Film bits and bobs
First published by Little White Lies
Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship and Videotape
Normally the news of another film by Jake West, director of Razor Blade Smile, Evil Aliens and Doghouse, would be accompanied by a general shrug of low expectations, but Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship and Videotape is both very well made and, more importantly, very well timed. This hour-long documentary traces how the unprecedented freedoms in film viewing brought about by the home video revolution of the early ’80s soon led to an irrational and ill-informed backlash by the press, religious campaigning groups and politicians, until eventually a long list of so-called ‘video nasties’ was banned and a system of compulsory classification for videos was established, changing forever the shape of film distribution and access in the UK.
Hilariously opening with a rapid, context-free montage of the nastiest scenes from each and every banned title, West’s film defies its viewers to be corrupted and depraved by this sensational parade of grand guignol, before presenting the historical context, reception and influence of these films and their distribution, and exposing the motivations behind their banning as at best small-minded patrician idiocy and at worst a Thatcherite conspiracy to erode civil liberties and strip away judicial powers.
Alongside carefully collated file footage and clippings from the times, there are new interviews with academics, critics and filmmakers who line up now (as very few did then) to pour public scorn on the banning decisions, while Sir Graham Bright (who introduced the Video Recordings Act 1984) and Peter Kruger (former operational head of the Obscene Publications Squad) step forward, gamely yet lamely, to defend their past (and abiding) censure of these 72 supposedly ‘evil’ movies. The issues with which West’s film deals are serious, but his light touch and expert use of dialectic juxtapositions ensure that Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship and Videotape is also never less than entertaining.
The film’s real hero turns out to be Martin Barker, an academic who in 1984 seemed a lone voice in his opposition to all the censorship and assaults on freedom, and who was greatly vilified for his efforts at the time. What a contrast, then, in the hearty applause that met his appearance on the post-film discussion panel, alongside chair Damon Wise, West himself, producer Marc Morris, director Tobe Hooper, The Dark Side editor Allan Bryce, and BBFC representative David Hyman. Yet while it might be imagined that we now live in more enlightened times, everyone was aware that one film (the I Spit On Your Grave remake) could be screened only in a cut version at this very Festival, and another (A Serbian Film) had to be pulled from the programme altogether after the BBFC insisted on 79 (!) cuts.
So Barker’s insistence that we all need to keep watching the BBFC very closely came with a renewed sense of urgency that was hardly dispelled by some panelists’ (to my mind rather misguided) suggestion that censorship is dead in the age of the digital download (try telling that to the Chinese). Unfortunately a rather nervous Hyman’s response on behalf of his organisation was cut short when time ran out.
The success of 28 Days Later… and 2004’s Dawn of the Dead remake ensured that the rest of the noughties saw a veritable epidemic of zombie movies. It was a genre revival that peaked in 2005, when FrightFest opened with a special back-to-back screening of George A Romero’s original ‘Holy Trinity’, premiered Romero’s fourth zombie instalment Land of the Dead, and showed a further three new zombie-related films (Dead Meat, The Roost, Day of the Dead 2: Contagium).
These days, though, pure overkill has made zombies begin to putrefy once again, while vampires have recently muscled in on the undead action – so it is telling that there is only one zombie flick at this year’s FrightFest. Still, The Dead, written, directed, edited, produced and shot by English advertising brothers Howard and Jonathan Ford, is a welcome addition to this crowded subgenre.
Arguably all that is strictly new here is the African setting, and even that will be familiar to players of Resident Evil 5 – but there is something rather refreshing in the Fords’ reversion to the old school tropes of Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Here zombies are slow (and never actually called ‘zombies’), a deadly seriousness excludes the sort of postmodern irony that has often taken over this decade’s walking dead, and the fatalistic resignation of protagonist Brian Murphy (Rob Freeman) – “we’re all dead anyway” is one of his first lines – ensures that a suitable sense of doom pervades the film from its plane-crash beginning to its wall-breach end. Here, all human effort seems futile in preventing the massed undead from ‘coming to get you.’
Lieutenant Murphy is an American engineer with a mercenary outfit in West Africa when a virulent outbreak rapidly causes the dead to feed on the living. When he is saved by local militiaman Daniel Dembele (Prince David Osei), the pair overcome their wary hostility and join forces against the encroaching chaos as Murphy tries to find a way home to his wife and daughter, and Dembele searches for his young son – but even as a bond of brotherhood is forged between these two very different men, their new enemy is ubiquitous, relentless and hungry, every road taken leads nowhere, and hope seems destined to be a mere trinket left lying in a pool of blood. It is the apocalypse, all right, and the better for being told so straight – although its adherence to Romero’s shuffling conventions does not extend to the film offering any coherent contemporary social commentary.
Here West Africa seems to be serving merely as an exotic, alienating background for a white middle-class fish out of water, rather than as the locus of any more specific geopolitical subtext – the film might equally have been set in, say, Thailand, Mongolia or even Canada’s Northwest Territories, with only a few cosmetic changes to the plot necessary. At least the never-before-seen locations from Ghana and Burkina Faso provide an abundance of awe-inspiring 35mm spectacle – despite a nightmare production plagued by armed robbery, vehicular accidents, missing equipment, extortion and malaria, the last of which left the lead Freeman hospitalised mid-shoot, and nearly joining the ranks of the dead for real.
Jang Cheol-soo‘s feature debut is a tale of two women – the one who got away, and the other left behind. When selfish, single Hae-won (Ji Sung-won) is suspended from her banking job in Seoul, she decides to visit the idyllic island of Moo-do where her grandfather once lived. There she is reunited with her kind-hearted childhood friend Bok-nam (Seo Yung-hee) who, as the only young woman living there, has become a virtual slave to the other eight remaining residents. Regularly subjected to exploitation, abuse and rape, Bok-nam asks Hae-won to help her escape to Seoul with her adolescent daughter (now also beginning to draw the attention of the male populace).
Not for the first time, Hae-won turns her back on her old friend, and as events turn to tragedy, Bok-nam succumbs to madness, exacting a terrible vengeance on all who have made her life hell, and teaching Hae-won that no (wo)man is an island.
“A woman’s most happy with a dick in her mouth,” comments one of the female elders on Moo-do, summarising the harsh environment and perverse ideology that inform Bok-nam’s treatment since birth – denied any education, beaten just for speaking her mind, tasked with never-ending labour for which she is never appreciated let alone rewarded (“that bitch isn’t worth shit,” the same elder will later comment), used as a sexual plaything by the island’s menfolk, and denied even the most basic freedom to up and leave. Yet while Bok-nam’s privileged and pampered friend from the city is everything that Bok-nam herself both is not and would like to be, ironically it is Hae-won who is the more insulated of the two, living her life removed from responsibility and closed off from the needs of others.
It is this contrast between the two women that energises Bedevilled, a character-driven slowburner that builds ever so deliberately to its murderous climax. Reminiscent of Kim Ki-duk’s The Isle for some of its imagery, and of Kim Ji-woon’s A Tale of Two Sisters for its focus on two women whose intertwined fates match their frazzled psychological states, Jang’s film boasts beautiful natural locations that it captures with even more astonishing cinematography. Yet unfolding on this flower-strewn, sun-soaked stage is a dispiriting human drama full of horrific dysfunction and repression.
Bok-nam’s revenge is as thorough as it is unhinged, but it is also presented with a casual understatement that makes it grotesquely, uncomfortably funny – as though all this blood and death comprises the entertainment, and more importantly the escapism, that the rest of the film has so carefully withheld.
Red White & Blue
Three Kieslowskian hues (although the reference here is more to the US flag), three principal characters, three carefully demarcated (if not quite discrete) acts, and a bizarre triangle of sex, love and death. Like his previous feature The Living and the Dead, British writer/director Simon Rumley’s Red White & Blue seems right at home at festivals like FrightFest without in any way conforming to our conventional expectations of genre. For here horror is rooted in finely sketched characters and in the formalist ellipses and symmetries of Rumley’s storytelling rather than in the superficial appeal of monstrous bogeymen, special effects and sensory overload.
“Look, I don’t stay over, I don’t fall in love and I don’t fuck the same guy twice, okay?” These are the first words we hear Erica (Amanda Fuller) utter, after watching the disconnected drifter trawling bars and hopping beds with a series of casual pickups. One of these is Franki (Marc Senter), a manipulative middle-class mamma’s boy (first line: “hey, Mom… you look beautiful just the way you are”) whose considerable emotional baggage is about to be summarily unpacked by a run of bad news.
His actions might go unnoticed, were it not for Nate (Noah Taylor), the eagle-eyed, softly spoken Iraq War veteran who virtually announces his sociopathic streak by introducing himself to neighbour Erica with an oblique anecdote about how, as a young boy, he used to get a kick out of harming animals. When these three damaged, alienated lives intersect, tragedy inevitably ensues.
Unfolding with a visual and verbal economy that was inspired, according to the director, by the films of Kim Ki-duk, Red White & Blue engages viewers with a directorial restraint that requires our active participation in making all the narrative and thematic connections for ourselves. Whether regarded as a troubled love story, a bloody rite of passage or a twisted tale of revenge, it is utterly gripping – and its focus on flawed characters flawlessly played and fully realised ensures that the horror, when it comes, has a far more devastating emotional impact than than the cartoonish shocks of, say, The Tortured or A Serbian Film.
It may ultimately be tempting to ally Red White & Blue to the ‘torture porn’ subgenre, but here for once the interrogations and brutalities are lent real political resonance through an explicit link to America’s recent history of revenge-driven atrocities abroad. In Rumley’s carnival of lost souls, everyone is already tormented and traumatised long before the knives come out, and the result is the finest film of the festival – a slow-burning tripartite drama that spirals inexorably towards parallel acts of misdirected vengeance, as well as a trip through the darkest corners of the American psyche.
The Last Exorcism
After Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever and Hostel enjoyed their UK premieres at past FrightFest events, it is ironic that The Last Exorcism (which Roth helped produce) should be the first film to bring the noughties horror icon to FrightFest in person – ‘ironic’ because Daniel Stamm’s faux documentary, written by merry mockumentary pranksters Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland (Mail Order Wife), shares none of the graphic violence or gore that has come to typify the Roth oeuvre. Instead, it packages a subtle dialectic between faith and skepticism (or at least between outright gullibility and the willing suspension of disbelief) in the wrapping of a demonic chiller.
After years of cheating believers out of their money by staging exorcisms of demons that he has himself long ceased to believe actually exist, charismatic preacher Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) invites a small documentary film crew to join him on one of his call-outs and “expose exorcism for the scam it really is.” Clearly there is something amiss on the Sweetzers’ Louisiana farm. Its recently widowed, Christian fundamentalist owner Louis (Louis Herthum) insists that a devil is making his home-schooled 16-year-old daughter Nell (Ashley Bell) mutilate livestock in the night – but Cotton, spotting precisely the sort of deluded psychological dysfunction that his performances are designed to treat, begins the girl’s holy therapy, all the while showing his crew (and us) the many tricks of his trade.
After the exorcism is complete, however, Nell’s behaviour becomes more unruly, and as Cotton seeks the underlying cause of all her horrific physical contortions and disturbing utterances, and struggles to protect the troubled girl from her increasingly aggressive father, it begins to seem that there may be a devil at work after all.
Introducing the European premiere of his film on-stage, Stamm claimed he had always said European audiences would get his film, before pleading: “So please get it tonight.” This was not mere currying of FrightFesters’ favour – for there truly is something to get in a film that first goes out of its way to reveal how to fabricate a possession before presenting us with a terrifyingly convincing simulacrum of the real thing, and then going on to suggest that all of the supporting characters have been involved in a diabolically complicated charade of their own.
Even the film’s use of manipulative editing and added score – elements which the subsequent Q&A revealed annoyed and disconcerted some viewers – had a crucial part to play in its meaning and interpretation as a polished product rather than the sort of ‘found footage’ seen in The Blair Witch Project or Cloverfield. Here, the medium truly is part of the message.
The Last Exorcism is like The Exorcist (and The Wicker Man) mixed with F for Fake, and it is only after the full-impact shock of the surprise ending has worn off that viewers can pick themselves up and work their way back to all the equivocations that the rest of the film has so carefully put in place. To say that The Last Exorcism will play just as well to the Bible Belt as to hipster infidels is not only to recognise the commercial canniness of the filmmakers, but also to recognise Stamm’s (not to mention his fictive filmmaker’s) consummate handling of ambiguity.
For the devil remains in the details as to whether this ends up being just another film about satanic goings-on, or a work of multi-layered charlatanism designed to give us, in return for our money, precisely the cathartic treatment that we desire.