To honour the arrival of Halloween, I’ve cast my mind back to half a dozen movies that have scared me no end. Note – they aren’t all necessarily ‘horror’ movies in the sense that they fit snugly into that genre, more that they carry all the qualities of a good scary movie – they’re disturbing and visually distinctive.
Great Expectations (1946)
The Gothic, ‘spooky’ potential in Charles Dickens’ seminal Victorian parable found exactly the right canvas in David Lean’s gorgeous 1946 adaptation (incidentally, this is easily my favourite Lean film). Guy Green’s gorgeous black and white photography helped, but Lean got everything right – from the eerily atmospheric opening scene of Magwitch and Pip in the church graveyard, to Miss Havisham’s baroque, dilapidated mansion (Lean even cast a very similar looking Miss Havisham and Estella to suggest the younger’s sinister morphing into the elder), and one of the great ‘pathetic fallacy’ sequences where the return of Magwitch is augured by a bleak wind burrowing through slate grey Victorian skies of London.
Throne of Blood (1957)
Macbeth is one of the great horror stories, not just in the obvious (the witches and ‘supernatural’ content) but in its profoundly dark depiction of how the seed of butchery and nihilism insidiously takes hold in such a seemingly upright citizen. Although Throne of Blood is a very loose re-working of Macbeth, it captures the terror of the story best. Again, like Great Expectations, black and white photography seems to lend a visual clarity to its depictions of horror, and Akira Kurosawa’s abstract conception of Lady Washizu (the nominal Lady Macbeth) emerging/descending into black-hued abysses is mesmeric image-making.
Don’t Look Now (1973)
I watched this film alone and relatively unsuspectingly while a student, and not surprisingly I didn’t sleep a wink that night! It’s a profoundly disturbing film, brilliantly made (in fact, it transcends its horror trappings to be comfortably one of the best ever British films), and it’s a great essay on the nature of ‘looking’ and the perils of living in denial and repressing one’s grief.
The Sixth Sense (1999)
I’m probably in an extreme minority here, helped by the fact that M. Night Shyamalan’s career nosedived spectacularly from this point onwards, but I think The Sixth Sense is one of the most proficient, impressive pieces of Classical Hollywood storytelling over the last decade or two. Yes, it doesn’t have the transcendentally dark undertones of some of the other films I’ve selected here, and yes, it gets a tad sentimental toward the end, but its perfectly mined air of uncanny, spine-tingling mystery is sustained expertly throughout, and I don’t care what anyone else says – the twist at the end is bravura filmmaking.
Inland Empire (2006)
David Lynch has mined the ‘freak show’, sinister potential of Hollywood better than any other filmmaker. Mulholland Drive would be a suitable addition to this list, but probably in terms of pure horror and its dystopian depiction of the Hollywood ‘machine’, I’d have to go for his Inland Empire – probably the biggest head-fuck of a movie (in a good, genius way) that I’ve seen.
Under the Skin (2014)
If you haven’t seen this film yet – then I urge you to, it’s brilliant. It’s a staggering, subversive mind-fuck that belies any conclusive, empirical analysis – however, let me at least try….It’s a haunting depiction of how – if you saw this world with alien eyes – our landscape and social behaviour would seem very strange and cold. It’s also a gallows depiction of male sexuality, and features some sequences that are as genuinely scary as anything I’ve seen in the movies for the last few years.
Under the Skin (2014)
Director: Jonathan Glazer
Actors: Scarlett Johansson, Paul Brannigan, Adam Pearson
Synopsis: In Scotland, a young woman (Scarlett Johansson), cruises the streets in a white van, seeking to lure men back to her property for nefarious reasons…
Review: I usually chastise filmmakers overly immersed in the aesthetics of their piece, and Under the Skin is a film that’s all about aesthetic – but vitally so – and what aesthetic at that! For it’s a film that’s entirely subsumed in the senses, in the art of looking, of seeing and feeling things as if for the first time – the privileging of the tactile and the intuitive over the explanatory.
What Jonathan Glazer does especially well is in taking a canvas that in some respects is familiar enough – Glasgow and Scotland (the city centre, the tower blocks, the council estates, the Highlands, the lochs, the forests) – and makes it utterly beautiful, sensual and otherworldly (befitting the narrative context, clearly).
It’s a film that almost belies any attempt to condense or ‘understand’ it. For sure, there are numerous asides and sub-readings one can make. I took it as a very ‘gallows’ satire of male sexuality – how plenty of men would happily get in a car with a pretty girl, no matter how vacant she may seem, for the promise of a leg-over (documented ironically with these men, erect phalluses and all, walking hypnotically to their death knell). There’s undoubtedly meta-textual mileage in the juxtaposition of a Hollywood starlet and the blue-collar Glasgow milieu (Johannson’s van drives through Celtic fans marching to Celtic Park at one point), and was it me, or were the abstractly haunting death scenes uncannily similar to the black and white-hued abysses of Lady Washizu in Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood?
In short, it’s an immense piece of pure cinema – with Glazer seeking to use the medium to transcend rather than to reduce, and in doing so, he’s created one of the most artful and memorable British films for many a year. (October 2014)
Taxi Driver (1976)
Director: Martin Scorsese
Actors: Robert De Niro, Cybill Shepherd, Jodie Foster
Synopsis: A lonely, insomniac New York taxi driver, Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), develops an obsession with two women: Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) – a pretty girl working on the presidential campaign for Senator Palantine, and Iris (Jodie Foster) – a teenager working as a prostitute.
Review: To watch Taxi Driver is to bear witness to one of the ultimate acts of cinematic alchemy. It’s one of those films that transcends the simple world ‘cinema’, and extends into the realm of art. It’s a life-force, it’s a thing of pure, wild energy – it is. It’s also a work where every constituent element converges perfectly – the direction (amazing use of slo-mo and voiceover in particular from Scorsese), the story, the dialogue, the simply amazing central performance from Robert De Niro, Bernard Herrmann’s fantastic musical score, the stellar support cast – uniformly brilliant, and even the canvas of New York City in the mid-Seventies conspires with the material. I would classify it as one those rare films (there are perhaps only a dozen in one’s lifetime) that had me utterly immersed, gripped and enthralled for the entirety of its running time, and then subsequently lodged in my conscious for days after.
Perhaps the main reason why it is so uncannily effective, is that it’s an absolutely nailed-on portrait of solipsism in its purest form – and I’m sure the film offers a great case study for psychologists in identifying the mutant forms in which that solipsism can takes hold, e.g. in Travis’ instance as a lethal cocktail of narcissism, paranoia and gross sociopathy.
Taxi Driver has so many classic and immemorial sequences, but watching it for the umpteenth time, less obvious scenes drew my attention. Travis and Betsy’s first ‘date’ – having coffee and cake one lunchtime – is an absolute masterclass of direction, acting and tremendous writing from Paul Schrader. You have to watch it twice to realise that what’s happening is not really a meeting or conversation at all, Travis and Betsy simply do not connect one iota from their respective polar dreamworlds, and Travis in particular proves completely incapable of understanding or having the cultural references to develop any rapport with Betsy. Scorsese also crucially excludes Travis from only one scene in the entire film, and this is no accident, as that different perspective highlights the complexity (completely reversing Travis’ tendency to over-simplify everything) of Iris’ entanglement with her pimp, Sport.
The end-scene is sublime – is it an ironic reversal of fortune for Travis, a wish-fulfilment exercise in his head, or a fantasy projection after he’s died? The mere existence of these alternative readings attests to the richness of Scorsese’s work, and the success he’s had in taking us inside the intense, hypnotic and hellish mind of his unreliable narrator. (October 2014)
Django Unchained (2012)
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Actors: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio
Synopsis: Travelling German bounty hunter, Dr Schultz (Christoph Waltz), frees slave Django (Jamie Foxx) from a chain gang, and enlists his help on various missions. In return, Schultz promises to take Django to the residence of famed plantation owner, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), so Django can free his enslaved wife.
Review: A Quentin Tarantino picture is by definition a ‘must-see’, and his back-catalogue has rightly earned him the privilege of our attention (to coin a phase used by Jamie Foxx and Leonardo DiCaprio’s characters in this Tarantino film). Tarantino is always playing and inventing with his medium, and his filmscapes invariably throw up interesting dramatic, political and cinephilic paradigms.
Django Unchained arguably has most to offer as a sly political-cultural work. Wrapped up in its seeming Spaghetti Western/Blaxploitation/Gangsta riff are actually a couple of quite prevalent points about black identity. One is the notion that the ‘self-hating’ black man is a phenomenon directly linked to the legacy of the culture of slavery, the other is that Django ironically ‘self-realises’ through a proto-process of more familiar, contemporary black male posturing – he’s cool, badass, and stronger and smarter than the white guys.
Sadly, it is at times quite an undramatic film – particularly in its second half, and there are two clunky ellipses or ‘leaps of faith’ required by the audience that dissipate the strength of the drama. The first, as I alluded to earlier, is that Django morphs into an intelligent, cocky freeman suspiciously quickly. I know his mentor, Dr Schultz, asks him to “act the part”, but the move from mute, disempowered slave to steely-eyed hero feels arbitrary. Second, Samuel L. Jackson’s ‘Uncle Tom’ stumbling across Django’s plan to free his wife, is a clear case of convenient dramatic ellision – a transparent sense that Tarantino wants to rush on the plot at that time, even though there’s no real sense that Jackson’s character should be wary. In some of the longer scenes too, Tarantino gives the impression he’s feeling for a touch of his old dialogue golddust, yet it never really quite comes off. That said, the opening stretch of the film is evocative and funny, due in no small part to the excellent turn by Christoph Waltz as the loquacious German bounty-hunter who sets in motion some of the wittier and more subtle asides about the American South at this time. (October 2014)
We are the Best! (2013)
Director: Lukas Moodysson
Actors: Mira Barkhammar, Mira Grosin, Liv LeMoyne
Synopsis: In 1980s Stockholm, three schoolgirls – all nominal ‘outsiders’ – join forces to form a female punk band…
Review: This sweet, compassionate drama about the burgeoning shoots of adolescent realisation in three young Swedish girls (as emblematised in their attempt to form an all-girl punk band) is a finely judged piece of cinema from Lukas Moodysson.
Befitting the plucky spirit and inherent gaucheness of his three protagonists, Moodysson keeps the scenario simple, avoiding the temptation to overly determine and politicise the story. Instead, We are the Best! is a gentle ode to female camaraderie and that precious time in a young person’s life (between approximately the ages of eleven to thirteen) where they’re on the cusp of teenage – and by extension, adult – concerns such as identity, sexuality and their general ‘ideological’ consciousness.
It’s nicely filmed as well by Moodysoon – it’s shot on handheld cameras and with natural light, and the acting – if not exactly improvised – looks like it was probably helped by having a close-knit, relaxed production ethos. Moodysson creates a great sense of place for his wintry Stockholm milieu, and I particularly liked the scene where the three girls go to meet a fellow young punk band in Solna (one of the girls jokes about this being out in the ‘suburbs’) and we get a feel for Swedish municipal housing and how just generally fricking freezing it all looks! (October 2014)
The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Director: Martin Scorsese
Actors: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie
Synopsis: Stockbroker Jordan Belfort (Leonard DiCaprio) builds up an estimable fortune in the Eighties and Nineties, but the hedonism and loose morals of his ways threatens to catch up with him…
Review: The Wolf of Wall Street is a quite staggering piece of relentless, indefatigable cinematic invention, and is testament to the sheer energy (as well as the more cerebral qualities) of Martin Scorsese and Leonard DiCaprio as storytellers.
I know the film has generated many column inches from what are (in my opinion) misappropriated criticisms whereby Scorsese is somehow accused of condoning Jordan Belfort’s grotesque, hedonistic form of Capitalism. That reading has two fundamental flaws; first, it confuses documentation with subjectivity (in this case, condoning), and in many respects, the film reveals just how seasoned and respectful a storyteller Scorsese is. He’s not rubbing our faces in the obvious moral to the story (the one end sequence where Belfort’s prosecuting cop has a quietly victorious ride in the subway besides), as he’d be justified in hoping his audience has the intelligence to apply the subtext anyway. I also think it would be a far worse film tonally and dramatically if Scorsese watered down the excesses of Belfort’s lifestyle and practices (and the verve with which he depicts that), by putting in inorganic, morally equivalent references to ‘victims’ of Belfort’s economics. And finally, the film is art, a ‘treatment’, a good few removes from reality in its characterisation of Belfort and his ethos as one-long nutty, vacuous, chemically-fuelled surge of excess – that’s the only obligation Scorsese has, to commit to the telling of that story.
Of course, it helps that the film in question is plain good too. It almost felt like a blast of old Scorsese, not the establishment pro who has turned in brilliant (if increasingly, workmanlike) pictures in recent years, but the man who almost had copywright on that genre of rich, dense, characterful ‘corruption’ epics which he gave life to some twenty years before with the likes of GoodFellas and Casino. It’s evidence of a filmmaker at the top of his game – the story never lets up at any point, the necessary relentless correlative of narcotic mania from filmmaker to character is sustained the whole way through, and Scorsese is ever inventive (we get the familiar ‘ironic’ narration, there’s plenty of shifts in chronology, some of the scenes are filmed in quasi-screwball, comic style, and there are lots of devices like films-within-films and infomercials merging with the actual storyline). It’s all hugely enjoyable, it’s one of the great Hollywood critiques of Capitalism, and an unqualified triumph for Scorsese and an electric Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role. (October 2014)