Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Kills On Wheels (2016)

Kills on Wheels is a re-naming for English markets of a film, the second from Hungarian writer-director Attila Till, whose original Hungarian title, Tiszta Szívvel, translates as Pure Heart. A comedy action-drama that actually has heart, and is entirely character-based, is a rare thing in of itself, but, as is being foregrounded much more prominently by the English title than by the film’s Hungarian moniker, this one stands out in particular for showcasing a cast of young paraplegics and people with disabling mobility issues as the main protagonists, forging a plot where traditional gangster and action movie motifs are spun into a poignant but non-patronising examination of the sorts of issues of identity and acceptance apt to preoccupy any young teen on the cusp of adulthood, but which have even more resonance for those who daily face the challenges imposed by physical impediments and life-threatening health issues to boot. 

But the opening scene is also designed to provide opportunities for Till to signpost early that he in no way intends this to be an exercise in po-faced sentimental 'misery-mongering' that scores brownie points by portraying persons with physical disabilities as saintly martyrs or token objects of inspiration for the able-bodied. It’s a prison scene of a kind familiar to pretty much all prison movies  -- with gnarly looking cons eyeing each other up for exploitable weaknesses in the prison recreation room while pensive guards monitor them for signs of the outbreak we know is coming eventually anyway. In this instance, though, the camera gradually pans out to reveal that every single one of the prisoners is, in fact, a wheelchair user; only the prison guards patrolling them are able-bodied. As the inevitable  riot-on-wheels erupts before us, we’re being reminded -- as we also were by Miroslav Slaboshpytskyi’s 2014 movie The Tribe, in which the entire cast was made up of deaf performers -- that, although people with a common disability placed together in a regime administered by the able-bodied creates a unique culture, the resultant community will tend, of course, to be made up of just as diverse and flawed a collection of individuals as any other group would be.


At the centre of this eruption of explosive tension is ex-firefighter-turned-petty-criminal Rupaszov (Szabolcs Thuróczy), who we next see leaving the prison grounds at the end of his sentence in yet another scene that is a mainstay of the prison movie subgenre: the one in which the ex-prisoner suddenly finds himself alone outside the imposing walls of his former temporary home, realising that he has now been cut off from the institutional support network that once sustained him, as he's thrust back into an uncaring outside world. Here, Rupaszov is immediately taken under the wing of a trackie-wearing Serbian mobster boss who breeds Rottweilers, called Rados (Dusán Vitanovic). He puts Rupaslov straight to work in the unlikely role of gangland hitman, with the rationale that the goons and gangster bosses he’s to be sent to 'off' will never suspect a guy in a wheelchair – a view that soon proves itself profitably correct.


Although the movie starts with Rupaszov's tale, and looks set to go off down a Tarantino-esque road that puts smart dialogue and extreme violence on an equal footing with deliberately unrealistic, semi-comic action scenarios like the opening scene, the film in fact switches focus pretty quickly and takes us instead into the world of two young disabled friends who, like Rupaszov, have also been institutionalised, although in rather different surroundings. Instead of a prison that caters exclusively for the disabled, Zolika (Zoltán Fenyvesi) and Barba (Ádám Fekete) frequent a rehabilitation centre providing treatment, physical therapy and daily activities for young people like themselves who have a range of physicalities that restrict mobility and/or are difficult to deal with at home. Both actors actually have for real the conditions their featured characters are depicted living with: Zoli is paralysed because of a congenital spinal malformation, and, in the movie, also urgently needs a life-saving operation to support his spine and stop his organs being crushed, a likely result of the condition worsening in later life; Barba, meanwhile, although not paralysed in the same way, finds it difficult to walk or to exercise full control of his limbs. Both boys are fed up with the dull, humdrum routine that is apparently to be their lot while living under a day-care regime offering little to expand one’s horizons, despite the sincere dedication of its staff. They instead have to make do with silly acts of minor vandalism to pass the time. They are also writing and producing their own graphic novel in art class which they hope to sell at a local comics con, detailing in comic-strip form their daily struggles.



The boys meet Rupaszov when he visits the centre to undergo physical therapy. The former firefighter is offended when he spots them messing about with a fire extinguisher in the yard. The relationship is initially fraught with tension but gradually softens, and there emerges a touching bond between the three outsiders, casting Rupaszov first in the role of older brother and confidant to the boys, and then as a sort of surrogate father figure. The raspy-voiced hitman takes them on various expeditions that force the boys to venture far beyond the safe confines of the world they’d previously known. For instance, hanging with Rupaszov teaches the callow duo how to act confidently in the company of women when visiting bars and flashy nightclubs. They also accompany him as he embarks on various hope-filled but ill-fated efforts to woo a nurse he’d previously been involved with who is now imminently to be married -- a plot strand that culminates with a raucous gate-crashing of the couple's wedding reception.

Much of this is standard coming-of-age comedy-drama material, rendered all the more affecting for the pleasantly engaging performances Fenyvesi and Fekete are able to deliver as these two guileless teenagers who end up way out of their depth. Fenyvesi conveys an insular angst but is quietly soulful, while Fekete's character is the more boisterous, geeky and freewheeling of the pair. The suspense and action-drama elements of the film arise when a bewildered Zoli and Barba find themselves suddenly caught up in one of Rupaszov’s hits, pulled into the fray as make-do getaway drivers. When crime lord Rados discovers their unscheduled involvement, he demands that Rupaszov bump off the two boys to make sure all remaining loose ends are tied up, thus placing the hitman in an unenviably difficult position. 

   
 Broken family ties and imperfect friendships are at the heart of a mercurial tale that largely lands in the sweet spot between wry comedy and gritty drama. A subplot, centred on Zoli’s refusal to let his estranged father help his long-suffering mother out with the payment for his urgently needed operation, is at the emotional heart of the story and the feelings of betrayal and rejection which lie at the core of his characterisation also resurface in the main storyline, with Rupaszov agonising over a seemingly unthinkable dilemma during an initially comedic fishing expedition with the boys that provides him with the perfect opportunity to comply with Rados’s demand to get rid of them. The crime boss himself also acts as something of a father substitute for his hitman charge (with Rados’s dogs referred to by him throughout as his ‘children’), while the jobs Rupaszov is sent on involve him severing ‘family ties’ for Rados with various foreign gang lords. 


Till’s direction is fluid and his shots nicely composed, even incorporating animation into scene transitions in order to illustrate how the events of the film relate to the content of Zoli and Barba’s home-made graphic novel. The score incorporates rootsy urban folk songs and the witty script features caustic dialogue aplenty, particularly when Rupaszov chastises his slow-moving, frequently hapless accomplices as they, say, wrestle with trying to hold a pair of binoculars steady during a stake-out, or take ages unfolding a wheelchair to escape in after the completion of a job -- police sirens all the while wailing in the distance and getting ever-louder as they continue their struggle.

Till is not averse to using the protagonists’ disabilities in this way to generate both absurdist comic moments (although never at his heroes’ expense) and instances of taut suspense. The latter quality is particularly notable during a protracted set-piece which sees Rupaszov faced with a houseful of heavily armed and intensely suspicious gangsters. Afterwards, in attempting to find a wheelchair-friendly exit from the dwelling, he is forced to negotiate a yard with an extremely steep, upward-sloping pathway to the front gate, resulting in what is likely to be the most painfully snail-like getaway in the history of movies!


The film’s resolution, after a tense confrontation with Rados and his canine companions, comes in the form of a pseudo-twist of sorts that is, in truth, so flagrantly signposted it’s probably not even meant to be a twist -- although the final act does also reveal one further poignant wrinkle to the plot regarding the thematic concerns which underpin the film and connect Zolika’s resentment towards his absent father for leaving him and his mother to his ambivalent feelings about Rupaszov, in a way that is both satisfying and life-affirming.    

This likeable dark comedy is released by Eureka Entertainment in a dual format form, incorporating Blu-ray and DVD formats, as part of its new Montage Pictures range.                                                             

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Der Müde Tod (1921)

Der Müde Tod (The Weary Death), aka Destiny, considered Fritz Lang’s first great German masterpiece of the silent movie era by many, also marked the beginnings of a new chapter in the development of his cinematic career. In retrospect, it can be seen as the overture to a portentous phase in German film culture that looked, in the early-1920s -- at least as far as the rest of Europe was concerned – like producing a domestic rival to the dominating grandeur of the Hollywood machine, with Lang at the very centre of the phenomenon. This was the start of a period when the country’s epic film creations were being conceived on an ever-grander scale, as though aiming to overawe audiences with elaborate, fantastical, overarching visions of society as a vast hub of interconnecting mythic spectacle, obliquely threatened by the creeping chaos of industrial modernity. Indeed, this cinema’s brand of romance, melodrama and adventure-escapism seemed frequently quite unable to elude those constant codified references to the trials of the age spawning them. Lang’s contribution is, of course, synonymous with the period: in conjunction with the many technical specialists employed by the recently expanded UFA studios after its merger with Erich Pommer’s Decla-Bioscope, Lang and his professional and personal partner, Thea von Harbou, achieved some of the most richly imagined, densely realised visions of the day on the vast soundstages of the ‘Neubabelsberg’ complex – insulated from, and often oblivious to, the political and economic convulsions of the Weimar Republic and its social repercussions, as they raged in the streets beyond the studio perimeter.

The sequence of films Lang made in the wake of Der Müde Tod produced great work that seems as compelling and imaginative today as ever, despite, and sometimes because of, the antiquity of the methods utilised or invented by the director in bringing them to the screen. Although he lived a somewhat sybaritic lifestyle, at one remove from the uncertainties and indignities of the economic turmoil the rest of Germany was at the time being subjected to; and financially protected by the bubble of immunity his recent commercial success (and the critical acclaim which had come with it) afforded him, Weimar’s extremes and excesses continued to provide Lang with endless amounts of new material to be habitually harvested from newspaper headlines and worked, at a later date, into the feverish, elaborately structured plots that so compelled both himself and von Harbou in this, the couple’s most creative period of artistic collaboration.

The position Der Müde Tod occupies at the vanguard of this narrative, in which Fritz Lang’s artistic ascendancy parallels the increasing sophistication of the German film industry’s production methods, largely emerges in retrospect. Upon its initial release, in October 1921, the film was considered to be something of an artistic failure by many German critics, playing for only two weeks in Berlin after opening at several of the city’s most prestigious luxury theatres. The general consensus among critics at home was that the fantasy and swashbuckling content of a 'traditional' Fritz Lang picture had been overburdened here by a certain air of pretentiousness born of Lang's attempt to imbue the material with a philosophical profundity it was not capable of sustaining, and which the film overall did not truly possess. Its extravagant symbolism and allegorical content served only to confuse, bogging the story down rather than opening it up to wider imaginative possibilities. However, the film's reception throughout the rest of Europe could not have been more in contrast to these dismissive readings of its worth in Germany. In countries such as Britain and France, it was universally praised for the originality of its content, the boldness of its imagination, and the impressiveness of Lang’s execution of the material. As Lang’s biographer Patrick McGilligan has noted, Der Müde Tod would become a famous example of  'a German motion picture rejected in Germany itself that was given a second chance at home on the strength of rhapsodic foreign notices.'


Up until this point, Lang’s success in Germany had been built on the back of a series of pictures that mixed melodrama and heroic adventure with a taste for offbeat pseudo-science leavened with a dash of Oriental mysticism -- elements rooted in Lang’s childhood love of pulp fiction and penny dreadful crime literature. Both he and von Harbou shared an enduring appreciation for the work of the prolific German author Karl May, whose adventure novels were usually set in a mythical Old West, or else would contain exotic and unrealistic depictions of the Orient or of the Middle East. As a young man, soon after leaving his native Vienna, Lang developed a great passion for exotic cultural artefacts and folk art belonging to foreign or “primitive” cultures, including paintings, statues and masks from China, Japan or Polynesia. According to his own accounts and those of the colleagues and contemporaries who often visited the couple at home, the apartment he later shared with von Harbou became a virtual museum dedicated to this interest in foreign exotica. Von Harbou’s office included among its treasures Lang’s cherished ‘cabinet of the thousand delights’; and the first thing a visitor would see upon entering the couple’s apartment was the director's personal collection of shrunken human scalps!

Lang’s early solo screenwriting work for Erich Pommer and Joe May, as well as the earliest movies he directed from this period such as Des Spinnen (The Spiders), came replete with decorative elements inspired by the orientalist trappings for which this genre of literature was to become notorious. These early screenplays and films of Lang’s feature doomed romances and stolen Inca treasure hoards aplenty and are led by athletic yet intelligent (and bookish) German adventuring heroes who are invariably to be found exploring hidden underground cities or discovering exotic lost civilisations; not to mention the secret criminal fraternities dedicated to world domination that are so often two-a-penny in fictional worlds such as this.

After Der Müde Tod all of these elements would inform Lang’s cinema for as long as he continued working in Germany, but the sophistication of the techniques increasingly being brought to bear on the narrative structures deployed in von Harbou’s screenplays meant that there needed to be corresponding developments in the film grammar Lang was using to translate them onto the screen. These developments were occurring just as Erich Pommer’s Decla-Bioscope was being merged with UFA to create the biggest and most sophisticated machine for movie production outside of the Hollywood studio system. Lang’s cinema from Der Müde Tod onward came to be associated with a unique melding of low art and grand vision: in Lang's cinema, pulp cliché worked harmoniously alongside poetic craft, somehow facilitating a greater existential heft than had been evident in any of his previous work. When Der Müde Tod was re-released in Germany in the wake of its fantastic reception elsewhere in Europe, it played for weeks and catapulted Lang into the upper echelons of UFA’s filmmaking elite. The film became the cornerstone on which Lang's subsequent reputation for synthesizing spectacle-based entertainment with existential profundity was to be built.


Der Müde Tod is an anthology picture made up of three separate narratives, each set in wildly diverse historical and geographical contexts but thematically linked by a phantasmagorical framing story. This dreamy linking tale contrasts the content of the other stories, exemplifying a poetic and aesthetic tone much in keeping with the sense that German culture had reached a crux point after WW1 wherein traditional Romanticism could now be blended with pre-war forms of Modernism in art. The results of this visual concoction anticipate the look and feel of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (released the following year in 1922) and explore the fantastical escapist mythical-medievalist landscapes of Faust (1926), five years before that big-budget UFA film became Murnau’s last film made in Germany. Elements of Expressionism are heavily in evidence for the first time in Lang’s cinema during this picture, which also marks Lang’s introduction to the genius cinematographer Fritz Arno Wagner. An important and innovative cameraman who worked on two of the most visually resplendent stories in Der Müde Tod, Wagner's distinctive style was later to become synonymous with cinematic Expressionism: a form of visual stylisation later to be incorporated into Hollywood’s conception of the Gothic Horror and Noir film genres when Germany's best directors and technicians, having been forced to flee their homes after the Nazi takeover, wound up working on many such films in America. Wagner would go on to shoot several of Lang’s best German films, including M, and he was involved with many of the greatest German movies and directors of the silent era, such as F.W. Murnau (Wagner photographed Nosferatu) and G.W. Pabst. Wagner is said to have been one of the few among Lang’s close collaborators who could tolerate the director’s sometimes harsh and dictatorial ways. In this first piece of work together they manage to develop some genuinely innovative techniques for shooting 35mm film in low-light conditions, experimenting with reflective images in mirrors, and capturing the mingling of light and shadow on the dappled water surfaces of a studio-constructed Venice by night.  


The film opens on a country road near a crossroads. Here the pale, monk-like figure of Death -- personified as a wispy-haired, heavy-browed man in black – boards a coach occupied by a youthful couple who are in love and en route for a quaint, rustic German hamlet situated across the next bridge. The film is pitched in a non-realist register existing somewhere between allegorical dream-space, legend and fairy tale. It is a tone suggested by Lang’s exacting use of poetic language in the opening credits and in the first few intertitles. Described as ‘a German Folk Song in Six Verses’, the cast list for the following framing story describes the events depicted as taking place ‘somewhere, sometime’; and the opening intertitle sets the unreal scene by describing the crossroads, the little town, and by extension the young couple heading towards it, as being ‘lost in a valley, as if in a dream’. This fatalistic, melancholic storybook tone is further reinforced by a description of autumn leaves which are said to [be] ‘falling like tears’.

Despite the film sporting a credit identifying Fritz Lang as both writer and director, in reality, Thea von Harbou was involved with drafting the script from its conception. It undoubtedly displays many of the elaborate storytelling traits she had first begun using in her several previous collaborations with Lang, as evidenced by the film’s sophisticated use of framing devices; its flashbacks and occasional digressions; and its concertina-like manipulations of time and space. Lang first met von Harbou while they were both working on projects for the producer-director Joe May. Aristocratic in bearing and privileged in upbringing, she was, by all accounts, precociously talented from a tender age and fully emancipated by early womanhood -- which is when she began earning a living in theatre and as a writer in post-war Berlin. But Thea von Harbou was also supremely nationalistic, becoming especially more so with the onset of World War 1. Her novels were known for the patriotic sentiment underpinning their mythic subject matter: they dealt in Germanic legends recalibrated as allegorical celebrations of sacrifice to the glorious Fatherland and would take on a much darker meaning later, when von Harbou fully embraced the doctrine of Nazism.


Though not a medium she had ever previously been particularly interested in exploring, the world of cinema began to fill more and more of von Harbou’s creative life after her discovery that May had optioned one of her novels for adaptation. Soon after, she landed a job writing original scenarios for Joe May’s production company, May-Film GmbH, and her ensuing relationship with Lang, both creative and personal (after she divorced the actor Rudolf Klein-Rogge, von Harbou and Lang became one of Weimar Germany’s premier celebrity couples) would secure her controversial position in film history, even though, during the 1920s, she was destined to become one of German cinema’s most celebrated writers thanks to other collaborations with titans such as F.W. Murnau, Carl Dreyer and E.A. Dupont. Early on, Lang and von Harbou found that they shared many interests, including a connoisseurship of Karl May’s fiction and a love of foreign cultures. The director had planned on adapting von Harbou’s 1917 novel Das indische Grabmal (The Indian Tomb), but the project was ‘stolen’ away from him by Joe May, who, believing the property destined to be a success, determined to direct the film himself! When Lang finished his partnership with May and returned to Erich Pommer, he brought von Harbou with him to Decla-Bioscope, and the couple worked on several more projects there, Lang bringing more and more sophistication to his filmmaking craft with each new release. Der Müde Tod finally crystallised itself as the purest expression of a theme that, despite von Harbou’s involvement in it, made this film a deeply personal project for Lang -- perhaps one of the most personal he ever conceived.  


This is a film about the existential tragedy that dwells at the core of human existence: the knowledge possessed by each of us that our lives are ultimately circumscribed by the inevitability of our own demise. It’s a dramatisation of the tension between fate and free will, and an examination of the struggle to find purpose and meaning in a world that can seem cold and indifferent to personal suffering. Despite adopting the guise of a romantic allegorical fable, and seeking to entertain with poetic flights of the imagination that deliver many moments of adventure, intrigue, comedy and exotic fantasy, the conclusion it reaches is far from comforting: life is nothing without the struggle to find and hold onto love, but love is always doomed from the  first moment of inception.


This potentially maudlin approach to the film's subject was inevitably informed by Lang’s personal circumstances: his mother had died in 1920, while Lang was on an arduous shoot in the Bavarian Alps filming Das wandernde Bild (The Wandering Image). At the time, the director had felt unable to curtail filming so that he could attend the funeral. But of even more shocking significance was the recent death by apparent suicide of Lang’s first wife, Lisa Rosenthal, which probably occurred (although almost everything about the event is shrouded in mystery) at around the time when Lang and von Harbou were prepping for Der Müde Tod, between late-1920 and early-1921. Lang claimed to have found his wife’s dead body in the bath, the victim of a fatal gunshot wound to the chest. Only a matter of hours before the incident she had walked in on her husband and Thea von Harbou to find the couple sharing an illicit moment of intimacy. Lang’s own revolver – a Browning automatic, retained from his service during WW1 – had apparently fallen from her hand and was found on the floor at the side the bathtub. However, there was never a full and official police inquiry into the matter, and all record of the incident had disappeared from Berlin police files when researchers later attempted to look more closely at the circumstances surrounding the tragedy. Lang had made many enemies on his way to becoming Germany’s most acclaimed film director; some of them, like the cinematographer Karl Freund, always believed that he had been directly responsible for Lisa Rosenthal’s murder, either pulling the trigger himself or else deliberately neglecting to attain medical assistance until it was too late to save her. Whatever the truth of the matter, it is hard to ignore the coincidence that the heroine of Der Müde Tod is also distinguished by her willingness to contemplate suicide for the sake of love -- a feature that plays a significant role in the development of a plot which involves the young woman entering a shadowy candle-lit netherworld suspended outside of chronological time, in the moment between life and a possible death, where she confronts the personification of Death himself as part of an attempt to rescue her lover from his realm.

The idea of presenting Death in a human form, as an entity who is capable of interacting with mortals and bargaining with them for the souls of their loved ones (much imitated since on film, most notably in Ingmar Berman’s The Seventh Seal) was a stroke of conceptual inspiration that, according to Lang, was also rooted in a personal experience: a childhood dream Lang experienced while in the throes of a fever, in which he imagined seeing a dark stranger in a wide brimmed hat approach his bed by moonlight with outstretched arms, as though the figure were about to lead him away. This description provided the model for actor Bernhard Goetzke’s portrayal of Death as a sepulchral spectral entity, weary of his eternal role in human affairs and desperate to be relieved of it. The trauma of this vision gave Lang, in his own somewhat melodramatic words “[a] complete understanding of the ecstasy which made martyrs and saints embrace death”. The experience was a formative one, and, he claimed, “a love of Death, compounded of horror and affection, stayed with me and became a part of my films.”

Yet the one event towering above all others as the central influence on the film’s morbid and melancholic obsession with the fragility of human existence must be Lang’s first-hand experience of combat during the First World War. This surely is also the reason the film came (eventually) to resonate with contemporary German audiences so widely; they belonged to a generation only too familiar with the great sacrifices the young had recently been called upon to make in that conflict which had plunged Germany into chaos at home. The Great War is, of course, the one event that dominates critical responses to a remarkable set of innovations distinguishing Germany's cinema during the Weimar period, foremost amongst them being its turn toward the art movement Expressionism, which came to be seen as a convenient visual marker and shorthand for the internal psychological turmoil of the individual. But this was a picture made by a director who came out of this terrible conflict as a decorated war hero; who signed up for the Austro-Hungarian Army in January 1915 and reached the rank of second lieutenant by October of that same year; and who now liked to run his film sets like he was a commander who'd been placed at the head of a vast army of conscripts. 

Lang had been caught up in the initial excitement marking the early months of the war, entering into the fighting with zeal and with a spirit of the whole thing being a big adventure. His experiences, though, prefigure those encountered by the characters in this film: they start off full of hope and expectation for the future but end up possessing only the knowledge that death is the one inescapable certainty awaiting them. Lang had been assigned to a reconnaissance patrol involved in fighting the Russian army on the Eastern Front; he was decorated for bravery and courageousness many times, but also injured on several occasions as the fighting became more brutal and the position of the Austro-Hungarians more desperate. He was promoted to lieutenant in 1916, having had his horse shot out from under him when a mortar shell exploded nearby, and it was while on leave, recovering from damage to his eye caused by shrapnel (which may have been responsible for Lang adopting the famous monocle he wore for the rest of his life), that he first started writing script scenarios for Joe May. However, in the latter stages of the war, a fatigue and weariness set in and the director later described his experiences of the battlefield horrors he encountered during 1918, as having shown him “life stripped to its rawest: hunger and desperation and death.” In his biography of the director, McGilligan writes how death now became for Lang like ‘an old acquaintance, a sobering reality, not an abstraction.’


This is the background to a picture that takes Lang’s love of adventure fiction, as well as an interest, shared with Thea von Harbou, in the mythologies of various foreign lands, in particular India  -- the story owes some debt to the Indian mythological tale of Sati Savitri, which is about a princess who brings her husband back from the dead by outwitting the Indian god of Death -- and combines them in a richly realised portmanteau piece, revelling in visual excitement and diverse aesthetic wonders. The film’s look prefigures the joint influences of Romanticism and Expressionism that would also find an outlet in the mise-en-scene of Murnau’s Nosferatu, released the following year. To bring about this, his most ambitious work yet, Lang worked closely with the Decla production design and art directing team of Robert Herlth, Walter Röhrig and Hermann Warm. The director was also acting as his own editor and augmenting the sumptuous and stimulating set designs of his team with any number of innovative in-camera special effects of his own devising.

Both Röhrig and Warm had been involved in helping Walter Reimann create the jagged, exaggerated abstract landscapes so famously painted onto the walls of the Decla studio for the filming of Robert Wiene’s Das Kabinett des Dr Caligari. Warm would later work with Carl Theodor Dreyer on The Passion of Joan of Arc and Vampyr, re-creating that unique tonal nexus (situated somewhere between realism and fantasy) which turns up first, here -- in Der Müde Tod. The film’s vividly detailed evocation of a unusual and exotic collection of fantastical locations -- the pastoral medievalist idyll on which the film settles during the opening framing story; Death’s sombre walled-off Cathedral-like realm, haunted by its ghostly spectres and the looming flicker of shadows; and the historical settings seen in the film’s three love story segments: ninth century Bagdad, Renaissance Venice, and a fabulist fairy tale version of Middle Kingdom Imperial China  -- are conjured for the screen by the designers with an astonishing attention to detail and brought to life through beautifully designed costumes and make-up. Some elements of the aesthetic look seem to prefigure the fantasy Gothic of Murnau’s 1926 film Faust, which was also designed by the team of Röhrig and Herlth.


The film starts in naturalistic mode. In anticipation of Murnau’s Nosferatu, we open on a coach journey that presents us with daylight exterior shots of countryside locations. Not long after, Goetzke’s cloaked Death figure materialises at a crossroads marked by a crucifix (via what looks like a double-exposed image of a firework explosion), hitching a lift with the stage-coach carrying our love-struck protagonists, who take the form of a recently engaged couple played by Lil Dagover and Walter Janssen. The travelling partners cross a tiny bridge leading to a rustic village, and we are almost immediately exposed to a sense of this enclosed space’s heightened unreality: the town square -- built on the lot at Decla’s Babelsberg Studio, and first seen via an elevated long-shot that accentuates the centrality of the clock tower -- displays a certain quaintness, an old-world charm that feels meticulously designed to appear both artificial and archaic. The town’s central inn, the Golden Unicorn, introduces us to a rich collection of auxiliary characters who have little relevance to the main storyline but who provide some amusing Dickensian satirical colour, before introducing a flashback explaining the cloaked stranger’s curious relationship with the town. Here we learn that the weary figure has come here to retire and cultivate his own private garden; the bibulous, unworldly, gluttonous town dignitaries have been only too pleased to accept a handsome sum for selling him the plot of land previously reserved for extending the neglected local cemetery, but are nonplussed when they learn that the stranger has had the entire area surrounded and sealed off with an impenetrable stone wall that is too high to scale and has no discernible points of access or ingress. Ominously, it appears that Death has now made his permanent home in this otherwise tranquil area of bucolic seclusion.

Flashback scenes depicting Bernhard Goetzke’s gaunt but imposing stranger, shrouded entirely in black, visiting his newly purchased property – all crumbling arches and overgrowing ivy – whilst a gravedigger prepares to inter yet another ‘customer’ nearby, cannot but help lead one’s thoughts to the story of Dracula, which, of course, in both its original novel form and in the numerous film adaptations that have followed, also hinges on the Count moving to a new land -- England -- on the pretext of having recently purchased the derilict Carfax Abbey. When we cut back to the present goings on inside the inn and immediately witness this dark figure steal away the soul of bland paramour Walter Janssen from under the very nose of his beleaguered fiancée (the couple having just shared the ill-omen of spilling some wine whilst attempting to drink together from the bridal cup), we’re inclined to see this personification of Death in the same light (or should that be moonlight?) as Stoker’s now famous vampire creation: a malign, evil force, preying on the vulnerabilities of the unsuspecting and the uncomprehending. Such inclinations are re-enforced by the macabre overtones (soon to be associated forever with depictions of the Gothic on film) underlying the images and scenarios presented to us in the immediate aftermath of this bewildering supernatural event: distraught, and almost delirious in her grief, the young girl stumbles through the darkening town and, in her emotionally receptive state, witnesses a procession of transparent ghostly figures drifting zombie-like towards the edifice constructed by the stranger, then disappearing through its solid stone walls … one of them being her fiancé. She then falls into the orbit of a wizened old apothecary who’s out digging for unusual-looking roots on a nearby hillside in the dead of night, and winds up being taken back to his shadowy cluttered shop where a phrase from a verse in the Song of Solomon stands out in the pages of an open Bible  -- ‘love is stronger than death’ -- tempting her into poisoning herself so that she may be joined with her lover in the afterlife.


This segment of the film is particularly suggestive of the fantasy Gothic mode. Those strange, misshapen nocturnal landscapes amid which the bereaved girl flounders as somnambulating spirits drift by, were artfully created and constructed in the controlled environment of a studio to imply the appropriately saturnine state of bewitchment and delirium; while the old apothecary’s shop – indeed the old apothecary himself – is depicted by Lang as looking strange and crooked and redolent of an exaggerated form of theatricality. What occurs next in the narrative is a piece of conceptual alchemy that barely registers on one’s initial viewing, yet does something unexpectedly radical with the film’s depiction of time, identity and the chronology of events in order to have the story ‘jump tracks’ for the next hour, continuing on a new, unidentifiable metaphysical plane that folds most of the rest of the film into a single second of narrative time. It’s possible to argue that the very possibility of a surrealist form of cinema was created with this daring conceit, for it even has echoes in something as recent as the sequence from the penultimate episode of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks: The Return, in which time seems to become arrested at a certain juncture in the main narrative, and an entirely new timeline (possibly) establishes itself to appear as if superimposed on a frozen moment of the ‘present’. It shouldn’t be surprising then that this film also made such a strong formative impression on Luis Bunuel, who has cited Der Müde Tod as a prime influence on his approach to filmmaking.

The moment of rupture occurs just after Lil Dagover lifts the bottle of poison to her lips in the apothecary’s shop. A different image, still of Dagover, but which now places her before the imposing stone wall built by the stranger on the site of the town cemetery, is superimposed across the preceding scene, fading into view to replace the former scenario a split-second before the poison would have been swallowed. Nevertheless, we assume on first viewing that the young woman must either now be dead or in the process of dying from the effects of the lethal tincture, as the figure of Death himself now approaches and leads her through the wall into his cavernous, cathedral-like domain. Later we will learn that everything that occurs after the superimposition of the scene outside the wall takes place during the one-second interval before the poison is dashed from the young woman's lips by the apothecary. Does this mean that everything we see of Dagover in Death’s domain has been erased, and an alternate timeline set in place as part of the bargain she goes on to strike whilst (not) there? Or did everything we witness take place in a kind of dream dimension, to be spliced into a fold of the framing narrative? 

The status of events which occur beyond the ‘wall of Death’ will remain ambiguous, for this is also the site at which Lil Dagover and Walter Janssen’s two lovers are 'injected' into the three historical narratives of romance and adventure that constitute the central section of the movie -- illustrating Lang and von Harbou’s inventive knack for mixing genres and incorporating a philosophical or spiritual element into apparently low ‘pulp’ material. Death’s vast candle-lit realm consists of a majestic cathedral space created to suggest to viewers some symbolic sense of eternal reverence. The flames of a multitude of tall, flickering wax candles in the darkened chamber provide the only source of light amid monolithic Gothic arches, supposedly representing the souls of every person currently living on Earth, as well as of all those who have ever previously lived, or who someday will – an idea taken from one of Grimm’s fairy tales. It turns out that Death is not the predatory spectre we had previously thought; he is merely God’s unwilling emissary, tasked with guiding imperishable souls to the next stage of a non-corporeal state-of-being when a pre-determined moment arrives in the chronology of the Universe. Furthermore, he is demonstrably sick and tired of his thankless role in the eternal sorrows of humankind. "I hate my duty ... though I obey," he sorrowfully informs the young woman. Played by the stern-faced and furrow-browed Bernhard Goetzke, who would also be cast as the starchy-but-decent Inspector Von Wenk in Lang’s Dr Mabuse: the Gambler, Death here represents fate: he sees that the mortality of human beings is a fixed unalterable feature of their existence however one may tinker with chronology or time, and he seeks to demonstrate this to the young woman as she begs for the soul of her departed fiancé. He points to a flame from one of the candles as it begins to fade out, indicating how it also represents the departing soul of a small child who has, just at that very moment perished in the local infirmary and is now, literally, materialising before her eyes into Death’s cold embrace.


But the young woman is determined to prove her deathly host wrong and is convinced that she will be able to do so. Death assures her, "I would bless you if you could conquer me!" … And so the battle between love and fate commences: Death offers to relinquish his hold on the woman’s lover if she can save but one of three souls currently represented by a trio of guttering candles whose flames are on the verge of being extinguished, their wax almost having been completely consumed. The film now tells the stories of the three great love affairs associated with these flames in the form of parables infused with magic, adventure and derring-do. Walter Janssen and Lil Dagover get reincarnated each time as three different sets of embattled lovers, each facing the threat of separation through the grievous challenges posed by mortality. Their stories take place in radically different historical epochs and are thus separated by time, geography and racial identity (the Germanic folk couple become by turns Persian, Venetian and Han Chinese) -- yet they all suffer the same hopeless struggle to avert a fate which will invariably be handed to them by someone in their midst who shares the physiognomy of Bernhard Goetzke’s personification of Death, or else someone who assumes his form once the moment of separation-by-death arrives. 

All three stories temporarily divert the film from a brooding, Gothic atmosphere of folk allegory with occult leanings indicative of the opening acts, and back into the realm of the pulp adventure material and Jules Verne inspired fantasy which had formerly made up the best of Lang’s cinema till now. The stories themselves are slight but retain the ability to impress thanks to their opulent staging, detailed set dressing and baroque costuming. The Méliès-like riot of inventive in-camera special effects, experiments with alternative aspect ratios and framing, superimpositions and stop-motion animation unleashed by Lang here, injects a playful energy and a sense of fairy tale wonder into proceedings, allowing this middle part of the film to retain the charm of its primitive, hand-crafted effects nearly a hundred years after they were originally created. Such trappings distinguish the film as a historical forerunner to the adventure fantasy cinema of visionaries such as Karel Zeman and Ray Harryhausen. Many of Lang's special effects ideas were later purloined by producer and film star Douglas Fairbanks after he bought the American distribution rights but held back the release of the film in the U.S. In the meantime, he worked on re-staging some of the best of Lang's effects for his own big-budget production of Raoul Walsh’s The Thief of Bagdad (1924).

All three differing tales cohere around the opening sections, despite the vastly different tone set during them, thanks to the commanding presence of lead actress Lil Dagover (1887 -1980) – who, to a modern viewership, is probably one of the most recognisable German screen actresses of the 1920s thanks to her role as the heroine in Robert Wiene’s ground-breaking horror masterpiece Das Kabinett des Dr Caligari. Lang had previously cast the young actress as the "Priestess of the Sun" in Part one of the two-part adventure series Des Spinnen, where she played the scantily-clad native love interest to the story’s dashing hero, and is killed off at the end by the film’s villainess to set up the revenge theme that kicks off part two. She appeared in Lang’s next film, Harakiri, as an exotic Japanese beauty, but her most diverting appearance -- although it was also her final lead in a Fritz Lang film -- was as the unnamed protagonist of Der Müde Tod. It’s a performers’ showcase that gives her the opportunity to take on three more delightful costumed parts in the film’s middle section, where she plays Princess Zobeide in the Arabian Nights-themed opener; the tragic Monna Fiametta in the Shakespearian middle story; and magician’s assistant Tiao Tsien in the fantastical Chinese folk tale which brings this portion of the film to a close. In all three stories, Dagover plays a romantic heroine whose forbidden love for Walter Janssen’s various (but always-doomed) suitors results in heartbreak and tragedy. It has to be said that in each of the tales Dagover completely outshines her insipid co-star, who is so nondescript he barely registers as a factor in any appreciation of their merits. Each of the stories is named in reference to the three candles from Death’s realm representing the souls of the three doomed lovers Dagover must attempt to save; and each story is preceded by a listing of its individual cast members alongside their specific roles – a self-reflexive conceit emphasising the theatricality and artifice at play throughout these vignettes. This, perhaps, goes some way towards mitigating what to a modern audience often looks like outmoded racial stereotyping which is present in the staging of a series of stories that rely on Germanic actors blacking up or donning elaborate make-up disguises to enable them to play a succession of Middle-Eastern or Chinese character roles. All the stories have been stripped down to their simplest genre elements and are staged as fabulous, unrealistic and gaudy visual spectacles; a description that applies equally well to the performances as it does the settings.          




The first tale is the shortest and the simplest. Dagover is the sister, Princess Zobeide, of the Caliph of Baghdad, and is in love with a French infidel (Janssen). When this becomes known to the Caliph (Eduard von Winterstein) he initiates a manhunt which leads to a succession of action scenes (desperate chases, sword fights, elaborate rooftop escapes and the scaling the palace walls, etc.) which take place against matte-painted backdrops depicting Islamic architectural skylines or in the vividly ornamented interiors of set-constructed palaces and mosques. The ostentation of masculine desire when expressed in violent passions, is conveyed through constant frenetic movement and activity. The veiled female heroine must survive by quietly nurturing her hopes and dreams within the constrictions of an opulent but brutal patriarchal system. Her stillness, decorum and restraint are tactical, yet she is out-manoeuvred when she is manipulated without the ability to intervene, into witnessing the slow torture and death of her lover after he is caught and buried in the Caliph’s garden with just his head protruding above ground!

The second tale occurs in Renaissance Venice during the carnival season, and features Thea von Harbou’s first husband, Rudolph Klein-Rogge, as the ruthless Girolamo: a powerful councillor who, having learned of his fiancée’s love for handsome nobleman Gianfrancesco (Walter Janssen again, of course), arranges to have the rival assassinated, but sadistically informs his unwilling bride-to-be of the plot in advance. Dagover, this time playing the trapped Monna Fiametta, fights back and initiates a counterplan involving a clandestine letter writing scheme that unfortunately turns out not to be quite clever enough, and gets subverted by Girolamo with his even-more-devious counter-counterplan. Lang’s love of French director Louis Feuillade comes across strongly in the story’s delightful intrigues, which occur amid baroque settings, and culminate with Lil Dagover assuming a distinctly Musidora-like appearance when she shows up, masked and attired in a one-piece catsuit (a la Irma Vep, from Feuillade’s Les Vampires), for a climactic fencing showdown that climaxes with her being tricked into allowing her servant to murder her own lover from behind a curtained partition. She has been misled by Girolamo's Machiavellian intrigues to erroneously believe that her evil fiancé was sent the letter she specifically wrote in order to get him to turn up for a rendezvous wearing carnival costume and mask, when in fact Girolamo has made sure that Gianfrancesco was the unlucky recipient of the missive.

The last of the three stories is the best of the bunch. It features Max Reinhardt graduate Paul Biensteldt as A Hi: an elderly master magician in a fantasy version of ancient China, designed with the help of a curator from the Ethnographical Museum in Hamburg, Heinrich Umlauff. A Hi commands the use of a magic wand and a flying carpet, thus providing plenty of opportunities for many showy special effects, the most successful of which is a sentient letter scroll that unspools itself and comes to life through the use of a stop-motion animation technique and process Lang insisted on painstakingly conducting himself. Biensteldt gives a delightful comic performance as the wizened and whiskery little magician furnished with the dubious privilege of entertaining the Emperor of China (Karl Huszar) with magic tricks for his Birthday at the Emperor’s imperial palace Pagoda in Shanghai, the only slight reservation being the promise of a certain death by beheading if the Emperor should become bored with A Hi’s act at any point during the performance.


The master magician has an apprentice working with him called Liang (Walter Janssen), who is in love with A Hi's young female assistant Tiao Tsien (Dagover). Both travel with him on a magic carpet ride across deserts and mountains to meet with the Emperor, who is played by Hungarian-born slapstick star of the silent era Huszar as a giggling, plump potentate with extended talons for fingernails that give him the air of a sociopathic Buddha with distinct Freddy Krueger vibes. Unfortunately, all the miniaturised armies and conjured white horses in the world that A Hi furnishes as gifts using his magical powers, won’t deter the Emperor from demanding the one thing he truly craves as soon as he catches sight of Liang’s lover: and that is for Tiao Tsien to be made the latest addition to his household of concubines. A Hi feels he has no choice but to betray his two young companions, and the final act of this tale sees  a vengeful Tiao Tsien turning her master into a human cactus using his own wand, which she then also uses to magic the prison guards holding her lover into pigs and to help Liang escape his cell on the back of an elephant. The couple embarks on a journey into a magical fantasy landscape, created in-studio, through which the two are then hunted by the Emperor’s master archer. Eventually, this archer, who has the same visage as Death himself (and is also being played by Goetzke), manages to track down his quarry; and in a sequence anticipating the potent Gothic fairy tale surrealism of Jean Cocteau’s finest cinema, the cornered Tiao Tsien attempts to disguise Liang by turning him into a proud tiger -- only to witness the archer kill it anyway with an arrow to the heart. She then turns herself into a statue of a Bodhisattva -- weeping real tears at the foot of her fallen lover.  



With all three candles irrevocably snuffed out, the young woman, back in Death’s cavernous realm after her three fruitless adventures, realises she has failed in her mission to save the soul of her lover from Death’s grasp. Even so, she is given one last gasp chance to succeed: Death informs her that he will let the couple live on together after all -- if she can deliver a replacement soul from someone willing to take her fiancé's place. At this point, the woman is transported back to the old apothecary’s shop, just at the moment when he knocks the cup of poison from her hand. At first, she tries to persuade the aged apothecary to give up his few remaining years to her, but he will not hear of sacrificing even a second of precious life: 'Not a single day! Not a single hour! Not a single breath!' 

No matter how impoverished or exhausted or decrepit they may look, she finds that everyone she petitions greets her with this same refrain. Life is too precious a commodity for it to be voluntarily given up for the sake of another; even the old will not make such a sacrifice for the young when they have a choice in the matter. But a fire in the infirmary (caused accidentally by a flame from a candle knocked over) provides the young woman with her final desperate chance; if she is prepared to exchange the life of one of the new-borns, trapped in the nursery by the blaze, for that of her lover. At the last moment, she realises that she cannot possibly go through with such a selfish act, no matter how much she loves her fiancé: she has now accepted the principle, espoused by Death all along, that everyone’s time is allotted in a greater design. In finally accepting this idea, she achieves a higher level of Enlightenment than the materialistic villagers who surround her; although her material form now perishes in the conflagration after she throws the imperilled baby from the infirmary window to be caught by its distraught mother, who is waiting amongst the crowd of onlookers gathered outside. In this way, she, at last, finds a kind of reunion with her lover: under the sheltering cloak of Death … who now guides the spirits of the couple on their final journey.


With its sweetly despairing mood juxtaposing a sweepingly romantic poetic vision, the thematic resonance such a film must have held for German society at this point in its history, when it had only recently witnessed its young cut down at the behest of a generation beset by traditionalism and corruption, only enhances Der Müde Tod's joint standing as an important development in cine-history and the first truly great achievement in the career of Fritz Lang. Its fabulous costumes and impressive sets and Lang’s increasingly fluid and sophisticated visual language, all lighted a pathway towards the coming grandeur of the UFA years (which, ironically, Lang would be the one to jeopardize with his indulgent extravagances over Metropolis) and set a high standard other directors would now endeavour to match or surpass.

This UK dual format Masters of Cinema release from Eureka Entertainment presents a reconstruction of the original Decla edit. The original camera negatives and tinted prints made in 1921 are lost, so this 2016 2K digital restoration by The Murnau Foundation utilises two surviving black and white export negatives (from the Museum of Modern Art in New York and la Cinémathèque de Toulouse) and makes use of intertitle reconstructions from the Munich Film Museum. The tinting scheme was estimated using as the guide other existing tinted films also made at around the same time by Decla-Bioscope. Cornelius Schwehr provides the film with a rousing new score performed by the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, and the release also includes an erudite, well-researched commentary track from Tim Lucas and a video essay by David Cairns. A 44-page accompanying booklet carries an astute assessment of the film and its place in Fritz Lang’s filmography, nicely written by Philip Kemp, finishing off a great little package which brings back to vivid life one of Lang’s most playfully versatile creations. A must buy for any connoisseur of silent cinema.        

Saturday, 30 September 2017

CAPTURE KILL RELEASE (2016)

In films such as Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom and the Rémy Belvaux and André Bonzel-directed Man Bites Dog, filmmaking itself becomes implicated as a dangerous tool that promotes and enables murder for voyeuristic psychopaths who use it to procure their victims, while exposing the prurience of the gaze of not just the amoral antagonists of these films, but of us -- the viewers at home -- who are presumed to find this stuff entertaining. This point was drummed home with a particular nihilistic intensity in John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, which includes a moment when disturbing videotape footage of a home invasion and its aftermath, including the cold-blooded murder of a family, is played in its entirety, filmed by the serial killer duo at the centre of the movie using the victims' own video camera. This lengthy scene is immediately followed by the entire thing being re-run once again, but this time we’re watching it as the killers play back the video footage in slow motion on TV for their own entertainment. Such elevated concerns about the ubiquity of the acts of filming and viewing, and the fear of increasingly eroded ethical boundaries that might result seemed recondite back then when home video was still a novelty, but now that the technology in an age of camera phones and video streaming is so taken for granted that it’s become an everyday, even essential, part of modern life, the idea has become opaque and almost invisible to us, and is barely ever alluded to in the flood of found footage-style movies which have appeared over the last decade, most of which seem to exist as a cheap means for budding exploitation film-makers to access a now easily accessible medium.


Following in the wake of the cult success of the ultra-morbid Faces of Death series, fabricating authentic-looking ‘snuff’ footage of atrocities has become a staple of both the found footage and tied-up-and-tortured subgenres, and the two are made to fit rather snugly together for this indie Horror drama co-directed by Brian Allan Stewart and Nick McAnulty (who also wrote the screenplay) -- which presents itself as self-shot footage taken from the digital camcorder of a married twenty-something couple (Jennifer Fraser and Farhang Ghajar – whose screen characters share the actors’ real names) as they set about making a video diary record of a shared home project that they hope and expect to strengthen the bonds of their relationship.

The film starts from the moment Jennifer first unpacks the new digital recording device, purchased specifically for the project, and thereafter gets so excited by its novelty that she won’t give up filming absolutely everything in sight while her husband has to resignedly put up with her annoying kid-with-a-new-toy over-enthusiasm; he later perks up at the thought of making a sex tape, but this plan falls by the wayside when Jennifer falls asleep in the middle of his back massage foreplay. 


The first signs that this is no ordinary couple, and that their intended video diary is to be rather less mundane than the documenting of some home renovation project or whatnot, comes as the couple film themselves in a hardware store and Jennifer’s casual chit-chat is all about which axe or hammer etc. will make the most suitable murder weapon! Part of the joke here is that the average hardware store actually is a serial killer’s paradise, containing every weapon and restraint under the sun a psychopath could possibly need for executing the perfect kidnap-and-kill plan, all gathered conveniently under one roof; the main source of the film’s sour brand of humour, though, at least initially, lies in portraying the couple’s perverse hobby exactly as though it really were like any pastime an average couple might choose to engage in as a bonding exercise. The two share intimate moments as they pour over anatomy textbooks in the evenings while looking for tips on dismemberment and removing teeth; they go scouting for likely victims together in their car, and have blasé discussions about who might make the most suitable ‘victim’ in a tone that suggests comparing favourite movies. Both can agree that a child would be a bit tasteless, and Farhang has hang-ups about murdering a woman in case people think his motivation was sexual; and he won’t consider ethnic minorities or gay people because the public might mistake the act for a hate crime. Jennifer thinks a teenager would make a good target though because no-one likes them: “there’s got to be at least one person who would thank us for killing any given teenager,” she muses.


What gradually becomes clear to the viewer is that this is very much Jennifer’s project, and that Farhang is kind of meekly going along with it more out of a desire to please his partner and to feel fully invested in their marriage by indulging her interests than out of any real excitement of his own about murdering people for kicks. Unfortunately, Jennifer’s preferred pastimes are mainly those of a sadistic, thrill-seeking sociopath! This is fine when the couple are still in the planning stages, because Farhang can endlessly procrastinate by finding ways to delay the actual implementation of the act: his list of unsuitable victims becomes so long (no handicapped, no elderly people) that it ends up leaving very few options still on the table; and he takes every opportunity to highlight ever more potential for unforeseen problems that might derail the project completely (he wonders if their bath will actually be large enough to hold a corpse while it bleeds out, or even to cut it up in afterwards). But a visit to Jennifer’s mother (played by the actress’s real mom) highlights just how ingrained in her nature the voyeuristic filming of suffering really is when a stack of old VHS video cassettes (as well as her very first video camera) are uncovered in her old room and Jennifer reminisces about a childhood video project: filming herself throwing the family cat down the stairs to see if it landed on its feet! 


The second half of the film documents the unravelling of the couple’s fraying relationship as Jennifer’s impulsive bloodlust leads her into ever more reckless acts of sadism, such as drowning a neighbour’s cat in the kitchen sink and forcing Farhang to film her doing it! (“It’s gonna be a lot easier with a person, don’t worry!” she blithely informs her disgusted husband.) Rather than stick to their original, carefully thought-out idea, which was based on the wisdom of choosing someone who likely won’t be missed, she becomes fixated on taking revenge on an obnoxious rich guy in a suit who insulted her in the street: stalking him, staking out his house (she find out he has a mistress, which she then tries to use as a further justification for killing him) and all the time trying to persuade her husband to make him the focus of their kill plan. Finally, Jennifer goes ahead with the first stages of the plot with another choice of victim, yet without consulting Farhang first -- who comes home to find a strange guy sitting at the dining table sipping drugged wine. With the plan already in operation he has no choice but to reluctantly go along with it.



The entire film is constructed like a home movie, with the actors shooting it themselves using a digital camcorder, although so many semi-amateur non-found footage horror flicks these days are shot in the digital video format that there is little mileage to be milked from the medium as far as creating any sense of authenticity is concerned because nearly all low-budget films now look like this! The biggest drawback, inevitably, is that both husband and wife are thoroughly unlikable -- he’s whiny, needy and weak; she’s flippant, callous and utterly selfish – and we have to spend the entire movie with them, without any relief. Even their potential victims are either pathetically trusting or grossly unpleasant. There are moments of dark comedy, though, located in Jennifer’s completely self-centred attempts to paint her sadism in a positive light, such as when, having forced a visibly numb Farhang to dismember the dead weight body of their eventual victim in the bath using an electric saw (the unbelievably convincing gore effects are some of the nastiest I’ve seen in a long while) until there’s nothing left of it but hunks of bloody flesh, she still takes it upon herself to complain when he asks that for the sake of his own sanity she stop constantly referring to their victim by his name, expressing her fake outrage at her husband's request with the throwaway comment, “well, he was a person … I think we should show a little respect!” 


The film does have an in-built excuse for the standard complaint that most dogs the majority of found footage films: that it’s unbelievable how their protagonists will always continue filming under almost any circumstances. Here that trait is specifically tied to the pathology of one of the couple and becomes a plot point in the final act of the film when Jennifer continues filming in the aftermath of the crime, and drives a wedge between herself and Farhang by unwittingly capturing and throwing a spotlight on the differences in their instinctive responses to the preceding act of murder, thereby documenting the disintegration of their relationship as surly as she did the destruction of a human being. She even secretly films herself at one point promising Farhang that she will stop filming him all the time! Unfortunately, occasional sparks of knowing humour like this are not enough ultimately to raise this entry above the mass of similarly nihilistic, low-budget entries in the found footage and/or kidnap-and-gag-then-torture straight to DVD bin.

The UK DVD release is on the Eureka label and comes with two deleted scenes, teaser trailers and the untreated footage for several scenes in which the couple use an old VHS recorder from Jennifer's old house, all of which were in reality shot using the standard DV format, than artificially degraded to make them look like low resolution VHS tape.             

              

Sunday, 24 September 2017

THE ORCHARD END MURDER (1981)

WARNING: This review contains spoilers throughout

Christian Marnham’s tawdry offbeat thriller The Orchard End Murder furnishes audiences with a curious viewing experience in 2017 for a number of reasons, not least of which being the fact that – uniquely for a film of its kind -- it presents us with a very particular (and rather twisted) outlook on a mid-1960s milieu filtered through a lens which has been shaped by the equally distinct and time-locked cultural perspectives of the early-1980s  --  which is when this was filmed and then distributed as a fifty-minute second feature to play opposite current Hollywood movies of the day as a means to take advantage of the tax break being provided back then by the Eady Levy. Thus, it’s also now a time capsule whose oddly inappropriate comic excesses and warped tonal peccadilloes seem, ultimately, to flag up how much it embodies an outlook with roots in societal developments that have a lot to do with past ideas about the notion of a divided England: more specifically, the memory of a perception of there-having-been, at one time, an encroachment of suburbia and its ideals on the time-honoured ways of the English countryside, which continues to affect the relationships previously crucial to the functioning of traditional village life. In fact, such developments might be traceable all the way back to the post-war period, when the divide first began to form between a cultural heritage that takes its values, traditions and customs from a way of life that's guided primarily by the needs of agriculture and the rhythms of the surrounding landscape it depends upon, and the demands of an affluent middle-class commuter set that began to move in from surrounding areas from the mid-1940s onward -- sending commuters traveling in and out by rail each day who eventually also take control of local institutions without necessarily sharing the emotional investment in the area that comes of being an indigenous, integrated part of the community. For British viewers, this short, brutal-but-comic domestic horror thriller is as loaded with cultural subtext as Tobe Hopper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre no doubt was for U.S. viewers of the mid-1970s. And now, in a period when the UK seems as divided and as uncertain of its future as it ever has been since the Second World War, this often deliciously grubby exploitation piece seems vaguely to grasp its way towards becoming a pertinent critique of short-sighted provincial middle-class mores and Little Englander-ism because-of rather than despite being an iteration of the theme rooted in a now-largely vanished world of steam trains, British Rail branch lines, and tea and scones with vicar at the cricket pavilion. 

In many ways, The Orchard End Murder was taking up the baton of low-budget British Horror where the independent filmmaker Pete Walker left off. Walker arguably perfected the optimal blend for the times of sensationalism and titillation with his grungy, pessimistic 1970s thrillers, which were informed by and made possible through a combination of the new social permissiveness of the 1960s and the relaxing of censorship laws in the UK which took place in the early ‘70s, helping to create a climate guided by what Walker chronicler Steve Chibnall has termed, ‘the commercialisation of sexual display.’ While stately bastions of the genre like Hammer Productions struggled to adapt to this state of affairs, Walker’s savvy breed of new independent filmmaker flourished by integrating contemporary themes and exploitation subject matter, discovering a knack for the business of generating publicity in the process; whether it was the positive or negative kind didn’t much matter to them!  


By 1981, though, even Pete Walker was finding it difficult to operate successfully in an increasingly financially-straitened, moribund British film industry. His latest film at the time, House of Long Shadows, was a knowingly arch post-modern take on the hoary old Gothic Horror genre, but it was a throwback nonetheless, attempting to mine for nostalgic appeal the popularity of its quartet of veteran Horror stars: Peter Cushing, Vincent Price, John Carradine and Christopher Lee.  The Orchard End Murder, which came out at about the same time, though, operates in a similar way to Walker’s classic trio of Horror thrillers by generating a dread atmosphere and conjuring an ineffable sense of despair still discernible despite, and in some sense because of, the prosaic mundanities of the contemporary English country way of life it frames, pointedly set during the decade whose sexual attitudes first spawned and enabled Walker’s best films. The film even borrows the talents of cinematographer Peter Jessop, Walker’s go-to camera man and collaborator on nearly all his projects -- although, ironically, Jessop had been unavailable to Walker for the filming of House of Long Shadows -- and recreates a blissful, lost idyll of quaint Home Counties gentility which the film then proceeds to deface with lurid dabs of queasy sex, comic perversity and the macabre. What strikes one almost immediately is how confident and efficiently fine-tuned these 50 minutes of suspense are, considering the fact that the film effectively constitutes a writer-director feature debut for Marnham. In fact Marnham was already much steeped in the craft of film-making, having been forced to begin working as a young trainee assistant editor in a film processing lab because the job offered the only means at that time of earning his union card from the Film Producers Guild. He became friends with Chariots of Fire director Hugh Hudson during this period, and was later presented with a golden chance to to hone his skills as a director by making commercials for the advertising firm Cammell-Hudson Associates for several years during the period when Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg were also busy working on their masterpiece, Performance

From its opening seconds The Orchard End Murder impresses with the quality of its direction and writing, combined with the gorgeous cinematography and clever sound editing it showcases throughout; Marnham establishes his central character, her circumstances, and the situation she is about to face at the start of this tale with a simple but perfectly judged device: as the title credits role – simple white text against a black background – the usual title music is replaced by an awkward phone conversation in which a young woman called Pauline Cox (Tracy Hyde) -- who, it is quickly established, comes from the leafy south-east London suburb of Sidcup -- rings up a man she evidently barely knows, called Mike Robbins (Mark Hardy), after having previously obtained his number after meeting him on a night out in town. Hopeful expectation born of sheer boredom is a succinct summery of the frame of mind we sense from Pauline, and which has led to the making of this call, perhaps looking for stimulation and thrills in random sexual assignations to distract from the emptiness of suburban inanity. At first curt and formal towards her tentative inquiries, then solicitous and ingratiating when he recognises Pauline as the woman he has previously had a fumble with in a local car park, we immediately peg Mike for a bit of a player; and although both parties are ostensibly looking for 'a good time' with 'no strings attached’, there is an unvoiced intimation throughout of the uneven power imbalance that's manifested by the social dynamic in operation behind their words to each other during the setup of this assignation between a working class cinema usherette with few prospects and a public school-educated chartered accountant.


Mike isn’t available to take her out that night, though. Instead he suggests she join him for a Sunday drive out into the Kent countryside. For there’s a "lovely little place" there called Charthurst Green where he will be taking part in a cricket match with some work colleagues and social acquaintances. Pauline’s rather incredulous response (“a cricket match?!”) to the idea of being made a party to this impeccably middle-class pastime is eventually tempered by Mike’s plan that they go off and ‘have some fun’ afterwards: perhaps, she contends hopefully, they might pick up where they left off in that car park? But when Mike remembers that he doesn’t yet know where she lives and  hurriedly asks her for her address so that he can pick her up ‘in his sports car', Pauline pointedly hesitates before answering. Then, without exactly refusing him, she replies by asking that he simply pick her up ‘under the clock’ in Sidcup high-street. We are given to think then that, despite everything else, Pauline is at least sensible enough not to impart her address to somebody who at this stage she barely knows – yet this turns out to be a wariness that will dessert her utterly later in the film, when the plot calls for her suddenly to become bizarrely reckless in her desperate need for human contact.  At this stage, though, we have yet to actually clap eyes on either Pauline or Mike, yet we already feel we have grasped the situation and obtained some knowledge of the personalities of both protagonists, as well as got a handle on the social dynamic underpinning the uneven relationship that has defined their interactions thus far. A title card then lets us known that events are taking place in 1966, and a high-angle crane shot above the cricket ground at Charthurst introduces the familiar and comforting sights and accompanying sounds of a traditional English sporting pastime. Maintaining its altitude, suspended above the scene of play, the camera pans to the right, past an adjacent country lane and above a substantial plantation of apple trees in a neighbouring field -- which is where we find Pauline and Mike, whom we see as small figures canoodling under cover of the orchard’s canopy. But the scene also includes another figure, over towards the edge of the frame, observing them furtively and skulking behind the cover of nearby trees and bushes … 


In just one shot, Marnham has indicated the terrain this film will inhabit throughout its running time -- both a geographical and a psychological terrain. Images of countryside activities and locales associated usually with peacefulness and calm will be constantly invaded by a sense of unease and tension; the mundane becoming infused with a feeling of profound dread because of the intrusive appearance of something that doesn’t quite fit the scene: this is British Home Counties Horror 101. When Marnham cuts from Pauline and Mike’s tryst to a shot of the bowler at the crease in the next field, rubbing the seam of the cricket ball against his crotch as he prepares to bowl, the juxtaposition of the two shots, though innocent in isolation, becomes a sly innuendo – a strategy Marnham employs throughout the film to suggest the darker undercurrents of sexual threat contained within apparently harmless situations and activities. This is a theme encapsulated in the Garden of Eden symbolism expressed through the film’s various manipulations of the visual motif of the apple. Apples are first seen growing in a young orchard, then being collected by child ‘scrumpers’; one is later picked by Pauline herself, presaging terrible developments -- before, finally and ominously, we later see a great mountain of discarded rotting apples dumped at the site of a remote chalk hole: a trajectory that indicates this fruit represents loss of innocence leading to death. 

The first half of the film is structured like a cautionary parable, taking a traditional slasher movie form that begins with that familiar, viewer-implicating POV voyeur’s shot from the bushes we’ve become used to seeing in so many slashers, which then cuts to a close-up of Pauline as she breaks away suddenly from Mike in reaction to an apparent noise in the distance that alerts her to the idea that they might not be alone, and giving her: “a horrible feeling … like somebody just walked over my grave!” With the spell of amour momentarily broken, Mike suddenly realises that he is up next to bat, and thereby instantly lets Pauline in on the lowliness of her ranking on his list of concerns for that day: he is here primarily for the cricket, with hanky-panky being merely a pleasant but inessential bonus addition to the proceedings. He hurriedly leaves her, not wanting to let the side down. 

Our identification with Pauline’s escalating feeling of isolation and creeping loneliness -- her sense thereafter of not belonging in these surroundings, or among these people – provide, in the following moments, the context in which we view these scenes, and informs our understanding of what she does next. Although we have been told that these events take place in 1966, Pauline is the only person whose fashion sense and styling gives that fact away on screen: with her Op art print-patterned dress and Vidal Sassoon-like bob cut hairstyle she stands out amongst the traditionally uniformed cricket players and the staid, mostly elderly middle-class attendees frequenting the picnic area. Yet Tracy Hyde’s naturalistic performance indicates not a modern, hyper confident ‘It’ girl of the High Sixties, but someone who has scrimped and saved to afford the occasional trip to Biba at the weekend where she can find something ‘hip’ to buy and wear on her nights out. The soundtrack becomes laden with audio cues that intimate the stultification a conventional upbringing in the semi-rural suburban outskirts of a big city might produce in a young woman seeking to forge an independent identity in those surroundings during the 1960s: the gentle rustling of leaves in the summer wind; the drowsy but insistent buzzing of insects as village church bells toil politely in the far distance … these are the sounds that provide the backdrop for the polite chit-chat over tea and scones that emanates from one of the trestle tables at which the vicar is busy holding court while light-heartedly discussing what turn out to be ominously relevant subjects -- such as the nature of the Biblical Adam and the concept of fate. Taken together, all such elements seem to conspire to produce in Pauline a feeling of alienation and disconnection from her apparently idyllic milieu, and she is soon tempted by the uncomfortably bourgeois atmosphere generated by these surroundings, to go wandering alone in the nearby orchard to escape the unpleasantness of the unwanted sensation they have left her with.


From here, the film skilfully constructs an uneasy and almost uncanny atmosphere using the most prosaically kitsch of materials: Pauline ends up at a quaint Gatekeeper’s cottage, situated a little way up the road from the leafy local railway branch line its occupant oversees, and production designer Simon Haynes (whose credits at IMDb seem rather sparse beyond this title) contributes to the viewer’s rapidly dawning sense of there being something slightly ‘off’ about the whole scene by constructing an environment for the cottage that appears, deliberately, just a little too picture-postcard-perfect to feel completely real. With its neatly manicured lawn and the picturesquely arranged ivy that adorns a surrounding, pristine-white picket fence, this chintzy cottage design looks like something from a fairy tale picture book, and it puts you on edge as soon as you see Pauline ambling unsuspectingly up its winding gravel pathway in much the same way as do the first daylight sightings of the Sawyer household in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. To add to the absurdist sense of unreality which attends the scene, the garden is heavily adorned with dozens of ornamental garden gnomes. When the beckoning personage of the Gatekeeper/Stationmaster -- hunch-backed, bearded, and wearing little bottle-top-shaped spectacles -- appears at an upstairs window, looking like a novelty figurine popping out of a cuckoo clock and resembling one of his own colourful gnome collection as he welcomes Pauline to this “proper little gnomes’ fairyland”, inviting her in for “tea in my parlour”, one can’t help feeling that Pauline’s weird-o-meter should be buzzing off the scale by this point -- especially when he casts the gnome menagerie in terms of them being just like his “little friends”.



But even when the Stationmaster (an enjoyably creepy performance by Bill Wallis) follows up his initial invite with a (one would have thought) unnecessary reassurance that he ‘won’t bite!’ there is so clearly a sinister glee being indicated when he also notices in passing that some wasps have been caught in a ‘honey trap’ jam jar left out in the garden (“look where your sweet tooth has got you now!”), that for Pauline to accept his offer appears a positively suicidal decision on her part. The interior of the cottage is reassuringly drab in an English provincial sort of way, as china tea sets and lugubriously ticking pendulum clocks abound; a gloomy silence prevails that is only punctured by the Stationmaster's forced cheeriness as he merrily regales Pauline with an anecdote over tea and a slice of fruit cake, about how the former owners of the abode committed suicide by lying together side-by-side with their heads lined up along the railway tracks outside! It’s this mixture of bland domesticity and outrageously macabre detail which puts the piece broadly in the same bracket as Pete Walker’s best work, with the emphasis being on the quiet desperation that belies the cosy picture of contentment such surroundings generally denote to the outside world while usually disguising a multitude of sins. In some ways, the image that emerges of the Stationmaster’s rustic existence here has parallels with the depiction of Pauline’s solitude in suburbia, suggested earlier  when she found herself reluctantly seated among the great and the good of village life: with a disguised passive-aggressive note of bitter animosity just discernible beneath the amiable badinage, the outlandish host chats about how he has lived in this village all his life, and how he used to know everyone by their first name, as they once knew him; but now that city dwellers have taken up residence in so many weekend homes here, the village has become full of people who …”have no idea what I think … or what I do!” This is a comment that also carries intimations of a sinister double meaning, of course, but Pauline’s life in bedsit land in Sidcup seems similarly isolated, despite her insistence that “I live my own life.” A comical air of creepiness attends the Stationmaster’s attempts to ingratiate him-self with a young woman who he clearly thinks might be of ‘easy virtue’ as he tries to elicit sympathy by complaining to her about how “strangers can be very cruel … and make fun of my little deformity”; he even manages to persuade her, tentatively, to touch his hump at one point!

It also turns out that the Stationmaster has adopted a hulking, mentally challenged young man called Ewen -- an orphan Borstal boy who also lives with him and helps out, through his work as a local handyman, the various dignitaries and weekend residents whose needs clearly now dictate the rhythms of village life. Unfortunately, poor Ewen isn’t quite so practiced in the art of leaving a pleasant first impression with young women: he appears at the tea table cradling a cute bunny rabbit in his arms, but before Pauline has even reached the end of her first exclamation of appreciation for the cuddly creature, Ewen has started slamming it into the table, his features contorted as he lets out a bloodcurdling scream! Given the level of insanity now clearly on display as Ewen stalks off with a large kitchen knife promising to “take it out and skin it”, you’d think the shaken guest would now be making every excuse under the sun to be on her way by this point, despite the Stationmaster’s timid explanation that Ewen is “a very mixed up young man!” Instead she takes pity on him and agrees to go for a walk with him in one of the orchards, thus sealing an extremely unpleasant fate to come … 


Marnham’s script takes the Psycho route when determining the structure of the piece: it introduces Pauline as the central character, and therefore the site of the audience’s sympathies – but then kills her off before the half-way mark. Not unsurprisingly, Ewen turns out to be unable to control his spasmodic sexual urges during the couple’s saunter amongst the ripening apple trees; and indeed, at first, Pauline, despite having witnessed his disturbingly bizarre behavior earlier, seems more than willing to entertain the possibility of indulging in at least some light petting, if not a full sexual liaison with the lumbering manchild -- although we don’t get any insight into why exactly she would choose to take this course of action other than maybe out of sheer boredom. Here the film fully embraces the exploitation feel of many Pete Walker projects -- from Cool It Carol to Home Before Midnight -- in its depiction of a sad, grotty little enclave of a repressed (and repressive) England where the prospect of some rushed, cheap sex on a filthy mattress in a damp chalk hole dump for discarded fruit provides the acme of recreational entertainment. Clive Mantle, in one of his earliest screen performances, plays the taciturn, sexually immature hulk with a quiet desperation which allows the film to almost get away with attempting to make him the sympathetic party later on, even after we’ve just seen him attempt to rape Pauline in a violently graphic sequence during which her dress gets pulled off and her breasts pawed at, and which culminates in her finally succumbing and getting throttled to death during the course of Ewen’s unsuccessful attempts to have sex with her on a slag heap of rotting apples (oh, the symbolism!). 


The rest of the film develops the Stationmaster as an equally sexually freakish miscreant, and goes all in on the idea of rural England being a hotbed of twisted vice and sexual perversion behind the pastoral gentility of its homely village décor and mock Tudor heritage façades. The interior of a track-side railway sidings shed becomes a macabre shrine when Ewen transfers Pauline’s corpse to it so that he can indulge in a grim make-believe parody of domestic living, with some necrophilia on the side; and when the Stationmaster finds out, his reaction is to throw a hissy fit and accuse Ewen of cheating him because he “stole my flower!” The remainder of the film plays as a, frankly, tasteless piece of comic farce involving the mad Stationmaster and Ewen attempting to dispose of Pauline’s body in the middle of a large-scale police manhunt, after her disappearance is reported on the national radio. They seek to transfer it in a cardboard box on a trailer that’s attached to the back of a bicycle they normally use for collecting jumble for the Girl Guides (“I don’t think Brown Owl would approve of this!”), hoping to bury it in a secluded field after the site has already been searched by the Police. The film ends on a dismally facetious note with Pauline’s corpse finally being discovered in a shallow grave and a forensic pathologist assiduously dusting her exposed buttocks for prints as they emerge from the excavated dirt: a sight which results in Ewen losing it again, jumping into the grave, and attempting to ravish the soil-besmirched corpse in full view of some by-now-very-suspicious police detectives! Throughout this portion of the film, we’re constantly reminded how true the Stationmaster’s earlier exhortation actually is about nobody really knowing what he thinks … He and Ewen occasionally interact with a well-to-do out-of-towner called Mr Wickstead (Raymond Adamson), who wants Ewen to come round and trim his garden topiary sometime – but who is clearly otherwise not in the least bit curious about the lives of these suspiciously furtive locals.   



With its TV episode runtime length (50 minutes approx.) and the stylistic flavour of its excellent, melodic musical contributions from composer Sam Sklair -- which often imitate the kind of fretless base-dominated cues one would’ve been routinely exposed to in episodes of contemporary television shows such as Bergerac in the 1980s -- the film cultivates the disreputable air of something that feels like it may have been at one time commissioned for TV but then got subsequently side-lined for being far too explicit to actually screen – although this was never in fact the case. The way the tone shifts between a jokey nudge-nudge, wink-wink furtiveness and a grim atmosphere of incipient sexual violence informs the quirky melancholy character of the piece, which emerges from the film being, ultimately, both an example of sexist objectification and a critique of social alienation at the same time. One also senses that the central murder scene ended up being more powerful and disturbing than its makers intended when it was originally shot; Marnham’s apprenticeship as a director on numerous commercials imparted to him the ability to maximise the impact of his material, and he employs a number of techniques (discussed in the BFI release’s interview extras) which add such a gut-punch to the reception of that murder scene that it sets it apart from the lighter tone of the performances being given elsewhere. Nevertheless, the resulting contrast adds rather than detracts from the film’s uneasy reconstruction of the English countryside as a macabre but picturesque site of domestic solitude and sexual desperation.

This being a little-known programme-filling short rather than a main feature does not take anything away from its watchability, and anyone who prizes British Horror from the ‘60s and ‘70s will find this early-80s offering equally as fascinating. The new BFI Flipside release offers a gorgeous 2K digital restoration using the original 35mm film print preserved in the National Film Archive as a source. The image is almost perfect, although the audio track does get a little crackly in places towards the end. The dual-format presentation comes with a number of extras that make the release a valuable historical summery of the culture of independent filmmaking as it stood in the early 1980s, just as the programme short was about to die out with the removal of the tax break system of finance which made it possible. Christian Marnham’s first films outside of the advertising industry were documentaries and the disc includes a 25 minute short made in 1970 called The Showman. It’s a fascinating, and almost equally as macabre record of the career of the variety circus showman Mr Wally Shufflebotttom Snr: a portly, elderly sideshow host who toured British fairgrounds in the early 1970s touting his flaming knife-throwing act, which incorporated striptease  performances enacted by vacant-looking ‘dolly birds’ who we get to see jiving to a Gary Glitter track in order to tempt the shifty-looking punters in. What could sum up the 1970s in Britain better than that image? It’s yet another cultural document which appears to prove that the ‘60s/’70s were another country in terms of how sex was dealt with back in the day and, Marnham’s short account of the development of his career during this period, and of the making of this particular film, is extremely compelling. There is a longer 38 minute account of the making of The Orchard End Murder included, which is again fascinating; and Tracy Hyde has also been tracked down to discuss her previous life as an actress in a 12 minute interview. Actor David Wilkinson, who plays one of the cricketers in the opening section of the film, also talks of his memories about the filming of the feature. The accompanying booklet features two astutely perceptive articles by Josephine Botting on The Orchard End Murder, and Vic Pratt on The Showman: both writers are curators and historians at the National Film Archive who offer perceptive analysis of this bizarre lost period from the nation’s film history.