Monday, August 30, 2010

Splice




Vincenzo Natali has become somewhat of a sci-fi cult director in recent years, helming the celebrated Cube. Although not quite mainstream, his other foray Cypher showcased a director that isn’t reluctant to call science fiction his home. Too often in the past, those with a penchant for the speculative move away into more serious genres when discovering greater clout to wield. Thus the David Cronenberg’s
 of the world are a seldom phenomena who should be treasured. Natali is one such director still finding his feet. With Splice, he moves entirely into the mainstream.  


A scientist team who are also a couple, Elsa (Sarah Polley) and Clive (Adrian Brody), are on the cutting edge of human/animal gene splicing, trying to develop a protein for a major corporation. When their experiments herald the arrival of new species, they decide to go rouge and take it to the next level: splicing human and animal DNA. When each small breakthrough leads to another victory, the scientists set in motion an irrevocable chain of events yielding Dren … an entirely new progeny female in gender and having hybrid characteristics.


Fitting this particular premise (the mad scientist) are the typical plot-offshoots seeming to go hand and hand with it:  the ethical and moral dilemmas … is it right to play with God’s codes if it could lead to a victory over disease? And is there an ultimate price to pay if we succeed? Of course, there is nothing new here – but we get the feeling there isn’t really supposed to be. The characters of Elsa and Clive are even named as a homage to central characters in 
Bride of Frankenstein. That said, the first half of the film does feel original in its execution, with the real star here Dren. No run-of-the-mill Alien/Species knock-off, watching her grow and learn at a breakneck pace is disconcerting to say the least; her CGI is flawless, giving an authentic performance that, once married with regular prosthetics, will leave you feeling prickly with dread.


Throughout, there is the undercurrent of the domestic, as Elsa’s and Clive’s personal relationship and unresolved personal issues fall into disarray. In this regard, there was so much to like, but what ultimately lets the film down is a finale that feels tacked on and sinks to the level of the director's cheaper films. Obvious re-writes are layered on as though no one (including the director), knew how to wrap things up ... and one unexpected development comes along that is so implausible it’s almost laughable. From here, any aficionado can guess where things end up.  


But this does not take away the films gains, and having an A lister like Brody elevates the production into something deserving of theatrical release. French actress Delphine Chaneac will make you both feel for and fear Dren at the same time. This alone makes Splice a small triumph. 



Saturday, August 28, 2010

Centurion





With films like Dog Soldiers and The Descent under his belt, British writer and director Neil Marshall now has the clout to broaden horizons and show the world (and a mainstream audience) just how much talent is at his disposal. His previous forays into horror have showcased a director with a penchant for hardcore character development, followed by a brutal showdown with enemy forces that may (or may not be) supernatural in nature. At the end of things, survivors are rare. With Centurion, he has stuck to his tried formula … but expanded things out to encompass a stage less domestic, using entire countries as the playground. Here, the monsters are human, but no less depraved than those previously on display. 

Our Centurion is Quintus Dias, a Roman soldier who is the sole survivor of a bloody raid that saw his company decimated by the Picts … a savage and mysterious clan who refuse to fold into the Roman Empire and are employing guerrilla tactics preventing them from securing Britain. His next mission is to join ranks with the Ninth Legion and wipe out the Picts once and for all. But when an ambush ensues an even bigger slaughter takes place, he now leads a cabal of survivors across unforgiving terrain to reach his homeland again. And their presence his known by the Picts, who relentlessly hunt them.

It should go without saying this kind of story is uncharted territory, far removed from the contained nuance of something like The Descent. And the result? Surprises at every turn. Above all, this is a British/Scottish cast and world, full of breath-taking scenery and gritty film-making that only comes from doing the hard yards away from the Hollywood epicenter. For horror fans, the scenes of battle and carnage are prevalent, often accomplished with realistic expertise. You'll feel totally ensconced within the cold, harsh reality of a Roman frontier. Much like Tarantino did with Kill BillI have a feeling Marshall was schooling himself on set to be an action director, while still keeping the human element alive and true. One performance by the mute hunter Etain (Olga Kurylenko) is worthy of distinction.

There are a couple of set-backs, most notably a romance that never quite takes off. But one gets the feeling studio interference - to encompass a broader audience - was probably at play here. With a larger budget, sacrifices will be made.

I have little doubt knee-jerk reactions will arise comparing this with both 
Dog Soldiers and The Descent, perhaps in an impoverished light. Over time, however, Centurion will eventually join the pantheon as a minor classic of the genre. 

 

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Pilgrims by Will Elliot





An author needing no introduction, Will Elliot burst onto mainstream stage from relative obscurity after winning the ABC manuscript award with The Pilo Family Circus. It was a novel of disturbing ideas and grisly images that took on a life of its own, breathing fresh blood into the Australian literary scene and showcasing young talent could contend with giants on a world stage. With Pilgrims, Elliot shifts gears in a largely new direction, moving into the invented world genre and attempting to explode its conventions from within.

From experience, I think there comes a time in a writers life when they think: now is the time to do my ‘otherworld’ book. Be it a dominion, realm, dimension ... or simply world – it seems ingrained this is accomplished as a kind of Magnum Opus or literary Jupiter dwarfing all other novels, novellas, or shorts. Although it took a lifetime, King himself achieved this milestone with The Dark Tower. Numerous other's have made it a staple: Clive Barker’s descriptions of wonderland are like a tour guide for every intrepid wanderer who feels the need to portray their own otherland. The hybrid of dark fantasy and horror is presently well-mapped … now the challenge is to find something unique and powerful to dig out of the sand. For the most part, Elliot succeeds with Pilgrims, book one of the Pendulum trilogy.

Eric Albright (a protagonist with shades of Elliot I suspect), has discovered a small red door underneath a train bridge near his home. His wing-man in the unearthing is Stuart Case, a homeless alcoholic who accompanies Eric through the door into Levaal … the adjacent realm next to ours brimming with magic and all the ingredients we have come to expect from fantasy. We are on familiar ground, and Eric knows it. More than once he voices the opinion that because he is from our world, he must be its savoir. Both Eric and Case become part of a quest that is fragmentary in the details, but mainly about survival. A numerous and varied cast is introduced, and reader's will see creatures of staggering descriptions populate the world of Levaal. There are War Mages, flying Invia, Gods and Great Spirits. There are those that are free, and those that are not … as the current resident of the Castle, Vous, has turned his beacon of magic into a house of malign purpose with the hopes of ascending to Godhood.

Pilgrims as a book reflects journey. The kind of book, perhaps, that’s perfect for one's own voyage. For some peculiar reason, I found myself digging into this narrative always on the move: intersections, bus trips, and even one occasion when hiking. At times it can be stagnant; the action and mystery of a type encountered in a myriad of previous fictions. However, our language feels both familiar and intimate: the Australian voice homely. Above all, Elliot wants to transport us to his Narnia and the world of his childhood. Although a far cry from his debut, Pilgrims nevertheless acts as a worthy successor.  



The Hitcher




HorrorScope has seen fit to let me visit one of the older horror/thrillers of the past few years. The Hitcher was released in 2007 and is a re-make of the classic 1986 film of the same name.

It came at a time when re-makes were still a relative novelty … and seems an age ago now in terms of film-making. When viewing it, do not expect to see many similarities with its previous incarnation. This is a film aimed primarily at a new generation coming through … and ultimately suffers for it.

We are in comforting and familiar territory with the plot: College students Jim and Grace are on a jaunt across the United States and en route encounter the hitch-hiker who calls himself John Ryder. After initially refusing to stop, they later meet him at a gas station and there follows a nightmare journey with the psychopath.

Things are promising at the beginning: the audience is in hackneyed territory but knows this. The highway itself is a like a character; a haunted playground for things malign to find a home and their activities to go unobserved. Regarding our villain, there is no mystery here ... he is completely unmasked, and actor Sean Bean has no trouble bringing to life the vapid stance of a detached executioner. In what is perhaps a small nod to the first film, there is an undeniable gritty attention to the colors and camera-focus.  

But things quickly fall apart with lazy dialogue and unrealistic scenarios  … even suspending disbelief for the sake of celluloid. I won’t go into these, but at times it felt like I was reading the screenplay – a huge warning bell the director’s vision was not enough to curtail what is, at its core, a lacking script.

There are encouraging sign-posts: well executed jump moments are prevalent, enough to keep you interested, anyway … and it’s the type of horror that takes no prisoners about whom is dispatched or how. The ‘game’ John Ryder is playing intrigues us, for his toying goes beyond mere play. With us every step of the way is a thumping soundtrack like the throb of a heart or the whir of a truck. Intelligently, this mirrors the ‘highway-artery’ theme of the whole endeavor.

Unfortunately, the clich├ęd ‘horror film’ behavior of those being toyed with is enough to have us praying for their demise.

Although by no means a complete loss, keep this one for a Saturday night marathon when all other quality has been exhausted.

   


Sunday, August 8, 2010

Amusement




Initially a promising film, Amusement offers up a smorgasbord of ingredients that should have worked. The narrative is a mish-mash of the
 My Bloody Valentine scenario, whereby a tormented adolescent has now grown up to bring his revenge fantasizes into a blood-spattered reality. His focus is the three girls who mocked him in youth.
As stated, the formula was trite but promising, and the opening sequence unfolds in a trucking convoy which takes a sinister turn. Camera angles are slick and eccentric; almost mimicking something David Fincher might yield. Visually, this is a film that looks good. But things soon dovetail as we come to the realization almost everything here is pilfered directly from some other source: the gothic ambience; the hooded slickers in rain; the interconnected story-lines. Resembling something more on par with an anthology, one wonders if perhaps Amusement had been marketed as such - with some narrative tweaking - things could have fallen into place. Viewed from this perspective, it’s actually quite sublime: our stalker takes on the guise of a killer clown in some genuinely unnerving scenes. Thereafter a modern-Frankenstein motif is built into the chronicle, and the result of this is something to almost rival The People Under The Stairs … but it all seems too unwieldy, too elaborate – and our stalkers motivation is hazy to the point of being absurd. The climax is more of the same: a stunning visual feast in a labyrinthine fortress presenting doors to the viewer that are never opened.

With a screenplay by Jake Wade Wall (the same individual who penned The Hitcher), Amusement can be safely filed away into the same category as my appraisal there. No must-see, and one that can be easily overlooked. However, as something to complement a horror marathon, the film just rises above the tide to be mildly entertaining.