Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Hate Outdoors

The following article originally appeared in a book of essays on slasher films, but the publisher went under and the book is now out of print. I thought it might be nice to publish the piece here.
Wes Craven’s the Hills Have Eyes: The Hate Outdoors
When I was a boy we couldn’t afford the foreign holidays a lot of other families seemed to take for granted, so every summer we went camping instead. Some of my fondest childhood memories involve pitching a tent on a cheap camp site in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset, and exploring the local cave system. My worst nightmares involved something living in that cave system, perhaps a family of troglodytes who would come out at night to carry me away deep into the caves…

Then I saw Wes Craven’s 1977 paranoid masterwork The Hills Have Eyes advertised in Hammer House of Horror – a magazine whose title alone is still enough to fill me with a teary-eyed sense of nostalgia. The simple poster featuring Michael Berryman’s somewhat scary face against a backdrop of looming brown mountains instilled within me a sense of dread that I’ve never been able to recapture. The tagline was, of course, a classic: “The lucky ones died first”.

When I finally got to see Craven’s film, I was not disappointed – in fact, it terrified me. It was the usual set-up: a grainy third-generation VHS watched with a group of like-minded friends late one dark Friday night. I’d loved the first two Friday the 13th films, but knew, just knew, that this one was going to be even better.

The plot is an object lesson in simplicity: the bickering Carter family are on a cross-country trip to California in their father’s camper van. They go off the road, get lost on an old nuclear testing site in the barren Mojave desert. The van breaks down. Something attacks. The Carters are forced to fight for their survival, casting aside their modernity and using primitive skills to fight a primitive enemy.

It is at this point in the film that familial archetypes are carefully deconstructed: the strong patriarch figure is despatched surprisingly early on, the supposed male hero is actually portrayed as a weak liberal initially at odds with his father-in-law’s aggressive reactionary attitudes, the teenagers wander off on their own and prove themselves ultimately self-reliant, eschewing typical slasher movie conventions which dictate that anyone under the age of twenty-one must die (usually after smoking a joint and having casual sex).

Unusually for the sub-genre, there are no heroes here; only a flawed family. Two flawed families, in fact; and one of them wants to consume the other (again, this can be seen as a deeply paranoid allegory: the lower caste family of outsiders attempting to literally absorb the more affluent and privileged Carter clan, who represent Middle America).

The sheer brutality of the film still amazes me: the wonderfully choreographed kidnapping of the baby makes me wince, Big Bob Carter’s death scene is among the most chilling I’ve ever seen, and the ending, where Ethel Carter’s corpse is used as bait in a trap devised by two of her own desperate children, is simply jaw-dropping. In scenes like these the film breaks the barriers of its genre, stepping across an imaginary line to become more than a pulp horror film, more than mere allegory, and invokes something utterly primal within the viewer. We respond to these masterfully orchestrated scenes not as comfortable civilized people, but as animals, baying for revenge. That thirst for vengeance is, of course, satisfied, but not necessarily in a way that provides much comfort.

Craven’s feelings on the film are well documented. It was an angry piece of work directed by an angry young man – much like Last House on the Left, the film was a tirade against middle-class complacency and the state of the U.S. political foreign policy at the time. But all that stuff aside, the film works not because it’s an allegory for America’s involvement in Vietnam, but because it is terrifying. After all, that’s the bottom line for any self-respecting horror film. It must scare us.

Here Craven plays with a typical city dweller’s fears of the countryside and the people who live in it, using the wide-open spaces to suggest something otherworldly. The look of the film is that of a western – muted browns and sunset shades, and the subject matter is in fact a little like a modern Hollywood western, with the Carter family cast as pioneers and the mutant cannibal family taking on the role of the Native Indians. The mutants remain off-screen for most of the running time, and even when they step out of the protective hills to show themselves, they are different, almost alien in their very actions and thought processes.

The dynamic of the Carter family is refreshingly unconventional for the era: they don’t really get on that well, squabble a lot, and when things start to go wrong they split up into factions rather than pulling together to form a united front. In a climax that also bucks against cliché, the long-suffering teenagers save themselves, becoming the tight family unit their father always wanted them to be.

The cast all acquit themselves well, but Russ Grieve as the patriarch of the Carter family stands out, despite his relatively brief screen time.

James Whitworth, as Papa Jupiter, reflects Big Bob Carter’s immense presence at the head of a large family, but it is his ultimate lack of genuine influence over his unruly brood that leads to his downfall. Big Bob, on the other hand, has trained his clan well (despite their protests). They utilise his obsessive lessons of self-reliance and teamwork to survive, releasing a Jungian primal consciousness and allowing it to run amok.

But at what cost is that survival?

The typical family unit is destroyed, they have sacrificed their humanity, and all they are left with is the flat, hot face of the desert. Nobody in the outside world knows these people have fought a vicious battle to the death; there is no help in sight. The war has only just begun.

I haven’t been camping in years, but whenever I am surrounded by vaguely threatening hills and miles of dark and unknowable countryside, I can’t help remembering Michael Berryman’s face on that poster and thinking to myself “The lucky ones died first”.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Top 10 Films #1

Taxi Driver
Directed by Martin Scorsese (1975)

"Loneliness has followed me my whole life, everywhere. In bars, in cars, sidewalks, stores, everywhere. There's no escape. I'm God's lonely man"
                                                                                         - Travis Bickle

I remember the first time I ever saw Taxi Driver. I was sixteen years old, on my first foreign holiday with a couple of mates – in Benidorm, of all places. It was early afternoon. We were in some bar, already half drunk. The place was quite cool. There was Indie music playing from the speakers and wall-mounted television screens played scenes of De Niro in his most famous roles on a repeating loop. After a while, I noticed the images on the televisions had changed, and there was a movie playing. I’d never seen it before. It featured Robert De Niro driving a yellow cab through a mythical, mist-shrouded NYC. My mates wanted to move on to another bar but I wanted to stay. So they left me there. I watched the film through, with no sound. Then I watched it again because I wanted to see what it was.  When I got home from holiday I rented it on VHS. Then I rented it every weekend.
Since that day, Taxi Driver has been my favourite film. To me, it’s flawless.  I heard a story that Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader where in such a weird place when they made the film that, afterwards, when he saw the final cut, Scorsese got nervous. He didn’t want to be responsible for releasing a film that was so perfect. So he scratched a single frame of the negative, to take away any risk of that responsibility.
Schrader was living out of his car when he wrote the screenplay, with a gun in the glove compartment. He was going through a tough divorce. His mind was crumbling. You can tell that from the film.  He and Scorsese created something incendiary. It’s terrifying and funny and tender and brutal and genuinely unnerving. It’s an insane film; it’s psychotic.
And I love it.
I love every single frame. Even that scratch – which I’ve looked for, but have never found. I love every scene, and every gap between scenes. Each odd mannerism Travis Bickle displays, every piece of dialogue he utters. The film is a poem to loneliness; it’s a hymn to “God’s lonely man”. I’ve seen it so many times now it has become part of my life, like a memory rather than a movie...

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Top 10 Films #2

Planet of the Apes
Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner (1968)

The following essay was orignally published in Cinema Futura, edited by Mark Morris.

Rod Serling’s extraordinary and philosophical screenplay for Franklin J. Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes (adapted from French novelist Pierre Boulle’s 1963 novel La planète des singes – perhaps better known as  Monkey Planet) contains many a memorable quote, but mine appears about half an hour into the film, when Charlton Heston’s astronaut George Taylor is outlining his character-defining misanthropy:

“I'm a seeker too. But my dreams aren't like yours. I can't help thinking that somewhere in the universe there has to be something better than man. Has to be.”

To me that resonant piece of dialogue encapsulates the entire theme of the film, and supplies an additional element of pathos to everything that follows. You could almost say that it’s quintessential Serling. Those words have haunted me since I first saw the film on television as a child, and they will remain as ghosts inside my head until the day I die.

Watching the film all over again, after a gap of several years I was struck immediately by certain aspects: Jerry Goldsmith’s superb pounding score, the intensity of every scene, the fact that the film is actually quite terrifying, even now after over 40 years. I’d originally planned this to be a light-hearted essay, but the gravitas of the film wouldn’t allow it. It would be lazy of me to make light of such a serious and intelligent piece of filmmaking.

Planet of the Apes is a film that could never be made now – there aren’t enough pointless action scenes, the lead character of Taylor is far too cynical, the themes are well handled yet up-front, and there’s a real sense of menace in every frame. Tim Burton’s weak remake surely proves that the original was a film of its time; a flawless piece of art whose power will never diminish, no matter how much it’s diluted through imitation or silly piss-takes.

The opening scenes are as good as anything I have seen in film: the sedate prologue with Heston recording his final ship’s log before going into hyper-sleep; the crash landing of the astronaut’s ship into the water; the discovery of the only female onboard withered and ancient because of a crack in the protective glass of her sleep chamber.

A subsequent trek through “The Forbidden Zone”, which contains my aforementioned favourite quote, is bleak and imbued with a gradual accumulation of genuine dread, particularly when the astronauts encounter giant furry scarecrows perched on the high rocks.

The first confrontation with the apes is perfectly orchestrated. It’s a brilliant composition of camera angles – static shots, crane shots; sweeping aerial shots as the human prey flee through a cornfield in total silence, pursued by “beaters” who are only recognised by the sight of their long thrashing sticks above the tall stalks of corn. Afterwards, we are shown a succession of brutal images: a gorilla carrying a boy on his shoulders, walking past half-naked men strung up by their feet like slaughtered wild stock; a shallow pit filled with corpses; the captured Taylor as he is carried strapped by hands and feet to a long pole held between two apes. A brief moment where gorillas pause to have their photo taken beside a pile of bodies puts the viewer in mind of real-life war atrocities: Native American Indians massacred by the U.S. Cavalry, whole villages wiped out in Vietnam, the tribal genocide in Rwanda. For me, it’s one of the strongest scenes in any science fiction film, and remains relevant to each passing generation.

When finally we get to see the apes’ habitat, the set design is a joy to behold. It’s difficult to remember how powerful and unusual this vision must have been back in 1968. The costumes and make-up look great even by today’s standards; I’d even go as far as to say that the ape make-up is among the finest in the history of cinema. You forget that you are watching actors, and begin to see only simians. The performances, of course, add weight to this illusion – the way the actors walk and move and carry themselves is simply masterful, and I feel a much underappreciated aspect of the overall effectiveness of the film. Roddy McDowall was never better as Cornelius and it is impossible to take your eyes off Kim Hunter’s feisty female chimp Zira, but the stand-out for me is Maurice Evans’ subtle and nuanced turn as the single-minded Dr. Zaius.

Once it’s established that, unlike the indigenous humans he was discovered among, Taylor is capable of speech and independent thought, the film shakes off the overt horror of its barnstorming first act and enters more familiar science fiction territory – which isn’t to say it’s in any way predictable. Themes of social and racial prejudice, science-versus-religion, medical experimentation and good old-fashioned repression are examined while a stream of ideas (the very building blocks of the genre) pours from the screen. We even have a massive conspiracy theory thrown into the mix, which leads eventually to the justifiably legendary shock ending.

But along the way the film expands upon its themes and is allowed to find its own pace.

The action set-pieces are few and evenly placed throughout the running time, (unlike the empty “onslaught approach” of modern SF cinema) and those ideas I mentioned are given time and room enough to develop and resonate. Room to breathe. We see a social hierarchy among the apes – a distinct caste system which places the war-like gorillas as soldiers, the peace-loving chimpanzees as scientists and the regal orang-utans (or Jimmy-Savile-Apes, as I’ve always called them) as the philosophers and religious gatekeepers of the entire ape civilisation.

Much like human society, the world of the apes has its draconian rules and punishments, and this serves to hold up a mirror to our own lives and the way we treat those around us.

Despite my somewhat po-faced focus on the serious nature of the film, there are a few moments of humour – the three wise monkeys in the kangaroo court Taylor is forced to stand before, some of the interplay between Taylor and Zira, which is quite racy for the time and context – but none of these laughs is cheap and the overall feeling one is left with is that this is a film of great integrity. In my opinion at least it’s all the better for such a purposeful approach.

I will end as I began, with a quote from the film:

“I never met an ape I didn’t like.”

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Top 10 Films #3

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Directed by Milos Forman (1969)

I've seen this film so many times now that it seems as if it's always been in my life, a parable playing in the background. The themes of individualism, fighting the establishment, and refusing to surrender to the system are writ large, but the writing and the performances make the film feel small and intimate.

Jack Nichlson has never been better than he is here, as Randall McMurphy, a man shut up inside a mental institution for troublemaking. The character is a force of nature. He doesn't care about little things like sanity or mental health. He thinks that everyone should just live in the moment and do whatever they are moved to do. He's supported by a superb cast, and most notably with a stand-out performance by the brilliant Lousie Fletcher as Nurse Hatchet. She is McMurphy's nemesis, a woman who comes to respresent the system more than anyone else he has met.

There are some brilliant comedy set-pieces - the unnofical boat trip, the scene on the basketball course, and about a hundred small character quirks that make you feel sad and amused. But ultimately this story is a sad one. The price paid for setting yourself against the system can be huge, and, when all is said and done, perhaps it was never really worth it anyway.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Top 10 Films #4

Midnight Cowboy
Directed by John Schlesinger (1969)

I first saw Midnight Cowboy on television during my early teens. I had no idea what to make of it, but I was absolutely gripped from beginning to end. I was also scared. There's a creepy quality to the film that I rarely see mentioned. It's almost like some sleazy ghost story, but without an actual ghost.

The young John Voight is brilliant as Joe Buck, a Texas dishwasher who quits his job and goes to New York City to find his fortune. Haunted by an event from his past, he believes that his life will be better there. He dreams that he will be a roaring success as a gigolo - the middle-aged Manhattan housewives will be queuing up to be his customers.

The reality is somewhat different.

Broke, tired, and kicked out of his hotel, Buck is befriended by a diminutive conman called Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman is the best role of his career), but Rizzo simply wants to rip off the niave cowboy for whatever cash he might have left in his pockets. The two form an unlikely partnership, careering around downtown Manhattan, living in a sordid squat, trying to grift for a living, gatecrashing a Warholesque party...

What follows next is sad, melancholic, and ultimately depressing. But somehow the film never loses the viewer. The central performances are astonishing. 1970s New York is a character rather than a backdrop, and the place has rarely seemed so intimidating yet so darkly beautiful. This is one of the films that shaped my imaginary image of New York. The city is one of my favourite places in the world, but I wish I'd seen it when it was like this. I wish I'd walked those same midnight streets as Ratso Rizzo and Joe Buck, stopping traffic and watching the freaks parade on by.

Waldo Salt's literate adaptation of James Leo Herlihy's wonderful novel never puts a foot wrong. The direction is eager and energetic, the famous soundtrack is fitting. Initially repulsed, we find ourselves falling in love with these grotty, downbeat, doomed characters, and if the ending doesn't move you don't ever expect to be a friend of mine.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Top 10 Films #5

Mad Max 2 (AKA The Road Warrior)
Directed by George Miller (1981)

I love all three of the Mad Max films. Every year or so I rewatch the trilogy, to remind myself how good they are.

Mad Max was released in 1979. It was a modestly-budgeted Australian thriller, starring Mel Gibson in the title role, and was so successful that it spawned the more expensive, more exciting, more violent sequel.

Mad Max 2 is a masterclass in action film-making. The physical stunts (this was made well before CGI started to ruin our films) are breathtaking, the acting superb, the writing and direction brilliant - you might even say visionary. Mad Max 2 is one of the most influential popular movies ever made. We still see it's influence everywhere; the style of the film has become so much part of the mainstream that we no longer even notice it.

I remember when I was twelve years old, standing and gazing longingly at the poster outside the Odeon cinema in Sunderland, gutted that I was too young to go and see the film (it was an 'X' certificate). That poster, along with the monochrome film stills they also used to put up in a  glass frame outside cinemas back then, formed their own myth inside my head. By the time I eventually got to see the film on VHS, I was already in love with it and what it had come to represent.

The plot of the film is as basic as they come: a lone wanderer in a post-apocalyptic wasteland tries to help an isolated community of survivors move their stash of valuable fuel to a safer place, whilst fighting off rampaging biker gangs. That's it. Simplicity itself. But the execution of this threadbare plot is astonishing. The look of the film is both gritty and poetic. The action scenes are beautifully choreographed, and, to my mind, are yet to be beaten. The opening monologue remains a classic in cinema history, and some of the images in the film have gone being the iconic to become engrained in our cinema-going consciousness.

I adore this film. It changed the way I look at the world. I still want to be Mad Max when I grow up.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Top 10 Films #6

Once Upon a Time in America
Directed by Sergio Leone (1984)

Once Upon a Time in America was the great Sergio Leone's final film, and for me, it was his best. It's also the greatest gangster film ever made.

The structure of the film - in it's full version, not the butchered travesty originally released in the US - consists of a series of flashbacks about a group of lifelong friends who start out as smalltime crooks in 1920s New York to become big-time gangsters, their lives eventually shattered by greed, betrayal, and violence.

The scale of the film is operatic. It's a grand epic poem, a slice of cinema that is as beautiful as it is brutal. It's tough to watch at times, and doesn't try to be moral. One rape scene in particular is very painful.

Robert De Niro invests the character of Noodles, who remains the main focus of the film throughout, with a deep sense of melancholy. At times Noodles is an unsympathetic character, but we are forced to stay with him as the story unfolds. James Woods, Treat Williams, Tuesday Weld, and Elizabeth McGovern are all outstanding in support. But the real star of the film is the cinematography, especially during those almost unearthly childhood sequences. This is a fairytale vision of New York, but it's a dark one.The scenes with the kids are enthralling - the best parts of the film. There's a heavy nostalgia, but also the suggestion that 1920s New York was a bit like the wild west. Corrupt cops, rival gangs, men with guns, run the city.

The film contains what is possibly my favourite scene in cinema. Cockeye, a young tearaway, buys a cream cake so that he can use it to pay a young neighbourhood prostitute for sex. As he sits on the stairs outside her apartment, waiting for her to come out and see him, he starts to scoop tiny bits of cream onto his finger and eat them. Soon the scoops become bigger; then, unable to help himself, he consumes the entire cake. When the girl comes out onto the landing, he stands there with only the empty wrapper. It's a wonderful scene, filled with an aching nostalgia, innocence, corruption, harshness, and beauty. For me, that single scene sums up the entire movie.

I love this film so much I had the soundtrack played at my wedding. Cockeye's Theme, by Ennio Morricone, is one of the most ravishing pieces of music I've ever heard.