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March 10, 2006

RING 0 (15)

Title:
Rating:
4 out of 5 stars

My expectations, I have to say, were not high. One, it was not directed by Hideo Nakata. Two, it was a prequel. Three, Ring 2 had left a rather poor taste in the mouth and four, who gives a shit about Sadako when she isn’t dead? Nobody really cares about Freddy or Jason’s background, do they? Except that Ring 0 is not only much better than I thought it would be, but also, in a beautiful touch not a story about the birth of a monster but a story about the destruction of an innocent. The Sadako of 0 is not the vengeful monster of the next Ring films, but a shy young wannabe actress who is very much a victim of society. There is most certainly a touch of paranoia of The Crucible about the film, and a nod towards that other film about a girl with extraordinary powers, Carrie. Yet unlike Carrie, Ring 0 is not quite so honest about who is responsible for what and who deserves to get their just desserts. The film is less of a horror film and rather a biopic, a story of a girl in the 1950s and the disturbing effect of her unique abilities on the other members of the cast. Yukie Nakama fills the role of the deeply afraid Sadako, and does so extraordinarily well – there are very few moments where you lack sympathy for Sadako in the film, and her distress at the deaths being involuntarily inflicted by her powers seems extremely real. The disturbing tale starts with Sadako auditioning for a prestigious theatre company, and finds herself attracting the unwanted attention of the leering director, a vengeful woman whose husband was the man seen dropping dead in the flashbacks in the original ‘Ring’ and the tenderness of a lighting technician who develops a fatal love for the young woman. The film becomes ever more complex, the cast become suspicious of Sadako’s rise in favour and the mysterious deaths of those who upset her, although Sadako protests that she has nothing to do with these ‘accidents’. The dynamic is a fascinating one; Sadako’s protestations of innocence combined with the venomous paranoia of her co-stars lulls the viewer into a sense of false security so that, when the truth behind the ‘accidents’ finally comes out, there is something of a genuine twist. The look of the film is quite restricted, since unlike Ring which sprawls over Japan, Ring 0 stays almost completely in the theatre. Then again, there is no need for it to go anywhere else. The horror of Ring 0 lies in the poisonous whispering of the other cast members in the dressing room, the dark corridors of the building at night, and the eerily familiar sounding ‘abilities’ of Sadako. The only time it leaves the theatre is towards the end when the drama picks up a rapid pace; a supposedly dead Sadako is being dragged off into the woods near an awfully familiar well, and it is here that Sadako’s father reveals the truth behind the curse of Sadako. Somewhat ironically, Sadako is the last to die as most of the cast meet their end, including the deeply dislikeable witch-finder general character of the journalists’ wife (but is she supposed to be anything else?), but saddest of all is the death of the only man who would ever love her. The curse of the Ring destroys Sadako, and the final shot has to be one of the saddest in film; Sadako alone at the bottom of the well in the dark, her fate known to us and her chance at returning to her lost love impossible.

The somewhat confusing premise behind Sadako’s true nature (spoilers alert here, but the conceit is she is two people, one of whom is murderous and vengeful, the other is simply Sadako.) does require more than one viewing to understand, but it is fascinating and even somewhat unsettling to see them as separate entities but who are inextricably bound up with each other. The film is dark, inevitable and deeply, deeply sad but the saddest thing about it is the fact the Sadako in Ring 0 is not the evil spirit of the sequels/prequels. Seeing a shy and sweet Sadako contrasted with the cold-blooded dead murderess of Ring and Ring 2, underlines one thing more than anything else in this tragic fall-from-grace; the loss of innocence.


RING 2 (15)

Title:
Rating:
2 out of 5 stars

Nakata followed up his immensely successful ‘Ring’ with this film two years later; and the film serves to show, if nothing else, just how marvellously inconsistent Nakata can be. For every flash of genius (Dark Water) there is a mild work of tosh (The Ring Two). Ring 2 proves that Nakata can take subject matter and produce something beautifully scary and well controlled, but can similarly produce something that suffers from an overabundance of ideas, sloppy pacing and extremely inconsistent story telling. Put it this way, Ring 2 is something of a head-fuck of a horror film. You will spend more of the film wondering what in gods name is going on than you will actually being frightened, which is a shame because the film does have some very scary moments – scenes set in the hospital where one of the only survivors of the video has to be kept behind a curtain, so she cannot see the television that torments her, were so powerful that they were lifted for the American remake. The narrative, as it stands, takes place shortly after the first film; Reiko has gone missing with her son, and Mai Takano, the girlfriend of Ryuji, is determined to find out what happened to her lover. Mercifully, the video plays little role in the film and therefore avoiding a retread of the first. Instead, we get some rather jumbled scenes of exposition, and some unsettling scenes of psychic imprinting, as well as some child acting that is so hilarious at times you wonder what happened to the creepily calm and collected little boy who so dominated the original film at times; I refer specifically to a scene where he ‘knocks back’ some hospital guards with a psychic blast that is as bloody ridiculous as it sounds. Some random character death also happens, and I say random because it can take up to five minutes before you realise a character is dead. Not always a problem in films, but in Ring 2 it just leaves you reaching for the paracetomol. The last twenty minutes has to be the most surreal bookend to any horror film ever; the artistic flourishes are quite extraordinary, but any scene where a dead character from the first film emerges in perfect health at the bottom of a well to demand of his son ‘Give me your fear! Give me your fear!’ leave you either laughing your backside off or leave you as clueless as the lead apparently is. You may have noticed the plot summary is extremely tangled, but it’s the best summary I can manage, because the plot really is that impenetrable. Its ending is fascinating (Sadako climbing up the inside of the well, oh my god that is eerie) and leaves us with a troubling note of doubt, but the preceding hour and forty minutes makes you feel like the ending was a mercy rather than an accomplishment.

Muddled pulp fiction, Ring 2 is a good experiment but an ultimately unsuccessful one, with too much irregularity to make it satisfying or scary viewing.


RING (15)

Title:
Rating:
5 out of 5 stars

Like The Shining, Carrie and The Exorcist before it, Ring has entered the pantheon of truly great horror movies simply by executing a scene so accomplished and powerful that the rest of the film feels like a wonderful and terrifying prelude. The scene is the now legendary TV-set scene that left us forever terrified of girls with long black hair, but we should not forget that the rest of the film is a masterfully constructed piece of suspense horror that is based less around making us jump out of our seats and rather on sucking us into a terrifying and macabre mystery that keeps us hooked all the way through. It is easy to wax lyrical about Hideo Nakata’s 1998 classic, but what exactly is it that made the film such a classic? This film has spawned a prequel, a sequel, a Korean and American remake, a sequel to the aforementioned American remake, a short TV series…and this is not counting Spiral, the official literary sequel to the Ring. Koji Suzuki, the author, cannot have possibly imagined the cultural impact of his effective chiller. The fact is that the film beautifully fillets the slightly over-complicated ‘virus’ theory of the book and instead retains the supernatural elements that are wisely left unexplained; the film gets a beautiful sense of mystery and terror that unfolds, managing to keep the film scary even during long scenes of exposition. The cinematography of the film is also quite striking, a bleak and almost colourless tone that Gore Verbinski borrowed almost wholesale for his remake of The Ring (not that this is a bad thing). It is refreshing to see a world that isn’t presented in rather over-romantic or feudal tones, as in Kill Bill Vol. 1 and The Last Samurai. The film is expertly controlled by Nakata, whose solid and fast-paced direction gives the film an energy that it could have so easily lacked. Nakata’s world is almost disturbingly normal; what we see is a modern Japan with the same concerns and fears that we have. Intrusive press officials, motel owners, teenagers…it has a Japanese lilt to it, but if it were not for the distinctive architecture we could almost be anywhere in the world. In this world, we see Reiko Asakawa, a single mother and journalist who becomes fascinated with a folk-lore story about a videotape that is supposedly cursed, and kills whoever watches it within the week. Once she locates the tape at the motel where all of the dead teenagers stayed for a holiday, the film picks up its pace.

She has a week, and we know it. There is simply no room for the possibility of it being ‘wrong’; the film is kept powerful and lean because there are no scenes where shrieking supporting cast members scream ‘I don’t believe it!’ as basically the entire cast of Final Destination does. Reiko and her ex-husband, Ryuji Takayama, are very much aware they are living on borrowed time – because they believe it with such conviction, we believe it too. Every piece of evidence and exposition is true because they believe it, and there is no falsity in the film. There is no need for doubt in the film. This isn’t a murder mystery with red herrings and dud clues; it’s a mightily effective horror machine. The videotape leads our desperate heroes – both surprisingly sympathetic – to the disturbing past of a psychic woman and her daughter, Sadako whose psychic power led her to an unimaginably macabre fate. The flashback sequences, although explained in a slightly fudged way by having Reiko experience a bizarre psychic ‘flash of memory’, are in stark black and white and are so chilling that often these scenes are more effective than those set in the present day.

Sadako’s fate, an ugly death at the bottom of a well, serves as the penultimate ending; it could be the end, but Nakata is not prepared to let us off so easily. It is perhaps somewhat amusing that Nakata knows that the simple reburial of a troubled soul’s remains will not suddenly stop everything; revenge, as the film shows, knows no bounds. This sets us up for the simply nerve-jangling scene in which Ryuji watches in disbelief as…gah, no, I can’t say it. You have to watch. The final scene leaves us with a satisfying note of doubt; Reiko has saved her life, but she still has to save her son. And that means a horrible sacrifice in his name.

So, what is the ring? The simplified explanation in the remake is that the ‘ring’ is the last thing you see before you die, but the Japanese explanation is far more chilling; the only way to save yourself is put another in jeopardy, and they have to do exactly the same thing to someone else. It is an eternal loop; a ‘ring’ that keeps on growing. Perhaps it is this, combined with some iconic moments and the scariest child in film history that has made Ring what it is. Perhaps it is simply that the film never lets us feel safe; as I have already stated, revenge knows no bounds. Not even death can hold it.


November 23, 2005

COLLECTOR'S EDITION: DOOM

Title:
Rating:
5 out of 5 stars

After Jon Romero’s enormously embarrassing Daikatana debacle that terminated his career as a videogaming rockstar, as well as the hundreds of ‘Quake Killers’ that were appearing out of the woodwork like crazy, it is hard to underline just how powerful and important Doom was. To some, it is difficult to remember the PC having any decent games before Doom. Doom was the videogame equivalent of Star Wars; an event that changed history for all involved, and not only changed the way games were made, but also how they were packaged, rated and how they infiltrated popular culture. It should never have worked. In 1992, Id software released prototype Wolfenstein 3D through a highly clever method of distribution called Shareware, whereby you played the first seven or so levels for free, and then purchased the rest via other ‘episodes’. It was successful, and despite a lacklustre retail performance for its sequel Spear of Destiny, Id software was tapping the bucks. Yet they were not regarded well in the industry; publishers and established games companies looked down on Id; Sierra tried to broker a deal with Id Software, but Id demanded $2 million up front as part of the deal. Sierra was appalled at the arrogance of the demand, and closed the deal. After Doom, nobody would ever say no to them again.

A revolutionary graphics engine designed by technical wunderkind John Carmack laid the track, and Id’s smart team of designers worked night and day on their masterpiece; it was going to be gory, it was going to be violent, and it was going to take in some taboo themes. Doom was unleashed in December 1993, and the world never saw anything like it. A thunderingly violent game that recalled the 1986 film Aliens, the story of Doom was simply a marine who ends up on a Mars base where everything has fallen strangely silent and finds that hell has been unleashed. Level after level of blood-splashed mayhem ensued, climaxing with the destruction of the Spider Mastermind in hell itself. With seven weapons to choose from in its hellish gothic design, the wondrous shooting maze that was Doom captured the minds of a whole generation. History had changed. Other companies desperately tried to copy, with more violent and destructive weapons and more evil looking bad guys, but to absolutely no avail. The menagerie of Doom was impossible to emulate; floating demons (Cacodemons) zombies (Former Humans) cybernetic hell beasts (the enormous Cyberdemon) and sometimes just the plain gross (Mancubus).

What set Doom apart from any of its inferior imitators however, was not the violence or enemies- although help the enemy design did, with the Cyberdemon probably being the finest boss ever created in any game, ever. What set Doom apart was its fiendish and clever-as-hell design. Id were precociously good at creating enormous booby trapped levels, such as ‘Tricks and Traps’ in Doom II where you open the door as soon as you start, to find some invincibility power ups, eighteen barons of hell (horned demon things, very tough) and one cyber demon (eighteen times tougher than the barons) waiting for you. Time to get powered up. Or Barrels Of Fun, where you have to sprint away from were you’re starting thanks to some zombie igniting one of the many exploding barrels exploding in a massive chain straight towards you. All of it classic, all of it clever, all of it brilliant. Doom II was the retailed one, and was cynically regarded by some as a cash-in add on; the first had the more compelling story and setting, it was argued. No changes, bar a new weapon and a few new enemies were added. Yet Doom II was where Id really let their imaginations run riot, creating a truly enormous game with some brilliantly fiendish levels – each level perhaps four times larger than any of the maps in Doom I. Admittedly, in today’s Half Life’s and Unreal’s, Doom is less highly regarded, despite an entertaining third instalment but it still stands up today as a bloody good fun game despite its age. You just have to remember; no Doom? No Quake, No Unreal, No Half Life, no Unreal Tournament, no Quake III Arena, No Return to Castle Wolfenstein, no Medal of Honor, no Aliens Vs Predator…its as simple as that really.

Oh yeah, and its out in a highly competitive box set; £10 for Doom I, Doom II and Final Doom – that's 120 levels of hell blasting action. FOR. A. TENNER. You'd be bloody mad not to buy it, frankly.


The Brittas Empire (PG)

Title:
Rating:
2 out of 5 stars

Oh dear.

Oh deary me.

It always breaks my heart when I find sitcoms not as funny as I once found them; I remember loving it because of my beloved Chris Barrie, who does such an excellent job in Red Dwarf. It is considered something of a classic mid 90s series; the premise is summed up best by the Amazon review:

_In this classic TV sitcom, Gordon Brittas (Chris Barrie) is the manager of Whitbury New Town Leisure Centre. He means well, wants to do well and desperately wants to be a good manager. Unfortunately his best talent is to continually create recipes for total disaster But Deep down Brittas cares for his staff, but all he ever seems to do is to make their lives more difficult. Trying to rise above this, and to keep the Centre running smoothly, are his assistant Laura (Julia St. John) and of course Colin, complete with boil! Behind every good man, so the saying goes, is a good woman, and behind every maniac, is a good woman losing her sanity! Helen Brittas (Pippa Haywood) is no different as she struggles to cope with her husband's misplaced enthusiasm. _

Okay, why, do you ask, have I pasted a review verbatim from Amazon.co.uk? Possibly its because I don't honestly feel it necessary to sum up the premise of the Brittas Empire on my own – also to showcase the occasionally very poor grammar of amazons own reviewers.

Mainly I suppose its because I want to get down to brass tacks: the show really is not as funny as I remember it to be. The central problem I realise is that despite Chris Barrie's amusing performance, the writers seem to think that having a pratfalling manager whom the staff bad talk every fifteen seconds or so is genuinely funny – with the exception of the highly overrated The Office, this has not translated well. One thing I find completely preposterous is his wife. Her constant infidelity is supposed to be funny and we are supposed, for god knows what reason, to root for this semi-psychotic, nymphomaniacal egotistical hussy. For some other, even more preposterous reason, the staff seem to assist in her escapades – even looking disappointed and crestfallen when his wife fails to say marry a new man mere hours after the supposed death of her husband.

I know Brittas is supposed to be an idiot, but surely even in comedy he wouldn't inspire such loathing from his staff? Even the sensible ones seem to dislike him, even when he is trying to do a good job. Not to say Brittas is entirely sympathetic – he drives everyone up the wall with his absurd pernicketiness, his absurd ideas and appalling customer service. It doesn't really help that the assisting cast, with the exception of Colin and the receptionist Carol, are just insufferably bland. Sensible characters with no flaws are not funny; they don't have to be caricatures, but making a character with virtually no flaws just does not inspire sympathy. A good example is the annoyingly witty, perky and clever Brittas assistant Laura – she is a very dull actress in a very dull part.

It did get funnier later on I recall, with some rather moving episodes regarding Brittas' death and ascent to heaven before being returned simply because he got in St. Peter's nerves too much. It is held together by the comic presence of Chris Barrie, who while admittedly overdoes the smarm a number of times, is pretty much the finest actor of the whole piece – apart from the repugnant Colin, who is the guy we should really be rooting for.

It has pained me to write this review, since I dislike debunking myths of my childhood – especially as I recall avidly watching it from when I was a boy. Sigh. How times change.


October 27, 2005

AMERICAN PSYCHO (18)

Title:
Rating:
4 out of 5 stars

Dir. Mary Harron

For those worried about my review trend, I promise this only happens to be because I bought this recently and not because I fetishise serial killers, okay? Good. I also happen to appreciate very dark movies – much like the excellent American Psycho.

The film American Psycho happens to be based on a rather good, if extraordinarily macabre, novel by Bret Easton Ellis. The novel has been stripped down to its bare essentials and is now a lean, dark social satire with a bit of slasher horror thrown in. Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) is a mild, intelligent, charming, hard working, amiable and rich young banker working on Wall Street. He's also a murderous psychopath, who kills call girls and homeless men for no apparent reason. The film charts his degeneration from savvy banker into maniac, and is all the more powerful for its denouement that pretty much emphasizes the entire message of the film – if I told you, it wouldn't be as amusing and flabbergasting as it turns out to be. It's not a twist as such, more just a deeply surprising way of concluding a movie where the ending would otherwise be astonishingly predictable.

With all due credit to the director and writers, the tone is dark and comical with an acidic edge and kept at a decent 98 minutes which makes the film snappy and fast-moving. Unlike the book, where it occasionally goes to town on the detail and gore, the film is conservative about blood being spilled – there is claret to be seen here, but compared to the book it really is nothing in terms of quantity – and draws an interesting contrast between Bateman by day as banker, and by night as murderous lunatic in underwear wielding his chainsaw around. The best shots in AP are the subtle yet shocking ones; a casual conversation reveals Bateman opening his fridge to retrieve some wine, only for the audience to see a severed head in a plastic bag inside he obtained from a woman he met earlier. No violent strings, no screams…just the shot, Bateman talking, and the door closing. Shots like this make the film as blackly comical as it is.

Christian Bale excels himself, the pure embodiment of smirking charm and arrogance and beautifully portrayed narcicissm. He is, essentially, everything you'd expect Patrick Bateman to be. He is well supported too; Reese Witherspoon is delightfully vacuous as Bateman's fiancee, Evelyn, and Chloe Sevigny is nicely understated as Bateman's sweet and bashful secretary. Willem Dafoe does nicely too, although he doesn't really have much to work with – only being in two or so scenes.

The dialogue is great ("I just…had to kill a hell of a lot of people!!") and when a film is as well acted as this, you have a great film resulting. If I have any criticisms, it is that Bateman's degeneration in mental state seems almost too quick, but it is marginally better than the constant bloodletting of the novel. It also lacks some of the more vividly satirical moments of the novel, something that would have worked well in the film, but to be honest you couldn't include the whole book in the film – The result would just be unwatchable.

Mary Harron has done a great job, creating a magnificent villain for the modern era, and the fact the film remains unflinching and makes no attempt at moral judgement makes the film that much more powerful.


THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974, 18)

Title:
Rating:
5 out of 5 stars

Dir. Tobe Hooper

It has three sequels and one remake, and neither one came even slightly close to the sheer buzzsaw power and terror of the brilliant original. In the early 1970s, it was not uncommon to find films akin to TCSM - largely in the form of rather pointless orgies of bloodletting inspired by Night of the Living Dead (18, 1968). What singles out TCSM is its surprising lack of gore – blood is rarely spilled, but when it is, the effects are shattering.

Made for $500,000 in a sweltering August in 1973, Tobe Hooper's feature length debut was banned in a number of countries, as well as the UK - a campaign sperheaded unsurprisingly by those protectors of moral values, The Daily Mail. It was years before mainstream audiences in the UK saw it, and before it finally got the acclaim it so obviously deserved. It is a horror masterpiece. No, there is no intricate complex plot involved here, it's not The Ring. It does what it says on the tin. A group of teenagers driving through texas are waylaid by a rather 'unconventional' family, out of work since the Slaughterhouse closed down. The first inkling they get of this family is the slightly crazed hitchhiker (Edwin Neals) who hints at what is to come with an amusing lack of subtlety ("My family's always been in meat") before they run out of gas, and poke around an old house before they explore a little too far.

What with there only being five teenagers, the bodycount is low but their deaths are quite awesomely shocking. Deaths are delivered via hammer, chainsaw and meathook – by the insane squealing Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen), a rather unfortunate name to give a growing young man but hey, it has the intended effect. The sole survivor, Sally (Marilyn Burns) spends most of the remainder of the film running away and screaming – unlike most scantily clad film heroines however, you're actually screaming with her. The chase is truly terrifying, and as the film powers into its final minutes, we're still holding our breath and trying not to scream. As a hysterical, shrieking Sally finally escapes, we see the most chilling shot in all cinema – leatherface screaming, waving his chainsaw around his head in a fit of rage.

It is a horror film with a distinct lack of frills and is probably one of the purest horror films ever. It's the bad guy and his quarry, laced with black humour (seen particularly when Leatherface is in the kitchen, being hounded by 'paw') and plenty of shocks and a constant sensation of dread. The film forces you through one nightmare after another; in fact, some of the most disturbing scenes are where leatherface has no weapons and the whole family are sat around the dinner table, shrieking and laughing hysterically at the bound and gagged girl. Okay, so the film is unlikely to win awards for acting – although Gunnar Hansen is fantastic as the insane and child-like Leatherface – but having Shakespearean actors in a film that is all about getting cut up with a chainsaw is not strictly necessary. The film has dated, but it has never lost the power to terrify. The power of the film was such that it was felt that it needed a remake with higher production values and a larger 'Sawyer' family – but the 2003 effort just couldn't get close. Hail one of the great horror movies of all time, as well as one of the greatest and most frightening villains.


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