Guts Reaction - Eyes of My Mother

***SPOILER FREE***

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A lot of reviewers have said Eyes of My Mother (2016) has elements of torture porn. Now I HATE torture porn, but I loved this film.

What gives? Well, torture porn has two key aspects - first mutilation of the body, and second, taking pleasure in mutilating the body. I'm not sure Eyes of My Mother really qualifies.

It's set on a remote US farmhouse where a Portuguese immigrant family lives quietly (or are they exiled? They certainly have the wary quality of people who have experienced trauma). The mother is a former surgeon and teaches her daughter to dissect eyes.When their lives are shattered by a violent tragedy, things take a very strange turn and a number of horrific acts are committed, albeit off-screen.

But I don't think the perpetrator takes any pleasure in these acts - she's childlike, almost infantile, she doesn't actually understand what she's doing.

Eyes of My Mother did push me out of my comfort zone - it was so disturbing I had pause it and look up the rest of the plot on Wikipedia to check I wasn't going to regret watching it. That's never happened before.

But I loved the sense of this calcified Portuguese timewarp in the middle of the US, this old, sad energy of an immigrant past that's never really been left behind.

Some reviews say the ending was disappointing, but I thought it was incredible. It conveyed beautifully the inevitability of the lead character's behaviour, like the return of a musical fate motif at the climax of an opera.

Yes, opera. Poetry too. There was all kinds of high art in this horror film. All bad and old and no good, but absolutely stunning.

 

 

Guts Reaction: It

***Spoiler free ***

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I wasn’t looking forward to the 2017 film version of It.

I’ve read the sprawling Stephen King novel many times, and always felt it was just too complex to be boiled down into a movie. I’ve never been a fan of the 1990s miniseries (mainly, it is true, because I couldn’t get my hands on it).

I didn’t see how there could be anything good about an even shorter screen adaptation, especially one directed by Andy Muschietti, who made the deeply disappointing Mama (2013).

It’s lovely to be wrong. Pretty much everything about the film is perfect. There’s not a single bad performance – the child actors are all brilliant. The cinematography is stunning, capturing that sweltering summer King wrote about so vividly. And Pennywise. Oh boy, Pennywise.

At the heart of It is Pennywise, the most malicious clown in literary history. When I read the novel as a teenager, a strange ecstasy used to come over me during the Pennywise interludes. He was a kind of fear-poem that sneaked around every logical barrier and … I don’t know…  scared me and yet gave me something I needed.

It was Pennywise I was least looking forward to in the film adaptation. Because how could anyone capture that strange celebratory malevolence? Like I said, I haven’t seen the miniseries, but Tim Curry never looked particularly convincing to me.

Bill Skarsgard, however, is a revelation. He’s helped out a little with special effects – in particular, they play around with his size so that he’s just slightly too large. But on the whole it’s all Bill, pulling faces and throwing shapes and delivering his lines with a terrifying mad energy that actually does the book justice. Each time he appears, the film comes to joyous, terrifying life, just like the book used to do.

To my surprise, the next day Pennywise stayed with me. I felt as if he was following me around the streets. It was a good feeling.

Guts Reaction: Personal Shopper

Personal Shopper is a slow, mournful film about a girl who lives in two worlds and may or may not be haunted. It’s also way scarier than most textbook horror films.

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Maureen (Kristen Stewart) has been staying in Paris with her twin brother Lewis, when he dies of a congenital heart problem which she also shares.

She’s a medium – of course – as is Lewis and they promised each other if one died they would give the living twin a sign. So Maureen is living alone in Paris, wandering around the wreckage of Lewis’s life – he had a girlfriend, a house and a project – waiting for this sign to come.

At the same time, Maureen is a personal shopper for an A-list celebrity, Kyra. Kyra displays all the worst kind of aristocratic traits associated with fame and glamour.

Maureen despises the work but at the same time she cannot resist trying on the designer clothes and shoes she chooses for, and delivers to Kyra. The film goes to great lengths to establish what a taboo this is.

I lived in Paris when I was in my twenties, and it was a haunted time for me too, albeit for very different reasons from Maureen. Seeing her scoot along the boulevards as the evening draws in and the lights of the cafes come on was just magical.

There’s also a scene when Maureen takes the Eurostar to London – I’ve sat in all those locations several times, and it gave me a shiver up my spine.

But there's a lot more. There’s a psychopath, who the film barely spends any time on, because actually psychopaths aren’t that interesting. What takes the fore is Maureen's terror, which is so real it reaches out of the screen in a way few conventional horror films manage these days.

One enigmatic scene plays on absence and is reminiscent of an all-time great in French cinema, Hidden.

Supernatural elements are handled conventionally – they may or may not be Maureen’s own emotions – but with great skill because they never displaces the real story, one of bereavement and coming of age.

There are many ways to interpret the end of the movie, but it’s still satisfying.

All in all, Personal Shopper is a wonderful film.

 

Guts Reaction: Creep 2

***Spoilers***

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Creep (2014) created an unforgettable monster in the figure of Josef (Mark Duplass).

Superficially bright and cheerful, under the surface Josef was a toxic mess. He hired Aaron, a shy young film-maker, only to draw him into an socially awkward and increasingly sinister cat and mouse game.

Creep’s clever study of personality made us laugh as well as shudder as Josef’s cringingly peculiar worldview crept out into the light. Arguably the first chink on this vista was opened by Christian Bale’s performance in American Psycho, but Creep grabbed the doors and threw them wide open.

Creep 2 is a brilliant follow-up. Instead of a shy male film-maker we have a confident female one – Sara (Desiree Akhavan). Josef, now calling himself Aaron, admits within minutes of her arrival at his remote house that he’s a serial killer.

This renews the dynamic and results in a film that is just as riveting as the original, if not more so.

As a woman, it’s totally unbelievable that Sara stays, but the motivation is twofold. First, she’s anxious that she’s failing as a film-maker and Aaron (as I suppose we must call him now) is the best material she’s every come across.

Second, she’s extremely bold. When Aaron strips naked she calmly films his full frontal nudity. She then takes her own clothes off and invites him to film her.

In fact, Aaron has met his match in Sara. In a way, she is as much of a predator as he is, although she wants to spill people’s vulnerability on film, rather than spill their blood on the carpet.

The pair go through a bizarre romantic arc. It’s not love exactly, but eventually, I think, Sara’s boundaries erode and she begins to feel something for Aaron.

And so do we, the audience. In fact we’re more confused – Sara doesn’t think Aaron’s a murderer but we know he is. And yet we’re charmed at their pre-lapsarian frolicking, like Adam and Eve before the fall. We’re going ‘aaaaah!’ as they excitedly invent games around their mutual interest in weird shit.

The fact that Mark Duplass looks much less creepy in a beard – in fact he looks quite cute – doesn’t do any harm.

The fall, when it comes, isn’t particularly shocking or scary. As other reviewers have observed, Creep 2 has less horror in it than the first, and more character.

But what a wonderful film.

Guts Reaction: Bucking Hell

Bucking Hell is a short film by James Kermack. It’s about three men stuck on a sinking ship, with only one life-jacket. They sit below decks playing an improvised version of Buckaroo to decide who gets the life jacket – hence the title.

The Buckaroo is worth describing in more detail. It’s like a mix between a Blair Witch Project twig sculpture and a four-year-old child’s junk modelling. It’s really quite special.

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The film is a fine study of men on the edge and it’s darkly hilarious. Dick-waving about who’s got the biggest scar – that’s scar not car - takes up a significant proportion of the character’s dwindling time.

Gradually, the terrified and ridiculous bickering breaks down into Beckettian existential reflection. At this point real characters begin to emerge. One shows himself to be a cynic to the end, while another reveals an unexpected, if horribly violated, sensitivity.

Bucking Hell is a very accomplished short film. The performances – from David Schaap of the Inbetweeners, Nicky Evans of Shameless and Geoffrey Breton…  who is less well known but should be…. are impeccable.

Like many a short film, I wanted it to be longer.

James Kermack’s first feature film - Hi-Lo Joe, about a love affair haunted by trauma - received mixed reviews.  But Kermack’s clearly got an eye for compelling set-up and characters, and tightly controlled narrative. He’s currently putting together a dark action thriller, Knuckledust, and I’ll certainly be looking out for it.

Guts Reaction: League of Gentlemen Christmas Special

Here are my off the cuff thoughts on The League of Gentlemen Christmas Special.

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On the down side, the structure of the series - a hybrid between a sketch show and a sitcom - wasn’t quite as dreamlike as in the original show. It felt bitty, rather than unsettling.

This was the only downside, however.

Royston Vasey, as others have observed, is more relevant than ever. What is Brexit if not a resolution of Britain’s identity as a local country for local people?

I’m coming at League of Gentlemen as a horror fan. On a more personal note, I feel that for horror fans , the energy of characters like Edward and Tubbs and Papa Lazarou is always there under the surface of everyday life. To me, you can’t make sense of life without that crazy dimension. You can’t live your life without it. A show like the League of Gentlemen provides an exhilarating validation for this feeling, and it was good to be back.

Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton were so ferociously good in all their roles they made me tingle. I got the feeling they were having the time of their lives and they absolutely took me with them.

Shearsmith excels himself when, as Benjamin Denton, he’s possessed by Harvey Denton. I never knew a top lip could be so funny.

Mark Gatiss, as usual, was smooth and brilliant.

All in all, watch it if you haven’t already!

 

 

 

 

 

Guts Reaction: The Autopsy of Jane Doe

 Olwen Kelly terrifies as Jane Doe. She may be the best thing in the movie.

Olwen Kelly terrifies as Jane Doe. She may be the best thing in the movie.

The Autopsy of Jane Doe is an American supernatural horror directed by Norwegian Andre Ovredal, who directed the brilliant Troll Hunter.

It stars Brian Cox as Tommy Tilden and Emile Hirsch as his son Austin.

Tommy is a a forensic pathologist and Emile works as his assistant. A harried local police chief ask them to rush through the autopsy of an unidentified young woman who’s been found in a basement. She’s in immaculate condition, but the rest of the house is full of blood-soaked corpses.

Tommy and Austin apply themselves with grim professionalism to trying to solve the mystery of how ‘Jane Doe’ died, but gradually things take an unnerving turn.

The Autopsy of Jane Doe does a beautiful job with a classic horror trope – our fear that the dead will return. It takes the people we trust to look violent death in the eye – forensic pathologists – and strips them down.

It also, I thought, takes a subtle swipe at expectations of female beauty. Maybe I'm just desensitized after watching The Corpse of Anna Fritz, which features graphic necrophilia. But Jane Doe’s body is eerily perfect and this is not a good thing.

The Autopsy has the most wonderful contrapuntal structure. There’s the obvious like a certain sound effect that appears at the beginning and the end of the movie with very different meaning. There’s relationship between father and son, marked by love and conflict.

Then there’s the less obvious, like Austin’s girlfriend’s benign insinuation into the male space of the morgue. This foreshadows the more sinister insinuation of Jane Doe.

These parallels and pairings should ring like bells. They should sing like a choir. And for the first half of the film, they do.

But it all gets lost in the second half. There’s nothing wrong with the acting – when has Brian Cox ever disappointed? But somehow these potentially powerful counterpoints miss each other, they don’t ring out. The denouement feels silly and anticlimactic.

The only exception to this is Jane Doe herself, played by Olwen Kelly. Her blank face terrified me in every shot.

And horror films often reveal wonders on a second or third viewing. I’d certainly watch this film again.