Retro Review: Nightmare City

Its own special brand of terrible

Italy. Directed by Umberto Lenzi, 1980. Starring Mel Ferrer, Hugo Stiglitz, Laura Trotter. 88 minutes. 3/10

Intrepid television-news reporter Dean Miller (Hugo Stiglitz) bides his time at an anonymous European airport, waiting for the impending arrival of an important nuclear scientist or something.

That’s when an unexpected military aircraft makes an emergency landing. Air traffic control is not able to make contact with the plane and the police assemble to investigate, as do Miller and his cameraman. A swarm of people–some of them appearing to have congealed beef gravy smeared on their faces–disembark from the plane, draw guns and knives and make short work of the police. (One of the killers is the scientist Miller was waiting for.) That being settled, they descend upon the city and wreak havoc.

Miller escapes with footage of the massacre, but when he attempts to broadcast it, the imperious General Murchison (Mel Ferrer) arrives and puts the kibosh on it, because blah blah blah military blah blah blah mass panic.

The plane came from some sort of top-secret nuclear facility; radiation mutated its passengers into murderous fiends. (It turns out the beef gravy is actually radiation burns.) They need to drink blood to survive, and the mutations have driven their cellular regeneration systems into overdrive. Only by destroying a certain part of the brain may one incapacitate them, as it disrupts the healing factor.

These blood-drinking, zomboid freaks target locations of strategic importance, including the television station where Miller works, the hospital where Miller’s wife Anna (Jill Trotter) assists with a crucial surgery, and the estate where Gen. Murchison’s daughter lives with her new husband. The ranks of the fiends swell as more planes filled with them arrive. Even worse, their affliction is apparently virulent.

While the military try to contain the chaos, Miller seeks to rescue his wife. Can they make it out of the country alive? Can Murchison devise a plan to defeat the freaks?

Or is all of humanity completely fucked?

In 1979, a little movie called Dawn of the Dead took the world by storm. It was especially notorious in western Europe, where it was known as Zombie (or variations thereof). European production companies specializing in cheap exploitation responded to its runaway success the only way they knew how: either by adding zombies to every film on their production slate, or commissioning a pile of rip-offs of Dawn. Some of these were good, most were bad, and Emmanuelle probably appeared in at least one of them.

Then there’s Incubo sulla città contaminata, variously known in the U.S. as either Nightmare City or City of the Walking Dead (not to be confused with City of the Living Dead, an alternate title for Fulci’s Gates of Hell), which is so very special that it merits specific attention.

According to IMDB, various corporate entities hired director Umberto Lenzi to make 65 films between 1958 and 1992, so it seems that someone thought he knew how to assemble a coherent motion picture. Unfortunately, the evidence of such a claim is very thin on the ground in Nightmare City.

The film includes two or three of the most hilarious continuity errors I’ve ever seen. And I’m not talking about run-of-the-mill things like “a scene is set at night, and the interiors reflect that, but the exteriors were shot at high god-damn noon,” although, yes, that is a thing that does happen. We’re talking higher orders of discontinuity here. Late in the film, a soldier shoots a zombie in the head, blowing it clean off her shoulders. In the very next shot, said head is attached to the body again. Cinema is magic! Consider, also, the case of an extra who dies at least twice, maybe three times, over the course of a scene.

Let’s not forget all those extras who fall victim to zombie attack by running towards clearly visible monsters instead of away from them. I don’t know who’s at fault here; could be Lenzi, could be the editor(s). But whoever paid them should ask for their money back.

And then there’s the sight of three or four zombies, leaning against a car and drinking bottles of Cherry Coke. I will never be able to make sense of that as long as I live. I’m hoping that when I die, someone in the afterlife will be able to explain it to me.

As for the script, you really can’t call it a story without using ironic air quotes. The degree of contrivance is astonishing: after the brouhaha at the airport, they somehow manage to strike three or four places in the entire city where important characters were congregating. Their prey-stalking technique is incomprehensible: one apparently breaks into a house, vandalizes the inhabitant’s artwork, and then lays low for at least twenty-four hours before striking again.

The script spends a good five minutes explaining why zombies can only be killed by destroying the brain, a question very few people require answered in order to enjoy a tale of flesh-eating ghouls, but doesn’t bother establishing how the mutation is transmitted from person to person. Indeed, I spent the most of the film thinking it wasn’t–until the very end, when the screenwriters evidently noticed they forgot to write a scene forcing a character to kill a zombified loved one and duly added it.

And the less said about the ending, the better.

In the writers’ defense, they gave their movie a social conscience. Actually, never mind–Claudio Fragasso also gave Hell of the Living Dead and Troll 2 a social conscience. So, hell with them, then. There’s no defense for this nonsense.

Are there any good points? Well, Silvio Cipriani’s score is top-notch, in aesthetic terms. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t often wildly inappropriate compared to what’s going on in the movie. Like any good European exploitation film, there’s plenty of gratuitous female nudity involving attractive actresses. And of course, me being me, I really appreciated the scene in which zombies attack the Solid Gold Dancers…but I’m not really prepared to discuss my fetish for women in workout or dance attire with anyone other than my therapist.

But, honestly, the only compelling reason to watch this film is to make fun of it. If you want to see a vintage Italian zombie movie that’s actually good, I recommend you look elsewhere.

Nightmare City poster

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Toad Road

I should have loved Toad Road; what happened?

United States. Directed by Jason Banker, 2013. Starring James Davidson, Sara Anne Jones, Whitleigh Higuera. 76 minutes. 3/10

Are mood and perception-altering drugs a useful tool in transcending the traditional limits of consciousness? Or are they nothing more than a path leading to a dead end? And, at any rate, do the benefits of expanding your mind outweigh the risks? The debate has raged for decades.

It’s probably safe to say that James (portrayed by James Davidson–all the characters in Toad Road share their names with their actors) doesn’t give these questions much thought. He doesn’t seem to have much going on in his life beyond going to parties, taking drugs, listening to punk rock and engaging in outrageous antics with his buds. He just wants to get fucked up, have fun, and get even more fucked up.

That’s when he meets Sara (Sara Anne Jones), a new addition to his circle of so-called friends. A college student living on her own for the first time, she’s naïve, curious and highly impressionable. She’s ready to try new things, forbidden things, things previously denied her. Including drugs.

James and Sara begin dating, and she begins her experimentation with recreational pharmaceuticals–everything from weed, shrooms and acid to having someone blow the contents of a Vicks inhaler into her eyes.

One night, James describes a local urban legend. Out in the woods, he tells her, is an overgrown trail known as Toad Road. Long ago, seven iron gates stood along this path. If a traveler walked along this path, as he passed through each gate, his perception became more distorted, more frightening. If he were to pass the seventh and final gate, the traveler would find himself in Hell itself.

The path still exists, but the gates don’t–at least, not physically. Some stories state that you can see the gates at night…or while experiencing an altered state of awareness.

Sara becomes obsessed with the story of Toad Road, and becomes determined to walk the path while under the influence of LSD. It’s a decision that will have disastrous consequences–for her, and for James.

Altered perception, urban legendry, infernal mythology and a cute female lead. These things all live very comfortably in my wheelhouse. I should have loved Toad Road. So wha’ happened? Chalk it up to the hand-held, low-fidelity mumblecore aesthetic employed by the film’s “multi-hyphenate” (writer-director-producer-cinematographer) auteur, Jason Banker.

Banker adopts a documentary approach to both the photography and the editing. In fact, in the film’s early stages I thought it was actually supposed intended as a pseudo-documentary or found-footage exercise. In an early scene, as James depants a fellow party-goer and sets his pubic hair on fire, the actor playing the “friend” has his face blurred out. In terms of the narrative, what sense does that make other than to convince the viewer he’s watching documentary footage? But the narrative never acknowledges someone behind the camera. And I’m not the only person confused by this: I have read pieces on the film describing it as a “documentary.”

I assume Banker wanted Toad Road to have a “cinema verité” feel, to make it feel “real.” Instead, I was actually more aware of the mechanics of the filmmaking, causing me to wonder if Banker shot the footage intending to make a documentary and only later deciding to incorporate it into a fictional framework. (My research indicates this may well have been the case.) He fills the film with touches presumably intended to heighten the audience’s sense that they were watching something that actually happened; however, these elements only strengthened the Brechtian divide between me and what I was watching.

Characterization is minimal, and largely consists of people treating each other like garbage. Who cares? I don’t get anything out of watching this particular group of unpleasant jerks be unpleasant to each other. It’s not educational, it’s not emotionally powerful, it’s not scary, it’s not entertaining. In a scene late in the film, James stands on the street and practically begs passers-by to beat him unconsciousness, and I don’t feel bad for him because of his emotional degradation. I don’t even think, “Geez, what a fucking moron.” I don’t feel anything. Maybe I yawn, but that’s it. I simply don’t care.

And that’s because these characters do not seem real. Banker found a bunch of non-professional actors, named their characters after them, and allowed them to improvise their dialog and some of their scenes and it still doesn’t bring them to life.

I don’t blame the cast for this; it looks like they’re all playing themselves anyway, and nobody’s embarrassingly bad, so that’s not the problem. The problem is a story that is deliberately vague and withholds crucial information from the audience by the ton. Nobody seems to have much of a history, it’s hard to tell how the characters fit together, and almost impossible to tell some of the minor characters apart. Yet Toad Road expects to be patted on the head for being “challenging” and “intelligent” and “thought-provoking” and refusing to lead the audience by the hand.

And it’s a shame, because there’s something potentially really good at the core of Toad Road, something that Jason Banker obscures with his vague “script” and obtrusive stylistic touches. Maybe it is really there–like A Horrible Way to Die and Resolution, two films with similar styles that I also strongly disliked, it’s garnered critical acclaim. Maybe I just don’t get it. I hope so.

Postscript: Toad Road ends with a caption reading, “Dedicated to the memory of Sara Anne Moore.” She passed away in September, 2012, apparently of an accidental drug overdose. I rewatched it with that knowledge, and some additional details gleaned from this article about Jones and Toad Road, and I found that while it didn’t make me appreciate the film more, the fictional story did reflect, in a weird way, what little I know about her life.

Toad Road poster

My Month in Film: May 2014

Capsule reviews of Despicable Me, Godzilla, 12 Years a Slave, and more

This month I published full write-ups of:

I also reviewed the back half of Hannibal’s second season:

Forced Viewing Podcast episode 28’s featured films were Cheerleader Massacre (Drudgie’s pick), The Asphyx (my pick) and We Are What We Are (Jori’s pick), which we discussed with Mr. Benzedrine.

Continue reading “My Month in Film: May 2014”

Blue Ruin

A broken man seeks revenge in one of the year’s finest films

United States. Directed by Jeremy Saulnier, 2013. Starring Macon Blair, Devin Ratray, Amy Hargreaves. 90 minutes. 9/10

Unkempt and withdrawn, Dwight Evans (Macon Blair) lives “off the grid” in Delaware. He breaks into houses for baths, scavenges for food and lives in his broken-down, pale blue Pontiac Bonneville.

One day, someone raps on the car’s window. It’s Officer Eddy of the local P.D. She has a message for Dwight.

Years ago, Wade Cleland, Jr., murdered Dwight Evans’s mother and father. He went to prison for his crime. And soon, within days, his term will be over.

Dwight’s demeanor changes the minute he hears the news. He fixes his car, sends a postcard to his sister Sam (Amy Hargreaves), and unsuccessfully attempts to get a gun. He hits the road, his destination a place he hasn’t seen in a long, long time.

Home.

By pure chance, Dwight comes across the Cleland family, celebrating Wade’s release at a meeting hall just outside the small Virginia town where he grew up. Within minutes, Wade lies on the floor of the men’s room, dead by Dwight’s hand.

Dwight gets away–but not unseen. Soon, the Cleland family will come for him, and probably his sister and her young daughters. He’s got to get them first.

It’s the only way.

It’s an old story. The wronged man takes up arms, to take vengeance on those who persecuted him. But at the end of it all, he rarely finds that revenge delivers the catharsis and closure he seeks. Instead, he finds the price he pays is terrible indeed, and he is worse off than he was before. He sees, to his sorrow, the truth behind the old saying: “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”

That’s not how Dwight’s story goes, not exactly. It’s not hard to guess that writer/director Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin won’t end with Dwight Evans perched triumphantly atop a mound of Cleland corpses. But it’s not the process of vengeance that destroys him. He’s a broken man, damned the day his parents died. He’s a tragic figure, unable to take any step that doesn’t bring him closer to his looming fate. Awkward and inept, he’s nobody’s idea of a hero.

“I could feel sorry for you if you were crazy,” Sam tells him, “but you’re just weak.”

The direction is poetic and spare, occasionally interrupted by scenes of intense suspense and harrowing violence. The cracked urban pavements and long shots of vast, empty rural land reflect the characters’ mental states. Some of the dialogue is quite clever (I’m very fond of “The guy with the gun gets to tell the truth”) and there’s a thin streak of black comedy running through the story, but the overall tone is bleak. The script sparingly doles out backstory, and while there are surprises and twists, it thankfully doesn’t hinge on an all-important third-act shock plot twist. Haunting ambient soundscapes, provided by Brooke and Will Blair, underline the action, along with the occasional country and western song.

Blair (who also executive-produced) inhabits the lead role of Dwight and carries the film with it. It’s not just in his line readings (sometimes intense, sometimes scattershot). His physical presence is just as important, and even after cleaning up and changing from a scraggly-bearded, creepy-looking drifter to someone you wouldn’t look twice at passing on the street, Blair looks the part of a man driven by demons. It’s in the eyes, mainly.

The other performances are quite good, especially Hargreaves (best known for playing Claire Danes’s sister on Homeland), Devin Ratray as Dwight’s gun-fondling childhood friend and Kevin Kolack, Stacey Rock and Eve Plumb (yup, that Eve Plumb) as various Clelands.

Quirky yet hauntingly dark, Blue Ruin is one of the best films of 2014 so far. Highly recommended for fans of the Coen Brothers’ darker films, such as Blood Simple and Fargo.

P.S. Jeremy Saulnier may seem to have come out of nowhere, but several months ago my friends Jori and John introduced me to his first film, 2007’s Murder Party; we discussed it in the April episode of the Forced Viewing Podcast. As riotously hilarious as Blue Ruin is spare and grim, this merciless evisceration of pretentious art-scene sycophants is one of the finest horror-comedies of recent years. It also stars Macon Blair, as well as two other Blue Ruin actors, Cleland siblings Stacey Rock and Alex (Sandy) Barnett. I wholeheartedly recommend it. “Fuck the scene! Everybody dies!”

Blue Ruin poster

Attack the Block

Clever dialogue, well-drawn characters and a vivid setting help create an action-horror-comedy that works

United Kingdom. Directed by Joe Cornish, 2013. Starring John Boyega, Jodie Whittaker, Alex Esmail. 88 minutes. 8/10

Bonfire Night in the South London district of Brixton. Nurse Samantha Adams (Jodie Whittaker), returning to her home in the Wyndham Estates council block, encounters a group of five local youths. The gang, led by Moses (John Boyega), attempts to mug Sam, but she escapes when a meteorite strikes a nearby car. As the kids investigate, some sort of large, wild animal attacks and injures Moses; it runs away, but Moses and his friends give chase.

They run it to ground and discover that the animal isn’t like anything seen on Earth: pale and hairless, with bioluminescent jaws. Moses makes quick work of the monster. The kids, hoping to get rich and famous off their adventure, take the corpse to local weed dealer Ron (Nick Frost) for safekeeping.

More meteorites rain down on the neighborhood; the kids arm themselves and go in search of more alien monsters to fight. But these “alien gorilla-wolf motherfuckers” are larger and tougher than the first, and don’t go down so easily. More complications arise. The police (having been called by Sam) arrive at the block, seeking to arrest the youths. Attempting to flee the monsters, Moses and his friends run afoul of the block’s drug kingpin, Hi-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter).

More and more monsters descend upon the block, the kids must enter into an uneasy alliance with their erstwhile victim Sam if they expect to evade both Hi-Hatz and the coppers while fending off the alien invaders. The fate of the Wyndham Estates rests entirely with five tough inner-city kids, armed only with baseball bats and knives.

Action-horror hybrids tend to work best by subverting action tropes. The two examples I always use are Aliens, in which all the film’s toughest characters (save one) die in a single scene, and Predator, where a stroke of dumb luck allows Dutch to avoid meeting the same fates as his fellow soldiers.

Attack the Block, the début directorial effort from British comic actor Joe Cornish, is the modern equivalent of Alien and Predator in this sense. Moses and his mates might think themselves tough guys, and put into the context of the Wyndham Estates, they probably are. They certainly scare white ladies like Sam.

But Cornish consistently reminds us that they are also kids, and their desperation shows. Their mums call them on their mobile phones, and none can afford unlimited voice or data plans. They zoom around the grounds on scooters and bicycles; they steal a car, but don’t have drivers’ licenses. Their weapons are mêlée weapons, and even the most impressive one–a katana–is a display piece, not actually meant for real combat. Only the grown-ups, like Hi-Hatz, carry guns. When Moses tells Sam he’s fifteen years old, it’s meant as a big revelation–but, truth be told, while he certainly looks older than that, the context of the film doesn’t tell us he’s much older.

Of course, deceptive appearances also work the other way round. The gang marks Sam as a target because they figure she’s posh; little do they realize she’s one of their neighbors. This serves as part of the film’s social commentary, which, for the most part, is very subtle, coming to the fore only in a couple of instances. At one point, Moses theorizes that the powers-that-be “bred those things to kill black boys.” Just as telling is Pest’s (Alex Esmail) criticism of Sam’s absent boyfriend, working for the Red Cross in Ghana. “Why can’t he help children in Britain?” Pest asks her. “Not exotic enough, is it? Don’t get a nice suntan?”

Cornish bulks up his setting and themes by applying memorable dialogue seasoned with authentic (or at least authentic-seeming) British urban slang; non-native speakers might have to consult the Urban Dictionary to understand terms like “wagwan bruv.” This also strengthens characterization, and each faction of characters has its own particular dialect. Compare the kids’ language to that of working-class white girl Sam, Ron the dealer who smokes a bit too much of his own stash, or Brewis (Luke Treadaway), a “profoundly stoned” slumming uni student. And let’s not forget Probs and Mayhem, the pint-size gangstas in training.

Of course, such dialogue requires a great cast to make it work, and a great cast is what this film has. Boyega is the film’s breakout performer; he emits charisma like light from a bulb. The other gang members–Esmail, Howard, Leeon Jones and Franz Drameh–each get several moments of greatness, as does Whittaker. Frost (the closest the film has to a big name), Treadaway and Hunter steal every scene they’re in.

The film’s direction is superb, with plenty of exciting and clever action sequences. The film cost a relatively modest $13 million to make but looks like it could have been five or six times more expensive. The cinematography and editing transform a series of disparate locations into the Wyndham Estates. As for the monsters, their design is delightful, the effects work solid and Cornish wisely keeps them in shadow or darkness for most of the film. Comparative newcomer Steven Price supplies a terrific score and the soundtrack features a new song from Basement Jaxx alongside some modern hip-hop and reggae classics.

Attack the Block is exhilarating, thrilling, hilarious and frightening–everything you could want from either a modern horror movie or a modern action movie. With its infectiously quotable dialogue, well-drawn characters and vivid setting, it’s destined to become a cult classic–if it hasn’t already.

Attack the Block poster

Retro Review: The Nameless

Sometimes competent, sometimes a trainwreck, mostly mediocre

AKA Los sin nombre. Spain. Directed by Jaume Balagueró, 1999. Starring Emma Vilarasau, Karra Elejalde, Tristán Ulloa. 102 minutes. 4/10

In a water hole in an abandoned, desolate warehouse, the police make a gruesome discovery: the mutilated body of a young girl. Numerous puncture wounds and acid burns, inflicted while she was still alive, mar her skin. Her teeth destroyed, her fingerprints destroyed by corrosion, her remains are almost impossible to identify.Almost. The girl had a physical deformity: one of her legs was five centimeters shorter than the other. And a single personal affect–a bracelet–was found at the scene. Based on this evidence, the authorities determine the corpse is that of Ángela Gifford, whose parents, Marc and Claudia, recently reported her missing.Five years later, the Giffords’ marriage is ruins. Marc returned to London, while Claudia (Emma Vilarasaud) remained in Spain, working as an editor, fending off an obsessive suitor, addicted to tranquilizers, unable to come to terms with her daughter’s death.

One night, the phone rings. “It’s me, Mommy,” a voice–unmistakable–pleads. “Please, come get me.”

Ángela tells her mother she’s being held captive at an abandoned beachfront health clinic. Claudia arrives, finding the grounds deserted, but she finds clues indicating her daughter’s survival–and hints towards who took her. She teams up with Bruno Massera (Karra Elejalde), the now-retired police detective who investigated Ángela’s disappearance, and Quiroga (Tristan Ulloa), a writer for a Fortean magazine who holds another piece of the puzzle.

All the clues point to a horrible truth: Ángela is in the hands of the Nameless, a brutal and depraved cult dedicated to nothing less to discovering the essence of pure evil.

The Nameless is based on a 1981 novel by Ramsey Campbell, the legendary and prolific British horrorist. Not being familiar with that novel, or indeed the bulk of his written work (I’ve really only read his Cthulhu Mythos fiction), I can’t say how faithful this 1999 adaptation, the début feature from Spanish director Jaume Balagueró (who’d go on to co-create the [REC] franchise), is.

can say that the film is a god-damned mess, and on those grounds I hope it’s not particularly faithful.

The script is filled with logical flaws, weird leaps in logic, and incoherent storytelling. I immediately figured out why the Nameless took great pains to eliminate all identifying factors on the fake corpse except for what is arguably the most important one: the shorter leg. So I was a bit gobsmacked when the cops, who actually mention this incongruity in the dialogue, sweep it under the rug on some spurious grounds relating to the psychology of ritual murderers. (And, I should point out, something that was news to me, and I’ve actually researched ritual murder.)

Characters fade in and out of the narrative seemingly at random. I get the feeling that the film’s Big Bad is someone I’m supposed to recognize, but don’t. I also want to know what happened to the guy with the facial scar. Then there’s Claudia’s “ex-boyfriend” Toni, laughably underwritten and yet occupying more space in the narrative than he ought.

Let’s not forget bizarre scenes such as the following:

Massera (to Quiroga): I think you can help us.
Quiroga: But how?
(Massera walks away.)

As for the Nameless themselves…the dialogue tries too hard to suggest true menace. I didn’t count the number of times characters referred to the cult’s time at the Dachau death camp during World War II, but I think it was at least half a dozen. Even in 1999, evoking Nazis was a lazy tactic. The constant yammering about the “synthesis of evil” borders on silly technobabble. And when a clunky infodump reveals the cult’s ultimate goal, I found myself wondering, Why the fuck would anyone ever want to do that? Sorry, but “They’re evil! And also Dachau!” doesn’t cut it for me.

This is not a movie you watch for strong plotting, cracking storytelling or believable characters.

Thankfully, the rest of the production isn’t a complete wash. Balaguerós direction isn’t particularly inspired–it’s basically one part Seven and one part The Silence of the Lambs–but it’s at least competent, especially early on in the film. I doubt it’s likely to creep out anyone other than the easily creeped-out, but it just about does the job. The fake corpse is a gem of effects work and is the most effective thing the film has to offer.

And the cast is strong, with one or two exceptions. Vilarasau, Elejalde, Ulloa, and Carles Penyet (as the cult’s leader) do their best with what little they have, and their best is pretty damned good. Carlos Lasarte, who plays the cult’s imprisoned leader, steals his single scene and deserves a much better movie than this. The lone black mark comes from Pep Tosar (the protagonist of Nacho Cerdá’s notorious Aftermath), who plays Toni as a cartoonish asshole, too over-the-top to pose any real threat.

Profoundly flawed but getting a few important things right, The Nameless is hard to either love or hate. Indeed, it is neither good nor bad enough to stick in the memory for very long (corpse props and story issues notwithstanding). Considering the eponymous cult’s commitment to exploring the darkest depths of evil, the film’s mediocrity may well be its greatest sin.

The Nameless poster

Podcast guest: The LAMBcast, episode 217

I appear in the latest episode of the Palme d’Or-winning LAMBcast, episode #217, “Whatcha Been Watchin’ Lately?” I discuss Wild at HeartBlue RuinAugust: Osage County and Under the Skin with Dylan Fields, Nick Rehak and Lindsay Street (also of French Toast Sunday). Listen to this podcast and you, too, will probably win a Palme d’Or.

I appear in the latest episode of the Palme d’Or-winning LAMBcast, episode #217, “Whatcha Been Watchin’ Lately?” I discuss Wild at HeartBlue RuinAugust: Osage County and Under the Skin with Dylan Fields (of Man, I Love Films), Nick Rehak (of French Toast Sunday) and Lindsay Street (also of French Toast Sunday). Then I actually win a round of Last LAMB Standing! How ’bout that.

Listen to this podcast and you, too, will probably win a Palme d’Or.

Retro Review: The Asphyx

Just like Hammer and Amicus used to make

United Kingdom. Directed by Peter Newbrook, 1973. Starring Robert Stephens, Robert Powell, Jane Lapotaire. 86 minutes. 6/10

The quest to cheat death is a familiar one in horror fiction, and Sir Hugo Cunningham, the protagonist of The Asphyx, belongs to a long tradition of mad and semi-mad scientists driven to unravel the secret to immortality.

Set in the 1870s, The Asphyx details how Sir Hugo (Robert Stephens), a country squire with interests in photography and parapsychology, discovers the film’s titular spirit. In a series of photographs he and his associates have taken of people as they die, he discovers each features a mysterious smudge seemingly not caused by either faulty equipment or human error. Could these photos depict the soul leaving the human body?

Sir Hugo’s next clue comes as the result of personal tragedy. At a family gathering, he films (using a primitive motion picture camera) a boating accident in which his son Clive drowns. The mysterious smudge appears in the footage, but moving towards Clive, not away from him. Sir Hugo comes to the conclusion that the smudge might be an “asphyx,” a spirit described in Greek mythology that accompanies the souls of the dead to the afterlife.

He finds the final piece of the puzzle when, on behalf of an organization protesting capital punishment, he films a public execution. Using a spotlight of his own devising–the beam filtered through water dripping upon phosphorous crystals–he briefly and accidentally reveals the presence of a spectral figure which appears as the criminal hangs. Reviewing the footage later, Sir Hugo notices two things: first, that the beam of light trapped the figure, believed to be the asphyx; second, that as long as the asphyx remained trapped, the condemned man could not die.

Sir Hugo reasons that if he could somehow summon one’s asphyx (by bringing himself to the point of death), and trap it permanently, that he would never die. Involving his adopted son Giles (Robert Powell) and daughter Christina (Jane Lapotaire) in his experiments, he gains the answers he seeks–but at a terrible price.

The Asphyx is a textbook specimen of vintage British period horror, the sort of films Hammer and Amicus used to make. All of the signature elements of the format are in place. Nobody as familiar as Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee appears, but Stephens and Powell are more than capable of bringing their characters to life. The former portrays Sir Hugo as more down-to-earth and sympathetic than your average mad scientist without sacrificing the obsession; the latter’s take on Giles is a more capable character than most male juvenile leads in this sort of film. Christine is more of a reactive agent in the plot than an active one, but Lapotaire’s performance in the role is better than required.

The film is also chock-full of authentic-seeming (if not actually authentic) period detail. The film’s science is in line with how the “natural philosophers” of the Victorian age thought such things really worked. The interest in spiritual matters reflects the obsessions of the period, and while the asphyx isn’t a real spirit from Greek mythology, the film’s able to pull it off. Some viewers might find certain aspects of the story weird, such as the romance between Christina and her adopted brother Giles.

The production design is superb, filled with vivid detail. The asphyx effect is a bit hokey today, but I expect it was quite effective in the early ’70s. Sir Hugo’s method of trapping asphyxes has an endearingly proto-steampunk feel (and is also reminiscent of the later Ghostbusters).

Sadly, the direction and editing are problematic. Poor editing robs two crucial scenes (Giles’s death and the guillotine sequence) of vital emotional power. There are several highly questionable directorial decisions, such as the choice of footage used when Sir Hugo screens the footage of his son’s death to his peers. And a number of flaws exist in the story–such as the magically teleporting guinea pig and the complete disappearance of Sir Hugo’s fiancée from the story by the end of the first act–that could either be problems with the script or scenes deleted from the final cut.

Contemporary audiences might have accepted such flaws, but the modern viewer might not.

The Asphyx is, ultimately, an artifact of the time that produced it. It doesn’t have much to offer viewers who aren’t interested in this type of film. However, fans of the format should enjoy it immensely.

The Asphyx poster

Podcast guest: The LAMBcast, episode 216

I’m on the latest episode of the LAMBcast, the official podcast of the Large Association of Movie Blogs, entitled “Get to Know Your Lambcasters #3.” Host Jay Cluitt (of Live vs. Film), JD Duran (of InSession Film), Jess Manzo (of French Toast Sunday) and Will Slater (of Exploding Helicopter) and I talk about our personal lives for an hour and a half. You will learn all sorts of interesting things about me, including the basis of the novel I tried to write when I was 9.

I’m on the latest episode of the LAMBcast, the official podcast of the Large Association of Movie Blogs, entitled “Get to Know Your Lambcasters #3.”

Host Jay Cluitt (of Live vs. Film), JD Duran (of InSession Film), Jess Manzo (of French Toast Sunday) and Will Slater (of Exploding Helicopter) and I talk about our personal lives for an hour and a half. You will learn all sorts of interesting things about me, including the basis of the novel I tried to write when I was 9.

Only Lovers Left Alive

Gothic vampire romance doesn’t have to be the exclusive domain of the YA set

United Kingdom/Germany. Directed by Jim Jarmusch, 2013. Starring Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, Mia Wasikowska. 123 minutes. 8/10

Gothic vampire romance doesn’t have to be the exclusive domain of the Young Adult set, and Jim Jarmusch proves it with his latest effort, Only Lovers Left Alive.

Eve (Tilda Swinton) is a pale, willowy woman who haunts Tangier. Reserved and aloof, she observes her neighbors from a distance, her only real friend an elderly gentleman (John Hurt) who claims he’s Christopher Marlowe.

Adam (Tom Hiddleston) is a moody musician living in self-imposed exile in one of Detroit’s less savory neighborhoods. He’s not impressed with the accomplishments of humanity, and lives a reclusive life, preferring his music to the companionship of others. His only regular visitor is Ian (Anton Yelchin), a local youth who procures rare instruments–and other strange objects, such as a bullet with a wooden slug–for him.

Eve and Adam are vampires; they are also longtime lovers, although they have not shared each other’s company in nearly a century. Worried about Adam’s metal state, she travels to Detroit to try to snap him out of his depression.

That’s the basic gist of Only Lovers Left Alive; it’s not a story with much of a plot. Eve and Adam are ordinary people, as ordinary as vampires can get, and they live ordinary unlives. There might have been a time when they influenced, and drew inspiration from, the likes of Poe, or Tesla, or Joe Strummer, but that was long ago. Now they’re content to just spend time together.

And Jarmusch is more than happy to sit back and let them do their thing, throwing the occasional obstacle in their way to see what they’ll do, and what repercussions arise. It’s more like watching real life than a three-act story. The pace is languid, but the film never drags.

The overriding mood is one of dark romance, not of terror. This is not a conventional horror film or vampire story. Jarmusch certainly seems to have little time for the standard fittings of such things. Vampires tend not to drink directly from the source, preferring to work through dealers such as Kit Marlowe or a sardonic blood bank employee played by Jeffrey Wright. They do so not out of compassion for humans, but because they’re concerned about their supply’s purity. Bad blood is bad news for the drinker. When they feed, it’s from brandy snifters and hip flasks instead of the exposed throats of willing (or unwilling) victims. (Everybody knows that vampirism is a symbol for oral sex, but it’s also often an allegory for drug addiction, and Jarmusch visually portrays the effects of blood-drinking in terms of a drug high.)

Jarmusch twists other tropes ever so slightly. In his hands, the idea of immortality being a curse becomes an existential malaise, genuine angst instead of emo whining. The conflict between cautious, restrained vampires versus a more hedonistic breed (represented by Eve’s “sister” Ava, portrayed by Mia Wasikowska) is pragmatic, not moralistic. Ava feels no sense of superiority from being a vampire; rather, she’s a bratty child.

Jarmusch writes the characters well, and the actors all put in outstanding performances. The film belongs to Swinton, radiant and alluring, and Hiddleston, justifying his current status as the thinking woman’s heartthrob. The chemistry between the two is phenomenal. Wasikowska is adorably dangerous, Yelchin eagerly sycophantic and simultaneously likeable, and Hurt…well, John Hurt’s always great, isn’t he?

With his location and camera work, Jarmusch creates indelible environments. Detroit, decaying and tragic, is as romantic in its way as exotic Tangier. Adding to the mood is a dense psychedelic score provided by Dutch composer Josef van Wissem in collaboration with Jarmusch’s rock band SQÜRL. Between the visuals and the music, this is a film to lose oneself in.

Working masterfully with all these elements, Jim Jarmusch gets to the heart of the vampire’s appeal: the demon lovers whose pull we are unable to resist. Cast aside the likes of Kiss of the DamnedOnly Lovers Left Alive is vampire romance done right.

Only Lovers Left Alive poster

Thanks to Victoria.