Halloween Kills (2021)
Halloween Kills takes impressive and unsolicited risks in terms of its place in the franchise whilst being beautifully lensed in the great tradition of the series.
David Gordon Green’s film takes us back to 1978 Haddonfield in an extended opening sequence and invents a new ending to the original film, expressly showing Dr Loomis as a retconned part in the original finale. Not only does Halloween Kills do such things but, most significantly, the film jettisons the dualism theme that has characterised Halloween sequels (bar 1982’s unrelated Halloween 3: Season of the Witch) for time eternal.
The punts taken here would always put ‘a cat-amongst-the-pigeons’ for Halloween fans and from an initial sounding out of the feelings on social media, it’s become quite clear. Halloween Kills is walking the same road as films such as Friday 13th Part 5: A New Beginning (1985) in being an irresistibly controversial black-sheep, partitioning fandom like the Berlin Wall.
Halloween Kills opens magnificently, with Dylan Arnold (probably the best performance here) desperately trying to help a seriously injured Officer Hawkins, as his pain-ravaged brain takes us back to an elongated pre-credits sequence detailing the events of Halloween (1978). The sequence is embossed with shots blessed by an astonishing ability to capture the vibe, cinematography, and palette of Carpenter’s original film. These are special moments and I felt them deeply when sat in the cinema. Since this film was shot on digital, whereas Carpenter’s original was done so on film, one must applaud the filmmakers for achieving a real feat here. Halloween Kills once again plays fast-and-loose with the retconning, re-imagining Michael’s capture on that night in 1978 and placing a young deputy Hawkins at the centre of the action. Following a confrontation in the Myers house, and Hawkins accidentally shooting his partner whilst trying to save him from Michael, Hawkins is shown preventing Dr Loomis from executing Michael in front of the house. We then spin forward to pick up after the events of Halloween (2018) with Michael surviving the fire at Laurie’s home and continuing his assault on Haddonfield, with the town finding a community spirit to stop him. Michael’s massacre of the firemen attending the scene is shot with panache and shows from the outset that the bloody violence is going to be taken up a notch.
Michael engages in a kind of art to his murder spree throughout the film, harking back to behavioural traits we last saw well-evidenced in the 1978 original. Halloween Kills has a vivacity to its proceedings and has a gratuitous body-count by any standards, even in this genre. The pinnacle of tension in the film occurs interestingly outside of the bloody mayhem which forms much of the picture. It’s when Lindsey Wallace is stalked by Michael through the woods in the park; there is no gore, little light, nifty incidental sound design and the sequence feels ever so like those classic moments of the 1978 film. The implicit terror here is in the envelope of darkness among a quietly suburban setting and captures the passion of 1978 like lightning in a bottle.
Indeed, and uniquely for the franchise, the main character in Halloween Kills is Michael himself and he maintains the filmmakers undivided intention. The framing of Michael Myers, visually, is gorgeous and James Jude Courtney’s portrayal of Michael is one of the best we have seen. Courtney’s moniker possesses a savage zealousness which is unnerving whilst, at the same time, demonstrating Michael’s child-like curiosity in his acts of increasingly violence. His performance harks back to Nick Castle’s time in the role in the first film (the famous head-tilt at Bob’s body in the 1978 original is reproduced effortlessly on several occasions). Michael is a thematic metronome in a way which earlier entries avoided; those films preferred to focus on what I feel singles out the Halloween franchise from other slasher series, namely the “dualism’ concept. This “dualism” emphasises the Capt Ahab / Moby Dick mythology – one cannot exist without the other – with the quest of the main character to destroy a literally faceless slasher anti-hero in the form of Michael Myers. The Capt Ahab being Loomis in the 1-6 timeline and Laurie in the post-modern timelines. In previous entries we are often left to wonder who the real monster is – the mentally-crippled Loomis in the 1-6 timeline (and alternatively, the paranoid neurotic Laurie in the post-modern entries) or the undying boogeyman, Michael himself. The best example of this is Loomis’ character in Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (1989) who, by now, has reached “peak Ahab” and swells the screen with a simmering madness bordering on cruelty in his pursuit of Michael. It all culminates in a tortuous finale where Loomis’ spitting fury thinks nothing of using an unwilling Jamie Lloyd (Michael’s niece, played gleefully by Danielle Harris) as bait to capture Michael, but darn nearly kills the good doctor himself. Both Loomis and Laurie perform this cat-and-mouse game with Michael superbly and provide the origin of so many of the franchises’ moments of genuine unease, a differentiated slasher product over the bombastic massacre moments in some of the other franchises. Yet here in Halloween Kills the filmmakers eschew the approach and capitalise on the chaotic nature of Michael alone. (The franchise is only able to do this by retconning the first sequel, Halloween 2 (1981), which revealed Michael’s connection to Laurie). We learn now, in this new David Gordon Green universe, that Michael was never obsessed with Laurie rather it is Laurie who is obsessed with him. Indeed, in what I would regard a breath-takingly risky move for the franchise, Hawkins forcefully tells Laurie directly that it was never about her and that she is nothing to Michael. This is obviously news to Laurie, who is just as batshit-crazy as Michael having spent the last 40 years sat on an egocentric pedestal honed from the belief that her and Michael are star-crossed nemeses.
In the Halloween Kills universe then Michael is just a killer on two legs. Michael wants to go to his spiritual home of the Myers house and massacre as many people as he can regardless of who they may be. I’d venture this a bold and punchy reworking of the heart of the franchise in a way which I was unprepared for, but practically, abandoning the dualism so inherent in the Halloween cannon could be an error. I can see how it makes the gesture that Laurie’s trauma is even more tragic for it – as it was a sheer randomness that slaughtered her soul and little else – but dumping the cat-and-mouse game out of the story rather relegates Halloween to the same-level as many of the other franchises. Without a mouse, the game is the cat alone. That seems a shame given that so many of Halloween’s imitators tried desperately to replicate such a “dualism” theme but without success (Friday the 13th’s Tommy Jarvis-Jason and A Nightmare on Elm St’s Nancy-Freddy themes). Whilst applauding the spunk of the filmmakers in pursuing the uncertain direction in which this development takes the Halloween series, I cannot understand why then the ending of this film brings it back to setting up yet another final duel between Michael and Laurie? If it is only a crazed Laurie who is interested in ending Michael, and he has no specific interest in her, then it feels a weaker basis for the final film in Gordon Green’s franchise arc.
To be fair, Jamie Lee Curtis’s Laurie has very little to do in the film and is mostly constrained to her hospital bed at Haddonfield Memorial Hospital (the setting of much of Halloween 2 (1981)). Returning legacy characters pepper the cast, and whilst fans will rejoice at seeing Leigh Brackett, Tommy Doyle, Marion Chambers and Lindsey Wallace all return to the franchise, you cannot help feeling that some of these are missed opportunities. Brackett feels under-used given his pivotal role in the original film and the (1978) sheriff of Haddonfield’s emotional currency in the lore of Michael Myers. These legacy players are not treated with kid gloves and what happens to them will shock some fans. The most engaging of the cast are, perhaps surprisingly, “Big John” and “Little John”, a couple now living in the Myers’ house who are malevolently stalked by Haddonfield’s favourite son. The sound design in these scenes and the intricate placing of their bodies next to a romantic picture, mimicking the couple’s pose in the frame, is another nod to Michael’s playfulness which had been absent from most sequels (but important in Carpenter’s 1978 film).
Aside from the outright rejection of “dualism”, I found other problems with Halloween Kills. An unsubtle parable on the risks of mob politics / populism misfires badly throughout the film and dominates the middle of the picture. A similar theme had already been explored, though as a much smaller component of the picture, in Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988). Frankly, it is done better in that film than here. Moreover, everyone in the film seems to have dialogue borrowed from the late great Donald Pleasence – and his immortal Dr Loomis dictionary – but that just simply doesn’t work when Loomis isn’t delivering those kinds of lines; it certainly isn’t everyday conversation. But these are minor quibbles really at the 12th film in a franchise with clear ups and downs.
Halloween Kills feels like an esoteric entry in the franchise, incongruent alongside the franchise’s characteristics with hyped up gore/mayhem (less of the classic stalking and more slashing) and a wily cannonball launched directly at the franchise’s most enduring thematic motif. For these reasons, I suspect Halloween Kills will remain the feature of many conversations for years to come amongst fans but, like any umpteenth sequel, is likely to be largely forgotten by the mainstream. But my it is a brave reworking of the franchise, and for that alone it is worthy of merit and praise.
Prom Night (1980)
Perhaps familiar to some for being name-dropped in Wes Craven’s self-referential take on the slasher genre, Scream (1996), Prom Night has largely been lost in the midst of cinematic time.
Director Paul Lynch film follows the formula. We begin with the accidental death of a little girl and a solemn promise to keep the death a secret. 6 years later, at their senior prom, those involved in the accident are picked off by a balaclava-wearing madman sporting an axe and a raspy voice.
This said, Prom Night (1980) is generally devoid of substantive gore and feels more of a giallo-slasher hybrid. Though the finale does contain a decapitation – a case of mistaken identity – in what can only be a gentle nod to Carrie’s (1976) prom scene, Lynch refuses to fetishize the ‘killer in the mask’ and exercises constraint in the blood-letting department. Prom Night is different to some of its cohort. I have heard that when Jamie Lee Curtis signed up to the film it was under the impression that the producers were making a mystery thriller. It is no surprise that Prom Night is less visceral than Jamie Lee Curtis’s other Canadian slasher venture of the period, Terror Train (1980). It’s also not as technically strong but it remains a peculiarly effective slasher film with a tragic story at its heart.
Running like a braided strip of Black Christmas (1974) and Saturday Night Fever (1977), Lynch’s film is bereft of neither atmosphere nor red-herrings. Unusually, the identity of the killer is rather surprising on a first watch and there is a tragedy to the villain of the piece, evoking a sympathetic glance that is so powerful in a horror film. Jamie Lee Curtis plays this perfectly in the final moments as the killer stumbles, mortally wounded, through the doors of the high school and is unmasked sobbing. Leslie Nielsen plays Kim’s father, Principal Hammond, and has little to do; seemingly thrown in as one of many red herrings throughout the screenplay alongside an escaped mental patient (*facepalm*) and a seedy janitor (Robert Silverman). The most impressive member of the cast is Wendy, played by Anne-Marie Martin, who despite being a somewhat vile character manages to elicit some pity from the viewer for her insecurities and where they have led her.
The focal points here are the 20 or so minutes of “stalk ‘n’ slash” in the deserted school corridors outside the disco hall. These sequences are orchestrated to a splendidly eerie sound design, which for me has always been the most memorable aspect of the film and one of the reasons I continue to revisit this slice of slasher cinema. The thumping disco reverberates in the distant hallways, like a joyfully cruel echo, as our protagonists are hunted in the velvet dark by the masked killer in black. There’s even a shot, which are two-a-penny in the Western genre, from between the killer’s legs and drawing Wendy into the center of the frame like a frightened rabbit in the headlights.
But Prom Night’s major problem – on any modern viewing at least – is the cliché. The film is more or less infected with slasher platitudes which to many will now just seem trite and close to parody. It is of its time…forgive.
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)
A small-time club owner must repay his gambling debts to local mobsters, by murdering a bookmaker who’s been causing them trouble.
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie might sound like a standard
low-level gangster film but it’s really nothing of the sort.
The plot being little else than an excuse to explore the human
relationships and motivations underlying the life of a seedy
Cassavetes’ doc-style approach to filmmaking elicits a distinctly grubby atmosphere to Bookie which isn’t for everyone but makes for an inimitable viewing experience. Gazzara’s performance as ‘Cosmo Vitelli’ is one of the best I have ever seen; it’s tricky to recall a part being played so convincingly. Gazzara fits Cosmo like a glove – a well-intentioned dreamer with illusions of grandeur – and his anguished facial expressions are custom-made for Cassavetes’ idiosyncratic close-ups, here often set against garishly hued on-location lighting and an endless drift of cigarette smoke. The flare of the lights on the screen and the blur of the cinematography add an authenticity rare to find in mainstream film. Cassavetes’ success here is putting you right inside the club, a mere observer of the ‘warts-and-all’ goings on.
The band of players in this film are as awkwardly realistic as the genuine characters that populate our cities off-screen. Whilst aspects of the supporting cast can sometimes come across as wooden – a criticism heavily levied on the director’s independent work – it only adds to the documentary feel. Other performances are knock-out; Timothy Carey’s turn as ‘Flo’, an enigmatic ‘heavy’ with a penchant for self-reflective philosophical musings, being a personal favourite. Meade Roberts, as ‘Mr Sophistication’ – the MC of the club’s strip show, is a revelation and sufficiently off-beat so as to be more than a trifle ‘trippy’ .
The actual sequence referenced in the title is staged magnificently by Cassavetes, with things going ‘wrong’ en-route to the hit and an air of reluctant but ominous foreboding bearing down on all concerned. The panicked reaction of the mobsters to Cosmo’s success in pulling it off is quite priceless. The film’s uncertain coda is perfect – again, the exact narrative is not what is important in the film, it’s the human reactions to events around them.
Cassavetes certainly wasn’t one for auteur-like thematic allegory, but if you want to look for one in this film, then it would have to be based around the colour red. The red rose on Cosmo’s suit, the red filters on the club lights, the red napkin around Flo’s neck etc.
For me, the nub of chinese bookie is Cosmo’s speech in the dressing room, he reasons he’s only happy when he is adopting a persona of who he thinks people want him to be. You can clearly see this in numerous scenes throughout the film and the physical way Gazzara holds himself when he’s front of either his club audience, his peers or the mob. It’s this adopted persona – and the source of his gambling debt – that gets him in trouble with the mob and underlies the reason why he ends up whacking the bookie. Cosmo’s mistake is exactly that he plays his life as who he is *expected* to be and at the end he is actually happy to die in that role. Whereas the mob’s mistake was in their own expectation that Cosmo couldnt pull the hit off – he’s exactly not what *they* expected him to be. A strange, if uncomfortably realistic, dirty noir movie hides a great character study of the motivations behind a small-scale wannabe club kingpin and his own weird slice of the american dream.
You can’t help wondering that Cosmo is also a snide metaphor for Cassavetes – Cosmo’s a director in his own right of the routines in his club and when that club comes under risk he does anything to save it and save his independence. The love and care he gives his performers is similar to the attention paid by Cassavetes to his cherished stock company.
Bookie may be an esoteric film but it’s one I find vexingly alluring; and handsomely robust to repeated viewings. It’s a Cassavetes movie but Gazzara is perhaps the jewel here.
DJANGO KILL..if you live shoot! (1967)
A notoriously over-the-top Spaghetti/Euro Western which I had surprisingly not seen until very recently. You initially think this is going the way of the usual Western revenge tale but it’s a very unique entry in the genre. It has bags of character including vampire bats, a band of well-tailored homosexual cowboys, a fairytale damsel-in-distress locked in a room in an attic and a finale which includes our villain’s face becoming encased in molten – and naturally, stolen – gold.
Much of Questi’s film makes overtures to the horror genre, through both characterisations and visuals. Right from the off we get this, with the Stranger literally crawling out of his grave to be rescued by two Native Americans, who give him gold bullets with which to avenge his demise and recover the gold looted from his band of Mexican bandits. Some have gone so far to suggest that the Stranger is actually supernatural but I don’t think so, at least not in the same way as Eastwood’s character in High Plains Drifter (1973) and Pale Rider (1985).
When the Stranger arrives in a nearby town, following the outlaws who murdered his friends and stole from him, he finds they have been already despatched and strung up in the street by the good people of the town who are hiding the gold for themselves. The cattle-baron ‘Sorrow’ runs the town and is suspicious of the inhabitants’ motives for killing the outlaws; he too becomes transfixed on finding the gold at whatever cost. Francisco Sanz’s unscrupulous Preacher and Robert Camardiel’s hedonistic ‘Sorrow’ are the stand-out performances here, whilst Tomas Milan’s Stranger (or Django-like character, as he isn’t named in the film) is an under-played one.
Technically speaking, this is one well-lensed and easy-on-the-eye film. The film is not as packed with shoot-outs and violence as one may suspect from a slavish attempt to capitalise on the Django franchise, but when the vehemence does come it’s choreographed and edited brilliantly.
The film’s notable for several moments, but the most memorable is probably when original thief ‘Oaks’, whilst still alive, is carelessly torn apart by the doctor and townsfolk looking for the gold bullets that are peppered throughout his body. There’s an offbeat scene in which the Stranger – dressed like Jesus in a loin cloth – is placed on a crucifix (this is where the vampire bats make an appearance) and tortured by Sorrow’s gang with all manner of animals.
It’s perhaps not a film you’d expect Lee Van Cleef to turn-up in but beneath the unusual charms I’d argue there’s a strong thematic message from director Giulio Questi. The major one is around the dangers of possession and greed, familiar to many horse-operas. As the stolen gold passes from one group to another, their ensuing corruption and greed irrevocably seals their fate. On the outside the townsfolk look like honest law-abiding citizens but even the outlaws can feel something amiss as they ride into town, and once the gold is introduced their blood-lust becomes insatiable. It’s not just the desire to possess wealth that drives these people; we are introduced to numerous sub-plots where the desire to possess people is just as strong. The Preacher locks his wife in a room upstairs to prevent her falling in love with anyone else ; whereas the saloon owner’s son – who ends-up shooting himself after it is heavily implied he is raped by Sorrow’s gang – is possessive of his father and refuses to contemplate him marrying another woman.
Questi has apparently said that the film is something of an allegory for Italian society during fascism. Indeed, Questi’s focus on Sorrow’s cowboys – all dressed in black-uniforms – is undeniably a run on an anti-fascist message and puts the imagery in the scene in which they torture the Stranger on a cross into a peculiarly emotive perspective. The complicity and puppet-mastery of Sanz’s Preacher during the course of the film suggests at Questi’s disdain for the organized church.
Ivan Vandor’s catchy, if repetitive, score is a fitting accompaniment to the bizarre goings-on. It may be as crazy as a monkey but it’s an immortal slice of Spaghetti cinema.
Shindo’s KURONEKO (1968)
Embossed with the same themes as Shindo’s masterful ONIBABA (1964), KURONEKO (1968) is another Japanese horror folktale. The film is staggeringly pretty and unsettling, well-worth seeking out (and a must for any fans of Japanese ghost stories) for the aesthetics alone.
The film starts with an act of savagery as mother and daughter-in-law are raped and murdered by passing samurai on their farm. Close-ups linger on the faces of the samurai as they watch one another in the fiendish acts of violence, leaving the women dead amongst the burnt ruins of their smallholding. The women return as vengeful spirits, taking their human forms to seduce samurai and drink their blood; becoming the famous spectres of ‘Rajo Gate’. This section of the film becomes somewhat repetitive, and it seems needless to loop very similar scenes together in this way. But this is a minor quibble.
Where KURONEKO’s screenplay really excels is when said mother/daughter-in-law’s long-lost son/husband – ‘Hachi’ – returns from battle a samurai and is tasked with finding out whether the rumours of the demons at ‘Rajo Gate’ are true. Shindo’s film then becomes a rather simple, if unquestionably powerful, tragedy as ‘Hachi’ confronts the spirits of his dead wife and mother.
Carnal desires are a focus of the film, with Hachi’s wife foregoing her life-after-death in order to spend a few days of physical pleasure with the husband she thought dead; whilst Nobuko Otowa’s undead mother character’s lust for revenge against samurai is so great as to force her to consider murdering her own son.
The theatrical visuals and set-design make much of the film seem like an expressionistic stage-play, with key set-pieces looking like symbolic dream (or nightmare sequences). It’s hard to think of many other films which have showcased the stunning contrasts of black and white so effectively. What’s more is that it’s not like Shindo was forced into his choice of black and white photography by technical or budget limitations – it was an explicit choice. It works fabulously, and I seriously couldn’t consider watching the film in colour which would paradoxically wash-out the eerie hue of the film.
The uncanny score, underwritten by a rasping drum, heighten the tempo of the film’s set-pieces to pull together a fantasy film which is as unforgettable as it is visually impressive.
John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982)
Ennio Morricone may have penned the soundtrack but from the opening titles it’s seething with Carpenter’s pulsating synth-style. So slow is this score that it’s close to crawling, but its sonorous beat is cold, withdrawn and chilling.
Carpenter uses many low-view shots of desolate corridors and darkened shadows whilst Dean Cundey’s cinematography is once again evidenced through the beautifully lensed neon flares, blue-hued snow and the velvet of the polar nights – it’s sublime.
Like Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), and to a lesser extent in Prince of Darkness (1987), the strength lies in the attachment Carpenter draws to our doomed band of men. The scientific research station is initially portrayed as a kind of giant bar; when we get there, its occupants a parade of bar-flies whiling away time playing cards, pool and drinking. That is until the paranoia sets in; Blair is locked up; Clarke innocently gunned down and Bennings and others executed mid-transformation.
The cast are unbelievably strong and welded together with a script epitomising the everyday dialogue of men trapped in moribund isolation. Aside from Kurt Russell’s towering performance as the de-facto leader of the group, Wilfrid Brimley’s character Blair is fantastic; the first to realise the potential for ”The Thing” to escape, he opts for a scorched-earth policy before being exiled to the tool shed. Garry, played by Donald Moffat, is under perpetual suspicion until after a dose of blood testing provides proof his innocence , he robustly declares ” I know you gentlemen have been through a lot, but when you find the time, I’d rather not spend the rest of this winter TIED TO THIS FUCKING COUCH!!”.
Keith David’s Childs is hot-tempered and vying for alpha male position with Kurt Russell’s McReady. The much-talked-about final scene as these two sat amongst the ruins of the camp, with temperatures plummeting and no power, staring at one another hoping each isn’t “The Thing”.
One of my favourite scenes is when Stevie Wonder’s superstition plays over the radio as we pan around the barren corridors looking for “The Thing”. Another is the shot of the dog (the original host of the Thing) approaching the shadow of an unknown man sitting on a bed, and we know as the shadow’s head turns back that he’s about to come face to face with “The Thing”.
Rob Bottin’s special make-up effects still stagger today; these eye-popping visuals won the film some infamy on release but they are terrific set-pieces peppered throughout the film. Watching a head detach from the body, grow spider-legs and run away is a remarkable experience.
There is resolutely nothing that I dislike about this movie. It’s pure Carpenter.
It’s oft-stated that Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) is the pinnacle of sci-fi terror, but over the years I have increasingly come round to the notion that this isn’t quite right. Carpenter’s film is the more visceral, the more watchable and the more tense.
For me, whilst Alien’s elegance may ever propel it to the top of various lists, Kurt Russell’s gang of paranoid men isolated in Antarctica will always hold me more than the crew aboard the Nostromo in Ridley’s classic.
The Girl With All The Gifts (2016)
In the midst of a viral outbreak which has turned much of the world into zombies, a band of British soldiers and scientists use a group of children who are able to resist aspects of the virus to develop a cure.
We’ve not been starved of offerings from the zombie genre over the last decade, either on the small screen or in multiplexes. For me, the best of these efforts have been in the form of the Sang-ho Yeon’s satirical nail-biter Train to Busan (2016) and Balaguero/Plaza’s spanish dreadfest REC (2007). I’d give more than a footnote to the Brian Cox narrated Exit Humanity (2011) too.
Part BFI-funded, “The Girl With All The Gifts” belongs to this special grouping. Director Colm McCarthy takes choice-cuts from the genre; the satirical pulse from Train To Busan as an underlay to the script and REC’s putrid tension in his taut set-pieces; reformulating them into a standalone entry which will be a genre mainstay for some time to come.
Thematically immersive – and not dissimilar in this way to Romero’s Day of the Dead (1985) – the film goes diligently beyond the usual-satire, which can border on parody, endemic in the zombie-apocalypse industry; instead opting to pose some conceptual questions about our role in the biosphere. At its core, the film is another coming-of-age drama but this isn’t exactly Stand By Me (1989). Beginning life as a rather standard ‘survivors-trapped-in-a-bunker-from-the-living-dead’, the plot changes tac and nestles the story of the girl of the film’s title in a ‘lifeboat’ movie. Whilst Chernobyl may double for parts of London – in the aerial photography at least – the airless and desolate city location encloses the audience.
The tight cast spun around our child-lead give strong performances – with Glenn Close’s amoral scientist and Paddy Considine’s soldier (think Hicks from Aliens (1986)) really standing-out. As the film goes on, it’s clearly Sennia Nanua who brings the film together. You wouldn’t think that a ‘zombie-kid’ could be so believable.
The screenplay gets it just right with the dash of humour. In a final scene which splits critics, I’d probably fall on the side of those arguing it’s rather needless and a more thoughtful conclusion might come out of some post-shoot editing to remove this sequence, leaving the visual power of the penultimate scene to sit and smoulder.
Psycho 3 (1986)
Anthony Perkins’ directorial debut represents an unexpectedly stylish take on the Psycho franchise, eschewing the mystery-thriller approach of Richard Franklin’s admirable Psycho 2 (1983) and forging a Giallo-hued entry which has been rather unfairly treated down the years. Psycho 3 is partly Psycho a la mode of course.
The look of the film, and in particular the lighting and European-lensing, is distinctly different to its predecessor. Dean Cundey’s work on Psycho 2 is solid in its own right – and particularly the look of the storm clouds set above Norman as he stands outside the Bates house – but the combination of Bruce Surtees as director of photography and Perkins in the chair this time manages to result in a visual style too interesting and eccentric for a paint-by-numbers slasher film. Primarily, that’s because Psycho 3 is not such a slasher film. Yes, the gore and smut factor has been elevated for the 80s audience but the talent behind the production means this is a different kind of movie.
You’d never guess that this is Perkins’ baptism of fire in the art of directing given he pulls off some tantalising camera-placing and engineers numerous dutch angle shots. There are two pieces of camerawork which stand-out even today. The first is a seamless fading shot as we switch between the movie on a TV screen in a bar to the same movie on a TV screen in Norman’s parlour as he gazes out of the window, illuminated by a green table lantern – it’s absolutely gorgeous. (There’s also another fading shot in the film as we move directly from a hospital room to Mother’s room, through the simple act of Norman opening and closing a door). The second is a transformation of a shaft of light under a door into a gleaming kitchen knife.
Perkins the actor, perhaps laid bare in all his typecast glory, comes close to japing the audience with that all-knowing smile and blank – nearly icy – stare. As in Psycho 2, Perkins now appears a rather gaunt and unkempt version of the boy-next-door who initially haunted Vera Miles in Hitchcock’s 1960 classic; but the strength of his performance is – as always with his Norman persona – in effortlessly displaying the complete madness and underlying vulnerabilities of the “child-within-a-man”. Jeff Fahey’s character “Duke” is the mirror image of Norman – he’s confident with women, carefree but also a sexual predator – and it’s with Norman where the audience’s sympathy remains. The elemental reason being that at the heart of the Psycho franchise – and particularly the sequels – is tragedy not horror. Perkins’ Bates is no monster but a pitiable antagonist, a key difference between him and the likes of the deliberately faceless slashers who characterised 80s horror cinema.
Explicit attention is once again given to Norman’s heartfelt desires, this time love and companionship with Diana Scarwid’s “Maureen” – a runaway nun who has turned her back on God (and an uncomfortable doppleganger for shower scene victim Marion Crane) – and at some points in the film you actually begin to believe this is going to work and free him of his tragic split-personality. Both Norman and Maureen are having a crisis of faith; Maureen in her god and Norman in his sanity. The religious themes of restitution and atonement are heavy (perhaps even too heavy) with frequent symbolism, the best of which being the large window in the Bates house’s hallway resembling a stained-glass window in a church. The similarities between Scarwid’s Maureen and Perkins’ Norman are strongly reminiscent of those between Janet Leigh’s Marion and Norman in the original film. In fact the first half of this film is thematically alike – and intentionally so – to Hitchcock’s film. Fans will notice the route that Janet Leigh took to the Bates Motel; running away from a crime, driving through pouring rain and seeking shelter; is markedly analogous to that taken by Scarwid in this picture. The script also wallows in self-reference with Perkins delivering my favourite line in response to Mauren’s hospital-bedside-apology for her suicide attempt in the shower of Cabin 1:
Maureen: Sorry, I did leave the bathroom a mess.
Norman: I’ve seen it worse.
There are further nods to Hitchcock from the off, beginning with an opener which is nothing short of a gushing tribute to Vertigo’s bell-tower moment. There’s a reworking of the iconic shower scene from the original film, only here it’s a phone box rather than a bathtub. Perkins clearly picked up on Hitchcock’s black humour and memorably stages a police chief unknowingly sucking blood-spattered ice cubs from an ice box as he defends Norman in front of his detractors.
Carter Burwell’s soundtrack has claim to be one of the most under-rated scores in the genre. The main theme is jealously eerie as it plays over the opening credits of Maureen drudging through the barren wilderness surrounding the Bates motel. The incidental scores are just as strong, and really add to the picture’s togetherness.
What Perkins doesn’t get quite right is the mood of the picture; certain scenes fly just a little close to self-parody and modern audiences may decide the sight of a cross-dressing killer snarling from the dark is more jocularly camp than anything else.
In a sentence, Psycho 3 is a well-shot sequel that is far superior to anything it *should* have been. Perkins himself later claimed that he didn’t really have the requisite technical skill to do the film justice; how wrong he was. Furthermore, it’s unfortunately now remembered by most as just another slice ‘n’ dice movie from a decade soaked in them. How wrong again.
Hotdog rating: 8/10
Rehabilitating Arrowhead (1953)
Right, Arrowhead (1953) is a film which is almost universally panned; long subject to vitriolic attacks from critics but it’s resolutely unfair to chastise a film which so accurately attempts to reflect guttural conflict that still characterises the world today.
What I think irks most critics is the utter malice on display from our protagonists, Charlton Heston and Jack Palance. Heston plays an Apache-hating scout and Palance, clad in rather hilarious make-up, an Apache bent on rebelling against the ‘white eyes’. Heston’s character is thoroughly unlikeable: no hero. But his role is not even that of an anti-hero; he’s a full-blown racist and to blame for igniting the violence in the film by executing Apache go-betweens without question or hesitation. However, Heston must finish what he starts in the film’s logic, and that’s why he ends up in some people’s eyes as “the hero”. But it’s unanswerable that the screenplay demonstrates the contempt in which he is held by all. The army come to a regrettable conclusion that they need this seething ball of bile in order to prevent massacre, but it’s a wrenchingly difficult choice and the audience is never comfortable with it.
On the other hand, the Apaches whilst brutal are still shown as honourable – governed by their code – but inflexibly beholden to faith and belief which brings about their downfall. Palance – clad in make-up – is a bit theatrical but well-juxtaposed next to his more cautious and peace-seeking father.
The film has two particularly callous scenes. The first is Palance’s shooting of his unarmed – and welcoming – ‘blood brother’ from childhood, a white man who now runs the local stagecoach. The second is the suicide of Heston’s half-Apache scheming mistress; followed up with Heston’s sadistic utterance “there’s a dead Apache in here….get it out”. It’s hard and uncompromising stuff.
Ray Rennahan’s gorgeous photography of the landscapes, and use of colour filters to simulate the coming dawn are evidence of a dichotomy between the topography of a graceful land and the chilling racism that exists on its plains.
It’s high-time Arrowhead was rehabilitated; and it’s resonance with current affairs is not be sniffed at. This is a dark film – and perhaps so bleak that you think it may have been unintended by the producers – but whatever its motivations, Arrowhead is an unforgettable and misanthropic movie experience with a punchy aesthetic.
Alien: Covenant (2017)
The melancholy of Scott’s film is that its best bits are simulated rehashes of the original 1979 film, but luckily there’s just enough of them to make this another enjoyable adventure in the series – and nothing remotely more.
Aesthetically pleasing – with a visual bonanza at the film’s close – and with some solid blood-letting in the best of fashion, it’ll please the style brigade at least. But Scott critically neglects the character development that made us care so much about the Nostromo’s crew in his 1979 genre-definer; and for all the visual jazz, it feels a cold experience.
Thematically similar to Blade Runner, and with an opening scene which could have come directly from that classic of neo-noir, Scott’s overtly preoccupied and wedded to the artificial intelligence theme for much of the running time. For sure, Fassbender’s synthetic is the realised fulcrum of the picture but the plot twists around his character are far too readily seen, predictability mitigating the film’s shock value. The ‘big reveal’ is nothing of the sort it was in Alien (1979), and it’s as if Scott can’t help but let out the secret way before time. That said, Fassbender’s performance is totemic in its own right – after this and Prometheus (2012) he’ll surely go down in franchise folk history – but I’d pine that it feels like a role chiselled into the wrong film.
The screenplay involves some ludicrous decision-making by the colonists – even by typical genre standards – which stretches the imagination. I couldn’t help garnering a sly impression that the writers were in fact quite lazy, and couldn’t be bothered to think of ingenious methods for our would-be settlers to become exposed to the alien(s).
Once the alien is on board the spacecraft, we know exactly what is going to happen and then Covenant just re-runs the latter part of the original movie. Of course, with Scott in the director’s chair it’s done very well from a choreography point of view, but you don’t feel as strongly for the cast as you did in Scott’s first effort from nearly 40 years ago. Part of the reason is another missing aspect, down again to the writers, who by making the colonists couples, cheaply extinguish the par-boiled sexual tension which simmered beneath Weaver’s Ripley and Skerritt’s Dallas in Alien (1979). In addition, there is apparently scant logic to the creature’s behaviour in Covenant ; once aboard the ship it just seems to uncaringly tear through things. That isn’t how the alien was portrayed in the original, and the xenomorph’s intelligence and stalking abilities have clearly now been downgraded to being little more than a klutz of a killing machine.
What this film does have is a viciously suspenseful shower scene, harking back to the haunted-house concept in Alien(1979). In spite of its great achievement, that’s really ‘all’ the original film was – a simple haunted-house movie in space. It’s strangely telling that Covenant is strongest when recreating this simplicity and weakest where it tries to carry on the complexity and layering of Prometheus (2012).
All in all, Scott is valiantly attempting to construct a lore and a mythos but it doesn’t feel necessary. The lacking backstory could and I’d strongly argue should be seen as positive element in these films and not a negative one. The failure to realise this continues to leave the Alien franchise in an unfavourable place.
But perhaps us fans should shoulder some of the responsibility, after all it’s our crippling desires for a universe all of our own which must have somewhat forced Scott’s treasured hand. It would have been better if the question of where this all comes from had been left as the Alien franchise’s lingering rhetoric, rather than the driver for a intricately networked batch of prequels.