EIFF 2018 – The Wind

The Wind,
Directed by Emma Tammi,
Starring Caitlin Gerard, Julia Goldani Telles, Ashley Zukerman, Dylan McTee

I usually always manage to take in a late-night horror screening at the Edinburgh International Film Festival as part of my movie fest mix. This year’s viewing was a very unusual and frankly rather superbly creepy and atmospheric Indy film by Emma Tammi which mixes elements of the Horror and the Western with domestic drama, using a small cast (really only four main and one supporting actor) and a compelling, powerful contrast between the enclosed (tiny frontier cabins) and the vastly open spaces of the great prairie in 1800s America.

The first few moments through the viewer off balance – there is practically no dialogue for the first few scenes, just a view of two men pacing up and down nervously outside the rough, Frontier wooden cabin while the eternal wind howls and blows over the huge, open spaces of the empty prairies (Laura Ingells Wilder this is not!). My first thought was that perhaps the women were inside the cabin, the men waiting outside as the womenfolk tended to a birth, perhaps? And this guess proved correct, but not the way I expected -after several tense moments the door opens and Lizzy Macklin (Caitlin Gerard) stands on the porch, blood smearing her apron, a small bundle in her arms.

Still no dialogue. Instead of the “you have a daughter or son” moment Lizzy just stands there, the men staring at her, at the child in her arms. A child that isn’t making any noises, none of the screaming and crying that accompanies our arrival onto this planet. It is only as the film progresses that, through numerous flashbacks, we will start to understand what just happened, and what lead towards this moment.

Lizzy Macklin and her husband Isaac (Ashley Zukerman) have had their small homestead out on the Plains for several years, all alone since previous neighbours left some time back. It’s a hard life of physical toil and almost constant isolation, until another young couple move in to fix up the cabin and farm half a mile from their home, Emma Harper (Julia Goldani Telles) and her husband Gideon (Dylan McTee). Neither of them seem mentally or physically prepared for the hardships of Frontier-era life – Gideon isn’t very handy (unlike Isaac), something his young wife Emma points out to Lizzy and Isaac, right in front of Gideon.

You’d think after years of such isolation Lizzy and Isaac would be happy to have another pair of souls near them, but despite showing neighbourly charity – helping the new couple fix up the old cabin, giving them a start on ploughing to get their crops in the ground – you can feel an awkward tension, especially between the women. At first it seems as if this is because Emma is simply not cut out for this hard life on the Plains, despite any help they give her, but there is also, perhaps a feeling of sexual jealousy, that Lizzy suspects Emma may harbour feelings for her husband, the rugged frontiersman.

There’s more to it than this interpersonal possible rivalry though – Emma starts to talk about seeing something, dark shapes, hearing voices at night. It’s just that constant wind that sweeps those huge, open spaces, Lizzy tells her, it can drive people a bit crazy, make them think they can hear something. But Emma seems to keep getting worse, even when she falls pregnant, the pregnancy that leads to the disturbing tragedy in the opening scenes of the film – is the isolation, the rough, hard life and those vast, empty spaces damaging her fragile psyche?

But then we also have scenes where Lizzy thinks she hears something, sees dark shapes. She’s pursued by wolves in one scene, one even forcing its head right through the door, snarling like a devil, till she shoots right through through the wooden panels. When she ventures out they are gone, but the claw marks on the outside of the door, those marks go up as high as a person, not a four legged wolf would reach… As Isaac has to ride several days to the nearest town she is on her own, and at night she hears things, sees movement outside her windows even though she knows there isn’t another soul in the valley.

Imagine being in this vast wilderness, the only person there, and then, in dark of night, hearing a knock on the door. Imagine fearfully opening it, gun in hand to find… nothing. But later another knock. Or looking out into the black night of the empty valley and observing lanterns flickering into life in what used to be your neighbour’s home half a mile away, even though you know they are long gone and there isn’t another human being around for dozens of miles. It’s a simple device but damned effective at raising the spooky factor.

The Wind is wonderfully creepy and spooky and unsettling – so much is suggested, and it mostly happens around the two women, who both, coincidentally, share the same penny dreadful booklet, The Demons of the Prairies, and neither of their husbands see these things happen when they are around. Is it all in their heads, is it a form of “female hysteria” as 19th century doctors used to (mis)diagnose? Or is it real and only prowls around the women, at night, when they are alone? The film very much revolves around the two women, the men almost secondary to events.

Tammi crafts so much tension and outright fear from suggestion and inference, small glimpses, and a really clever use of the soundscape, which here is really essential in crafting that creeping atmosphere of unease and dread, right from that word-free, disturbing opening. This is a very unusual, highly effective slice of period American Western Gothic and supernatural (or is it???) terror, with a rich aural soundscape and inventive visuals, and a brooding sense of unease that grows throughout the film and the flashbacks into something that frequently spooked even this seasoned old horror hound. Highly recommended.

The Kid

The Kid,
Directed by Vincent D’Onofrio
Starring Dane DeHaan, Ethan Hawke, Chris Pratt, Jake Schur, Leila George

A boy with a gun ain’t a boy…

The story of Henry McCarty, better known as William H. Bonney, aka Billy the Kid, has long-since entered legend – really the young outlaw’s life was already half myth and legend even in his short lifetime (he was shot dead at the age of only 21), and he remains one of the most famous figures to come out of that short (but hugely influential in movies, TV and other media ever since) history of the Old West, and his relationship with Pat Garrett, the lawman who hunted him down, and it has been told and retold in many ways over the decades. The Kid takes a more unusual approach, however – you could take the title as a reference to DeHaan’s Billy, but equally it could apply to young Rio (Jake Schur), a teenage boy who, along with his older sister Sara (Leila George), finds himself in the orbit of Billy and Pat (Ethan Hawke).

The film begins with violence, a man beating his wife – Rio and Sara’s mother. Rio begs his brutal father to stop, but he keeps hitting his mother, until the teenage boy picks up his pistol and shoots him dead with it. He’s too late, his monster of a father had already beaten his mother to death. His father’s outlaw friends, headed by their uncle, Grant Cutler (his father’s brother) – a heavily-bearded Chris Pratt, playing against his regular type – are outside the simple homestead, hear the gun go off and try to break in, but the children escape, trying to flee through the night to Santa Fe where they know a friend of their mother lives. It is on this journey that they encounter Billy and his gang, shortly before they are captured by Pat Garrett and his lawmen.

As the story unfolds we see young Rio (named for the river, which Billy once lived near too) struggling with events – he feels he has to be the man of the family, protect his sister even though she is the older, and he is wrestling with his conscience; his father was a brutal abuser, he may well have deserved to be shot, but it’s still no small thing to take a life. This becomes a central issue for Rio, Pat and Billy. Both like the kid (although Garrett doesn’t know what he has done yet, but he suspects), and each of them will, at different points, talk to the boy about their lives, about how early circumstances in a hard life, even younger than he is now, shaped the existence they’ve lead, one outlaw, one lawman.

This is an era and place where men rarely talked about feelings, and the Western in general often sticks to that approach, stories where Real Men suck it in and just carry on without dwelling on what they have had to do. Not so here as both Hawke’s Garrett and DeHaan’s Billy both at different points round a night-time camp fire tell Rio about their youthful hardships and, crucially, about the first time they had to take a life. In both cases they start in a matter of fact way, but as the stories go on, the emotion wells up in their voices. I was reminded of William Munny in the brilliant Unforgiven, “it’s a hell of a thing to kill a man. Take away everything he ever was, everything he ever will be.” Yes, these are tough cowboys of the West, but they are still people and these events that marked them, made them, have had a deep psychological impact that they mostly hide within, but can share with Rio.

This emotional guilt and honesty touches young Rio as he worries about his own culpability in shooting his father. Both men, in their own ways, have reached out to him, bared their own emotional scars that are much like his (the loss of family in early life, the violence, the killing). Rio is, effectively, being given two alternative father figures in Billy and Pat, as he stands at a crossroads of his own life – which kind of path will he follow, one like Billy, or one like Pat? In fact will he get to choose, or will trying to rescue his sister from the monstrous Grant Cutler force him down a path regardless?

It’s unusual these days for us to see a Western – the genre that once dominated early cinema is now a rarity. Thankfully in The Kid we have a beautifully-shot Western that explores hard lives and hard decisions, they way they can shape us, dominate what we will become.

This is a slow-burn tale, with moments of sudden violence, with a rich emotional undercurrent, and some quite gorgeous cinematography. cinematographer Matthew J Lloyd deserves special praise on that score; film is, after all, a visual medium, and the Western requires strong, iconic visuals more than most genres. Here Lloyd’s lighting and camera moves and angles craft some beautiful cinematic scenes, making even some scenes set around the town gallows look striking, or Rio practising with a pistol, framed by a golden-leafed tree, many of the scenes drenched in that marvellous light quality of the American Southwest. That richness of the visuals and the emotional honesty of Rio, Garrett and Billy combine to make this an utterly absorbing take on an Old West legend.

The Kid is released by Lionsgate on DVD, Blu-Ray and Digital from June 3rd

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Prospect

Prospect,
Directed by Christopher Caldwell and Zeek Earl,
Starring Sophie Thatcher, Pedro Pascal, Jay Duplass

Prospect is one of those small-budget, Indy films that can all too easily slip by without you noticing, and that would be a shame, because this is a very interesting wee science fiction piece, which also borrows liberally from the Western genre. Cee (Sophie Thatcher) and Damon (Jay Duplass), are a daughter and father team of prospectors, with a lot in common with the classic image of the Old West prospectors, except instead of a wagon train they hitch a ride on a space freighter, and rather than a pack mule they have a basic “drop pod”, a small capsule (not a proper ship) which is both cramped home for them and which takes them down to the planet at the end of their hitch on the freighter.

Cee is young and clearly starting to chafe at the itinerant lifestyle, tramping cargo class through space on long hauls to find one place where they can land and try to eke out a living. As the film opens she’s trying to find some space of her own, out of that cramped capsule, prowling the adjoining freighter, listening to music on her headphones. Thatcher conveys well that frustration of being young, of only knowing one, narrow kind of life but yearning for something, anything more, but not sure what or how. Her father, though, is excited, he is convinced that they finally have the jump on other prospectors, the big score, the one that will earn them so much they will finally be set up, and she reluctantly follows because, what else does she have?

Naturally things do not go as smoothly as planned. As Cee and her father start to explore for their big score, they are ambushed by another pair of less than friendly prospectors, who demand whatever they have at gunpoint. And there are others here and there on this otherwise uninhabited planet, few of them any more friendly than these bushwhackers. Prospect soon becomes as much as about trying to survive on a hostile alien world, with equally hostile humans all after the same harvest our prospectors are looking for, as it is a quest to make that One Big Score. And of course I am not going to say any more about how that pans out for fear of spoilers.

Prospect grew out of a short film by Caldwell and Earl, which established the look and feel of this universe, which the feature draws on. This is no Star Trek, gleaming future of a post-scarcity society, this is the ragged frontier, where people scratch a hard living from an unforgiving universe. No mighty warp-vessels here, scratched and dented old freighters that have to obey the laws of physics, a long, slow haul looping around their various planets to release drop pods and landers, that are then stuck there until the ship’s return loop (and if you miss that, you’re marooned). This is a blue-collar future of hard-work, trying to keep the wolves from the door any way you can, it looks lived in, hard lived in – it has more in common with the worn working space of the Nostromo in Alien than it does the Enterprise.

I mentioned the Western tropes that are woven into Prospect, and that extends beyond a science fiction version of those old-time prospectors into the style – Ezra (Pedro Pascal), one of the others who try to get the jump on Cee and Damon, talks in a very stylised, loquacious manner, the verbose style used for more than a few Western characters who like to talk all high-falutin’. Pascal, who you may have seen in Game of Thrones or Kingsman 2, delivers a very nuanced take on his character, taking him from the verbally dextrous but ruthless bushwhacker to something more as the film progresses, crafting a believable, three dimensional character rather than just some cut-out villain. Stand-out performance here, however, is Sophie Thatcher as Cee; Cee is in almost every single scene in the film, she is its spine, carrying the entire movie, and it is a terrific performance, all the more remarkable given it is her film debut and she was only seventeen years old at the time.

This is a clever, low-fi pieces of science fiction tinged with the Western, that works past its small budget with good ideas and locations, and some terrific performances from the leads. As I said at the start, it is too easy for small movies like this to slip by us without noticing them – no big press budget to shout them out, and it’s a shame because this sort of Indy film-making is where we often find little gems like this.

Prospect is out now on DVD and digital online from Signature Entertainment

A new undead for a New World: American Vampire

American Vampire Volume 1,

Scott Snyder, Stephen King, Rafael Albuquerque,

DC Comics/Vertigo

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Scott Snyder has really established himself as major comics writing talent in the last few years, not least with his highly regarded Batman run for DC’s New 52, but arguably it was his and Rafael Albuquerque’s American Vampire which first seriously established his credentials as a new writer to watch out for, and the fact that the first volume includes work from no less a literary luminary than Stephen King doesn’t exactly hurt. I’ve a long fascination for vampire and Gothic tales, but it’s not an easy genre to do something new with. Every now and then someone reworks the genre and shakes it up – Stoker took the earlier 19th century tales and crystalised them in Dracula, Anne Rice revamped (pardon the pun) the genre in the 70s with Interview With the Vampire, Twilight brought romantic vamps to a mass teen audience while Niles’ 30 Days of Night made them gut-wrenchingly monstrous and terrifying once more. It’s one of the reasons the genre refuses to lie quietly in its coffin, but always rises again in one form or another, to stalk our nightmares, the vampire mythos is, in the right hands, endlessly elastic and able to be refitted to suit so many cultures and times. And here, these are the right hands.

The first volume is split into two linked tales, switching back and forth between them, and it isn’t titled “American Vampire” for nothing – these two settings are ones which strongly evoke a sense of Americana from their respective eras, periods most of us would associate so strongly with the US, the final decades of the Old West in the 19th Century and the early days of the silent movies as they establish themselves in a booming LA in the Roaring Twenties. Cowboy gangs and vengeful lawmen on horseback (hell, there’s even a train heist thrown in!) on one side, the glitz and sleaze of early Hollywood and Flapper girls trying to make it in the big city on the other. They’re well chosen eras that ooze the sense of the period, even now, and Snyder, King and Albuquerque use them to give their vampires a uniquely American personality and setting. Yes, there are more traditional European vampires here, hiding in dark corners, away from the sun, greedy, decadent, self-satisfied Old World monsters, much like the east coast wealthy elite who, for all the republican nature of the US in the 1800 and 1900s, were Old World style aristocracy in all but name.

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Skinner Sweet, 1850 –1880, Outlaw, Killer, Defiler of Women, Born in Kansas, Burns in Hell,” inscription on Skinner Sweet’s grave in the local Boot Hill, in finest Western tradition.

But this is America, the land of opportunity, where you can arrive with only a dollar in your pocket but build yourself up, or at least so the myth that everyone can make it goes. And here that seems to apply to the undead as well. And when a hard-nosed lawman tracks down and captures the infamous Skinner Sweet (a gang leader with a real sweet tooth) at the behest of a wealthy banker (whose banks Skinner robbed), it sets up a chain of events none of them could have foreseen. The wealthy banker is in fact secretly an Old World vampire, here to mine the Western Frontier for new wealth, but when Skinner’s gang ambushes the train carrying him, in a rescue attempt, a fight ensues, and while the lawmen are distracted the vampiric banker attempts to deal with Sweet himself, but Sweet doesn’t die easily and wounds the vampire, his blood falling onto Sweet’s open wounds. Forced to flee he doesn’t realise at first that this has transformed Sweet, but when he does suspect he arranges for a dam to be built and buys up the local town before it is flooded – thus drowning the cemetery in which Sweet lies. Vampire or not, he can never rise now, or so they think…

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But this is, as the title implies, a new type of vampire – somehow the alchemy of the change brought on by the vampiric blood causes something different in this New World, creating different vampires, with different powers and weaknesses, and Sweet does eventually rise, and soon discovers his new powers. He doesn’t need a gang anymore, not with his abilities, he can tear a place apart all on his own. And he does. But when he surfaces again in the 1920s, despite still being a killer, he seems to have his own agenda, and he actually warns two naïve young actresses, Pearl and Hattie, about attending a party thrown by one of the major studio heads, but they don’t listen to him, and at the party Pearl is taken to a private room, where it turns out more of those in power are also Old World vampires, eager to use and abuse her before dumping her body in the desert. But like Skinner, she doesn’t die and instead transforms, desperately trying to figure out what has happened to her, what these new impulses and abilities are, and as she comes to terms with them, determining to take vengeance on the powerful men – these smug, wealthy, Old World vampiric elite – who did this to her.

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You, Pearl Jones, are a different kind of vampire… Just picture it in automotive terms, Bloch and his kind, they’re like old, broken-down European clunkers, okay? But you and me, Dolly? We’re like shiny, new 1926 Fords, top of the line, just rolled out onto the showroom floor.” Skinner explains why he and Pearl have different abilities from the Old World vampires.

It’s a hugely compelling read, and a great twist on the old vampire mythos, and it really does give it a truly American identity. Both story arcs plunder their periods for detail and atmosphere, and Albuquerque does art duty on both, handling Old West and Roaring 20s Hollywood with equal dexterity, giving us cowboy raiders attacking a train, or riding into a sunset on one chapter, or a Flapper Girl making her way in this brave, new post-war boom world of the big city, the bright lights (and dangers), and the lure and magic (and hidden darkness and sleaze) of the emerging magic factory that was Hollywood in the 20s, going from a wonderfully demonic grin on Skinner’s face in his Boot Hill coffin to Model T cars chugging along 1920s LA’s boulevards. Both periods, which could so easily have clashed, dovetail nicely, and of course in the real world the tail end of the Old West did indeed overlap with the early years of the movies, with genuine Western characters moving to LA and taking part in Hollywood’s early “horse operas”, so they’re a good choice for linked tales, and they are eras we’re all used to from a thousand films and books (and as I said, also suitably, iconically American), so we instinctively recognise the styles and tropes of those historical periods.

And it mixes well with the great American myth of itself which grew up during that great Westward Expansion and carried into that new modern, 20th century era (building bigger, better, smarter, always upwards, onwards, boudless optimism), but here translated to brash but bright, eager, capable new energies of new kinds of vampires, evolved to suit this New World (and totally vulgar to the sensibilities of the Old World vamps). I’m always impressed when someone can do something fresh with the vampire myth, and here King, Snyder and Albuquerque have done just that, giving horror fiction terrific new characters in Skinner Sweet and Pearl, in a book dripping with period atmosphere and style.