seven Saws. The next dire instalment of mediocrity is probably not too far behind.

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It has been thirty-nine years since Tobe Hooper’s seminal family horror, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and over the years viewers have been party to sequels, new generations, prequels and  remakes – “Chain Saw Massacre” became “Chainsaw Massacre” and then no “Massacre” at all – none of which have even come close to the first. Part of what made Hooper’s original so influential was its stark cinematography, verisimilitude and its “true story” marketing (based loosely on the exploits of real-life serial killer Ed Gein) with a documentary-style voiceover and photographic stills filmed on 16mm. Its narrative and plot were, of course, entirely fictional but the finished film serves as a subtle commentary on the political climate and symptomatic of the era; something of worth created within budgetary constraints. The US was still knee-deep in the Vietnam War and this affecting horror visualised an apocalyptic landscape, sparse and abandoned through industrial capitalism (Robin Wood). It depicted a non-traditional, perhaps arguably degenerate, familial homestead transgressing the boundaries of the norm and surviving via cannibalistic insanity. As a movie, it stays with you long after viewing and its esteemed standing in the horror genre a testament to director Hooper and writer Kim Henkel, who created an influential piece of frightening art in spite of a profound lack of blood, guts and gore.

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A whole decade has passed since Marcus Nispel’s futile remake starring Jessica Biel and seven years since …The Beginning which tried to explain away all elements which made the original so groundbreaking and yet still the unnecessary franchise additions keep coming. The latest attempt, Texas Chainsaw is released on DVD from the 27 May 2013 through LionsGate. The film begins moments after the 1974 release and condenses its pioneer into a few short frames culminating in Sally Hardesty’s (Marilyn Burns) bloodied and hysterical escape. A Hatfield and McCoy type battle ensues between the Sawyers and Hartmans which leaves the old farmhouse burned to the ground, several members of each party dead and a small child ripped from the arms of her mother. Flashforward to present day and Heather Miller (Percy Jackson’s Alexandra Daddario) learns of her adoption and her biological grandmother Verna who has left her a significant inheritance. She jumps into a Volkswagen with her boyfriend Ryan (Tremaine ‘Trey Songz’ Neverson) and friends Nikki (Tania Raymonde) and Kenny (Keram Malicki-Sanchez) to learn her true identity. They pick up a drifter along the way in the form of Darryl (Shawn Sipos) and arrive in Texas to revel in her new-found wealth and meet her birth family, of which there is only one surviving member.

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Regurgitating elements of horror films including Psycho (1960), Halloween (1978) The Funhouse (1981), I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) (there’s even a cheesy nod to Saw), this film lacks any of the originality, atmosphere, zeal or purpose of those previously mentioned. Its director John Luessenhop has, by his own admission, never directed horror before and it shows. He has attempted to make a film comprising mainly of replicated shots, imitating but never matching the original source material. The mise-en-scène is coaxed to the point of contrivance, resulting in no scares and making for dull, and insulting, viewing especially for a fan of the genre. The decision to discount the franchise instalments which have been made since ’74 is certainly an interesting one from writers Debra Sullivan, Adam Marcus and Kristen Elms, especially in the introduction of the extended Sawyer clan (the Sawyer family name was not introduced until the 1986 sequel).

Unfortunately, this lack of research and attention to detail is evident throughout the 90 minutes and, for a film selling itself as a saga continuation, is problematic. There is an attempt to humanise the psychopath to almost Frankensteinian level asking the audience to illicit empathy for a character that back in the day was motiveless and incapable of remorse and one who should be close to retirement age by now. The recurring motif of meat has all but been removed, here “flesh” obviously connoted through its Abercrombie-&-Fitch-alike cast of characters, all of whom are underdeveloped, and a leading lady who blatantly and irritatingly defies the timeline the writers and director are attempting to evoke. Throw in a few derivative proverbs regaling family, highlight vigilantism and have at least three cameo appearances that only draw attention to the shortcomings and you have got yourself a wholly atrocious and (un)bloody waste of time.

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Blu-ray Review

Blu-ray Review: Dracula (Dir. Terence Fisher, 1958)

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It seems somewhat ironic that a country so set on suppression would help instil and depict the inextricable link between sex, horror and death and yet long after the rise of German Expressionist and Universal horror in the States – in which the heimlich and unheimlich were visually portrayed amid ideologies of repression and scepticism – British horror cinema only really emerged in the 1950s following decades of censorship. Among those banned were The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari ( 1920, dir. Robert Wiene), Nosferatu (1922, dir. F.W. Murnau) and Freaks (1932, dir. Tod Browning) and significant cuts were made to Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) and Browning’s Dracula (1931). The British censors appeared to completely overlook the cathartic effect of the horror film until the birth of Hammer (so named after co-founder William Hinds’ stage name). These films were defined by a number of factors including a restrained style and the use of colour, their settings were often historical (cleverly to avoid censorship), with themes of patriarchal authority, class divide and the notion of ‘maleness’ prevalent. These male characters were often given priority within the ideological diegesis and fought emasculation in one form or other. The films, more often than not, also included the inimitable partnership of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee and for a time Hammer revelled in its elusive quality, screen splendour, and success but by the 1970s the lauded films became a distant memory as each new movie lost vigour, became more derivative and relied upon overt eroticism to maintain its popularity, in a series of films I like to refer to as Carry On…Hammer.

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Thankfully Dracula (1958, dir. Terence Fisher) was one made within Hammer’s ‘Golden Age’ (1957-1964) and, since its 2007 restoration by the BFI, is released on 3-disc DVD and Blu-ray on the 18th March 2013 replete with scenes that have been unavailable for decades and a great deal of extras: including a variety of featurettes, commentaries, and interviews with cast members, screenwriter Jimmy Sangster and fans of the film like Sir Christopher Grayling, Kim Newman and Mark Gatiss. The actual print is glorious and beautifully restored showcasing the film’s palette of colour and lush, decadent sets comprising of inviting heavy drapes, dark wood and blazing fires. While audiences are familiar with Stoker’s 1897 tale, there are liberties taken, by Sangster, with the story. Dr. Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) arrives at Castle Dracula to investigate the disappearance of his colleague and protégé Jonathan Harker (John van Eyssen). Jonathan became the librarian to The Count (Christopher Lee) as a cover, while his true intention is “to end Dracula’s reign of terror.” This reign includes the seduction of both his fiancée Lucy Holmwood (Carol Marsh) and her older, married sister, Mina (Melissa Stribling) which builds to a fantastic finale accompanied by James Bernard’s terrifying and haunting score.

If Schreck’s rat-like Nosferatu was a subtext for plague and a ‘fear-of the foreigner’ and Lugosi’s thick Hungarian accent and histrionics made an attempt to aid the supernatural elements of a walking corpse, specifically in his slow pacing and deliberate enunciation of broken English. There was/is an eerie charm to his Count, however, it was not until Christopher Lee’s portrayal was sex so obviously aligned with Dracula and he became the ‘lover’; a sexual and provocative nuance to the role has continued with Frank Langella (1979), Gary Oldman (1992) and, dare I say, Gerard Butler (2000). Lee brings the virile, exotic ‘other’ to sex up the Victorian bourgeoisie; a formidable task given his thirteen lines of dialogue and lots of hissing. Make no mistake, despite its roots within the British stiff-upper lipped realm where evil is pronounced with a hard ‘e’ and ending in ‘ville’, this is a film about sex, marriage, adultery and seduction and well worth a re-visit in its original uncut, splendiferous, form.

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Blu-ray Review

Blu-ray Review: René Clément: 100th Anniversary Collection

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The name René Clément is one synonymous with French filmmaking, however, you would be forgiven for not being overly-familiar with his work. He was declared in a 1957 Cahiers du Cinema article as “the greatest living director”, however, the cinéastes and iconoclasts associated with the journal deemed his work too inconsequential to the French New Wave movement, labelling him, old fashioned, banal and, even, a “sell-out”. A great director he was, in his day, but not an auteur according to François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard et al. To mark Clément’s centenary, Studio Canal are releasing, individually, Forbidden Games (Jeux Interdits, 1952), Gervaise (1956), The Deadly Trap (Maison Sous les Arbres, 1971) and And Hope to Die (La Course du Lievre a Travers les Champs, 1972). This package of films displays Clément’s versatility and evolution as a director, showcasing his obvious Neo-Realist influences and interests of the fifties and the mysterious crime-thriller generic amalgam of the seventies. It must be said that while most may not have seen his films before, these Studio Canal releases do serve as an educational quadrilogy to Clément’s detailed and observational style of filmmaking.

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The Deadly Trap opens with melodramatic nuances; soft focus, water-coloured effects amid a dreamlike sequence. Clément has been described as the French Hitchcock but this film is more reminiscent of Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973) with Venice substituted for Paris and the red colour motif replaced by yellow. A young couple Jill (Faye Dunaway) and Phillip (Frank Langella) have moved to France for his work, a job seemingly in jeopardy. Their marriage is in crisis and she appears to be literally losing her mind: replicating dress purchases, losing car keys and nearly killing their two children. Clément’s cleverly paced direction builds tension and takes the viewer through a taut espionage-cum-mystery thriller. The two leads work perfectly, childlike, carefree Jill played by Dunaway is clueless to the events unfolding around her and Langella’s Phillip who is brooding but gentle with his shock of unruly black hair and penetrating brown eyes. His magnetism is still as present forty plus years later.

Another screen veteran, Jean-Louis Trintignant, who can currently be seen in Amour (2012, dir. Michael Haneke), stars in And Hope to Die alongside Hollywood stalwart, Robert Ryan. Part Western/gangster/crime caper, this is the worst of the bunch, over-acted and badly dubbed, specifically Ryan, the weak script and pretentious visuals, unfortunately, add weight to a director coming to the end of his career. Like this, based upon the novel Black Friday by David Goodis, Gervaise is also an adaptation. Inspired by Émile Zola’s L’assommoir (1877), depicting an uncompromising look at the rise and fall of a washer-woman played beautifully by Maria Schell, struggling to raise her three children, torn between her alcoholic husband, the business she owns and the other man she is in love with. Much like Kenji Mizoguchi’s The Life of Oharu (1952), this vivid portrayal does not seek to manipulate or incite sentimentality or sympathy but displays the suffering of an ordinary woman who never complains but “fights back” and survives. This film has more fluidity to it than the afore-mentioned, in all aspects, and appears lovingly crafted making its BAFTA awards and prizes at the Venice Film festival all the more deserved.

The true gem of this collection, Forbidden Games, is shot in a realist style and appears to be the director at his most creative. Refused at Cannes for being an “insult to peasants” Forbidden Games has been beautifully restored depicting children’s happiness during a time of misery. Set during World War II, five year old Paulette (Brigitte Fossey) watches her parents and pet puppy die while they shield her from flying bullets. Not completely aware or understanding of her predicament she is taken in by the Dolles family and quickly becomes the charge of a surrogate big brother, in the form of Michel (Georges Poujoly). The two children grow to love each other with complicity, aggression and innocence through a mutual fascination and morbidity of death. They create their own pet cemetery; a place where they can play and look after the “souls” that are laid there. It becomes a game; they watch mourners in church to garner tips for their own staged funerals and then start stealing from places of worship and even the graves of the deceased villagers.

The two adolescent leads are wonderful, especially Fossey who plays Paulette, she often is lit with an extra halo of light adding an angelic quality to an already beautiful performance. The true meaning of death eludes the character, after all she is only five years old and with Michel’s prompting she learns her prayers and becomes transfixed by the sight of a cross. This lack of Catholic knowledge could be an allusion to the child’s Judaism and by the film’s dénouement the viewer can see the enormity of Michel’s love and attention; he saves her life in more than one way. There is purity and power to Clément’s direction here, the notion of grief is never fully explored and it does not incite emotion as expected but observes; never manipulating. It is clear, in this film, that Clément was greatly influenced by Vittorio De Sica through the Neo-Realist style.

One trait evident through these four films is all scenes are filled with interchangeable images which are rendered with diligent and deliberate care; they are there to be observed. His deft uses of verisimilitude make for an unpredictable and diverse collection of films and while he may not have contributed to the “new soul” of French cinema, historically, Réne Clément was certainly a talented old soul of cinema and deserves to be re-visited and explored. Banal and old-fashioned this collection is not.