It (2017)

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Aka It:  Chapter One. Go blow your dad you mullet-wearing asshole. Stephen King’s 1986 novel gets the big screen treatment here after a 1990 TV two-parter that has a fond place in many people’s memories.  It sticks with the first part of the novel – the kids’ experiences, and moves them forward, to the late Eighties. In 1988 Derry, Maine, little Georgie sails his  paper boat and it floats down a drain in a rainstorm and he is pulled in by Pennywise the Clown, becoming one of the town’s many missing kids. When school’s out next summer his older brother Bill sets out to find him with a bunch of other kids who all have their issues:  big mouth Richie, hypochondriac Eddie, germophobe Stan, overweight newbie Ben, pretty Bev (the subject of false sex rumours) and black home-schooled Mike.  They are the Losers Club and have various problems with the parental figures in their lives. Ben’s research in the library proves that Derry has a very high mortality rate particularly when it comes to kids and every 27 years this demonic shapeshifting character manifests through their fears when he reappears to feed. But in the midst of their search they have to avoid the Bowers Gang, horrible greasers who violently terrorise them as they search the area’s sewers to find the centre of Pennywise’s hellish underground activities … Part of why this works so well is that the kids are taken seriously and their problems in the world are immense:  we’re talking child abuse and Munchausen by proxy, to name but two. We feel for them because they are fully rounded characters who have legitimate reason to fear grown ups. A clown in the sewers is as nothing compared to Dad waiting in the hallway to feel you up. It’s a perfectly judged drama. Another reason this works is because it inhabits familiar territory for many of us who recall Spielberg films of the era – the sight of a squad of boys on bikes recalls ET – and the King drama Stand By Me which was so iconic and one that also treats its protagonists respectfully. We also think about The Goonies:  the spirit of adventure is overwhelmingly attractive despite the dangers to this bunch of nerds and scaredy cats.  The Netflix show Stranger Things is an overt homage to all of these, mixing up the paranormal, horror and nostalgia for thirty years ago and the presence of cool girl Winona Ryder is such a plus.  Adapted by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman;  directed by Andy Muschietti who gives the scenes equal weight and doesn’t give into the massive temptation to exaggerate the horror element, allowing each character to fully blossom. This is a coming of age story with panache and clowns and a wonderful ensemble of wholly believable kids and Bill Skarsgard donning the whiteface. Personally I can’t wait for part two set 27 years from 1989 when It reappears: wouldn’t it be really meta to cast Molly Ringwald as the adult incarnation of the Molly Ringwald lookalike? Awesome idea!

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Dirty Harry (1971)

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You’ve got to ask yourself a question.  ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk? When a serial killer calling himself Scorpio menaces women in San Francisco cop ‘Dirty’ Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) is assigned to track him down. He’s involved in a cat and mouse chase that sees him racing all over the city in pursuit even dragging a school bus with children into the fray and bringing him into disrepute by questioning suspects’ Escobedo and Miranda rights. This starts by honouring the institution of policing and ends very firmly on a note of critique – with a move by Harry that is replicated by Keanu Reeves in Point Break twenty years later (albeit Harry gets his man). This starts in such an astonishing fashion, with the camera at the killer’s shoulder when he takes aim with a sniper rifle at a woman swimming in a rooftop pool:  it sutures you directly into his point of view and makes you question everything you see. There is an undertow of satire (and a string of murders) that secures your sympathy for Harry’s unorthodox approach. The story by Harry Julian Fink and R. M. Fink was vaguely based on the Zodiac killer terrorising young women at the time (and later the subject of another brilliant film) and was rewritten by John Milius and Dean Riesner (and Terrence Malick did an early draft), and the end result is tight as a bullet casing. Milius said it’s obvious which parts of the screenplay were his – because for him Harry is just like the killer but with a police badge. It’s directed in such a muscular way by Don Siegel (who had just made The Beguiled with Eastwood) and characterised so indelibly by Eastwood there is only one word to encapsulate it – iconic. Much imitated (even with four sequels of its own) but never equalled, with a moody empathetic score by Lalo Schifrin. What’s weird is that the killer was played by unknown actor and pacifist Andy Robinson – who replaced war hero Audie Murphy following the star’s death in a plane crash before he signed on the dotted line.

Basic Instinct (1992)

 

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I think she’s the fuck of the century.  Paul Verhoeven’s film was notorious even prior to release – 25 years ago! – when word of the highly sexualised story got out.  Then it caused an uproar with a shot of Sharon Stone uncrossing her legs:  she’s not wearing any underwear. And the gay community in San Francisco in particular (where it’s set) didn’t like the portrayal of a psychopathic bisexual writer Catherine Tramell (Stone) – albeit we don’t know if it’s her, or her former and slighted lover, police psychiatrist Beth Garner (Jeanne Tripplehorn), who’s the murderess in this tricky, explicit neo-noir. That sub-genre really had a moment in the 90s, with this and the films of John Dahl – remember Linda Fiorentino in The Last Seduction?! Wow. Stone goes all-out here as the millionaire authoress whose books have a basis in true crime. Michael Douglas is the controversial ‘shooter’ detective Nick Curran who’s assigned to investigate the violent death of an old rock star – a murder we see in the opening scenes, bloody, sexy and ending with an ice pick applied to his neck. It’s the plot of one of Catherine Tramell’s lurid thrillers – she writes them under the surname Woolf.  Everything points to her being the guilty party. Now she wants to study him too. He got his nickname after accidentally killing tourists while he was high on cocaine. Catherine hangs out with jealous girlfriend Roxy and an old woman called Hazel Dobkins. Both of them have an interesting past. After Nick avoids being killed by Roxy when she sees him and Catherine having sex, he finds out she killed a bunch of kids when she was 15. And Hazel?  She murdered her children and husband back in the 50s. The fact that she’s played by Dorothy Malone gives you the meta-picture here:  this is practically a dissertation on the Hollywood blonde, a Hitchcock film with extra sex. Nick’s also been involved with the police psychiatrist who it turns out knows Catherine too, from when they went to college together a decade earlier.  And they may have had a relationship. This knotty tale of seduction, deception, copycat killing and betrayal leads cleverly to two very clear – and alternate – conclusions. It’s wrapped in extraordinarily beautiful and brutal imagery and the narrative ambiguity merely compounds its legend. Written by Joe Eszterhas in 13 days it earned him a record-breaking $3 million.  Yet as he stated so lucidly in his memoir, he is a militant screenwriter-auteur and the most memorable bit of the film was shot without his knowledge – and apparently Stone’s. Interpret this how you will. Some people might say that the real crime here is one against fashion – Douglas’ v-neck at the club is really something. Stone is stunning: she’s something else!

Psycho (1998)

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The Hitchcock film is so ingrained in the collective psyche it was some kind of madness to remake it shot for shot (almost – there are some surreal inserts.) When Gus Van Sant’s name was attached it didn’t even make lunatic sense. Nor the fact that some cast members (I mean you, Anne Heche) didn’t even seem to know the original. The cinematographer (Chris Doyle) didn’t even understand the point of some shots, it appears. If you can get past the fact that this is sacrilege; that paradoxically Pat Hitchcock O’Connell, the keeper of her father’s flame, approved it; and that huge dead-eyed Vince Vaughn was selected to play the delicate bird-like Norman Bates (okay, Vaughn is truer to Bloch’s image, but who but the indelible Anthony Perkins is Norman?!), this can be viewed as an interesting homage to the most important film in (some people’s) living memory. It is about identity and its negation;  the camera articulates vision and perception (just look! A crane shot introduces Marion Crane! And the final shot of her eye is the single most important image in cinema); and Anne Heche’s underwear is kinda wonderful – the whole first section of the film is all about the colour orange. It’s about a man in a dress pretending to be his dead mother, whose rotting corpse is in the fruit cellar. The original film was censor-bait – when Janet Leigh flushed her calculations down the toilet censorship was literally flushed away in American cinema: that doesn’t even register nowadays. It is a reverie about a kingdom of death, as Donald Spoto has it. Joseph Stefano’s screenplay (he had a lot of help from Mrs Hitchcock) is shot word for word;  and Bernard Herrmann’s score is reworked by Danny Elfman. So this is an empty act of nostalgia and avant-gardism inasmuch as it is doing a Warhol to something that effectively belongs to everyone. But it is Hitchcock. Not to be reproduced. Like I said, sacrilege.

London Road (2015)

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Perhaps it’s no surprise that the dominant colour in a movie musical about a community’s reaction to a British serial killer of prostitutes should be grey. Alecky Blythe’s revolutionary stage production (music by Adam Cork) gets a screen adaptation by director Rufus Norris.  We hear the real-life transcripts of interviews with local residents in Ipswich related in halting, lilting, compositional style with appropriate pauses and inflexions as truck driver Steven Wright is arrested in their midst. Ten weeks! they cry. He only lived here ten weeks! This small part of town has seen an upswing in sex workers and it’s lowered the tone somewhat. In a mostly anonymous cast who sing through and use Sprechgesang technique Olivia Colman has the biggest role as a woman trying to get things back on an even keel, encouraging people to create hanging baskets leading up to a garden competition that concludes the reparations. Tom Hardy is the serial killer expert driving a taxi.  One outstanding song is It Could Be Him performed by two teenage girls boarding a bus – and that’s the beauty of this, its capacity to express everyone’s everyday thoughts and fears at the realisation that such a beast is among them. The disquieting reaction of one couple (glad the hookers are gone from the neighbourhood) also reflects people’s desire to say the unthinkable, despite the horror and tabloid revelations. This unsettling social realist outing is one of a kind with an occasional visual flourish, daring to suggest that a strange looking neighbour might be the real culprit, offering a very unusual twist ending. Definitely not LA LA Land.

Mojave (2016)

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A rich and unhappy Los Angeles artist takes off to the desert and meets a homicidal maniac who follows him home and wreaks havoc in his life. This curiosity from award-winning screenwriter William (The Departed) Monahan shows how a solipsistic turn can be rather problematic for a writer turned director and the casting doesn’t help:  Garrett Hedlund is pretty believable if not sympathetic as the fashionably scruffy Angeleno experiencing some sort of fugue but Oscar Isaac (Hernandez Estrada, whatever) is his usually laughable ludicrous self and sunders the screen story from the moment he appears (indeed there’s no reason as to why he actually appears at all). The subplot with lawyer Walton Goggins and whoring studio head Mark Wahlberg brings a kind of Entourage feeling to this immersion in discomfiting affluence while the requisite French girlfriend Louise Bourgoin increases the sense of literariness that suffuses a film already awash in references to Greed. Pretentious, toi? I couldn’t possibly comment. I’m far too self-absorbed to bother.

Blow Out (1981)

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Take an Antonioni classic, Blow-up, make it about sound rather than pictures, add a dash of Kennedy crisis (Chappaquiddick/Texas), mix in a hint of right-wing conspiracy theories, use the ideas in Coppola’s The Conversation, and whisk into a Hitchcockian pastiche. And there you have it. A recipe for one of the key films of the Eighties, courtesy of Brian De Palma. This man knows his movies. Shot by Vilmos Zsigmond, sound by Pino Donaggio, star by John Travolta. Yum.

Psycho (1960)

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Sometimes we are in danger of overlooking the greatest filmmakers – and Alfred Hitchcock never won an Academy Award, which tells you pretty much all you need to know about recognition. As we know from Sacha Gervasi’s supremely funny and informative Hitchcock (adapted from Stephen Rebello’s The Making of Psycho) the great man needed a new project that would excite him. Yet he had been coining it from his TV show and was the most famous filmmaker on the planet. He should have been resting on his laurels on the eve of his sixtieth birthday – instead he took a radical new direction, had a true crime shocker by Robert Bloch adapted (by Joseph Stefano and his own wife, Alma Reville, who was uncredited) and filmed it in monochrome on his TV sets on a low budget. He created film history. No matter how you feel about the auteur theory (and I’m agnostic depending on the day/the director) he was responsible for pursuing the notion of the split protagonist to ever more devastating effect from Shadow of a Doubt (1943) through  Strangers on a Train (1951) and Vertigo (1958) which were adapted from neo-Gothic novels.  And here, in perhaps the ultimate noir tale, troubled mama’s boy Norman Bates internalises a perplexing matriarch and compulsively stuffs birds in an attempt at a kind of female individuation. It is of course the blackest of comedies. It boasts two astonishing performances – Janet Leigh in the first forty-five minutes, whose desires as Marion Crane drive that narrative, until she crosses paths with a confused motel proprietor, Anthony Perkins as that charmingly twitchy mother-loving madman. This is a tour de force in presentation:  these drab worlds are the external realities of the protagonists and the flatness of the style is then rendered bent in two by juxtaposition with the extraordinarily inventive murder sequences –  the shower scene cannot be adequately described, only experienced (preferably only cinematically) and definitely with those screaming violins. It was released 57 years ago and was the start of something entirely new that goes beyond its being merely the parent of the slasher flick:  a cinema of unease, a cinema of anxiety, something totally modern that severed the connection with the democratic and the unified. Cinema was never the same afterwards. And look at all those references to birds! A preview of coming attractions, as Grace Kelly once told us. Totally terrifying.

A Study in Terror (1965)

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The poster says it all:  the great literary detective versus the notorious serial killer of women in this Sixties fantasy chiller set in Victorian London. Adapted by Derek Ford and Donald Ford from their story which takes Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s characters played here by John Neville and Donald Houston, with John Fraser as the aristocratic lunatic terrorising the East End. Produced by those exploitation experts Tony Tenser and Michael Klinger, this could easily have slid into the realms of the lurid but thanks to the great handling by director James Hill, costumes by Motley, delicate cinematography by Desmond Dickinson and an elegant score by John Scott it skirts the edges of taste to produce a gripping, entertaining thriller. The theory presented here is perfectly viable but one that might be scotched by more recent findings (even director Bruce Robinson has spent a decade on this trail). Still, it’s always been fun to speculate about this most horrifying of murderers. The cast is fantastic and just look down the ensemble:  Barbara Windsor, Anthony Quayle, Robert Morley, Adrienne Corri, Judi Dench, Cecil Parker, Kay Walsh, and my beloved Frank Finlay! You had me at hello!

Cat O’Nine Tails (1971)

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Not Dario Argento’s favourite of his own films – too American, he thinks. But it’s more coherent than most of his output and graphically interesting at the very least. Karl Malden is crossword-setter Cookie Arno, a blind man who overhears an odd conversation in a car while walking past a science lab, the Terzi Institute, where couples are helped to reproduce. His little niece Lori (Cinzia de Carolis) helps him identify the man speaking. She lives with him since her parents died and all they have is each other. The man breaks into the institute. A scientist, Calabresi, knows what’s been taken and by whom and agrees to meet someone. Then he falls under a train. Journalist Carlo Giordani (James Franciscus) is investigating the death and it’s the first of a series – even the newspaper photographer who is developing what Cookie identifies as potentially incriminating evidence of the train death being a murder is garrotted. Eventually the killer is after Giordani – and Cookie – and Lori … Argento’s sophomore outing is fabulous looking – constructed around the prism of vision, point of view and perception. Everything is continuous within the spatial organisation, characters’ movement through interiors, colour, the repetition of shapes (look what he does with triangles and pyramids), and there’s a great chase using an underground car park plus a spectacularly odd sex scene between Franciscus and doll-like Catherine Spaak, playing the daughter of the Professor running the lab where an unusual research project concerning chromosomal dispositions toward criminality has triggered a serial killer. There’s a  fantastically inventive soundtrack by Ennio Morricone and the crisp cinematography is by Enrico Menczer. There’s no cat, by the way:  that title is an expression used to describe the number of false leads in the case. This is stylish as hell if not quite as shocking as some of the Maestro’s work. And the cars! Shot in Berlin, Turin and Cinecitta.