Movie Review #42 / 250 : ‘PEEPING TOM’

I don’t normally do this, but, Spoilers.  Seriously.  There was sod all to talk about here unless I spoil a lot of it.  A good sign, I find.

Evening, WordPress.  Remember me?  I’m not sure I do.  I digress.  Let’s just crack on with talking about films, eh?

‘Peeping Tom’ is widely revered as a killer thriller tour de force.  It’s been in the cinema mill for absolutely donkey’s years, and from what I understand, it was one of the very first to push a cold-blooded psychopath to the forefront, to almost protagonist status.  It also got banned, cut, slashed, what-have-you, in reverence of the sheer gratuituous horror it purveys.

So, this got me thinking.  A film that’s maintained notoriety for well over fifty years has to still carry some sort of shock factor these days, doesn’t it?  I mean – Psycho still gets some people.  Christopher Lee’s fanged menace still sends chills. Peeping Tom is a film that I first heard about years back, and have been so mesmerised by the almost hushed chatter about its infamy that I’ve choked back several chances to watch it.  Maybe that’s why I’ve been away all this time – maybe I’ve been stunned by either its majesty, or by its brain-freezing horror.

Sadly, it’s neither.  Before I fly into my opinions (as I am wont to do, dear reader), let’s have a look at the plot.  Mark Lewis (Carl Bohm) is a bit of a weirdo.  A repressed, reclusive chap, he’s a jobbing cameraman for his local film studio, while taking bawdy shots of willing lasses for paying pervs.  Only thing is, Mark’s camera isn’t just his work tool.  He’s obsessively attached to it.  Disturbing accounts from his childhood unveil how he has a rather unsavoury habit.  That is, he gets his jollies from filming women, killing them, and capturing their final moments of terror on celluloid.  He then catalogues it all in his gloriously over-the-top filming library in his penthouse flat.  The film surrounds an unwitting new friend, his ground-floor neighbour Helen (Anna Massey), being sucked into his previously private world, and her incredibly slow realisation that the bloke she’s showing interest in is a bit of a psycho.

It’s a great concept.  There’s some brilliant story touches throughout that help establish Mark as a troubled man, one with a bit too much investment in his whirring little moviebox, and of course, in his thrill of knifing women in the neck while recording the moment to eat popcorn over (euphemism).  It’s a classic slasher story, only this one is vaguely different in that it foregrounds the killer as a protagonist.  Most of this genre sees an unwitting innocent or future victim pushed to the front of the story, with the killer acting as a forever shadowy menace, antagonising behind the scenes.  For its time, this is daring.  Absolutely so.  It’s most definitely creepy, and to have a story stitched so tightly into its character’s frankly mental childhood is a move unseen.  Sadly,. it doesn’t hold up against absolutely monstrous pieces of cinema such as Saw, but then, sadly again, that’s going to be expected.  Very much like I’d explained in my review of the original Ladykillers, concepts of humour and horror change.  They evolve, and stuff dates.  Sometimes terribly.  Often terribly, in fact.

Peeping Tom does actually date quite badly.  The performances aren’t amazing, and the characters are beyond paper-thin (excluding Mark).  While I’m taking into account time’s hideous weathering effect upon cinema, however, there is one element in this picture that I simply cannot escape scrutiny, nor childish derision.  If you’ve seen Peeping Tom, you know where I’m going, and you may skip to the end if you wish.  Mark is meant to be British.  He has a distinctive and inexplicably German accent.  Granted, his actor is German, so that’s a given, but – there is absolutely no piece of dialogue, nor story footnote, that alludes to why Mark should be German.  His Dad was British, we assume his mother was.  He was brought up and has lived in Britain all of his life.  Why does he have a German accent?!  Don’t get me wrong – Bohm plays his part better than anyone else in the picture – but it’s jarring.  It’s like if Norman Bates in Psycho had a French accent despite a blatant American upbringing and heritage.  It’s a really weird touch that I can’t un-notice.

Despite that last point, it doesn’t really ruin things.  But I was pretty underwhelmed.  I think, taking into account the passage of time, the evolution of taste, and my expectation given its holy reverence, seeing Peeping Tom as being anything other than disappointing from the off was perhaps a massive given.  A shame, really.  It’s an absolute milestone of cinema.  And it’s pretty damn creepy.  But, here’s the thing – you won’t care.

BEST BIT : Mark unveiling his grand scheme to Helen in the last two minutes of the film.  Superb last-minute unveiling, it has to be said.

WORST BIT : Mark’s accent.  Or the awkward sequence where that bloke goes in to the newsagent’s to buy porn.  You know, the one that lasts about twenty minutes.  Still.  Has to be the accent.

RATING : 4 / 10.

UP NEXT : ‘GROSSE POINTE BLANK’.  God, I hate Minnie Driver.  But John Cusack is always worth watching.  This could be messy.  Good to be back, folks… here’s hoping I can stick with it!

Movie Review #40 / 250 : ‘VIDEODROME’

I’ve been lost for words in my reviews previously. Whether that be down to the movie I’ve seen having awestruck me into abject silence, or whether I’ve been dumbfounded by the likes of M Night Shyamalan or Paul Blart, this phenomenon has reared its ugly head before. Only, this time, I think ‘confused’ was what the director was aiming for.

Yep, we’re back to David Cronenberg, who I last looked at in my review of The Fly, which as it turns out, I hugely enjoyed. Videodrome precedes Fly by a few years, but this didn’t deter me – I’m sure all Dave’s films are as enjoyable and as gripping as the last. Right?

Videodrome… God. Erm. Even Writing the synopsis is tricky. Videodrome focuses on the main protagonist, the sleazy Max Renn (James Woods), an executive for a pornography-and-violence TV channel way off into the (obviously dystopian) future. Via an equally sleazy video pirate, Renn comes across a transmission of simulated torture like he’s never seen. He immediately wants hold of this project for his own station – despite being warned from most angles. It transpires that Renn should have heeded warnings while he could, as the transmission not only starts to play with his own perception of reality, but also leads into a much more sinister project beneath the surface.

That’s really as basic as I can dilute it. The first half an hour builds up to a revelation you were expecting from the first few scenes onwards, and from then on… just get incredibly surreal. Like the world in which Renn inhabits, the movie’s narrative, and its reliability, start self-destructing before our eyes. The horrific twists slide in almost effortlessly and without warning or indeed much foreshadowing – and by the final act, the viewer (well, definitely me, in any case) is left at a bit of a loss as to what in the name of all that is holy is going on.

Let’s focus on the positives. The acting, for the most part, is actually pretty natural. There’s very little ham in the characters. That, as you’ll soon discover, is left up to the amazing visceral body horror that genuinely puts other rubbery guts-and-gore scenes out of films like The Thing to shame. The effects here are just as shocking, and as effective, as those that Cronenberg would pick up again for Fly a few years later. The pacing is also marvellously speedy, with little time spent on exposition, or on allowing any one scene in particular to get stale too quickly.

This is all fine. This would all be put to brilliant use if the story, the twists and turns, and revelations, weren’t so confusing, nor haphazard. Videodrome prides itself on being a philosophical work; and it’s unfortunately clear that this self-awareness clouds the enjoyment factor. For anyone paying even close attention, this is a verychard film to follow – but, as a ‘surrealist’ movie, I guess that’s already a given.

While Videodrome is definitely memorable, it’s probable it actually suffers from its advanced pacing – very little about the scary future the movie is based in is given any airing, nor are we given much chance to digest the various lumps of surrealism that fling themselves full on into our faces. It seems to be a movie focused on honing and delivering its message in the way it sees fit, neglecting the needs of the audience somewhat. This is why, despite it being pretty damn impressive in visuals and concepts, I was left pretty underwhelmed.

PRO: Great cast, great visuals and effects.

CON: Actually suffers from lack of exposition and extended sequences. Confusing and twisting narrative. Excludes the audience.

5/10. Not terrible. Not in the slightest. But, despite it having been critically lauded, it’s perhaps a little too thick on the surreal to be transferable to a general audience. But then, it’s not for a general audience. It feels like a blockbuster movie that decides it’s an arthouse film halfway through. How am I going to cope with Naked Lunch?!

Movie Review #34 / 250 : ‘SHALLOW GRAVE’

Ok, a hypothetical question for you, if you will. Say you’re letting out a room to a shifty lodger. A few days into the tenancy, and he’s dead – leaving behind some Class A medication and a briefcase chock full of cash. Do you, A) Inform the police, and leave the money alone, B), inform the police, and pocket the money, or C), hack off the corpse’s hands and feet, remove any sign of identification (including disfigurement, where necessary), bury it in the back of beyond, and then pocket the cash?

Of course, dear reader, you would pick A). As any truly sane and law-fearing denizen would. Option C, however, is the choice of three flatmates who find their new housemate a stiff, and with a bumload of capital in a box. Shallow Grave is a British, character-driven story that focuses on the psychological journeying of the trio (Kerry Fox, Ewan McGregor and Christopher Ecclestone) as they each come to terms with their dark deed, and of course, as they struggle to maintain innocence in what becomes fairly grim psychological slapstick.

It’s a great idea for a plot, isn’t it? There’s a whole host of avenues for tension to scale up here, and mostly, it succeeds. Eccleston, as meek accountant David, shines best as he struggles to survive mentally after disposing of the lodger (Keith Allen, no less), and the focus switches to him as the remaining duo struggle to keep him above water, as it were. Things really pick up in the last third as the jig starts to look as if it’s up, and by the end, it’s every flatmate for themselves.

That said, good god, there’s a lot of problems. For a character-driven film, you need rounded, deep, and attractive personalities – characters you can invest in, if you like. Shallow Grave struggles with this. A lot. The first fifteen minutes of the film focus on the trio looking for a new lodger, and while the sequences try to be quirky and poetic, they only end up making the heroes (if you like) appear smug and hierarchical. It’s kind of the same problems Scott Pilgrim has. While I guess we’re not supposed to fully like or understand these people, closing them off to such an extent early on, and giving barely any backstory or development (beyond dancing into the land of the loopy) later on, the suspense and tension is lost massively – as we’re not connected to the characters. In short, I didn’t care about these people. I wanted them to get caught, or killed, or both. I’m not sure that was director Danny Boyle’s point. The acting is fine – far above it, main and supporting – but the characters are hard to connect to, and thus much of the film’s intentions are sadly lost.

There’s quite a few throwaway moments here and there too which aren’t particularly monopolised upon – Ken Stott’s potentially monstrous policeman would’ve been nice to see more of – and a relationship that begins between two of the characters late on seems shoehorned and distracting. But, getting away from the meat of it – I think this needs at least another half an hour, maybe fifteen minutes of runtime – simply to let the characters breathe, and maybe to give a few of the side plots a bit more focus. Otherwise, nice plot, great acting, but fairly hollow in its execution.

PROS: Good ideas. Good tension in places. Good acting.

CONS: Poor characterisation. Too short(!). Intensely smug in places.

OVERALL : 5/10
Bit disappointed with this, to be honest. I can see why it’s called a ‘cult classic’, but it’s hardly a ‘classic’ in its own right. Unlike Network, though, there’s enough here to justify the ‘cult’ part.

Movie Review #33 / 250 : ‘THE FLY’ (1986)

Bzzzzzzt.  Bzzzzzzzt.  Bzzzzzz-

Enough of that.  That’s very, very annoying.  What is it with me picking horror films just recently?  I’ve sat through a bumload of zombies trying to pick off a score of terrible actors, Kurt Russell battling a metamorphosising beastie in the arctic, and a creepy Dennis Hopper lecherously grunting through an oxygen mask – all in the past week or so.  Believe me – inside, I’m screaming for The Care Bears Movie or something similarly saccharine, if only to cauterise this rather depressing run of flicks – but, hey.  I’m a masochist.  So, I’ve decided my next pick to be the David Cronenburg-helmed rom-horror The Fly, where Jeff Goldblum goes nutty and nude, and often.

This, like The Thing, is another 1980s re-imagining of an arcane and rather cheesy horror classic.  Hermit scientist Seth Brundle (Goldblum) is on the verge of a breakthrough in the creation of a pioneering teleportation device, and lucky (ironic sting) journalist Veronica (Geena Davis) is the first person to witness the experiment outside of his own fidgety eyes.  Brundle makes Veronica a deal where he offers her an exclusive insight into the development of the machine, and as a result, the unlikely pair grow ever-closer as the machine becomes truly brilliant.  However, one fateful night, Brundle sticks himself in the machine, hoping to teleport human tissue for the first time.  What he doesn’t bank on is a solitary housefly creeping into the machine with him… and the dung only hits the fan from there, friends. Oh, yes.

The Fly makes The Thing look like Winnie the Sodding Pooh.  There’s more rubbery 80s horror meat flying out of orifices and across set floors than you can fill a butcher’s window with.  So, naturally, gore aficionados are immediately satisfied.  As previously discussed, I’m not hugely into visceral horror, but what’s here, considering the time period, is spectacularly grisly – and twenty-six years on, still makes you grimace.  The final ten minutes are especially hard to watch if you’re weak of stomach, but this is barely scratching the surface.

This is a love story, essentially.  This is a story with a maximum of three characters that appear regularly, and that’s as many as it needs.  While it’s wrapped in a shell of horror / sci-fi, this is a story about the relationship of Brundle and Veronica evolving across the surreal events that the former’s experiments bring forth – and it’s marvellously tight.  This is a really concise, essentials-only script that neglects to pad with irrelevant side-stories and characters, long unnecessary pauses and reams of back-and-forth-exposition.  For example : we get to see the teleporter within the first ten minutes of the film.  Nowadays, you’d be lucky to see it by the second half.  Thanks to the brilliant pacing and believable characters, you actually care about these characters.  And while the effects and so forth may be blatant or deridable now, you don’t care.  This is as much a psychological horror, about the loss of one’s mental faculties and control, as it is about… the grisly bits I was on about earlier.  Goldblum is actually a pretty big revelation here – he’s versatile enough to display two ends of the sanity spectrum, and all of the gradual processes inbetween.  Some of Davis’ moments, especially her frightened scenes, are particularly B-Movie, but hey – you won’t care.  The dream sequence is particularly harrowing enough to forgive over-acting – and by dream sequence, those of you in the know will get what I’m on about.  The maggot.  Yuck.  No spoilers!  See?

As a film, it’s a simple story (one that would work perfectly on stage, sans effects).  It’s brilliantly told, expertly paced, and the effects are still repulsive.  Some of the acting is suspect, but a lot of it’s forgivable.  The ending is necessarily horrible, but perhaps a little abrupt – can’t really put my finger on it.  There’s also far too much nude Goldblumming for one to stomach in one sitting, but that’s all down to preference, I guess.  It’s a scary, scary film.  It’s also brilliant fun.

PROS : Great story, great pacing, brilliantly directed.  Brilliantly ‘low-fi’.

CONS : Geena Davis… is a bit crap.  I’m sorry.  Some will find the effects laughable.  However, it all depends how invested you are in the story and the characters.  If you get deep enough, you won’t care.

OVERALL : 9.5/10.  I didn’t expect to enjoy this as much as I did.  But then, I didn’t really know what to expect.  Am I cheating by giving a .5?  Deal with it.


Movie Review #29 / 250 : ‘THE THING (1982)’

Spoilers. Or are they…?

Yeah, so. Folks that know me well will be alarmingly aware that I’ve been putting off watching John Carpenter’s The Thing for not just as long as this 250 movie mission has been running, but for years. It’s on my list, and it’s been reviewed so early on in the year as I decided enough was enough. I’d deferred paying any attention to the movie as I’m not a huge fan of gore (or visceral horror, for that matter) – I am quite easily repulsed. I mean, there were even sections of Dawn of the Dead that I winced at. But, consider this: I summoned up the strength to sit through Hellraiser and four of the Saw films – so how have I rightfully avoided Thing all this time? Enough preamble. I sat down, I braced myself, I watched it. *gag*

The Thing is a tale of around a dozen arctic scientists/engineers discovering that a Norwegian team of explorers out in the vast coldness were mysteriously deformed and killed. They soon discover that the team unearthed an alien spaceship beneath 100,000 years’ worth of ice, and that whatever was riding in the craft emerged, and killed them all. It soon transpires that the alien (the titular Thing) shape-shifts. It absorbs and mimics living organisms, in order to continue splitting off, replicating and absorbing more prey. Its transformations are huge, vivid and disgusting (you should seriously see what it does to a dog) – and the bulk of the film’s drama comes from the protagonist team trying to suss out if they’re all still human after the Thing infiltrates and infects their compound. Naturally, this leads to standoffs, restrainings, folks going stir crazy, and all but two of them dying or becoming part of the Thing’s macabre stew by the climax.

I actually enjoyed this. The film’s selling point, its punter-puller, is the extreme gore and bodily horrors that ensue – and thirty years on, the effects are still absolutely horrifying. Considering this is a film celebrating its thirtieth anniversary, the vast majority of the animatronic and design hold up – like the stuff of nightmares.

It wasn’t so much this that impressed me, however. This is a ridiculously subtle film. Believe it or don’t. The vast majority of the drama comes from the silent, brooding, paranoia that runs rife through the various characters as they try to figure out who to trust, and who to torch. The surroundings and staging are both bleak and confined – it’s just them, and this grotesque shapeshifting killer beastie. There’s actually very little in the way of gore in the grand scheme of things – but what little there is, is horrible. This is a magnificently scary film only so due to the prolonged, tense spaces between Thing attacks and nervous breakdowns.

The characters aren’t massively developed, but there’s a fair few of them, so lavish back stories are absent for a reason. If anything, there’s too many characters – it was hard keeping track of who was who and where out of the tertiary cast (save for Kurt Russell, Keith David and Wilford Brimley, who are the most prominent). But, as the film goes on, it’s clearly not about the characters – it’s about The Thing. This should be insanely obvious, but things don’t start steamrollering ahead until about halfway through, when the paranoia starts kicking in, and when Brimley gets a touch of the ol’ cabin fever.

Despite its lack of depth, the direction and style of this film create more than enough fear, and enough tension, to entertain anyone out for a quick psychological scare, as well as those in it simply to laugh at the outrageous FX.

PROS: Subtly directed, great cast, incredible visuals, wonderfully intense. Truly scary, unlike a certain zombie flick…

CONS: Ultimately pretty depressing given the hanging ending, and no glimmers of hope for any of the characters. Too many characters.

9/10. I seriously don’t have much to say against this. I haven’t seen a movie this desperately intense or genuinely frightening in a while, and of those I’ve seen so far this year, it’s one of the best directed, and among the most memorable. I think I’ll watch it again. I may even watch the sequel. Who knew?

Movie Review #28 / 250 : ‘DAWN OF THE DEAD’ (1978)

Spoilers ahead. Arm the cricket bat.

Erm. Yeah. Well. Zombie films. They’re a whole genre to themselves, aren’t they? Not content with merely sitting under the ‘horror’ umbrella, they often hop the boundary to ‘comedy’ purely on the basis that zombies are the most ridiculous foes in cinema. Full stop. They might move in hordes, but they move at a gnat’s pace, and they’re easily felled by innocuous objects like, let’s say, a sandwich. You could beat a zombie half to death with the blunt end of a hard-crusted BLT. Seriously.

So, again, like I did with Inglourious Basterds, I suspended all belief from the very off. Looking for plot or any meaningful characterisation in a George A. Romero zombiefest is a redundant move. This one is the sequel to Night of the Living Dead – and it’s been a while since I’ve seen that. But from what I remember, I liked it. In Dawn, four people find themselves trapped in a mall at the height of a zombie epidemic, finding themselves having to fight off various grey-coloured goons whilst nicking radios and high-end clothing. And why bit? I would. And you would, too.

They have a lot of fun with the genre in this one. There’s a lot of darkly comic moments as the humans manage to live alongside the baying goons, adapting to a liberated life inside the mall – and there’s a grim fascination that runs throughout. I think that’s probably what kept my interest. It’s such a grim, yet chaotic series of ridiculous events that you somehow find yourself eager to see how the next lot of corpses is going to be felled out.

Unfortunately, my interest came through in drips and drabs. Like Spinal Tap, this hasn’t fared well with age. And first and foremost, it is a B-Movie, so as discussed, expectations shouldn’t be skyrocketing. But there’s a lot here that’s just plain unforgivable, regardless of the era, regardless of its status as a trailblazer (the whole ‘mall zombies’ concept falls at the feet of this one). Most of the acting is abysmal. Oh, and I hear you – acting doesn’t matter, as it’s just about flogging zombies off, not about any deep melodrama – but we cannot connect with these characters. Most moments of supposed terror are unintentionally hilarious due to the misguided hams wandering around, delivering lines as if it’s rehearsal number two. If a character is fumblingly transparent, it turns a story, a film, into something else. This is first and foremost a horror film – and a lot of it is lost due to a sheer lack of actual delivery from a lot of the cast.

This would be forgivable, if the film was reasonably edited, with plenty of subtlety and moments of high suspense. The suspense is there, but the subtlety isn’t. The scenes cut wildly from one to the next, cameras switch from one to another furiously during action scenes, and the quieter, more suspenseful moments don’t hit in until about half of the way through. The film switches from quiet talky bit to muddled chaos frequently, and if this were coupled with delivery I could believe, I’d find it all a bit more entertaining.

But I can’t give this an abysmal score. For the most part, it’s certainly visually and conceptually interesting, and as discussed, there’s a lot of fun moments – but on the whole, I was left pretty underwhelmed. This is revered, through history and through many an IMDB review, as ‘one of the best horror movies of all time’. Some go so far as to call it the quintessential horror flick. It isn’t. Not in my opinion. But it is a trailblazer. This probably helped kick-start the wave of horror films that would take over 80s cinema (one of them, The Thing, I’m reviewing next), and for the right audience, I’m sure this is the right film. But even after suspending my belief, and taking into account the age of the thing, there’s a lot of crucial factors that get fluffed here – inexcusable ones which lower the entertainment value, certainly for me, irreversibly.

PROS: It’s zombies. Lots of brainless arsing about, sometimes played for laughs. Visually and stylistically interesting. Iconic.

CONS: Bad acting, horrible editing, dissonant soundtrack, too long by at least half an hour

4/10. It’s an iconic film. But it ain’t for me.