Tuesday 18 October 2016

Blood Money - A History of of the First Teen Slasher Film Cycle

In this book Richard Nowell challenges some of the dominant understandings of the slasher film, while providing a model for charting the rise and fall of a film cycle.

Nowell argues that Carol J Clover's position in Men, Women and Chainsaws is less satisfactory than Vera Dika's. This is becase Clover's reading is based upon selective readings of a comparatively small sample and somewhat inchoate films.

Contra Clover, Nowell contends that slasher films had a broader audience than young males, with filmmakers and advertising targetting both genders.

To help show this Nowell performs a content analysis of key texts such Halloween and Friday the 13th. In addition to simply counting the number of deaths, he charts various features – the victim's gender, whether there was a scene of stalking, whether the death was protracted, etc.

Nowell also suggests that the influence of Halloween in the development of the slasher film was less than that of Friday the 13th. The difference between the two films stems from how they were distributed: Halloween was distributed independently, Friday the 13th by major studios, Paramount in the US and Warners internatiolly. The advantages of being distributed by a major were their ability to strike a greater number of prints to distribute to theatres and a larger advertising budget – indeed with many slashers the amount of money spent on advertising by the studio would outweigh the cost of film to make and acquire.

While selling a film to a major studio as a negative pickup meant backers would get a return on their investment in short order, it also meant that profits went to the studio.

This raises questions in relation to the different contexts of other national cinemas. In the case of Italy, for instance, there would appear to have been a similar situation in terms of production. For, as Christopher Wagstaff indicates, the industry was based around a large number of small scale producers, with production companies sometimes being established to make a single film or relying on the profits from one film to finance the next. What was different, however, was the relative absence of anything comparable to the Hollywood studio system – this despite the efforts of Dino De Laurentiis and Carlo Ponti.

The most important aspect of Nowell's study is, however, his emphasis upon the film cycle. A film cycle starts and ends when production of a particular film type – slasher, western, animal comedy, etc. – rises above what Nowell terms “base level”. Here we might consider the numbers of spaghetti westerns made in 1964 compared to 1965, or the number of gialli made in 1969 compared to 1970.

Nowell's model of the film cycle draws upon the American west for its terminology and conceptualisation. Simultaneously, however, he also emphasises the disproportionate importance of Canadian productions to the slasher cycle.

The first of Nowell's concepts is the “pioneer production”, exemplified by the (Canadian) Black Christmas. The film, however, was not particularly successful commercially and so failed to provide the “trailblazer hit” required to inaugurate a cycle. Halloween, a “prospector production” was a trailblazer hit, albeit one whose impact was reduced on account of its independent release. Friday the 13th was a “prospector production” and the wake of imitators following in its wake were “carpentbagger cash-ins”. This increase in base level production was unsustainable, resulting in the end of the cycle.

Applying these idea to the giallo we might consider Blood and Black Lace as a pioneer production which failed to become a trailblazing hit. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage provided the trailblazer hit, with subsequent films with animals in their titles (The Bloodstained Butterfly, Lizard in a Woman's Skin etc.) prospector productions. The era of carpetbagger productions appeas to coincide with the rise of the poliziotto in 1973-75. Here we might consider the emergence of hybrid thriller/cop films like like What Have You Done to Your Daughters and Suspicious Death of a Minor, with their professional rather than amateur detectives. Another indicator of the shift is the work of Umberto Lenzi, with his shift from the thriller to the crime film, and the presumably poor box-office of Eyeball (another animal referencing title in the original Italian – Gatti rossi in un labirinto di vetro).

Friday 24 June 2016

A Question

Are there any filmmaker/critic books where there is a real dialogue between them, one that sees the critic and the filmmaker go at one another in a dialogical or dialectic way?

This is prompted by reading Ebert on Scorsese and wanting to see Ebert ask Scorsese questions about Taxi Driver such as:

The Travis/Betsy date at a porn film: Is the context that of porno chic or afterwards? When Schrader wrote the script was it porno chic, so not so strange for a guy to take a gal to a hardcore film, with the potential for both to show their sophistication, but by the time the film was released had it been rewritten with a post-'Throat Cut' hardcore ghettoisation?

Does Scorsese know when the porn film within the film, Language of Love, played in 42nd Street grindhouses and the version it screened in? Did he ever go see it? Did he choose it as the diegetic porn text and the images we see and hear with any particular motivation/reference?

How did Schrader feel about Scorsese’s deciding to have Travis not only kill guys who are black? (Which spirals into another set of questions.)

Did Scorsese ever think of doing a fuck you to the MPAA etc. and not toning down the colour of the blood in the final showdown?

Was Romero a truer heir to Powell for not compromising with the MPAA on Dawn of the Dead?

Something with Godard in French maybe? Or Pasolini in Italian?

Tuesday 21 June 2016

Golgo 13

This live-action adaptation of Takao Saito’s manga stars Ken Takakura as the titular assassin -- his pseudonym refers to Golgotha and Judas Iscariot’s role as the 13th man, the betrayer -- who is hired to identify and kill crime boss Max Boa.

Golgo's employer knows that Boa’s base of operations is Iran and has provided Golgo with photographs of several men bearing Boa’s name along with a somewhat implausible cover story of being on his honeymoon with his Iranian wife. But otherwise Boa is about as mysterious as Golgo himself.

The Iranian aspect is where Golgo 13 gets interesting beyond its Japanese action-movie formula. For we have a Japanese lead and crew filming in pre-revolutionary Iran with a cast that is otherwise Iranian -- and it is all dubbed into Japanese.

The closest point of comparison I can think of is Takashi Miike’s Sukiyaki Western Django, with its largely Japanese cast playing cowboys and speaking in phonetic English, except that here things are done without any obvious sense of parody or irony.

You’re not supposed to notice or bother when a car chase sees one vehicle, formerly containing four men, suddenly be empty when it crashes and explodes, nor that Golgo sticks out like a sore thumb as what seems to be the only East Asian man in the entirety of Iran, nor that the two hitmen brought in from France by one of Boa’s underlings to take him out look utterly un-French.

Instead it’s more a case of sit back and enjoy the unpretetentious does-what-it-says on the tin action, along with some impressive vistas that would not look out of place in a John Ford or Sergio Leone western, or the intrinsic documentary value of seeing then-up-to-the-minute images of westernising/modernising Iran inadvertently juxtaposed those that would become predominant a few years later.

Besides, Ken Takakura is the sort of guy -- think Toshiro Mifune through Clint Eastwood and back again -- who just has that effortless coolness to him...

Macbeth Unhinged

Watching a film adaptation of Macbeth, or any similar canonical work of theatre or literature, is an intrinsically different viewing experience from the usual. Knowing what’s going to happen, more or less – the only omission I noted here was Birnam Wood coming to life – you find yourself devoting a greater proportion of your attention to the mise-en-scene, the performances, the use of sound, and so forth.

Scotsman Angus Macfadyen’s adaptation – in addition to directing he also plays the title role – relocates the play in time to the present day, as signalled by the likes of African-American actor Harry Lennix playing Banquo; guns co-existing with daggers; magazine covers presenting Lady Macbeth as a style icon; and, above all, the locations for much of the narrative being the interiors of black limousines – that of Macbeth’s has the personalised number plate Lady Mcb, a nice touch that shows the power dynamics of their relationship before we get into the familiar text.

This stylistic device means that Macfadyen makes extensive use of close-ups and shot-reverse-shot, closing the play in rather than opening it out. The confined interiors make one think that much of the time the film must have been constructed in the editing rather than in the camera, with the actors delivering their performances individually rather than playing off one another as they were recorded by multiple cameras.

This sense of the importance of the editors’ contributions is further enhanced by the frequent use of superimpositions. These, it is important to note, are not used in a particularly obvious or consistent way – it is not that the ghost Banquo appears to Macbeth as a superimposition, for instance, instead being rendered normally to him but invisible to his wife.

The film’s sense of place is more ambiguous. Exteriors were shot in Virginia USA, but whether they are supposed to be Scotland, New York, or wherever is difficult to say. Being grey – except for three brief moments, two being gunshots vaguely recalling Hitchcock’s Spellbound, the film is shot entirely in monochrome – flat and featureless, they have the characteristics of what Gilles Deleuze described as the any-space-whatever.

This impression is strengthened by the way Macfadyen tends to shoot the exteriors, one that contrasts with the aforementioned limousine scenes, through use of more theatre-style long shots and tableaux. Suffice to say that if the Virginia film board were hoping that this film would showcase their state as an attractive place to visit or film in – unless you wanted to make a Stalker or suchlike – they probably didn’t get their money’s worth.

In sum, an interesting experiment, but not the sort of adaptation you’d want to use in a high school English class.

Tuesday 3 May 2016

Comics / Comix / XXX

The Edinburgh International Film Festival is doing one of its retrospectives on the live action comic book adaptation. It is focusing upon the 1960s and 1970s. Diabolik and Baba Yaga will be shown, though unfortunately a Tarkan or Killing seems unlikely.

In relation to this I was amused to discover Erotik, a hardcore fumetti Diabolik rip-off cum (groan!) parody. Or Not Diabolik XXX, a Porn Parody, avant la lettre.

Thursday 15 October 2015

The Camp on Blood Island

In the dying days of the Second World War the inmates in a Japanese prisoner of war camp learn that Japan has lost the war. This news is not a cause for jubilation, however, since the commander of the camp, certain to be executed for war crimes if Japan loses, will kill every prisoner, man, woman and child should he find out.

The strengths of Val Guest's The Camp on Blood Island (1958) are much the same as those of his other war is hell in the pacific entry Yesterday's Enemy (1959).

The director's quasi-documentary style is a positive, even if not as well realised as its successor due to an increasing focus upon action film elements later on.

So too, without reservation, are the sweaty atmosphere and tension that he conjures up, and the performances he elicits from a talented cast that includes Hammer stalwarts such as Andre Morell and Richard Wordsworth.

The writing nicely explores the ethical dilemmas facing those in command, both military and civilian, without didacticism or reducing these characters to mouthpieces.

This, however, also leads to one of the negatives, that the rank and file are again given less characterisation and attention – when six men are executed in reprisals for an escape all they are is a number, devoid of names and of individual identities.

Another flaw, at least for some, is likely to be the casting of actors of other ethnicities, such as the Anglo-English Marne Maitland and the white British Michael Ripper, as Japanese soldiers.

Here, however, I'd say it is important to consider the film as a product of its time and place and to recognise that, much like its companion piece, there is considerable thought-provoking ambiguity throughout.

So, for instance, Ripper's cameo role is one of a man in the wrong place at the wrong time, fated to die through no fault of his own.

Similarly, if the female prisoner who consorts with one of the soldiers is played by an East Asian actor, it is not that her character is set against the others by race, given that their numbers including other non-whites, rather by her placing of self above collective.

(As an aside, the film made me think about present-day debates around casting? Does being an actor and thus by definition playing people other than oneself render them irrelevant? Is the main issue an imbalance of power between majorities and minorities in who can play who? Is there a difference when the character being played is an actual historical figure or a religious one believed to be real?)

Wednesday 14 October 2015

Dracula and Son

Dracula and his son Ferdinand are forced to flee Transylvania after the communists come to power and lay claim to their castle. Fleeing to the west they are separated, Dracula winding up in London and Ferdinand in Paris. They are then reuinited when Dracula goes to Paris to work on a film. It is, of course, a horror film, its star having established himself as an actor whose gimmick, as far as the public are concerned, is that he believes himself to be a vampire. Initially father and son are happy to be reunited, but then come into conflict over a woman who just happens to be the spitting image of one of Dracula's brides – the one who was Ferdinand's mother!

As is well known, Christopher Lee was reluctant to reprise his career-making role as Dracula (1958) for Hammer, apparently fearing that he could become typecast in the role as the previous generation's Dracula, Bela Lugosi, had been.

What is less well known is that Lee quite happily traded upon his star persona in Italian productions such as the spoof Hard Times for Vampires (1959) and the Carmilla adaptation Crypt of the Vampire (1964) before his eventual return to Hammer and Dracula for Dracula Prince of Darkness (1965).

As is well known, Lee thereafter reprised the role for Hammer, but with increasing unhappiness at the conditions under which he was working. Eventually he refused to re-appear as the character following The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973), thus compelling forcing the studio to find another actor to play the role in The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (1974).

What is less well known is that he again played Dracula - here.

Some of Dracula and Son's gags recall earlier horror comedies, as with some invisible in the mirror scenes reminiscent of Dance of the Vampires (1968), along with the deployment of a hammer and sickle as a crucifix in the manner of The She Beast (1966) during the Blood for Dracula (1974) recalling eviction scene.

These are, however, offset by the way in which the central self-referential conceit in turn prefigures Shadow of the Vampire (1999) by a good quarter century. (A vampire pretending to be a human pretending to be a vampire – how avant-garde – as Interview with the Vampire's Claudia put it.)

In addition plenty of further laughs come from the way the film-makers explore the vampires' plight in the modern world, as with Ferdinand's needing to find a job where he is on a constant night shift and general reluctance to feed upon living human victims resulting in frequent stomach rumbling and failed attempts at raiding a hospital blood bank, working at a slaughterhouse and suchlike.

Lee's playing with his image is also a lot of fun, as is the all-in oedipal conflict between the two Draculas, while the early scenes set a couple of hundred years back prove surprisingly evocative as straight gothic romance, replete with fearful coach drivers, a creepy castle and the like.

Probably not Black Park, but certainly evocative of it.

Lee does his thing

Fans of French arthouse fare may care to note that Fat Girl director Catherine Breillat and her sister Marie Helene appear as the Draculas' love interests, making one wish that they had worked with Jean Rollin in the manner of the Catherine and Pony Castel, to further round out that familiar art/trash circuit.

I watched Dracula and Son, whose dialogue is a mixture of English, French and Romanian, in a German edition. This in itself was of interest when it came to the credits, in that these credited not only the performers but also their German dubbing voices.