Wednesday, 30 November 2011

TAXIDERMIED - The Art of Roman Dirge

Roman Dirge is an American artist and magician who is best known as the man behind the uniquely macabre comic book series Lenore, the cute little dead girl, which features the adventures of his own pale and humorous -- but decidedly deceased -- pre-school creation, who “lives” with some of her oddball friends in the fictional town of Nevermore. This was a character originally inspired by the famous Edgar Allan Poe poem, which appeared first in Xenophobe magazine in 1992; since that time, the cartoon cadaver has gone on to star not only in two of her own comics series, but in a run of flash animated shorts, originally made for Sony’s ScreenBlast website in 2002.
Lenore, as the most popular manifestation of Dirge’s output, best sums up the distinctive, deliciously twisted ethos that can be found interred deep at the core of all of his work, and which has now been showcased in all its morbid glory in TAXIDERMIED: The Art of Roman Dirge -- a beautifully produced art book folio-style overview collection, recently published by Titan Books. The book displays its author’s unusual sensibility across 112 entrancing pages full of bizarre wonders and anxiety-inducing humours, unveiling an oeuvre which, rather like the early sketches of Tim Burton or the nightmare animations of The Brothers Quay, worships at the shrine of misplaced oddity and incongruous found objects. Dirge’s work revivifies the dusty careworn strangeness of faded, velvet-lined gothic Victoriana, and operates in the seldom visited twilight hinterland where an appreciation of shallow ‘cuteness’ becomes entwined with a deep love of all things weird -- with the dark, the exotic and the vaguely disturbing, in a manner that often leaves it difficult to tell where one category ends and another begins.

This lavish hardback collection is split into five broad sections surrounding the main body of work -- which consists of beautiful reproductions obtained from a selection of the artist’s astonishingly detailed full-colour images and portraits -- and including quick jottings, sketches and Lenore-style cartoon work; but all of the material shares the same rich dark sense of humour while embodying Dirge’s on-going obsession with taxidermy and images of listless waxwork-like cadavers fresh from the mortuary slab. This perennial thematic obsession is also joined by frequent representations of freakish nightmare bird creatures, staring out dead-eyed from an ornately painted vision of hell; also ossified remains join up with other oddments and random bric-a-brac, becoming like puppet living things; and then there are the pale, hollow-eyed tattooed Goth girls with jet black hair, Marlene Dietrich’s cheekbones and blood-red rosebud lips (there are a lot of those!).

The lines between the living and the dead; between inanimate objects and the viscera of the fleshily still  living, are frequently being blurred, broken and disposed of in this work, It is  always quite clear that Dirge’s muse emerges from the land of dreams and unconscious motivators: many of the images are accompanied with a commentary that states their initial inspiration as having come from a dream, and Dirge claims in the introduction that he often doesn’t quite know what the plan is when he starts out on a piece. Freud’s ever pertinent list of tropes for what constitutes ‘the Uncanny’ in literature (formed from consideration of a short story, The Sand-Man, by the Prussian writer E.T.A. Hoffmann, who himself started with ambitions of being a graphic artist and painter) should be kept in mind when perusing this assembly of unnatural creations.
The opening selections amount to a flashback to previously unseen works rediscovered in Dirge’s old sketchbooks. These early, mostly black & white pencil sketches tend to separate out the goulishness and the silliness into discrete compartments: we have the misshapen, offbeat, amusing animal pictures, such as the opening image which depicts an upright walking hamster creature (all bloated and evidently finding it difficult to totter on his widely spaced hind legs); while later, there’s a pencil-drawn and shaded portrait of a goofy grinning giraffe with a love-heart necklace around its neck. This section ends with assorted hastily scribbled and coloured-in wide-eyed cat-like cartoon creations; but before them there’s also an elf, and a depressed-looking android, and a boy with a pumpkin head sitting on top of a zombie-like rock monster -- his yawning cave-formed mouth full of stalactite teeth. This opening section also finds room for some slightly more macabre sketches that point the way to the full-on nightmare surrealism of the main body of the book: a golem-inspired ghoul with half his head missing, which has been replaced by a satellite antenna; a ’demon’ that looks more like something assembled from bits of unravelling string and the shattered, dug-up skull of some long extinct still-born atrocity – all held together on a collapsible fold-out metal frame that emerges improbably from a pair of belted baggy trousers.
"Nurse Monster What Gives Candy To A Spider Thing In A Drawer"
The ‘Artwork’ section (the one that takes up most of the book) is where the twisted Dirge sensibility really kicks in. Here we have the full colour portraits, painted from initial pencil drawings, mostly either based on similar looking skinny pale Goth women with tattoos, or a Johnny Depp-like male cartoon figure (possibly an avatar for the artist himself), only with distorted features and a bulbous pumpkin-like head which sits atop a spindly body that’s clad in funeral director’s garb (one of the portraits incarnates him as Jack the Ripper). There are the standard images of zombies here, of course; the most striking of which features a little Girl Guide zombie with a Princess Lea haircut, clutching at a box of cookies while blackbirds flit around a white picket fence, pecking at her flesh as it unravels in veiny string-like strands. An appreciation of the Victorian macabre that surrounds the Jack the Ripper case emerges most strikingly in an image that also begins to illustrate the artist’s warped sense of the absurd and the kitsch: a piece entitled  Dear Boss features a figure in a seated pose that mimics the faded, gloomy looking aesthetic of the Victorian era daguerreotype, except that the figure is, as the commentary explains, intended as a composite of all of Jack the Ripper’s female victims: an absurd scar-stitched mannequin, half rag doll, half death mask of the formerly living. The disturbing image plays on the Victorian vogue for memento mori portraits of loved ones taken in death, but Dirge adds his own incongruously bizarre take on the genre by seating a ridiculous cartoon bear in the taxidermied corpse’s lap!
Odd little creatures tend to turn up in the various nooks and crannies of these paintings, many of which often display an affinity with the offbeat surrealism of David Lynch’s midnight movie favourite Eraserhead. Nurse Monster What Gives Candy To A Spider Thing In A Drawer feels like typical early Lynch weirdness what with its central crab-faced, tentacled figure, seen perched atop a set of drawers from which a hairy tarantula ‘thing’ is attempting to emerge -- but it is also typically Dirge-like in that the picture includes a miniaturised fluffy canine with a feather for a tale, for no apparent reason balanced precariously upon some sort of scientific apparatus of the artist’s own devising on the right of the image. One painting, Mary Toft And The Rabbit Babies, refers to a little-known 1726 curiosity -- also written about by Emma Donoghue in her book of short fictions based on ‘true’ stories, The Woman Who Gave Birth To Rabbits -- in which a Surrey woman managed to fool doctors in early Georgian England into believing that she really had given birth to rabbits! The case was satirised at the time by William Hogarth in his print Credulity, Superstition, and Fanaticism, but Dirge’s painting adds whimsical zombie nurses to the mix and has them engaged in a desperate struggle to control the flow of squealing little bunnies that arrive attached to multiple frayed, string-like strands of umbilical cord -- while one of the new-borns has chanced to find himself perched on top of his ‘mother’s’ head.

Neglected cuddly toys and strange fluffy proto-animals sit side by side with Dirge’s pet hate from the animal world: birds. ‘I actually hate birds but I find myself compelled to draw them,’ says the artist, and in this section they appear often in the background and in almost naturalistic form (except for the two-headed raven, shown perched on a gnarled tree branch amid its bowery -- which is topped off with a miniaturised skull), but in the section entitled ‘Monsters’ Dirge’s demons come out to play in even more grotesque a form, and birds are here very often the template for the artist’s queasiest nightmares. A lot of his monster portraits exist at the interface between a sort of cartoon whimsy and a Gothic tinged carnival grotesque: his creatures look welded or glued together from bits of disparate old skull or carapace, crumbling toys or other found objects; some of them look to be part skeleton and part stitched on feather and fur.

This is particularly the case with the artist’s ‘devil’ birds, which often seem to be wearing skull masks, as though they were all members of some secret satanic society that worships an inscrutable form of evil. The dust cover image of the book – from a work called Serpentese -- is meant to be Dirge’s vision of a creature that might prey on these avian horrors, but if anything the cure -- with its long, coiling, slithery snake body, attached to a wolfish skull with a slug oozing from one eye socket and a mangy horse’s mane trailing from its crown (which is itself home to some tattered-looking bird prisoners) -- is even more unpleasant than the disease!

Evocative highlights of this section include Chinese Dress: a lushly rendered Daliesque painting of a woman in a red Chinese dress, seated with a disturbingly elaborate and incongruous bird-insect skull where her face should be and several of Dirge’s strange, semi-cartoon fictional animals at her side or across her lap. Also, Giants is a striking image given a double page spread: creatures that look like colossal robot animal toys, apparently fighting for possession of a ripped-out heart in a fairy-tale city in which little pale-skinned Dirge avatars stand and gawp at the raging spectacle above their heads in the clouds. It’s clear that the areas that interest the artist most intersect with the world of fairy tales, so the ‘Scarytales’ section is an inevitable inclusion and is home to a zombie version of Disney’s design for Pinocchio, an equally sallow looking Snow White and, even more inevitably, the Dirge take on Alice in Wonderland. The book then winds down with a collection of jokey and lovingly garish cartoons in the section called ‘Funny Bones’: it’s a vehicle for some bad jokes and generally bad taste humour, including amongst the gags a ‘Missing’ poster rendered for a cute cartoon cat called Miss Puddles -- with an artist rendition of what puddles ‘may’ look like now: a squished roadside mess!

Titan have put together a great cross section of the artist’s work for this edition and it is all presented in a sumptuous hardback volume with high quality paper (dimensions: 310 x 224mm) that fully does justice to the colourful, baroque weirdness that is the art of Roman Dirge.
RATING: 4 /5
Published by Titan Books (2011)
Find out more about Roman Dirge and his work at

Friday, 25 November 2011

February Release Dates From Arrow

Fresh news has emerged from the folks at Cult Labs today relating to three of their slated 2012 releases. The press release details are below. All three are due out in February -- the exact dates for each one are included with the text.

Red Scorpion (Arrow Video) Blu-ray


Dolph Lundgren is Nikolai - a killing machine - a deadly, highly skilled agent for the Russian army whose brutal efficiency and single minded determination to serve the motherland leaves behind a trail of battered bodies and bloodied enemies.

Now Nikolai must infiltrate an African rebel army who seek to defy their new communist rulers and take out their leader, but as he gets to know his enemies and the dignified Bushmen he encounters, he begins to slowly realize that all he has been taught was a lie. This Cold War rebel is ready to turn the tables on his Soviet masters and kick all kinds of ass!

With a body count that leaves jaws firmly on the floor and a healthy disregard for troublesome logic, Red Scorpion is a classic 80s action spectacular that doesn’t let up for a second…


- Reversible sleeve with original and newly commissioned artwork

- Double-sided fold-out artwork poster

- Collector’s booklet featuring brand new writing on the film by author Calum Waddell


- Brand New High Definition Transfer of the film (1080p)


- Introduction to the film from star Dolph Lundgren

- UK exclusive audio commentary with director Joseph Zito, moderated by filmmaker and genre scholar Howard S. Berger

- ALL OUT OF BULLETS: Dolph Lundgren remembers RED SCORPION

- MUSIC WITH MUSCLES: Composer Jay Chattaway on the soundtrack of RED SCORPION

- Original Trailer

Original Art by The Dude Designs

In original 1.78:1 Aspect Ratio

Original Uncompressed LPCM Stereo Audio

Feature and extras 1080/24p Region ABC playable worldwide

RRP £24.99

Released 6th February 2012

Penitentiary (ArrowDrome) DVD

There's only one way out, and 100 fools stand in the way!

Too Sweet likes three things… Candy bars, makin’ love and fighting. Arrested while defending a beautiful hooker in a roadside diner brawl, he finds himself unjustly incarcerated in a violent prison hellhole where life is cheap and punks get owned by predatory lifers. There’s only one way out… Victory in the ring!

Now Too Sweet has to fight for his freedom in series of boxing battles, all the while watching his back in the prison corridors, waiting for the cold sting of the shiv that might end his life.

Experience Jamaa Fanaka’s extraordinary grindhouse classic – Which is arguably the last great Blaxploitation flick – and pray to God you never end up somebody’s bitch in the  PENITENTIARY!



Running Time 99 mins approx

English language

Region 0 NTSC

RRP £9.99

Released 13th February 2012

The Cat O’ Nine Tails (ArrowDrome) DVD


A break in at a genetics lab leads to a spiralling vortex of bloody murder in Cat O’ Nine Tails, Dario Argento’s 70s Giallo classic.

Strange circumstances surrounding the crime pique the interest of a journalist and a blind crossword compiler whose sharp ears have overheard talk of blackmail. However, all the would be investigators leads soon regret the help they gave as scientists die in front of speeding trains and photographers are viciously slain while others fall to their screaming deaths down elevator shafts in this surreal and nightmarish thriller from one of the acknowledged masters of Italian horror.

As the body count increases, will no one escape the sting of The Cat O’ Nine Tails?



Running Time 107 mins approx

English language

Region 0 PAL

RRP £9.99

Released 20th February 2012

Saturday, 19 November 2011


Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence is often misremembered, perhaps even dismissed, as being simply a straightforward, commercially driven vehicle intent on putting its renowned director and co-screenwriter Nagisa Oshima -- the Japanese auteurist and former provocateur extraordinaire -- under the bright spotlight of mainstream Western media recognition for the first time after he'd originally found a degree of prominence internationally in the 1970s, for his radical gesture in yoking a stylised form of cinematic beauty to the less than reputable ‘genre’ of hard-core pornography, with the French produced In the Realm of the Senses. In 1983, this Jeremy Thomas production reached much further beyond the confines of the arthouse ghetto to embrace an audience who knew nothing of its director’s radical past but were impressed by the casting of David Bowie (the tousle-haired, ‘80s-era blonde Bowie of the critically reviled ‘Let’s Dance’ period) and enamoured of Yellow Magic Orchestra frontman Ryuichi Sakamoto’s swooningly catchy chart synth anthem, Forbidden Colours.

The casting of Bowie alongside a mix & match cast of upcoming British thesps like Tom Conti and mainstream Japanese personalities such as “Beat” Takeshi Kitano (then known mainly as a comedian in his native country) inevitably brought this peculiar film to the attention of a much wider audience
than it would otherwise have been expected to command both in Japan and abroad – indeed, it probably found a bigger audience than any other film Oshima had made before; but the seemingly skewed populists casting decisions are completely in line with its ultimate raison d'être -- for its many seeming inconsistencies and clashes in formal style (which range from the varied approaches in acting culture of the mixed British/Japanese cast, to the mismatch between Sakamoto’s state-of-the-art synth score and the film’s 1940s period setting) are a big part of its point -- foreshadowing its core theme of cultural dissonance and examining how in closed quarters it permeates and affects the assumptions behind the thoughts and actions and desires of the story’s four main protagonists in unpredictable, fragmenting and frequently violent ways.

Captain Yonoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto) reports for court duty
It’s also completely an extension of Oshima’s previous work, despite a much higher public profile and the unaccustomed mainstream acceptance the film garnered: the opening scenes of Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence couldn’t make this any more clear to the Oshima enthusiast, setting up once more, themes that have been a constant in Oshima’s cinema since early ‘60s radical works such as Death by Hanging (1968) and Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (1968), which take the form of an obsession with society’s outsiders (whether they be its sexual taboo busters or the racially marginalised) and the challenge such individuals pose to political, religious and social orthodoxies. It is also, like many of Oshima’s films, particularly In the Realm of the Senses and Death by Hanging, based on true events, though in this case distorted through the prism of being an joint adaptation by Oshima and The Man Who Fell to Earth screenwriter, Paul Mayersberg, of a novel, “The Seed and the Sower”, which was based on the true life experiences of aristocratic Englishman and former prisoner of war in Indonesia, Laurens van der Post.

Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence takes place in a wartime Japanese prisoner of war camp situated in Java, soon after the Japanese invasion of South East Asia, in early 1942, and sees Tom Conti cast as van der Post’s alter ego, Colonel John Lawrence. A Japanese-speaking British officer with an affinity for Japanese culture, who had once lived in the country before the war, Lawrence finds himself in the uncomfortable position of attempting to liaise, on behalf of the British prisoners, between their austere, frequently violent Japanese captors and the prisoners’ uncomprehending official British spokesman, the blustering Group Captain Hicksley (Jack Thompson). Neither side fully understands the other and routinely misinterpret each other’s behaviour because of their unfamiliarity with their respective cultural backgrounds. The traditional Japanese honour code that informs the attitudes of the alternatingly amiable-then-brutal Sgt Gengo Hara (Battle Royale’s Takeshi Katino, in his first major screen role) has the effect of his seeing the prisoners as merely being cowards for their not being prepared to commit suicide rather than allow themselves to be captured by their foes; meanwhile Hicksley interprets the violent methods of punishment routinely meted out by Hara and his men as evidence of nothing but uncivilised brutality in their Japanese captors. The irony is, of course, that both men, from the perspective of their own respective cultures, are equally hot-headed patriotic conservatives, obsessed with tradition and the right way of doing things.
Jack Celliers (David Bowie) awaits execution
Into this fraught situation comes a new and inspiring face: Major Jack Celliers (David Bowie) -- a man already well known to Lawrence and many of the other prisoners as “Strafer” Jack – because of his reputation for being a soldier’s soldier. Caught trying to organise a guerrilla fighting group in the jungle after the Japanese invasion of Java, Celliers is at first condemned to execution by the Japanese high command. But Commandant, Captain Yonoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto) is clearly struck by the fearless Major, seeing in him an example of the military virtue and perfection he himself aspires to. The aristocratic Yonoi was once sympathetic to the cause of the “Shining Young Officers” a group of lower ranking officers in the Japanese Imperial army who attempted a coup d'état in Japan in the year 1936. Yonoi was unable to take part in the infamous February 26th incident in which the rebels managed briefly to occupy the capital before control was re-established by the Imperial Army, since he had been posted to Manchuria just beforehand. While his comrades were executed, Yonoi found himself placed in charge of the prison camp instead of being awarded a more prestigious command post, because of his suspected sympathies with the rebellion.
Yonoi’s guilt at not sharing the self -sacrifice of his comrades, and his recognition of Celliers’ own sacrifice in staying behind to organise a futile guerrilla campaign while the British forces evacuated the region, leads the Captain to intervene in his sentencing and recommend that Celliers be imprisoned rather than executed, although an idiosyncratic sense of propriety demands that a cruel mock execution be staged in any case -- with Celliers bound before a line of rifle -bearing marksmen, who all point their arms at him but then unexpectedly discharge their weapons to either side of his body at the last second after hearing the command to fire!
John Lawrence (Tom Conti) attempts to reason with Group Captain Hicksley (Jack Thompson)

But Celliers’ arrival at the camp coincides with the discovery of a homosexual liaison between one of the Japanese guards and a Dutch prisoner. Sergeant Hara at first tries to get the ‘disgraced’ guard to commit Seppuku, and even brings Colonel Lawrence along to watch the event. Despite his strange friendship with Hara and his unique respect for and knowledge of Japanese culture, Lawrence is appalled by Hara’s rigid traditionalism and manages to get Captain Yonoi to intervene; but although he punishes Hara for taking matters into his own hands, the Captain then organises an even more traditional, ceremonial form of ritual suicide for the disgraced guard, and forces the camp’s foreign prisoners to become unwilling spectators to the gruesome act. Their equally appalled reaction is interpreted as spiritual impoverishment and cowardice by Yonoi who promptly enforces a fast as an atonement ritual, a further burden on already undernourished men.

Celliers’ arrival at this time results in the refined but (to the other prisoners) heroic Major taking his own stand against the regime by blithely disobeying the fasting rule and all it stands for, feeding the camp with hand-picked fruit and outraging Yonoi and Hara by then defiantly eating the funerary ‘Manju’ flowers he uses to conceal this illicit food in the bottom of his straw basket. Yonoi is torn between an obvious affinity for the Major because of his recognition of the man’s heroic qualities as a soldier (to which he aspires), and fulfilling the omen such an act would seem to court: the Manju flower is associated both with love and with death in Japanese superstition and legends, and Celliers’ intransigence would seem to demand his destruction -- especially after the challenge the interloper has put to the Captain’s unyielding belief in the rigid samurai bushido code.

The strange dance of provocation between Sakamoto’s Yonoi and Bowie’s effete, blonde-highlighted soldier Celliers, drives much of the incident of the film and seems deliberately positioned in such a way as to encourage the idea that there may be suppressed homoerotic undertones in Yonoi’s near-worship of the increasingly Christ-like British Major. The casting of two non-professional actors in such demanding and unusual roles can be seen as a daring decision on Oshima’s part, designed to befuddle those who would try to pin the film down as a traditional realist wartime nostalgia piece. Conti and Thompson may give refined, graceful, subtle RADA-toned performances of a type audiences may be familiar with from such films, but Sakamoto and Bowie’s untutored and intuitive approach to their acting often seems to locate them as part of an entirely different kind of work. Certainly Sakamoto’s stilted, accented English delivery and Bowie’s dazzling (and visually signposted) off-world rock star persona both seem to place unbroachable barriers between an audience’s full acceptance and understanding of each of their characters, but Oshima seems little interested in illuminating the inner conflicts of Celliers and Yonoi so much as dramatizing the texture of the incommensurable attraction between them, and to this end his indulgence of Bowie’s mime skills and of Sakamoto’s inherent awkwardness before the camera help him achieve his aim. Both characters are caught in a self-sacrificial web of magnetic attraction like moths bent on extinguishing themselves in each other’s flame.
The brothers set off for boarding school
Toichiro Narushima’s cinematography reproduces the steamy muted palettes of Rarotonga and echoes many a familiar wartime jungle movie in doing so, but also explodes into a riot of colour for a key sequence which occurs once Celliers and Lawrence are imprisoned together awaiting execution after they are singled out for punishment when a radio is discovered in camp (Yonoi knows Lawrence isn’t responsible, but as the person who provides the bridge across the cultural gap that exists between prisoner and captor, he must accept the blame and die for Yonoi according to the Captain’s deranged sense of propriety). The scene takes the form of a flashback to Celliers’ childhood and reveals a guilty secret he harbours over the treatment of his younger brother.

This is where Oshima makes the film’s fundamentally offbeat nature most lucidly perceptible: Celliers’ English rural upbringing is transmogrified by the clearly quite incongruous New Zealand shooting locations, into an airily garlanded dreamscape in which the younger blonde brother (James Malcolm) is bullied for his beatific soprano singing voice, and the slightly older twelve-year-old Celliers (Chris Broun) takes it upon himself to be his little brother’s protector. This all changes when the two arrive at a rigidly stratified boarding school, and Celliers’ commitment to blending in with and becoming a part of the ‘establishment’ leads him to sacrifice his brother to the harsh humiliations of the school’s initiation rituals, which results in the boy never singing again.

Oshima turns this whole sequence into something that might've looked more in place as part of a Ken Russell production of Mary Poppins (specifically echoing the heightened, brightly coloured melodrama of the The Lair of the White Worm) and magnifies the surrealism of it by transplanting Bowie’s older Celliers into the scenes which take place in the public school, while Celliers’ younger brother stays the same age as he was in the previous scenes from their childhood, when Bowie’s character was played by child actor Chris Broun. This strange convergence emphasises the grown-up Celliers’ guilt and provides a motivation for his later self-sacrificial action, but it also makes clear the director’s commitment to challenging the viewer’s sense of appropriateness for dealing with the material, as the film feels more dreamlike and mannered that one normally finds in movies set during this period.

Sakamoto’s incidental music continues in this mission, consisting as it does of a series of recurring leitmotifs, each associated with each of the main characters. These heavily synthesised passages stand out a mile in contrast to the wartime 1940s setting, and, if anything, are even more noticeably incongruous now that they’ve acquired the nostalgic connotations associated with 1980s synth electronica.
A final fairwell between unlikely friends
One of the most laudable aspects of the production is its determination to deal with the main characters on both sides -- British prisoners and their Japanese captors alike -- in an even handed way throughout. Takeshi’s mercurial Sergeant Hara arguably goes through the most unexpected transformation, starting the film by portraying the ugliest, nationalistic side of his character -- the side that most aligns with a western audience’s preconceptions about the brutality of the Japanese during the Second World War -- and ending it as a dignified and stoic prisoner himself, awaiting British justice at the end of the war when the roles of prisoner and captive have been reversed. The friendship between Lawrence and Hara is the one constant that endures to the end while the initially likable and honourable Captain Yonoi eventually becomes deranged by his unyielding adherence to tradition and his rigid sense of honour, which have been slowly warped by his personification of them in the unlikely form of Major Celliers, who himse;f ends up demonstrating his own form of Seppuku in the course of attempting to assuage the pain of his guilty past. Left to perish in the scorching sun after having been buried up to his neck in the earth, Celliers’ becomes almost a fetishized god to the repressed Yonoi, who removes a lock of the dying soldier’s blonde hair, as though it were both a relic of a deification or a memento of a lover, or something existing ambiguously in the gap between the two.
Ambiguity in relationships, cultural incommensurability and the hidden wellsprings of psychology that form individual personalities are the main themes of this offbeat, uncategorisable arthouse picture posing as a mainstream hit; Oshima’s penultimate film is awkward and weird but mesmerising nonetheless.

This double play release includes a Blu-ray copy and a DVD copy of the movie, both featuring the same set of extras on each, which consist of a 25 minute making of documentary called Oshima’s Gang, featuring contributions from Tom Conti, David Bowie, producer Jeremy Thomas and the author of the novel on which the film was based, Laurens van der Post. The author comes across as a benign, sweet-natured member of the upper crust who confesses at one point to feeling terribly guilty for never having heard of David Bowie before he saw the film! Bowie meanwhile (interviewed during a press conference for the film attended by Nagisa Oshima himself) comes across as quite humble about his acting abilities and reveals that the director worked incredibly quickly, usually shooting no more than two takes per scene. Conti reveals that he turned down the film at first because of the amount of violence in the script and that the many scenes in which he speaks fluent Japanese were all learned phonetically without his having any idea what he was actually saying.

The disc also includes a 17 minute interview with Jeremy Thomas, filmed more recently, in which he reveals that Oshima’s 2:1 shooting ratio left him with a load of unusable film stock on his hands, since the director never shot any more footage than he needed for his conception of each scene. An 11 minute interview with actor and musician Ryuichi Sakamoto reveals a man who isn’t at all comfortable in front of the camera when it comes to acting, and indeed, has never acted again since seeing himself in this film and being appalled by his performance! Sakamoto also talks about his conception of the music as ‘being from nowhere’ but incorporating elements of exotic, traditional Japanese and contemporary western music, mixed with a nostalgia for an unobtainable past.

This reviewer only had access to the DVD copy that comes with the set, but the transfer looked fine, if a little muddy during the opening sequence. The extras also feature a short trailer (in poor condition) and a three minute excerpt from the documentary biography Scenes by the Sea --- the Life and cinema of ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano.

TITLE: Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence/MOVIE RELEASE DATE: 1983/DVD RELEASE DATE: 17 October 2011/GENRE: Arthouse/LABEL: Studio Canal UK/REGION: B/2 PAL/ASPECT RATIO: 1.85:1/DIRECTOR: Nagisa Oshima/CAST: David Bowie, Tom Conti, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Takeshi Kitano, Jack Thomson.

Read a review of Empire of Passion at
Read a review of In the Realm of the Senses at


Tuesday, 8 November 2011


This twenty-year-old cable TV movie, featuring Jennifer Jason Leigh in an early role from the same year in which she first came to critical attention for her tough portrayal of the prostitute Tralala, in the film adaptation of Hubert Selby Jr.’s  Last Exit to Brooklyn (1990), is also the feature directorial calling card of renowned Hungarian-American screenwriter, producer, and director of the classic The Shawshank Redemption (1994), The Green Mile (1996) and The Mist (2007) (all films based on Stephen King novels, for which he also handled screenwriting duties), namely Frank Darabont –  the creator of and, until recently, showrunner on, AMC’s hugely successful zombie apocalypse series, The Walking Dead (2011  -- ), which was adapted from Robert Kirkman’s on-going comic-book imprint.

In the last decade or so, television drama has attempted to adopt a lexicon of 'filmic' values that asserts a visual sophistication on a par with that which defines much of modern popular cinema, to the point where a series such as The Walking Dead, for instance, aspires to look as big and as ‘cinematic’ as anything you’d expect to find on a multiplex theatre screen, despite the hugely quicker turn-over in filmed episodes needed in order to produce a full series.

Movies made for cable television back in the late-eighties and early-nineties though, are a whole different story; they were constrained by a standard, flatly lit and rigorously adhered-to four act structure, which packaged everything using the same formulaic template, with usually very little visual distinctiveness or artistic individuality present. There were of course exceptions, such as Tobe Hooper's 1979 adaptation of Salem's Lot or David Lynch's Twin Peaks (1990-91), but these tend only to prove the general rule.

Shot in the then-standard TV ratio of 1.33:1 Buried Alive looks like the millions of other mainstream friendly thrillers you’re still likely to encounter on any afternoon of any given week, though the story itself is pure E.C. Comics-style macabre.  The film combines several of the Poe-like plotlines that were featured in publisher William Gains’ infamous horror comics line  -- usually about morally rotten individuals suffering cruel vengeance, enacted from beyond the grave -- which included titles such as Tales from the Crypt (1950-55), The Vault of Horror (1950-54), and The Haunt of Fear (1950-54).

Visually, Darabont’s debut film is shorn of most of the luridly grotesque imagery indicative of E.C. Comics artist Graham Ingles’ best work, but the teleplay manages occasionally to hint at a similarly caustic thread of nihilism to that which defined the E.C. world, a faint trace of which can be found running through the often mordantly humorous dialogue of screenwriter Mark Patrick Carducci (Tales from the Darkside) here.
That, and the fact that Darabont is sporadically still able to find ways to broach a visual inventiveness within the confines of a well-established TV movie format thanks to his occasional extravagant camera zooms and a dramatic use of slow-motion (combined with atmospheric sound design), just about raises Buried Alive above the waterline, when it would’ve otherwise been mired in quite unassuming mediocrity.
The prosaic plot's set-up is a straight faced outline for a standard-style revenge thriller: Tim Matheson plays good-natured, hard-working, happy-go-lucky and boringly decent construction worker Clint Goodman (the clue’s in the name if you don’t clock immediately that Clint’s meant to be a salt-of-the-earth nice guy). He’s built up through honest hard graft a successful construction company that’s now worth over a million dollars, and he’s recently returned to his home town to build with his own hands the perfect ‘little house on the prairie’ dream home for his gorgeous blonde bombshell wife Joanna (Jennifer Jason Leigh). “That boy was only ever happy when he had splinters in his hands,” recalls his buddy, the local sheriff (the redoubtable Hoyt Axton), who raised Clint from an early age, and who he now goes fishing with whenever Clint's wife is away visiting her city friends. Joanna, though, misses that old city life -- and an over-sized house in the middle of nowhere holds little appeal: ‘It’s like one big maze … and I’m the rat!’

Despite the luxury hand-built house,  the thriving construction business and the expensive metallic- blue sports car it affords her, Joanna (permanently clad in expensive designer dresses and dark shades)  is bored stiff of honest Clint, although he’s still so in love with her that he’s oblivious to her sullen frowns over the breakfast table, her muttered sarcastic replies to his jokey quips, and to the fact that Joanna isn't visiting her friends when she’s away  in the city but the expensive apartments of her slimy Doctor friend, with whom she’s been conducting an affair.
If the fact that Doctor Cortland van Owen is played by William Atherton (Ghostbusters [1984], Die Hard [1988]) with a fiendish glinting relish pitched somewhere between Todd Slaughter and Jeffrey Combs doesn’t alert you to the fact that the man is not to be trusted for a second, then perhaps the realisation that his pristine bedroom looks more like a modern art gallery -- a decadently luxurious double bed with black satin sheets slapped in the middle of it -- might do the trick. When van Owen nonchalantly informs Joanna after their tryst that the meal they’ve just consumed was in fact culled from his collection of exotic fish and was plucked out of the colourful aquarium behind the bed, you know he’s actually constitutionally predatory to the point of stark, lizard-eyed insanity.

Equally casually, the good doctor mentions that he’s extracted a rare poison from the ovaries of the exotic fish in question, which can induce a natural-looking cardiac arrest in the recipient; perhaps if Joanna were to slip it into Clint’s evening meal later on, they could finally be together properly: she would escape her dull housewife life (“you don’t want to spend the rest of your life in redneck county, USA … sitting on the front porch watching the possums puke!”) and the money from the sale of Clint’s business would finance a spanking new private clinic for van Owen!

Bored and listless and unfaithful she may be, but Joanna isn’t keen on murder at first … until the grating noise from the sand plainer in DIY-obsessed Clint’s workroom drives her insane for one last time and she finally snaps, tipping the contents of the vial into the red wine he takes with his evening meal -- which in this case is the carp he caught while out fishing with the Sheriff. Oh, the irony! 
 At this point Darabont stages a typical Hitchcockian suspense sequence which involves Clint unexpectedly entering the kitchen and picking up both glasses to take them into the dining room – which means Joanna can’t be sure, when he later proposes a toast, that she’s got the non-lethal one! The ensuing death sequence is also effectively staged, as it then turns out that van Owen was being a little cavalier with the truth when he said that death would come quickly and painlessly: in fact, Clint dies in agony on the dining room floor, clawing for help from his non-responsive wife, who eventually simply screams “die damn you! … DIE!” into his face, which is now frozen in a horrific grimace. Shot in creepy, prolonged slow-motion and with an atmospheric sound design, the sequence is memorable and peculiarly chilling.

An impatient Joanna can’t be bothered with a wake, so Clint misses out on being embalmed; she can’t be bothered to stump up for a decent coffin either, so he’s fobbed off with a cheap, thin, worm-eaten one with no lead lining - and quickly laid to rest as soon as possible in the local cemetery. Which is just as well, for it emerges that van Owen clearly hasn’t done his homework: Clint Goodman isn’t actually dead, and wakes from death-like suspended animation in the middle of a thunder & lightning storm to find, as the title says, he’s been buried alive.
With his faithful pet hound already clawing at the earth at his graveside (after it previously escaped Joanna trying to blast it with a rifle), Clint punches his way out of the rotten, waterlogged casket and staggers through the storm-lit graveyard, in a sequence which sees Darabont paying homage to the opening scene of Night of the Living Dead (1968).

Fingers shredded from clawing his way from beneath splintered wood and grave mould (the Sheriff's earlier comment about’ splinters in hands’ now gaining an extra ironic relevance), a dazed, zombie-like Goodman lurches for home; but when he gets there he spies his wife through the kitchen window cavorting with van Owen (two muddy hand smears remain on the glass the next morning).
Vowing to finish them both off, he begins secretly living in the cellar he himself once built (“Honey, I’m home!” the now deranged Goodman cackles to no one in particular) like a phantom squatter, and at first plans on blowing them both away with a simple bullet to the head … until he overhears van Owen gloating about his first meeting with Joanna, when she came to him pregnant with Goodman’s baby … the baby they’d been trying for (or so Goodman thought) ever since the couple moved here. “I soon dealt with that, though!” van Owen reminds her.

At this point Clint decides he’s going to make his revenge slow, methodical and as elaborate as possible.

In typical grimly ironic E.C. Comics style, Clint’s earlier positioning as a DIY obsessive, and his devotion to the construction of his ‘dream home’ as a tribute to his wife and potential future family life (which has in fact left Joanna so caught-up in its stifling trap of domesticity that she becomes easy prey for the evil but superficially charming van Owen) is now made the basis for the method which underpins the resurrected Clint’s elaborate form of revenge. Joanna starts to suspect something is up when she finds a leg of chicken with a mouthful chomped out of it left in the fridge, and the bathroom floor  is unaccountably  flooded and left covered in mud in the morning (Clint remains in the house during the night, even though Joanna is asleep there the whole time). Eventually managing to trap the greedy lovers in the cellar (by this point it’s become apparent that van Owen intended to kill Joanna, as well, using the same poison again once the money from the sale of Clint’s business was secured) Goodman sets about reconfiguring the structure of the entire house, using his construction skills and his love of honest toil to turn the place into exactly the kind of rats’ maze Joanna once dismissed it as -- but now also a fiendish weapon for his revenge.
The pay-off is predictable but elaborated with a steadfast, solid knack for thriller conventions, made more interesting than usual through Darabont’s occasional flights of artistic fancy: in the graveyard scene we enter Clint Goodman’s coffin during the thunder storm, when the camera descends vertically from directly above the grave, tunnelling though the earth to find the interred body of Goodman below ground, opening his eyes and realising with horror his frightful predicament. Later, with Joanna caught in Goodman’s series of newly-built but ever-narrowing house corridors, the camera dollies at high speed along the entire length of one stretch of the construction, to end by pivoting straight into Jennifer Jason Leigh’s screaming mouth. A grimly amusing ‘funeral’ black humour pervades the whole film, no more so than in the comically callous attitude of Brian Libby’s wisecracking embalmer at the funerary home, who regales his squeamish trainee assistant with advice such as “once they’ve been bagged and tagged they’ve gotta be pumped and dumped!” reassuring him that, “after a while they all look the same … stiff!”

This fairly unremarkable but mostly likable thriller, with its mix of standard television melodrama and hints of dark humour, reaches an ambiguous conclusion when we’re invited to consider the transformation which has occurred in the soul of the once easy-going protagonist: the final scene has Goodman standing over what was originally his own grave and talking to his old friend Sherriff Eberly as though the two were in fact strangers. “I used to know the guy who’s buried here,” says the Sheriff -- and it’s unclear if Eberly is simply colluding in the deception, or if it’s being suggested that in successfully enacting his revenge Goodman has lost something vital at the core of his being , that he is no longer quite the same person he once was. “Whoever you are, I want you to leave this place and never come back!”
It’s an oddly chilling coda to what could otherwise have remained a mostly rather ordinary treatment of the classic buried alive theme, but Matheson is great in his transformation from blue collar 'Everyman' to harbinger of DIY-obsessed vengeance from the grave; Leigh is exemplary playing the bored, stay-at-home wife  who turns giddy on the excitement of being murderously immoral; while Atherton frequently steals the show as the coldly calculating and dangerous tempter, who is only faking his interest in Joanna so that he can escape his debts and jet off into exile with the money from her husband’s sold business.
The transfer on this disc from Second Sight looks pretty solid considering this is a twenty-one-year-old TV movie. It’s in the correct 1.33:1 aspect ratio, but there are no extras.  

TITLE: Buried Alive/MOVIE RELEASE DATE: 1990/DVD RELEASE DATE: 17 October 2011/GENRE: Thriller-Horror/LABEL: Second Sight/REGION: 2 PAL/ASPECT RATIO: 1.33:1/DIRECTOR: Frank Darabont/CAST: Tim Matheson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, William Atherton, Hoyt Axton. RATING: 3/5

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Tuesday, 1 November 2011

SHIVER (2008)

This intriguing Spanish chiller seems to have taken a bit longer than usual to make it onto DVD in the UK. You’ll probably have guessed the general kind of thing you might expect from it though, thanks to the by now very well-established house style, seemingly followed by all modern Iberian horror films, which consists of stylish, bleached-out colour photography; big orchestral Danny Elfmanesque underscoring; and a middle-aged Spanish actress in one of the lead roles, who perfectly fits the criteria defined by the term ‘MILF’. The generically titled Shiver fits this bill almost perfectly. But although it takes a bit of time getting there, it does also eventually deliver some strikingly compelling scare sequences wrapped around a suggestive premise delineated with enough conviction to keep the mind from dwelling too long on its more fundamentally absurd qualities.

Director Isidro Ortiz seems to have spent the intervening seven years since the release of his co-directed debut feature Fausto 5.0 (2001) making little-seen Spanish TV movies. Shiver -- his first internationally recognised work since then -- is certainly a typical Spanish language genre piece, looking exactly the way you’d expect something that was produced by the backers of The Orphanage (2007) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) to look. It can often be very difficult to discern any directorially distinctive qualities amongst the new breed of Spanish-made flicks to mark out the work of one director in the genre from that of any of the others. But the formula keeps pumping out worthwhile movies and, after a slow start and an unnecessary diversion into the visual clichés of the ‘found footage’ genre at one point in the narrative, this definitely develops into a worthy addition to the group of films that exemplify that characteristic and popular Spanish horror style we all know.
Santi (Junio Valverde) is an introverted teenage student who suffers from severe photophobia, which means sunlight causes him great physical pain and distress, and might even result in disfigurement if he’s caught out in bright daylight for too long. The condition is also responsible for producing certain odd physical traits as he gets older, such as enlarged canine teeth. The obvious vampire analogy, here, is central to the film’s definition of the adolescent’s status as a group outsider among his peers: Santi has nightmares about being caught outside in the daytime, chasing the retreating shadows but haemorrhaging and burning up in the glare before he can reach the safety of home. At the special evening school lessons he’s forced to attend because of his condition, Santi is thought of as the ‘freak’ and the ‘weirdo’ of the college – the equivalent of the misunderstood movie monster, in other words: a label he’s happy to apply to himself, since he and his equally ‘different’ friend Leo (Jimmy Barnatán) are typical, popular culture-imbibing video game & movie geeks.
Santi’s condition is apparently worsening though, and medical experts tell his mother, Julia (Mar Sodupe) - a language translator, who has raised Santi alone since his waster of a gambling father took off and left them both – that she should consider moving to a region that’s doesn't expose him so directly to harsh sunlight. With that in mind, Julia rents a picturesque old cottage from a local storekeeper in an remote village nestled deep in the shadow of a valley in Northern Spain, and she and her son leave city life behind for the breath-taking beautify of the Spanish countryside below a towering, rocky ravine.
Santi is more than happy to escape the bullying atmosphere of his old college in Barcelona, but things turn out little better for him in his new home -- because pretty quickly things start going radically wrong after a series of strange events causes the villagers to look upon this new arrival with great suspicion. The locals seem a pretty unfriendly lot to start with, and react to newcomers with a frosty hostility that’s indicative of the inveterate torch-wielding mob. Santi finds himself once again the outsider and, once again, he ends up making friends with the kids who don’t quite fit in with the generally parochial atmosphere of the place; in this case, pretty loner Angelia (Blanca Suárez) and a bullied local kid called Tito (Pau Poch).
The first uncanny incident involves a local Shepard called Fabián (Andrés Herrera), a dubious-looking figure with a scarred face who is angry and distraught after one of his sheep is discovered savaged by what appears to have been a wolf-like creature. Then Santi wakes one night in the old stone cottage that’s now his home, to hear what sound like the padding, scuffling paws of an animal moving about in the loft!  Investigation reveals only the strange African tribal possessions of the former occupants – a German anthropologist couple who had a small daughter called Erica Hassel, whose framed photograph still remains on the sideboard in Santi’s room. When one of Santi’s schoolmates is viciously killed and mutilated in a similar attack, the new boy is implicated by hostile locals and by other students since he, Tito and the dead boy had all previously ventured into the forest surrounding the school on a dare, after Tito claimed to have seen some sort of creature there. Then Fabián is also murdered while in Santi’s presence, and the local police detective (Roberto Enríquez) investigating the two killings, can’t help but ponder the connection -- even though there is no DNA evidence linking Santi to the crimes.
The first half of the film plays much like any number of the standard Spanish horror-mysteries of recent years and relies too much on playing a frankly rather tedious cat-and-mouse game centred on hinting at the identity of the beast in the forest. Naturally, we’re meant to assume ‘werewolf’, just as we probably assumed Santi was a vampire when the film opened with what turned out to be one of his nightmares, playing on his fear of being caught in the daylight; the viewer is positively encouraged to contemplate, during this time, which of the central characters will actually in the end turn out to be the creature.
The reality (and look away for the rest of this lenghty paragraph if you don’t want any spoilers) goes right back to what many people see as one of the main origins of the werewolf myth -- namely the phenomenon of ‘feral children’ or children raised by animals in the wild. In one of the most extraordinarily terrifying sequences of recent years (one of two in the film that, alone, make it well worth seeing regardless of anything else that might be said about it) whose vivid nightmare imagery really captures the experience of night terrors or visitations, Santi wakes from sleep in his bedroom at night to see movement outside the room, visible in the crack beneath his bedroom door. The door slowly opens and a strange figure stands in the shadows, then edges agonisingly slowly into view, until its panting, twisted face is pressed up against the terrified adolescent, who’s transfixed with fear! It’s one of the most genuinely unnerving and effective moments I’ve seen in modern horror films, up there with Sadako crawling from the TV screen or the final reveal at the end of The Descent. But as we will learn later, this terrifying vision is in fact just a little girl, once lost in the jungles of Africa (or perhaps extracted from a primitive tribe by western parents – the rushed exposition is a bit unclear on the matter) and raised by the former occupants of the house in which Santi and his mother now live. As Santi, Angelia and his old pal Leo from Barcelona investigate what happened to little Erica Hassel, they uncover the existence of a creepy asylum for abandoned mentally deficient children run by nuns, and unearth a dreadful secret that’s being harboured by one of Santi’s villager neighbours, relating to the fate of those previous occupants of the cottage.
The use of digitally-graded colouring aids greatly in the development of the movie's particular aesthetically stylish pallor, and a truly atmospheric use of the mountainous, bucolic setting certainly  helps keep it looking visually dynamic and interesting; but Shiver works best when underlining the thematic connection between Santi and the ‘creature’ in the woods. The fact that the boy repeatedly encounters this apparition in a series of apparently semi-dream states on the edge of sleep emphasises his implicit subconscious identification with its ultimate outsider status; the feral creature is obviously drawn to him as well, because it similarly senses a kindred spirit in his profound separation from the rest of the community. The potential for interesting emotional content to emerge from such an unlikely relationship forming at the core of the film, provokes the thought that Ortiz is exploring areas that are obviously reminiscent of the portrayal of the central bond that was developed in Let the Right One In between Oskar and Eli (the original Swedish version was released the same year as this - 2008). Unfortunately the promise inherent in this intriguing area isn’t really expanded upon or brought out to its full potential, and many of the themes and narrative parallels between Erika and Santi, such as the asylum school in the Spanish countryside where Erika was at one time abandoned, which obviously recalls the night college Santi attended in Barcelona that helped nurse his feelings of apartness from most other students his own age, aren’t robust enough or fleshed out fully enough to connect as profoundly as they could have. Nevertheless, such sequences provide the film with even more instances of striking and strange-looking imagery.
Other than that, there are a few too many concessions to trendy visual gimmicks that have since dated rather more heavily than the central ideas that should have been left to propel the film’s storyline in the first place: When Santi, Angelia and Leo venture into the woods at night armed with a camcorder to try and find the ‘creature’s’ woodland lair, we have to endure a lengthy, green-tinged night-vision sequence made up of shaky camcorder imagery, during which the trio find the graves of the missing Hassel couple, which look like the mysterious stick-built objects discovered by the protagonists of The Blair Witch Project (1999) – the film which the whole visual style of this section appears to be modelled on.
Ultimately, the plot development that leads into the final act and which, in the end, brings a rapprochement between Santi and the ‘creature’, is fairly predictable, and results in a generic bad guy getting his gory and violent comeuppance by the creature’s hand. Elsewhere, Santi’s father really only enters the mix to provide more potential meat to feed the monster at a key moment in the narrative. But these few missteps, some rushed exposition and some fairly prosaic plot beats here and there can’t dilute the efficacy of what actually does work  – there are some great moments along the way that are as memorable as any in recent years, and serve as a compelling master-class in how to manifest spine-chilling imagery on the screen that lingers long in the imagination.
Second Sight bring Shiver to DVD in a bare bones release that features a fairly strong transfer and a decent stereo audio track in the film’s original Spanish language, with removable English subtitles.
TITLE: Shiver/MOVIE RELEASE DATE: 2008/DVD RELEASE DATE: 17 October 2011/GENRE: Spanish Horror/REGION: 2 PAL/ASPECT RATIO: 1.85:1/DIRECTOR: Isidro Ortiz/CAST: Junio Valverde, Mar Sodupe, Francesc Orella, Jimmy Barnatán, Blanca Suárez. RATING: 3/5
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