Thursday, 26 February 2015

Feature - The Death of Horror? - Part 2

Part 2

In the last feature we looked at why atmosphere is so important in horror films, yet is sadly lacking in many modern horrors. This time I'm going to focus on another area that I feel is essential in any great genre film:

Likeable Characters

In Robert McKee's screenwriting book, 'Story', he argues that characters don't need to be likeable but as an audience we have to be able to empathise with them. I'd go with that in many genres but with horror films, I think the characters have to be likeable. It makes it so much more distressing when they are put in horrific situations. 

Let's for a moment consider The Beyond. The plot is fairly non-existent and the script doesn't give any of the actors a lot to work with. But in the casting of Catriona MacColl and David Warbeck, Fulci manages to bring that much needed likeability factor into the film. Both of them bring such warmth to their characters that the ending is pretty hard to bear. (It has been known to bring a tear to my eye. Or maybe that's just my over-tight Jockey y-fronts.) Without them the film wouldn't be anywhere near as good. It's a similar story with Fulci's other classic zombie films too.

Another film that benefits from great characters is The Mist. The final act is really harsh and bleak (just what I like) because the characters have been developed throughout to be realistic and likeable. The script and the casting gel to create a situation where the viewer really feels for the characters. Drayton's pain is palpable. The final twist puts the top hat on it. (It always makes me chuckle.)

Martyrs is a film where the main character didn't strike me as particularly likeable. Not that she's unlikeable but she hasn't got the warm quality of the two actors above, a little nondescript to might say. Nevertheless I could empathise with her and so what she has to go through is hard to watch indeed. Imagine the impact the film would have had if she had been really likeable. Painful in the extreme. And a better experience for it. (In horror terms anyway.)

Now let's have a look at a recent horror film that was supposedly a game changer: You're Next. All of the characters were irritating in their own way and as a consequence I couldn't care less what happened to them. The lead was a strong female character (commendable), who was strong at the start and strong at the end. Mmm, not much character development there. The film has a very beige look and my feelings about the lead are the same: she's beige. Ripley is a way more interesting heroine and hence Alien is in a completely different class in terms of its characters, and this is from a film where the characters are not exactly fleshed out. Many modern horror films seem to be going down the route of having really irritating characters and for me, this makes me lose interest instantly.

Tucker & Dale vs. Evil plays with this common horror failing and has a group of really irritating teens driving into mountain man territory moaning about their lack of alcohol. But in this case, the hillbillies are the characters that we grow to love. I won't say any more but the script has a lot of fun with the familiar horror cliches. This ploy can only work once though before it also becomes dull. Great characters are still needed in new horror films.

There has to be an exception and here it is: The Wicker Man. Let's face facts, if you wanted someone to have a pint and a laugh with, then Lord Summerisle's your man. Sgt. Howie is more of a 'tea and cake at a local church fair' kind of guy. The  apple eating scene where they discuss the islanders' way of life is brilliant because I always have a good laugh at Howie with Lord Summerisle. He's so pompous and uptight that his reaction to the sight of the naked girls is priceless. The whole film for me is spent like this, taking the proverbial out of Howie. And then the ending comes... It's so horrific that it doesn't matter what kind of bloke Howie is. The viewer is right there with him feeling his pain and feeling slightly guilty at laughing at him throughout the film. It is a rare film that manages this feat and The Wicker Man is certainly one of a kind.

It's all well and good watching a slasher film solely to see the death scenes, the characters are of virtually no importance (apart from their ability to bleed copiously). But these experiences are the popcorn of the horror world: switch off brain, watch murders, laugh a bit, forget it. Great horror films, that stay with us, need great characters that we care about. If not we veer into the slasher film mentality at best. At worst we turn off, knowing that there's no point spending our precious time with lots of gormless irritants. A bit like Big Brother really.

So come on filmmakers, give us some horror films with characters that we truly care about, who we want to do well in life, and maybe retire to a little caravan on a beach in Malibu like Rockford. That way, when your baddie is threatening their middles with a chainsaw we might actually care.


Related Reading:
Review - The Beyond
Review - The Mist
Review - Martyrs (Doccortex review)
Review - Martyrs ( My review)
Feature - You're Next vs. The Innkeepers
Review - Tucker & Dale vs. Evil

Friday, 20 February 2015

Feature - The Death of Horror?

I have had a love of horror films since being very young. I was given a book about horror films (mainly Hammer films as I remember) containing lots of lurid images for one of my early birthdays. (One of my favourites images was the sewn up autopsy bloke from The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue.) The photos of headless corpses were the most worrying for a young little fellow like me. Yet I kept going back to the book and taking another sneaky peek. It was like an addiction. 

But what is it about horror that makes me love it so much? Why do I want to watch things that occasionally make me feel uncomfortable and slightly disturbed? And why has my interest in horror plummeted recently? Is horror dead? I sincerely hope not.

If Asmodexia is anything to go by, then yes, horror is dead.

In this feature (split into multiple posts), I'm going to pull together some ideas that I've written about in these very pages before, along with some new stuff to explain this phenomenon. Let's start with what I think is the most important component of a good horror film:


Where would horror films be without a great atmosphere? Probably in the bargain bin at Poundland. Here's the definition for 'atmosphere': "the dominant mood or emotional tone of a work of art". Sounds easy enough, but a great atmosphere is something that only a select few horror films have.

So many aspects of filmmaking work together to create the atmosphere, from pre-production all the way through to post, that it must be tricky to deliver a coherent and consistent atmosphere. The script, direction, acting, setting, effects, sound design and possibly most importantly, the music all go towards making that oh-so-elusive atmosphere. There is one more aspect that contributes but I'll come back to it later.

Some films have managed this tricky balancing act brilliantly: The Beyond, Deep Red, The Thing, The Mist, Quatermass and the Pit and the King of Atmosphere, The Wicker Man

Let's take The Wicker Man as an example. If the atmosphere was magically stripped out would this film still be revered now? Probably not. Even changing one element, the music, would have a massive effect on the impact of the film. Imagine The Wicker Man set to the music from Beverley Hills Cop and you get the idea. The tone of sheer dread pulls the viewer through the film to the inevitable climax; it really couldn't end any other way. (Some people involved in the production, mentioning no names, wanted to change the ending to a more positive one. Completely clueless.) 

Atmosphere is so important, that it can turn an otherwise average film into a great one. And vice versa. Occasionally I will watch a film that I think is okay, no great shakes, but not bad. Then weeks later it will creep back into my head and I have to watch it one more time. This happens again and again. I tell myself that it's not that great yet I can't help myself. The Pack is a great example of a film that has stuck with me. The atmosphere makes it an experience that I just want to spend time with. Compare this with a film like Peacock that has many good qualities, and I was pleased to have watched it, but it doesn't have what it takes to bring me back time after time.

So what is the mystery ingredient? Well it's something that is distinctly lacking in modern horrors: the film stock used. There's something about the look of older films - from the seventies especially - that is stunningly gorgeous and incredibly cinematic. This is probably why no-one wants a remake of Suspiria. It would look way too shiny and antiseptic, whereas the original is rich, lush, saturated and very atmospheric. The Fulci zombie films are other fine examples. I would possibly argue that the recent blu-ray of The Beyond, while still a delight to behold, still misses a bit of grain. They should transfer a copy from VHS, or a dodgy old print as an extra just to bring back that forbidden feeling of the video nasty. I'd watch it. Modern film stocks are just too good. They are perfect for glossy science fiction epics and the Marvel superhero films, but completely lack any atmosphere for horrors. At the other end of the scale, low budget horrors shot in a digital format feel completely soulless. So modern horrors have got that hurdle to overcome before they even start.

Music, as a major contributor to the overall atmosphere, is another area where modern horrors are found wanting. Can you think of a great soundtrack to a new horror film? I can't. Going back to The Beyond, I would argue that without the haunting score it would get a lot lower rating than with the usual death metal type score that have been desperately overused in low budget zombie films now. (And indeed some big budget zombie films - the remake of Dawn of the Dead perhaps?) It would go from 10/10 to probably 5/10. The music is that important to me. In the same way that modern production techniques and film stocks spoil horror films, modern music production techniques also work against them. Great for techno type stuff, that should be cutting edge shiny, but useless for creating any kind of disturbing feelings in the audience. Horror benefits greatly from analogue media.

Over the coming year I'm going to watch a fair few horror films, both old and new, and try to find one that I love. Just one and I'd be happy. If anyone out there knows of a horror film (recent or otherwise) with a great atmosphere, let me know and I'll give it a try. I'm desperate to find one but I seem to be struggling. 

Next time we'll have a look at another aspect of horror films that used to be great but is now a bit duff. See you then.


Related Reading:
Review - The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue
Review - The Beyond
Review - Deep Red
Review - The Mist
Review - Quatermass and the Pit
Review - The Pack (Doccortex review)
Review - The Pack (evlkeith review)
Review - Dawn of the Dead (2004)
Feature - Celluloid Screams 2014

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Mini-Review - Stalker (1979 - Dir. Andrei Tarkovsky)

If you appreciate and get this film (as many people seem to) then that's all well and good. For me it was two and a half hours of people wandering around in fields, stopping for a long chat about existential type stuff that for me was virtually indecipherable, and then having another little wander around. And then another little chat.
Some beautiful visuals made it watchable, but despite the massive presence of fog it was strangely lacking in atmosphere. This is my first Tarkovsky film and I'm not that keen. When I'm after my slow ponderous film fix I think I'll stick with a bit of Werner Herzog.

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Mini-Review - Gyo: Tokyo Fish Attack (2012 - Dir. Takayuki Hirao)

Due to the time pressures of not having been too well recently and trying to get more painting done to start a new art career, I've been struggling to get many reviews written. So what I've decided is that I'll write longer reviews for really good (or bad) films and for the more average of offerings, I will do a little mini-review. Here we go then with my first. Gyo: Tokyo Fish Attack.

It all starts off as pretty bonkers, yet entertaining, with scenes of fish walking on metallic legs attacking people left, right and centre and even a cheeky threesome (fish not included).
Then, at about the halfway point, the fish creatures are replaced by human creatures and the whole thing - whilst continuing the bonkers theme - falls apart into a turgid mess. A disappointment after the promising first half.


Feature - The Battle of the Seasons Update

The FA Cup of Actors has been a long season but let's find out how it fares against our other lovely seasons:

13. The Luc Besson Season = 2 (Average rating for the entire season)

12. The Musical Season = 3.2

11. The Sword and Sorcery Season = 4.4

10. The 80s Prison Season = 4.6

9. The FA Cup of Actors = 4.8

8. Year of the Dead = 5.3

6. The Gritty Season = 6.4

4. The Buddy Movie Season = 7

3. The Mark Dacascos Season = 7 

2. The Christmas Season = 7.3

1. The Fog Season = 8

(The Mark Dacascos Season is placed above The Buddy Movie Season due to it having five films in it, compared to The Buddy's three.)

So it slots in just below our other year long season, The Year of the Dead with an average rating of 4.8. That's an accurate assessment of what felt like a generally average experience. I was hoping for better, but never mind.