Film bits and bobs
First published by Little White Lies
Cherry Tree Lane
You might know Cherry Tree Lane as the address where magical nanny Mary Poppins swept in to sort out a family’s domestic problems – but in different times and a different genre, it has become the place where rather less friendly strangers come a-visiting. Middle-class, middle-aged couple Christine (Rachael Blake) and Mike (Tom Butcher) have just settled down to an evening’s dinner of frosty recriminations when they are interrupted by three uninvited young guests. These boys are waiting for the couple’s teenaged son Sebastian to return home, and the way they beat, bind and gag their terrified hosts shows that they mean business.
Not only does Cherry Tree Lane unfold in real time, and entirely within the confines of this suburban home, but the decision to keep most of the actual violence outside of the staid 35mm frame only adds to the sense of queasy claustrophobia, as we too become prisoners of our own imagination. It is an effect that comes into focus in the film’s final scene, where an unresolved crux invites us to play out our own darkest feelings and frustrations over the closing credits, as we try, within our frazzled consciences, to finish off a story that can never really end.
It is a dispiriting collision of different generations, classes and values, where the only way for either side to reach out to the other appears to be through violence. Comparisons to A Clockwork Orange, The Last House on the Left, Funny Games, The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael and Eden Lake are inevitable, but Paul Andrew Williams brings his own blend of brutality, blankness and banality to the proceedings, upending the bourgeois norms of a society that prefers its problems to stay outside – and there is no Ms Poppins or jolly chimney sweep coming to clean up the mess left behind.
As its title suggests, Robert Lieberman’s The Tortured is unapologetically allied to horror’s most maligned subgenre, ‘torture porn’. Essentially a twisted revenge movie, it tells the story of a cosy middle-class couple (Erika Christensen, Jesse Metcalfe) who decide to pursue their own form of symmetrical justice after the psychopath (horror favourite Bill Moseley) who abducted, tortured and murdered their six-year-old son plea-bargains his way into a relatively light sentence. So as the killer is being transported between prisons, they carry out their own abduction and begin inflicting a series of painful mutilations upon their captive, now bound and helpless, intending to kill him as slowly and agonisingly as possible.
It is a brazenly exploitative premise, but writer Marek Posival uses a series of narrative twists to wring maximum discomfort from the viewer by repeatedly turning the screws on our already battered moral orientation. The film’s title is made to refer not just to the awful physical sufferings of the young boy and (later, when the tables are turned) of his parents’ captive, but also to the all-consuming grief, anger and despair of the parents, and to their victim’s overwhelming sense of guilt and regret. Torments here come in many forms, not all involving hot or sharp instruments – and the couple, one is left to assume, will be tortured to their own dying day by the horror of what they have done. Certainly the film itself never celebrates their vengeful actions, or allows them any easy ethical justification. No-one gets off the hook lightly.
Still, while it may cover a range of thorny issues surrounding crime and punishment, few would accuse this film of subtlety. From its tell-you-how-to-feel soundtrack to its in-your-face editing (at one point the mother’s howl of anguish over her son’s corpse is match cut to her cries in childbirth), The Tortured feels every bit as contrived and manipulative as it actually is. It may at times hit home in hitting hard, but how can the filmmakers miss when they rain down so many bludgeoning blows at once?
Opening with the image of a blood-tinted full moon and produced by the people behind Dog Soldiers (2002), Jonathan Glendening’s 13Hrs hardly makes its ultimate generic affiliations difficult to guess, but nonetheless it begins not as some lycanthropic nightmare, but rather as a drama (or even soap opera, given the presence of Hollyoaks’ Gemma Atkinson and Holby City’s Joshua Bowman) of a propertied family’s decline.
From her voluntary exile in LA, Sarah Tyler (Isabella Calthorpe) returns to the fold to find her once affluent family in as much disrepair as the isolated country estate where they live or the broken-down jeep in the barn. Sarah’s mother is absent, her marriage in tatters. Stepdad Duncan (Simon MacCorkindale) is struggling to pay his errant wife’s bills, let alone the upkeep of the dilapidated home. Sarah’s three half brothers – the eldest (and most decadent) Stephen (Peter Gadiot), middle brother Charlie (Gabriel Thomson), and increasingly even 13-year-old Luke (Anthony DiLiceo) – all idle away their time carousing with their incestuous circle of friends. Yet that very night, the mansion is infiltrated by a wild animal that slaughters anyone in its path – and as Sarah and the others struggle to survive and escape, they risk being torn apart no less by their own bad blood as by the baying beast in their midst.
Glendening’s decision, no doubt influenced in part by budgetary considerations, to reveal his on-screen monster(s) partially and impressionistically not only heightens the film’s tension, but also offers ellipses that are readily filled in with allegory. Here the werewolf seems to embody the violent changes experienced by once established classes as they start paying their monthly dues (and cutting their losses) to keep the bloodline going at any cost – and the solvent, independent, responsible and mobile Sarah represents everything that her family needs if it is to going to transform and adapt to the modern world. She is more than a mere ‘final girl’, and this is something more than a mere creature feature. Still, diehard traditionalists will no doubt have problems with the monster’s unusual appearance, gradually revealed as it eats its way through the haute bourgeoisie like a cancer from within.
I Spit on Your Grave
Following hard in the bloody trail left by Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left, Meir Zarchi’s 1978 shocker I Spit On Your Grave, originally released under the less sensational but more pertinent title Day of the the Woman, laid down the rape-revenge template in its purest yet grimiest form, and was to become one of the most notorious exploitation features of the Seventies, inevitably taking pride of place on the ‘Video Nasties’ list, and to this day available in the UK only in a cut version.
Similarly, Steven R. Monroe’s remake had to be resubmitted to the BBFC in a slightly shorter recut before it would be passed for an 18 certificate, and is being released in the US ‘unrated’ after struggling to qualify for the more profitable R. Its status as just the last in a long line of Noughties rip-offs of the Seventies back catalogue serves only to add yet more layers of exploitation to the project. Still, there can be no denying that, in terms of both production values and performances, this vastly improves on the original – and seeing such raw materials presented in such slick, glossy form raises interesting questions about how far we have really come since the feminist revolutions of the 1970s, and how superficial are the changes in the intervening years. Certainly there are a few new narrative strands to be found in Monroe’s reboot (in particular those concerning a local sheriff), but the overarching story remains unaltered: after being brutally gang-raped in the Louisiana backwoods, a young urban woman (Sarah Butler) returns as an avenging angel (or is it devil? or unrestful ghost?) to give her male attackers their comeuppance, one by one, blow by glory blow.
It is a film of two halves – first rape, then revenge – but despite victim Jennifer’s every attempt to impose a certain symmetry between her sufferings and subsequent actions by constantly quoting the misogynist hillbillies’ words and deeds right back at them, Monroe repeatedly subverts the story’s inherently reactionary tendencies precisely by highlighting all the asymmetries. The cruel torments and punishments meted out by Jennifer do not so much match the men’s crimes as grotesquely parody them, and we are left uncertain how much our modulating responses to all this artificially balanced on-screen depravity might in part be conditioned by our differing attitudes towards men and women, or towards the marginalised rural underclass and the more urbanised, moneyed mainstream that American cinema prefers to place at its centre.
A minor humiliation accidentally inflicted by Jennifer on one of these rednecks at the beginning of the film is what leads them to assume, horrifically, that the ‘stuck-up city bitch’ is just asking for what they ultimately ‘give’ her – but the disproportionate extremity of their actions foreshadows and frames her own, equally disproportionate and even more extreme acts of violence, served cold and calculated. If anyone merits punishment here, then everyone does – including the viewer, inevitably complicit with one character’s errant voyeurism, if thankfully immune to the eye-for-an-eye justice that is visited upon him. The only hint that there is any satisfaction to be had from all this escalating horror is reserved for the film’s final, confronting frame, at a point where such satisfaction rings hollow and we are left numbly wondering about what will happen, or indeed may already have happened, to the next generation. Certainly this remake will not leave everyone smiling, but by taking a modern myth and turning it into a moral minefield, it earns its place in the annals of unease.
If the opening scene of Monsters shows a US soldier humming the theme to Ride of the Valkyries as he rides in on an armoured jeep, it will not be the only evocation of Apocalypse Now to be found in the film, as Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) and Samantha Wynden (Whitney Able) take a trip up river into America’s apocalyptic heart of darkness – but then, their romantic adventures in the jungle also have something of The African Queen about them. For despite its title, and the occasional presence of giant squid-like bioluminescent aliens, Gareth Edwards’ feature debut has appeal that extends far beyond the usual SF/horror crowd, and is certainly one of the standout films of the whole festival weekend.
In the near future, after a space probe has accidentally brought extra-terrestrial lifeforms crashing down to earth, the military is trying (and failing) to contain them in a huge quarantined area. When Samantha is injured in an alien attack upon her hotel down south, her American media magnate father asks Andrew, a press photographer working locally, to bring Samantha back home. The pair sets off on a perilous journey north through the Infected Zone that runs between Central America and the US, along the way recognising a part of themselves in the aliens.
Monsters may have been made for a minuscule budget, but it boasts truly awe-inspiring creature effects and spectacular use of real (but CG-enhanced) locations. Yet while Evans never forgets to find beauty in all the danger, the real hook here comes from the emotional path traveled by the two human characters, whose tender, fragile relationship is perfectly modulated by Jon Hopkins’ shimmering soundtrack, and lent palpable chemistry by McNairy and Able’s status as a real-life couple. So this tale of strangers in a strange land finds room for the intimately personal alongside the cosmic – and there is a political dimension too, as America’s insularity, knee-jerk militarism and policy on aliens at the Mexican border, are exposed in all their monstrosity.
Anyone trying to get a foothold on the property ladder knows that the market can be murder, but the vagaries of housing prices, the devastating impact of the recession and all the anxieties of upwardly mobile aspirations have remained strangely untouched by horror – until now, that is, with Pang Ho-cheung’s Dream Home converting the realities of Hong Kong’s post-handover economy (‘this is based on a true story’, a hilarious caption states at the beginning) into a gloriously gory slasher. If the opening montage of the city’s highrise buildings induces a sort of vertigo, then the film’s subsequent shifts in tone from horror to comedy to pathos and back again, and its involving non-chronological structure, prove every bit as disorienting, both intellectually and morally.
As, one night in 2007, downtrodden, insanely ambitious Cheng Lai-sheung (Josie Ho) sneaks into a swanky apartment building and goes on a ruthlessly methodical and apparently pointless killing spree against its bewildered residents, an interlocking series of flashbacks gradually reveals the story of who she is, why she is so driven to own an apartment with a harbour view, and what chain of frustrations and disappointments has led her to this final, desperate act. Directing with real panache and great visual flair, and deftly handling his time-shifting plotline, Pang brings our sympathies and revulsion into confounding collision. On the one hand we are shown Lai-sheung slicing and dicing her way through eleven total strangers (including a heavily pregnant woman) in graphic set pieces staged with darkly funny invention and breathtaking excess, but at the same time her conduct is fully contextualised – if never quite justified – by her (and Hong Kong’s) history of misfortunes and injustices. Sure Lai-sheung is crazy, but she is also made the embodiment of a ‘crazy city’, full of corruption and criminality at every level of society, where she seems, at last, right at home. So you will certainly have fun house-hunting in Lai-sheung’s company, even if you might not want to be her neighbour…