Monday, 30 April 2012

Review of Osombie (2012)

Osama Bin Laden rises from the dead as a flesh-eating ghoul and threatens the free world with a zombie apocalypse.

No, really. That's the premise of 'Osombie', from Utah-based company Arrowstorm Entertainment.

Biting political satire or ludicrous jingoistic nonsense?

You can read my review here!

WIN OSOMBIE ON BLU RAY: Starburst Magazine have five copies of the blu ray to give away.

For details go here.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Stake Land (2010)

Try as I might I can’t get up the same enthusiasm for Cabin in the Woods as most people. It may well be a ‘game changer’, as many critics claim, but I find its approach uninteresting. Despite its qualities as a ‘meta-narrative’, its mode of address seems very much confined to mainstream horror, its criticisms are very much of mainstream horror, and it is forced (by virtue of being a studio film) to be mainstream horror – albeit one trying to do something ‘clever’. Its reflexivity does not, to my mind at least, ultimately offer up any genuine insight (beyond, perhaps, the idea that horror stories serve to keep primal forces at bay) or anything that hasn’t been said before by people like Wes Craven.
Stake Land, on the other hand, which I saw last night, did not have the shackles of mainstream studio production (which probably accounts for its patchy distribution) but succeeds through its mix of cultural references to be very insightful indeed. I can’t recall another horror film which makes such strong connections to the Great Depression through cultural references to that period of American history as represented in film, photography and literature. No surprise that one of the creative forces behind the film was Larry Fessenden, who has probably done more than anyone to promote independent horror production in the last ten years, and has a genuine sense of the subversive potential of the genre.

The story is very similar to that of Zombie-Land (2009). Martin, a teenage boy who has lost his family, teams up with a grizzled vampire-hunter known only as ‘Mister’, and together they embark on a road trip through an apocalyptic landscape, heading towards what they hope will be a better place in Canada. Along the way they experience hardship, loss, human kindness (in some of the encampments they stop at) and its opposite (in their encounters with The Brotherhood, a right-wing fundamentalist group who rule the South). The vampire threat (like the zombie threat in Romero’s films) is largely secondary. The main concern of the film is surviving in a bleak landscape following social collapse, where humanity is at a premium.
Co-writer/director Jim Mickle consciously referenced the Great Depression in choosing to set much of the film in rural Pennsylvania, giving the film “a dustbowl depression look, not some futuristic, apocalyptic look, but more little kids running around in potato sacks”. As the film unfolds, one becomes aware of images that strongly invoke the famous Depression-era photography of Dorothea Lange. We see families stranded at the side of the road in broken down cars; people living in shanty towns; possessions and clothes being bartered in street markets. This, of course invites an allegorical reading of the film, which Mickle has, himself, welcomed. “People have seen the film as a critique of capitalism, greed or extremism, and I’d agree that it’s meant to be a cautionary tale.”
The film is beautifully photographed by Ryan Samul, and another conscious reference is Terrence Malick’s Depression-era drama, Days of Heaven (1978). Samul’s approach strongly echoes the work of Nestor Almendros, especially in the use of 'magic hour' filming; its bleached landscapes owe a great deal to that film. Indeed, the Terrence Malick influence can also be felt in the use of voice-over narration, given by a teenager, which forms the emotional core of the film.
However, the overriding reference in Stake Land is to The Grapes of Wrath (1940), John Ford’s film based on Steinbeck’s classic novel, and the plot echoes that of Steinbeck in several ways. In Ford’s film, unemployed Oklahoma farmworkers travel to California in search of work in the fields. This is similar to the protagonists’ plight to reach the ‘New Eden’ in Stake Land. The hardship along the way threatens, in Steinbeck’s story, to erode the family and with it the very fabric of American society. In Stake Land, the protagonists form a ramshackle family which is constantly undermined by the vampires, the Brotherhood, and the day-to-day hardship of survival. Martin briefly finds a surrogate mother in Kelly McGillis, a nun who they rescue from The Brotherhood, but she is taken from him almost as soon as he finds her, and not once but twice. Other family members come and go, but in the end, it is always only Martin and Mister left, and it seems, like in Steinbeck, that any form of normal family life is going to be an impossibility. Steinbeck, in 1939, was talking about the break-up of thousands of families during the Depression, caused by mass migration. In Stake Land, ‘Mister’ repeatedly voices the impossibility of maintaining family ties in a survival situation: “I’m not your father” he reminds Martin constantly.
And yet, there is a rich seam of humanity that runs through Stake Land. In a scene which closely mirrors a section in Grapes of Wrath, the survivors chance upon an encampment where they briefly experience human hope again for the first time in months. Strangers in the camp revel in each other’s company; social contact is renewed; people dance together in the street. This is the ‘Weedpatch Camp’ of Steinbeck’s novel: housing built for migrant workers by the government’s Farm Security Administration to provide a decent hygienic environment for families – an alternative to the dirty squalid camps established by the farmers and growers. In Ford’s film, a group of deputies attempt to have ‘Weedpatch Camp’ closed down, so that their bosses - the farmers and growers - can once again exploit and harass the farm workers. In Stake Land, no sooner than the human spirit can re-establish itself in the encampment, the reactionary Brotherhood seeks to destroy it. The means by which they do so is one of the film’s most astonishing moments. We, the audience, as well as Martin and Mister, struggle at first to understand what is happening. Then the sheer malice of it is brought home, in the same way as, in Grapes of Wrath, the malice of the bosses is underlined by their desire to wreck the ‘Weedpatch Camp’.  Stake Land’s conclusion is similar to Steinbeck’s in that respect: it is not the vampires or the Depression that cause the greatest threat to humanity, but those who would seek to exploit the disaster to increase their own power and/or financial gain.
Whether this is currently true in the recession-gripped United States with regards to Christian fundamentalism (as Mickle seems to suggest) I cannot say. One of the criticisms of Stake Land is that it perhaps tries to reference too many things at once. Not only are there the references to the Great Depression and Christian fundamentalism, but also to the western genre. This leads to some messiness in the plot development towards the end. To reach a logical conclusion in terms of the apocalyptic/Steinbeck storyline, the family must perish, with only Martin and Mister left to roam the country alone in perpetuity. However, western movie tropes call for the family to be preserved and for the individuality of the ‘pioneer spirit’ to be reaffirmed. In Stake Land, this means that there is a bit of to-ing and fro-ing in the final scenes, as a new character is introduced to take over from Mister as Martin’s ‘family’, so that Mister can do the Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) thing from The Searchers and continue to roam.
Having said that, Stake Land shows that great insight in horror films comes not necessarily from ‘reflexivity’ within the genre, but by a film combining cultural and historical references in a meaningful way.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Poltergeist (1982)

I saw this again recently for the first time in years. Somewhat written off nowadays as a horror film for kids (can anyone else think of another horror film where nobody actually dies?) I was surprised to find myself reading some interesting subtext into the film as I watched. Although, with Spielberg’s subsequent development as a ‘serious’ film-maker in the interim, perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that Poltergeist contains some intriguing social commentary relating to the Reagan era.

Of course, back in 1982, there was controversy over the uneasy collaboration of Spielberg and director Tobe Hooper. Nominally the producer of the film, Spielberg also gets credit as the main writer, and the consensus of the time was that Poltergeist reflected Spielberg’s thematic concerns more than Hooper’s. However, I would suggest that the mix is richer than previously thought, and that Poltergeist is a more complex amalgam of Hooper and Spielberg than it has been credited as being.

Hooper generally takes credit for the socio-political allegory in his films. “"I can't help but be a part of the times.” Hooper is quoted as saying. “I just think that film, for the serious filmmaker, is an osmosis of the times. That's usually what I tap for my resources: I look around at what's happening politically and economically. I don't know, it's all over me anyway. I'm totally absorbed in things like CNN."

Spielberg has shown a more general anxiety about war, genocide and the cold war ethos. These anxieties have revealed themselves repeatedly in his films, like Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List and War of The Worlds. There is that chilling sequence in the otherwise lacklustre Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull where Jones happens upon a deserted white picket fenced American town (very much like the one in Poltergeist) and comes to realise it is a testing site for the atom bomb. That sense of destruction of an idealised American way of life by malignant socio-political forces (a common Hooper theme) - and with it, the collapse of the family home (a particular fear of Spielberg’s) seems to lie at the heart of Poltergeist.

The American family in Poltergeist are not threatened from within as they are in another excellent horror film from 1982, Amityville II: The Possession, where the destructive forces (anger, hatred, sexual repression) are shown to be arising from the nature of family life itself. In Poltergeist, the family is portrayed as loving and caring, and shows no signs of dysfunction, but it is gradually broken apart by outside forces. This makes it no less a subversive horror film, because the malignant forces are suggested, allegorically, to be the dominant cultural ones of the Reagan years: corporate greed, a disregard for liberalism and a return to the horrors of cold war ideology and the nuclear threat.

In Poltergeist, the family live in a suburban tract housing development where the father, Steven, is a realtor. It is gradually revealed that the homes are built on a burial ground. Paranormal activity ensues, and the family’s youngest child, Carol Anne is abducted by the spirits and taken to another realm. The parents, played by Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams, are portrayed as liberals, baby-boomers, like Hooper and Spielberg. They are children of the ‘60s. In an early sequence we see Diane (Williams) smoking ‘pot’ in bed while Steven reads a biography of Ronald Reagan. This seems to set the allegorical mode of the film a la Hooper. Indeed the camera – which tracks in front of Steven to reveal the book that he is reading - is overly emphatic - another Hooper trait. Later in the film, when Diane presents to Steven the mysterious invisible forces in her kitchen, she asks Steven to ‘reach back to when you had an open mind’, a wryly humorous comment on the surface but underneath it emphasises the themes of the film: the inculcation of right-wing ideology and with it a return to cold war thinking.

Interestingly – and many critics have picked up on this – the television is portrayed in Poltergeist as the point of entry into the family home for the malignant forces. The apparatus by which the Reagan ideology is instilled into the American family. The film opens with the final fragmenting images before ‘sign-off’ (in the days before 24/7 TV), of the Lincoln Memorial and the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima, accompanied by the Star Spangled Banner. These patriotic images are given a sinister edge by the static that follows them – the sense that something is lurking within the television set. Later in the film, ghosts of the dead march through the living room in procession witnessed by the family and recorded by the paranormal investigators. They seem to be marching in protest. Later we realise it is against the desecration of their burial ground, their memory. Lest they be forgotten. The next generation, as embodied by the family’s children, including Carol Anne, is in danger of forgetting (or never knowing) the truth of war (including Cold War) and are the most in danger of the malignant forces, of being inculcated by Reaganite patriotism and anti-Soviet propaganda. In Poltergeist then, television is treated with suspicion by the end of the film, when Steven removes the TV set from the motel that the family move into after finally fleeing the house. (Interestingly Spielberg was to return to this theme of patriotism vs. the truth as embodied by the flag raising at Iwo Jima when he produced Letters From Iwo Jima, directed by Clint Eastwood.)

In some ways, the title Poltergeist is somewhat of a misnomer. Poltergeist activity, it is said, generally centres on teenage occupants in the household (as it does, say, in The Exorcist). In Poltergeist, the teenage girl, Dana, is a nominal character. The abduction of Carol Anne occurs, it seems, as a way for Spielberg and Hooper to reaffirm the strength of the family in saving her from the malignant forces, namely ‘The Beast’. The Beast threatens to unleash the dead (i.e. the horrors of the past) onto the living, harnessing not only the media (the television set) but also corporate greed into the bargain. One of the most gratifying parts of Poltergeist is Steven’s final confrontation with his boss, Lewis Teague, (James Karen) whose greed has resulted in the desecration of the burial ground on which Steven’s house is built. While Steven turns his back on Teague, and all he represents, in favour of his family, the hapless corporate executive is left to witness the consequences of his actions as the whole development is destroyed by The Beast and his legions. It is a scene echoed almost exactly in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of The Glass Skull where Jones, standing literally on the dawn of the atomic age, is dwarfed by the awe-inspiring atomic mushroom cloud and all the horrors it implies.

Poltergeist’s conclusions are clear. To save one’s family, it was necessary to reject the Reaganite ideology, and back in 1982, that meant leaving the TV set outside the front door.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Shocks to the System is One Year Old!

Shocks to the System is coming up to its first anniversary and by happy coincidence the wonderful Maynard Morrisey has featured it in his Movie Diary as Horror Blog of the Month for April 2012. To have a gander visit Maynard Morrisey's Horror Movie Diary.

As I told Maynard, I started Shocks as a companion blog for the book I am writing on subversive horror films, but in the last year the blog has taken on a life of its own as I discovered the joys of blogging and making friends along the way.

So for this anniversary post, I wanted to express my appreciation to all my followers and readers, and give a special mention to some people who have inspired and supported Shocks to The System in the last twelve months: Wes at Plutonium Shores, James at Behind the Couch, Michael at WIWLN, George at Deformed Destructive,
Martin at A Hero Never Dies, and Maynard at Maynard Morrisey's Horror Movie Diary.

Thanks everyone for making this last year such a joy!

Friday, 6 April 2012


I went to visit Whitby, North Yorkshire, this week and, inspired by James’s photos of Burrishoole Abbey at Behind the Couch, I took some photographs of some of Whitby’s iconic sights.

Whitby is, of course, famous as the setting of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, written in 1897. Stoker was taken by the mood of the place after staying there on vacation and it is easy to see why – the imposing abbey which overlooks the quaint seaside town, accessed by 199 steps along the side of the cliff, makes for a unique and atmospheric location. Romantic and brooding, but quite beautiful.
The town has retained much of its Victorian age character, so it is easy to see why it is the meeting place for Goth weekends twice a year, and the setting for the wonderful Bram Stoker Horror Film Festival each October. Strangely enough though, very few adaptations of Stoker’s novel have actually filmed here. In fact the only film adaptation to have used Whitby as an actual location, to my knowledge, is the BBC’s 1977 Louis Jourdan version, which featured a few location shots around St Mary’s Church (which also sits atop the cliff next to the remains of the abbey).

‘T’is a pity, as Stoker used this remarkable location so well; indeed some of Whitby’s features, such as the aforementioned steps and St Mary’s graveyard are an integral part of the novel and its narrative. They are cinematic indeed.
In the novel Dracula comes to Whitby from Transylvania aboard a ship, the Demeter, which crashes in to the rocks on Whitby’s headland.  Dracula escapes the wrecked ship and is sighted as a black dog running up the step to St Mary’s Church. Here, the novel’s heroines, Mina and Lucy, take their daily walks, enjoying the views from the churchyard. When Dracula spies Lucy, she becomes his willing victim…