29 November 2018

dance witch-girl dance

Before everyone saw Luca Guadagnino’s new version of Suspiria he was professing his love of the old one to the point where it seemed he might turn up in person and profess it through your letter box. But a retread of Dario Argento’s hormonal sugar-rush was never on the cards, and the remake is a different kind of biological fantasy, flatter and critic-friendly. Its real estate involves witches covening not in subtly post-Fascist Italy but in overtly post-Fascist 1970s Berlin, while the Red Army Faction blow things up down the road. The only real use of this situation is Chloë Grace Moretz’s cameo as the student who vanishes at the start, and although CGM has started to look like every part she plays is being done under protest, the Le Carré-ish deal of a young woman abandoning ballet school to go and run with Ulrike Meinhof is a strong self-knowledge narrative if it’s artist to radical—even more so if she knew it was actually witch to terrorist.

Pundits’ fixation on a film’s content rather than its form is the modern curse, mainly because films hardly ever play with form in the first place. But Guadagnino does at least dabble with it: deliberate edits used to keep the viewer off balance—here’s the frame of a chair, that thing on the wall, the back of someone’s head—and Moretz’s exposition delivered by someone whose face you never quite see and whose body is never in clear sight. Reviewers thrown by this rarity have reached strange conclusions about how Suspiria breaks all the rules of camera angles,” which to be true would have to involve it being upside-down. It’s really just the aspect-to-aspect editing code that first came my way via Japanese manga, which worked out the assembly of a moment from scattered fragments ages ago. Western films usually do it just to put the wind up the audience, but its rule book is as strict as all the others. The problem is that Argento’s careering Evil Disney colour scheme and skewed child’s perspectives under a frantic Goblin score seem more formally audacious, subversive and memorable (and funny) than anything likely to arise from a stylised editing choice in a universe of straight-faced beige.

Content eventually takes over anyway, in this case as a warm-up for falling apart. The old film had several distinct ballet students and just a couple of memorable matrons, while the new one has a horde of matrons and really only Dakota Johnson and Mia Goth as proactive students, which costs it the sense of young female community and all the business with the girls dorming together like a high-school clique. On the other hand you get much more emphasis on the actual dancing, and on creation of a work pointedly called Volk. Connect dancing and the legacy of fascism together and the spirit of Bob Fosse will appear as if summoned, but the political debate being primed by the coven’s split into two factions never actually gets very far. It’s capsized by a climax that’s part witches’ sabbath and part dubious Am-Dram, involving protracted jerking-dancing by naked extras in the background and Tilda Swinton in full-body prosthetics, all fleshy folds and sagging tits and Cenobite sunglasses. The Ancient Greeks got so used to getting out of narrative holes by cheating that they gave it a name, and would nod approvingly at the sheer scale of deus ex machina that Suspiria springs just to conclude this sequence and avoid having to rumble on for another week.

Long before then, the meaningful pans into witches’ oddball gurning faces become close to black comedy anyway, which might be the valid way to approach the film in the first place. Once I realised that a member of the coven was Renée Soutendijk, the sight of her screeching and lurching and carrying on was to imagine what Paul Verhoeven would have done with all this.

I used to wonder what Verhoeven would have done with Lisbeth Salander too, but after initially disliking the Rooney Mara version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I’ve decided that she’s actually great and the best portrayal there’s likely to be. But here comes another model anyway. The Girl in the Spider’s Web doesn’t have much in common with Suspiria, apart from them both being stuck with the modern air of intellectual property returning like a comet, art willed into existence by a blend of panic and calculation, its half-life decay starting even while you’re watching. At least this one knows what it wants to be from scene one, when a passing misogynist stands in the exact unseen loop of wire needed to let Claire Foy’s Salander string him up by his ankles, a move pulled off satisfactorily only by the Road Runner. This Salander, supposedly not as super-powered as Batman, is nonetheless equally as skilled at drifting a boosted Lamborghini or sniffing a necessary plot point while it’s still over the horizon.

Origin stories are now the currency that matters, so up through a continuity implant comes Lisbeth’s evil sister and would-be nuclear terrorist Camilla, played by Sylvia Hoeks with hair and eyebrows dyed blonde and a robotic mode close to the one she used in Blade Runner 2049. The two sisters stand and stare at each other, black versus white, two contrasting fetishistic responses to shared child abuse—effacing tactics both, although the film doesn’t care to question effacement and a life beyond the law as a survivor’s response in the first place.

Claire Foy can’t be blamed for being the prettiest, most gamine, and least goblinesque Salander yet, but the fact that she is says something for the film’s mild intentions. Her hoodie and white-eyes outfit is less avenging terror up from feminism’s id and more villain up from a show on The CW, and like most revamps that claim to be sequels it’s just not possible to connect this version of the character back to a previous one, even when she verbally professes the link herself. The actor’s post-Crown career choices so far suggest little fear and no small ambition—Unsane is about to get at least one vote in the year’s Sight & Sound Best Films poll—but it’s Salander’s spark that is the problem, rekindled for a purpose that pretends to align with the one that birthed her in the first place, but really doesn’t. The film is fine, easy viewing, adventurously cast, entertaining, fun to watch—if watching a film begin its half-life decay right there on screen is actually fun at all.

25 November 2018

the scorn of kitten magee

Not long after I sighed at the things Rebellion was doing with those vintage British comics properties it acquired by buying half of the old Fleetway catalogue, it bought almost the entire other half. Some of the new batch surely can’t be pushed into another shotgun wedding with 2000AD, so perhaps the versatile archival approach that hasn’t really materialised yet will now develop. Whether having one company, however conscientious, own such a swathe of UK print culture is another question.

The latest item to re-emerge after the previous deal is a character from Wildcat, a brief 1989 comic that tried to set up a sci-fi anthology format with one envious eye no doubt on 2000AD but didn’t pull it off. Turbo Jones is too generically starship-captain-heroic, James T Kirk without the charisma, to stand out from the crowd, and the lack of satirical bite in the strip bearing his name leaves the space-opera looking prosaically right-on. Why Rebellion opted for this straight-arrow when it could instead have gone for his colleague, the scornful Amazon feminist Kitten Magee, is a mystery. So too is the emphasis given in the trade dress and introduction to the contribution of Ian Kennedy, who draws a perfectly fine 12 pages, rather than the Spanish artist(s) Vanyo, who drew more than 100 and characterised the strip for its entire span. Proper compensation for old comics work is an eternally vexed issue, one directly relevant to the mountain of archival material now piled up in the Rebellion warehouse, so it’s hard to judge what the emphasis here might be implying, if anything.

I reviewed Turbo Jones for Tripwire, along with the latest reprint of Zombo from 2000AD, Al Ewing and Henry Flint’s wildly excessive and offensive splatter comedy in which a character called Kitten Magee would have fitted right in.

20 November 2018

trouble on the line

The December Sight & Sound magazine includes me reviewing The Guilty, a Danish film about a police officer trying to control a tense situation down the phone which has been well received everywhere. Except by me, shrugging as I am at the theory that a sequence of duologues in one setting backed up by intelligent sound design is inherently cinematic, a notion that a few playwrights and radio dramatists might have something to say about. The name Locke has been dropped everywhere, this week’s example of critics fixated on content and oblivious to form, given the constant wash of colour and movement and reflections in glass that occupy Lockes every frame, none of which The Guilty is even conceived to attempt. Plus the policeman at the centre of the plot is guilty of the most heinous offence a fictional white authority figure can commit. For a current film not to flay him open for it might be a suitably Scandinavian act of reconciliation, but raises questions about the film’s intent just in time for it to avoid them by ending.

The Forbidden and Beyond The Black Rainbow: long live the new skinThe Forbidden and Beyond The Black Rainbow: long live the new skin

Horror films are always about form and content too, plus a certain amount of flaying. I liked The Haunting of Hill House, gingering up one model of horror story by the unlikely tactic of stretching it out to six times the normal length, and episode five ended with a blast of one of Alan Moore’s most poignant literary ideas about time and history; an unexpected place to find it, but there it was. And The Witch was on TV for Halloween, still sparse and terse and pagan, unknowably strange. But marooned as we are in an era when irony distorts everything like a fish-eye lens already, the more horror tries to be reflexive and ironic, the more the results fly apart under the strain. I’m not even convinced any more that the true core of horror fiction, the painful gaining of personal self-knowledge that has made it a young person’s genre for 200 years, is now best served by cinema in the first place, or that the border between parody and sincerity isn’t so weak that horror films can end up tripping backwards straight out of the door they just arrived through. How Possum can be treated independently of the fact that director Matthew Holness is a maker of parodies and written about as if he hadn’t now made another one, is a mystery. What is Sean Harris pulling that face for, exactly, if not that?

I bring this up having watched Mandy and the 1996 Clive Barker film Lord of Illusions back to back, two horror stories about cult leaders and the people they destroy, both of which are in more complicated relationships with their audience than either Hill House or The Witch. The dripping latex and early granular CGI in Barker’s film date it precisely to the minute, and although occult noir and its magical private investigators is a rock solid genre, Barker ultimately has a foreigner’s perspective rather than an innate feel for its tensions. But he and his fictions remain the only horror brand I really connect with, fully social and psychosexual and analogue. Barker’s starting point is always Jean Cocteau and Orphée, dreams and the sub-conscious, and he believes the old Cocteau principle of combining unsettling concepts with accessible imagery. The closer you get to a mystery, the more important it is to be realistic,” said the old boy, and he was right. Barker’s also a libertine in the finest sense, and his films are voluptuously sexual.

Mandy is as voluptuous as a knee injury, and its presiding spirit is less Jean Cocteau and more Jim Steinman. To let ironic homage take the place of actual self-knowledge—and most certainly take the place of horror’s highest engagement with social comment or cohesion, which Panos Cosmatos doesn’t seem to have much interest in if this and Beyond The Black Rainbow are anything to go by—is to drag any art towards fan service, of which one drop goes a long way. Beyond The Black Rainbow presages some of Mandys specific shots but does without its dollops of shaggy hysteria, replacing it instead with a trancey-stupor metaphysical style conspicuously waving at Stanley Kubrick and Nic Roeg. But fan credentials will out, so it ends with a quote from Buckaroo Banzai. Once upon a time, a quote from Buckaroo Banzai was because the director had seen it and you hadn’t; now it’s just a statement of status, the least secret secret-handshake imaginable.

I’m particularly exercised here because one dvd on Cosmatos’s shelf is clearly Hellraiser, my favourite Barker of all, summoned explicitly when one of Mandys bad guys whistles up some demonic biker types, leather-clad wheezing rubes who are Cenobites by way of Psychomania. Meanwhile Black Rainbow has a flashback of the villain’s transmogrification via a pit of black ooze shot in high-contrast colour-coded negative, which sent me to Barker’s old short The Forbidden, shot in authentic negative and which ends with Pete Atkins covered in Vesalius anatomical etchings and adopting a very similar pose to camera. But Barker was falling back on instinct and symbolism and a budget of ten pounds fifty, and Cosmatos is apparently just falling back on Barker.

18 November 2018

monster squad

I was late to Dan Brereton’s comics, thinking that his Nocturnals series two decades ago was a straightforward horror comic. In fact it was Charles Addams plus HP Lovecraft plus Sergio Leone; and Brereton has throttled back on the actual horror ever since anyway, sending his sympathetic monsters into stories that now are not all that far from YA fables of parental love and childhood loss. But the art is the thing, Brereton’s swirling Fauvist painting that never looked straightforward in the first place. Just when Alex Ross’s version of Norman Rockwell sentiment and a Batman who looked like an oils portrait of Gregory Peck was spoken of as a great leap forward, Brereton struck out into a malleable, soft world of livid pigments, where the Bat signal was a splodge of cream-coloured paint with the brushstrokes showing.

The January cover-date issue of Comic Scene magazine is a Halloween and horror issue, and there’s a piece in there by me about Nocturnals, and why Brereton’s art is in the strong tradition of American macabre. I covered some of this ground last year for Tripwire too, after seeing how Brereton’s art has evolved over the last couple of decades.

31 October 2018

modestly blazed

The trick for a good pastiche is to just keep going when you get to the end of the runway. Goldtiger arrives as a mock Swinging Sixties newspaper strip about Lily Gold and Jack Tiger, an oversexed dynamic duo not a million miles from Modesty Blaise banging Jason King, who wander into a spy plot rescued from Ian Fleming’s wastepaper bin while most of their clothes fall off. Then the second half takes a turn for the meta, when the strip’s artist gets the hump with his editors and starts playing God in the story—which of course he already was anyway. He intervenes in the strip personally, unplugging the supervillain’s death machine and eventually pressed against the open side of the final panels like a mime in a glass box. The strip’s opening three words are Nice and smooth,” a signal flare to fans of Grant Morrison about what’s up before the first panel is over, after which Guy Adams and the artist known as Jimmy Broxton garnish their fandango with made-up 1970s magazines called things like Ausflippen and psychedelic albums by one Zack Frappa. Their final pretence is that the swinging duo nearly wound up in 2000AD, a joke you would guess was added after Rebellion picked up Goldtiger from its original self-publishing path.

Now 2000AD has published Adams and Broxton’s new strip Hope, which also plays games with history, and again on a path which is fairly well-worn, the one where magic and sorcery are part of the post-war Hollywood norm. Occult noir is an evergreen comics genre that has kept John Constantine in business for years, and might be even stronger in cinema—everyone’s come around to Angel Heart but Clive Barker’s Lord of Illusions still awaits its due—and although Hope is less ambitious than all those, and less ambitious than Goldtiger really, the strip’s shadowy style and wan ink washes and runes snaking over the page like smog makes for an effectively pungent atmosphere, somewhere adjacent to a 1980s Warren comic. I read the collected first story arc, the one called Hope…For The Future, and reviewed it for Tripwire.

28 October 2018


Paul Schrader’s last couple of films involved Nicolas Cage shouting and as it happens I preferred the one that Schrader vehemently disowned, but in theory First Reformed is lower key in every way—except that a fixed camera and square frame and no music and long philosophical dialogues are just as blunt a manipulation as any other. Schrader has been tending this turf of male loss-of-faith for decades, although as he himself said all of 15 years ago:

The hypothesis is that if you reduce your sensual awareness rigorously and for long enough, the inner need will explode and it will be pure because it will not have been siphoned off by easy or exploitative identification; it will have been refined and compressed to its true identity, the divine sense.

Which makes First Reformed seem like something of a culmination. As a film of ideas about doubt and aguish in a doomed world it seems hard to dismiss, partly because the ideas arrive in a ceaseless stream, agonies everywhere. A very blunt sequence in which Ethan Hawke’s tormented priest and Amanda Seyfried’s grieving widow levitate into an airborne dreamscape during a fully-clothed erotic encounter with dissonant atonal music on the soundtrack will be the make-or-break point for most people. But the helpless wails and animal growling Hawke makes when he sees Seyfried in the church at the end are dire enough to make anyone who might have some point in life have found themselves making similar noises dig their nails into the armrest in empathy and recognition, one of art’s highest goals since forever.

Speaking of anguished cries. At this point in time I salute any British film that doesn’t succumb to the dire siren song of realism, since the results of that only ever seem to be council estate aggro propping up the programme of domestic film festivals. Surrealism instead of realism, fine; romanticism instead of realism, double-plus fine. Pin Cushion is terrifically photographed and edited, with its creator Deborah Haywood pouring enough of her own heart towards the performers that a lot of it bounces straight back from them intact, and the framework of young girls emerging from childhood in scenarios that are at least adjacent to fairytales is eternally solid. But the methods employed are ones that a viewer will have to make their own peace with, and after due consideration I’ve decided not to give them house room.

Bullying, whether childhood or adult, is the third rail, so visceral is most people’s reaction to the sight of personal tyranny and intimidation reenacted for narrative fiction purposes, even in the fairytale bight blue Neverland of Pin Cushion. Apart from the 0.8 percent of people who had a blissful adolescence, bullying is sandpaper on the nerves of everyone. Young people have reasons to be uncomfortable watching, parents really have reasons to be uncomfortable watching, and a sane viewer is forced to vacillate between appalled recognition and the bottomless abyss of human nature. For sure these particular agonies should not be ruled out—nothing should be ruled out—as a tool for art or for artists to process their own memories and traumas and present the results, but the discomfort and crushing regrets that it conjures have to be processed and accounted for by the art, not just served up on a plate.

And in Pin Cushion that’s just the half of it, since I also reject the mother character, where Haywood strays onto the exploitation minefield. No praise too high for Joanna Scanlan, but to see her character limp on as a hunchback is to know immediately what Haywood has gone for and to question the enterprise. I get that in this oddball fairytale landscape a hunchback fits the symbolic bill, but it becomes clear not only that the character is going to have to check out so that her daughter can be reborn in a better home elsewhere, but also that Haywood is not going to allow any context for the tortures and torments of the character. The narrative manipulation by which both parent and child are lying to each other simultaneously while adrift in seas of loss and regret and torment is already close to intolerable, even before the mother reacts to her daughter’s wish to cut the cord by taking a hacksaw to her own hump. At her lowest point she sucks what is without doubt the dummy her daughter used as a baby, by which point Haywood may have ventured into the territory of mental health without due deference or balance. Either way, the character’s anguished wails and sublimated horrors of life as a misfit and the (unreliable, I suppose) information that she once wandered the streets looking to be raped like some circus freak was the point where at least one viewer lost his temper. All kudos to Haywood for making something so personal and, by BFI-funded standards, a transmission from the far ultra-violet end of the spectrum. But problematic art has to earn its authority like any other.