Monday, 29 October 2012

The Cabin in The Woods (2012)

Two more days to Halloween (Halloween, Halloween) so it's time to bring out the big guns, and there's no recent horror film much bigger than this year's The Cabin in The Woods. Now I'm not one for spoilers, so I'm going to attempt to write this without giving the game away... which isn't going to be easy. Safe to say the tag line of "You think you know the story" has never been more appropriate. Quite frankly, you don't.

Directed, written and produced by a dream team of Drew Goddard (Buffy, Cloverfield) and Joss Whedon (Buffy again, Firefly, The Avengers), Cabin in The Woods is a film that totally defies expectations, whilst at the same time intensely satisfying them. It pokes a whole lot of fun at the horror genre (referencing a tonne of classics in it's wake), whilst never letting it's grip of the tension go slack, and at the same time creating something truly original, surprising and downright terrifying.

It's the weekend and five college kids looking for fun and frolics are heading on a road trip into the woods to stay at a remote cabin. They are your stereotypical cannon fodder - the jock, the cheerleader, the stoner, the intellectual/sensitive type and the virgin. On the road the five encounter a deserted gas station with a very creepy attendant, a harbinger of doom if you like, who warns them obliquely of the perils that lay ahead. In fact we've already been primed that bad stuff is going to happen with a fascinating credit sequence featuring ominous scenes of death, destruction, fire and brimstone, all graphically enhanced in a deep blood red glow. The rest of the film doesn't disappoint.

As their campervan heads back on the road and towards their final destination, a birds eye view surveys their journey (shades of the opening to The Shining?) through a beautiful and foreboding landscape, and an eagle flies gracefully overhead... Once arrived at the cabin, things start to get weird. A game of truth or dare brings on some very strange behaviour, and once the cellar door springs sharply open, all bets are off and the game has well and truly begun.

Goddard and Whedon handle the suspense perfectly whilst never giving too much away. The drama is set up early doors so we know from near the outset things aren't quite what they seem. However not until the stupendous final denouement do we discover what dark and terrible secrets lay beneath the cabin's floorboards. The script itself is sharp and witty enough to engage even the most sceptical of viewers, without being cheesy or too formulaic. Performance wise there's not a duff note played amongst the leads. Fran Kanz is the standout as the Shaggy-like stoner Marty whilst Kristin Connolly does an excellent turn as the prudish yet steely Dana. Look out also for a surprising cameo from a cult player of horror movies past...

Cabin in The Woods has references a plenty for spotters. Evil Deads 1 and 2, I Know What You Did Last Summer, Silence of The Lambs, Friday 13th, Hellraiser and Wolf Creek are just a few of the classics given a nod and a wink to in passing. But in no way is the film just a series of homages to your favourite horror films. Deep down it slyly explores why and how we love being scared whilst also making a comment on what that says about us. And if all this sounds like some sterile scientific experiment analysing the rules of the genre, then think again. Cabin in The Woods is a thrilling ride into unexpected and uncharted waters.

It's difficult to see where the horror film can go from Cabin in The Woods. What new and surprising twists can be brought to a genre that looks to have been bled dry? In a month where Paranormal Activity 4 (yawn!) is opening as well as a rerun of The Shining (albeit with extra footage), things aren't looking that fresh or exciting for horror fans. It's to Goddard and Whedon's credit that they have created a proper bar-raiser, leaving the rest of their peers trailing in their wake. I mean, who knew that unicorns could be so deadly?

Truth or Dare...

Friday, 19 October 2012

Dawn of The Dead (1978)

We continue Shocktober, with the don dada of zombie films - the original Dawn of the Dead. Directed by legendary undead supremo George A Romero, Dawn of The Dead is a must see for anyone interested in horror flicks. Both funny and terrifying whilst also providing an offbeat social comment on the times, the film holds celebrated status and deserves high residence on any Top 10 of the genre. Dawn of The Dead is a sequel to Romero's first feature Night of The Living Dead which itself was a bit of a game-changer when it was released back in 1968. It's also part of a long catalogue of zombie films helmed by and involving Romero including Day of The Dead and Diary of the Dead. There was a pretty decent remake of Dawn of The Dead made by Zack Snyder in 2004, but this is the original bad boy.

Made 10 years after Night, Dawn of The Dead picks up where the former leaves off. It's three weeks after the initial outbreak and the flesh eaters are wreaking merry hell across the United States. Martial law is in place across the country and gun totin' SWAT teams are called upon to attack those infected. Chaos reigns and law, order and civilisation in general seems to be on a downward curve.

The devastation is reported in chaotic broadcasts by Philadelphia news station WGON, where eye in the sky pilot Stephen and his girlfriend Francine work. The pair plan their escape using the network's helicopter and aim to pick up Stephen's SWAT mate Roger on the way. Meanwhile Roger and fellow armed police Peter are busy battling a strange combo of zombies and hippies in a tenement block in the city - a particularly grizzly sequence. Once done they hook up with Stephen and Francine in the chopper and head for anywhere but here in the hope of finding refuge.

Needing somewhere to land, rest and refuel, the foursome happen across Monroeville shopping mall which is, yes you've guessed it, full of zombies! Refusing to flee, the protagonists choose to sit out the pandemic in a secluded part of the mall, dodging zombies and living off what's on sale. But the ghouls are getting ever closer, and it's not long before their consumerist paradise is under threat.

The zombies themselves are of the classic mould - stumbling, groping, unstable and slow on their feet. In fact it's a wonder how they are able to kill or feed off any living creature. There's a lot of comedy falling over by victims and a lot of standing and screaming as their adversaries approach at an agonising pace to claim their next meal. The flesh eaters do however look horrific and that's down to the make-up skills of Tom Savini. A Vietnam vet, it was Savini who came up with the blue/grey tint to the skin which is now a zombie staple. The contrast between the skin and the bright red day-glo blood only enhances the gore when it flows.

"What are they doing? Why do they come here" asks Francine of the zombies. "Some kind of instinct" replies Stephen. "Memory of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives." It's one of the key pieces of dialogue of the whole film. Maybe in late 1970s America there's not much difference between shoppers before and after they become zombiefied? I mean they act the same way, aimlessly wandering the isles, gawping gormlessly at what's on show. And it also asks questions about how a zombie thinks. At what point do you realise that your life amongst the living has ended and that you have become part of the legion of the undead? Zombies must have some form of intelligence otherwise they wouldn't come back to the shopping mall where they spent so much of their lives.

Philosophical musings aside, all four lead roles are well rounded with distinguishing characteristics. "Flyboy" Stephen is ever so slightly camp in his aviators and pilot's jacket, and clearly not in tune with basic means of survival. Francine is resourceful, realistic and handy with a snipers rifle. Roger is reckless and slightly immature whereas cigar smoking Peter is the brains of the team, calm and collected and always with a strategy at hand. All the actors do what is expected of them without too many embarrassing moments - in particular Scott Reiniger (current Prince of Ghor in Afghanistan, WTF?) makes Roger a very watchable presence.

Romero knows where to point his camera and there is some elegant framing of shots amid the blood and body parts. Our old friends Goblin provide another memorable score with the help of Suspiria director Dario Argento (who also acted as mentor to Romero in pre-production). Unlike the foreboding music of Argento's classic, their throbbing music in Dawn of The Dead verges on the disco and wouldn't sound out of place in the nightclubs of New York, Dalston or Vauxhall.

Dawn of The Dead may not be the most violent of the zombie canon, or even the scariest, but it more than holds it's own in the horror stakes and it's certainly one of the most iconic. What it lacks slightly in scares it makes up for with an impending sense of doom and apocalypse. There's a real sense that this is the shopping centre at the end of the world, a paean to capitalism gone wrong set against the grey American winter skies. The world of Dawn of The Dead is a world where credit is redundant and ammunition and groceries rule... and even they turn out to be useless in the end. It's a world where there is no respect for mortality and the dead are cursed to walk the earth. There's no more room in hell...

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Witchfinder General (1968)

Next up on the late show is Witchfinder General, a British horror film from the late 60s starring the king of camp and macabre Mr Vincent Price. It's a period piece set in the mid 17th century at the time of the English Civil War. If you know your history then you'll realise we're talking Roundheads vs Cavaliers, Oliver Cromwell vs Charles II, and a total breakdown of society in general. All this provides a pretty grim backdrop to a sinister tale of greed, corruption and sadistic witch hunts.
Vincent Price plays lawyer Matthew Hopkins, the self proclaimed Witchfinder General who stalks East Anglia torturing suspected witches into confessing their heresy and evil ways under the banner of God's work. Bringing the muscle is his sidekick John Stearne, a bruiser with an appetite for beer, wenches and inflicting pain on the innocent. And it is mostly the innocent who pay the price as Hopkins and Stearne take advantage of the vacuum of law and order, reaping the financial benefits on offer for ridding villages of their local witches.
Fighting the good fight is brave Roundhead soldier Richard Marshall. After saving his the life of his commanding officer, Marshall is given a few days leave to visit his sweetheart Sara and her priest uncle John Lowes. But hot on Sara and Lowes' trail are Hopkins and Stearne, hoping to prove that the priest has the Devil's Mark on him and hoping to convict him of witchcraft.
If what's been described so far doesn't sound particularly scary then think again. Witchfinder General deals in a very perverse brand of horror, and although we're talking mainly tomato ketchup, there's a fair deal of gore. The accused witches are mostly tortured with what look like long knitting needles in order to discover The Devil's Mark. The trick is if the needles find an area of the body that produces no screams then the victim must be a witch and should be hung or burnt at the stake (a particularly nasty scene). Another way of seeking out the witchery is to lower the accused into the nearest river. Those that float are witches and must be executed. Those that drown... well let's just say it's a no-win situation if you fall under Matthew Hopkins' suspicion.
In his greed, corruption and merciless nature Hopkins is the personification of pure evil and Vincent Price revels in a role tailor-made for him. With a haircut and facial furniture not too dissimilar to Deep Purple keyboard player John Lord, Price hams up the sinister vibes to great affect. His glee at murdering blameless victims is priceless. "She was innocent" he murmurs with a sickly smile and a raise of the eyebrow as an accused witch is dredged dead from the river. It's classic Vincent Price.
The support cast is a who's who of late 60s minor British character actors. Robert Russell is memorable as vile and repulsive henchman John Stearne. Ian Ogilvy (he of The Return of The Saint fame) does a good turn as the clean cut hero Marshall. 1964 Pipe Smoker of the Year winner Rupert Davies groans and bleeds a lot as accused priest Lowes. And gravel voiced Patrick Wymark (top spy in Where Eagles Dare) makes a blink and you'll miss it cameo as Oliver Cromwell.
Sharing equal billing with Price and the C-list of character actors is the English countryside, beautifully shot by director Michael Reeves. Reeves shows much reverence for his locations and pastoral Britain has rarely looked better. There are tracking shots aplenty as the camera follows Marshall on horseback, galloping through fields and meadows in search of revenge to the rousing theme tune. In fact Reeves' Britain in the 17th century is something akin to the Wild West with Hopkins as the classic "villain in black". In the absence of a just and fair legal system, death is lurking at the end of every hedgerow. And for the barren deserts and ghost towns of the mid-west, read the bucolic pastures of Brandeston, Suffolk.
Witchfinder General is most definitely a horror film though. For one thing it has one of the largest and loudest scream counts of any horror film ever made. In fact the film fades to sepia on a piercing and bloodcurdling scream, which echoes over the gentle theme tune providing a very bitter aftertaste to the final reel. Witchfinder General met with howls of disapproval on release. Even though many of the more violent scenes were cut by the censors, it seems the sadistic nature of the film was too much for the critics and public of 1968. Sadly Reeves took his own life at the age of 25 not long after Witchfinder General was released. It was only his third feature film. Today it's regarded as a cult horror classic and a testimony to an all to brief career.

Watch the whole of Witchfinder General here...