Review of Scooter McCrae’s ‘Saint Frankenstein’.

81041_310x459This review originally appeared on QuietEarth.us.

I don’t think I’ve ever reviewed a short before, but this one is worthy of special attention.

Back in 1994, filmmaker Scooter McCrae wrote and directed Shatter Dead, an allegorical, micro-budget zombie film in which the living dead are presented as essentially confused and disenfranchised wanderers, as opposed to flesh-hungry monsters. It’s a rough little film, shot on video, full of ideas and arresting imagery (it won a Best Independent Film award at the 1995 Fantafestival), it’s undone only in part by an extremely limited budget and some amateurish acting, yet for me it stands as a highly creative and influential work in the world of underground video and horror.

In 1999, McCrae started on his follow-up, the sleazy, violent and downright bizarre cyberpunk thriller Sixteen Tongues. With this work, McCrae would explore the effects of overstimulation in a highly sexualised, technocratic culture; one drenched in pornographic imagery and on the brink of social collapse. Sixteen Tongues is a very difficult watch; it’s full of creative concepts and interesting characters, but casts such a grim worldview and is populated by characters so unpleasant and disaffected that it’s simply exhausting to sit down and take it all in.

McCrae’s films seem characterised by an otherworldly, uncompromisingly transgressive quality which for many is an instant turn-off (there are also the low budgets) but for me they are something special; these are raw and absolutely original films – representative of what underground cinema is all about. Once one emerges from McCrae’s world, things don’t quite look the same.

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Melanie Gaydos as the titular Saint Frankenstein.

Naturally then, it was with some excitement that I read last year that McCrae was putting together a segment for an anthology film called Betamax, and that his addition would be called Saint Frankenstein. Unfortunately that project has not yet come together as planned, but having finished his film, McCrae has decided to present it as a standalone short, and it’s genuinely very good. So, history lesson over – let’s talk about Saint Frankenstein.

Saint Frankenstein is a 17 minute two-hander starring Melanie Gaydos and Tina Krause. It takes place in a dingy hotel room where a confident and flirtatious prostitute named Carla (Krause) visits an unusual client (Gaydos), receiving far more than she bargained for in the process. What starts off as a curious conversation piece featuring a hypnotic monologue from Gaydos – playing a brutally scarred and surgically disfigured Frankenstein’s monster – shifts part way through into an almost comic book-style romp. In blending literary references with fantasy, historical fiction, pseudo-erotic body-horror, and religious imagery, this is a film that is difficult to categorise, but suffice it to say, it’s very unusual, and a lot of fun.

In terms of quality of craftsmanship it’s important to note straight away that Saint Frankenstein is a big step forward from McCrae’s previous work. The film looks terrific, the work of a real professional. The way in which it is shot, the creative design elements and the performances all come together very well here, and yet, crucially, it contains the personal touch inherent in all of McCrae’s work.

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Tina Krause as Carla.

The design and effects work by Dan Ouellette, Brian Spears and Pete Gerner is genuinely startling. Gaydos is a model and actress born with ectodermal dysplasia, a genetic condition which gives her an unusual, rather striking appearance, and in playing the character of ‘Shelley’ (an appropriate pseudonym if ever there was one) she is required to wear layers of prosthetic scars, including an autopsy scar down the middle of her chest, and stapled laceration running across the middle of her head – it’s really pretty savage. Gaydos’s performance is magnetic and downright eerie. Her character is presented initially as somewhat shy and withdrawn, but once introductions are made Shelley offers a remarkable soliloquy describing the events following the original Frankenstein story, and it’s at once compelling, chilling, and oddly heartbreaking. Although her voice is dubbed, Gaydos’s slow, deliberate movements express the pain and melancholy of her character rather beautifully. Shelley’s voice is provided by Archana Rajan, whose steady, controlled even tones manage to project a benign, almost playful quality, while at the same time feeling vaguely sinister and menacing. The film is worth seeing simply for this fantastic scene alone.

If shorts can contain a second act, then Saint Frankenstein‘s unexpected shift in tone at around the halfway mark would certainly qualify. I won’t say much for fear of spoiling the story, but following Shelley’s strange confession, a reveal – quite literal – spurs things into action, and we’re faced with a confrontation which leads to a skillfully choreographed scene of violent action. Although no stranger to shooting action, it is again apparent that McCrae has pulled out the stops here, and in terms of nuts-and-bolts direction, the denouement of Saint Frankenstein is well ahead of the rough-and-ready style of his previous films.

The film features an original score, and this warrants mention as it’s composed by the legendary Italian maestro Fabio Frizzi (Zombie Flesh Eaters, City of the Living Dead). Frizzi’s haunting synth melody perfectly captures the mood of the film, and it’s hard to imagine these images having the same impact without his atmospheric, dreamy score.

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The most satisfying element of the film for me is that it retains the hallmarks of a Scooter McCrae film (tension, unease, violence, strange and unpleasant sexual imagery, unapologetic and rampant weirdness) while building on his previous work, offering something altogether more sophisticated. If there were any complaint I could level at this work, it might be that it doesn’t approach the same social issues which so concern McCrae’s feature work. Shatter Dead, it can been argued, reflects the divide between rich and poor, quick fix cultism, and the desire for eternal youth and beauty which preoccupies western culture. Sixteen Tongues remains relevant today, prescient in its depiction of a world in which characters must use their credit cards to switch off ubiquitous screens projecting an endless loop of pornography, violence and religious propaganda, a concept well ahead of its time and one that’s been borrowed in years since by other sci-fi dystopia, including Charlie Brooker’s Black MirrorSaint Frankenstein, to its credit, is a simpler film, a brief glimpse of an alternative vision of a classic story, or as McCrae puts it, “The first chapter in an ongoing project dedicated to a modern rethink of the entire Frankenstein mythos.

If a sequel or feature adaptation is in the works – and here’s hoping that it is – we can be sure McCrae will infuse it with his typically heavyweight ideas, and if he commits to the same level of skill and care in direction as evident in Saint Frankenstein then we’re in for a real treat.

I’ve had the pleasure of trading emails with McCrae over the last few weeks, and he has generously agreed to an interview for this site, to discuss both Saint Frankenstein and his previous films. A superbly erudite and imaginative guy, it’s sure to be a fascinating read, so keep your eyes open.

Saint Frankenstein is now available to rent or buy and it is well worth the price of admission.

Review of Alex Cox’s ‘Bill, The Galactic Hero’.

This review originally appeared on Quietearth.us.

Bill posterIn light of the affection many fans have for Harry Harrison’s source novel – that playful, anti-war sci-fi satire of the 1960s – it is difficult to talk about Alex Cox’s crowd-funded, film adaptation of Bill, The Galactic Hero without feeling duty-bound to prepare viewers for what lies in store. This is because it is essentially a feature length student film, albeit one of considerable scale and ambition. It’s also a not-for-profit project, one which will be made available for free online. I must admit, during the first ten minutes of the film (which I had invited a friend unfamiliar with Cox’s work to watch with me) I was tempted to switch off and suggest something else, as I felt that awkward pang of embarrassment which occurs when one insists on playing a favourite song before realizing that nobody else in the room is going to enjoy it. Thankfully, after the initial shock of realizing just how lo-fi, rough and chaotic this little movie is, one slowly begins to appreciate everything which is going on within it: the imagination of the artists at work, the attention to detail, enthusiasm of the young actors on screen, and the appreciation of the book’s surreal and often black humour, which is largely maintained by Cox’s script.

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The film is not perfect by any means, and for many it’ll be a love-it-or-hate-it type situation, but one thing which is undeniable is the passion with which it has been crafted. Cox had been communicating for years with Harrison on the idea of adapting the book, and that he’s co-opted the talents of his own film students at the University of Colorado in finally putting it on screen seems like a fitting approach for this often radical and always unconventional film-maker.

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Introduced in a colourful animated segment, we watch as pizza delivery boy, Bill (James Miller), is coerced by a recruitment officer visiting his farming planet, into joining the intergalactic military to fight an alien lizard race known as the Chingers. The film then shifts to live-action monochrome, landing on our hero as we wakes up in his spacesuit and begins training under the ruthless tutelage of drill instructor Deathwish Drang (Devon Wycoff) aboard the flagship Fanny Hill. From here, we follow Bill as he navigates his way through a series of bizarre and often degrading encounters with his fellow troopers, before (literally) single-handedly destroying an enemy armada during a space battle and becoming the reluctant hero of the empire. Bill’s problems, however, have only just begun…

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It’s pretty clear from the get-go that this a micro-budget film, and its problems mainly revolve around the limited resources available to the filmmakers. While I took no issue with the black and white photography, which actually helps provide a distinctive sense of melancholy and dread, complementing the darkly satirical tone, some will find it an ill-fitting approach to adapting a book which is characterized by its colourful cover art and cartoonish tone – but low-budget films need to do their best to look good, and monochrome is a forgiving format, plus, I dug the nods to Eastern block era sci-fi, ICARUS XB1, which Cox cites as a major influence. (We also sense shades of Roger Corman lurking in the background.) What sticks out more though, is the decision to dress all key players in white spacesuits, with only minor details to distinguish them from one another (Bill always has his teddy bear, so at least we know who he is) which makes for difficulty both in figuring out who’s who, and who’s speaking which lines. I suppose this could be taken as commentary on the uniform individuality of the troopers, but it still means that we have trouble getting to know the characters. There are additional problems with sound clarity, exacerbated by the fact that everyone’s voice is muffled by a space helmet…

BillenderstroopersThe actors here are mainly students, all young and, we sense, relatively inexperienced. Unfortunately this does give the project an amateurish feel, as tough-as-nails drill sergeants and hard-bitten troopers are played by fresh faced kids who, ultimately, struggle to convince. It’s unfair to labour this point though, as it’s part and parcel of a student film experience, but too often it detracts from the storytelling – taking us out of the film – and we can’t help but imagine a better movie recast with professional actors more suited to their roles. As it is, Miller gives a fine, low-key performance as Bill, keeping his reactions minimal, but instilling the character with the requisite innocence and bewilderment befitting of a conscript, before transforming him into a cynical burn-out by the film’s end. Devon Wycoff and Hayden Winston as (respectively) Deathwish Drang and the ship’s Chaplain, also provide memorable turns, and Lily Grisafi does well in lending her voice to Eager Beager, Bill’s suspiciously upbeat and perky comrade.

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Where the film really shines, however, is in its visual design, where every penny of the budget is evident. Wonderfully imaginative scale model work on the spaceships, along with occasional CG animation and green screen effects, is well utilized during space battles and for establishing shots of the city-planet Helior, leaving us wanting more (in a good way). Live action segments are busy with amusing background details (the ubiquitous pro-war propaganda, sarcastic robots and sentient vending machines, several peculiar references to the film Ender’s Game), reminiscent of the kind seen in Cox’s own Repo-Man, which may reward second viewing. Many of the interior spaceship scenes were filmed in the concrete stairways and basements of campus buildings, but a third act taking place on a valley-encrusted desert planet and shot in Cathedral Gorge, Nevada, offers some genuinely startling shots of natural beauty, giving the film a chance to breathe, while also reminding us of Cox’s love of spaghetti westerns. For the scenes set on Helior, exterior shots are framed by stark, ultra-modernist buildings, while interiors are, again, a mixture of cramped basements and labyrinthine corridors: appropriately alienating and claustrophobic.

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The pace of the film is definitely one of its strongest points. Although split into three main chapters, its episodic nature dictates that for every scene or situation which doesn’t quite work, there’s always another ready to come along to try its luck. Standout moments include Bill’s recovery from losing his left arm in battle, during which he’s visited by unhelpful colleagues and well-wishers in hospital, before realizing that surgeons have fitted him with a second right arm by mistake. (“Now you can salute with both hands!”) While visiting Helior, Bill is forced to escape his old life and take a job in waste disposal, which mainly involves thinking of ways to get rid of a deluge of ‘unknown artefacts’ which constantly flood the garbage chute – forming a vast mountain of defunct and broken iPads (nice touch). Other visual gags work well, particularly a running joke concerning Bill’s friend, who has been so severely injured over time that he’s reduced to a life as a severed head, jutting out a little travel case, with a single flailing arm. Certain parts, though, feel less consistent, including a sub-plot involving a group of rebels with whom Bill becomes involved; a slightly overextended skit which ought to be funnier.

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It’s worth mentioning that, although the film is a micro-budget feature, with directing duties divided between Cox and his students, there are individual scenes exhibiting remarkable skill in composition. These are the moments where the film hits its stride, and we become excited about the potential of this approach to film-making. One of the joys in watching Bill… is being provided the opportunity to think, “Maybe I could do this!”, and while it’s obvious that, as quite a considerable endeavour (it took 75 people and over 8 months to complete the film), this is easier said than done, there is a sense of fun in considering the possibility of shooting your own low-budget, transgressive science-fiction comedy. Maybe I should finally finish that screenplay I started years ago?

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This film is rough, yes, and unapologetically so, but in acting as a counterweight to the appalling consumerist rubbish deposited into multiplex cinemas every week, it contains a genuine heartbeat, and that anarchic sense of ‘anything goes’ which so typifies the director’s oeuvre. Does this automatically make it good? No. There are weak moments, and it takes a while to find its feet. But stick with it, and you’ll be rewarded. Alex Cox has been making films for 35 years; I’ve seen all of them, and they all have something to offer. This one might have more in common with his own early student film, the apocalyptic, art-house short, Edge City, than with the work for which he’s best known. I see this as a sign that he’s still a kid at heart, and while he’s learned the hard way that Hollywood has no time for radicals or idealists, perhaps it’s better that way, because fuck Hollywood.

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Additional: No information at present on when exactly the film will be available for download, as the backers have first dibs, but I’ll keep you updated.

For more information on Bill, The Galactic Hero and other projects from Alex Cox, check out his blog right here.

Q&A with Alex Cox and Rudy Wurlitzer at Basilica Hudson.

WalkerWhile stumbling around Youtube I found this video of Alex Cox and Rudy Wurlitzer appearing for a Q&A session following a recent screening of Cox’s 1987 film, Walker. Written by Wurlitzer, a novelist and screenwriter most famous for his script work on Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), the film forms a distinctive hybrid of historical fiction and blackly comic political satire. Starring Ed Harris as the American filibuster William Walker, it’s a genuinely transgressive piece of film-making, and watching it now in the wake of recent wars, Cox’s scathing commentary on Reaganite America’s involvement in Nicaragua feels increasingly relevant and more prescient than ever. Shot with a huge budget, but saddled with an unenthusiastic marketing campaign from a confused Universal Studios, the film met with failure at the box-office, and cost Cox his career in Hollywood. Nevertheless, it remains one of the most daring and original films of the decade – and one well worth checking out. (Additionally, the soundtrack by Joe Strummer is excellent.)

Read more about my obsession with Alex Cox and his career (and his highly underrated film Three Businessmen) in my very first blog article, right here.

Cox is currently in post-production on his latest film Bill the Galactic Hero, an adaptation of the book by Harry Harrison. Find out more and follow his progress at: www.alexcoxfilms.wordpress.com

Thoughts on “Life After Beth” – From EIFF 2014

This review originally appeared on Quietearth.us as part of my coverage of the EIFF 2014.

Beth PosterJeff Baena’s first feature as director is a respectable zombie-comedy, unfortunately hampered by a sense of deja vu when it comes to the material. There are a few clever ideas here, but an over-reliance on the old familiar tropes, and the ubiquitous use of comedy character actors all vying for attention does make it a bit of a mixed bag. Having said that, the film is well crafted and easily passes the laugh test by proving itself consistently amusing and playfully irreverent. Don’t expect to be blown away, and you might find it a decent piece of entertainment and a fine way to spend an evening at the movies.

Dane DeHaan plays Zach, a college student grieving the death of his girlfriend Beth (Aubrey Plaza), who has recently passed away from a snake bite she received while hiking. Beth’s parents (played by John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon) invite him for dinner and to help pack up Beth’s belongings, and they bond over memories of her life while smoking some pot. Visiting their house again the next day, Zach is wildly confused when he sees Beth through a window, and he demands to know what’s going on. Initially convinced that her parents are involved in some kind of insurance scam, he eventually comes to understand that Beth, along with several other members of the local community, has actually come back from the dead. She seems normal enough, although her obsession with the attic is new, and she’s suddenly become freakishly strong and bad tempered. Zach thinks she’s a zombie, her parents think it’s a miracle, and nobody seems sure of whether or not they should actually tell Beth that she’s technically dead…

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Technically necrophilia.

Life After Beth benefits from a likable supporting cast, including Cheryl Hines and Paul Reiser as Zach’s parents, and Matthew Gray Gubler as his overbearing, gun-happy brother. DeHaan himself doesn’t strike one as an obvious choice when it comes to playing comedy, but his performance in the lead role is suitably energetic, and for the most part he hits the right notes and delivers on laughs. As Beth, Plaza does a really good job. Her character’s slow escalation from confusion, to indignation, to eventual rage and outright hostility is handled very well. We get the sense that even when alive Beth may have had a few screws loose, but as a zombie she’s both unhinged and dangerous. Reilly and Shannon are also terrific as Beth’s distressed parents, showing signs of extreme denial as they try their best to keep their daughter in the dark over what’s happened, even as she starts to decompose…

"What do you mean, Camilla Long gave this movie a 1 star review?!"

“What do you mean, Camilla Long gave this movie a 1 star review?!”

There are some nice little touches to zombie mythology here too, as the living dead are not portrayed as outright flesh-eaters, but rather slightly lost and irritable souls who simply want to get back to their old lives. While the plot is vaguely reminiscent of films like Dead & Buried and Shatter Dead, its tone is resolutely comic, with a heavy dose of deadpan irony. I liked the fact that the zombies only relax when listening to smooth jazz and muzak, which is a nice idea, and a pleasing nod to the mall music from Dawn of the Dead. It’s also satisfying to see the gradual changes the zombie phenomenon has on the world the characters inhabit, from a brief shot of a background extra running for his life early in the story, to the eventual arrival of the military as things spiral completely out of control. Baena keeps the action limited to suburbia, thereby giving the story a more closed feeling and allowing Beth’s return to appear as something of a small-scale problem in an otherwise problem-free world. The characters are less worried about ‘zombies’ as they are about ‘the Beth situation’. It’s nothing which we haven’t seen before, but it’s well handled and provides the film with a little more atmosphere and suspense.

When erotic games turn deadly...

When erotic games turn deadly…

One of the problems is a general sense of familiarity to the story. Anyone who’s au fait with zom-coms and zombies in general may not find much new here to chew on. Couple this with an ending which seems very rushed and slightly too Pollyanna-ish, and the film feels distinctly by-the-numbers. Admittedly, for the most part, the movie is completely acceptable, zipping along with snappy one-liners and good sight gags, occasional gore and special effects, but it never quite seeming to become more than the sum of its parts. Despite being well constructed and with some strong performances (especially from Plaza and Reilly), the whole thing somehow manages to keep you at arms length.

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“We are emo!”

The issue facing any contemporary zombie film, comedy or otherwise, is a market which is now so stuffed with new additions to the genre that in order to get noticed you need to have something genuinely fresh and interesting to offer. Comparisons to Shaun of the Dead, which resuscitated the genre back in 2004, and Return of the Living Dead, which set the bar high as one of the first and very best zom-coms, are inevitable. Life After Beth is not in the same league as either of those films, although I felt that it had more soul and more interesting characters than 2009’s Zombieland, which struck me as a fairly cold and empty exercise in stylized violence, even if it was a superficially entertaining one.

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Zach takes a moment to contemplate how totally empty and mean spirited “Zombieland” was.

Beth doesn’t really offer us anything new then, instead ploughing a well furrowed path while covering for its lack of originality with reliable comedy actors and well timed jokes. If this doesn’t bother you, you’re likely to enjoy the film on its own terms (and it is perfectly enjoyable). However, if you’re looking for anything exceptional here, keep looking. No doubt there will be another zombie film coming along next week, and the week after that… and after that…

Just checking...

Just making sure.

Thoughts on Gerard Johnson’s “Hyena” – From EIFF 2014.

This review originally appeared on Quietearth.us as part of my coverage of the EIFF 2014.

Hyena PosterBack in 2009 I covered Gerard Johnson’s first feature, Tony which I liked very much; a kind of low-key psycho-thriller set around a London housing estate and featuring a knock-out performance from Peter Ferdinando. With Hyena, Johnson is once again working with Ferdinando, who stars as the amoral police detective Michael Logan, working as part of a special drugs taskforce, whose extreme lifestyle of near constant drug and alcohol abuse and shady, underhand tactics threaten to upset what little balance exists in his life. The film is a significant step up in scope and ambition for Johnson when compared with Tony, and while I admire it for its confident stylistic flourishes, unflinching brutality, and for Ferdinando’s excellent performance, there are problems with pacing and character which ultimately undermine its strengths and have the effect of making it an oddly frustrating experience.

Set in London, the film follows Michael as he trades favours and information with gangs in exchange for drug money, clashes with his superior officers and hangs out with his disreputable colleagues on the taskforce, snorting cocaine, drinking huge quantities of booze and dividing up the spoils of corruption. After witnessing the violent murder, at the hands of Albanian gangsters, of the member of an established Turkish drug ring with whom he has close ties, Michael immediately and characteristically shifts his allegiance to this powerful new gang. By coincidence, he is ordered by his boss to investigate the Albanians’ operation, and look into evidence of sex trafficking, thereby blurring the lines between his role as cop and criminal. As the plot progresses, Michael must deal with an internal police investigation into his methods, and also come to terms with the consequences his actions have on the people who get caught in the crossfire.

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“The Korova milkbar sold milk-plus.”

To begin with the positive: Hyena looks and sounds pretty terrific. The style of the film is established from the opening scenes of Michael and his crew gearing up for a raid and bursting into an underground nightclub while bathed in electric blue neon, savagely beating the clientele in a balletic slow-motion montage. The direction is energetic and confident, with hand-held camera work giving a sense of urgency to events. Matt Johnson provides a low-key, pulsating electronic score which nicely complements the overall atmosphere, and could stand as reason alone to check out this film. Ferdinando is excellent in the lead role, his knack for totally inhabiting his characters provides Michael with a realism not often seen in cinema and the film is stronger for his presence. The supporting cast provide admirable performances also, especially MyAnna Burning as Michael’s occasional girlfriend, and Elisa Lasowki as a victim of the Albanian sex trafficking system, whose plight gives Michael reason to question the moral vacuum he inhabits. The colour palette of the film is all intense blues and reds, which could be read as representing Michael’s duality, his position in the police, heaven and hell, or it may just be a stylistic choice, but either way it works to give the film a distinctive look and feel, and this is where Johnson succeeds admirably. The world the characters inhabit seems complete: scary and tough.

The problems with Hyena stem mainly from the nature of the main character, with whom I really found no sympathy. It is impossible when watching this film not to consider the parallels between it and Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant (and I make the distinction between Ferrara’s original and Werner Herzog’s playful remake) since they tread such similar territory.

When I met Johnson after first seeing Tony he spoke of his next project as a “British ‘Bad Lieutenant’… a ‘French Connection’ in London,” and Hyena is undoubtedly, demonstratively indebted to both those movies. The main difference, however, is that while Keitel’s lieutenant undergoes a powerful catharsis and redeems himself, Ferdinando’s Michael goes through the motions, but never really seems to learn anything. Ferrara’s film was lightening in a bottle and probably that director’s finest work, so it’s not exactly fair to compare the two, but looking at them together illustrates Hyena‘s real problem; we never really care much about Michael or see a side of him which lends us to sympathize with his situation. Johnson and Ferdinando don’t give the character any kind of back story or reason for his addictions and corruptions, and the languorous pacing of the film means that while we spend a lot of time watching him, he basically remains a mystery in terms of motives and history (while of Keitel’s character we can at least be sure that he has lost God). This may, of course, be the entire point. To know nothing of a character can give us the chance to learn as we go along, but the way Michael is written keeps us from ever getting into his head; he expresses regret and emotion one minute, but then seems to get on with the business at hand immediately afterwards, leaving us wondering if he’s really human.

"Turn off ma gasss, Bunty!"

“Turn off ma gasss, Bunty!”

The film is a little under two hours long, and as sign of how episodic and baggy it feels, it really does feel like two hours. The festival guide suggests (rather ominously) that the film’s pacing is “organic and adventurous”, but this could easily be a euphemism for ‘drawn-out and ill-considered’, as the narrative never seems to take off and fly, presenting instead a series of confrontations and set-pieces which work well individually, but do not weave together to form a satisfying story. Towards the end of the film Michael rescues a young woman who has been forced into prostitution, and attempts to save her in his clumsy efforts towards salvation. This plot device is as old as the hills, and it really doesn’t feel fresh when it’s used here.

The film is pretty unflinching in its use of violence, not gratuitously so, but enough to give the gore-hounds a certain satisfaction. One memorable scene involves a group of gangsters holding a conversation as they lean over a bathtub to slice a victim’s corpse into parts – the kicker being that the men are naked as they do so, yet appear so relaxed that they might well be playing cards – and it’s scenes like this which give the film an occasional darkly comic edge. The same cannot be said for an agonisingly ill-judged and needless rape scene which fails to elicit the intended response simply by dint of the fact that its graphic detail distracts us from the role it plays in the plot, essentially providing reason to mistrust the film, rather than follow it.

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“Very sexy.”

Hyena, then, is a film which it is easy to admire in many ways, but very difficult to actually like. Johnson is clearly a talented director, getting the best from his cast and crafting a seedy and unpleasant world for them to stumble around inside, but the question remains: Who is this film really for? Police procedural thrillers thrive on anti-heroes and no-nonsense detectives, but Hyena‘s central character is not well formed enough for us to understand him as such. Horror fans will enjoy the gore and dark humour, but such scenes are relatively intermittent and not the focus of the narrative. Those seeking a Ferrara style redemptive drama will enjoy the obvious nods to his best work (Ms. 45, King of New York and Bad Lieutenant) but the film lacks the structure and pace required to work as such a genre piece, and moreover it is void of the catharsis and moral vision which those films held at their core. As we watch Hyena unfold, we also watch it start not to work, and while I enjoyed the film as a visual experience and a chance to enter a world I know nothing about, I found very little there to care about. It pains me to say it, but I’m not sure who I would recommend this film to. At the same time though, I’m really looking forward to seeing what Johnson does next.

Thoughts on Nick Johnstone’s “Abel Ferrara: King of New York”.

I love reading film biographies, and have recently read Cronenberg on Cronenberg and Lynch on Lynch (both edited by Chris Rodley, both excellent) as well as Woody Allen on Woody Allen (edited by Stig Bjorkman, also great). I’m gearing up to check out Fassbinder: The Life and Work of a Provocative Genuis by Christian Braad Thomsen, but frankly it looks rather daunting. I was pretty tickled to see that there was a book written about the American film-maker Abel Ferrara, still most famous for his controversial and seminal thriller Bad Lieutenant. The film was recently remade by Werner Herzog in a rather curious move, one which prompted Ferrara to damn him to hell, although Herzog’s response to this was better than any film could have been when he simply stated, “Wonderful, yes! Let him fight… I have no idea who Abel Ferrara is!”

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Abel Ferrara.

Ferrara is a director who I’d often pictured as an incoherent and barely functioning drunk, terrorizing his cast and crew while openly weeping at icons of the Virgin Mary and smoking crack, and yet, after recently purchasing a whole stack of his old films, I found myself getting really into his whole style and wanting to know more about him. When I found a copy of Nick Johnstone’s book, The King of New York – named for Ferrara’s first high-profile film, starring Christopher Walken as a savvy New York gangster – I immediately bought it and excitedly settled down to learn whether my bizarre impressions of this very private and complicated director were in any way founded… I am unfortunately still none the wiser. In a nutshell, the text simply explains, in stultifying detail, each plot-point of all of his films. In my review of the book below I go into more detail about how not to write a film biography. This originally started as an Amazon review, but quickly turned into a blog entry because I had so much to say on the subject…

Here are my thoughts on Johnstone’s book:

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£0.01 from Amazon. (P&P £2.99)

Abel Ferrara (b1951) is a film-maker whose work is undeniably controversial, always toeing the line between art and exploitation. Some of his films are more successful than others (to put it mildly), but they all contain a certain unique blend of outrageous imagery, a slightly sleazy and shambolic quality, a dark, often absurd sense of humour, and a thinly veiled, deeply artistic sensibility. The care and craft brought to his films is exemplified by the intelligent scripts written by his long-time collaborator Nicholas St. John, and the effective performances by actors like Harvey Keitel, Christopher Walken and Willem Dafoe. Ferrara remains a very strange character in the landscape of cinema however, building a career out of low-budget pornos, before moving on to art-house shockers like Driller Killer (1979) and Ms. 45 (1981), and finally finding a certain recognition and taking on bigger budget, glossier (some might argue way overblown and unsubtle) projects like Fear City (1984) and King of New York (1990). The zenith of his career is undoubtedly Bad Lieutenant (1992) – still one of the most agonizing and emotionally distressing depictions of addiction and Catholic guilt (his twin obsessions over the years) ever committed to film. After the critical success of Lieutenant he directed the big-budget sci-fi horror Body Snatchers (1993) and, following its relative failure at the box-office, has since remained steadfastly on the fringe, making occasional low-budget movies which seem somehow more experimental (The Addiction – 1995, The Blackout – 1997) and less focused and immediate (New Rose Hotel – 1998).

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“Video Nasty.”

 Above: Original poster for ‘The Driller Killer’ (1979). The cover for the video cassette drew so many complaints that it is often considered single-handedly responsible for the UK Video Recordings Act of 1984. The film was banned in the UK until 1999.

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“Emotionally distressing.”

Above: Harvey Keitel is the ‘Bad Lieutenant’ (1992).

Nick Johnstone’s book, Abel Ferrara: The King of New York, therefore, had a lot to cover in charting the career of this underrated and often misunderstood director, yet somehow he seems to completely fail in ‘getting to’ Ferrara. It’s obvious that he’s a fan, this is demonstratively clear from the praise he heaps on Ferrara in his opening chapter. Johnstone quickly establishes the key influences on Ferrara’s work as R.W. Fassbinder, Pasolini, Polanski, Godard and Scorsese. He discusses the themes in Ferrara’s overall body of work to very nice effect and sets the book up in an agreeably conversational, slightly gushing manner. The style of Johnstone’s prose is, unfortunately, a little pedestrian, and as he repeats his assertions about artistic influences, reoccurring themes and visual motifs over and again, we begin to get the impression that he’s actually run out of material. I must admit that I had not connected the work of Ferrara with that of Fassbinder, and thought it was very astute of Johnstone to point out the overlapping themes in their work, but after it’s been mentioned around ten times in the opening chapter one can’t help but feel hammered down by what was otherwise a fine observation. Similarly, Godard and Pasolini are brought into the conversation so often that it begins to read like an exercise in ‘spot the reference’.

The main bulk of the book is remarkably slim on material, comprising almost entirely of scene-by-scene synopses of each film in chronological order. Here is where Johnstone genuinely runs out of inspiration and reveals himself unable to go beyond the most basic observations of the language of cinema. After reiterating his earlier points on style and form – although valid and, initially, quite interesting – he suddenly gets bogged down by his reverence for the subject. It’s certainly worth pointing out a visual trick, such as the use of colour schemes to chart a character’s journey (red for a ‘descent into hell’, white for ‘salvation’ or blue for ‘authority and sterility’), but this is hardly unique to Ferrara’s work, nor is the use of mirrors and reflections to show a character questioning their sense of self and their motivations, yet these techniques are discussed with a sense of awe and wonder. Johnstone goes so far as to point out the intertextual references in every film, which becomes very tiring (yes, film-makers like to acknowledge their influences, we get it) and he seems to delight in highlighting the trademark ‘nipple-shots’ (!) which Ferrara includes during scenes of sex and nudity in his work, which has the unintentional effect of making the book seem slightly grubby and adolescent. Further to this, the (literally) narrative approach taken in explaining the material is extremely frustrating, as anybody who isn’t completely familiar with Ferrara’s entire body of work will find spoilers littering the text. I’ve seen most of the films covered, but found myself skipping the chapter on Snake Eyes to avoid this. (The TV episodes of Miami Vice and Crime Story which Ferrara directed are also covered in great detail.) Each moment of each film is recounted and explained in terms a child would understand, and far from writing from the perspective of an academic or even a ‘film buff’, Johnstone comes across more like a clever teenager who’s discovered a selection of 18-Rated movies and is trying to relate them to his friends in as much detail as possible – bragging about the apparent subtleties he’s picked-up on…

Fear City Poster

“No subtleties here.”

 Above: Poster for ‘Fear City’ (1984).

Ms. 45 Poster

“Very sexy.”

 Above: Poster for ‘Ms. 45’ (1981) – Still Ferrara’s strongest, most satisfying and stylish film.

For what it’s worth, the chapter on Ms. 45 (my favourite of Ferrara’s films) is actually pretty good, and the section on Bad Lieutenant is suitably comprehensive, featuring a sourced interview with the script-writer, Zoë Tamerlis-Lund (who also plays Keitel’s drug dealer in the film), which is surprisingly insightful. Lund, an actress, writer and musician, is probably most famous for her role in Ms. 45, in which she plays the central character, Thana, to brilliant effect (the character is mute throughout the film), and in the interview she comes across as very intelligent and articulate – she died in 1999. Johnstone also briefly hits his stride with his analysis of The Addiction, probably Ferrara’s strangest and most misunderstood film (a vampire story about morality, guilt and, yes, addiction – which like Cronenberg’s The Fly is often misinterpreted as an allegory about the AIDS crisis) which he seems to take more time and thought over. I was actually quite startled at how profound the writing was in this chapter, as Johnstone seems to dissect the strange mindset of the addict in an almost eerie way; indeed, it turns out that he is himself a recovering alcoholic.

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“Got a light?”

 Above: Zoë Lund and Harvey Keitel in ‘Bad Lieutenant’.

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“Holy shit!”

Above: Zoë Lund in ‘Ms. 45’. The alternative title was ‘Angel of Death’.

Addiction Poster

“Intense.”

Above: Poster for ‘The Addiction’.

Film critic Peter Bradshaw placed ‘The Addiction’ at the top of his list of the best films ever made for Sight & Sound in 2002, right above ‘Annie Hall’.

Addiction Street Trash

“Don’t mind me…”

Above: Philosophy student and vampire: Kathleen (Lili Taylor) approaches her first victim, a homeless junkie, in ‘The Addition’.

There is an unfortunate sense of imbalance, however, when it comes to discussing Ferrara’s remake (or reimagining) of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (simply titled Body Snatchers). The Ferrara version has close links to both the original 1956 Don Siegel film and the 1978 remake directed by Philip Kaufman. However, Johnstone dismisses the ’78 version completely in his analysis here (because Ferrara doesn’t mention it in press interviews) and instead makes blithe comparisons to the original film. It’s clear he strongly dislikes the Ferrara version and considers it a complete waste of time and money, but then he barely gives it due consideration, and rather petulantly sums it up as ‘crap’. Sure, it’s not a great movie, but for a writer who seems to genuinely enjoy a film as openly derivative and trashy as Fear City, it feels as though he lets his emotions get the better of him (somewhat ironically) in dedicating only three pages of the entire book to Ferrara’s most expensive and high-profile film to date – one to which Roger Ebert gave a glowing review. (Ebert famously hated the Kaufman version.)

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“WAAAAAHHHHHHHEEEEAAAHHHHHH!!!”

 Main image: Carol (Meg Tilly) alerts the other pod-people with a mechanical scream in ‘Body Snatchers’ (1993). 

Insert: Brooke Adams performs a similar move in the 1978 adaptation. Ferrara and St. John drew inspiration from several plot elements of the Kaufman version (including the creeping tentacles of the pods) but add to the paranoid atmosphere by setting the film on an American military base.

Having struggled through the book (minus the Snake Eyes chapter), what struck me most was the lack of input from Ferrara himself. Each chapter begins with a sourced quote from Ferrara about the film being discussed, along with additions from St. John and occasional press soundbites, yet he remains a curiously absent presence throughout the book (there is virtually no biographical information), and as a result of this, Johnstone’s pontificating on form and subtext seems less convincing and more like hearsay. Perhaps if Ferrara were a less private individual and more apt to give interviews and explanations of his work, Johnstone would have found himself on firmer ground and had more to work with. It’s possible that Johnstone approached Ferrara for an interview and was turned down, which would explain his reliance on sourced quotes, speculation and endless repetition. When reading a book dedicated to the work of a single director, the most interesting thing to hear about is their working process. Film-makers often have a unique and distinctive approach to collaborating with their cast, their writer, DP and crew, and with a genuine firebrand auteur like Ferrara you can bet there are a million great stories… of which we hear none. When you watch a film like Bad Lieutenant and witness the extent to which Keitel commits himself to the role, it leaves you wondering how the director managed to convince him to take on the part, and the nature of their relationship during the shoot. Zoë Lund is an actress and writer who had a troubled life (there is vague talk of ‘drugs’ from, of all people, John Cale) and collaborated with Ferrara on his two most successful films, and yet we’re privy only to one short interview with her, and we don’t even hear about how they met. The best anecdote in the book has Ferrara meeting a group of press in a hotel room and mischievously climbing into a wardrobe to give his interviews through a makeshift confessional box. It’s amusing, but it hardly tells us anything about Ferrara other than the fact that he’s eccentric.

Ms. 45 Image

“I’d give it a minute if I were you, Abel’s giving a press conference inside…”

 Above: Zoë Lund as the mute seamstress Thana, in ‘Ms. 45’.

Mentally and physically abused by the ‘MEN’ in her life, she takes to the streets with .45 magnum…

Transformation

“A transformation.”

Trauma and emotional scarring lead Thana to become an angel of retribution.

Something about the book which bugged me – something which goes beyond the blandness of commentary and analysis – is the fact that Johnstone keeps making mistakes about which actors play which roles. In King of New York, Laurence Fishburne (over)plays a sassy gang leader named Jimmy Jump, and Wesley Snipes is a tough rookie cop called Flanigan. Their characters are pretty distinctive (Fishburne chews the scenery so much he actually has to be seen to be believed!), but Johnstone manages to get them confused several times, discussing the wrong actor’s performance in a role, and then actually switching them around again, talking about the same actor playing another character. I had to re-read these parts to make sure (and any editor worth their salt should have noticed), but it’s clear that he couldn’t remember who played whom, and didn’t bother to go back and check out the credits to make sure. The book was written shortly after both Blade and The Matrix were released, so it’s not like we’re talking about Bud Cort here. He also manages to confuse a startled extra at the beginning of Body Snatchers with a character played by Forest Whitaker, who appears as a major character later on in the film, thereby questioning the logic of having Whitaker ‘forget’ that he’s already met the lead character before. The extra was a black guy too. I’m not saying that Nick Johnstone is racist, by the way, just easily confused and perhaps slightly lazy. There are also various grammatical mistakes along the lines of: “In this film… blah blah, which happens in this film.” and “In his review of… blah blah, which he wrote in his review.” This is ultimately the concern of the editor though, since nobody can write an entire book without making a few mistakes.

Fishburne Career Highlight

“Needs to be seen to be believed.”

 Above: Laurence Fishburne gets fresh in ‘King of New York’.

Fishburne Gangsta Elite

“Been spendin’ most my life living in a gangsta’s paradise.”

Above: Laurence Fishburne during the explosive drug-deal scene in ‘King of New York’.

Wesley Snipes 2

“Could this be non-vintage Bollinger?”

Wesley Snipes plays it cool in ‘King of New York’.

King of New York Poster

The poster makes it pretty damn clear!

In better understanding how this book came to be written, and why the author seems so lost, I had a look at his other credits, which include an unofficial biography of the actor Johnny Depp, and a book about the late Amy Winehouse. (I shudder to think what these books must be like!) The fact that Johnstone seems to specialize in this kind of celebrity filler stuff suggests that Abel Ferrara: The King of the New York was an attempt to write something of substance about a film-maker whom he admired. However, to quote from his chapter on Body Snatchers: “It’s poorly thought out, empty and mind-numbingly dull.

Abel 1

Above: Abel Ferrara with his entourage.

For a great interview with Zoë Lund about Bad Lieutenant and her script writing process:

http://zoelund.com/filmvid/SensesOfCinema/interview.html

For more info on Ferrara and his future projects:

http://abelferrara.com

Driller Artwork

Above: Artwork from the film ‘Driller Killer’.