Thursday, 1 December 2011

Plastic, Rubber and CGI Movie Monsters

As a boy I was particularly interested in movie monsters and used to enjoy making plastic models of them which were made by the American Aurora models company.

Aurora model of Bela Lugosi as "Dracula" (not one I made)

Given my interest in monsters, I thought then it was high time to compile my own list of top ten favourite movie monsters. So in reverse order, here they are:

10. Creature from "The Monster that Challenged the World"

Now this is an obscure monster by any stretch and the only reason it made it into this list at all is that when I as a kid, my older cousin had a Super 8 movie projector with a very limited range of Super 8 films. He had some Charlie Chaplin films, some Laurel and Hardy films and a ropey sci-fi/monster movie from 1957 with the great title "The Monster That Challenged the World". The monster in question was a strange prehistoric underwater creature that was disturbed by an earthquake and some nosey scientists and comes ashore to wreck havoc on human civilisation. We ended up watching this film more times that it merited but it is still a fond memory. Its not a bad monster as 1950s monsters go and its eyes are genuinely unsettling but it is here purely for reasons of nostalgia/childhood trauma. I could also justify its position in the list by using it as a symbol for the dozens of rubbery monsters that appeared in American B-movies throughout the 50s. Some films had better monsters (eg "Creature from the Black Lagoon", "This Island Earth") and some had far worse. A more objective writer would have placed the Japanese monster Godzilla in this spot, a truly classic movie monster which epitomised the sci-fi monster phenomenon of the 1950s.

9 Demon from "Night of The Demon" 

There is a sub-genre of British supernatural thrillers/horrors that consists of just a handful of films but each one a truly chilling classic. Into this group, I would place films such as "Dead Of Night" (1945), "The Devil Rides Out" (1968) and "Night of The Demon" (1957).

"Night of the Demon" was about an American pyschologist who travels to England to debunk the work of a modern day devil cult leader. The American, though a sceptic, begins to believe that an evil spell has been placed on him which will involve the appearance of a gigantic demon which will kill him as it has killed other victims of the spell. The creature when it appears is spectacular and truly chilling (the sound effects really help) and watching the film now, even with the quaint charm of 1950s rubber and fur monster effects, the film is still powerful and the demon still frightening.

Trivia: The lines from this film: "Its in the trees! Its coming!" were sampled in Kate Bush's "Hounds of Love" song from the 1985 album of the same name.

8. Pan from Pan's Labyrinth

Guillermo Del Toro's wildy imaginative horror film from 2006, let lose a range of fantastical creatures in this dark adult fairy tale set against the backdrop of Fascist Spain in 1944. Lots of delightful monsters in this, especially the creature who has eyes in the palm of its hands. However, I prefer the eerie elegance of the Pan creature in the poster below.

7. Talos from Jason And The Argonauts

Ray Harryhausen was a movie special effects wizard who made groundbreaking advances in the use of stop motion cinematography. He was able to create very detailed models of monsters which he could move and by animating them one frame at a time, was able to create the convincing illusion of a living creature. This image was then optically combined with real-life actors and the results though dated, have a convincing charm of their own. Many great examples of his creations to chose from but I particularly like Talos, the unforgettable giant bronze statue that comes alive and battles with the Argonauts in "Jason of the Argonauts" (1963).

6. The Thing

I never got around to writing a post about John Carpenter, one of my favourite directors and again underlining an unintentional theme of this blog as it seems to dwell on movies and actors from the 80s and 90s. I can't quite decide which is my favourite John Carpenter film, as its a toss up between "Escape From New York" (1981) and "The Thing" (1982). In "The Thing" there is a truly memorable creature but it is difficult to describe as its a pathogen that infects living things and then erupts from inside them, creating nightmarish organisms that mix and match human and animal anatomy into new surreal lifeforms. If you haven't seen the film, well the following clip will help you get the idea. (note: this clip features extreme imagery, not for the faint hearted).

5. Predator
The first "Predator" movie was back in 1987 and starred Arnold Schwarznegger as a mercernary in the jungles of South America who was being hunted by a big humanoid alien who enjoyed safari hunting with humans as its game. The "predator" had some cool gadgets including very powerful shoulder mounted guns and a suit that made him almost invisible. He was intelligent and could fly his own space ship and self-destruct if he felt like it. The predator was popular big budget Hollywood popcorn sci-fi and spawned many sequels such as "Predator 2", "Predators" and a couple of "Alien Vs Predators" films. Unlike most of the other movie monsters, the predator is somewhat open to negotiation. If you kill one of his enemies or if you both have a common goal he might stop trying to kill you and collaborate with you instead which is a nice change from the other creatures listed here.

4. Balrog from "Lord Of The Rings" 

Peter Jackson's "Lord of The Rings" trilogy presents the viewer with a cinematic smorgasboard of great movie monsters to chose from. I was tempted to list the Ringwraiths as they are so creepy or a cave troll which I quite liked but its the sheer epic Hellish scale of the Balrog that won the day. It featured in the exciting climax of the first movie with a thrilling chase sequence and show down with Gandalf in the Mines of Moria. I think its the first monster in the list that is CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) and back in the day when I saw it in the cinema, I remember thinking it was one of the best CGI monsters I have ever seen.

3. Dracula

So many Draculas, so little time. However, F.W.Murnau's 1922 German silent film "Nosferatu" is I believe the first telling of the Dracula story on film and has become one of the most famous on-screen depictions of Dracula. I mentioned this before in the posting about silent cinema a few weeks back and this version of Dracula had to make it into the list. The actor Max Shreck's appearance as the undead vampire is genuinely stange and disturbing even after 90 years. I could have mentioned the Bela Lugosi version from the 30s (see Aurora model at top of blog) which became more famous in Hollywood and I am quite partial to Gary Oldman's very sophisticated take on Dracula in Francis Ford Coppola's lavish 1992 version of Dracula.

2. Frankenstein's Creature

Some people think that English director James Whale's 1931 film "Frankenstein" is the best film version of the novel ever made and none can argue with its truly creepy gothic imagery which was heavily influenced by the visual style of German Expressionist cinema of the 1920s. This films is famous for one image, the face of the Frankenstein creature, which was played by Boris Karloff. The makeup for the creature's face was revolutionary for its time and took hours to apply. The skin on the creature's face was green in reality but it translated to a light grey on black and white film. Karloff's complex performance renders the creature as a tormented character, both childlike and monstrous at the same time. The creature has become a truly iconic image of film horror.

1. The Alien (Xenomorph)

So here we are at the top of the list and it just has to be the Xenomorph (the technical term for it which is mentioned in one the films) creature from the Alien movies. This terrifying creature was truly alien in its look and feel and it first burst onto cinema screens and out of actors bodies in Ridley Scott's "Alien" movie in 1979. The look of the creature itself was a remarkable design, created by the surreal Swiss designer/artist HR Giger. Though ultimately, in the first and second films, it was played in some scenes by a man in a rubber suit, it still looked unlike any Alien creature seen on screen up to then. For me, I think the fact that it has no eyes nor a proper face, just a extendible mouth is what makes it appear utterly monstrous and inhuman and devoid of emotion or empathy. Screen monsters had certainly come a long way from the rubber monsters of the 1950s.

Whereas the first film focused on the havoc caused by one alien let lose on a space ship, James Cameron's 1986 "Aliens" sequel presented them as a mass brood of creatures who had over run a human colony. "Aliens" was one of the best action films/sci-fi films of the 80s and though two sequels followed in the 90s, they paled in comparison with the first two films. The alien has become a movie star it its own right, cropping up again in two "Alien Vs Predator" films and doing star turns in several big hit video games so in terms of screen time and column inches, it has to be the most hard working and famous monster of them all. I will leave you with the best specimen of the aliens, the magnificent queen alien from the climax of "Aliens" and that fight with Riply.... "Get away from her you bitch!".

PS I know I did not list King Kong in this and I probably should have.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

The Clever and Mysterious Mr. Cronenberg

In my first blog post here a few months back I used an image from David Cronenberg's "Videodrome" (1983) and now I think that its finally time that I got around to doing a blog post on the man himself.

The Canadian film director David Cronenberg has recently completed a new film called "A Dangerous Method" which looks at the intense relationship between psychoanalyists Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung and the birth of modern psychoanalysis. With a stellar cast featuring Keira Knightly, Viggo Mortenson and Irish actor Michael Fassbender, the period drama looks like ideal material for a director who clearly enjoys exploring challenging sexual themes and humans' relationship between mind and body.

Alternatively, a lavish period drama is the last thing that one might expect from the director who's early Canadian feature films in the 70s and early 80s became controversial landmark films in the genre of contemporary horror. He has been called the "King of Venereal Horror" and "The Baron Of Blood". His challenging early work has also been labelled "body horror" and featured characters who's bodies were mutating into something bizarre as in "Videodrome" (1983) or "The Fly" (1986). In "Shivers" (1975)  or "Rabid" (1977) people's bodies were infected with pathogens with gruesome results resulting in the appearance of fissures or strange growths on their bodies. These films ensured early notoriety, especially with "Scanners" in 1981 which depicted characters who could attack each other using their minds and could induce an opponent's head to explode. "Scanners" was strongly associated with a wave of violent horror films in the early 80s which most people saw on home video, some of which were unfairly labelled "video nasties". I vaguely remember the head exploding scenes from "Scanners" being mentioned in debates about video censorship at the time.

As mentioned in previous posts, Cronenberg directed one of my all-time favourite films "Videodrome" in 1981 and then he was offered a Hollywood adaptation of Stephen King's "The Dead Zone" (1983). The film was a much more classical type of horror film that his early 'body horror' work. The central character played by Christopher Walken is a school teacher who awakens from a coma he was in for many years after a car crash to discover that he sees terrifying visions of the future, visions of events which comes to pass unless he acts to avoid them. The central performance by Christopher Walken is one of his best and perfectly portrays the complex and troubled character of a man struggling to come to terms with having knowledge of the future and the responsibilities that brings. In a famous moment from the film, Walken's character shakes hands with a US presidential candidate played by Martin Sheen and in a vision, he sees Martin Sheen as a future US president starting World War 3. See the scene in the clip below:

And finally, back to my Cronenberg favourite ,"Videodrome". For me, "Videodrome" works on a number of levels and even on a very superficial level, it is one of the few films that captures that feeling of the early 80s when video was a new and wonderous invention and the films on video felt different to the ones in the cinema. The early home video markets were dominated by contemporary horror, many of which seemed dangerous or subversive or even illegal and were rarely or never shown in cinemas. Against this backdrop, James Woods stars as a cable TV executive who seeks our extreme violent material for his viewers but after watching the "Videodrome" tape and TV broadcasts which feature scenes of endless pointless violence, he finds himself descending into a world where reality and nightmares seeem to merge. We learn that "Videodrome" carries a signal which causes brain tumours to develop in viewers and was created as a way of eliminating people who enjoy watching violent material. Woods was selected as such a character and as his brain alters he becomes engulfed by hallucinations. He finds that his chest develops a gaping wound though which he can insert a video tape or take out a gun. The film is Cronenberg at his purest and best. His later film "Existenz" (1999) explored similar material as it presented a world where characters can connect their nervous system directly to a video game and like "Videodrome", contact with this technology eroded the lines between reality and hallucination. I will leave you with a rare early trailer for "Videodrome" which shows some of its famous imagery.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

In Praise of Marion

Looking back at my recent blogs, I sense a hint of nostalgia for filmmakers and actors who were big in the 70s, 80s or 90s but today are on the wane or as in the case with Ken Russell, sadly no longer with us. So in today's blog I want to talk about an actress who is at her peak right now and who I believe is one of the most exciting acting talents in years and that's the Oscar-winning French actress Marion Cottilard.

Though she had strong, critically acclaimed roles in many films in the Noughties, (eg "Big Fish", "Taxi", "A Very Long Engagement") the Paris born actress became famous as a result of her startling Oscar winning performance as Edith Piaf in "La Vie En Rose" (2007). Her transformation from her normal beautiful self to the haggard and emotionally damaged Edith Piaf was astonishing and utterly convincing as was her singing in the role. The Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences noted her performance and in 2008, she became the first actress to ever win the Best Actress Oscar for a French speaking role.

This breakthrough led to Marion being cast as John Dillinger's girlfriend in Michael Mann's big budget gangster film "Public Enemies" in 2009. With an Oscar under her belt and now starring opposite Johnny Depp and Christian Bale, Marion was now firmly established in Hollywood and proved herself just as adept as acting in English as she was in French.

After "Public Enemies", many roles followed, including a major role in the stylish musical "Nine" opposite Daniel Day Lewis and as mentioned in a previous blog, the lead part in David Lynch's short film "Lady Blue Shanghai" which was made for Dior. However, after "La Vie En Rose", her biggest film to date is  Christopher Nolan's "Inception" where she starred opposite Leonardo Di Caprio and which was one of the biggest grossing films of 2010. It went on to win three Oscars for sound, sound editing and visual effects in 2011.

Marion's next landmark film looks set to be another colloboration with Christopher Nolan in the third of his Batman films "The Dark Knight Rises" which is set to be released in 2012. Now established as one of the world's leading actresses, I expect even greater things from Marion Cottilard in the future.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Ken Russell - RIP

It is with great regret that I learned today that the British filmmaker Ken Russell has passed away at the age of 84. He was one of the most controversial English filmmakers of the late 1960s and 1970s and his films such as "Women In Love" and "The Devils" were ground breaking works that broke many taboos and are still being debated to this day.

"The Devils" from 1971 caused enormous controversy in its time and is about to be re-released in a new version. Based on true events, it depicts extreme behaviour surrounding nuns gripped by mass hysteria in 17th Century France where their behaviour was interpreted as being mass possessions by evil spirits, similar to the Salem witch trials in North America. The film was deemed to be blasphemous and its imagery of sexual violence led to the film being banned in many countries and heavily edited in others such as the UK. The release of the film in its full version has become a fascination with UK film critics such as Mark Kermode. There are many clips on the web featuring Mark talking about the film. Here's one where he discusses the film with well known British film producer Steve Wooley.

Though not as well known as his other films and probably made after he peaked as a director, I am quite fond of his 1986 film "Gothic". With considerable dramatic license, it interprets the events of the night in Switzerland when Mary Shelley dreamt up the story for her gothic novel "Frankenstein". Here's the trailer.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

David Lynch - From Eraserhead to Dior

One of the themes I have noticed in my recent blog postings is looking at people who's work I greatly admired in the 80s and taking a look at what they are doing now. And so to David Lynch, probably one of the most original and important American filmmakers in recent decades.

Like most people I first heard of David Lynch sometime in the early 80s when his film "Eraserhead" was being talked about and I think Channel 4 showed it late one night. It was a nightmarish trip through a surreal and bizarre black and white world and was unlike anything I had ever seen. The film was released in 1977 with Lynch spending almost a decade making it on a tiny budget. The film's imagery and style become famous. I found watching it both disturbing and compelling and even at times charming though some have likened viewing the film to being slowly tortured.

Big Hollywood films soon followed. Lynch directed "The Elephant Man" in 1980 and it became one of his most successful mainstream films. He then went on to direct the sci-fi epic "Dune" in 1984 but it was not regarded as a success and then he moved away from large budget Hollywood films and returned to making smaller, personal films. From this time came, perhaps his most famous film "Blue Velvet" in 1986. Both bizarre and unsettling like "EraserHead", it had a much more conventional style and narrative that mainstream audiences could accept. Set in smalltown American, teenager Kyle MacLachlan discovers a severed human ear and becomes embroiled in a dark and disturbing world of unhinged criminals that exists alongside the idyllic American way of life that epitomises the rest of the town.

"Blue Velvet" was an arthouse hit around the world and Lynch followed it with "Wild At Heart" in 1990. An intense, violent and exhilerating road movie with Nicholas Cage and Laura Dern which was one of his most successful films and brought his name into the mainstream again. The TV series "Twin Peaks" gave Lynch his biggest audiences as it was a worldwide hit. First aired in 1990, there was two series and a spin-off film "Twin Peaks - Fire Walk WIth Me" (1992). The series was a huge success around the world and was listed by Time magazine in its list of best TV shows of all time.

Lynch returned to making small off-beat feature films and in the 90s directed films such as "Lost Highway" (1997) and "The Straight Story" (1999). However it was the release of "Mulholland Drive" in 2001 that for me, marked a true return to form for David Lynch. The feature film was originally a TV series that got cancelled so from this wreckage, Lynch produced a beguiling and haunting thriller set in Los Angeles that felt like a cross between "Blue Velvet" and "Twin Peaks". It got nominated for an Oscar for best director for the film and is perhaps his last mainstream success.

Lynch, like many other filmmakers became very interested in new digital video cameras which became available from the late 1990s onwards and which filmmakers around the world were using to create microbudget features films which could not have been made otherwise. Lynch was impressed by this new technology and started shooting films on digital video. In 2007 he proclaimed ""Film is like a dinosaur in a tar pit. People might be sick to hear that because they love film, just like they loved magnetic tape." In the previous year, he directed the feature "Inland Empire" on digital video. The film was one of his most surreal and unsettling with many scenes reminding me of his very first feature "EraserHead". The filmed starred his long term collaborator Laura Dern and though not a mainstream success (nor intended to be one) it did well on the festival and arthouse circuit and the DVD was probably bought by most David Lynch fans such as me, around the world.

To date, "Inland Empire" has been David Lynch's last feature film. I hope there will be more but in the meantime, he has been busy making many experimental short pieces which leads me onto the last David Lynch film I saw and which like most of his work, I found oddly compelling and intriguing. David Lynch was commissioned by fashion house Dior to make a short film for the Internet featuring one of their handbags. He cast Oscar winning French actress Marion Cotillard in the lead and shot in the ultra-modern setting of Shanghai's skyscrapers. The result is pure Lynch, stylish, strangely beautiful, hypnoptic but all permeated with a deep sense of unease. Enjoy "Lady Blue Shanghai".

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Rutger with a Shotgun

Rutger Hauer is an actor of some distinction, like Michael Biehn who I have already written about, Rutgar has appeared in two of my favourite films from the 1980s, namely "BladeRunner" (1982) and "The Hitcher" (1986) and he seemed to specialise in playing mesmerising but disturbed or damaged characters.

Rutger is originally from Holland and appeared in the early Dutch films of the film maker Paul Verhoeven, films such as "Soldier of Orange (1977). Of course Verhoeven later moved to Hollywood and became well known for big budget films such as "Robocop", "Total Recall" and "Basic Instinct". In the cult hit "The Hitcher", Hauer played the sinister highhiker who gets offered a lift by a young man and then proceeds to terrorise him as he embarks on a killing spree. There was a forgettable remake a few years back but it simplly could not compete with Hauer's complex, edgey and unsettling performance in the original.

Hauer appeared in many other films throughout the 1990s and 00s taking smaller or cameo roles in large films such as "Sin City" (2005) or leading roles in disappointing low budget films such as "Omega Doom" (1996). However, now aged 67, Rutger has gone and surprised everyone by delivering another stunning performance in this year's cult hit "Hobo With A Shotgun". The film is one of the most outrageous films I have seen in recent years with extreme over the top violence and cruelty and with a reverence to the exploitation and grindhouse movies of the 1970s. Shot in a grungey style with garish colours and stylised acting, the world presented on screen is like a nightmarish version of 1980s America where crime is rampant and the only ones in charge are the most violent criminals. Rutger is a homeless man who is tortured and scarred by a pair of criminals. After being dumped and left for dead, he takes revenge and embarks on a bloody vigilante campaign to clean up the streets. The film's comic strip violence reminded my of Verhoeven's original "RoboCop" and playing the hobo seemed to be the perfect part for a well aged Rutger Hauer. After all these years, Rutger still has it.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

The Sound of Silents

There is a lot of interest at the moment in a new film called "The Artist", it is a modern film but it is shot in the style of a 1920s silent Hollywood film. It won a prize at Cannes and critics like Mark Kermode have commended it. From watching the trailer below, it seems to cleverly capture the exuberant look and feel of 1920s America, so it got me thinking about silent cineme and doing a whistlestop tour of early cinema.

Up until 1927 with the release of "The Jazz Singer", the first feature length American film with sychronised sound, all cinema was silent. So for around 30 years, since the first films in 1895, people were used to seeing cinema as silent moving images, sometimes accompanied by a live pianist who played incidental music. The early attempts were very simple but became famous, films like the Lumiere Brothers' (who invented cinema) "Train Arriving At A Station". The Lumiere Brothers shot a multitude of films around the world as they travelled with their new cinematograph invention and filmed cities and people everywhere. Audiences were amazed by seeing even the most mundane aspects of everyday life shown in a moving image. In 1897, they even came to Dublin where I live and made the short film below showing the Dublin Fire Brigade.

The Lumiere Brothers saw film as simply a scientific curiosity and had no interest in using it to create drama or fantasy but others thought differently. George Melies was the Tim Burton of his day and soon hijacked this new medium to create fantastical films of extraordinary imagination and imagery. He made hundreds of silent films, many now lost but his most famous is still "A Trip to the Moon" (1902) perhaps the first science fiction film showing a group of people taking a rocket to the moon. Film quickly became the medium of drama and comedy and it flourished in places like the East Coast of America where newly arrived immigrants could afford the modest entry fees of early cinemas and didn't need to understand English to enjoy this new medium. Film makers in England and America began experimenting with how films were shot and discovered techniques such as the close-up and editing between different viewpoints on a scene and then editing between two different places or even time periods. All of these new techniques crystallised in the work of the famous American director D. W. Griffith who combined all of these elements and created the first modern feature film as we know it with "Birth of A Nation" in 1915. The film was 3 hours long and had a sweeping narrative that depicted the American civil war, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and unfortunately the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. Though it was a massive commercial success, its glorification of the Ku Klux Klan and its depiction of racist stereotypes has tainted the film and it is now unacceptable to a modern audience. The Ku Klux Klan liked the film so much that they used it as a method of indoctrination for many decades later. Griffith's next film was the sprawling "Intolerance" (1916) which at three and half hours long was one of the most grandiose films every made in Hollywood. It depicted several interwoven stories from different time periods in human history from ancient Babylon to the time of Christ to contemporary America. Griffith constructed massives sets of ancient Babylon, that have since passed into Hollywood legend. However, despite is grandeur and visual sophistication, audiences found the parallel narratives hard to follow and it was not the big commercial success that Grifftith had hoped for.

In Europe, after World War 1, the Germans were doing novel things in cinema involving shadows and bizarre sets. It was a way of using the world shown on screen to reflect the inner mind of the tormented characters in their films and was known as German expressionism. Also a movement in painting, German expressionism in cinema involved stylised acting, lighting and bizarre set construction that now seems dated and just plain strange but from that movement, one film is remembered more than any other as it was the first telling of the Dracula story on screen. The German filmmaker F.W. Murnau made the vampire film "Nosferatu" in 1922 and its imagery is still haunting and unforgettable and it remains one of the most striking film interpretations of Bram Stoker's "Dracula" novel.

There are many other landmark silent films I could mention, films such as Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" and Erich Von Stroheim's "Greed" but it was in Russia that silent film reached its zenith as an art form. After World War 1, the Russians began experimenting with new ways of cutting films together. Pioneers such as Lev Kuleshov found that by intercutting different shots together you could create a meaning that was not in the original images filmed. For example, you could show an image of a bowl of soup and then cut to a shot of a man looking on and you might interpret that sequence as depicting someone who was looking at the soup and was hungry though in reality the actual shots could be totally unrelated. Alfred Hitchcock gives an amusing explanation of the Kuleshov effect in the clip below.

Sergie Eisenstein was a student of Kuleshov and took his theories and expanded them to create films based on a form of editing (or montage) that cut together striking imagery to create emotionally powerful and politically loaded sequences which took the world by storm. His most famous film is "Battleship Potemkin" (1925). The scene showing the massacre of civilians on the Odessa steps is one of the most famous in cinema history and was referenced in modern films such Brian De Palma's "The Untouchables" (1987). However, for me it was the film he did after this, "Oktober" in 1927 which pushed silent film to its limits. The film depicts the events of the Russian revolution and has an intensity and speed of editing that would not be seen again until perhaps many decades later in the 1960s. It was made in 1927, the same year that "The Jazz Singer" came out and which marked the end of the silent period. So for me "Oktober" represented the pinnacle of silent cinema and was the last great silent film to be made.  Here's a unforgettable sequence from "Oktober" where the city officials order the raising of the bridges to quell public rioting. Everyone remembers the white horse...