Review: TAKEN 3 (2015)

Barely out of the starting blocks of 2015, the third instalment of the multi-million geri-action Taken franchise sets the bar low for the rest of the year. Anyway, enough of the sporting metaphors, onto the bloodshed (or lack thereof)…

So, a catch-up. His daughter was taken in erm, Taken (2008). His ex-wife was taken in, you guessed it, Taken 2 (2012). In this final film, no such plot device is used. The only thing is that is ‘taken’ is your time and money…while Liam Neeson doesn’t even seem particular pleased to be in receipt of it.

Taken 3 sees Forest Whitaker plays the LA police detective on the trail of Neeson’s Bryan Mills after he is the only suspect in his ex-wife death played once again by Famke Janssen. Dialling in his performance (probably whilst thinking of his Oscar), his character is laden by clichés, from the haphazard box of doughnuts to the rubber-band snapping which is never explained. Even the eventual cat-and-mouse phone calls between these two acting heavyweights are dull and perfunctory. Mills is once again psychotically single-minded and still appears to completely misunderstand the needs of his daughter, much like in the previous films- I’m sure she really enjoyed those CIA spy laxatives. I suppose in that sense I should congratulate the continuity. The same cannot be said of the character played by Dougray Scott. You can’t recast a minor part of the previous outings and then expect us not to immediately single out a culprit.

Laughable, repetitive and cheap (though I’m sure the explosions cost a pretty penny), the film is cynically and lazily directed by Olivier Megaton and proves once again that just because Luc Besson is involved, it doesn’t mean it’s worth viewing.  Rated at 12A, Taken 3 is left with the bare bones of a tired story which reminds you just how good The Fugitive (1993) was and how bonkers but grimy the first film, Taken could be at times.  Now cinema-goers can happily watch Bryan Mills practically water-boarding another character with all the family. And yet because the film has been awkwardly edited to get the widest audience possible, your children won’t even get to realise how terrible it is to see the hero do that.

If you are going to see this film, play a game. I call it: Bagel Bingo. All will be revealed and trust me, it’ll make Taken 3 so much better.

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Review: PADDINGTON (2014)

You need not worry, Paddington is great.  Don’t bother with Nativity 3: Dude Where’s My Donkey? and treat your partner, children, grumpy neighbour or distant-relative-housekeeper to this joyful ride this Christmas.

Entering the cinema with high expectations, within the first five minutes I knew all my fears would be alleviated. Youthful titters and the initial rustle of boiled-sweet wrappers (The Wittertainment Code of Conduct should be National Curriculum, ahem) were immediately drowned out by an inventive re-imagining of a timeless classic. Been living in Darkest Peru for nearly 60 years? Allow me to introduce you to Paddington Bear…

The film is Paddington the Bear’s origin tale, telling the story of how a marmalade-mad bear from Peru travels to London in search of a new home. Wearing only a moth-eaten red hat and bearing (pun intended) a tag which simply reads “Please take care of this bear”, Paddington befriends the Brown family. Poles apart husband and wife (Hugh Bonneville and Sally Hawkins) and their two misunderstood children react to this unexpected guest in very different ways and thus begins an slapstick adventure of exploration and acceptance. Voiced by Ben Whishaw (‘Q’ in Skyfall or Sebastian in Brideshead Revisited or Freddie in The Hour. I could go on…) the bear of our story is instantly likeable and charming. Clumsy and hopelessly polite, Whishaw manages to breathes wide-eyed enthusiasm into the beloved character, whilst the stunning CGI-live-action animation is enough to make you not mourn the fantastic 1970s stop-motion too much. I was almost emotional when Paddington receives his iconic blue duffle coat, but that’s being a softie for you…

Arch-villain Nicole Kidman goes all out to be the most convincing evil taxidermist since Norman Bates and succeeds. The supporting cast including Peter Capaldi, Jim Broadbent and Julie Walters all shine, occupying a London-setting that is both terrifying and wondrously beautiful. Think Richard Curtis London meets Walt Disney’s London: ‘Poppins Hill’.

A great big bear-hug of a family film, Paddington is a FUNNY, clever and beautiful romp that is sure to satisfy film-goers of all ages. No need to acquire a child to sneak into a showing of this one, there’s something for everyone. I should know, I dragged along four grown men and they liked it. Praise indeed.

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Review: THE IMITATION GAME (2014)

Let me begin: Alan Turing was an extraordinary man. A relative unknown to the general public until recently, Turing saved and transformed the lives of generations to follow. A genius, an innovator and symbol of a world we’ve left behind, at long last we’ve begun celebrate his life, acknowledge his wondrous achievements and the devastating treatment he was subjected to towards the end of his life.

This is why The Imitation Game was so important. Every since I first learnt about this man, I’ve wanted to spread the word and somehow put into words how important he is (or should be) to everyone. I never quite managed it, either by fudging through the science-y bits or feeling terribly angry and saddened by his untimely suicide and persecution due to his sexuality. I was glad to hear that he had received an official pardon from our government and yet somehow infuriated that he even needed one. A pardon!? A pardon for what exactly? He deserved an apology, a vow, a promise to never go back, to learn and reflect. Thankfully, we got that. Now all that was needed was something far more articulate than me to get his story out there. A film with a star.

With The Imitation Game, we have one. Benedict Cumberbatch is riding on the crest of a wave at the moment and in this film he has the gravitas, an oddity and intelligence to portray Turing. Adapted from the biography by Andrew Hodges (a mathematician who has spent his life researching Turing’s story) and directed by Headhunters‘ Morten Tyldum, the film focuses on the years during World War Two when Turing and a team of academics were working at Bletchley Park, the top secret centre for code-breaking and intelligence. With the blessing of Winston Churchill, some of the greatest minds in the country were tasked with breaking the ‘Enigma’. The ‘Enigma’ being a machine which translated German naval and High Command messages into coded scripts which were impossible to decipher. To crack the code would save millions of lives on the front line, divert doomed merchant convoys and to ear-wig on military strategies direct from Hitler himself.

The crackpot team in the famed ‘Hut 8’ includes Stoker and Brideshead Revisited‘s Matthew Goode, Keira Knightley, Allan Leech (Downton Abbey). All are watched over by the ever-brilliant Charles Dance and Mark Strong. It’s an impressive cast, each with their chance to shine. Knightley in particular does well, playing a character who unearths Turing’s human side as well as demonstrating the gender barriers which did prevail during wartime- despite its perceived emancipation of women.  Though sketchily drawn, it is through her eyes we see Turing’s eventual breakdown and through her support, is able to invent a ‘thinking’ machine, capable of unlocking the ciphers of the Enigma machine. In short, the world’s first computer.

Cumberbatch is astounding. As is Alex Lawther, who plays a young Turing during his school-days. Bullied and teased in the harsh public school environment, Turing develops his first emotional attachment to another pupil, Christopher. We see him flourish; happy and in love just as fatal circumstances transform him once again. Flash-forward into Turing’s later life, he is forced to punish his own nature and spend his life with his new and only companion: his wondrous machine.

I suppose I was predisposed to love this film, but I so easily could have been disappointed, left with a movie manipulated and altered for Hollywood. Instead it’s an intimate film about one of the most important stories of the last century and a tale of a determined scientist we keep on discovering long after his harrowing death.

Please watch The Imitation Game, we owe him.

Review: MR TURNER (2014)

Years in the making, Mike Leigh’s first feature-length film since Another Year (2010) is a considered and sumptuous biopic of one of the greatest British painters who ever lived, JMW Turner.

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Of course whenever Mike Leigh and Timothy Spall team up, one cannot help but to hope for a spark of the magic that produced films such as Life is Sweet (1990) and Secrets & Lies (1996) and made an award-winning star of Spall. Though Mr Turner turns to the early 1800s, Leigh’s eye for composition, interesting characters and plot tension would seem to be a perfect fit for a period of seismic change. Every scene is a microcosm of the cultural landscape which Turner attempts to capture, be it an old ship solemnly tugged to dock or a skilfully hidden elephant, an exotic wonder of the growing empire.

The film is structured as a series of vignettes, often included without much explanation or immediate significance. We are fleetingly introduced to characters that come and go from Mr Turner’s social circle, from the stuffy halls of the Royal Academy to the fishing ports of Margate where he calls himself ‘Mr Mallard’. All these scenes are beautifully composed, making wonderful use of the natural light which was obviously such an important component to Turner’s own painted works. Because of this we are never entirely privy to the whole picture, as it were. At the start of the film, Turner has already abandoned his children, become an honoured member of the Royal Academy, a supposed favourite of the king and a regular in high society. We see that he blows hot and cold with his acutely vulnerable housekeeper, Hannah (an astonishing performance by Dorothy Atkinson) and has a warm working/familial relationship with his elderly father (Paul Jesson).

For most of the film, Spall’s Turner is a grunting, shuffling beast of a man who spits and sweats for his art. Spall, who spent a number of years learning how to paint in order to play the role, seems comfortable in front of the canvas and on the occasions we do get to see the final pieces are some of the most enjoyable moments of the film. The outside scenery is beautiful. A brief connecting shot of the White Cliffs of Dover stayed particularly long in the memory- the rolling waves like the swirls of a paintbrush.

Spall embodies the role completely,  but for me the heart of the story (if you can say that this film has much of a story) belongs to the women in Turner’s life. This is where I wish the film spent more time, but from the cluster of scenes we are party to, Turner had extremely complicated relationships perhaps spawned from the guilt over his late mother. From the abuse that his housekeeper suffered, to the infatuation he showered on his later companion, Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey), we see a fractured and distant character display both cruelty and passion away from his art. Lesley Manville makes a brief but memorable appearance as Mary Somerville, a pioneer for the female practice in the sciences and highlights how Turner enjoyed the company of women but struggled to maintain healthy relationships with those already in his life.  A fantastical scene in which Turner speaks briefly about loneliness and solitude to John Ruskin’s wife is presumably imagined for cinematic licence but continues to confuse a portrayal of a man impossible to wholly understand. It certainly brings to mind Emma Thompson’s Effie Gray (2014) last month, a film which perhaps could be seen as a companion piece to Mr Turner.

Overall, though a beautiful film to look at (as one would expect with a film about art), the sparse structure and isolated scenes make it difficult to feel anything other than calm admiration for a film which was obviously a labour of love for all those involved and certainly begins to illuminate the darker sides of JMW Turner’s life-long genius.

 

Review: INTERSTELLAR (2014)

WARNING: I’m not going to do a Peter Bradshaw and spoil you unless you want to be. Below is a review of Interstellar which may contain plot-points which some may consider to be spoilers. You have been notified. Quite sternly.


It’s that time of the year again for an intelligent blockbuster courtesy of Christopher Nolan (give us Inception over the Transformers series any time), and after what seems like a very long wait (unless you’re Cooper, that is!) Interstellar has finally arrived.

GIRL ON FILM watched this film three days ago and it is only now that I have formulated some sort of understanding of how much I enjoyed this film. Leaving the cinema, I was temporarily unable to speak. I wanted to discuss plot-points and theoretical physics and Matthew McConaughey’s tan, but instead I went to work and silently contemplated for the next few days.

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Here’s the basic plot: Life on earth has become a largely agrarian society following a worldwide famine. Think, the end of Gone With the Wind basically, except without any hope of another day. McConaughey is ‘Coop’, former pilot-turned-farmer who is unhappy with his lot in life. Persuaded to leave his young family in order to search for alternative habitats on other planets by scientist Dr. Brand (Michael Caine), his opportunity has arrived. The landscapes are stunningly horrifying, reminiscent of the pioneered West, a dust-bowl of stagnant opportunity and growth. It is unnervingly easy to imagine this non-specific future, a period where engineers only pioneer the technologies of their own tractors and education simply for education’s sake is seen as an extravagance and not for the good of society.

When we meet Dr. Brand in his secret NASA-funded lair, for the rest of the movie it is science jargon-overload. Aided by theoretical physicist to Hollywood, Kip Thorne, writers Jonathan and Christopher Nolan let us know they have done their research and are willing to tear it all up in order to confuse us in a good cinematic ride. The effects and scenes in space are undoubtedly revolutionary, and will surely cement the tradition of having a space cowboy every other year to showcase the newest in film trickery. Filmed in his beloved IMAX, it is a especially lovely to know that great-looking films can be successfully produced without the gimic of 3D or retrofitting.

Speaking of the third dimension, we then transcend time and space with Coop, Dr. Brand Jr. (Anne Hathaway), Doyle (Wes Bentley), Romilly (David Gyasi) and two monolithic robot TARS and CASE, who provide most of the much-needed comic relief.  The narrative takes care to try and adequately explain all the science-y bits (we even get a nice pencil drawing for the dimwits like me) just to make sure we aren’t left behind in deep space. Though there is much that we never fully comprehend, the struggles to cope with the changing speed of time on Earth and beyond the wormhole are effectively discussed, and it is Coop and the team’s constant battle with relativity that create most of the tension, aside from the death-defying action scenes. As Coop struggles to reconnect with his abandoned family, the conflict of the film boils down to whether of humanity should be saved at the sacrifice of others. As Dr. Brand announces at a crucial point, humanity are much more likely to push themselves to the limit if they believe that they themselves will also be saved.

There are a number of plot twists and signs of turbulence throughout the 2 hours and 42 minute running time, but of all the revealing cameos and breath-taking worm-hole sequences which reminded me of the ‘Star-Gate’ scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the most memorable manipulation was within the dialogue itself. Dr. Brand quotes Dylan Thomas to the embarking missioners:

“Do not go gentle into that good night; Old age should burn and rave at close of day. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Though it is a poem about being fierce in the face of approaching death, when we first hear Caine recite this poem, it is a rallying call of hope. It incites our intrepid space explorers to fulfil their destiny and to save the occupants of a dying Earth. However, when we hear those lines again later in the film it leaves a bitter taste in the mouth, a twisted symbol of Brand’s devastating betrayal and pessimism for humanity and the Endurance mission.

The film is long, wobbly and ridiculously ambitious. But give me this over robots smashing each other any day. The scenes on earth were just as engaging, if not more so. Mackenzie Foy was excellent, and Jessica Chastain’s video messages to space-bound Coop were heart-breaking. A film as initially confusing as Nolan’s Inception, but hey, the puzzle’s part of the fun. I think…

If like me you could do with a friendly diagram, have a peek at this helpful guide by animator, Dogan Can Gundogdu:

https://www.behance.net/gallery/21179181/Interstellar-Timeline

Review: THE SKELETON TWINS (2014)

Saturday Night Live alumni have always made the natural transition to the big screen, some with more success than others. From John Belushi to Tina Fey we’ve seen many stars rise to the occasion. For Kristen Wiig, Bridesmaids made her a stand-out one-to-watch. Now in a more subdued but equally neurotic comedy, The Skeleton Twins with best friend and SNL chum, Bill Hader, the two shine as two estranged siblings.

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The film tells the story of Maggie (Wiig) and Milo (Hader) who are reunited after 10 years without contact. Both recovering from almost-suicides they are forced to reconnect and re-evaluate their lives and their relationship with one another. Milo is a gay, unsuccessful actor trying to get by in L.A., whilst Maggie is seemingly happily married to Lance (Luke Wilson), trying to get pregnant while also thwarting the efforts by continuing to take birth control.  Both characters return to each other and their pasts with both heart-breaking and humorous consequences.

Where the film works best are when Hader and Wiig are able to play off each other as they have undoubtedly done hundreds of times during their SNL days. A scene in a dental hygienist’s office is particularly winning, as well as a spontaneous performance of Starship’s ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now’- a scene which acts as a turning point for the film and propels into the last half of the narrative. Luke Wilson is an excellent third player, being so nice and easy-going that it highlights the vitriolic and bitter exchanges that pass between Maggie and Milo. He has an unforgiving role but it is an extremely affective counterpoint for the twin’s deep-seated problems.

At its root is a serious family drama dealing with the aftermath of traumatic events and how a dysfunctional childhood can affect a pair of siblings who only had each other but were too troubled to realise it. Episodes from their childhood resurface to haunt them, like a spooky skeleton from hiding in the closet. A few funny moments and excellent performances, The Skeleton Twins is an effective indie film which won’t appeal to everyone, but does touch on the everyday family conflicts which can be recognised by many who view it.

Review: GONE GIRL (2014)

What can be remarked about Gone Girl that hasn’t already been said? Any new David Fincher-directed movie is a highlight for many a film fan, but based on a bestselling novel which became a phenomenon of recent times (no, not that one), expectations were high. So, with all the hype, media coverage and in-depth discussion , will Gone Girl disappear into cinematic obscurity?

In short, no. Much like the novel (written by Gillian Flynn. Honestly, read it if you ever get a chance: SOMEONE you know will own it), the film incites all who see it to discuss the complex characters, the sharp observations of modern life and the initial mystery we can all deduce from the title.  Paired with the visual style of David Fincher, it is a starkly uncompromising film, clinically shot and perfectly lifted from the page (thanks to a screenplay written by the one person who’d know the story best, Flynn).  Visually it evokes the claustrophobia of Fincher’s Panic Room (2002) while in pacing feels more chimed with Zodiac (2007); yet another crime investigation thriller which has a radically different time-frame.

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Ben Affleck plays Nick, a 30-something former magazine journalist now joint-bar-owner who returns home to find that his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) has inexplicably disappeared in suspicious circumstances. Set in small-town America, the film perfectly captures a landscape hit by an economic downturn and a community within which can both rally around in times of need or revolt when a investigative media circus comes to town. The search for Amy is interspersed with extracts from Amy’s own diaries which shed some Fincher-famous light on Nick and Amy’s relationship. Here is where Pike is able to shine, breaking free from her mainly supporting-role career and finally being the electrifying leading lady we have never seen before.  A performance of the year.

As the police turn to the most likely suspect, Nick himself, the film withholds and reveals information, leaving the viewer never entirely certain of their own sleuthing instincts. Key moments lead you down the “he/she definitely did it” path only to leave another breadcrumb clue for you to pick up and reconsider gobbling up. The eventual reveal is shocking, satisfying, mind-boggling. and unnervingly thrilling. I defy you to look away.

I write this as Gone Girl goes to Number 1 in the UK Box Office Top Ten. It is a pretty staggering achievement for an 18-certificated movie, especially in a climate where film distributors are clambering over themselves to dilute films down to the 12A rating in order to make any sort of impact in ticket sales. It has been slow burn, but the word-of-mouth effect has once more taken hold, just as it did with the original source novel. Sometimes when the movie is good, the advertising takes care of itself.

Review: THE JUDGE (2014)

We’ve seen it before, high flyer returns to his childhood home and remembers why he left in the first place. We’ve also seen countless John Grisham-evoking courtrooms on the silver screen. But like all the best legal dramas, it’s not the jury’s verdict that reveals the most truths…

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The Judge stars two Robert Ds (Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall), Duvall as the titular ‘Judge’ Palmer who has been the keeper of justice in the small town of Carlinville, Indiana. Downey Jr. is Hank Palmer, his estranged middle son who is now a big-shot (if over-worked) lawyer in Chicago. Returning home for this mother’s funeral, curt greetings and a cold handshake between the two leads hint at a lifetime of resentment and animosity. When his father is accused of killing a former convict who he himself sent to prison in a hit-and-run accident, it turns to Hank to represent his curmudgeonly father in court.

Inevitably, Hank comes face-to-face with the shadows of his past: his high school sweetheart (Vera Farmiga) and his two brothers played by Vincent D’Onofrio (who can give powerful performances in his sleep…probably) and Jeremy Strong. The film dedicates a sizeable portion of the running time to the tension-filled Palmer family before spending much of the latter half in the courtroom. Watching Palmer and Son struggle to put their deep-set grudges aside and work through defence strategies and dodge touchy subjects like familial landmines (which do eventually explode- big time) gives the film an On Golden Pond sheen over the whole thing.   The generation gap, how to cope with a parent who has never loved you in the way you thought you deserved and what to do when you find your roles are suddenly reversed are just some of the themes touched upon during The Judge.

The dialogue-heavy script is a shoe-in role for Downey Jr. who has always skirted around being know-it-all wordsmith in many of his roles, and here he relishes in it. A snake in the court and mouse in his father’s home, he eventually stands up to the family demons that have cursed his relationship with his father for long enough during his final interrogation at the witness stand. Emotional and surprising, Duvall and Downey act their hearts out. A scene in which Hank cares for his incontinent father in the bathroom is a stark and saddening but refreshingly honest scene in a slick but often predictable film.  Displaying such tact, it’s hard to believe that the director (David Dobkin) past work included Wedding Crashers and The Change-Up

Special mention goes to supporting actor Billy Bob Thornton who has to have one of the best introductions for a character in a film this year. All I can say is, wherever he got that from, I want one!

Sometimes clichéd but rarely dull, The Judge is a well-acted  and touching film about the ties that bind and those who break them.

The Final Showdown: Horror narratives and closure in ALIEN (1979) and THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991)

“The structure of horror narratives are said to set out from a situation of order, [to] move through a period of disorder caused by the eruption of horrifying or monstrous forces, and finally reach a point of closure and completion in which disruptive, monstrous elements are contained or destroyed and the original order is re-established. The audience’s pleasure is supposed to be based upon the expectation that the narrative will reach this particular type of conclusion, and the eventual fulfilment of this expectation.” (Mark Jancovich in Horror: The Film Reader, 1992)

From Mark Jancovich’s quote, it would be natural to assume that the very nature of the horror film hinges on the reassuring quashing of the villain. This article will explore how two seminal horror films deal with this genre convention and endeavour to question just what or who can be identified as ‘monstrous’.

Made eleven years apart, much of the broader narrative in Alien and The Silence of the Lambs is similar: grisly murders occur in both films, each one revealing more tantalising information to the audience, both highlight a key villain or villains, both have a central female character and both contain a plot device in which the conclusion rests with the extermination of the main threat. Commercially both films were successful at the box office and have spawned subsequent films and numerous imitations. The ‘monstrous’ in Alien is immediately easy to identify: an aggressive alien life-form which terrorises a spacecraft crew. The ‘monstrous’ in The Silence of the Lambs takes on a number of guises, including the loose serial killer nicknamed Buffalo Bill and the incarcerated Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Alien wears its threat ‘on its sleeve’ by granting the ‘monstrous’ as the titular character, and yet emblazoned on the promotional posters is what seems to be the most natural object associated with the life-cycle: the egg. This implies that the “monstrous” could come from even the most ‘natural’ of beings- one that we may all recognise.The Silence of the Lambs on the other hand portrays a highly-intelligent psychiatrist with a penchant for cannibalism and a rampant and impulsive serial killer who skins his victims and ‘refashions’ their skin, hopefully people we are unlikely to encounter. Likewise, the “horrifying” is exactly what these antagonists set in motion over the course of film. For example, in Alien the foetus-like alien attacks Kane and “attaches itself with a deathly grip on his face” (Barbara Creed, Horror and the Archaic Mother: Alien, 1993), breaches the quarantine of the ship Nostromo and begins to kill each crew member with brutal skill. Buffalo Bill, who at the start of The Silence of the Lambs has already kidnapped, abused and killed a number of women, invites the spectator to witness his M.O. in the capture of a senator’s daughter, and Dr. Hannibal Lecter lives up to his name and ingeniously escapes from confinement in a series of “horrifying” set-ups.

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It is essential for the audience to understand and empathise with the correct characters in the story in order for these ‘monstrous’ beings and “horrifying” acts to be recognised.  And as Roger Ebert notes, The Silence of the Lambs also works as it succeeds in genuinely frightening the audience without just being a throwaway “thrill show” (The Chicago Sun Times, 2001). In Barbara Creed’s article Horror and the Archaic Mother: Alien, Creed refers to the alien as a “monstrous creature” and yet also implies that the alien is born to a “mother”, possibly emphasising the natural and organic nature of a being which harbours a monstrous potential.

In regards to The Silence of the Lambs in particular, the film is a result of an eternal fascination with the guise of the serial killer. This interest runs through into horror genre and in The Kingdom of the Unimaginable: The Construction of Social Space and the Fantasy of Privacy in Serial Killer Narratives (1998), Stephen Hantke believes: “Since we have radically divorced ourselves from him, his person and his space become radically fictitious. The more we fantasise about him without acknowledging that we are separated by nothing but genre conventions, the more we close the gap on between him and ourselves”. Hantke understands that since we are appalled and disgusted at the serial killers vicious acts, we are easily drawn into the story by our ability to recognise the film as a piece of fiction and at the same time separate ourselves in order to desire swift retribution for the character of the serial killer.

The interesting aspect of Jonathan Demme’s classic which may counter the Jancovich ideal about the containment of evil, is the new and unsettling realisation that Dr. Hannibal Lecter is in fact likable: “He may be a cannibal,” Roger Ebert quips, “but as a dinner party guest he would give value for money (if he didn’t eat you)” (The Chicago Sun Times, 2001). We also begin to see the blossoming of a ‘friendly’ relationship between the Clarice Starling and Lecter, one which ought to make the audience uncomfortable, but instead through Starling’s instinct makes the audience go along with her faith that he will not harm her (“I have no plans to call on you, Clarice, The world’s more interesting with you in it. So you take care now to extend me the same courtesy”). In interviews as transcribed by Laura Sydell’s article Hannibal Lecter: A Psycho with an Unlikely Soft Spot (2008), Jodie Foster explains the legacy of Lecter and his impact on an audience: “He’s not just a cardboard villain. You see his vulnerabilities; you see that he cares for her in the way that he can. That he has a kindness toward her … and yes, we’re seduced by that humanity, by his light touch with her…” Perhaps then this explains how as an audience we can feel satisfied with the final scene of The Silence of the Lambs which sees Dr. Hannibal Lecter walking free in an anonymous crowd to “have an old friend for dinner”. Perhaps because we have already witnessed the ‘silencing’ (for want of a better phrase) of Buffalo Bill, we can begin to accept the idea of an escaped Lecter who is neither “destroyed” nor “confined”.

In contrast to The Silence of the Lambs, Alien takes a good half an hour before Kane played by John Hurt is attacked by a being from one of the eggs. In Roz Kaveney’s case study of Alien in From Alien to The Matrix: Reading Science Film (2005), Kaveney explains: “we have been lulled by Scott’s leisurely pacing into a false sense of security and started to think of this as a film in which we get to observe the future in a realistic way and without much excitement.”. Therefore we can deduce that Scott deliberately paces the film to unleash the monster where it will make its most horrific effect on the audience. Once the famous ‘chest burster’ scene occurs after an apparently relieving and relaxed crew meal, there is no doubt that whatever Kane encountered outside the ship will continue to wreak fatal havoc inside too. The scene had its desired effect on audiences in the cinema on release. In an interview for Empire Magazine to celebrate the Blu-Ray release of the Alien Quadrilogy, Ron Shusett who wrote the original story with Dan O’Bannon claims, “After the chest burster it was just deafening, you couldn’t hear for several moments.” The associate producer Ivor Powell went on to embellish: “People jumped up, some actually ran, there was spewing in the loo!”. Moments of such prolonged gore are scarce in The Silence of the Lambs (a glimpse of the murdered security guard is momentarily revealed and Lecter’s attack on said security guard is shot at an angle so that we mainly see Anthony Hopkins’ blooded face). This could suggest that whereas we are directed to instinctively call for the alien’s termination after it’s savage murder of Kane, when Lecter escapes his cell and the police’s misdirection is revealed, we are left instead in shock and awe at the man’s genius as well as in disgust.

Other additions to the list of villains in these two films come in the form of Ash (played by Ian Holm) in Alien and Dr. Chilton (played by Anthony Heald) in The Silence of the Lambs. A perhaps coincidental parallel can be drawn between these two characters upon closer inspection. Ash, a calm yet stern and logical science officer/doctor at the beginning of the film is a person of suspicion to only Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver). After an unsettling scene where he attempts to suffocate Ripley by ramming a pornographic magazine into her mouth, it is revealed that he is in fact an android, planted by the ‘Corporation’ whom the crew work for, to bring back the alien regardless of loss of life to the crew. A shocking revelation to the remaining crew (though perhaps not entirely for Ripley) and a twist in the plot for the viewer, Roz Kevaney in A Franchise Case Study: Alien (2005) proposes that in the end it is “no surprise”. Ash’s adherences to authority during several points in the film do reveal his allegiances and Kevaney does point out that it isn’t the first case of ‘robot gone bad’ in cinema, describing him as “counter-revisionist”. Dr. Frederick Chilton is introduced as a bureaucratic annoyance at the beginning of The Silence of the Lambs and his cringe-worthy attempts at flirting with Clarice Starling and her curt re-buff is the catalyst for the audience’s dislike of the character. We may also take offence at the unfeeling way Chilton shows Starling the photo of the injured nurse, moments before she is about to encounter Dr Hannibal Lecter herself. Even during the scenes in which Chilton and Lecter are in his cell, Chilton is still the more unlikeable character despite Lecter being the convicted killer who needs to be restrained. When Lecter spots Chilton’s pen (which he uses later to escape his handcuffs), Chilton’s idiocy is almost laughable as it is hazardous.

Both Ash and Dr. Chilton represent an authority which is unrealistic, restrictive and in some cases, dishonest. They provide an opportunity in the plot for the surrounding characters (including the protagonists, Starling and Ripley) to subvert the authority they uphold. In some ways, Ash and Chilton represent the “original order” that Mark Jancovich claims must be restored which is vital for a successful horror film. We could even label Ash and Chilton as the real ‘horrifying’ and ‘monstrous’ aspects of these films as they are protected by an establishment which is supposed to keep us away from harm. It is safe to say that most viewers probably experience relief when Ash is finally ‘killed’ via Parker and Lambert’s swift intervention, and there’s doubtfully many who do not feel a mischievous twinge of gratification at the sight of Hannibal Lecter appearing to ‘dish out’ his revenge on Chilton in the final scene of the film.

One cannot deny however, that for much of Alien is spent hunting down the alien and attempting to exterminate it or that the greatest relief is when Clarice Starling finally defeats Buffalo Bill in a nail-biting showdown in the basement filmed through the night-vision goggles in The Silence of the Lambs. Therefore to some extent, both films employ the classic horror trope of ‘The Final Girl’, meaning that the audience is directed to empathise and identify with a female character who usually survives at the end of the film (Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in Modern Horror Film, Carol J. Clover, 1993). Ellen Ripley is the last human survivor of Nostromo, single-handedly defeating the alien and living to tell the tale in the following sequels of the franchise and though Clarice Starling is not the only one to survive Buffalo Bill, Starling survives the ordeal after their encounter and ends his reign of terror. As an audience of a horror film which understands its genre traits, ‘The Final Girl’ is identifiable within Alien and The Silence of the Lambs. The “narrative closure” which Mark Jancovich speaks of is provided in the assurance of their survival. However, to reduce both Ripley and Starling to a film character convention would be doing a disservice. ‘The Final Girl’ suggests vulnerability, virginity and a helplessness that neither Ripley nor Starling overwhelmingly exude. In fact, Mark Jancovich’s own chapter in Horror: The Film Reader (1992), Genre and the Audience: Genre Classifications and Cultural Distinctions in the Mediation of The Silence of the Lambs denounces Starling’s vulnerability, stating that Jodie Foster’s performance as being a “commentary upon victimisation, rather than simply (as could be argued) an instance of victimisation”. In fact he even highlights the trap of comparing Ripley and Starling and explains that Foster’s performance was a conscious effort to separate itself from Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley. In the case of Ripley, Clover’s definition of ‘The Final Girl’ in Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in Modern Horror Film (1993) also falls short :“The Final Girl is introduced at the beginning and is the only character to be developed in any psychological detail. We understand immediately from the attention paid it that hers is the main story line”whereas Ripley does not stand out as a main character for a good section of the film. In fact, Dallas the captain of the ship is the more suited character to ‘helm’ the story, but is killed early on in the film. Ripley however is “…watchful to the point of paranoia; small signs of danger that her friends ignore she takes in and turns over. Above all she is intelligent and resourceful in extreme situations” having voiced concerns about Kane’s return to the ship after contamination in the first forty-five minutes of the film and her cool reception of Ash from the start.

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Though both films offer a release of pleasure once the main antagonists are eradicated, neither offers complete narrative closure for their individual plotlines. In Alien Ellen Ripley’s final words are “The other members of the crew, Kane, Lambert, Parker, Brett, Ash and Captain Dallas are dead. Cargo and ship destroyed…This is Ripley, last survivor of the Nostromo, signing off” but no concrete explanation of alien, its creation, its purpose of its aggression and whether danger has absolutely subsided is given. We aren’t even assured as an audience if Ripley will definitely live. We rely on the safety of the pod as we did in the opening scenes of the film, but our ideas about the safety of the ship/space environment have since changed due to the events of the film. For the finale of The Silence of the Lambs, evil still remains on the loose in the form of a free Dr. Hannibal Lecter. And though Clarice Starling qualifies as an FBI agent and celebrates with her peers, the phone call she receives from Lecter places her on edge once more at the mercy of their warped relationship. She may have ‘contained’ one criminal (Buffalo Bill) but the flight of Lecter leaves just enough unease in the viewer to feel duped out of a clear-cut ending and a pleasurable desire for more. We can conclude then, that though a level of “narrative closure” in a horror film can be achieved through the containment of some of their most “monstrous” and “horrifying” aspects, we can gather that the most successful of the horror genre leave some aspects of the film’s plot for the viewers to ponder over themselves. After all, the thrill of terror is in part its ability to embed itself in the conscience of those who experience it and in both Alien and The Silence of the Lambs, the terror is part of the pleasure.

Review: The Haunting (1963)

After watching Friday the 13th Parts 1-3 (1980, 1981, 1982 respectively) and witnessing the body count stack up well before we ever see Jason Voorhees don the famous hockey mask, I decided to take a retro trip down horror memory lane (you know the one, it has over-hanging trees and a creepy caretaker who tells you to turn back) and return to one of the earliest but creepiest haunted house films, The Haunting (1963).

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In stunning black and white Panavision, the film was directed by the incomparable Robert Wise. Right after shooting West Side Story (1961) and two years before The Sound of Music (1965), Wise was always an artist behind the camera first and foremost, and the horror trickery and innovation is what immediately stands out on returning to this classic. It is clear that Wise must have had fun making this film, experimenting with new technology in the form of infra-red film and 30mm lens for the ghostly panning shots and low-angle camera takes which can be seen throughout.

The story is what we’ve come to expect from the haunted house genre. Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson), a paranormal investigator, brings together a group of people  to investigate a suspected haunted house by gathering and  recording evidence in order to prove the existence of the supernatural. Stage actress Julie Harris plays the susceptible Eleanor ‘Nell’ Lance, a woman who is uniquely touched by the possible spirits within the house. In a ground-breaking role, Claire Bloom is Theodora or ‘Theo’ and is generally thought of as being the one of the first lesbian characters in Hollywood cinema. Though sanctioned by the film studios to keep the evidence of her sexual orientation to a minimum, to the contemporary viewer, it is harder to ignore. And as Nostalgia Critic,  Doug Walker explains, it even adds to the tension of the film. As Nell becomes increasingly enamoured with Dr. Markway and the house itself, Theo beings to show a slight hint of jealousy. When Nell and Theo are locked together in their bedroom, the tension of the scene goes beyond the fear of the paranormal, but the fear of the unknown in terms of their relationship with one another, platonic or otherwise. Walker goes on to say: “…it is hinted that Theo might be a lesbian, and the reason they don’t come out and just say it is because it adds to the tension between her and Eleanor [Nell]. See, for half of the movie they are the only ones in the room together and when the only person you can cuddle up to may or may not have the hots for you it makes the scene a little bit more uncertain and therefore uncomfortable.”

The film takes the usual twists and turns, slowly making each character more suspicious of one another and ramping up the spookiness until the final act of the film. What starts off as a pleasant stay (well, free food and board sounds pleasant enough to me anyway!) at a beautiful country house soon turns into a psychological nightmare of a place where all your fears and doubts are amplified. Indeed right until halfway through the film, Nell is still convinced she is there for a relaxing holiday regardless of the success of the study, but is soon traumatised by her grave past and collapses into a nervous breakdown. What makes this film stand out from the numerous haunted house pictures that thrilled audiences in this era is that we are never quite sure if what Nell has seen is genuine or if we are witnessing is just the manifestations of her own tortured psyche. Since all the spooky happenings are directed at her or are in her presence, we can never be certain of their validity. While this is a perfect get-out clause for the writers,  the lack of explanation ultimately creates an unsettling film which leaves the viewer frustratingly still in the dark by the end of the film.

The Haunting (1963) is an important horror film which ought to be included in any must-see lists for classic horror fans. Like Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961) released two years before, the horror genre was in flux. No longer able to solely rely on the popularity of the Dracula and Frankenstein outings, filmmakers had to look to within the human psyche to explore what could really frighten us. The Haunting (1963) is a successful experiment in this ideal and remains spooky today. Please whatever you do however, DO NOT watch the horrific 1999 remake of this film. It IS scary, but for none of the right reasons…