In Danse Macabre, his nonfiction work on horror in books, film, and tv, Stephen King noted that the fans of horror films are like miners for gold. They dig methodically and patiently through tons and tons of dirt just to get that one little gold nugget that makes it all worthwhile. The American indie horror film Stake Land is one of those nuggets.
Sort of a cross between The Road and The Walking Dead, this is a postapocalyptic horror film that follows a band of survivors across a decaying America haunted by vampires. The two main characters are a boy, Martin (Connor Paolo) and a harsh, enigmatic loner, “Mister” (Nick Damici), who rescues the kid after his family is slaughtered by vampires in the opening sequence. The duo set out across a bleak, wasted landscape in search of “New Eden” (Canada) which they hope offers a chance to survive. The vampires prowl at night, savage, animal-like creatures, single-minded and remorseless in their search for blood. An early moment with a vampire feeding off a dead baby pushes the envelope of graphic horror and signals the vampires as a relentless, mindless force of evil. Complicating things is the fact that vampires are not the only creatures to worry about. There is a band of religious fanatics who view the vampires as God’s agents who are doing the divine work of bringing about the apocalypse. And they are happy to facilitate the end of the world, even dropping vampires from a helicopter onto a peaceful, fortified town. Martin and Mister travel across this blasted world, picking up the odd straggler to join their group. They move doggedly onwards, Mister teaching Martin the ways of the vampire killer.
Stake Land is written, filmed, and acted with utter conviction. There’s not a single moment that pushes into winking comedy or that jumps the rails into implausibility. Much of it, if not all, looks like it was filmed on location. It uses stark landscapes and decaying buildings as backdrops, creating a tangible sense of a world that has gone to hell. The performances are all naturalistic and believable (including, surprisingly, Kelly McGillis). And the film ultimately becomes very touching and, thankfully, hopeful, in spite of the vast number of characters that die in unpleasant ways. The vampires and the human monsters are convincing and scary. What the film lacks in originality, it makes up for with the obvious care and intelligence that went into its making.
Stake Land is highly recommended, a true gift for us patient horror fans who suffer through much dreck to get a gem like this.
The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 1,200 times in 2011. If it were a cable car, it would take about 20 trips to carry that many people.
Horror Express is a cheap but nifty, fast paced, and unpredictable slice of ’70s Euro horror. A Spain-UK co-production from 1972, the film pairs genre vets Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in a story that begins as standard monster-on-the-loose fare, albeit in a unique location, and turns into something quite different. Lee stars as Alexander Saxton, an anthropologist who discovers a prehistoric apeman frozen in a cave in Manchuria at the turn of the 20th century. Packed into a crate, the icy creature is loaded onto the Transiberian Express. The creature, of course, thaws out and escapes from the crate, stalking passengers aboard the train. But the apeman is far more than it appears.
The creature has a unique way of killing. Its eyes glow red and it sucks the memories and knowledge from its victims through their eyes, blanching the pupils and leaving the brains “as smooth as a baby’s bottom” (as is revealed when Cushing’s Dr. Wells performs an autopsy — his surgical training for the Hammer Frankenstein movies must have come in handy for this sequence). This means that the apeman gets smarter with each killing and acquires new skills. After killing a thief, for instance, it can pick a lock to facilitate its escape. In an out-of-left-field twist worthy of the X-Files it’s revealed that this is not an apeman after all.
A great piece of trash entertainment, Horror Express belies its low budget with a briskly-paced and unusual story, colourful period setting, and quality acting. Cushing and Lee, teamed up so often for films for Hammer and Amicus, work beautifully together. In an interview for John Brosnan’s book The Horror People, Cushing remarked on how much he adored doing the film and the two actors’ warm offscreen friendship shines through in the amiable performances. In the last third of the film, Telly Savalas shows up and chews the scenery as a Cossack officer, considerably livening things up for his brief screen time. The film hurtles along like the titular express, and by the time we get to the literal cliffhanging ending we’ve gone from monster movie to demon possession flick to eon-spanning SF to zombie film to disaster epic. When a character near the end has a brief monologue about how they contain within them the “entire history of the earth” then you know you’ve ended up in a very different place than the beginning of the movie. For a cheap genre film, the screenplay has a streak of crazed genre-blending ambition, combining John W. Campbell’s Who Goes There and Hammer’s Nigel Kneale-scripted The Abominable Snowman in a plot that anticipates some of the storylines in Chris Carter’s The X-Files.
This being a cheap ’70s genre flick, of course there’s tat. Though the apeman is wisely kept in shadow for many scenes, there’s a couple of wonderful moments where it steps into light and looks like it’s wearing a rather hairy sweater. The glowing red eye effects are right out of a Halloween costume. Director Eugenio Martin, in the spirit of ’70s European genre filmmakers like Jess Franco, amusingly overrelies on zooms in and out. The shots of the train hurtling down the track are quite obviously a model. And yet….all this just adds to the charm of the film.
The period gothic settings of the Hammer films were hugely influential on the horror genre of that era. Horror Express clearly attempts to ape (ha!) the Hammer look and feel in its costumes and set decoration. Much like Hammer, there is an ingenious use of limited sets. Apparently there was one train car that was redressed for the various sets, something that was done seamlessly, much like Bernard Robinson did for the studio that dripped blood. The efficient use of set decoration and costuming give the film a modestly lavish look that helps disguise the stingy budget. Staging most of the film on a train helps contain costs, of course, but also adds a feeling of claustrophobia. And anyway, how many other films have used a train as a setting for horror? I can only think of the dreadful slasher film Terror Train. Strange, as it seems a natural setting for a horror flick.
To top things off, composer John Cavacas contributes a wonderful, quintessentially ’70s score. The title sequence begins with the eerie, whistled melody that is carried over into the entire soundtrack. It’s reminiscent of Morricone and Goblin, with a twang of electric guitar and exotic Russian and Chinese stylings, and adds immensely to the film.
I saw Horror Express as a nipper, about 12 or 13 years old I think, on BBC tv in the UK. Back then, of course, television was the only way outside of the cinema where you could watch movies, being pre-VHS tape. So when a horror film came on, for a young genre movie fan it was an event. Plus, my parents actually allowing me to stay up and watch it made it doubly special. At this point I’d seen hardly any Hammer films, so this was likely the first pairing of Lee and Cushing that I saw. The ape man and the red eye/white eye/bleeding eye imagery stayed with me for years after, and I ended up buying a cheap videotaped copy of the film, which had inadvertantly lapsed into public domain. So it was with a bit of trepidation as to how the film would hold up that I popped the brand new Blu Ray disc of the film into the player the other night. I’m happy to report that the film holds up, at least for those of us who are not stuffed-shirt film snobs, and that Severin’s disc is fabulous. The high def transfer is crisp and sharp, with the occasional print damage merely adding to the grindhouse feel.
All in all, it’s retro horror as comfort food, and a reminder that sometimes cheap genre cinema can be somewhat bold and enduring.
How to approach The Human Centipede? A film based on a disgusting, transgressive idea that in all other respects is almost completely conventional. You probably know the central premise–a mad doctor stitches three people together, butt to mouth, to form a creature with a continuous digestive system–but the big disappointment is that there is little else to the film.
The mad doctor is like an uglier, more depressing version of Udo Kier. The plot involves two American women lost in Germany on their way to a night club, who get a flat tire in the wrong place and fall into the doctor’s web. They get captured, they plead for mercy and don’t get it, they try to escape and fail, etc. It’s all like a dull, pretentious, disgusting twin to Franju’s Eyes Without a Face, a poetic classic of ‘medical horror’, a genre which itself owed a significant debt to Terence Fisher’s Curse of Frankenstein (1957).
That film had the great Peter Cushing playing Dr. Frankenstein as a driven, obsessed scientist striving to push the boundaries of knowledge into the very secrets of life itself. Human Centipede has Dieter Laser (nice handle) being angry and insane. It’s not progress, and especially a letdown in the faithful reproduction of dusty horror film cliches and its mechanical trudging through an uninspired plot.
Want to see a film that’s transgressive, shocking, and rather brilliant? Watch Tod Browning’s Freaks, a movie that’s almost 80 years old and still retains its power to disturb. Of course, Browning engages you in the characters and expertly manipulates your sympathy. Human Centipede director Tom Six doesn’t seem to give a shit beyond his one, sick joke that he built an entire film around.
Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive is like a relic from the ’80s–an arty thriller that pulses along to the beat of a Tangerine Dream-inspired synth-pop soundtrack. Even the font of the opening credits would be at home at the front end of To Live and Die in L.A. It’s an efficient little noir that revolves around a stunt driver (never named in the film) who moonlights as a getaway driver, giving his clients five minutes of his time to take them to safety. Complications arise for the enigmatic loner when he falls for neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan), whose husband is in trouble, the kind of trouble that pulls the driver in deep when he agrees to help.
Danish director Refn brings a vibrant, gorgeously saturated colour to the film, and has a knack for crafting moments that linger in the psyche. There are moments when he drops the sound almost entirely and slows events down so they are steadily absorbed through the pores. It’s been a couple of weeks since I’ve seen it, but I can still picture the moment when the Driver and Irene get into an elevator with a suspicious stranger. The visuals are drenched in a sunflower-yellow and the scene subtly shifts a beat slower and into silence as the Driver moves Irene to the rear of the elevator and, as cover for preparatory action, gives her a lingering kiss. It’s a great little sequence, one that ends in sudden and extreme violence, and tells us more about the central character than any lengthy monologue. The Driver has little past that we’re told of directly, yet the direction and Gosling’s detailed performance feed us all we need to know.
The Driver is a complicated, yet mysterious character, and his relationship with Irene plays out in wordless moments, glances, smiles, gestures. Because they don’t talk about it their love becomes magical. It’s brilliantly understated and moving, and like the whole film it works its way under your skin. The music, a retro synth score by Cliff Martinez and a few 80s-style pop songs, complement the stylish visuals like a hand in a leather driving glove. Refn has said that the films of ’80s teen movie director John Hughes were a key influence. Hughes’ movies had similarly interesting pop music, and the songs in Drive appear to comment on the character of the Driver and, like all good film scores, add another layer. I kept tripping back to other films thinking that, just on the other side of town, James Caan was busting into a safe to the electro-pulse of Tangerine Dream and William L. Petersen and John Pankow were driving the wrong way up a freeway to the beat of Wang Chung.
Drive is a pure visual exercise and a superb example of how films, in the hands of gifted artists, say the majority of what they want to say through image. Everything else is important only in how it interacts with image. Refn is a filmmaker to watch and Drive is one of my favourite films of the year.
Postscript – I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the superb supporting performance of Albert Brooks, playing against type as a small time crime operator with a psychotic streak a mile wide.
I’ve written about this one before, in one of my ‘best of’ year end posts. I said: A truly great work of science fiction, based on P.D. James’ novel, that creates a chilling and utterly believable future world where women have stopped giving birth and the human race is slowly dying, populates it with interesting characters, and pulls us along in a propulsive and thrilling storyline. Director Alfonso Cuaron brings several vivid sequences to life, including an astonishing one-take action scene that is one of the best recent examples of pure cinema.
All I have to add is that the film features one of Clive Owen’s best performances and that Michael Caine is truly moving in a memorable supporting role. The film’s dystopian world is intricately and convincingly detailed, showing a decaying world, yet there is a streak of hope and humanity that runs through it. By the time we get to the end of the story, we feel that we’ve been through hell, that the world has gone to shit, yet it is still worth saving.
Cuaron adds many interesting touches in directing the film, often shooting action sequences in continuous takes using handheld camera. And there are some fascinating details to be seen in the design of the film, including a sly reference to the cover of the Pink Floyd album Animals.
Children of Men is a fiercely intelligent, yet poetic and moving work of art.
I was thinking about 3D movies and in particular of the first wave of 3D films from the ’50s. Back in university days (mid to late ’80s for me) there was a repertory theatre up in Edmonton called the Princess. It’s still there, but is sadly no longer a repertory theatre; now it plays mainstream stuff. But back then it programmed a wide variety of interesting movies, from art house to cult to independent, and one of the more amusing features they presented was a double bill of Creature from the Black Lagoon and It Came From Outer Space, in the original 3D! This was the early 3D process, with the glasses with the red and blue lenses. I saw the double bill twice, it was marvelous fun, and both times the theatre was packed. The 3D effects were Velveeta cheese generally, but it was highly entertaining watching the gillman come at you or a blast from a raygun chewing into the rock near poor Richard Carlson (who headlined the cast of both films). But beyond that, what was interesting was that they are actually well-crafted films, with the common thread being their director, Jack Arnold.
It Came From Outer Space was based on a short story by genre great Ray Bradbury, and was a tense, atmospheric little SF chiller about an alien spacecraft crashlanding in the desert. Like he would go on to do in the wonderful big-bug film Tarantula, Arnold uses the desert setting to great effect, capitalizing on the eerie, primeval landscapes. The film is one of the earliest examples I can think of with aliens taking over the bodies of normal people. The one thing that gives them away is their glowing eyes radiating from the shadows in one particularly creepy scene. Arnold directs with skill and intelligence, with the result that the movie avoids mere ’50s cheese, and even makes the aliens somewhat sympathetic. They are, after all, merely trying to get off our planet. The 3D process is used as a gimmick, like in most films from the era in this format; It Came From Outer Space is good enough that it doesn’t need it.
The more famous of the two flicks on this 3D double feature, Creature from the Black Lagoon has another great setting, this time in an uncharted part of the Amazon. Here, of course, a scientific expedition comes in search of the ‘missing link’ between fish and man (yet another charming example of goofy movie science). The gillman, played by Ben Chapman on land and Ricou Browning in the water, is an iconic piece of creature design, easily one of the best man-in-suit creations of cinema.
But once more, Jack Arnold takes care to develop atmosphere, laying thick on the mystery, convincing us that perhaps, deep in the lost primeval waters of South America, maybe, just maybe, there could be something strange and terrifying lurking in the dark waters. The film of course plays on that fear common to many of us, the same one that sends a brief stab of shock through our guts when we’re treading water and something brushes against our leg. There’s a masterful shot of Julia Adams, fetching in a conservative ’50s bathing suit, swimming on the surface while we see the gillman swimming underwater, on his back, tracking her every movement. It is often claimed that this sequence inspired Spielberg in shooting Jaws, and it’s not hard to see why, even if the story probably apocryphal (if I should ever find myself chatting to Mr. Spielberg I promise I’ll ask him). Again, Arnold is careful to instill sympathy for the creature, and so the gillman becomes one of the great movie monsters because, like Frankenstein’s monster as played by Boris Karloff, we partly empathize with him.
Beyond these two films, so memorably viewed on a big screen in their original 3D, Jack Arnold was responsible for unleashing other memorable SF horrors upon the 1950s moviegoers. This being the era of atomic bomb-inspired horrors, two of Arnold’s best were created by radiation. Tarantula was the result of scientist Leo G. Carroll experimenting with increasing the size of animals using atomic isotopes. One of his successes, a giant tarantula spider, escapes his lab to wreak havoc in the same bleak desert setting as It Came From Outer Space (the opening song of The Rocky Horror Picture Show references this: “And Leo G. Carroll / Was over a barrel / When tarantula took to the hills.”). Boasting some truly suspenseful sequences and convincing special effects, which involved an actual spider matted into the film, Tarantula is probably the very best of the big bug films of the ’50s.
The second of his atomic SF films was based on a story by Richard Matheson, The Incredible Shrinking Man. In this moving and thought-provoking film, Grant Williams plays a ’50s everyman whose boat passes through a ‘radiation cloud’ (goofy science again) while he sunbathes on deck. Later, he begins to decrease in size, at first not fitting his clothes, and then growing smaller and smaller until he becomes a curiosity, a freak (literally in one sense, as he has a brief relationship with a circus midget). He keeps shrinking until he becomes potential food for the housecat and then is trapped in the cellar, where he battles a giant spider. The camerawork, sets, and visual effects are extremely well executed and, once again, Arnold injects a humanity into the film that forces us to empathize with the protagonist, as he keeps shrinking, losing his family and all he knows, destined to perhaps move among the atomic fabric and shrink to nothing. It’s a startling fable of inadequacy and the loss of identity in the face of the vastness of the cosmos.
Jack Arnold was something of an auteur, bringing an intelligence and humanity to the types of films that so often fall into risibility.
In John Brosnan’s The Horror People, a collection of interviews with some of the creative people behind horror/SF films from the 1930s to the 1970s, Jack Arnold relates the story of how the crew rigged a device to simulate giant water drops, which drip in the basement where the minaturized protagonist of The Incredible Shrinking Man is trapped. They tried several ways to release water in such a way that it looked like a giant drip, but nothing looked convincing. Arnold remembered finding a box of condoms as a kid and filling them with water and dropping them on people, and in particular he remembered how they assumed a shape like a large water droplet as they fell. So Arnold ordered a rather large quantity of condoms and they tried them out. They worked perfectly. Fast forward to the end of the shoot and the studio execs are wondering why the significant bill for condoms in the accounts of the film. Jack Arnold explains that, well fellas, it was a helluva film to shoot, and so they just had a huge party at the end…