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Carrie – The Musical

Carrie program

Carrie program

On Friday I went with the friend I first saw Brian de Palma’s Carrie with in high school, to the Australian premiere of Carrie – The Musical. It did not disappoint!

Fans of the novel which propelled Stephen King to fame as well as de Palma’s iconic work will appreciate this intelligent and absorbing interpretation from independent music theatre company Squabbalogic. Playing in the intimate surrounds of Sydney’s Reginald Theatre (a little like your living room, if your living room had tiered seats and a small group of musicians tucked to one side), the production emphasises psychological story over horror spectacle. It’s tonally rather similar to those other musical tales of misfits, Hairspray and Grease, but never loses sight of Carrie’s much darker trajectory as a character. Hilary Cole is terrific in the lead role.

My retrospective review will appear in RealTime in early 2014. In the meantime, I thoroughly recommend Squabbalogic’s production.

The Australian premiere season of Carrie – The Musical runs from November 13-30 at the Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, Sydney.

Carrie_ticket

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Patrick

Patrick_MarkHartley[This review was originally written for Filmink magazine]

The biggest challenge faced by anyone who makes a film about a comatose erotomaniac with psychokinetic powers, is that of maintaining a sense of urgency and dynamism when the chief antagonist remains in a persistent vegetative state. It’s a challenge Richard Franklin didn’t quite meet in his memorable yet not entirely satisfying 1978 thriller Patrick; this remake from Mark Hartley, however, ensures through expert manipulation of atmospheric horror that Patrick’s malevolent presence is palpable throughout. If anyone should know how to deploy horror effectively, it’s Hartley, director of documentary cinema histories Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation (2008) and Machete Maidens Unleashed! (2010). His awareness of the devices of 1970s and early 80s genre cinema is very much on display here in his first fictional feature.

Though ostensibly set in the present, with incorporation of smartphones and social media, Patrick is in most respects a period piece, stylistically redolent of late 70s Argento in its reliance on Gothic spaces and Catholic paraphernalia, the exploitation of reflective surfaces and the frozen, rather fetishised quality of its death scenes. An extravagant score from Pino Donaggio (Don’t Look Now, Carrie) further enhances this retro quality, as does retention of some of the 1978 version’s florid dialogue. The original Patrick boasted Robert Helpmann and Julia Blake as the sinister Doctor Roget and Matron Cassidy; Charles Dance and Rachel Griffiths are worthy successors in Hartley’s version, while as Nurse Kathy Jacquard, the unfortunate object of Patrick’s affection, Sharni Vinson displays the sympathetic vitality that made her a such a memorable horror heroine in You’re Next (2011).

Hartley isn’t afraid to camp it up with lightning, mist and picturesque gloom, but he knows how to use these classically rather than as gratuitous clichés. Patrick is everything a remake should be: not a slavish copy, but a work which, through a deep appreciation of the original, forges its own identity.

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Sinister

SinisterThere are films which fizz with a malignant energy: Sinister (Scott Derrickson, 2012) is one of them. Its very narrative is spun around the idea of malevolent footage, in the form of a collection of horrific Super 8 home movies. These family vignettes transform inexorably into snuff films before the shocked gaze of Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke), a true crime writer who stumbles across the cache in the course of researching a recent unsolved family murder.

As in the Ring films, the movies within this movie are imprinted with an indelible evil which will harm those who view them. Sinister heightens the audience’s dread by replaying the toxic fragments again and again, revealing a little more each time as Ellison rewinds and pauses in an attempt to discern an elusive killer. The deeper he delves, the more evil accretes. A hissing, throbbing, voodoo-inflected track sounds each time a film is played. This soundtrack complements and jars, its warped, upbeat fuzziness a fitting aural counterpart to the images onscreen. Together, these elements are responsible for Sinister‘s distinctive, abrasive texture—one of its defining features.

Sinister uses shocks sparingly, depending more on a sense of creeping unease. Time often feels slowed down, as in the home movies, or during a lyrical sequence towards the end of the film where Ellison walks down his hallway, shadowed in turn by a number of dead children. While its monster is depicted perhaps a little too explicitly, the film is generally too assured to succumb to horror cliché. Reflecting the experience of its main character, played with conviction by Hawke, this is an intensely focused, almost claustrophobic film. There’s no escape from these images.

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A Night of Horror 2013: Crave

CraveThough I found myself a little unwell on the last weekend of Sydney’s annual horror film festival, I’m glad I summoned the strength to see Crave (2012), a thought-provoking thriller from the US directed by Charles de Lauzirika.

Initially taking on the guise of a laddish rom-com, Crave is a slippery film which lulls us into a false sense of security before pulling the rug from under our feet. Its protagonist, Aiden, is a crime scene photographer angry about the violence his work confronts him with, as well as his inability to effect change both universally and within his personal life.

This set-up might lead you to expect a dark drama about vigilantism, but Crave is more concerned with emotional immaturity and the dangers of over-indulging in fantasy. For this reason, its rom-com element, though a little protracted and irritating, is perversely appropriate. Aiden is in some ways a romantic comedy archetype, the essentially lovable but unlucky guy for whom we hope change is in store. It’s interesting to see the way in which the film subtly chips away at this archetype while still employing the narrative arc of the rom-com. Josh Lawson, a broadly appealing everyman with whom audiences empathise, was an intelligent choice for the lead role.  [Interestingly, the last time I saw Lawson was as the romantic lead in a bona fide romantic comedy, The Wedding Party (Australia, 2010), reviewed rather unfavourably for RealTime here.]

Lawson is supported by an impressive cast that includes fellow Australian Emma Lung, Ron Perlman and Edward Furlong, all of whom bring a degree of  dark complexity to their characters. However, in this film where romance, comedy and horror intersect in a manner more discomforting than entertaining, it’s the seemingly inoffensive Aiden who really confounds us, though the warning signs were there from the beginning.

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Notes from A Night Of Horror 2013: Thale

thaleAs I write, Sydney’s annual horror film festival, A Night of Horror, swings into its second week. It’s a thrill to be sampling some of the world’s newer and more unusual horror, and though I’ll only be watching a few films this time around, I’ll certainly share what I’ve been looking at.

The first feature to capture my imagination was Aleksander Nordaas’ Thale (Norway, 2012). As festival director Dean Bertram sees it, Scandinavian horror is just beginning to explode onto the global scene in a way similar to Japanese and Korean horror in the late 80s and 90s, with each culture bringing its own distinctively unsettling material to the genre table.

Thale takes as its inspiration the seductive huldra of Scandinavian folklore, a mysterious woodland figure with flowing hair and a tail who resembles both beautiful woman and wizened tree (from what I can gather). The film is notable for its assured cinematography, the arresting clarity of its images and its attention to visceral detail. Nordaas is adept at creating the sort of space, both physical and psychological, which hints at horrific happenings. Unfortunately, he doesn’t quite follow through on this stylistic promise, with the result that the first part of the film lags and becomes repetitive. It’s difficult to sustain tension in an enclosed space with three characters, and Thale doesn’t possess the plot twists or dynamic characterisation to succeed in this respect (see The Devil’s Rock [2011] for a similarly low-budget film which does).

Still, like its fellow Norwegian film The Troll Hunter (2010), Thale knits together elements of horror and Norse mythology deftly, and it’s always exciting to see the horror genre extended into hitherto uncharted territory.

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Fever Pitch: Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever

Cabin Fever (2002): detail from film poster

Cabin Fever (2002): detail from film poster

I watched Eli Roth’s plague-ridden first feature over the Christmas period, when I was feeling a little poorly myself. This was possibly not a good idea. Though not as assured as Roth’s notorious second film Hostel (2005), Cabin Fever (2002) is tensely paced with an abundance of the sort of skin-crawling moments which testify to its creator’s grasp of the grosser end of the horror spectrum.

cabin_fever_

Roth knowingly launches his narrative with the familiar horror template so cleverly mocked in Cabin in the Woods, wherein a group of obnoxious young urbanites embark on a trip into the wilderness. There’s the alpha male, his sexually confident girlfriend and their friends: a more demure young woman, a more sensitive guy and the obligatory buffoon (played with superb jackassery by James DeBello). As per the rules, the group stop off at a local store where they rub various backward, creepy locals up the wrong way, before arriving at an isolated and suitably rustic destination. The scene is thus set for Bad Things to happen. Soon enough, misfortune appears in the festering form of a local hunter suffering from what looks to be a combination of ebola and rabies.

Much of what follows is visceral horror which resonates with the viewer in an excruciatingly personal way. Without elaborating, a scene in which one of the young protagonists shaves her legs had me wincing long after the film had ended. Cabin Fever excels in seizing upon a disgusting idea and carrying it through to its logical conclusion. You can see most of its shocks coming, yet this inevitability heightens the horror. It’s like knowing your worst fears are going to come true.

cabin_fever_bath

Cabin Fever might be rough around the edges, with underdone characters and patchy performances, but its creation of disgust and a sympathetic hyper-sensitivity within the viewer is second to none. Its revulsion clings to the memory in a way that the horrors of many similarly themed films do not.

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The Perfect Vampire Double

Near Dark (1987)

Near Dark (1987)

When Kathryn Bigelow’s independent horror film Near Dark came out in 1987, it was eclipsed at the box office by The Lost Boys (Joel Schumacher), a Warner Bros film released earlier in the same year. Bigelow, of course, went on to Oscar glory with The Hurt Locker, and Near Dark has since been claimed as a cult classic. Set in the small towns and wide open spaces of America’s mid-west, Near Dark is a hypnotic excursion into the wonders of first love and transformation: the headiness of being both godlike and monstrous. The Lost Boys, similarly themed, is a kind of hybrid of comedic kid’s film (driven by the excellent Corey Haim) and something altogether more mysterious and disturbing, as evidenced in every interaction between Jason Patric’s Michael and the Lost Boys.

Bigelow’s film is dirtier, more uncompromising than Schumacher’s, its vampires (bar Bill Paxton’s Severen) all  experiencing some form of desperation, some sense of loss. Yet in The Lost Boys, despite its tongue-in-cheek approach, you still get a glimpse of this desperation in David’s (Keifer Sutherland) determination to recruit Michael to his vampire gang. It might be glamorous being a teenage vampire riding your motorbike along the boardwalk in Santa Carla, but it’s lonely too, Sutherland’s performance implies. Bigelow’s film is a masterwork from conception through to finished product. The Lost Boys is perhaps more the result of an extremely fortunate confluence of elements (director, actors, set designer, cinematographer) which made what might have been a forgettable teen film a classic.

Keifer Sutherland, The Lost Boys

Keifer Sutherland, The Lost Boys

For all that, these two films (both personal favourites) are extraordinarily complementary. In each, a young man on the brink of adulthood is forced into the pain and bewilderment of transformation. He will be exposed to the exhilaration and evil of the vampire state, before being offered ultimate redemption and a return to the sunshine. Both films share an eerie evocation of place and the casting of actors whose depiction of the vampiric goes well beyond cliché (think how two-dimensional Keifer Sutherland’s role would have been in lesser hands). Thanks to cinematographers Michael Chapman and Adam Greenberg, the predominantly nighttime action in The Lost Boys and Near Dark has an otherworldly quality in which the supernatural becomes eminently believable. Every now and then, time seems to slow down.

From the second they begin (think of that swooping aerial shot over the ocean that introduces The Lost Boys) until the moment at the end where the monsters are slain, these films draw you into their darkness. It’s a wondrous place to be.

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Zombies and Dinosaurs

A memorable Halloween to all!

More by chance than by design (as we’d initially planned to go last week) I found myself attending the Halloween version of Jurassic Lounge, a sort of cabaret nightclub event held at the Australian Museum in Sydney.  For someone who loves both horror and natural history institutions, it doesn’t get much better than this!  Wandering the transformed corridors and galleries of this venerable building was an experience both surreal and unpredictable (as well as slightly shambolic at times, it must be said), especially when a muttaburrasaurus ran through the crowd.  Or when two random, very convincing zombies shambled by at close quarters.  I was surprised to find myself shrinking away from the smaller one, so creepy was she.

It was these theatrical interventions, these ‘ghost train’ moments—which fooled us into believing what we saw, even while we knew it was a pretence—that were the high point of the night for me, best capturing the imminent sense of magic that accompanies Halloween.

Exit muttaburrasaurus. No zombie photos unfortunately.

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The Killer Inside: Michal Kosakowski’s Zero Killed

“There’s a killer lurking inside each of us,” asserts one of the participants in Michal Kosakowski’s documentary-cum-thought experiment Zero Killed (2011).  In 1996 Kosakowski made a series of short films based on the murder fantasies of a handful of people from a variety of backgrounds.  The only rule was that each person must act in his or her fantasy, either as victim or killer.  More than a decade on, the director interviewed his subjects about their experiences of the initial project.  These interviews are interspersed with grabs from the original ‘murder films.’  The result is uncomfortably fascinating.

The subjects appear to enter into these simulations of torture, bashing, shooting and slashing with relish—a couple indeed seem slightly unhinged (especially the man who admits to having hit his daughter on several occasions).  From reminiscences about their filmed fantasies, the participants move on to larger questions addressing the meaning of ‘evil,’ the human potential for violence, killing in a wartime context, high school massacres, media desensitisation and the justification of torture in interrogation.

Watching these violent simulations and listening to the motivations behind them is a strange experience, more disturbing in a way than viewing a violent horror film, where not only do you know it’s fake, but also that it has been devised on some level as a work of imagination.  In Zero Killed, the link between participants and subject matter in these short films is so direct that the boundary between fantasy and reality becomes blurred.  Fake reality; real fantasy.  Adding another level of bizarreness to the viewing experience was the fact that I recognised one of the subjects as someone I’d been at art school with years ago (particularly unexpected considering art school was in Australia and Zero Killed is a Swiss film).  Fortunately, he was in a minority of actors who chose to be victim rather than perpetrator!

Kosakowski’s seemingly perverse exercise brings to light the sobering notion that in a society stripped of laws, regulations and basic morality, life is pretty cheap.

Zero Killed showed at the 2012 Sydney Underground Film Festival, Factory Theatre, Sydney, September 6-9

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Riding the Ghost Train Again

The ghost train as an idea tends to come up repeatedly on this blog and in horror discussions generally.  I can’t think of a more apt metaphor for The Cabin in the Woods (2011), though there’s more to Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard’s film than mere thrills and spills.  Spectacular, clever and very funny, Cabin is a joy to someone like me, who not only watches horror for pleasure, but who has reviewed literally hundreds of straight-to-the shelf horror DVDs, many tending towards the formulaic and predictable.  Cabin displays a fond awareness of such formulae, monkeying around with a plethora of horror references (Evil Dead! Romero! Slasher flicks! Murderous inbreds! Japanese ghost horror! Lovecraft!) while still functioning as a piece of dark fantasy in its own right.  It’s no mean feat to pack so many allusions into the one coherent narrative.

This is a beautifully realised, rather sly parody which operates on several different levels depending on the viewer’s knowledge of horror.  Australian viewers can still catch Cabin at Palace Cinemas in Brisbane, Sydney and Adelaide.

Peter Booth, Untitled 2011, oil on linen, from The Human Condition at Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne

In other news, Peter Booth has an exhibition—”The Human Condition”—on at Anna Schwartz Gallery in Melbourne (tomorrow is its last day, unfortunately).  For those unfamiliar with the artist, Peter Booth is an acclaimed mid-career Australian painter of English birth who hit the art scene in the 70s with large-scale colour field paintings, then moved on to similarly large scenes of apocalyptic horror, elements of which remain in his paintings to date.  Disappointingly, I’m in the wrong city to review this latest exhibition, but I’m mentioning it because Peter Booth—surprisingly—draws more views to this blog than any other subject!  And while these random seekers of Booth probably don’t have much interest in horror, I do feel a certain duty to give them what they’re looking for by publicising the man at any opportunity.  Apart from that, I admire what he does, and it’s nice to see some of the overt monstrosity of the earlier works creeping back into this latest show.

View the works in the exhibition on the Anna Schwartz website here.

Peter Booth’s previous appearance on Black Spot Horror can be found here.