Jarmusch goes vamp: Only Lovers Left Alive

Only Lovers Left Alive,

Dir: Jim Jarmusch,

Starring: Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, Mia Wasikowska, John Hurt

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Adam (Hiddlestone) and Eve are vampires, husband and wife, lovers for centuries, but sometimes spending long periods apart, she currently living in Tangiers, walking the night-time streets of North Africa and paying visits on a very old friend (John Hurt), who happens to be the playwright Marlowe. Adam, a gifted musician, has a touch of the Byronic about him, now living in a decaying mansion on a deserted street of an abandoned neighbourhood of Detroit, surrounded by his instruments and his music, but slipping into a brooding melancholia, withdrawing from the world, refusing to even release any of the new music he’s created, hiding from fans who try to seek out his hiding place. His depression at the world after centuries, of the masses of humanity (who he refers to as “the zombies”) who seem oblivious to the wonders they could create and instead seem hell-bent on poisoning both themselves and their world. His ennui has driven him to consider a possible method of suicide before Eve, sensing his depression and need crosses the world to be with him (no small thing when you can only risk travelling on planes which fly and arrive during the hours of darkness).

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But this is a Jim Jarmusch film, and as such the narrative really isn’t the most important element; like the Coens movies Jarmusch creates films where a synopsis of plot (like the first paragraph here) only tell you a tiny bit about the film – as with the Coens these are films to be experienced, not just watched. There’re some beautifully crafted scenes and shots, the cinematography is, as usual for Jarmusch, beautiful, often luscious, some scenes posed almost like an old oil painting, beautifully composed, others employ unusual angles and tracking shots (such as slow, close up following the characters as they drink blood and sink backwards in pleasure, the camera moving with them), the nocturnal streets of Tangiers lit by streetlights are intoxicating, promising exotic wonder but also danger, even the abandoned streets of whole deserted neighbourhoods around Adam’s home in Detroit have a sad crumbling beauty as he drives through them in his vintage Jaguar XJS by night.

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The pace is relaxed, languid even, frequently moving like a slow, hashish-inspired dream (again not unusual for Jarmusch of course). What’s the rush when you have centuries? Art and culture and the importance they play in making life (even long, immortal life) not just bearable but worthwhile play a major part – for Adam it’s his music, Marlowe, unsurprisingly writing (there’s some nice dark humour about his mutterings about Shakespeare), Eve seems to soak up everything around her in the most sensual manner, Swinton evincing almost childlike delight at all manner of things, from the howls of feral dogs in abandoned Detroit streets to Adam’s old instruments (she has an uncanny ability to date them just by their touch) or soaking in literature (a beautiful scene sees her devouring pages of books at rapid speed, hand tracing down the lines rapidly as her vampire senses take in a page in a couple of seconds, the fingers moving left to right, then on to Arabic and Chinese, reading the other way, the expression of pleasure on her face and in her eyes). Her home in Tangiers is littered with books everywhere (reminds me of my own home on that score…).

This could have been a gloomy, brooding piece – something that’s perhaps been done too often in vamp fiction in recent decades, the oh so weary immortal tired of it all – but actually it’s romantic and frequently touching. Adam and Eve’s centuries-long romance is rather lovely; she senses his depression and knows she needs him, as she explores his current home she notices a very early photograph of the pair of them from the 1860s, a wedding photo – their third wedding, she comments with a smile, and the scenes of them wrapped around each other slumbering through the daylight hours is very romantic (both preternaturally slender and pale – good use of Swinton’s ethereal presence and quality). There’s also a seam of gentle, playful humour – he shows her a vintage guitar he purchased, she runs her hands lovingly, slowly, over it – a 1905 LePaul, Eve tells him. Oh, she’s an old one, Adam comments. Darling, your dressing gown is a century older… And there’s a nice scene where Eve, to cheer up Adam, freezes some Type O blood he got from the hospital on sticks to eat like ice lollies.

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And for all their immortality it’s clear that really they are as vulnerable as mere mortals, rarely sinking their fangs into victims anymore, partly because unlike a few centuries ago you can’t just drain someone and throw the body away in the street or river, it will be investigated, partly because of that poisoning Adam so despises, the contamination also in the blood of many, which makes them ill. They rely on specialised medical sources who can provide pure blood for a price, anything which might reveal them to authorities or threaten their food source and turns out they’re as vulnerable as anyone else… It’s a lovely, soft, slow, languid, sensual piece – if you’re not a Jarmusch fan then it won’t convert you, but you’re missing out on a lovely film from one of our consistently interesting directors, not to mention some luscious visuals and an intriguing soundtrack that stays in your head long after the film finishes.

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Beauty

This short film by Rino Stefano Tagliafierro is stunning – working through centuries of art in a few moments and using some subtle animation to bring it to life it raises questions about how humans perceive beauty; as it progresses it becomes darker, even the lusciously painted nudes start to become a little disturbing as they hint at more than beauty but a darker sensuality, and as it moves into scenes not only examining external beauty but within the body it also becomes a little horrific. But it’s all fascinating…

B E A U T Y – dir. Rino Stefano Tagliafierro from Rino Stefano Tagliafierro on Vimeo.

The World Outside My Window

This is simply stunning, brief though it is, a timelapse of footage shot of our world rotating below the International Space Station (ISS), all shot in beautifully crisp HD, creating some wonderfully sharp, clear images of our planet from several dozens miles above the atmosphere. Best viewing experience is to select the fullscreen option and just glory in it for a few brief moments…

The World Outside My Window – Time-Lapses of Earth from the ISS from David Peterson on Vimeo.

Gravity

Gravity
Directed Alfonso Cuarón
Starring Sandra Bullock, George Clooney

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I’ve been eager to see Gravity for some time – Alfonso Cuarón’s take on PD James novel The Children of Men was a remarkable and powerful movie. This, originally, was to be his ‘quick’ movie after that long slog, but ended up taking several years instead, not least because they had to invent whole new ways of shooting to create the remarkable visual effects. Creating the effect that a person or a ship is in space is not new, of course, it’s been done with varying degrees of success for decades on the big screen, from the realistic approach of 2001 to the scientifically silly but visually wonderful style of Star Wars. Gravity follows more in the realistic mode of 2001 – no deep bass rumbles of mighty ships in the void (where there isn’t any atmosphere to transmit sound) and no sudden and graceful movements of winged craft that fly like planes (even though that is not how you maneuver in space), instead the only sound is inside your helmet or radio, movement is in line with Newton’s laws and the way a body travels in a gravity free, airless environment.

GRAVITY

What it does differently from 2001 and other films which tried to portray space exploration as it really is though, is the depiction of being in a zero-gee environment. Cuarón and his team had to really battle to come up with filming systems to allow them to make their actors look like they truly are in a gravity free environment, and ye celluloid gods but it paid off. In fact, and I say this as someone who has been fascinated by space exploration since he was a very small boy, studied it, read about, imagined it, this paid off so well that you could be forgiven for thinking it was actually shot on location in Earth orbit. Yes, it really is that realistic looking. And it is also utterly ravishing, visually, right from an opening shot of a glowing Earth below a team of astronauts from a Shuttle working on the Hubble Space Telescope. Bullock’s specialist, a scientist brought into NASA to work on this particular upgrade because of her technical skills but not really an astronaut (apart from basic training), while Clooney’s veteran astronaut on his final flight is happily trying out a new design of MMU (Maned Maneuvering Unit – a jetpack for space, effectively) and flitting around the team. The glowing Earth below them fills the cinema screen and is simply beautiful, awesome in the proper use of the word.

But while the visual aspect of Gravity is remarkable and stunning (even the 3D, something I generally dislike in live action films, is excellent and worth the usual eye strain and headache) this isn’t just an effect fest, there is a story here and it is one which is incredibly tense and indeed intense, seriously gripping the arms of your chair stuff, right the way through. When Mission Control calls a warning to the team that a satellite has been destroyed and the debris is sweeping around the orbit towards them events rapidly spiral out of control into a desperate, against the odds attempt at survival.

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And survival in an environment no human – no creature on our planet at all – evolved to survive in. It’s a deadly environment that we’ve somehow pushed ourselves and our technology to allow us to live and work in over the last half decade (and it’s worth remembering that in thousands of years of human history it is only a few dozen people over the last sixty years who have gone into space). And it anything goes wrong it can be fatal so very, horribly quickly. Even tiny pieces of debris, even just a bolt, travelling at twenty thousand miles and hour will have such kinetic force it can tear through a ship or a space station like an anti-tank round. And all of a sudden an intricate ship or station, assembled from so many precise components and painstakingly engineered and constructed to be just right to support human life in this environment is turned into Swiss cheese…

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I won’t ruin it for you by expanding any further on how it develops from this accident. Suffice to say it is edge of the seat stuff, beautifully depicted, while the interaction between Bullock’s damaged scientist and Clooney’s veteran of the space programme, even in desperate straits, is perfectly handled (Clooney projects that image most of us have of the calm, unflappable NASA old school astronaut who takes the most catastrophic failures in his stride). This may be vast scale, big-screen, effects-laden storytelling, but it does not neglect either story or character and I found it profoundly satisfying on the emotional level as well as the spectacle. There are some nice nods to other iconic moments from space films tucked away in among the tense moments – a scene where Bullock floats in an airlock, shimmying out of her space suit recalls Barbarella, Bullock in vest and shorts in the space station reminds me of Ripley in the shuttle at the end of Alien, Bullock again floating, exhausted, in an airlock, the sunrise from space glowing through the window port as he floats in zero gee, curling up almost foetal after surviving one part of her ordeal, the cords around her like an umbilical coil, making her seem at the same time both childlike, a newborn and at the same time recalls the ‘star child’ from 2001 and the transformational power of such experiences and travel. It’s gripping right to the very last and as I said the visuals are simply breath-taking – this is one you want to see on the big screen, not on DVD later on, watch it on a big cinema screen and let yourself be drawn into it until you feel you’re there, floating above the world. An utterly remarkable piece of film-making.

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And I have to add, on a personal note, those visuals played right into my life-long fascination with space travel; that screen-filling vista of the Earth revolving made my pulse race, just as it always has since I was a kid, at the thought of going into space. I had the same feeling watching In the Shadow of the Moon a few years ago; those Saturn V rockets lit up and my pulse went with them, the same excitement and longing I’ve had since I was five years old, in my little astronaut playsuit and helmet, sitting in an empty box for a spaceship, with an imagination as big as the universe. And even after watching a film like this showing the dangers I know that if I were offered the chance I would go in a heartbeat, that it’s the trip I have always wanted to make since I was that wee boy in his astronaut suit, playing and dreaming; I’m literally a child of the space age, born at the peak of the Apollo programme, and I’m forever disappointed that I’ll almost certainly never get to experience it first hand…

Big Bad Wolves

Big Bad Wolves,
Directed by Aharon Keshales, Navot Papushado
Starring: Guy Adler, Lior Ashkenazi, Dvir Benedek

big bad wolves film poster

Here’s a rather unusual and utterly compelling film from Israel which came my way courtesy of the folks behind the UK Jewish Film Festival (, which runs from 30th October to the 17th November, Big Bad Wolves screens there on November 14th): Big Bad Wolves. Directed by Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado it has been doing the film festival circuit, where it has been picking up some good word of mouth, not least from a certain Quentin Tarantino. Partaking of black comedy, crime and horror and with a central premise that revolves around the murder of a child I really wasn’t sure what to expect from this film at all – as it turned out I sat glued to the screen throughout.

The film starts with an almost idyllic scene of childhood play, a group of kids having fun together, playing hide and seek in the woods, two young girls happily running around looking for a spot to conceal themselves while their friend counts down to his search. It should be a happy scene, but despite the playful children there is a shadow looming even in these opening few minutes, from the ominous music to other signifiers – the little girl in red skipping through the woods instantly hints at not just a fairy tale edge, but the darker version of the old fairy tales, the type which were much nastier, murkier and often bloodier, before they were cleaned up to become the tales we tell children today. This dark fairy tale vibe continues when the children think they have found their young friend’s hiding place, but all they find is a single red shoe – a disturbing play on the ruby red slipper – which belonged to her; the girl in the red dress is gone…

This opening credits sequence is the trigger for the later events, with a team of Israeli detectives trailing the only suspect. There is no proof and the only circumstantial evidence is one child who thinks they saw a man matching this suspect’s description near the area. But, as some detectives do, our cops have decided already, with no evidence, that this man – a local teacher, as it turns out – is guilty, and they are going to get a confession out of him, even if they have to beat it out of him. However, they are not aware a kid has seen them dragging the teacher into an abandoned building and is covertly filming this abuse, which finds its way onto the internet in short order. The detective, Miki, who decided on this course of action is busted, not just for his abuse of power, but because their heavy-handed actions mean that the suspect – their only suspect – has to be released and left alone. Shortly after this the girl’s body is found – minus her head – and Miki is, understandably, kicked off the force.

This does not stop Miki though – he is still convinced the quiet teacher is his man. Word gets out about the suspicions – still with no proof – and he is suspended from his school work, his reputation ruined through only hearsay. Miki begins to tail him on his own time, planning to kidnap his suspect, take him to a remote location and torture the confession he desires from him. What he doesn’t realise is that at the same time Tsvika is following them both – the father of the murdered girl, with an agenda of his own, and now he has both the teacher and Miki in his sights with a cold, implacable determination to do what he thinks he has the right to do…

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I’m not going to blow any of this hugely compelling and incredibly tense film for you by risking any possible spoilers. Suffice to say what follows is bloody, painful and excruciating. With no actual proof, just a child’s possible description of someone who passed by the area, actions are set in motion, judgements are made based on anger and revenge rather than rational thought, let alone due process of law. And the viewer is almost complicit in this, the film-makers cleverly playing on competing and contrasting emotions on the part of the audience. On the one hand we’re utterly horrified at the thought of using torture on someone, especially when that person may well be innocent and have no confession to make. But at the same time if this man has committed the abuse then slow murder of a child there is a part of the audience that also wants to see him suffer and pay for his crimes. And since we don’t know for a long time which side of the innocent-guilty divide our little teacher stands on this creates an excruciating emotional tension which leave you totally immersed in the story.

The film leavens these dark moments with a black sense of humour which means that despite the violence and the heavy duty emotional subject matter there are lighter moments and scenes to offer some relief. There are also, like any good fairy tale, layers of metaphor layered through the story. On the simplest level there is the obvious dichotomy between straight out vengeance and the civil rule of law which all societies have to live by or else descend into the chaos of blood-grudges and lynchings. We may want the bad guy – assuming he is the bad guy – to pay, but we know it has to be by the book, no matter how much we may want to give in to the animal urge to simply hurt back (and what if we are wrong? That’s why we need courts, evidence, trials). Behind this you could also read some of these events for a commentary on the post-9/11 world, where even supposedly civil, law-abiding democracies have secretly reverted to the vile practice of torture to extract confessions, or even on the relationship between Israelis and Arabs and how easily those in power can abuse that power over others (always in the name of the greater good, of course, they still see themselves as the ‘good guys’). This is reinforced by Tsvika relocating to a remote home in a mostly Arab area, secluded, where he can plan to carry out his ‘interrogation’ without anyone nearby hearing the screams…

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It’s a hugely satisfying and gripping film, twisting the audience emotionally so they find themselves supporting both sides at differing points in the film, a real morality morass with no clear totally good or bad characters or motivations (the murdered girl’s father Tsvika acts with such quiet restraint rather than anger and shouting that he comes across as more terrifying than the supposed murderer in many scenes). The murders themselves happen off-screen, instead we get a description of them during the attempts to force a confession, and somehow this is even more horrifying, getting under the viewer’s skin more than a straight visualistion of the deaths may have done. Big Bad Wolves is stylish, satisfying, utterly compelling and it puts the audience through the emotional wringer. Seriously recommended.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

The Fifth Estate

fifth estate movie poster

I caught The Fifth Estate film this afternoon; I had my reservations that this fictional (based on true facts, as they say) take on Assange and WikiLeaks would not match the excellent We Steal Secrets documentary I saw at the Edinburgh Film Festival earlier this year. Especially as the trailer tried to make it look like a thrilling espionage flick, although I thought wait till I see it, trailers, after all, are often misleading, edited by marketing bods, not the film-makers. Plus, y’know, this film also boasted Benedict Cumberbatch and his cheekbones. So off to the cinema I went.

Sadly I have to say despite an (as usual) excellent performance from Cumberbatch (playing Julian Assange and bringing out his mix of both prophet and svengali like user and narcissist), my fears were confirmed – this was a dreadful, utterly cliche-ridden film. Within the first half hour I was tired of it and the hackneyed, poorly thought out and executed attempts to ‘sex up the dossier’ – retrieving information, posting it online, hacking, they don’t make for very exciting visuals. And how many times since the 80s have we seen Hollywood coming up with all sorts of stupid-looking attempts to make them look fast-paced, exciting, thrilling even? From Hackers to Swordfish Hollywood has an abysmal record on how to portray this kind of work on a screen. Don’t get me wrong, I do sympathise a bit, the film-makers want to make it look a bit sexier for the viewers but if they depict it realistically it won’t look that way. This is the same reason why almost every car shot in the petrol tank or driven off the road into a crash in Hollywood movies then explodes. They don’t in real life, but boy it looks more fun on the screen. But I would submit the sort of people who are interested in the WikiLeaks story do not need it to be Hollywoodized and are capable of accepting a reasonable depiction of information gathering and dissemination, so why the urge to make it look like this? It’s not a popcorn movie, for goodness sake.

So within the first thirty minutes lots of rapid cuts back and forth to try and create tension, the old rotate around the hacker quickly as they type away, have screens that have multiple windows streaming gobbledegook that is just nonsense, the old screen reflected in the lens of someone’s glasses and more shots anyone who has seen more than a few movies will recognise. There’s very little in the editing and cinematography that is interesting or unusual here, instead it lazily lifts already stereotypical ideas of how to show IT and hacking and recycles it, albeit with many more quick cuts. Although that said, the use of a large, dark office space repeatedly to symbolise how the organisation works (or doesn’t!) was not half bad.

So that style had me wanting to walk out after half an hour, but I stuck to it to see how the narrative would go. Sadly this fared no better – again to be fair this is a complex series of events and issues over years that had to be condensed down into a couple of hours running time, no simple task. So I accept streamlining of events and characters to try and fit into a film narrative, but sadly this is just to simplified. There is some attempt to show the moral quagmire of some of the events – yay, the good guys get inside secrets from a whistleblower and put it out there for all to read! But oops, they also put out documents naming people and their personal addresses, families, numbers, information that in the wrong hands could easily lead to them being hurt or worse. But again this is handled so ineptly it is clear the makers didn’t really know quite how to handle this film and also failed to have confidence in their audience, that the sort of cinema-goers who want to see a film based on this tale would be a bit better read and informed and would not need the events glammed up to keep them excited – as I said, this is not a spy thriller, for goodness sake.

The film also skips by the entire sexual assault matter Assange still has hanging over him (it gets a brief line in post-film credits) and poor Bradley Manning’s series of leaks which gave WikiLeaks its greatest coup and brought it to true world prominence via an alliance with the Guardian, Der Spiegel and New York Times is simply a device to push plot forward here, Manning is barely mentioned, his reasons for doing what he did and the huge personal cost is also lightly skipped over, which is unforgivable, in my opinion, with many others involved in WikiLeaks similarly given short-shrift. And yes, I know, simplifying for a narrative film, but the documentary managed to cover these people and aspects of the WikiLeaks stories, so why could the screenwriters here not manage it better?

My advice – forget this misfire of a film and instead check out the excellent documentary We Steal Secrets film, which, with a fraction of the budget, conveys far more details and information on these important events in a sensible, non-glamorous, manner where the events and presentation make it engrossing and exciting, not silly cuts and cliched scenes,and we see much more of the people and what they did, why they did it and the effects those events have had on them.

The Last Thing You See

The Last Thing You See: A Final Shot Montage from Plot Point Productions on Vimeo.

A very cool montage of final scenes from the movies, themed around several segments from ‘awakening/creation’ through ‘natural world’, ‘youth’, ‘love’, ‘journey’, ‘triumph’, ‘celebration’, and ‘transcendence’. And no, even I haven’t see all the films these comes from!

Film: Freediver

This is just a stunningly beautiful short film from The Avant Garde Diaries team, following freediver William Trubridge into the depths of the sea, no oxygen cylinders, no scuba gear. I’ve had a fascination for this sport since I first saw The Big Blue decades ago (it remains one of my favourite films) and like that film this features some gorgeous underwater cinematography, here presented in a wonderfully crisp, almost ethereal, otherworldly monochrome (more of their videos here):

William Trubridge – Freediver from The Avant/Garde Diaries on Vimeo.

Vie d’Enfer

Vie d’Enfer is a terrific short animated film, where a portly wee demon who clearly loves his work of tormenting the damned gets a bit carried away, overloads the torture machine and blows himself all the way to the opposing realm, where the soon runs amuck. The animation style is great, with a genuine sense of fun and dark humour that will appeal to folk like me who enjoy Edward Gorey and Tim Burton:

Vie d’Enfer from Thomas EID on Vimeo.

The Complex

Another quick review of one of the genre movies I caught recently as part of my annual Edinburgh Film Festival week, this one by the great J-Horror director Hideo Nakata. This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog:

The Complex

Director: Hideo Nakata

Starring: Atsuko Maeda, Hiroki Narimiya, Masanobu Katsumura, Naomi Nishida, Kanau Tanaka

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Hideo Nakata is a name well known to fans of horror films, especially that rich seams of J-Horror, with very influential entries in the genre such as Dark Water and Ring. When I went to see The Complex I wasn’t sure quite what to expect – much as I love horror film and have enjoyed the works which Japan (and them more parts of Asian cinema) have been adding to the genre, I have to admit that there has been a bit too much in terms of generic tropes and repetitive imitations – too many close ups of rolling eyeballs over loud soundtrack noise and very long haired girls crawling in unnatural poses have diluted this part of the genre through inferior copying and imitation. Refreshingly with The Complex Nakata treads a different but highly effective path, here opting for more of a straight ghost story, proper hauntings with real reasons for the ghosts’ existence and mostly avoiding the jump-shock or gore approach for creepy atmosphere, something a well told ghost tale can do so well and to such phantasmagorical effect.

Asuka is a young student, moving into a slightly run down looking 60s style concrete apartment complex with her family, in order to be nearer to her college, where she is studying to work in healthcare. The opening scenes of unpacking in the new home seem very tranquil and domestic and fairly cheery, with her little brother and loving parents around her, but for those of us who have a lot of horror flicks under our belts there are signs even then that there are dark clouds in the horizon. A solitary, rather tatty box of possessions, oh, these are mum’s thinks Asuka as she unpacks in her room, and takes it through to her parent’s room. Somehow you just know that box is foreshadowing something later in the film. Other warning signs that not all is right with the apparent domestic bliss of a new family home come when over breakfast on different mornings her mother and father have exactly the same conversation… It Nakata’s world it isn’t just the dark, spooky places that can harbour something odd or frightening, as with Lynch so too can the cheerfully suburban dometic.

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And then there are the neighbours – Asuka is sent with little homemade cakes to introduce the family to their new neighbours and starts with the apartment opposite them on their landing. She rings the bell and knocks the door; she thinks she hears someone inside, but no-one actually answers the door. And then in best creepy horror tradition the door opens itself, just a few inches, but with no-one visible. And then it closes again. Creepy things going on or just an elderly neighbour who doesn’t care for company? And why are there no kids in the playground, save for one single wee boy? As night falls on those first evenings in the new apartment the noises start, some awful, drawn out noise from the apartment right through from her bedroom…

I’m not going to expand any further into what the source of that noise is in the neighbouring apartment, or indeed why the apparent domesticity of the new family home feels so off despite the apparently happy surface, because that would take us into the realm of spoilers. Suffice to say Nakata takes his time in slowly building up the setting and introducing characters, the slow burn, ratchetting gradually up with the tension and creepiness that a good ghost tale requires. My only complaint about the Complex is that a couple of the twists I saw coming very early on in the film; perhaps Nakata telegraphed them a little less subtly than he should, but then again it is equally possible there’s no real fault in the narrative and it is simply having seen so many genre flicks the regular viewer picks up on some foreshadowing quicker than other viewers. It certainly didn’t spoil my viewing and Nakata being the master of horror that he is there were other revelations I didn’t see coming. Besides, J-Horror or horror from anywhere else, the key to a good ghost story is atmosphere, and that Nakata has in spades here. Good late night horror viewing.

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Review: Frankenstein’s Army

Frankenstein’s Army

Director: Richard Raaphorst

Starring: Karel Roden, Joshua Sasse, Robert Gwilym, Alexander Mercury, Luke Newberry, Hon Ping Tang

frankenstein's army poster

I’ve just enjoyed my annual week off going round an enjoyably diverse series of movies at the Edinburgh International Film Festival; of course some of those films I caught just happen to fall into the genres we cover on here, so I thought following last week’s review of the very unusual Iranian SF flick Taboor I’d share another interesting genre flick I saw, one I couldn’t resist, not with a title like this: Frankenstein’s Army.

World War Two rages, and a forward scout unit of weary, wary Russian soldiers is advancing cautiously, searching out German positions. Unusually this advance unit has had a film unit attached to them (so yes, you guessed it, we’re in ‘found footage’ territory, although don’t despair, this is actually pretty damned good fun), for recording and propaganda purposes allegedly (they may not be mad on the idea, but the grizzled combat veterans of the Soviet Army know better than to question orders from above in Stalin’s Russia). Their commander is growing concerned at their lack of radio contact with any other Soviet units in some days as they push forward. When they do finally receive a signal it is short, a desperate plea from another Soviet unit in dire trouble, and their coordinates, before the lose the radio signals again. They are wary – this doesn’t sound like a unit that should be as far forward as their scouting group, and why is it that again they cannot pick up any signals? None the less, comrades may be in trouble so they have to investigate, and soon come across a deserted village and semi ruined buildings – and fresh graves. Open fresh graves with emptied coffins…

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Exploring the buildings they are surprised to find the interiors are less like any farm or village buildings and more reminiscent of factories. Still puzzling over where everyone went to and why these rural buildings seem to have been refitted as some sort of industrial units they are attacked and take their first casualties. Their vicious enemy attacks suddenly, the familiar Nazi swastika is visible, but these are no ordinary Wermacht troops. In fact they don’t even seem entirely human

We soon discover our cameraman is not working for the propaganda unit, he is actually under top secret orders from the very top, and the unit must help him with it (and they are none too subtly reminded these orders come from Comrade Stalin himself and they know where all of the soldier’s families live… It’s not just the Nazis Russian soldiers have to worry about in this time, it’s also their own leaders). Soviet intelligence has become aware of an unusual advance weapons project the Nazis have, but this isn’t some engineering wonder like the V2 Rocket, this is all the work of one man, a certain Baron Frankenstein. And while he uses machinery just like Von Braun does for his ‘wonder weapons’, the Baron, of course, also uses human body parts. The reason for the desecrated, emptied graves nearby becomes clear, and soon the men are plunged into a hideous struggle with inhuman creatures, part human, party machine and the chances of them surviving, let alone capturing or killing the elusive Baron, seem to be diminishing rapidly in a series of nightmarish skirmishes.

I’m not going to say anything more of the story here for fear of spoiling it, but it is a very satisfying slice of sci-fi/horror, going from the open fields of war (open but eternally dangerous) to the closed, claustrophobic underground chambers of the Baron’s lair, enclosed and full of danger and grotesque horrors. The dark corridors and first person perspective of the cameraman’s footage (he keeps recording even after his real mission is revealed) combine to give an almost video game, first person shooter kind of feel to some scenes as the soldiers are pursued by the Baron’s monstrous creations through the decaying, dark, underground halls and corridors. The creatures themselves are a marvelous addition to the history of imaginative creatures in the genre, literally stitched together from pieces of Nazi corpses and then united with pieces of machinery, which gives a sort of steampunk/dieselpunk feel to them and which also reminded me (in the good way) of running around the remarkable sets and encountering the bizarre part human, part machine beings in Bioshock.

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(director Richard Raaphorst – in the loud shirt – on stage introducing Frankenstein’s Army at the UK premiere in the Filmhouse, during the Edinburgh International Film Festival, pic from my Flickr)

The Film Festival had the good sense to schedule this UK premiere of Frankenstein’s Army as a late night movie and that suits it perfectly – it is an ideal slice of late night genre movie, best viewed after a couple of drinks, by turns scary and horrific (some scenes in the Baron’s house of horrors are like an explosion in a charnel house) and yet also delightfully over the top in places, knowingly so, tipping a nod and a wink to the hardcore fans in a way that makes it clear the makers are fans of the genre themselves. It really is an ideal late night genre flick, the combination of action, horror and dark comedy, and the inventive creature designs seem destined to become cult faves. Sadly in the UK you’ll need to keep an eye out for screenings at film festivals as there’s no word on a UK general release yet, although the makers tell me that they are concentrating on an American release for now, with screenings in select cities and also video on demand at the end of July in the US market. Hopefully it won’t be too long before it gets a proper UK release too. Meantime keep up with the film’s release progress via Twitter and Facebook.

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