Saturday, 30 January 2016

Buckets of blood

Sadly, I think a lack of imagination has meant a serious drop in standards and attitudes in "horror" films.
I do love old horror/fantasy films (Terence Fisher's expression was “adult fairy tales”) but want to be uplifted – film should be an emotional experience, but not one that makes you want to slash your wrists. I don't think it's a coincidence that many of the films covered and praised in podcasts and on line (Night of the Demon, The Devil Rides Out, The Wicker Man etc) are retrospective, and more than thirty years old.
Just to establish where I'm coming from, can I say that I really liked Witchfinder General, Hellraiser and Candyman, all of which were gruesome films. One of my favourite horror films is Brian DePalma's Carrie, because it's psychological horror. What distinguishes all of these from lesser films is character and plot. I actually read a review of Carrie on IMDB where the (amateur) reviewer rubbished it because there wasn't enough gore or graphic deaths. He obviously completely missed the point that the horror of the film was that Carrie's deranged mother turned out to be right. To my mind, that twist was much more chilling than any heads being chopped off or people being skewered.
I didn't enjoy The Evil Dead or My Little Eye because of this concentration on violence, I’ve completely avoided The Hills Have Eyes, Hostel, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and all those kind of “slasher” films, and I particularly dislike Quentin Tarantino because he seems to be trying to make violence seem "cool" – exactly the opposite of Witchfinder General, which showed how it could brutalise good men.
A quick history. The slasher film probably started in the 1970s with Halloween and DePalma’s Dressed to Kill – both entertaining films, although you could write a whole book just about DePalma’s attitude to violence against women.
It could well be that Friday 13th in 1980 was inspired by Halloween but, as often, the imagination was lacking. Not long after that we had The Evil Dead (1981) which, in my opinion, started a very unpleasant trend – asking us to laugh at characters being slashed up or mangled. The decline continued with A Nightmare on Elm Street in 1984. That one was supernatural horror that involved the mad murderer inhabiting dreams, so there was potential to exploit the "fear of the unknown" aspect that worked so well in older films. So the idea was potentially really scary, but Wes Craven took the easy option by concentrating on blood and guts, and the result was a film with not much atmosphere and no real scares. Unfortunately it led on to a whole series of exploitation films that went for gore instead of fear.
I think we came to a point around 1980 where audiences, and some directors, stopped understanding the difference between violence and fear. I’ve heard the arguments about Grand Guignol being a strand of horror where you have to show what’s happening rather than just imply it, but surely everything should have limits. For me, any film, including horror films, has to be primarily about character and plot. If the director just uses it as an excuse for a series of gory deaths then there’s plenty missing from the film.
It's been pointed out that the duo of Freddie Kruger and Michael Myers in their numerous films have become a bit of a joke, almost like Abbott and Costello, who ended up meeting all the Universal monsters in the old days. This is another problem with the modern films, that a lot of them want to be funny, but combine this with gore and brutality. You can have comedy suspense, like Bob Hope’s old film The Cat and the Canary, but my feeling is that comedy horror – where you’re being explicit about the horrible ways that people can die – is impossible. If you are asking audiences to laugh at people dying in gruesome ways, what does that say about film-makers and the audiences? Harking back again, the concept was explored in Michael Powell’s clever and unsettling film Peeping Tom, and that got such a bad reception that it ended his career.
I wrote a review of The Descent on IMDB that I titled “Encapsulates everything wrong with the modern horror film”. I found it a particularly unpleasant film that started with a genuinely intriguing road accident but then rapidly descended into darkness and incoherent violence. At least the dim lighting meant we didn’t have to watch the characters being violently mutilated in close-up, but the plot stopped making sense about fifteen minutes in, and if there was any character development at all, then I missed it. Of course, we’ve now got “torture porn” in films like Saw and all its sequels, and there’s no limit to how far some film makers will go to shock and, I would say, revolt their audiences. I was starting to think that the trend was over and then I saw a film called The Children on late night TV. This was a virtually plotless saga of some unlikeable characters trapped in an environment where their children killed them in gruesome ways, with no coherent character development - again, apparently just an excuse to present extreme violence in the guise of entertainment.
I'm not proposing that we should ban or censor violent films, just asking film-makers to use a bit more imagination.
To end on a more positive note, can I say that I do see a way forward for horror films. There have been a few really good ones in recent years, Stir of Echoes and, in the same year, Final Destination was quite inventive. Sam Raimi’s The Gift was surprisingly restrained, and very good for that. The best of the lot all seem to have been ghost stories: The Others was a nice little film; The Sixth Sense was the best I’d seen for years, a Spanish film called The Orphanage was brilliantly creepy, as were the original Paranormal Activity and Sinister. If the filmmakers can follow that direction without succumbing to the compulsion to make everything into a franchise (with endless repetition), the future for “scary films” could be much brighter.

Friday, 1 January 2016

Who can do better (2015)

Not since Tony Blair joined forces with George "Dubya" Bush have I been so disappointed in a person's misguided choices as I have since Steven Moffat took over the reins of Doctor Who.

What happened to the genius who gave us the hilarious Coupling, and wrote Who stories like The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances and Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead? If you look back through this blog you'll see that I've sung his praises. By writing Who and Sherlock simultaneously, it seems he just bit off more than he could chew. Good storytelling is the bedrock of a programme like this and, for me, that has just not been there.

This season (and, sadly, most stories since Mr Moffat took over) have fallen into two types:
"edited highlights" (the plot escaped the writers, and the episode came over as a series of extracts - more like a trailer than a coherent story. Examples: Before the Flood, The Woman Who Lived) and Laboured centre pieces (instead of a plot. Examples: The Witch's Familiar, Face the Raven).

My capsule reviews of the 2015 season:

The Magician's Apprentice Witty but chaotic. Superficially entertaining but highly forgettable.

The Witch's Familiar A let-down. Glib, with implausible story ideas coming out of nowhere. No progression, no sense of drama, just "What silly idea will he come up with next?". In this case, it was Clara in a Dalek.

Under the Lake A spaceship within a spaceship; crew dying and being replaced by ghosts. Tedious.

Before the Flood More of the "edited highlights" syndrome.

The Girl Who Died Brought back to life "because I can...although I'm not supposed to". A retread of an idea that didn't work the first time (Russell T Davies' The Waters of Mars).

The Woman Who Lived. Maisie Williams couldn't bring it to life. Her immortal character should have been fascinating and empathetic but, for me at least, simply wasn't.

The Zygon Invasion Again, little story progression, just a plunge into something already in progress and a lot of rather clumsy parallels drawn between aliens and immigrants. The wisecracking character of the Doctor was annoying despite Peter Capaldi's still-excellent performance.

The Zygon Inversion Too much emphasis on what Hitchcock called a McGuffin (the Osgood Box) which in no way justified the time spent on it. Sadly, the script again did Peter Capaldi's Doctor no favours, and it's hard to believe that the "big centrepiece" where he imitates an American game show host was the actor's idea.

Sleep No More Very much an "edited highlights" type episode. Where was the plot? Neither Capaldi nor (also excellent) Reece Shearsmith was able to revive this one.

Face the Raven A whole episode centred on Clara "dying", trailed ad nauseam in advance and maddeningly laboured, complete with "sad" music to hammer it home to us how tragic it all was. The idea was supported by a threadbare "story" full of holes - obviously there were numerous different ways to save Clara. The only way that killing off the character would have worked would be to have her die suddenly and unexpectedly and perhaps be lost in time simultaneously, so that there was no prospect of a return. Awful.

Heaven Sent An ordeal of an episode, a long way from my idea of entertainment. Yes, Capaldi was great but it must have been almost as much of an effort for him to struggle with such a bleak and empty script as it was for the Doctor to "break through".

Hell Bent An improvement on the thoroughly depressing Heaven Sent because it wasn't so extreme, but was still more annoying than entertaining for trying to outsmart the audience right through. Once again, Steven Moffat undermined his own history by reviving a character who supposedly could not be saved.

The showrunner certainly seems to go for arbitrary titles - shouldn't the last two episode titles have been swapped?)

So, a lot of moaning from me. In an effort to be constructive, I think the show still has potential to improve a lot. What I would like to see is

  1. A return to 25 minute episodes with 4 or 5 episodes per story. It was demonstrated very well back in the 1980s that the programme didn't really work in 50 minute chunks, so why not return to the tried and trusted structure? Plenty of successful and long-running programmes have episodes of 30 minutes - 25 when you subtract the ads on commercial channels.
  2. 10-15 minutes of coherent exposition in each episode, and a cliffhanger at the end of each
  3. Consistency with the pseudo-science outlined in the programme. For example, the Tardis should not fly! William Hartnell said in the pilot episode "This doesn't roll along on wheels, you know" and it makes no sense for it to fly. The "science" in the programme tells us that the atoms of the ship are disassembled and then reassembled in the new time and location, so the flying makes about as much sense as telling us that an Airbus 380 can be speeded up by dematerialisation. Similarly, the inside is in a different dimension from the outside, so "turbulence" should have absolutely no effect on the interior.
  4. A less self-obsessed (and, by extension, less self-important) Doctor and companions. The show at its best was about overcoming monsters and evil genuises, not endless introspection. Jon Pertwee's version was one of the more arrogant Doctors but this never (in my opinion) made him unlikeable. Only when the production team chose to deliberately emphasise this aspect (in the Colin Baker era) did audiences start switching off in disgust.
  5. A new composer or two. The old series had a little variety and that is seriously needed here. No-one would have called Dudley Simpson's scores subtle at the time, but that's how they seem put alongside Murray Gold's plodding, obvious (and apparently non-stop) compositions.
  6. No deus ex machinae! The story resolution should come out of something we've already been shown, not thin air.

I know things are unlikely to change radically while Steven Moffat is at the reins, but maybe when he moves on (in 2017?) we might get some of this.