Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: John David Washington, Elizabeth Debicki, Robert Pattinson, Kenneth Branagh, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Michael Caine, Clémence Poésy, Fiona Dourif, Himesh Patel
Words – Daniel McMonagle
2020 has been one of the cruellest years for cinema on record. Unlike many films rescheduled, shelved and sold off to streaming services, the latest feature from Christopher Nolan is too big and expensive to go straight into the digital land of video on demand. With the ongoing pandemic, Tenet has been seen as the film to save the reopening of cinemas…
Fortunately, Tenet exceeds expectations and delivers everything audiences could want from a film of this magnitude. Returning collaborators such as cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema and production designer Nathan Crowley have crafted what looks and sounds like the most “Nolan” film experience yet. With bombastic scenes running back and forth, we follow the unnamed protagonist played very charismatically by John David Washington, accompanied by Robert Pattinson and Elizabeth Debicki, as they try to prevent the start of World War 3 by a Russian Oligarch played with absolute venom by Kenneth Brannagh.
Time has always been one of the principle themes of Nolan’s films. With Tenet, he explores the concept of time running back and forth on itself as the protagonist is thrust into a world where the future can communicate with the past. Like a lot of key time travel plots, the characters get to explore past events they previously experienced. Reverse footage never looked so exciting than it does here as explosions invert and bullets fly back whilst character motivations and plot twists are unveiled in a non-linear fashion due to the nature of time travel.
Nolan’s films have often been criticised for their heavy reliance on exposition. However, Tenet is actually less exposition-heavy than its closest relative film Inception. We are thrust into events along with the characters and are forced to pick things up as the plot charges along. Razor sharp editing and a propulsive score by Ludwig Goransson ensure a relentlessly up-tempo pace.
Nolan has always expressed an interest in the Bond movies, and we have previously seen hints of this with Inception and the Dark Knight trilogy. Tenet is as close to a Nolan ‘Bond movie’ as we’re ever likely to get, he has taken everything that’s great about James Bond such as globetrotting exotic locations, high stakes plotting and action scenes and given them a science fiction twist. The film is set against the backdrop of some truly outstanding scenery that IMAX takes maximum advantage of. As far as the action scenes play out, this is Nolan’s best work yet. Tenet is full of shoot outs, chases and espionage, all helped by a complete reliance on practical effects.
On first viewing, the plot may seem convoluted and, at times, difficult to follow. However, Tenet is undoubtedly the best movie-going experience of the year that demands multiple viewings.
Director: Bernard Rose
Starring: Virginia Madsen, Tony Todd, Xander Berkeley, Kasi Lemmons, Vanessa Williams, DeJuan Guy, Marianna Elliott, Ted Raimi, Ria Pavia
Words – Oliver Innocent
Touted as the heir to the throne of Stephen King, Liverpool-born horror novelist Clive Barker came to prominence in the mid-1980s with his short story collections, Books of Blood. These stories were both lyrical and explicit, frequently blurring the lines between the erotic and the horrific.
This predilection for the merging of pleasure and pain would reach its apotheosis in Barker’s directorial debut, Hellraiser (1987), based on his own novella The Hellbound Heart. There had been film adaptations of Barker’s work before such as the B-monster-movie romp, Rawhead Rex (1986), however Hellraiser marked a turning point. Bloody, sexy and iconic, Hellraiser opened the floodgates.
While Hellraiser metamorphosed into a never-ending franchise juggernaut, Barker returned to directing duties with the misunderstood commercial and critical failure, Nightbreed (1990). Then came Candyman.
Adapted and directed by Bernard Rose, Candyman – based on Clive Barker’s The Forbidden from Books of Blood – retains that unmistakable Barker feel at the same time expanding into new territories.
The most notable change from the source material is the transposing of the setting from Liverpool to the Chicago housing project Cabrini-Green. Rather than a mere cosmetic change, this shifts the story’s focus entirely. Where The Forbidden looked at the British class system, Candyman examines the divide between black and white America.
The legend goes that in the late 19th century the titular ‘Candyman’, an artist and son of a slave, fell in love with a landowner’s daughter he was hired to paint, whereafter she became pregnant. The furious landowner instigated a lynch mob who ran him down, sawed off his arm and smeared him with honey so he would be swarmed by bees, before burning him on a pyre. His ashes were scattered over the site where the Chicago housing project would later be built.
Over the years an urban legend developed surrounding the hook-handed ghost of the Candyman; if you say his name five times in front of a mirror, he will appear behind you before splitting you from groin to gullet. The film follows Helen, a university student studying the legend, as she gets drawn deeper into the world of the Candyman more than she could have ever imagined.
Candyman captured the zeitgeist of the early 1990s with its examination of the dichotomy between black and white America.
This was a time when hip hop was rapidly gaining both popularity and credibility – artists like Public Enemy and Ice Cube rapped about ghetto life, racism, and the political and social issues affecting African Americans at the time. These same issues were portrayed in cinema in films such as 1989’s Do the Right Thing and 1991’s Boyz n the Hood. Horror often addresses the fears, anxieties and issues of the time so it’s no surprise a film like Candyman emerged a year after Boyz n the Hood, looking at race relations through the lens of horror. What is surprising (or unfortunately for many, not so), is how relevant Candyman still is.
With its depiction of a black man lynched by a white mob, housing projects and gang violence, Candyman feels more prescient than ever amidst the Black Lives Matter protest movement. It almost seems fitting (though for reasons which stem from tragic incidents) that Candyman is due to return in a “spiritual sequel” to the original film.
It’s even more pertinent that the upcoming sequel has been developed by a black female director, Nia DaCosta, and black filmmaker Jordan Peele whose previous horror thrillers, Get Out and Us, also comment on race, class and identity.
Along with this new blood, some of the original cast are due to return including the original Candyman himself, Tony Todd. Appearing in numerous genre films before and after, it’s Candyman that remains Todd’s defining role. He ensured the character would go on to become a horror icon with his commanding presence, eloquent speeches and deep baritone voice. The hook for a hand and chest full of bees didn’t hurt either.
The Candyman could have easily become a Blaxploitation monster single-mindedly haunting a white woman. Todd elevates the Candyman above this. He’s a tragic, romantic figure with a yearning for living on as a legend because his own life was forcibly taken from him. His desire to be with Helen because he believes she is the reincarnation of the love he lost his life for transcends the stereotype of the black monster’s lust for a white woman.
Virginia Madsen’s Helen similarly differs to the standard horror heroine. She’s a married graduate student focused on her studies, rather than the usual single naive ‘final girl’ or the party loving horny teen. This makes her descent even more tragic as the Candyman seeks to take everything from her so she can be with him forever. Madsen really shows her range with this performance, from the confident, hard-working Helen at the film’s outset to the driven to hysteria Helen of the final act.
Helen’s investigation into the legend highlights another important aspect of the film; it doesn’t forget to be scary. The examination of race relations adds to the horror rather than distracting from it, something that could have easily happened had the adaptation fell into less confident hands.
Writer-director Bernard Rose ensures there’s an uncomfortable tension as Helen explores the housing project and encounters a group who think she’s a cop – this culminates in a harrowing encounter in a toilet where she’s beaten up by a gang of men – it’s the flipside to Candyman’s encounter with the white lynch mob. Here it is Helen, a white middle-class woman, who is the outsider.
The supernatural element of the legend is also expertly handled. A riff on the Bloody Mary legend, the drawn out saying of Candyman into a mirror, punctuated by his sudden appearance is a truly terrifying image, amplified by Philip Glass’s iconic, haunting score.
Much like the legend of the Candyman himself, the story of the film has grown in the years that have followed, now feeling more relevant than ever before.
Director: Giuseppe Tornatore
Starring: Salvatore Cascio, Marco Leonardi, Jacques Perrin, Antonella Attili, Pupella Maggio, Enzo Cannavale, Isa Danieli, Leo Gullotta, Agnese Nano, Leopoldo Trieste
Words – Christian Abbott
“The old movie business is just a memory”, a line which summates so much feeling through nostalgia, perfectly capturing the essence of this film. The old movie business may indeed just be a memory now, but it is here that its power lives on, and its legacy and impact will never be forgotten.
Released over three decades ago, cinema has changed profoundly since this time, but the power of the cinematic remains true.
A story following the life of a now renowned filmmaker, Toto, as a message to return to his hometown sparks the memories of his upbringing both in and around his beloved Cinema Paradiso. It’s a timeless tale of childish naivete and young love, between him and cinema. It’s a perfect foundation to explore cinema’s glittering lure.
There is something uniquely wonderful about films that capture this unique love of cinema. Perhaps, this is because it is a rare display of genuine appreciation for the art form of the cinema itself, or, more likely, it is because those that appreciate film with the same youthful infatuation that Toto has for the projection room, sometimes need nothing more than two hours of cinematic self-indulgence.
From writer and director Giuseppe Tornatore, it is clear this was crafted by a loving hand; there is scene after scene of people gathering, laughing, cheering, and celebrating the sheer potential of the big screen. People brought together into a dark room to share in its emotions, cinema is a truly unique experience and this champions it like no other.
There are consistent low-angle shots of Toto, as he is transfixed by the screen; the projectors beam of light above him, Tornatore creates a mythic feeling. In conjunction, Ennio Morricone provided an angelic score, a soundtrack to cinema itself, and one of his absolute finest pieces in a career of consistent greats.
There is a lesson Toto learns in his young life, that sometimes you need to step away from something to truly appreciate it, as hard as that may be. We may all take the cinema for granted, after all, it has always been there and through works like this, it always will be. But like Toto, when you take a step back things become clear, and through his eyes, through the lens of Tornatore, we see that cinema should never be taken for granted, because its effects both on the personal and on the public can never be fully understood, though Cinema Paradiso is the best understanding of why we will always go to the cinema.
See details of a forthcoming 4K restoration and cinema re-release here:
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Starring: Toshirô Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Keiko Tsushima, Yukiko Shimazaki, Kamatari Fujiwara, Daisuke Katô, Isao Kimura, Minoru Chiaki, Seiji Miyaguchi, Yoshio Kosugi, Bokuzen Hidari, Yoshio Inaba
Words – Christian Abbott
All great films can be traced back to other works of art from decades past. The cynical would say that nothing is original anymore, but what it truly shows is that art, and especially cinema, is a never ending cycle of inspiration and reinterpretation. Often, this comes at the detriment to the previous work, as it slowly becomes overshadowed by the piece that exists because of it.
Arguably, one of the most obvious examples of this is when it comes to The Magnificent Seven (1960). Almost everybody knows of this film and understands its cultural impact, but some may not realise what inspired it. To take nothing away from John Sturges’ classic re-imagining, one shouldn’t forget the original, as its impact reaches far beyond its Hollywood remake – it defined and helped create genre-fiction as we know it today.
Released in 1954 by legendary filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, Seven Samurai was the result of years of research and heavyweight talent coming together. The result was one of cinema’s most impressive and enduring ensemble casts, and a cinematic eye that is still sharper than most.
An old samurai in need of work is hired by a town to protect them against a series of bandits. To do this, he enlists 6 more samurai’s to protect and supply the town with aid. The sequence of events is a familiar one to modern audiences, but it is told so expertly, with genuine ingenuity and cinematic innovation that it still can hold its own against any modern action blockbuster.
From the initial hire, through building a team, holding the bandits back piece by piece and ultimately leading to a massive battle still excites now. Sometimes you need nothing more than a classic tale of redemption and honour; and this is that film.
Kurosawa’s editing and Asakazu Nakai’s cinematography have been written about at length and their impact can be felt across cinema. But understanding it is one thing, to see it yourself is another. The sweeping shots, silhouetted framing and persistent, gilding changes from wide and close-up captivate in a way only cinema achieves.
Seven Samurai has good company in Kurosawa’s canon for reinterpretation. The Hidden Fortress (1958) and Yojimbo (1961) were both famously re-worked into Star Wars (1977) and A Fistful of Dollars (1964), respectively. Great work inspires future great artists, which in turn inspire more.
Today, the words remake and reboot feel tainted by consistent failure – the mere mention of a remake can turn audiences away and actively annoy others for perceived disrespect to the original work.
Yet, the legacy and history of Seven Samurai stands as a testament to its merits. Without it, so much of cinema we enjoy and define ourselves by wouldn’t exist. So many great filmmakers wouldn’t have seen 7 samurai warriors protect a small village, inspiring them to create stories that will inspire us.
This is truly a milestone in cinema and should never be side-lined or forgotten. Kurosawa’s filmography is a catalogue of greats, but Seven Samurai stands alone. For a reminder of why cinema is great – watch Seven Samurai.
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Starring: Kang-ho Song, Sun-kyun Lee, Yeo-jeong Jo, Woo-sik Choi, Park So-dam, Jeong-eun Lee, Hye-jin Jang, Ji-so Jung
Words – Rhiannon Topham
Rarely does a film defy all cinematic conventions and pull it off flawlessly. Even more rare is for a film to please so many different genres, yet seem almost completely genre-less.
There is so much to say about Parasite, none of which should be discussed openly in a one-way format such as this: it is highly recommended going into this film without any prior knowledge of what it is or where it will go. So how to go about describing this artistic feat, aside from the obvious statements that it is undeniably Bong Joon Ho’s masterpiece, and easily one of the best films in decades?
Let’s start with painting as simple a picture as possible. Whereas Bong’s previous films, the irreverent Okja and dystopian future incision Snowpiercer, focussed on alternative realities, the social skewering in Parasite is distinctly tangible.
The Kim family live in a small semi-basement and all struggle to hold down employment. They rush around their squalid home trying to connect to free WiFi and leave their windows open when the fumigators spray the streets to try and clear the stink-bugs moving in.
One day, the Kims are visited by son Ki-woo’s friend Min-hyuk, who gifts them a mysterious rock which is said to bring wealth to those who possess it. When Min-hyuk suggests Kim-woo pretend to be a university student and take over his job tutoring the daughter of the wealthy Park family, what follows is an opportunistic snowballing plot devised by the Kims which is equal parts genius and dangerous, rational and absurd.
By exploiting the credulous Park matriarch, using a creative variety of props from underpants to peaches, the Kims find a way for each of them to secure work within the concrete walls of the Park’s modernist mansion, a risky endeavour which involves usurping the family’s loyal housekeeper.
After all of the Kim clan have secured their posts in the Park home, the latter depart for a camping trip to celebrate their son’s birthday. While they’re away, the Kim’s spend the night in the luxury of their employers’ home, enjoying the kind of food and beverages they would seldom have access to back in their semi-basement. This marks the transition into the film’s second act; the Kim’s gestation period has been successful, remarkably so, and the rug is about to get violently pulled from under them.
Bong’s commitment to the nuances of social reality allows Parasite to not only traverse the audience’s constantly changing expectations (are the rich going to use their wealth and resources to outsmart the poor? Are the Kims going to overthrow the house?) but also shift gears from jaunty comedy to a white-knuckle thriller as faultlessly as Ki-taek turning corners on a busy road, smooth and confident as the ignorant but judgemental Mr Park looks on haughtily from the backseat.
As the story unravels and your jaw gradually makes its way to the floor, you quickly come to realise that it’s hard to distinguish who the ‘bad guys’ are here—an intentional move which speaks to the title of the film. There are the haves, basking in their fortune in the comfort of their sun-lit houses in the hills, and the have nots, confined to chthonic basements and subservience to the thankless demands of their employers.
Everything here is ‘metaphorical’, to steal a frequently recurring term from the film, but it is also everything you could ever want from a film: suspenseful, beautiful, at times hilarious, and always compelling.
Director: Ishiro Honda
Starring: Akira Takarada, Momoko Kochi, Akihiko Hirata, Takashi Shimura, Fuyuki Murakami, Sachio Sakai
Words – Rebecca Kirby.
It took fifty years for the original, uncut version of Ishiro Honda’s “Godzilla” (or Gojira) to receive an official release for western audiences. In that time the films powerful message has not diminished.
“Godzilla” may be the first Kaiju (literally translated as strange creature) movie and it might feature a man in a rubber suit crushing a miniature version of Tokyo, but this is so much more than the standard B movie creature feature western audiences were accustomed to. Made less than a decade after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the USA, Godzilla explores a very complex set of emotions.
With an air of dread and a bleak theme, “Godzilla” embodies the destructive atomic realisations of the Japanese nation, the worlds first post apocalyptic society. It’s a window into the soul of a nation that had its psyche crushed in unimaginable horror, rebuilding under US occupation and trying to come to terms with its past and future.
Director Ishiro Honda, who had been drafted into the Japanese Imperial Army during wartime, not only witnessed the firebombing of Tokyo in 1945 but also saw first hand the aftermath of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. It’s clear to see how this influenced Godzilla‘s scenes of devastation in Tokyo, full of haunting visions of a city on fire.
The film was considered so bleak, particularly for American audiences, that the version released to western audiences in 1956, “Godzilla, King of the Monsters!” was re-edited to remove around forty minutes of footage, including some key plot points and to incorporate twenty minutes of new footage featuring Raymond Burr as an American reporter. This version was dubbed into English and featured a more uplifting final statement from Burr.
Originally conceived under the working title of “The Giant Monster from 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea“, the initial creature designs were very different from the Godzilla we now know and love. The original outline featured a giant octopus, while later a gorilla or whale inspired creature was considered, with the monster to be christened Gojira – a combination of the Japanese words for gorilla (gorira) and whale (kujira) before settling on the now iconic dinosaur inspired design.
The Godzilla suit was constructed from latex and molten rubber over a frame built from bamboo, wire and metal mesh. Weighing over 200 pounds, the suit was so heavy that performer Haruo Nakajima would pass out after only three minutes inside and lost 20 pounds during filming. Godzilla’s distinctive cry was created by composer Akira Ifukube by running a leather glove along a stringed instrument after recordings of various animals were dismissed.
Opening with the destruction of a small fishing boat by a unknown force off Odo Island, itself a reference to the Lucky Dragon 5 incident in 1954, where a Japanese trawler was caught in the radioactive fallout from a US nuclear test at Bikini Atoll, “Godzilla” spells out it’s intentions from the start.
When a further incident causes destruction on Odo Island, killing nine people and dozens of farm animals in the process, the Government sends paleontologist Dr Yamane to investigate. Dr Yamane discovers giant radioactive footprints along with a long extinct trilobite, before he has the opportunity to glimpse the terrifying Godzilla himself. He concludes that Godzilla is an ancient sea creature whose habitat has been disrupted by the hydrogen bomb tests conducted in the area.
After a plan to destroy Godzilla by using depth charges fails, the government seeks advice from Dr Yamane on how to kill the monster. Dr Yamane insists that having survived the H-bombs, Godzilla cannot be killed and the only course of action is to study him to understand how he has survived the nuclear blasts and even grown stronger as a result.
Emiko, Dr Yamane’s daughter seeks to break off her engagement to Dr Serizawa, a colleague of her father, in order to marry Hideto Ogata, a salvage ship captain that she is in love with. When Emiko visits Dr Serizawa he reveals to her the secret project that he has been working on. This demonstration causes Emiko to flee in horror without breaking off her engagement.
After Godzilla emerges in Tokyo Bay and devastates Shinagawa Ward, a further plan to kill him is put into action involving electrified fences and military force but this too fails. Tokyo suffers further destruction and hospitals are filled with casualties.
A distraught Emiko reveals the existence of Dr Serizawa’s research, a superweapon named the Oxygen Destroyer, to Ogata. Together they approach Serizawa to persuade him to use this against Godzilla. Serizawa is reluctant to use the Oxygen Destroyer as he fears it falling into the wrong hands but after seeing the aftermath of the devastation of Tokyo he finally agrees to it’s use.
Before boarding a Navy vessel to plant the Oxygen Destroyer in Tokyo Bay, Serizawa burns his notes so the weapon cannot be replicated. Once the ship has reached it’s destination, Serizawa insists on deploying his creation alone, deliberately cutting off his own oxygen supply in the process.
The Oxygen Destroyer succeeds in killing Godzilla and the film ends with a sober and grim warning from Dr Yamane that the continuation of nuclear testing would risk the emergence of more Godzilla’s.
It’s perhaps worth noting here the contrast between Dr Serizawa, who would rather sacrifice himself than allow his invention to be used for war, with the initial celebration in the US of the “father of the atomic bomb” J Robert Oppenheimer, who would appear on the cover of Time magazine in 1948. Ironically, Oppenheimer would appear on the cover of Time once again in 1954, the same year Godzilla was released, when he was stripped of his security clearances after suggesting that controls should be placed on the development of nuclear power.
Ultimately, the death of Godzilla is not seen as something to celebrate, the film never shying away from the fact that man is responsible for creating this monster. While his path of destruction must be stopped, Dr Yamane serves to remind us that Godzilla is also a victim of mankind’s nuclear ambitions, an unintended but inevitable consequence of the human disregard for the natural world.
Considering the current state of the planet’s climate and the continued stock piling of nuclear weapons by the world’s superpowers, it seems that in the 66 years since Godzilla was first unleashed we have still yet to learn those lessons.
Director: Céline Sciamma
Starring: Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel, Luàna Bajrami, Valeria Golino
Words – Rhiannon Topham
Describing a film as a ‘historical drama’ conjures particularly priggish dress, dialogue and narrative, none of which is typically original or disruptive to the staid all ways of the genre.
Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, however, is not one of those historical dramas. There is still a plentiful of corsets and petticoats, and there’s at least one character who’s a countess, but there is also something else: a genuine, recognisable sense of human desire, embroiled with obsession, fear, and of course, lots of sexual tension.
Set in Brittany in 1760, Portrait recounts a tale of forbidden love. When we first meet Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a painter now posing for her class of female students, it would almost be befitting for her to turn, look down the lens of the camera, and do a Fleabag: “This is a love story.”
We then go back in time to unravel the slow burning and passionate romance that flourished during Marianne’s brief stay on the northern coast of France. It was here where she was drafted by an Italian noblewoman to paint a portrait of her elusive and reclusive daughter, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), which will then be shipped off for approval from her betrothed, an unknown but wealthy man based in Milan.
Marianne’s stay is under the guise of companionship to Héloïse, who has just returned from a convent following the death of her sister. Not only is she mourning the loss of her sibling, but she also vehemently opposes this engagement and has sabotaged the attempts of previous portraitists by refusing to sit for them. Marianne is to accompany Héloïse on her walks to the seafront by day, and then privately paint her from memory by night.
Sciamma establishes the essence of forbidness from the outset, keeping Héloïse’s face hidden from both Marianne and the viewer until a pivotal moment when suddenly her physiognomy is brought to the fore for all to see, like the rediscovery of a masterpiece thought lost or destroyed.
Initially there seems to be a relative froideur between the two women, who are, beneath the pretence of amity, basically strangers. Marianne is both perplexed and transfixed by Héloïse’s mysteriousness, and on the surface one could mistake the latter’s distance as mere pretentiousness or formality. But the truth is all in the sly, yet often obvious, stolen glances; the slow-burning infatuation of discovering something new about someone every time you look at them, and the sheer pleasure and confusion of savouring those moments to yourself and then, in this case, eventually having to share those memories with an unknown other elsewhere on the continent.
There have been plenty of obvious comparisons between Portrait and Blue is the Warmest Colour. What’s distinct and profound about this story is that there’s no immediate attraction or lust; an easy narrative device that male directors so readily employ in retelling relationships between women. Rather, this is about seeing and being seen, the corporeal as much as the spiritual and emotional, and this goes beyond the romance.
This notion speaks directly to the central theme of repressed womanhood: Héloïse is to be married to someone she has never met, and is to sit for a portrait which successfully sells her as a suitable wife; her doting maid, Sophie, is forced to make a historically significant choice about an unwanted pregnancy, a momentous decision which Marianne later depicts on canvas; and Marianne’s very profession is a display of defiance, during a time when women were either heavily restricted in their access to creativity and art or were shut out completely.
Reversing the male gaze has never been done with quite the grace and poignancy as shown in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and every element works in harmony to create something so subjectively accessible and objectively beguiling, from the chemistry between the all-female cast to the masterful direction and prophetic script, and the opening scene in Marianne’s studio to the climactic grand finale in the opera house.
Director: Shannon Murphy
Starring: Eliza Scanlen, Toby Wallace, Ben Mendelsohn, Essie Davis
Words – Rhiannon Topham
Our first flame is usually a clumsy affair, defined more by how awkward everything is than any real or lasting affection. The majority of these ‘relationships’ end swiftly with the heartbreaking realisation that things seldom last forever; but for Babyteeth’s 16-year-old Milla (Eliza Scanlen), this has particular poignancy as she knows that her first love is probably going to be her last.
Milla has an unnamed form of terminal cancer, for which her doting parents, the gifted pianist Anna (Essie Davis) and psychiatrist Henry (Ben Mendelsohn), bestow a great deal of anguish that Milla does not share. When 23-year-old Moses (Toby Wallace) charges into Milla on a train platform, nearly tossing her onto the tracks, a tempestuous and often dangerous romance ensues. In addition to the age gap, and rather predictably, these two darlings are completely different in almost every possible way; Moses is a drug taker and dealer who has been exiled from the family home, whereas Milla lives in a leafy middle class suburb, attends a girls only school and plays the violin.
Scanlen strikes a subtle balance in negotiating Milla’s amorphous emotions, moving from fury to acceptance to vulnerability and back again. Mendelsohn and Davis are also on fine form, each bringing a different quality of helplessness to their parenting responsibilities as well as nuances in how they distract themselves from the reality that their baby will probably never get better and the kindest thing to do would be to let her savour what life she has left, no matter how questionable those choices may be.
Despite Milla’s displays of defiance, the good days are woven in with the bad and we are reminded of her frailty at several key stages of the film, marked out by chapter titles such as “It didn’t feel like a love story that day” and “What the dead said to Milla”, an especially delicate scene of introspection where Milla is allowed some space to breath outside of Moses’ raucous nature and the deafening clamour of her parents walking on eggshells.
As a debut, Babyteeth is a compelling tragicomedy of family, love and acceptance. It is by no means the first teenage cancer indie film, yet this consummate cast keep this one from crossing into cliche on the well-trodden ground of coming of age romcoms, interjected by overtly concerned and covertly struggling parents.
Director: Rose Glass
Starring: Morfydd Clark, Jennifer Ehle
Words – Rhiannon Topham
It takes a very rare beast of a directorial debut to make you wince, laugh and question the capacity of the human mind in less than 90 minutes.
Rose Glass’s Saint Maud, a sinuous saga of madness and torment respects the many religion-inspired films in the horror genre, but suggests a surprising range of stylistic and narrative inspirations, from Lynn Ramsay’s grit to Edward Hopper’s loners in diners.
Maud (Morfydd Clark) is a palliative nurse in a dilapidated seaside town who we first see crouched in a corner covered in blood. As far as first impressions go, it’s about as menacing as it can get. When she’s drafted to care for Amanda Köhl (Jennifer Ehle), a former dancer and choreographer now rendered housebound by illness and disability, the initial apprehension between the two eases into admiration and intrigue before regressing to outright repulsion; Maud for Amanda’s decadent lifestyle and coterie of hedonistic creatives, Amanda for Maud’s myopic opinion of how life should be lived.
Maud is a character of extremes; self-destructive in one ‘life’ and ascetic in another. Her obsequious quest to strive in her newfound piousness is juxtaposed with Amanda’s lucid, albeit anaesthetized, compos mentis. Maud’s religious conversion has granted her a moxie seemingly absent in her past, when, it transpires, she wasn’t a Maud at all. The fresh Maud persona is one she has crafted to support her search for the ‘greater purpose’ God has planned for her, an unassailable transcendental goal which swallows her whole and greedily possesses her in mind, body and spirit.
Maud’s nascent life of righteousness comes to an abrupt end when she is removed from her post as Amanda’s carer. Where to go when you are stripped of your purpose in life? All of her feelings of jealousy, confusion, virulence and an almost psychedelic bodily experience of spirituality reach fever pitch as she succumbs to the darker forces chipping away at her sanity and she becomes mimetic of the hellish creatures depicted by William Blake in a book gifted to her by Amanda.
As an addition to the horror-Renaissance of recent years, Saint Maud is an alarmingly accomplished debut by a talented and — dare I say it — innovative director to get excited about. Glass has clearly wasted no time on narrative trumpery with this, and at a tidy 84 minutes, all the key proponents harmonise perfectly to create an unnerving atmosphere in which neither Maud nor the audience are sure what our Saint will do next.
This is no average God-fearing horror; it is the fragility of the human mind that is the most frightening.
2003 – 2021
Words: Oliver Innocent.
In 1996 Wes Craven’s hip teen meta slasher Scream became a box office smash. Following in its wake came a slew of films seeking to capitalise on Craven’s winning formula. Entries like I Know What You Did Last Summer’s modus operandi was to be as teen friendly as possible. A by-product of this was a tendency to jettison the more unsavoury, adult-oriented aspects of the genre. In other words, there was little to no sex, nudity, or graphic bloody violence making it onscreen.
In the early 2000s filmmakers like Eli Roth and Rob Zombie who had been raised on the violent exploitation horrors of the ‘70s and ‘80s crusaded to bring this more dangerous side of the genre back to the forefront. A response to what they saw as the overtly slick and bloodless dilution of the genre, their debut features Cabin Fever and House of 1000 Corpses, were throwbacks to the extreme backwoods horrors of The Evil Dead and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
The rural slasher resurgence quickly became a trend itself, even spreading outside the USA to countries like Australia (Wolf Creek) and France (High Tension). One of the most successful entries to emerge from this resurgence was Wrong Turn, a tale of mutant cannibals preying on young adults lost in the woods of West Virginia. Spawning five sequels and a newly released reboot, the Wrong Turn series has become one of modern horror’s biggest, longest running franchises.
Kicking off in 2003 with Wrong Turn, the series gets off to a solid if unexceptional start. It’s an entertaining, fast-paced slasher that benefits from beautiful woodland locations (Canada doubling for West Virginia) and great makeup effects courtesy of Stan Winston Studios (The Terminator, Jurassic Park).
Like many rural slasher films, it’s very derivative, taking much of its inspiration from the classics of the genre, namely The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes. There’s the old gas station complete with creepy attendant; a cannibalistic inbred family; bone and body parts set decoration; a car crash that leaves the would-be victims stranded in the middle of nowhere; no phone signal. The list goes on.
The main issue with the first Wrong Turn, however, is that it’s a bit too slick of a production for its own good. Well-made but a bit soulless and by the numbers. It just doesn’t have that same down and dirty gonzo bizarreness or trashy shock value that permeates precursors like Mother’s Day or, indeed, contemporaries like Cabin Fever. It almost feels like one of the teen friendly Scream type slashers masquerading as a Texas Chain Saw clone.
The same cannot be said of direct to DVD sequel Wrong Turn 2: Dead End. This time gore and grossness are pushed to the limits as the cast and crew of a new reality TV show fall foul of the cannibal clan. It makes for an interesting dichotomy as the film simultaneously critiques the exploitative nature of reality TV, while wholeheartedly revelling in the excesses of exploitation horror.
Indeed, Wrong Turn 2’s main concern is how far it can push the grotesque over the top violence and sick humour. Images of mutant cannibals pleasuring themselves and a baby using a severed finger as a dummy makes clear the film’s intention to hearken back to the glory days of exploitation horror.
Aside from its exaggerated grotesqueness, the highlight here is hardcore punk legend Henry Rollins’ turn as a retired Marine who takes the law into his own hands. Like something straight out of an ‘80s action film, Rollins goes full on Rambo as he steals the show, blowing up cannibals with explosive arrows.
Once again, the shadow of Texas Chain Saw looms large with references to small town economic collapse and the closure of the local sawmill. Like the mechanization of the local slaughterhouse in Texas Chain Saw, the inference is that unemployment and the subsequent desertion of a once thriving community has led to the ensuing horror. With no jobs or income, the last remaining members of the community must kill to put food on the table.
Continuing in a similar vein to its predecessor, Wrong Turn 3: Left for Dead wastes no time getting to the sex and violence in an opening sequence reminiscent of an ‘80s slasher as a group of teens are brutally slaughtered while fooling around in the woods.
The cannibal behind the slaughter, Three Finger, finally takes centre stage in this entry. Although he appeared in the first two films, this is where he truly becomes the series’ main villain. Like Leatherface and Jason before him, he is the iconic face of Wrong Turn.
This entry’s high concept escaped convicts vs cannibals premise ensures Three Finger has some competition in the villain department. It helps create a different dynamic as Three Finger isn’t just killing innocent teens anymore. In fact, some of the convicts are as bad, if not worse, than him. In a scene reminiscent of controversial Italian video nasty Cannibal Holocaust – another film that posits the question as to who the real villains are – one of them even kills Three Finger’s child and puts his head on a stake.
A refreshing change to the usual teens in peril set up, it’s entertaining, mindless fun seeing Three Finger pitted against a coachload of convicts. Creative kills and a big body count make this a solid conclusion to the original trilogy.
After the third entry, the Wrong Turn franchise followed in the footsteps of Star Wars with the 4th, 5th and 6th entries serving as prequels to the original trilogy. The franchise was then rebooted in 2021.
With their predilection for over the top gore, fast-paced action, and dark comedy, the Wrong Turn films are pure cheeseburger horror; basic and unrefined but incredibly enjoyable.
Director: Aideen Kane, Maeve O’Boyle and Lucy Kennedy
Words – Rhiannon Topham.
The 8th is not a comfortable film to watch, no matter what side of the abortion debate you stand on. It is designed to be so, including both sides of the discussion in its incisive look at the landmark national campaign to repeal the Republic of Ireland’s Eighth Amendment, a constitutional ban on abortion introduced in 1983 after the Irish public voted by a 2:1 margin to make the rights of the ‘unborn’ equal to that of mothers and to criminalise all pregnancy terminations in the country. Thirty-five years later, another referendum was held to uphold or repeal the Eighth Amendment.
The documentary, directed by Lucy Kennedy, Maeve O’Boyle and Aideen Kane, most closely follows the pro-choice campaigning efforts of Ailbhe Smyth and Andrea Horan, as well as their dedicated teams of grassroots activists in their singular goal of overturning the Eighth Amendment and forging a new progressive path for Ireland.
Though the primary attention of the film is Ailbhe’s Together for Yes campaign, we are shown opinions from the opposition on the ‘vote no’ side as well. This is not only from footage of protests, marches and television debates with politicians, but also short discussions with members of the public. Young and old, rural and urban, religious and secular, Yes and No—the binary opposite demographics which were vital to winning or losing the referendum are given fair attention.
Early in the film, a young woman holding a placard at a protest and stating firmly that her body is her own is confronted by an elderly woman who contests that her body is not hers because it was made by God. While primarily building momentum by highlighting the tense discussions between the government, the church and prominent campaigners, The 8th utilises the wavering opinions of the public to show just how strained the build up to the referendum was in the real world.
The fundamental transformation in Irish culture from an exclusively conservative society to an increasingly liberal one was achieved through aggressive but necessary civic engagement, as the absurdity of comprehensive reproductive rights for women being a divisive issue at all was unravelled through the fight to legalise abortion. The case of Savita Halappanavar, who died from a septic miscarriage after her request for an abortion following an incomplete miscarriage was denied, further reinforces the very real consequences of inadequate healthcare for women. At the referendum, 66.4% of the Irish public voted to remove the Eighth Amendment—the margin was also 2:1. Three years after the vote, The 8th is a timely and emotive reminder of the importance of democracy and the power of community (local and global) for mobilising change.
The 8th will open in UK cinemas on 25th May, coinciding with the third anniversary of Ireland’s referendum.
Details of The 8th screening at the 2021 Human Rights Watch Film Festival can be found here:
Director: Sjoerd van Grootheest
Words – Joe H.
In 2016, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC-EP) and the Colombian government signed a peace agreement that was to end the longest armed conflict in Latin America, with the substitution of illicit crops.
Across the region, many people depended on illicit crops, which financed the conflict for decades; the agreement promised rural reform, with the substitution of coca (the plant used in the production of cocaine) and marijuana, through a voluntary substitution program across indigenous territories, to “participate in alternative economies”, such as growing coffee beans and avocado trees.
The farming of coca in these communities is as normalised as growing coffee, except far more valuable in that these families are able to earn a living and sustain themselves. In one moment, we’re in the home of Briceida, as she sits at the kitchen table trimming a marijuana crop plant with a pair of scissors, just as casually as someone preparing a meal.
As the peace process agreed upon begins, the absence of the armed FARC group creates a power vacuum across the region, where various armed groups looking to take control of the territory then begin to move in, bringing threats to people in the community, as some start to arm themselves. As time passes and the promises of government support for the crops transition in the community are broken, tensions rise, and many people become displaced. The election of a new president brings more uncertainty, as new commitments are made, but then never delivered upon.
A union-like strike is organised with people across the region to block the Pan American Highway, to simply demand what was promised to them by the government, which is met with force from armed riot police, as these communities flee under the sound of gunfire.
The film is compelling, with the human cost of a failed peace process put front and centre, and the narrative of events as they unfold told by people from these affected communities. We’re shown how decades of coca farming had become so integral to an economy and a way of living, requiring people’s participation in a government scheme and subsidies to halt it, that simply cutting off production in the “war on drugs” would not solely bring a brighter future; a future which, even though many of these farmers reminisce on the stability of coca farming, still hope for.
The views of these communities are captured intimately, as they express feelings of hopelessness when viewing their government and thinking, that they will not be able to change this situation through democracy. Abandoned by successive political leaders, some even express regret in signing up to the substitution program, knowing what money would have been made through regular harvests, instead now left in limbo, feeling forced to go back to coca.
The promised transformation of these territories, to see new roads and have health clinics, to improve the situation with a fair distribution of land, years after the program was first agreed still shows no sign of starting rural reform. With the program suspended at the outbreak of Covid-19, the government began forced crop eradication, using military force, while not offering any alternative plans to sustain families.
The problems created by the transition process itself is what has hit the poorest the hardest, with still no solution or end in sight. Bajo Fuego is a vital film revealing the desperate situation faced by communities in rural areas of Colombia, uncovering the human cost of a failed peace process.
Details of Bajo Fuego screening at the 2021 Human Rights Watch Film Festival can be found here:
Director: Erika Cohn
Words – Rhiannon Topham.
Belly of the Beast explores the grotesque modern-day eugenics happening in California prison systems over the course of seven years. It focuses primarily on the illegal sterilisation of inmate Kelli Dillon, a young mother and domestic abuse survivor who hoped one day to have more children with someone who truly loves her. She is supported by Cynthia Chandler, the first attorney to free someone from prison on compassionate release and the co-founder of Justice Now, a non-profit organisation which provides legal advocacy for the inmates of women’s prisons and has board members who are currently incarcerated.
The stories which come out of the various first-hand accounts featured in the film may sound like something from a dystopian work of fiction, or historical retellings of horrors of pre-enlightened society, but they are not. They come from modern American women, many of whom are women of colour. It’s seems unfathomable that this sort of condemnable behaviour could receive anything but criticism, yet as we know from a history of violence against women generally and Black women particularly, when it comes to the politics of the body anything but the rich white male is ripe for violation.
Director Erika Cohn makes no attempts to ameliorate the lived reality of being incarcerated in the US prison system, which includes the unconscionable opinions of many members of the general public. It is uncomfortable viewing, unflinchingly so. It is hard to watch because you can almost guarantee that its message will not change how swathes of people, not only in America but across the globe, see a woman’s body as something which can be externally controlled without her consent.
The power of Belly of the Beast is in its intimate and empathetic collaboration with currently and formerly incarcerated people who were targeted by the illegal sterilisations. It is so rare to watch a legal drama which actually includes and actively involves the voices of the people who are inside the prison system. The film makes use of whistleblower testimonies, archival footage and talking heads from experts to evenly pace its narrative and although Kelli doesn’t get the happy ending she and Cynthia were hoping for, their work and its documentation by Erika Cohn mean thousands of incarcerated women are now legally protected from the institutionalised abuse of a system and public who show little or no regard for their bodies or their future.
Details of Belly of the Beast screening at the 2021 Human Rights Watch Film Festival can be found here:
Director: Peter Murimi
Words – Rhiannon Topham.
A directorial debut by Peter Murimi, I Am Samuel documents the story of Samuel, a gay man raised in the Kenyan countryside but now living in Nairobi. It is a truly courageous work which balances Samuel’s love for his traditionally-minded family with his partner Alex and his close community of fellow queer men. Alex is the love of Samuel’s life, yet the culture in Kenya is such that homosexuality is cause for public outcry.
This is a country where being LGBTQ+ is criminalised, and the social stigma of being non-heterosexual is intense, violent; early into the film we are shown video footage of a man beaten in the street because of his sexuality.
Samuel’s parents are poor rural farmers who for the majority of the film do not know he is gay, and who consistently request he marry so that his wife can help around the farm and home. His father Redon, a pastor at the local church, watches on with extreme suspicion when Samuel brings Alex with him on a visit. This leads Samuel to eventually confess the nature of his ‘friendship’ to his father, and by the end of the film his parents reach a compromise by masking the relationship with the pretense that Alex is Samuel’s twin brother.
Alex recounts his own biography earlier in the film, in which his father disowns him because his sexuality offends him. These are so much more than brave decisions. They are matters of life and death.
The direction of I Am Samuel is one of intimacy and empathy; Samuel, his friends and family are allowed the space to be themselves without judgement, a quiet real-time exploration of the human connection guided by Samuel’s reflective narration.
As a viewer, there are moments which make you uncomfortable, and that is the point–the mountain of difficulties faced by Alex and Samuel should force you to check your own relative privilege. Underlying the film’s tensions is a message of hope and optimism, for the perseverance of love over tradition as well as gradual acceptance of alternative family structures to the conservative ideal.
Details of I Am Samuel screening at the 2021 Human Rights Watch Film Festival can be found here:
Director: Ramona S. Diaz
Words – Rhiannon Topham.
Press freedom has never been more threatened than it is right now. Journalists in the search for truth are in a constant state of vulnerability, having their reputations slashed and their safety compromised by anti-democracy devotees and social media trolls.
A Thousand Cuts, directed by Ramona S. Diaz, follows Maria Ressa, the co-founder and CEO of Filipino news organisation Rappler, as she and her team battle a heated conflict between journalists and President Rodrigo Duterte’s Philippine government.
We’re all very much aware of the debates around press freedom in Western countries, painfully so in the context of the US and UK. If you’re a journalist who doesn’t subscribe to the diatribe of your nation’s right-wing head of state, and you don’t kowtow to the fake news permeating every corner of the web, then you almost instantly expose yourself to relentless abuse and institutionalised menace. But how many of us can say we were aware of the situation in the Philippines?
As Ressa eloquently explains in the documentary, Cambridge Analytica used countries such as the Philippines as a “dry run” to test their capacity for public manipulation via the internet and social media. The Philippines, coincidentally, has the highest rate of internet consumption per capita in the world. It feels almost sci-fi, something Ridley Scott would have conjured up in the 1980s as a warning of a dystopian future.
Under Duterte’s nationalist leadership, thousands of Filipinos have been murdered for suspected drug use and dealing. Ressa and her Rappler colleagues have tried valiantly to do their jobs as journalists with integrity and hold the government accountable, to a barrage of online hatred. Ressa has also been arrested on numerous occasions. She becomes embroiled in the story of modern Filippino politics simply by doing her job and sticking to her values. Instead of employing the typical sit-down or talking heads type of commentary seen in documentaries, Diaz captures the events of A Thousand Cuts in real-time and augments this with news footage to guide the story.
The crescendo of the snowballing political and social was the 2019 senatorial elections, when national and international assaults on the press serves as a timely reminder that, as a society, we are nothing without our ability to question our elected officials about the humanitarian calamities they have authorised.
Details of A Thousand Cuts screening at the 2021 Human Rights Watch Film Festival can be found here:
With an online digital edition in 2021, the 25th UK Human Rights Watch Film Festival (HRWFF) presents documentaries from around the world of powerful and uplifting stories from those demanding justice, equality, and safety for themselves, their communities, and future generations.
A collection of provocative films about issues that affect us all, providing a platform for individuals on both sides of the lens to empower audiences with the knowledge that personal commitment can make a difference.
Taking place March 18th – 26th, see our look at a selection of films featured at this year’s festival…
The 8th is a timely and emotive reminder of the importance of democracy and the power of community (local and global) for mobilising change.
See our feature review >here<.
Screening details here:
Filmed over 3 years, Bajo Fuego (Under Siege) is a portrait of people facing a complex crossroads: a government that delays fulfilling what it promised, a family economy in crisis, a state that suppresses mobilization and death threats by armed groups.
A vital film revealing the desperate situation faced by communities in rural areas of Colombia, uncovering the human cost of a failed peace process.
See our feature review >here<.
Screening details here:
Belly of the Beast explores the modern-day eugenics taking place in California prison systems over the course of seven years, in an intimate and empathetic collaboration with currently and formerly incarcerated people who were targeted by this illegal practice.
See our feature review >here<.
Screening details here:
When national and international assaults on the press serve as a timely reminder that, as a society, we are nothing without our ability to question our elected officials, A Thousand Cuts follows one journalist and their team in a heated conflict with President Rodrigo Duterte’s Philippine government.
See our feature review >here<.
Screening details here:
A truly courageous work with a message of hope and optimism, for the perseverance of love over tradition in the LGBTQ+ community in Kenya.
See our feature review >here<.
Screening details here:
Find full details of this year’s festival with all films featured here:
Director(s): Robert Houston, Kenji Misumi
Starring: Tomisaburô Wakayama, Akihiro Tomikawa, Kayo Matsuo, Tokio Oki
Words – Nathan Scatcherd.
The kind of bloody, balletic Samurai film you rarely see made anymore, Shogun Assassin stands as perhaps one of the finest examples of the Jidaigeki subgenre (literally translated from Japanese as ‘era drama’, although the term is commonly used to specifically mean Samurai movies).
The narrative was pieced together by director Robert Houston from the first two Lone Wolf and Cub films (Sword of Vengeance and Baby Cart at the River Styx, both directed by Kenji Misumi); the plot involving a crazed, paranoid Shogun who attempts to have his chief decapitator killed. His assassins fail, only killing the man’s innocent wife and sending our once-decapitator protagonist, Lone Wolf, out on a trail of bloody vengeance with his infant son, Cub (who appears fairly snug inside a kind of tricked-out battle pram).
With its stitched together nature, the plot is essentially just the vehicle for the real draw; a series of increasingly stylised, violent and dream-like action sequences. Lone Wolf and Cub are assailed by ninja at every turn, and the fighting has a deliberately paced, almost operatic quality which makes the violence feel at once visceral and surreal. Every slash results in excessive sprays of claret, as our stalwart protagonists cut through swathes of the Shogun’s assassins (and Cub does indeed get in on the action himself – in one sequence his wooden pram is revealed to be quite well equipped for dealing with trouble, extending hidden blades as he rushes fearlessly into the fight).
The score by W. Michael Lewis and Mark Lindsay is a collection of frequently moody, threatening synth tracks which give the proceedings a distinctly ‘cult’ vibe – rather than using traditional Japanese instrumentation in an effort to conjure up Westernised images of ‘Eastern mysticism’ and exoticism, it uses its sparse, occasionally droning electronic score to underline both the relentlessness and basic hopelessness of its protagonists’ mission; to wander the land, slicing down the Shogun’s assassins, never resting for long, half hoping to die in glorious battle and be spared the interminable trekking and killing.
If you have even a passing interest in Samurai movies, you can’t do much better than this strange, scrappy, violent, transfixing gem.
Shogun Assassin also carries an extra level of interest for fans of the Wu-Tang Clan, or specifically GZA’s album Liquid Swords, which takes many of its most memorable samples from this film.
The title track utilises Shogun Assassin’s opening narration to murkily atmospheric effect, and the GZA – with the RZA on production – both no doubt recognised the inherent drama in the music that helped give Shogun Assassin such a singularly dark, exciting vibe.
Director: George A Romero
Starring: Ken Foree, Gaylen Ross, David Emge, Scott H. Reiniger, David Crawford, David Early, Richard France, Howard Smith
Words – Oliver Innocent
In 1968 director George A Romero rocked the horror genre with his zombie classic Night of the Living Dead. Ten years later he repeated this trick with his follow-up to Night, Dawn of the Dead. The middle section of his three-decade dalliance with the dead (culminating with 1985’s Day of the Dead), Dawn takes place in a world where the tide has turned, and the zombies have begun to take over.
From the first night of the zombie apocalypse in Night to a world completely overrun in Day, Romero’s trilogy of the dead chronicles the deterioration of society and life as we know it. Each film is a product of its era as well as a comment on the issues and socio-political climate of the time. It is in this way that each entry in the saga has its own distinct personality, look and feel.
As a product of the ‘70s, Dawn immediately distinguishes itself from its predecessor with full garish colour cinematography in complete contrast to Night’s stark monochrome imagery. In keeping with the era of three-hour epics like The Godfather and The Deer Hunter, Dawn is notably much longer, bigger and expansive compared with Night’s condensed claustrophobia.
Dawn of the Dead focuses on a new misfit band of survivors who take refuge from the zombie apocalypse in a large indoors shopping mall. Again, there is a strong cast. Standing out this time is Ken Foree who, thanks to his role as protagonist Peter, has become a genre staple, appearing in films such as Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III and The Devil’s Rejects.
An interesting, unique setting, the mall’s various shops and features make for a multitude of imaginative ways to keep the zombie hordes at bay. As many critics have already noted, the mall setting also works on another level as Romero’s comment on consumerism. Indeed, the imagery of mindless zombie hordes aimlessly wandering around isn’t very far removed from what can be observed on a real-life trip to your local shopping centre. Zombies and shoppers both go for the same reason, to consume. The only difference is the zombies consume flesh.
It’s not just consumerism Romero tackles. There’s sensationalist TV worried about ratings even in the midst of the world coming to an end; police brutality and racism with cops going on a killing spree; abortion and a woman’s right to choose if she wants to keep her child; and man’s predilection for violence and enjoyment of a lawless world. Most of these issues seem to suggest that, even without the zombies, mankind is doomed.
Despite this, Dawn is fun, funny and exhilarating. It has some great action set-pieces like the biker raid on the mall, as well as some truly hilarious moments of black comedy such as the biker gang throwing pies at the zombies. Romero even inverts the standard bleak, downbeat ‘70s horror ending he himself popularised in Night with a relatively happy ending offering a glimmer of hope for the survival of mankind.
Just as Night informed the direction of the horror film genre in the ‘70s, so too did Dawn alter the course of the genre in the ‘80s. Inspired by Dawn, films like The Evil Dead, Fright Night and Re-Animator became more colourful, humorous, and over-the-top. They also became gorier and more effects driven.
Indeed, Dawn’s influence on the progression of practical special effects makeup and gore cannot be overstated. Thanks to Dawn’s effects wizard Tom Savini, special makeup effects artists became the rockstars of ‘80s horror.
They were often the main reason fans would flock to see the latest horror film. Not because of the actors or the directors, it was the tantalising draw of seeing the newest, most astounding special effects that really drew the crowds. Horror magazine Fangoria celebrated and popularised this fandom even further, with a focus on behind the scenes photographs and interviews with artists discussing how they achieved their effects.
Savini’s work on Dawn became the stuff of legend, paving the way for the increasingly complex and outlandish effects of the next decade. And for good reason; his effects are not only ground-breaking in terms of their technical prowess and believability, but also because of their creativity.
One of the most memorable aspects of Dawn of the Dead are the numerous creative ways in which the undead are dispatched. Heads explode in fountains of gore, guts are pulled out, and various body parts are dismembered with machetes and helicopter rotor blades. Simultaneously disgusting, entertaining, and funny, Tom Savini’s gory effects are the perfect punchline to George A Romero’s clever ‘70s satire.
See our retrospective feature on Night of the Living Dead (1968) >here<.
See our retrospective feature on Day of the Dead (1985) >here<.
Director: George A. Romero
Starring: Lori Cardille, Joseph Pilato, Terry Alexander, Sherman Howard
Words – Oliver Innocent
Quite possibly the most revered independent horror film of all time, George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) laid down the blueprint for a new wave of horror which took off and proliferated during the 1970s. Night differentiated itself from the horror movies of the past with its confrontational, explicitly violent subject matter which worked simultaneously as both straightforward shock machine and allegory for the state of contemporary Vietnam-era America.
The film struck a real chord with filmgoers and cash strapped yet creative filmmakers alike, ushering in a golden age of controversial, cutting-edge independent horrors; films like Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left (1972), Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), David Cronenberg’s Shivers (1975), and John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) all followed Romero’s blueprint of a single location besieged by an unspeakable evil, while exploring the social and political problems plaguing America (or, in the case of Shivers, Canada) at the time, tackling taboo issues of sex and violence head on, and invariably ending on downbeat notes. Romero himself would return to the fray in the late ‘70s to reclaim his crown with arguably his most accomplished and popular film to date, the zombies in a shopping mall epic Dawn of the Dead (1978).
A follow up to Night, exploring how the zombie epidemic has spread in the intervening years, Dawn is nevertheless a very different beast. Looking to put a new spin of the zombie format and purposefully striving not to repeat himself, Dawn’s colourful comic book imagery and black comedy criticism of consumer culture is the antithesis of Night’s starkly serious monochrome nightmare. With its exuberant action stylings, infusion of comedy and splatter, and surprisingly upbeat ending, Dawn proved itself to be much more palatable and entertaining than the more nihilistic Night. Quickly establishing itself as something of a fan favourite, it is unsurprising that expectations were high when Romero finally returned to the series almost a decade later with Day of the Dead.
Upon release, Day was neither a hit with audiences or critics. Compared to the funhouse ride that was Dawn, it was simply too dark, too violent, too claustrophobic. In other words, it just wasn’t the film that everyone expected. In the decade when horror was beginning to have fun with the likes of Dan O’Bannon’s The Return of the Living Dead (1985) and Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator (1985) leading the way, Day just seemed like too much of a downer.
Often viewed as the ugly stepchild of the original Dead trilogy, it is only recently that Day’s status as another Romero horror classic is beginning to become clear. Viewed in hindsight, Day reveals itself as something of an unsung gem, and in many ways it stands up a lot better today than either Night or Dawn.
For one, the effects are absolutely top-notch, gore maestro Tom Savini’s sickening, gut munching makeup being the best it’s ever been. It also boasts some of the most intense and outlandish characters Romero has ever committed to screen, the best of the bunch being the perpetually angry military dictator Captain Rhodes. There’s also Bub the Zombie, the first of Romero’s undead to be bestowed with a personality and a modicum of intellectual prowess. The underground mine setting is also highly effective, inciting a degree of boiling point tension surpassing even that of the farmhouse in Night. Another of Romero’s microcosms standing in for contemporary America, the mine crams together a diverse group of soldiers, scientists and civilians of different ethnicities and backgrounds, allowing for a vicious critique of Reagan Era race and military issues.
Apart from the inevitable conclusion of the dead overpowering the living, Day is perhaps Romero’s most unpredictable film. The director keeps the audience on their toes from the very beginning with one of the most unexpected, powerful jump scares in the history of horror cinema, ensuring the suspense remains high as you can never guess what’s coming round the next dankly lit corner.
While it’s true that Day does lack the ferocious originality of Night and Dawn (it is the third film in the series after all), its air of unpredictability, unsettling atmosphere, intense human conflicts, and tour de force Grand Guignol ensure the film isn’t a mere retread of familiar ground. On the contrary, Day is an impressive, original film in its own right, and a more than worthy addition to Romero’s Dead series that deserves to be rediscovered and re-evaluated, so it can finally stand proudly alongside its predecessors.
See our retrospective feature on Night of the Living Dead (1968) >here<.
See our retrospective feature on Dawn of the Dead (1978) >here<.