Friday 29 October 2010

Halloween special! Thirteen unsettling films

I've been inspired to write this by Rol's Top Twenty Horror Films (parts 1 and 2). I know that I'm not going to be able to say anything about some of these films that hasn't been said before (Mark has more to say on this) but one or two of my chart choices may surprise you, hopefully, and maybe you'll enjoy reading about those at least. And they're not all classified as horror films per sé; I'm going to talk about films that are unsettling or disturbing (alright then, scary too).

I tried to keep my list to a top ten, but couldn't. To save running up a top twenty, I managed to limit myself to a nice triskaidekaphobic top thirteen... but it could have been more. Those just bubbling under included such classics as The Innocents, Don't Look Now and The Haunting. Cronenberg's Goldblum-powered remake of The Fly almost made the cut, as did Mark Kermode's favourite, The Exorcist. Hey, I've even got a soft spot for The Sixth Sense. And 28 Days Later is excellent. You can see which films would have topped me up to the twenty, but no - there can only be thirteen. Ask me tomorrow and the list will have changed but for now, these are they.

Norman? Yes Mother. Etc.13. Psycho
Groundbreaking when launched (and not just for killing off the lead actress less than half way through), Hitchcock's exercise in horror has become a benchmark against which others may measure suspense. It's got a pretty girl being knifed in the shower. It's got a nutter keeping his dead mother in the attic. It's got creepy taxidermy. And it's got a spyhole in a motel bedroom wall... is it just me that worries about this when checking into hotels now? I've even updated the paranoia by wondering about CCTV cameras hidden in smoke alarms... and it's all Hitchcock's fault. Oh, and besides being a horror masterpiece, it was revolutionary too - not just in killing off Janet Leigh's character so early, but in the way it handled plot threads (look, I know the preferred name for these is "arcs" but that sounds so American...) - for example, consider how the film sidesteps from the bank theft opening storyline into the psycho-killer story. And as if that wasn't enough, such is the film's significance that cultural references from it have entered into everyday parlance (witness the overuse almost to parody of shrieking violins ever since). It's a film my scaredycat sister still won't watch.

That's not a dog keeping you company in the frozen wasteland...12. The Thing
It was a toss-up for me whether to include this or another of John Carpenter's efforts from that era, The Fog. Whilst I love some of the visuals in the latter, The Thing gets the nod here - it's simply better. What makes it so scary? Well, like Alien (of which more later), The Thing takes the isolated haunted house concept and updates it to increase the sense of isolation and remoteness, in this case by locating the action in an Antarctic research station. Is it just me or does the all-male cast add to the claustrophobia? Also like Alien, The Thing demonstrates that extra-terrestrials can be every bit as scary as ghosts and demons. But Alien charts higher, and I'll explain why when we get there...

If you go down to the woods today, you're in for a big surprise11. The Blair Witch Project
Yes, yes, yes, I know the whole Blair Witch franchise has its knockers (insert your own Carry On-/Benny Hill-style joke here) but forget the sequels, prequels, spin-offs and knock-offs and stick with the original. Made on a comparative shoestring, it's proof that you don't need a big budget to deliver big fear. Yes, it's just a bunch of American teens getting lost in the woods. But I have a theory, and it's this - if you went camping as a child, and laid awake at night listening to noises outside your tent that you couldn't identify or explain, then you're going to find this film scarier than if you were spoiled with the luxury of holidaying in hotels. Camping out can be scary. Unexplained noises are scary. Getting lost in the woods is scary. And finding your friend with his hands to the wall, standing in the corner of the basement of a spooky old house and surrounded by other hand prints... well, that's scary too, no matter when you grew up or how you holidayed.

There's more to this than Ripley offering the alien a couple of places to hang his coat at the end10. Alien
Alright then, so why does Ridley Scott's intelligent sci-fi shocker chart higher than Carpenter's Thing? Well, mostly because it came first and as a result, I would argue, paved the way for Carpenter's effort. No Alien, no Thing, simple as that. And certainly no Event Horizon (of which more later). Again, Alien updates (and extrapolates) the theme of an isolated haunted house by setting the action on a space ship, the Nostromo (a closed system if ever there was one). And it ratchets the fear up with excellent (and then innovative) visuals. I remember the first time I saw Alien, thinking I'd never seen anything like it. When Tom Skerritt is down in the tunnel, hunting, and his crewmates are telling him he must see the alien, it's right on top of him, and what little light there is is flickering rapidly, dark, light, dark, light, dark, alien! Awesome. And don't pretend you were as cool as a cucumber the first time you saw John Hurt's stomach go pop (like bits of Psycho, another scene that has entered our cultural lexicon).

Christ! Christ?09. The Wicker Man (1973)
I haven't seen the Noughties remake with Nicholas Cage and, frankly, why would I want to when the original is so good? Like many of the films on this list, The Wicker Man trades in isolation, both physical (a remote, Scottish island) and emotional (the chaste, religious policeman surrounded by far from chaste heathens). The real strength of this film though is in its sense of the uncanny, of the familiar being unfamiliar: there's a pub, a shop, a school... all familiar things, but all twisted out of the policeman's grasp by strange goings on and the whole island's denial of what happened to poor Rowan. The film's so good, we can even forgive the fact that a body double was used for Britt Ekland's nude dance (she was pregnant at the time, after all)... oh, and her dubbed accent too, whilst we're at it. Basically though, there's something undeniably eerie about adults in animal masks when it's obviously not being done for a joke, don't you think? And as for our hero's increasingly desperate and doubtful exhortations of "Christ!" at the end...

Enough with that crawling-out-of-the-TV-screen shit...08. The Ring (US)
I know, I'm going to upset some people here. I'm not choosing the Japanese original but the Hollywood remake. What a heathen, right? Well, maybe if I'd watched the original first I might have chosen that, but I didn't, sorry. So it's the American version that affected me and, perhaps, subsequently diluted the effect that its Japanese predecessor had on me. But watching Naomi Watts puzzle things out, late at night on my mate Cinders' big-screen TV, made a lasting impression on me. Not so much for the scary bits (and there are plenty) but for the unsettling sequences - actually watching the cursed video is chair-squirmingly unpleasant, as is the moment when the girl crawls out through the television screen. And as for the bit down in the well, it's all too easy to imagine putting your hand through the darkened waters and feeling the hair... sorry. Giving myself the heebie-jeebies. Time to move on.

In which 'the grade' acquires significance...07. Duel
Not an out and out horror film, this one, more of a suspenseful thriller. But then how do you define a horror movie anyway? There's plenty here to scare you: being relentlessly pursued, for starters; an unseen villain; motiveless attacks; isolation (again) in driving through deserted landscapes between dead-end towns; our reliance on the machinery of everyday life and how exposed we are when that fails us (in this case, with a leaky radiator hose); and I could go on. Denis Weaver gives a bravura performance as "man talking to himself", and Spielberg's direction has a tautness that points towards Duel's TV movie roots. In fact, I made myself choose between Jaws and Duel for inclusion in this list and, much as I love the former, I stuck with the latter - it's that good. And all the better for not offering an explanation at the end.

Do you see? [Offers eyeballs] Do you?06. Event Horizon
I'm guessing this may be one of the surprises on the list? Okay, so it owes a lot to Alien, but that can be said about plenty of films. Oh, and the original Solaris too, come to think of it. And unusually for this list, there are some quite gory scenes (though not gratuitously so, not even when Sam Neill offers up his eyeballs). But despite being a bit derivative, and splashing the red stuff around a bit (which I don't find scary - Saw et al do nothing for me), it is a genuinely unsettling film. First up, there are the themes of isolation and enclosure (both recurrent in this list - wonder what that says about me?) that being in space engenders. Then there's a fear of a contagion - in this case, madness. Worst of all though are the unsettling apparitions that the crew members see, especially when one (Kathleen Quinlan's character, I think) starts seeing her dead son running around in the bowels of the ship. The review on Amazon thinks this is a bit of a B-movie but for me it's genuinely unsettling, and that's why it ranks so highly on this list. Amazon-schmamazon.

It's all for you, Damien05. The Omen
The devil - pretty scary dude, right? And those whispery chants of antichristus, antichristus aren't helping matters much either, are they? Plus proof that explicitly foreshadowing characters' deaths needn't diminish the power or scariness of those deaths (I'm talking about the photographs predicting the nanny hanging herself, Patrick Troughton's priest getting speared with a lightning conductor, and the decapitation with a sheet of glass). Plus this was the film that made Rottweilers scary, wasn't it? Above and beyond all this, though, is the power of circumstance; for me, the circumstance in which I first watched this is what gets it so high on this list. I was alone in the student house I shared with two friends. We hadn't lived there long, so it still felt a strange place to be. It was late on a wet and windy Autumn night, as I recall. I had been reading something by Stephen King during the evening (I think it was The Tommyknockers), then had sat up late in flickering lamplight to watch The Omen. Just as it was getting towards the end, I heard a terrific smashing and crashing of glass from the back of the house. My heart leapt out of my chest - someone (or something) was breaking in! I ran to my bedroom, turning on every light in the house as I went, and grabbed the thick half of my snooker cue to use as a club, then went (very) tentatively exploring. Amazing what a frenzied state the combination of being alone on a dark, wet, windy night, having read King and watched The Omen, could put me in. As to what caused the crash of breaking glass, so near it made me jump out of my skin... well, that's another story...

There's more to this than Jenny Agutter in the shower, hard though that is to believe04. An American Werewolf In London
Guess what? Films can be unsettling and funny too. American Werewolf In London is a great film, regardless of genre qualifications. Much has been written about the groundbreaking special effects. Much has been written about Jenny Agutter in the shower. And much has been written about the central London bloodbath dénouement, with bouncing decapitated heads, and such like. Not enough has been said about the humour though, the verbal sparring between David Naughton and Griffin Dunne. Oh, and the dream sequence with its false ending is superbly done, providing a brilliant "jump" moment which I won't elaborate more on for fear of spoiling it for those that haven't seen it. Oh, and I haven't even mentioned the Slaughtered Lamb yet, with Brian Glover and a young Rik Mayall. "You made me miss." Say no more. And tell me, doesn't being down in a tube station at midnight feel just a little bit scarier after watching this?

Insomnia has seldom been more appealing03. Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1978)
No, not the McCarthy-undertoned Fifties original, or this remake from 1993 and especially not this Kidman/Craig one from 2007. Donald Sutherland is excellent in the Seventies version, and Brooke Adams makes a fine heroine. Look out for a very young Jeff Goldblum too, and a very unsettling character portrayed by Leonard Nimoy in full "I am not Spock" mode. The whole film is underscored with little touches that build a sense of the uncanny; not just the oblique and unusual camera angles, or the perfect score, but little visual cues too. The way more and more people literally seem to be falling into line. The implied but unspoken communication that goes on. The dog with a man's face. The inhuman shriek that an invader gives out when spotting a human, especially at the end. Poor old Veronica Cartwright - she gets it in Alien too. Unsettling. I'm unsettled now, just thinking about everyone becoming different and unnatural... and then chasing me down the street... and not being able to sleep... shudder...

Keep those curtains closed!02. The Others
Like The Omen, The Others had such an effect on me because of the circumstances in which I watched it. Dispatched to the Big Smoke for a week to do a training course, my evenings in a soulless corporate hotel were boring beyond words. What better way to while away the evening than watching a movie on the old pay-per-view? After all, the company Amex was paying, right? Down went the lights and on went The Others... so it's late, it's dark, and I'm away from home, all alone, in unfamiliar surroundings. At one point, I had to get up and make a cup of tea to break the tension (you know the scene, it's when you think it's the little girl all dressed up under that veil). I had to put all the lights back on for the end, I was that unnerved. I know, almost as big a scaredycat as my sister. But not, because this film is unsettling in the extreme. What could be worse than laying awake in your darkened bedroom, only for unseen feet to thump across the floorboards and unseen hands to fling back the curtains? And Christ, how would it feel to realise all your hired help are dead? Not great, I'm guessing. Oh, and there's that scene where our heroine tries to escape into town only to be stopped by (quite brilliantly added digital) fog, and then she bumps into her long-absent husband... only he's not quite right, is he? And with good cause. I've tried to get my partner to watch this on a number of occasions, and she just won't. Tells you all need to know about the goosebump-inducing, dream-disrupting, lights-back-on-please qualities of this excellent chiller.

Come and play with us. Forever.01. The Shining
Regular readers of this blog (all three of you) will know that I am a huge fan of both Stephen King and Stanley Kubrick, so there was only ever going to be one film at the top of this list, even if King doesn't like what Kubrick did with his story. The film's minimal principal cast all provide sterling performances - Jack is unhinged, whilst Shelley Duvall gets so annoying that you'd want to bash her brains in too. Danny pulls all the right faces, whilst Scatman Crothers provides a nice turn as the false-dawn-rescuer (a neat plot trick that King reprised in Misery). Again, like so many of the films here, isolation and loneliness are key themes, caretaking the Overlook Hotel through a long, snowbound Winter - no Internet or email back then, and when the phone lines go down... well, poor Jack is left alone with his writer's block (another recurrent King theme) and his annoying wife. In a hotel that is soaked in the blood of past unpleasantness. A recipe for disaster, you'd think, and you'd be right. The film is very different from the book, and personally I prefer the celluloid ending to the paper one. What really gets me with this film though is the atmosphere, the mounting tension (which starts to spiral right from the outset and doesn't stop ascending once). The tingling score is used to great effect, as are Kubrick's trademark clinical sets and clean lighting, and of course the then-innovative use of steadicam for many of the roaming shots. Throw in the scene in room 237, the twins, the elevator, the maze, Lloyd the bartender and, why not, a man being fellated by someone in a bear costume... this is an unhinged, unsettling, un-everything film. I'll leave you with a scene from the movie in which Jack and his missus discuss baseball, and just to end this post on a lighter note, a scene from the best of all The Simpsons' Treehouse Of Horrors spoofs, The Shinning ("You mean Shining." "Shhh! You wanna get sued?"). Enjoy.

So those are my favourites (for now). How about yours?

Wednesday 27 October 2010

Richard Littlejohn should be called Dick. Discuss.

After his latest frankly unbelievable outpouring of splenetic bile (can bile be splenetic? Who knows. You get what I'm saying though, don't you?), I was going to write a diatribe about Richard Littlejohn. Unfortunately, I'm a bit pushed for time at the moment, and blogging has had to give. Fortunately for us both then that the often-excellent BitterWallet has already got it covered.

Monday 25 October 2010

Clandestine Classic IX - Save Me, I'm Yours (#keepingitpeel)

The ninth post in an occasional series that is intended to highlight songs that you might not have heard that I think are excellent - clandestine classics, if you will. Maybe they'll be by bands you've never heard of. Maybe they'll be by more familiar artists, but tracks that were squirelled away on b-sides, unpopular albums, radio sessions or music magazine cover-mounted CDs. Time will, undoubtedly, tell.

Today's offering is a Peel session track by one of my favourite bands, Gene. I've raved about them before, most notably when I wrote a top ten gigs list a little while back. They were ace, and I'd wish they'd reform, but let's not digress... Today's offering has been especially chosen to tie in with the #keepingitpeel initiative started by Webbie. To avoid paraphrasing him, I'll just quote him directly:
There should be a web version of the John Peel Day, with this one being commemorated by all the bloggers, tweeters, LJ users and tumblr’s out there. If you are Facebook then please join in too. So on the 25th October 2010 I want everybody to post a Peel Session track by any of their favourite bands. If you are a Facebook user post a link to a You Tube video. If you are on Twitter then on October 25th post a tweet using the hashtag: #keepingitpeel and add a song/video clip, again from a Peel session.
So here's my contribution, in memory of the late, great DJ. Save Me, I'm Yours was recorded by Gene for a Peel Session on the 14th of December 1995, and beautifully showcases the band's many strengths. It also illustrates nicely how there was much more to them than the lazy Smiths comparisons they suffered (or enjoyed?) early in their career.

Gene split a long time ago. A couple of the members went on to form the also-quite-good Palace Fires, and you can read what Martin Rossiter's up to these days on Twitter and Facebook. If you just want to revel in the excellence of Gene though, you can find today's clandestine classic on the band's Peel Session double CD, whilst the original studio recording can be found on their 1997 album Drawn To The Deep End (from which my fiction blog unashamedly steals it name). Alternatively, naughty downloading boys and girls may be interested in this, but you didn't here that from me. Or, from YouTube, how about the Peel Session version and, for the sake of completeness, the studio version too. And remember, keep on #keepingitpeel...

Friday 22 October 2010

The good, the bad and the ugly II

No, I'm not going to write about Clint Eastwood films, or Sergio Leone. Instead, there are three unrelated matters that I want to draw to your attention, for very different reasons. I did G, B & U once before, here.

The good
My local independent art-house cinema is showing a series of scary films late on Fridays. It's already showed The Exorcist, which I had to miss unfortunately, and next month it's showing the original version of The Omen, which I'm going to try to make. Most exciting of all though is tonight's showing of Alien. This will be the first time I've seen Ridley Scott's masterpiece of intelligent science-fiction on the big screen and, frankly, I cannot wait. It's the director's cut too, so I will be looking out for any differences from the original theatrical release. All this makes me realise how lucky I am to have such an excellent cinema close by - it wasn't so long ago that I was enthusing about their special presentation of 2001, remember? In fact, it's so good, I'll give it a plug. Oh, and is this a good time to mention the (frankly sacreligious but strangely amusing) Bun-o-vision Alien parody...?

The bad
What kind of blithering idiot is Wayne Rooney? Not content on cheating on a woman who loved him before he was rich and famous (and when I say cheating, of course I mean throwing money at whores), he now claims he needs to leave Manchester United because he wants to win trophies... obvously Man U haven't won much in the last twenty years, have they? Yes, those words do stick in my throat, but it's the truth, so what can I do? Perhaps Man City are showing the ambition that Rooney apparently seeks. Oh, and coincidentally they may also show the sort of ludicrous wages that will keep him in whores for months. It's a very sorry saga. And then as soon as I write this, United announce that the ogre-faced, dirty little thug of a footballer has just signed a new five-year deal to keep him at Old Trafford. Tawdry lunacy...

The ugly
I know what you're thinking - surely Rooney should be The Ugly, right? But that would have been too easy, wouldn't it? No, The Ugly in this trio is represented by Vodafone and Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs. The former owed the latter £6bn in back-taxes. That's right, six billion... not to labour the point or anything, but that's £6,000,000,000 (and before anyone contacts me about the number of zeroes there, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, British English has now "standardised" on the US definition of billion). So what does David Hartnett, HMRC permanent secretary, do, at a time of severe austerity measures and drastic cuts in just about every area of public spending? At a time when public sector employees face the very real prospect of real-terms pay cuts, increased pension contributions or even redundancy? He writes off the debt. No, seriously, he writes off £6bn that you, me and every other Joe Taxpayer are owed. Why? Who knows? Certainly not me, and I've Googled it to death. But whatever the reason, please can someone explain to me how this doesn't stink?

Monday 11 October 2010

Is there a name for graffiti that is also art?

Is there a name for graffiti that is also art? Maybe a compound or hybrid name? I tried to come up with one but "graffarti" just doesn't sound right, does it? A shame, but there you go. I guess we'll just have to stick with calling it "art", plain and simple. Anyway, here's the latest example of street art (hey, that's a bit catchier) to be spotted on the walls of my adopted home town (more here and here).

Friday 8 October 2010

Clandestine Classic VIII - Nanny In Manhattan

The eighth post in an occasional series that is intended to highlight songs that you might not have heard that I think are excellent - clandestine classics, if you will. Maybe they'll be by bands you've never heard of. Maybe they'll be by more familiar artists, but tracks that were squirelled away on b-sides, unpopular albums, radio sessions or music magazine cover-mounted CDs. Time will, undoubtedly, tell.

Today's offering is the jeans-ad-driven one-hit wonder from New York retroists Lilys. If you've heard this before then maybe you're old enough to remember the 1998 Levi's ad for (I think) silver tab jeans that a snippet of this song was used to soundtrack. Back then, being used on a Levi's ad was a passport to immediate singles chart success. With that song, at least... after all, didn't I just say thay Lilys were one-hit wonders over here? From what I can glean from their Wikipedia page, they haven't enjoyed that much more chart success in their home country either but, frankly, who cares?

I've written before about the perils and pitfalls of music that is used for adverts, but happily Nanny In Manhattan is another of the exceptions that prove the rule. It is a joyous thing to behold - a perfect retro pop-nugget, less than two minutes in length, that recalls 1966 Beatles, early Monkees (i.e. when their songs were written by other people), a bit of the Kinks, hey, maybe even a pinch of some Yardbirds. It's almost a pastiche... but it's one that has been so carefully crafted, and clearly by someone who loves, respects and (crucially) understands the working of music from that era, that it works so well. The only ever-present member of Lilys is Kurt Heasley; he described how Levi's came to use this track by saying "they wanted something kitschy and retro, but didn't want to pay for a Small Faces' tune" and that just about sums it up.

As a teen in the Eighties, I devoured Sixties music in parallel with my love for The Jam, The Smiths, The Wedding Present and The Stone Roses. Songs that were recorded before I was born became engrained in me, and still are. Maybe that's why I loved this song so much when I heard it on the jeans ad, enough to be one of the many who propelled the single to #16 in the UK singles chart. Certainly that's why I still love it enough for it to be today's clandestine classic. You can still pick it up on Lilys' 1997 debut album Better Can't Make Your Life Better, which apparently is so good that I've just added it to my Amazon Wish List. If you just want to listen (and watch), then check out the original promo for the song below, courtesy of YouTube. Is it just me that watches this and thinks of the Monkees TV show...? No, thought not. Enjoy.

Friday 1 October 2010

Free, legal MP3s... interested?

It may be stating the obvious, and maybe you all know this already... but since Amazon starting selling music downloads they have a small selection of free, legal MP3s that you can "buy" for the princely sum of zero pence. Yes, you still have to go through their checkout rigmarole, but they cost you nothing and they're legit, so who cares?

Exactly which tracks you'll find there change (very) frequently, so you'll have to chance you arm. Oh, and check back often. But unlike some other companies' free offerings, Amazon at least features some artists you'll have heard of. So here's the link - bookmark it!