Ginger Nuts of Horror
Due to the recent cinema releases of The Dark Tower and IT, along with the BFI showing a season of King movies to celebrate his 70th birthday, I saw five movies based on King’s work at the cinema in the month of September. So, here’s a mini-series of trip reports - nothing so grand as reviews - based on my month of King Cinema. Spoilers for both the movies under discussion and the source books abound, so be warned. Enjoy.
I tried. I really did. I wanted to write an appraisal of this movie that took it on it’s own terms, without reference to the book. I wanted, as far as I could, to assess this as a piece of storytelling in it’s own right, and see what I had to say about the movie, rather than dissect the adaptation angle.
But let’s face it, that was never going to happen.
There is simply zero chance I can get through an article about IT the movie without referencing IT the book. It’s simply unpossible. IT is a seminal, foundational text, for me - one I have reread many, many times (in point of fact, one I am in the processing of re-reading right now), and that is branded across my soul. There’s simply no way to avoid that doubling effect, seeing a version of the story I love so much on the big screen.
So I took along my stepson, as at least some kind of bulwark/control group against that effect, to see what we would see.
And I liked it just fine.
The opening was especially powerful (and yeah, okay, faithful to the book). The moment when little Georgie got his arm bitten off, before being dragged down the storm drain… yeah, man, that set out the stall. I think it’s easy to forget, as someone from whom the novel IT is now such a comfy pair of slippers, what a truly transgressive move brutally murdering a child in the opening is, and seeing it happen on screen, in a room full of strangers, brought the shock of that moment home to me in a fresh way.
So that was good. And 80’s Derry was beautifully realised, building off the iconography of Stranger Things the audience will have been primed by - the New Kids on the Block gag was especially deftly handled in that regard. It’s also undeniably disconcerting to realise that the 80’s is as far from us now as the 50’s was from the 80’s the novel was written and published in. One of the huge attractions of the book for me was and is the evocation of 50’s childhood, the birth of rock and roll, Coke in green bottles, all of that. To realise that, for my stepson, the 80’s childhood is as exotic, and old fashioned, as semi-fictional and mythologised as the 50’s is to me… there’s a lot to unpack there, emotionally, and far from all of it’s bad, but it is kind of painful. Bloody hell, life is short.
I’m sorry, where were we? Ah, yes, the kids. Any version of IT lives or dies with the kids, for me. Especially given the probably correct decision to tell the movie in a linear fashion, with a now-guaranteed Chapter 2 taking in the adults. And I think they nailed it, in terms of the casting. None of them looked the way I pictured them, exactly, but they all looked right - and, for the most part, behaved right. Richie was the highlight for me - because, I realise on this latest re-read, Richie is the kid I most strongly identify with. For my money, Finn Wolfhard got it completely. He had that insufferable, unstoppable quality - irritating, but with juuuuust enough infectious charm to make you smile, even as you (sometimes) groaned. But I felt the kids were all good to great, in terms of their performances.
I did have some issues with some of the writing though. Mike, in particular, just didn’t have enough to do, and I wasn’t wild about the aspects of his character that got handed over to Ben (I’ll come back to this). As for Bill… the kid was fine, but each time I go through this story, I’m less convinced by Bill as a character, and the movie didn’t seem to find a way to fix this. As my stepson put it (totally unprompted by me, I hasten to add) ‘He’s just a bit.. Nothing, isn’t he, in terms of the story? I mean, apart from his brother being killed, what’s he for?’
In fact, let’s do this now: My other main issue with the film is simply that it leans too much on some very creaky horror movie tropes. Jump scares, for example. I’m not one of those purists that insist that a jump scare is automatically cheap or bad - I think a genuinely well-executed jump scare is art, albeit probably not high art - but boy, there are a lot of them here, and I felt like they showed a lack of confidence in the subject matter, to be honest. IT contains what is, IMO, one of the scariest core concepts of any horror story I’ve ever read - a whole town that is haunted, by a shapeshifting creature the feeds on the meat of terrified children, and can resemble your worst nightmares. You should not need a parade of jump scares to make that shit scary - that shit is scary, inherently.
Again, some of them are very well executed - Georgie’s murder is beautifully done (and totally justified), and the slide projector coming to life sequence (a genuinely smart and savvy updating of Georgie’s picture book, I felt) was another example of a well-earned popcorn spiller, but elsewhere, it felt like too much of a crutch - or maybe just too much of an expected convention to avoid.
That said, many of the sequences where IT/Pennywise stalked the kids were superbly executed. Whilst I wasn’t wild about Ben’s library encounter - it felt both perfunctory and overplayed, somehow - Eddie’s lepper was brilliantly realised, and the moment when Beverly’s sink belched blood was another good example of a well-earned jump scare - as well as a rare example of where I felt the on-screen horror actually eclipsed that of the book, in terms of imagination and impact.
Similarly, I was mostly fine with the changes made at the end, in terms of the final confrontation, and the notion of the kids being preserved (presumably as snacks for ITs long hibernation). Having the gang come together to physically confront and fight IT felt truer to the spirit of the novel than the TV movie’s god-awful giant spider and actors just starting as a glowing light. I bloody love the whole concept of the deadlights, but it’s a very good example of the kind of concept that a novel can do brilliantly and a movie will always struggle with. This way is probably better all round.
That said, there were two big changes that actively annoyed me. The first was, as I mentioned above, the gutting of Mike as a character - firstly by giving the librarian role of the group over to Ben, who as the pointy end of the love triangle had quite enough going on, and more importantly by changing the nature of his relationship with his father - again such a pivotal part of the novel - into something perfunctory and, well, honestly a little mean, which I felt did a disservice to the storytelling. I appreciate the struggle to truncate such a sprawling novel (or even half of it) into a palatable movie length chunk, but for me, all the kids are important, and taking an axe to the bio of the only black kid in the story… yeah, I’m not wild about that.
Similarly, I was borderline infuriated by the fridging of Bev in the final act. Again, throughout the movie, Bev is a brilliant, well realised character. To casually turn her into a quest object for the final act - to make her capture the motivator to put the band back together and get down the sewer for the big final bust up - really, Hollywood? This is the best you can do? I’m not even angry, really - just disappointed. I’m not sure what it says about us that a film made in 2017 is actually worse on gender and race representation than the 80’s horror novel it was based on, but it strikes me as a pretty epic failure of imagination.
Like I say, disappointing.
All that said, it didn’t ruin the movie for me, or anything. I enjoyed it - at moments even loved it. Richie really was my Richie, from writing to look to performance, and Pennywise was also superbly creepy - especially in moments where he emerged from small spaces, or opened his jaws way beyond human capacity - or, perhaps best of all, as a giant version of him reached out from the projected image on the wall, grabbing at our gang. The bullies were also well played (if for my taste just a little underexplored - it’s never really clear, for example, why Henry is taking a knife to Ben’s stomach, even though it’s kind of a big deal). The effects work was brilliant, for the most part, with a commendable amount of physical work that I especially appreciated.
And most of all, it was Derry, and it was the kids. They got both of those pretty well dead on, quibbles aside, and if you get them right, you’ll always have yourself a show.
I’ll be very interested to see how Chapter 2 plays out, and I wonder if, some time down the line, there’ll be a dvd/blu ray supercut that edits the two movies together, to try and recreate that duel timeline narrative that’s so integral to the storytelling of the novel.
But for now, I got to go and see IT at the cinema with my stepson in 2017, and not only did it not suck, it was an entertaining, and occasionally even brilliant moviegoing experience.
And I’ve got to confess, as the lights came up, and I saw the mostly full theatre of mostly teenage viewers pick up their coats, smiling, laughing, chatting about favourite moments, I felt an entirely unearned surge of pride.
Pride that a story I love so much still has the power to reach out and scare people.
By Joe X Young
A year on from the death of her husband Neil, Joan (Jessica Graham) and her best friend Michael (Christopher Soren Kelly) are marking the anniversary by inviting old friends around for a bite to eat, a chat and a little revenge for their mistreatment of Neil. Assorted characters are introduced and dispatched in a variety of ways. Upon introduction there’s a board showing a menu of what that person will be eating which ties into their personality and the whole thing begins as something initially dry with the first character before becoming flippant with the second, alternating the mood throughout. The dialogue is sharp and witty and I found myself laughing out loud at the antics of the second guest, only 20 minutes into the film and it was already highly enjoyable even though really removed from the norm.
One of the more unusual aspects is that the guests are not all sitting together at a table in an Agatha Christie ’10 Little Indians’ style or indeed a ‘The Last Supper’ weekly dispatching, but are all turning up one at a time on the same night with scarcely a beat between when one person is killed and another one rings the doorbell.
Obviously things don’t actually stay according to plan and there are moments when the dinner-table turns and some housekeeping needs to be done, which I found to be not only highly realistic but massively amusing.
The trailer for this film does what the majority of trailers do in as much as it cherry-picks what is considered to be some of the better parts of the action but in this case the trailer doesn’t do the film justice. It’s a tough call because much of what makes this film so entertaining is character dynamics and not the murders, but the dynamics wouldn’t be quite so enticing than the more gruesome aspects.
Of particular note here are, well, basically the whole cast, as they are all superb so it’s hard to single them out. This really is Jessica Graham’s film though as she’s the most involved character and perfect in all aspects.
There’s a little something extra to this film and I won’t dare to tell you what it is but it has to be one of the most well thought out endings I’ve ever seen.
It’s a short review, but to say more about it would require going into more detail, which could spoil it for you, suffice to say that there’s enough of interest going on and the film goes by at such a pace that it never drags and is quite brilliant, highly recommended.
by Joe X Young
Sometimes, rarely, but sometimes, a film can grab my attention right from the get-go. The Gatehouse is one such film. The reason for the attention grabbing is that it’s actually off to a quite endearing start with a father and daughter who, armed with a small spade, are going treasure hunting in the woods for a gift he planted there.
Now I have to be absolutely honest about this, I like this film BUT it’s probably not going to appeal to those wanting or expecting something along the lines of ‘Mama’ or ‘The Babadook’ as The Gatehouse has only one real flaw but it’s something of a biggie: It has a severe identity crisis.
Here’s the deal, it has a basic spook story setup with the father, Jack Winter (Simeon Willis), being a writer who is not doing so well with having both financial troubles through lack of work and the recent loss of his wife in a boating accident. The father is a somewhat likeable yet troubled soul as he keeps imagining the less than healthy looking ghost of his dead wife everywhere. He is played with such depth as to be thoroughly credible even when he’s losing his temper with his daughter out of the sheer frustration of life.
The daughter, 10 year old Eternity (Scarlett Rayner), appears at first to be a charmer; she’s hopeful of at some point finding buried treasure in the woods so she can help her dad financially. Sweet kid, yes? Well she would be if she wasn’t prone to being mouthy, pissing off eligible babysitters and buggering things up through clumsiness, some of which is slightly comic. The relationship between father and daughter here is superb, they come across as not just father and daughter but as the best of friends but not in an artificial and sickly way as Eternity is somewhat unruly and needs to be brought under control occasionally. Scarlett Rayner who plays Eternity has only two film credits to her name, The Gatehouse being the first and obviously major role which is very well deserved, brilliantly acted and I dare say she could make it big in the film industry. I know that’s a reaching statement for someone just starting out in acting but she really is that good.
She does contribute one of the elements of the identity crisis to this film as there are moments which are comical yet her delivery is deadpan. Is it a horror film or is it a comedy? It was presented to me as horror, but having seen it I’m not so sure if it’s a horror, a comedy horror, a dark fantasy or something defying a label as it seems to be slipping in and out of expectation at random. It also slips out of POV as suddenly Jack starts narrating the story for a few minutes. It’s all a bit messy, and normally I’d be trashing it like the hard to please sonofabitch I am, but this film seems so casual that it gets away with it all.
Aside from the bad dreams the father is having, in some of which he sees his drowned wife in various situations and others in which he’s harming his daughter in very grisly ways there’s also an ancient curse, a tree god in the woods and a sinister landowner called Algernon Sykes played by Linal Haft who helps the creepy tone of the film along nicely. So far there’s a whole formulaic backing but it’s not actually playing out that way as there are plenty of somewhat subdued ‘jump scares’ which I believe are actually downplayed deliberately with no hyperactive foley.
As mentioned there are parts of this film which seem to be played for low-key laughs which although incongruous actually work in what is an absorbing film with fantastical elements.
It takes quite a while, roughly 50 minutes until something genuinely horrific happens, but when it does it’s certainly unexpected and quite bizarre for a film allegedly based on true events. I’m usually pissed off by films which take too damned long to get some meat on the bones but this film is different. I was, as usual, hoping for a horror film which even if it didn’t scare the living shit out of me would at least deliver a chill or two and this one doesn’t really scare but it’s still pretty good.
There are lovely performances throughout, with nobody coming across as amateur and the youngest member of the cast is every bit as competent as more senior actors such as Linal Haft and Paul Freeman (Probably best remembered for his persistent attempts to steal the Ark of the Covenant from Indiana Jones).
It’s got undertones of The Goonies about it with none of that film’s action but a lot more darkness preventing it actually being a tale for children. It’s one of the strangest films I’ve seen in a good long time, but one that I actually enjoyed throughout even though it has a severe identity crisis.
Scarlett Rayner, Simeon Willis, Linal Haft, Paul Freeman, Hannah Waddingham, Alix Wilton Regan, and Melissa Knatchbull star in a Martin Gooch film.
Available 12/5 on Digital from Uncork’d Entertainment.
Due to the recent cinema releases of The Dark Tower and IT, along with the BFI showing a season of King movies to celebrate his 70th birthday, I’ve seen five movies based on King’s work at the cinema in the last month. So, here’s a mini-series of trip reports - nothing so grand as reviews - based on my month of King Cinema. Spoilers for both the movies under discussion and the source books abound, so be warned. Enjoy.
We’re off to the BFI in London for this one, as part of the Screen King season in September, celebrating Stephen King’s 70th birthday with a month of screenings of some of the most iconic movies based on his work (and also Maximum Overdrive, which tragically I couldn’t justify financially, no matter how loudly my soul called out).
I hadn’t originally planned to do this double bill. Carrie, I fancied - I’d seen it a few times in my late teens, but rarely if ever since, and getting to see it on the big screen appealed. The Shining, on the other hand, I really felt I’d seen - a lot. But then good friend and podcast buddy Daniel Harper told me that if I hadn’t seen The Shining in the cinema, I really hadn’t seen it at all, and I figured if I was going to make the trip, I might as well go for the double bill (and, spoilers; Daniel was right).
And when we say the big screen, to be clear, we’re talking about the BFI London IMAX - in other words, the biggest screen in London. Just looking at the damn thing as I walked into the theatre gave me vertigo.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I took the afternoon off work and traveled down with my Dad, who’d not seen Carrie at all, and not seen The Shining since it’s original theatrical run. We hung out in London, did some tourist stuff, and went for a meal before the 6pm Carrie showing. There was also a memorabilia auction connected to a charity, and the exhibits were all in the IMAX foyer, so we had some fun nosing about at Christian Bale's Batman suit, the Lament configuration box from Hellraiser, and (personal highlight) the hat Sylvester McCoy wore as the 7th Doctor in Remembrance of the Daleks. Also some weird flying bike prop they claimed was from RoboCop 3 - as if!!! Still, there was also a close to lifesize RoboCop model. I may have gotten some photos before heading into the theatre.
Carrie was a really interesting experience. There are ways in which the IMAX did the film no favours - the flaws in the source material film stock were painfully apparent, especially in some of the daylight exterior shots, where an effect that was probably intended as a soft haze gave almost the impression of fog. Similarly, some of the night footage, especially during the driving sequence with Travolta and Allen, had a slightly grainy quality - which I actually enjoyed, but again felt to be more visible than had originally been intended.
That said, there were also aspects of the movie that were served well by the bigger screen treatment; the climactic sequence, as you might expect, was appropriately overwhelming, but there were also some quieter moments that I also felt stood out especially well. The sequence where the girls are being given extended PT as punishment benefited a lot, the size of the screen emphasising the long panning shots over the increasingly exhausted classmates, and the long spinning shot of Bobby Ross and Carrie White dancing at the prom as the film builds to it’s climax was, literally, dizzying.
And, you know, it’s fucking Carrie. It’s a hell of a story, in the classic mold of especially early King stories - it’s a view of humanity that is unflinching, unflattering, but manages to stop just short of cruel, just barely shy of utter cynicism - which, of course, makes the inevitable ending of the tale all the more shattering. There aren’t actually that many irredeemably awful people in the world, this story seems to say - but there’s often just enough, and enough others with lazy good intentions but insufficient understanding and an all-too-powerful herd instinct venality, to create tragedy.
And De Palma is pretty much the perfect director for this subject matter. The opening shower scenes, for all the beauty of many of the slow motion shot compositions, also owe a clear debt to exploitation cinema, and that eye is present throughout (especially in the aforementioned PT punishment scene, and in the depiction of the deliciously dysfunctional Chris and Billy relationship). Similarly, the way he allows the prom scene to pay out, especially the seemingly endless march of Carrie and Tommy to the stage, as the bucket hangs poised, and Sue realises, just too late, that something awful is about to happen, is frankly cruel: he allows us to absorb every ounce of Carrie’s doomed joy at her moment of acceptance, knowing that it’s all about to come crashing down around her. In that way, De Palma both makes us complicit in the awful voyeurism, and also victimises us, by forcing us into the role of impotent witnesses, lambs to Carrie’s slaughter.
It’s still one of the great moments in all of horror cinema, for me. No subtlety to it, and no mystery, either - the horror and awful tension come not from any sense that we are unsure how this moment is going to play out, but entirely from the sickening inevitability of what is occurring, second by painful second. It’s unforgivably long in the playing out, and the decision to stick with the slow mo beyond the initial downpour of blood is similarly brilliantly sadistic, really twisting the knife. It’s so brutal that once the lighting goes crazy and the mayhem and murder kicks off, it’s almost - almost - a relief.
And bloody hell, Sissy Spacek. What an incredible performance. Every single ounce of vulnerability, every moment of naivete, her tragic, doomed defiance of her mother… Spacek sells every single moment of it with an authenticity so powerful it’s painful. Every scene she is in, she owns - no mean feat, considering how little dialogue she has in most of them - and a huge part of what makes the film such a creeping, crawling horror to watch is bound up in how much Spacek’s portrayal of Carrie White both captures and breaks your heart.
The years really haven’t dulled it, for me. Dated it, sure, but not dulled it. Carrie remains an intense, unsettling, upsetting movie-going experience that both bludgeons and cuts with cruelty and skill.
There was a fifteen minute window between Carrie and The Shining. I frankly could have done with longer. A shot of bourbon took the edge off a little, but it was still an experience that I suspect will live long in the memory.
The core concept revolves around a bunch of friends getting a ramshackle hotel to convert into a horror themed attraction with horrific consequences on the opening night. Straight off I am going to confess that I don’t have much love for ‘Mocumentaries’ and ‘found footage’ films, so it really has to offer something different for me to be interested. Hell House LLC brings it.
During the course of the documentary style footage we are given a very thin idea of what has gone on in the aftermath of the opening-night events; however one person comes forward with tapes made by the organisers who documented all the stages of creating the attraction. So now we have a documenting inside of the documentary which is where the main action happens. Pace varies, switching as it does between interviews, news footage and the organisers footage with all aspects blended ideally so it doesn’t descend into a constant stream of bland chatting or jump scares, the latter of which are in fact few and far between as this film is more reliant on the personal interaction of the main characters as they are largely blaming each other for things such as prop dummies moving mysteriously et cetera.
There is a somewhat obvious back story of a suicide at the hotel which is of little consequence but some nice little touches associated with this, none of which detract from the story proper and the whole thing comes across as an authentic documentary.
The acting, to me at least, is a triumph. In the organiser footage the actors all come across as real people whose only awareness of being filmed is seemingly from their friend filming them with a camcorder. The dialogue is entirely natural, no forced scenes, no nudity and everything just has a perfectly natural feeling as if we are witnessing genuine events.
One of the things I really liked about this film is that a lot of what is in it as far as the special effects are concerned is very straightforward. With it being a themed attraction they litter it with horror paraphernalia, plastic severed limbs, big rubber spiders, scary clown mannequins and so forth. That was one of the more interesting aspects as one could never be sure whether what you were looking at was something they had rigged up or not, and even the things they had rigged often had the tendency to not remain where they had put them. Another thing I liked was that wasn’t the typical gorefest, with tension being heightened by panic as opposed to the usual blood and guts.
It’s all in all a beautifully simple film which delivers the goods effortlessly.
DVD Special Features
Director’s commentary track
Feature film extended cut (97 minutes)
Feature film includes recovered basement footage.
Over 30 minutes of bonus material.
Behind the scenes video
Cast auditions video
Unreleased movie trailer
DVD Release Date: October 1, 2017 – DVD only. Purchase at http://hellhousellc.com
UK RESIDENTS BEWARE: It does state on the site that it is a region 1 DVD and that shipping is for USA and Canada only.
Out now on all major VOD is The Forlorned, taken from the book by Angela J Townsend who also co-wrote the screenplay and served as executive producer
Spooky films are commonplace, low-budget ones even more so, but what is rare is a low-budget spooky film with genuine atmosphere and good acting. The Forlorned has a simple enough haunted house premise with just enough about it to make it more interesting than the average. Perhaps the greatest aspect of this being the film’s tighter focus on a central character whose experiences we follow rather than the shifting perspectives of having half a dozen model types scene stealing whilst running and screaming all over the place. The Forlorned benefits from a slow pace and solid performances without feeling the need for any flashiness.
Tom Doherty needs work and so he applies for a job doing maintenance and restoration work on an island lighthouse and properties in Nova Scotia, Canada. Little does he know that the island is so haunted that none of the locals wanted the job. It’s a reasonable set up, with the opening scenes stating what actually happened in 1812, which to my way of thinking might have been better if it had been expanded upon as the relevant segments are somewhat short. That is not to say that the film suffers for this, just that it may have made an already good film a lot better, however there’s always the possibility that what follows through the bulk of the film may have appeared too sedate in comparison.
Colton Christensen excels in the role of Tom Doherty, I watch one hell of a lot of low-budget horror films, a vast amount of which have lead characters who couldn’t act their way out of a paper bag and are mostly hired for glamour rather than talent. Colton Christensen is a refreshing change in that he looks as if he could genuinely be the kind of person he is portraying, moreover he actually acts as if he is just a handyman in a haunted house. It’s a performance worthy of a main character in a Stephen King film, which this isn’t, but having said that it did remind me of one of my favourite spooky films, Stephen King’s 1408, which the build-up in The Forlorned for the most part manages to emulate without being derivative as it utilises familiar tropes but gives them enough tweaks to separate them from the mainstream. 1408 is superior but so was the budget, yet The Forlorned delivers the goods with as much style.
The supporting cast for the most part have an air of awkwardness about them consistent with their roles, suitably restrained, with no outstanding performances or characters overshadowing Tom Doherty so we keep all eyes on him as we are supposed to. It’s a very clever balance. Elizabeth Mouton as Amy is introduced somewhat late in the proceedings, giving careful exposition at the same time as setting up the denouement.
The production team have all done a fine job, the muted colour schemes lend a beautiful atmosphere and the special effects are excellent. All in all with a plethora of ghosts, Demonic hogs, deranged violence and a thoroughly believable descent into madness The Forlorned is good enough to stand a second viewing.
By Stewart Horn
An abortion clinic is attacked by Christian extremists; doctors are murdered and, impossibly, an aborted fetus is rescued.
Twenty years later a family gather for a traditional Christmas, but there are divisions and tensions within the family - some of them obviously don't want to be there and it's uncomfortable even before it all goes crazy.
The matriarch wants a happy final Christmas together before she sells the family home and sets off for a jolly round the world, but her kids think she's abandoning them and spending their inheritance. The eldest sister is very prim and married to a clergyman, who seems the equally uptight but spies on another couple having sex then retires to a wardrobe for ahem... privacy. The other sister is heavily pregnant but still drinks, smokes pot and manages a lively sexual encounter with her partner. The youngest son seems the most normal despite having downs syndrome, and the elderly grandfather self-medicates with marijuana.
A stranger (whom we have already seen kill a neighbour) knocks on the door and the family invite him in, but when he starts spouting extreme religious views they throw him out again. The family settle down to dinner but the old resentments still seethe. It's almost a relief when the hooded stranger starts killing them.
As an exploration of family dynamics, this is cleverly observed, unflinching and cruel. The family continue to bicker even as their numbers dwindle, and nobody is portrayed as wholly sympathetic. The little mind games they play with each other are horrible. There is an odd contrast between the well crafted subtlety of these moments and the violence, which is grand guignol played for laughs. The scene with the kitchen blender could have been lifted from an early Peter Jackson film.
We've all had family occasions like this, when we offer a silent prayer that an axe-wielding madman will come in and kill us all so we don't have to suffer our terrible families for another moment. I can't think of a film that has captured that feeling better than this one. Excellent festive fayre.
Park Circus celebrate this coming Halloween with a release of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Screening in over 100 cinemas – for one night only, on 31 October – audiences can enjoy this remarkable thriller on the big screen once again at cinemas throughout the UK, plus selected European and Latin American territories. ( Click here for full details of screenings )
Accompanying the film on its release to cinemas is a bonus seven-minute documentary, Work & Play: A Short Film About The Shining (2017), directed by Matt Wells for Park Circus.
Park Circus is a leading global sales agency and distribution company. We proudly represent over 25,000 films from Hollywood and British studios and a large number of independent rights owners. Working with rights holders, producers, distributors and cinemas, our aim is to share the wonderful films we represent with audiences on both the big and small screen.
All work and no play makes Oscar-winning actor JackNicholson - the caretaker of an isolated resort - go way off the deep end, terrorising his young son and wife (Shelley Duvall). Nicholson plays Jack Torrance, who’s come to the elegant, isolated Overlook Hotel as off-season caretaker. Torrance has never been there before or has he? The answer lies in a ghostly time warp of madness and murder. Master filmmaker Stanley Kubrick’s visually haunting chiller, based on the bestseller by master-of-suspense Stephen King, is an undeniable contemporary classic. Newsweek called The Shining “the first epic horror film,” full of indelible images, and a signature role for Nicholson whose character was recently selected by the American Film Institute as one of their 50 Greatest Villains. Accompanying the film is Work and Play: a short film about The Shining (2017), directed by Matt Wells for Park Circus. This short documentary brings together new personal reflections from Kubrick’s collaborators and unseen materials from his personal archives to shed light on this unique cinematic achievement. Featured in the documentary are: Lisa and Louise Burns (The Grady Twins), Garrett Brown (inventor and operator of the Steadicam), Diane Johnson (co-screenwriter on The Shining), Katharina Kubrick (Stanley Kubrick’s daughter) and Jan Harlan (Kubrick’s producing partner and brother-in-law)
Due to the recent cinema releases of The Dark Tower and IT, along with the BFI showing a season of King movies to celebrate his 70th birthday, I’ve seen five movies based on King’s work at the cinema in the last month. So, here’s a mini-series of trip reports - nothing so grand as reviews - based on my month of King Cinema. Spoilers for both the movies under discussion and the source books abound, so be warned. Enjoy.
I was back in front of the biggest screen in London to see Kubrick's take on early King classic, The Shining. Fortified by a shot of Jack Daniels and a double helping of Ben and Jerry’s cookies dough ice cream, I sank into my seat and prepared myself for what was to come.
And, I mean, I’m no stranger to this film. My number of viewings are easily into double figures, between the taped-from-TV VHS and later DVD copy. But some smart arse had told me I hadn’t really seen it unless it was on the big screen. And said smart arse was very, very right.
For starters, none of the flaws apparent with the film stock in Carrie applied here. Kubrick's decision to film in 35mm meant that this extended cut of the film was crystal clear. Indeed, the opening aerial shots (shots I don’t think I’d previously really registered on my small screen viewings) were of such breathtaking quality that I ended up with mild vertigo. They are absolutely beautiful, and established the qualitative difference this viewing experience would prove to be.
And it’s an almost unforgivably pedestrian observation to note that this film is beautifully shot, but again, I think I’d failed to appreciate just how beautiful it is until it was filling my entire field of vision. In addition to the aforementioned opening sequences, the cavernous interiors of The Overlook, the claustrophobic caretaker's quarters, and the giant imposing hedge maze all felt realer, somehow - as if I were actually there.
That, I think, was the central insight that I got from this viewing - in this film, it felt to me that the camera was acting as a window into the world of the movie. A combination of the clarity of the image, the size of the screen, and the exquisite camera work all contrived to make me feel like I was myself a ghost of The Overlook, floating around it’s halls and observing the emerging psychodrama, with no power to intervene. Its was a genuinely unsettling experience, quite unlike my previous small screen viewings.
I also got a lot more out of the performances this time. I was already of the opinion that Shelley Duvall’s work here was grossly underrated, and that was definitely reinforced. SImilarly, whilst I had fond memories of Scatman Crothers, I think I hadn’t fully appreciated just what an amazing job he does in that one big sitdown scene with Danny, in the Overlook kitchen. He has a ton to do, and most of it happens on his face, with his careful consideration of what and how much to say, and his awe at Danny’s power. It’s a brilliantly controlled performance, and does so much to help set the early tone of dread that permeates the whole film.
But I have to say that the biggest single surprise for me was Nicholson.
The director of my local youth theatre used to dismissively describe The Shining as ‘Jack Nicholson overacting with an axe’, and I think that impression had largely stuck with me. And I’m not about to argue that his performance is restrained or muted - that would make me madder than him, and even I don’t have that level of crazy - but I don’t think I’d appreciated just how controlled most of it is.
The first bar scene I think best typifies what I’m talking about. His conversation with Lloyd is, yes, big, even grandiose… but it’s also incredibly precise, each gesture, choice of vocal inflection considered. Jack Torrance is lying in this scene - lying to Lloyd, of course, but also, in the mode that addicts and people of violence often find themselves, lying to himself - but it’s also clear from Nicholson's performance that, on some level, not far below the surface, he knows he is lying to himself. It’s really impressively layered stuff, and it’s absolutely all going on, in the choices he makes with every line. It’s honestly kind of breathtaking - or at least, I found it to be so - but/and also… well, okay, I’ll just say it, there’s a subtlety at work there, right under the surface bluster.
I’m not going to claim there aren't some OTT moments for him as the movie progresses, that would be unsupportable. But I am saying that there is a level of craft in the performance that I simply hadn’t seen before - a subtlety that I only appreciated, ironically, when presented with the performance in a supersized environment.
As to the rest of the movie - I mean, what can I say that hasn’t been said? It’s almost all true. It’s spectacularly shot, the sound design is immaculate, it’s too damn long but that doesn’t matter because it’s so damn good. Kubrick clearly doesn’t care about women much, but that doesn’t stop Shelley Duvall turning in a masterclass in performance, the kid is amazing, and it’s creepy as hell.
It’s absolutely, indisputably, a masterpiece of modern cinema. It’s a work of art.
But as a movie going experience, I much prefered Carrie, with all it’s flaws and dirt and humanity. There’s a clinical coldness to The Shining. That doesn’t diminish it’s brilliance - in fact I’d argue it’s part and parcel of it, that layer of ice adding to the awful clarity of the experience - but it does make the film, for me, harder to love. It’s not quite that crass reductionist argument about ‘relatable characters’ - or at least, I hope not - rather, there’s something about the relentless, unforgiving precision of the piece that I find holds me at arm's length, and whilst I can appreciate it a great deal, I can never embrace it, never love it.
Carrie, on the other hand… yeah, Carrie I can love. Carrie has a heart - bruised and bloody, you bet, but beating just the same.
The Shining is one of the finest pieces of cinema I’ve ever been privileged to witness, and yes, it is resolutely a big screen experience.
But I actually think Carrie is a better movie.
It was certainly one hell of a double bill, and I’m glad I took the opportunity to go. Next up - the 2017 smash hit adaptation of IT.
PS - If the above has whet your appetite to see The Shining on the big screen - and to be clear, I would heartily recommend you do so, if you haven’t - there’s a limited cinematic run happening click here for details on where you can experience it in all its cinematic glory, which will include a 7 minute short film called ‘Work and Play’. This short is a delightful addition to the main movie, featuring short contemporary interviews with select cast and crew members, and focusing mainly on Kubrick - the artist and the man. The discussion of the serendipitous introduction of Steadicam was particularly interesting, as was the conversation with Kubrick’s daughter, which shed a much needed humanizing light on a director whose public image is often so cold and aloof. All in all, a lovely appetizer for the main course."
In recent years, horror anthology movies have returned to prominence in a big way. Which makes sense, as their very nature is ideal for independent filmmakers looking to get their names out there. After all, the time-honored tradition of making short films to hone your craft and show people what you’re capable of does have one major drawback: Namely, the market for short films is pretty damn small.
If, however, you can pool resources with a few like-minded filmmakers and link a handful of shorts together, then, voila, you got yourself a marketable feature. Each segment can have its own cast, crew, and budget, and each one is a lot shorter to film than a more long-form production. Thus, if anything goes wrong, there’s less of a chance the whole project will tank; maybe one short doesn’t get done but you still have several others, or if it’s the reverse, well, you may not have a full feature but at least you have a finished short.
For creators, the dangers are relatively low and the benefits are high. Likewise for the audience, who can sample a variety of up-and-coming directors and enjoy multiple stories without having to commit to a single two-hour narrative.
Which brings us to Volumes of Blood: Horror Stories, the follow-up to 2015’s Volumes of Blood. Bringing together eight different segments from six different filmmakers, the movie’s low-budget roots may be plain as day, but so is the passion its creators have for the genre, with every single segment playing out as a gleeful seriocomic celebration of gory b-movie fun.
First up is “Murder Death Killer,” in which a break-in goes awry for a trio of white-trash criminals who find themselves on the run from an undead scarecrow. Then, in “Haters,” a pair of obnoxious horror-movie purists become cannon fodder for a real-life slasher after getting kicked out of the multiplex for disrupting a showing of the latest Hollywood remake. Yet another murderer is on the loose in “Trick or Treat,” but he may not be the only one hunting his chosen prey.
“A Killer House” lives up its name when a pair of hopeful homeowners get the grisly grand tour from a sinister realtor. After that, “Feeding Time” sees an awkward insurance salesman seduced by a prospective customer who is convinced there’s a monster in her closet. Then “Blood Bath” takes its title literally, as a young couple’s shower-time sexcapades are rudely interrupted by a carnivorous bathtub.
In a yuletide twist on the French film À l'intérieur, “Fear, For Sinners Here” sees the home of a gift-wrapping mama invaded by a crazed Christmas caroler seeking vengeance for losing out on the hottest toy of the season. Finally, in “The Deathday Party,” a married couple of suburban serial killers spend hubby’s b-day dealing with annoying neighbors, a feisty would-be victim, and, worst of all, hemorrhoids.
Interestingly, Volumes of Blood: Horror Stories boasts a pretty eccentric structure. Rather than presenting a procession of unconnected shorts separated by title cards, or a collection of tales told by a narrator in a bookending wraparound segment, the stories here are actually nested inside of one another, then connected together by a somewhat tangled web.
For example, one story is revealed to be a movie being watched by the protagonists of the next story. Another story contains a flashback which leads to a completely separate story, which itself involves revelations that segue into several other stories. Think Trick ‘R Treat, but sloppier. It’s an interesting approach, and clever in a metafictional sort of way, but it also feels unnecessarily convoluted, especially if you’re, say, a reviewer trying to explain things in a concise, spoiler-free write-up for The Ginger Nuts of Horror. Ahem.
Like many modern anthologies in the cobbled-together multi-director mold of V/H/S, XX, and The ABCs of Death, Volumes of Blood: Horror Stories has some telling problems that are a direct result of its chosen format. This new school of anthology may be a great way to expose audiences to a diverse array of talents, but it lacks the level of cohesion that even the most unbalanced of Amicus’ portmanteaus typically managed.
Surprisingly, despite the variety of creators at the helm here, one issue the film suffers from is a lack of variety in its stories. Where the best anthologies tend to offer a three-ring circus of tropes—maybe a vampire story here, a ghost story there, etc.—most of the segments here are basically miniature slasher movies. Too many focus on decidedly human killers, resulting in the final product feeling overall a bit same-y.
It might have helped if there weren’t actually so many stories on offer. As it is, eight segments is a few too many, with several running too short anyway. There’s a reason most of the classic omnibus films of yesteryear limited themselves to three or four segments; doing that allowed each story just enough time to breathe and to establish what made it different from the others. It’s not for nothing that “Fear, For Sinners Here” (which has a much slower pace than the stories surrounding it) proves a noteworthy standout with its methodical development of atmosphere and suspense.
Despite these negatives, though, Volumes of Blood: Horror Stories also has some very big positives in its favor. Chief among them is that it’s clearly a movie clearly for horror fans, by horror fans. With its parade of masked maniacs, a driving retro-synth soundtrack, and some truly fist-pumpingly cool gore gags (you’ve got to love that messy vacuum-cleaner exsanguination, the sharpened peppermint-stick stabbing, the anal impalement, and those pools of blood swimming with candy corn and broken teeth), the film oozes with love for the genre. The raucous psychobilly attitude and ever-present tongue-in-cheek sense of humor makes it obvious the filmmakers had a blast making this. It’s easy for that energy to rub off on you.
Sure, the efforts to tie in characters and story elements from the first Volumes of Blood (not to the mention attempts to set things up for continuation in a third film) may be clumsy, but the overall effect if you’ve seen the previous movie is nevertheless potent. If nothing else, it will surely make you eager for the next one.
STRIKING CINEMATOGRAPHY and AMBIGUOUS storytelling make for a beguiling film
Gunnar is an academic approaching middle age, in a relationship with a much younger man, Einar. When they split up Einar seems to be talking about suicide. A few months later Gunnar (in bed with an even younger man) is woken in the night by a mysterious phone call and he sets off to the cabin in the wilderness where Einar is.
The relationship stutteringly rekindles but both men have secrets, and there seems to be someone else lurking around in the night. There's a suspicious neighbour, a creepy old man and a sinister hitchhiker, a murder, or perhaps a suicide, and possibly a ghost.
I almost don't want to say anything else and risk detracting from the experience. We see everything through Gunnar's unreliable eyes so for a lot of the film we have only a vague idea what's going on, yet that uncertainty adds to the film's charm. There are no silly jump scares, rather a carefully built creeping dread made worse by our lack of confidence in the narrator.
What makes this film really special is the photography - Iceland has never looked so beautiful. The vistas are vast and spectacular and almost unbearably gorgeous, yet cold and impersonal and dangerous, perfectly reflecting the relationship between the two men. One imagines the inside of Gunnar's head being miles of flat volcanic plain with treacherous rifts and snow-capped hills in the distance.
If I have a complaint, it's that it shied away from controversy and offence, in a self-conscious way. There is nudity but it's carefully choreographed so that we only see glimpses of a buttock; there is a sweet sex scene that cuts off to (an albeit stunningly beautiful) shot of the aurora borealis over the cabin. And paedophilia hangs over the film like a turgid shadow but is never explored. Perhaps the rules in Iceland are more strict but for me those things slightly detracted from the veracity of the film.
This is an absolutely beautiful film, highly recommended.