Thursday, 25 August 2011

Red Riding Hood (2011)

This largely terrible, occasionally funny attempt by Catherine Hardwicke to recalibrate her successful Twilight formula as a quasi-historical exercise falls prey to a bland and tacky approach to a familiar idea: explore the classic fairy tale through prisms of latter-day Freudian symbolism and more overt references to lycanthropy as a metaphor for animalistic sexuality and incest. Yes, it’s a bald-faced rip-off of Neil Jordan’s Angela Carter adaptation The Company of Wolves (1984), complete with reproducing the set-bound, theatrical environs of Jordan’s film. Pictorially, the result is impressive in spurts throughout, in visions of fog-swathed lakes and stylised forests that retain hints of gothic chic and folk-tale memory-dream. But the result is also divested of narrative complexity, primal unease, and a capacity to investigate its themes in anything but the shallowest metaphors, through some truly lazy writing and what-was-she-thinking? directorial embellishments. Whereas Hardwicke made the first half of the first Twilight persuasive through a lo-fi realism that worked like a fog of the mundane through which hints of the fantastic were glimpsed, here she gives herself up to a totalised mythology which definitely cuts across the grain of her gifts. Amanda Seyfried wastes her time again playing the doll-eyed Valerie, the prettiest pretty in a tiny hamlet somewhere in…well, it could be central Europe or Britain but we’re not getting too specific with that, so let’s move on. Valerie has been in love from childhood with Peter (Peter and the wolf, geddit?...Ah, shit. He’s played by Shiloh Fernandez anyway), but her mother Suzette (Virginia Madsen, painfully wasting what’s left of her career resurgence) insists on her marrying Henry (Max Irons), son of her own former amour, the local blacksmith Adrien Lazar (Michael Shanks). I feel like I should insert a Fiddler on the Roof joke here.

Anyway, a beast has been haunting the woods around the town for decades, but one full moon, the first of a “blood moon” cycle where the lunar body is loaned a reddish tint by Mars, Valerie’s older sister is killed by the animal. Some of the villagers initially laugh off hints of supernatural malice and search for a real wolf, and they catch and kill one after it seems to have killed Lazar. Father Solomon (who else but Gary Oldman?), called in to search for a werewolf by the more credulous, and met now with scorn, warns of grave misfortune after explaining the tale – based on a “genuine”, commonly cited werewolf legend – of how his wife’s lycanthropy caused him to kill her and commence a life of hunting the scourge. What follows listlessly and bloodlessly – both in the metaphorical and for the most part the literal meaning – apes other, better films in depicting Solomon’s repressive, brutally cleansing regime and the real werewolf’s campaign of dread. Red Riding Hood attempts, somewhat desperately, to clearly sustain a link between contemporary teen life and the pseudo-historical setting so that its presumed audience of Twilight fans will clearly, like, totally see themselves in it. These aspirations are clear in scenes like that in which Valerie is condemned by her friends after Solomon brands her as a witch, in a fashion that actually comes across as Easy A-lite. This comes after a hilariously silly scene in which she and her BFF Roxanne (Shauna Kain) dance with Sapphic overtones so that she can make Peter jealous, as if they’re at a High School social circa 2007, amidst a diabolically-flavoured village hoedown that could perhaps represent the most pure interlude of camp in recent Hollywood history. Hardwicke’s grip on the film completely slips when the werewolf begins to speak to Seyfried. The young male leads are supposed to be darkly attractive and faintly, glossily Byronic in the same fashion Hardwicke instilled in Edward Cullen, but the lads only ever come across as dully queeny and sullenly self-involved, sporting ludicrous boy-band hair and seeming to prefer each other to their nominal object of mutual affection. The love triangle is so painfully flat and boring that the screenplay eventually, casually, drops it.

The mid-section does sustain something like dramatic tension in spite of this hilarity, and partly because of it. The depiction of a reign of reactionary terror brought about by the overzealous Solomon, played by Oldman in a turn reminiscent of his uneven hamming in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), is overdrawn and caricatured, but works sufficiently on a melodramatic level. Julie Christie turns in another of her curiously negligible emeritus performances as Valerie’s grandmother, sniffing out potential werewolves and offsetting Suzette’s pseudo-bourgeois frustration with righteous wisdom for her granddaughter, whilst Hardwicke, furiously proffering red herrings, also tries to keep Grandma as another suspect werewolf. This pays off in another camp gem when she and Seyfried enact an inevitable variation on the “oh, what big teeth you have grandma” scene which might recall to the filthy-minded a G-rated edition of Seyfried’s cougar-seducing antics in Chloe (2010). Billy Burke, so believable as Bella Swan’s flaccid blue-collar father in Twilight for Hardwicke, here again plays a paterfamilias but a rather more wicked one as Valerie’s father Cesaire, revealed in an unsurprising surprise twist to be the werewolf. His desire to pass on his taint to his daughter and run away with her imbues the material with a conscious suggestion of incestuous intent and thus a darker contemporary resonance. But like everything else in the film it’s limply fulfilled as Hardwicke mimics Tim Burton’s infinitely superior Sleepy Hollow (1999) in supernatural shenanigans pertaining to the sanctity of a church, and Solomon comes a cropper by his own puritanical petard. The finale seeks to have its cake and eat it as far as teenybopper longings go in regards to balancing oh-save-me-my-hero fantasies and modern empowerment pizzazz, as Peter, as per the rescuer woodcutter of revisionist versions of the fairy tale, arrives to save Valeria from Cesaire’s predations, and she gives an extra coup-de-grace by stabbing her papa with Solomon’s silver false fingernails, a final touch of dizzying silliness. But Peter is tainted now with the curse and goes off to await the next blood moon when he and Valerie can finally get down to some hot lovin’, doggy-style. By the time the film does actually finish you’ll be begging for a silver bullet to end its misery.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Ironclad (2011)

Bloody, vigorous, and as subtle as a mace in the face, Jonathan English’s third feature film is a balls-and-all parade of medieval bash and chop. English takes a true historical incident, the defence of Rochester Castle by William d’Aubigny during the Baronial Revolt against the King John, and renders it as a Seven Samurai variant infused with levels of physical violence that would make Eli Roth blush, in the mould of gritty period anti-swashbuckler defined by the likes of Paul Verhoeven (with Flesh + Blood, 1985) and Kenneth Branagh (Henry V, 1989), and more recently expanded by Ridley Scott and Neil Marshall. As John (Paul Giamatti) lands with an army of Danish mercenaries, determined to win back his country and nullify the Magna Carta the Barons made him sign, d’Aubigny, or Albany as his name is rendered here (Brian Cox, in fine swagger) puts together a team of motley mercenaries to snatch Rochester Castle, the keystone for controlling southern England, from its owner, the aged and timorous royalist Cornhill (Derek Jacobi). Albany’s force includes haunted, but superlatively skilled, Knight Templar Thomas Marshal (James Purefoy), drunken whoremonger and capital swashbuckler William Becket (Jason Flemyng), scar-mottled archer Marks (Mackenzie Crook), illiterate axe-wielding grot Coteral (Jamie Foreman) and a bunch of other scruffy ne’er do wells. They succeed in slaughtering an advance guard John has placed in the castle, and, in spite of numbering no more than twenty men-at-arms, prepare to hold off John’s Viking thugs until a promised French relief army arrives, an event Marshal holds little hope for as experiences in the Holy Land taught him.

Ironclad’s screenplay, written by English with Erick Kastel and Stephen McDool, is rather too blunt and inelegant in setting up its characters and story threads, to really make the film as epic and affecting as the greatest period action-adventures. John is instantly characterised as a vicious psycho, so there’s little political subtlety to a movie which affects an atmosphere of doubt and moral terror, yet renders the complex issues and results of the Baronial Revolt secondary to standard tyranny versus freedom rhetoric. Still, John's rant to Albany late in the film is a virulent piece of divine-right pique. The final irony of the Barons and their pet Archbishop Langton (Charles Dance) having gone to so much effort to help a French prince take command of their government isn’t entirely without ironic heft, but the attempt to build a conflicted but resolute hero in Marshal just results in a standard glowering, reticent tough guy. A sense of powerful ethical commitment and grinding metaphysical weight is invoked more through the visuals, with a grimy beauty throughout punctuated by moments of unexpected etherealness, as in the appearance of John’s army out of dawn mists like an emanation from the shores of Valhalla, and the sheer gruelling horror of the battles and scenes depicting John’s cruel, wrathful campaign of fear-mongering. John’s leading Danish warrior, Tiberias (The 13th Warrior’s Vladimir Kulich), as well as being Marshal’s equal/opposite from a pagan land, is being held on a leash with threats of Papal violence against his homeland. Marshal hopes his vows as a Templar can save him from damnation, but the harder he fights for his vows the worse he feels. Albany’s young squire Guy (Aneurin Barnard) proves himself as a warrior but stares into an existential abyss in actually experiencing war. Marshal, a truly great soldier, abandons a vow of silence when he sees his abbot friend and patron’s tongue cut out in a fit of John’s pique, and gets stuck in with righteous fury as Cornhill’s young, neglected wife Isabel (Kate Mara) tries to distract him with a sexual interest infused with a desire to touch his obviously contorted soul.

The film maintains a simple, pummelling sense of physical and psychic urgency which Scott’s lame Robin Hood (2010), in spite of its revisionism, couldn’t swing in tackling the same historical epoch and its fluctuations in reckoning human worth. A long, compelling sequence in which John, having captured Albany and some his men with the rest holed up in the Keep, has hands and feet hacked off after delivering a mocking tirade in reply to Albany’s democratic pretensions, culminates in having Albany’s curtailed carcass catapulted at the Keep’s wall. John then lurches away to stand meditatively in a muddy river shallow and recall one of his father’s nastier lessons in regal untouchability, yet revealing he hasn’t learnt the more subtle aspect of the lesson. Here, the film offers a stocktaking sense of the nature of tyranny as apparent in both in John’s espousal of divine right, and in a directly physical sense in his hysterical acts of butchery, suggesting the spiritual cost to the oppressor as well as the resister. Giamatti and Cox, unsurprisingly, keep the film in order, with Jacobi mostly limited to one of his increasingly familiar fey old patrician parts. Giamatti, as well as seeming to enjoy a chance to declaim with force rather than playing another contemporary eunuch, captures something remorseless and pathetic all at once in the monstrous John, and Cox, who probably should have started playing bristling heraldic heroes thirty years ago, effortlessly investing Albany with grit and seriousness in spite of his sometimes shaky stand on principle. Purefoy as usual is an intense and attractive screen persona, but also as usual never seems to let his guard down any more than the character does, and so he and Mara, whilst both decent enough actors, seem to often be acting at one another rather than together, and like too many romances in this sort of thing it just never catches fire.

English’s fight direction relies on furious camera motion and glimpses of grotesque corporeal damage to give his action heft and urgency, and for the most part it works in keeping his film constantly reared and kicking like a bucking bronco, but it also means that it lacks the distinctive mix of visual grace and immediacy of Marshall’s superior Centurion (2010), and also misses Marshall’s gift for swiftly invested human elements. Subplots whirl, including Isabel’s relationship with her husband, whose tastes “do not include me” and who seems genuinely beset by a deep metaphysical despair about what Albany’s crusade is dooming them to, and Becket’s instant lust-affair with scruffy serving wench Agnes (Bree Condon) who gets herself killed as she and Isobel lend their literal weight to trying to keep the enemy out. But these aspects, which should form the human heart of the film, don’t coalesce into anything more than sketches in the margins. The great appeal of the siege movie, in spite of the virtually inevitable scenes like the harum-scarum final moments of near defeat and last-minute arrival of the cavalry, is the way it offers a situation in which human gestures become enlarged purely by circumstance, and the easy fashion in which a storyteller can jump from interpersonal vignettes to flurries of violence and back again. But English seems in too much of a hurry, as if simultaneously he aspires to the grandeur of the historical film and yet is too fearful of being skewered for being unmanly if he lets it slow and breathe for a moment. Whilst you can't accuse Ironclad of pretension, in this case just a touch more ambition would have certainly made for a better film.

The Double Hour (La doppia ora, 2009)

An eerie, engrossing tale of romantic longing, duplicity, and fractured realities, this debut by Giuseppe Capotondi has taken some time to funnel down the alleys of international distribution only to gain some belated admiration. The Double Hour can be loosely termed a thriller, although it’s really more an attempt to capture in cinematic textures a visually fragmented, hazily physical, atmosphere of psychological anxiety and desire. The occasional jolts of real-world action are reminiscent of Olivier Assayas in the way they add external threat to what is really a tale of dire but intensely private, moral straits, blended with elements of inner-space paranoia with debts to later Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch. Leading lady Kseniya Rappoport won the Best Actress award at Venice for playing Sonia, a Latvian immigrant labouring in a ritzy Turin hotel: in the opening scene, Sonia, cleaning the bathroom of a mysterious female guest (Chiara Nicola), who pays her a physical compliment seconds before hurling herself to her death from an open window. This grim, disorientating moment sets a tone of disquiet that permeates even the most placid and romantic subsequent scenes of Capotondi’s film.

Sonia encounters, at a bizarre speed-dating event, where the rapidly shifting couples resemble a Wellesian hall of mirrors, each person offering potential bliss and terror, with a promised randomness that proves to finally be illusory. A former police surveillance wiz named Guido (Filippo Timi), stranded in emotional alienation since the death of his wife, is a regular at these events. He has sex with a woman he picks up from the speed dating, but, after going cold and ejecting the woman, angrily hurls a bottle at the door she’s banging on the other side of, trying to get his phone number. With his evident dissatisfaction with the single life, he is nonetheless swiftly taken with Sonia, whose mix of charm and toey vulnerability seems perfectly pitched to entice him, and after a time he takes her for a romantic getaway at the mansion he now works at as a security guard. When he first kisses Sonia in the woods near the house, they are assaulted by a balaclava-clad man, taken into the house, and tied up whilst thieves systematically pillage the mansion. One of the men returns and starts pawing Sonia, causing Guido to tackle him. They struggle for the thief’s gun, which goes of: the shot rings out through the house and without, as screen fades out.

Seemingly weeks later, Sonia is back on her job in the hotel, beset by traumatised dissociations, and slowly it becomes apparent that the gunshot killed Guido and the bullet finished up in her head. Soon enough she begins catching sight of Guido, in the hotel’s security camera system, even apparently within her apartment, appearing ghost-like in the shadows when the lights go out, and she hears a song he played her vibrating through the walls, audible when she’s under the water of her bath. Her otherworldly awareness is punctuated by violently loud gunshots, and everyone around her, especially a slightly too attentive hotel guest, seems charged with strangeness, even her chirpy friend and fellow maid Margherita (Antonia Truppo); eventually, after giving Sonia the same compliment as the suicide woman, she seems to suffer the same fate. Is Sonia being haunted? Is she entrapped in some kind of metaphysical loop? Are all these manifestations of some more substantial plot she does not yet understand? Or is she herself the engineer of plots, now being dogged by her own malfeasance?

Capotondi sets all this up with such inexorably careful filmmaking that the first two thirds of The Double Hour are engaging and gripping on a high level indeed. Without too-showy camerawork or ostentatious editing, Capotondi’s sinuous style offers in the robbery scene, with the arrival of the thieves’ van explicated not through visuals but through registering on Guido’s surveillance microphones, hints of dread that are not literalised until the firm smack of a gun handle against Guido’s brow. The ever so slightly abstracted, eliding visual quality suggests without exactly describing the corners of the private hells he’s conjured. Other touches throughout suggest the alien paranoia of Michael Haneke, but Capotondi steers clear of his dictatorial misanthropy for a romanticism that suggests forlorn and frustrated hearts operating under facades of determinist rhetoric and urban estrangement. The supple shifts and suggestions as Guido reacts with unexpected courtly rage to one of the thieves feeling Sonia up, and the eventual revelation of the thief to be Sonia’s criminal lover who of course considers her his sexual property, and that fact that Guido’s rash action inspires the only real moment of violence in the film, undercuts this with dark humour. Later Capotondi sets up disquiet expertly as Sonia submerges in a bathtub and hears ghostly strains of Guido’s song, and then the loud jolt-provoking thud of that calamitous gunshot that echoes on and on. The first third of the film contains hints of Claire Denis as Sonia’s thorough entrenchment in an establishment that offers a façade of glamour and comfort, the up-scale hotel, which for a worker for her offers mostly depersonalisation and demeaning effacement.

Both Sonia and Guido are dogged by tragedies in their past that can’t entirely be repaired, with only the promise of romantic coupling offering a salve, but that’s what proves precisely impossible for reasons that slowly resolve from out of the murk of Capotondi’s manipulated perspectives. The middle third of the film is revealed to be a lengthy coma fantasy, and even in these haunted and paranoid deliriums, shards of reality intrude and warn both Sonia and viewer of coming traps that will snap shut certainly. Friends and strangers morph into one another, threat lurks in the most helpful and bland of guises, and Sonia sees loss, degradation, and grim fate at every alternative. Guido’s police detective friend Dante (Michele Di Mauro) dogs Sonia like Dostoyevskian fate; Bruno (Fausto Russo Alesi) is the suspiciously unctuous hotel regular whom Sonia’s paranoia transforms into a psycho killer about to give her a shallow grave in punishment for her sins, but she wakes up into the arms of the barely wounded Guido, in her hospital bed. Capotondi tries to do something original with this now-familiar variety of narrative switchback, in not ending his film with his “it was all a dream” twist, but leaving an entire act still to explore its ramifications.

The layered script, by Alessandro Fabbri, Ludovica Rampoldi, and Stefano Sardo, offers some original tweaks on common film noir themes, like the depressed man engaged in a romance that may be deadly, and the delinquent runaway lovers, in envisioning what might happen to those oft-invoked figures after they flee for a new life. The successful crime resolving with a vision of life in paradise, also often an end point for crime films where one is asked to empathise with the criminals, is also intriguingly warped here, as if to ask if that’s not just another form of prison. Sonia’s shady past and equally shady present see her playing games that she might rather not be playing, but with a distinct minatory charge in undermining the other forms of determinism that would enfold her as just another ordinary worker. Guido, as a former cop and surveillance expert, is supposed to be a man who can sniff out bullshit at a fifty metre distance, and yet he’s become near-fatally distracted by his search for companionship. But Guido is conflated with Sonia’s father, a distant voice of aggrieved authority on the telephone, and a home never to be returned to.

It’s right at the point when The Double Hour might spiral into a truly memorable narrative auto-de-fe that Capotondi’s inspiration and courage abandon him, and he lets it slip away in exchange for an ending that’s dissatisfying precisely in being so modest in its ramifications, which can be grasped without being deeply shaken by them or even disturbed. Capotondi can’t justify his narrative gymnastics, or, from another perspective, those gymnastics betray the essentially gossamer texture of the real point, that sometimes people write themselves into scenarios they can’t escape from even in the very act of escape. Nor does he quite resolve the schism of perspectives between Sonia, who seems to own the film considering that so much of it is not just told through her eyes but through her deepest mental processes, and yet who still remains a slightly opaque character, and that of Guido, who is tantalised and finally forgiving of the peculiar wild animal who stumbles into his metaphorical headlines and out again. Still, the result is a film that captures and describes an intangible atmosphere, and Capotondi will hopefully sort of his priorities to explore more clearly with his excellent filmmaking in his next work.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Dead Heat (1988)

‘80s B-movie cinema remains something of an unexamined critical trove, and for fairly good reasons. As VHS replaced the Drive-In as the core constituent of trash cinema, low-budget and independent genre filmmakers became rapidly less imaginative, and the era is generally remembered as an ocean of lousy slasher films, teen raunch comedies, and terrible sci-fi monster movies imitating Alien. Even at Roger Corman’s New World, the inventiveness of their ‘70s output gave way to a very forgettable decade, and names from the previous epoch’s exploitation, like John Carpenter, Joe Dante, John Sayles, Lewis Teague, John Landis, and George Romero, were all well on the way to joining the mainstream. But ‘80s trash cinema did occasionally cough up some real outliers, with Sam Raimi and Stuart Gordon as two of the few notable successors to emerge in the era. Mark Goldblatt, the director of Dead Heat, a New World production, doesn’t have the same kind of recognition factor, but his invisible touch is very familiar, lending the same kinetic energy as he offers here as an editor on everything from his earliest work, including Piranha (1976) and The Terminator (1984) to later, huge-scale projects like Starship Troopers (1997) and the second two X-Men movies. His directorial output was limited to two films, this and the infamous Dolph Lungren version of The Punisher (1989) His feature debut is nonetheless one of the more curiously memorable B-movie efforts of the period. I had seen it once, as a kid, and when I found a copy in a $2 bargain bin recently, I felt a surge of pleasant recognition. Revisiting Dead Heat, I was surprised at just how much it feels like a rough prototype for the style of kinetic gross-out comedy-action piece which Peter Jackson was to become initially infamous for, and a lower-budgeted template for the similar LA-tangy atmosphere and self-satirising, blissful excessiveness of Stephen Hopkins’ Predator 2 (1990), which Goldblatt also edited.

Utilising the what-the-hell? teaming of Treat Williams and Joe Piscopo, Goldblatt casts them as Detectives Roger Mortis and Doug Bigelow, who have to bring down two mysteriously bullet-proof jewellery thieves with unconventional tactics during a shoot-out. Mortis’ coroner ex-girlfriend Rebecca Smythers (Clare Kirkconnell) assures them that she had performed autopsies on the two men several hours before the robbery. Someone is reanimating the dead, and the detectives follow a trail to a mysterious clinic where Bigelow is assaulted by a grotesque hulk and Mortis, shoved into a decompression chamber for putting down lab animals, dies. But before rigour mortis sets in for Roger Mortis, Rebecca has recognised the purpose of a mysterious machine in the clinic, capable of revivifying dead tissue for several hours. She and Doug bring Mortis back to life to solve the case before he will inevitably die again. Mortis takes his death largely in his stride, although beset by moments of existential despair, and he and Doug battle zombie hitmen whilst trying to extract information from the clinic’s PR officer, Randi (Lindsay Frost), daughter of the clinic’s owner, the recently deceased plutocrat Arthur P. Loudermilk (Vincent Price). Rebecca’s morgue boss Dr. McNab (The Night Stalker himself, Darren McGavin, having a whale of a time) proves to be in cahoots with Loudermilk, as they scheme to enrich themselves by refining the revivifying machine so that it can sustain select people forever.

Tasteless hardly begins to describe this film, which is distinguished by a singular ruthlessness balanced by a purely tongue-in-cheek tone: every single major character dies, some in an appalling fashion, and yet a tone of black-humoured mirth is constantly sustained, to the point where Williams and Kirkconnell can’t keep their faces straight during a dialogue exchange. The script, by Shane Black's brother Terry, pokes fun at the clichés of the buddy cop movie, starting with the inseparable partnership of the diverse heroes. Mortis is a straight-shooting, if emotionally clumsy dude, whilst Piscopo’s Bigelow takes the familiar figure of the dirty-minded second banana armed with an amusing puerile streak, to rare limits. Bigelow gets desperate for lunch as his partner rots away beside him, and his final wish is to be reincarnated as the seat of a lady’s bicycle. Mortis quickly learns to enjoy the way being dead has liberated him from the familiar limits of mortality, shouting “This is going to be great!” as he lets an ambulance he’s been locked in roll down a steep hill into traffic, a crash that would be horrendously fatal except that he emerges utterly blasé about his partly roasted physiognomy. In the film’s most giddily inventive sequence, Mortis and Bigelow track clues to a Chinese restaurant run by Thule (Keye Luke): Thule sets off his own edition of the revivifying machine, stimulating the animal carcasses in the restaurant to rampaging life, including a fearsome barbecued pig, fluttering chicken wings, and a bull carcass Mortis has to wrestle with.

It goes without saying that Dead Heat is hardly a deep enquiry into the nature of mortality, nor is it as fiendishly, admirably compulsive as Jackson’s Brain Dead (1992) or Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1981) in keeping its action steadily lifting into more and more insane territory. There's a final lack of substance to give the film any real emotional kick, like that of the film's obvious model, D.O.A. (1951), to which Goldblatt pays overt tribute by showing a clip on a TV. But overtones of satire of Reaganite yuppie-era hubris bob throughout, with an attitude quite similar to that of the same year's They Live: Randi plays a role similar to Meg Foster's in the Carpenter film, that of the chic winner with a foul secret explaining her success, dissolving to a foul stew as she begs forgiveness from the outmatched, put-upon working-stiff hero. The satirical import compounds more firmly as Loudermilk (Price looking sadly frail but still offering some saline wit), glimpsed in a photograph with Reagan, propounds to fellow zillionaires the benefits of his scheme: ‘Poor people are supposed to die, but the same rule doesn’t apply to us! We’re rich! God wants us to live forever, and even if he doesn’t, we can always buy him off!’ The last act loses steam, degenerating into some flatly staged shoot-outs. But there is relish in the comeuppance that Mortis and Bigelow deliver to McNab, bringing him back to life after he shoots himself so they can kill him properly. If it wasn’t for the fashion Goldblatt keeps things moving with such an arch sensibility, then the casual way Bigelow and Rebecca are killed off would seem terribly cold, but the final image of the two heroes ambling off into the afterlife whilst continuing their stream of adolescent banter – “Something tells me this is the end of a beautiful friendship!” – fends off any ill-feeling. Schlock, pure and simple, but self-aware schlock before self-aware evolved into its more obnoxious contemporary variety.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

The Viking Queen (1967)

The Viking Queen was described by Hammer Films historian Marcus Hearn as the daftest work the studio ever produced, so of course I could not resist checking it out. It proved a genuinely odd, near-delirious concoction that tried to graft together an uneasy chimera of tragic melodrama, period feminism, soft-core fetishism, and political commentary. Movies set in Roman-era Britain are hardly a major cinematic sub-genre, although the recent releases of Centurion (2010) and The Eagle (2011) have enlarged the field by about fifty percent, but they almost all tend to share an overtone of contemporary parable about the way political situations sometimes slowly invert but the causes and nature of conflict remains the same. This addition to the roster is based very, very (very) loosely on Boudica’s famous rebellion, and set during the reign of Nero. Boudica’s story does cry out for a decent movie depiction, as The Viking Queen is certainly not it, but it is something sufficient unto itself. Seemingly an attempt to elevate Hammer’s horizons into the heady realm of the historical epic, but without a Samuel Bronston-scale budget to back it up, The Viking Queen falls back on liberal dashes of the variety of exotically sexy hype that had infused the company’s big recent hits She (1965) and One Million Years B.C. (1966) to give it lustre. The result is a weirdly entertaining, occasionally hilarious, sometimes compelling mess, alternating patches of historically absurd but basically solid storytelling, with vignettes of magazine-supplement sexy stuff, and portrayals of historical Druidic worship that seriously suggest what The Wicker Man (1973) might have looked like if directed by King Vidor in his Solomon and Sheba phase. The script, by Clarke Reynolds from a story by producer John Temple-Smith, is distinctly Shakespearean, if by that one accepts Shakespearean as meaning that it steals liberally from King Lear (ancient British king with three daughters and a disputed will) and Romeo and Juliet (lovers from different sides of a cultural war).

The story pits Roman macho prerogative against obsessive religious nationalism represented by Druid High Priest Maelgon (Donald Houston. The Finnish-born, one-time-only star Carita plays Salina, the middle member of the dying king’s (Wilfrid Lawson) triumvirate of daughters, his choice as heir because he feels she will govern best and balance the polarised elements. Older sister Beatrice (Adrienne Corri) is aggrieved, passed over because she’s too aggressively anti-Roman and pro-Druid; younger sister Talia (Nicola Pagett) is young, innocent, and prime Roman rape-bait. New Roman Governor-General Justinian (Don Murray) is fair-minded and very non-Tea Party in his approach to taxation, as is his chief civic administrator Tiberion (Niall MacGinnis). Justinian quickly captures Salina’s eyes and thighs. But his lieutenant Octavian (Andrew Keir) is a corrupt brute who wants to dominate the Brits, whilst being in league with their burgeoning local mercantile class who are profiting from the Roman hegemony and infuriated by Justinian’s taxation. The merchants arrange with Octavian to stage some distracting Druidic ceremonies and bandit raids that will draw Justinian away, and give Octavian a chance to snatch power from Salina and her close associates, including respected chief Tristram (Patrick Troughton) and his son Fergus (Sean Caffrey). This plot works, and when Salina and her loved-ones are brutalised by Octavian, she rallies in righteous fury and goes to war.

The Viking Queen is at least clearly in the usual Hammer mould, of being creatively cynical when it came to revealing historical cultural mechanics, but moving beyond the ripe portraits of rotten aristocracy and Victorian bourgeois repression in their horror films into some theoretically fresh territory. The basic gag here is to make a British imperialist adventure but set in a time when the British are the ones being colonially oppressed. Thus the familiar story elements of the Raj adventure yarn, with the usual cross-cultural romances and secret conniving between unscrupulous opportunists of both sides forcing the more honourable opposites into strife, are turned back on themselves. Here it’s ranting Druids rather than Mohammedan clerics stirring up the passions of the oppressed. Simultaneously, The Viking Queen strains to encompass some embryonic comment on late ‘60s gender liberation, with the masculine order represented by Justinian and a British gynocracy forced into a collision: the inevitable clash between an infuriated Salina and her army and a dutiful Justinian will inevitably lead to tragedy. “Stand fast, they’re only women!” Octavian shouts moments before Salina’s column of riot grrrl cavalry crash into him. Such warrior-woman iconography is now commonplace but almost non-existent at that time in mainstream cinema, which makes the film feel interestingly anticipatory. That anticipation also extends to aspects of that peculiarly British strand of imaginative historical cinema exemplified by John Boorman and Derek Jarman in their stripped-down, tactile sense of period setting. More mainstream recapitulations of this film’s basic ideas include the likes of King Arthur (2004), in its freeform melding of the authentic-feeling, the semi-mythical, and the just plain pervy, and Kingdom of Heaven (2005) with its the-past-is-now theme of centrists caught between and forced to pick sides in clashes of fanatics. More specific to its own era are the attempts to exploit the nascent hippy-era interest in pagan worship and pre-Christian social mores.

Chaffey’s direction displays his usual traits of lunging camerawork and editing, generating a gritty sense of the past as a physical space as in Jason and the Argonauts (1963), but only in flashes and spurts. The environs of the British society of the town are modest, with the royal palace not much more than a large barn with a thatched roof, and unlike a lot of the larger budgeted historical films of the period, like the glistening fantastical Cleopatra (1963), this lack of artifice makes it feel somehow more immediate. There’s some admirably inventive camerawork in the outlandish chariot charge in the finale. Chaffey seems particularly interested whenever Keir is the film’s focus. Keir employs his effortless embodiment of Celtic Alpha Male grit in a sneering villain role, whether prowling about MacGinnis is a shot so tightly framed you practically feel his prey’s nauseous anticipation, provoking Murray to indulge speeches which he shrugs off as pure limp-dick tomfoolery, or lounging about in fleshy indulgence with slave girls in a period bordello. His pleasure in nastiness reaches an apogee when, seizing an opportunity to take these vexing she-devils down a peg by having Salina flogged raw, taking time himself to rape Talia, before burning the tribe’s Great Hall to the ground. It’s the kind of rampant, corporeal nastiness that would have felt quite at home in a Peckinpah or Tarkovsky film of the period. Houston overacts to such a degree that he almost travels into a meta-state of hambone as Maelgon, who bizarrely makes prayer to Zeus, and is determined to force Salina and the Britons into war with the Romans for the sake of his religious-nationalist power hunger. In a discursive but weirdly compelling scene, Maelgon and his druids, including his scantily clad priestesses, dance about a cardboard Stonehenge (paging Spinal Tap!) and make sacrifices to the old gods, with men in a wooden cage hung over a fiery pit until the floor is charred away and they fall into the flames.

The problem The Viking Queen is that, as was a common problem with Hammer’s attempts to elevate their horizons, the production team couldn’t pick a tone and style and stick to it. Period matriarchy, reasonably serious dialogue exchanges, and substantial plotting are all undercut by segues into clumsy glimpses of naked chicks on horses and visions of the villains lounging about with bevies of slave girls, as if the actors are moonlighting in a production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, with an undertone of indulgent sexism that undercuts the film’s trumpets of feminine empowerment. One supposedly Nubian slave is clearly a plain old English girl unconvincingly painted over. The clash of sensibilities between stolid British realism and the sniggering new-age erotica is all too obvious. But throughout the film, zipping by in disorienting flashes, are fragments of inspired strangeness: scary woad-daubed bandits scream out of the forest. Sack-dress-clad groovy druid priestesses howl the moon. Nipple-tasselled slave girls decorate unused corners of the widescreen frame. Corri as an icon of primal ritual fury sacrificing a Roman captive. Carita gnawing on her own arm to stop herself screaming when being flogged. The wonder of it all is that one can feel the direction a less professional director might have dragged it in, for Chaffey’s attempt to maintain something like a respectable grip on the film works against this polymorphous energy. Rather than wishing the film played straighter, I couldn’t help but wish some real nutcase had directed this, and turned it into a freeform exercise in ahistorical comic book madness: what Russ Meyer or Walerian Borowczyck could have accomplished is worth a happy moment’s thought. Yet The Viking Queen still offers a fitfully delightful parade of camp delight that reaches an apogee when the mini-skirted, fleecy-caped shieldmaidens crash through Roman legions on chariots with scythe blades on their wheels.

Not helping at all are the completely miscast leads: Carita displays only faint acting craft, and her distinct accent is awkwardly explained by her mother having been a “Viking queen”, which also explains the stupid title. Murray, most famous for appearing a decade earlier in Joshua Logan’s film of Bus Stop (1956), looks and sounds badly out of place, and can’t even manage to seem as authentically stentorian as Richard Egan as an American lug in a period European setting. The couple’s big romantic clinch, coming after a spot of flirtatious chariot racing, sees them fall into a pond and make out in the muddy reeds, except that when Murray is supposed to be passionately kissing Carita, it’s clear that for whatever reason he won’t actually put mouth on mouth. But Corri and Troughton do well in their roles as the ferociously bigoted Beatrice, who snaps and snarls and goes to war with real relish, and sceptical patriarch Tristram. The climactic action, so long in getting to, proves a bit sadly curtailed once those chariots have done their business: Salina’s demise, impaling herself on a captor’s sword rather than submit, is neat, but her last words to Justinian are jarringly inane, and the abrupt final frieze suggests the filmmakers couldn’t wait to flee the set. Even if the film as a whole is a fascinating calamity, The Viking Queen’s lessons for cinema titans were not entirely lost: was Keira Knightley leaping about in leather proto-S&M gear in King Arthur anything more than the resurgent spirit of Queen Salina?