Straw Dogs (1971)

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If you can’t catch ’em … shoot ’em.  David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) is a mild-mannered American mathematician married to Amy (Susan George), an Englishwoman. They have relocated to the small town in rural Cornwall where Amy was raised, to a house filled with her father’s belongings. David is writing a book because he has a research grant to do a project on astrophysics.  He is ostracized by the brutish men of the village who are renovating the garage beside the cottage, including Amy’s old boyfriend Charlie (Del Henney). Eventually the taunts and lewdness escalate, their cat is strangled and hanged and two of the locals rape Amy while they distract David by taking him out hunting and leave him alone for the day on the moor. When the village idiot Henry Niles (an uncredited David Warner) winds up at their house after accidentally killing the local slut Janice Hedden (Sally Thomsett) following a church social, the locals come a looking and lay siege to his house and the passive aggressive David finally takes revenge …  David Zelag Goodman loosely adapted the 1969 Gordon M. Williams novel The Siege of Trencher’s Farm with director Sam Peckinpah and its sustained atmosphere of unbearable tension and brutality shocks to this day. The campaign of harassment is inscribed in the titles sequence in which we open on a gravestone and children torturing a dog:  we are quickly introduced to the casual viciousness of the village, the acceptance of violence – mentally retarded Henry is bitch slapped by his brother John (Peter Arne) for playing ball with schoolchildren;  Tom Hedden (Peter Vaughan) breaks a glass into the publican’s hand when time is called despite the presence of the local magistrate (T.P. McKenna);  Hedden’s trampy daughter Janice (Thomsett) and son Bobby (Len Jones) watch David and Amy in bed together. The goons played by Ken Hutchison and Donald Webster are uncomplicated thugs who nonetheless question David about his familiarity with guns (the anti-Vietnam war poster and the animal trap indicate where the film is going textually). He makes it obvious that he is anti-violence. The gang rape is anything but simple:  Amy tries to pacify the first assailant because like most rape victims, she knows him and that’s what makes this so convincing, never mind that it’s brilliantly shot and constructed.  She has gone around the place without a bra – even David tells her to start dressing appropriately and stop complaining that the locals are making horrible remarks. The marital strains are echoed when the vicar (Colin Welland) gives his wife a condescending look because she doesn’t know who Montesquieu is;  Amy doesn’t understand binary numbers. The drama is then structured about the outsider intellectual amid backward yokels, of whom his wife still appears to be one;  the awful Hedden’s concern for his daughter reminds us that Amy’s father dominates her domestic surroundings and she resents David’s retreat to his study. This is where I live. This is me.  I will not allow violence against this house. This was much misunderstood upon release but it’s a genre mashup whose antecedents – the western, the horror film (isn’t this a Hammeresque village with a Frankenstein’s monster?), the home invasion movie – are delineated clearly. The crosscutting (Nic Roeg’s collaborator Tony Lawson is one of three editors, including future director Roger Spottiswoode) also clarifies the complex and ironic psychology. You simply cannot say, as many did at the time of this film’s initial release, that this celebrates violence:  the technique just does not permit it.  David’s shit-eating grin at the film’s conclusion is perhaps what bothers people but as someone who has suffered outrageous violence at the hands of my thick neighbours I can relate to his turnaround and wish I were in a position to emulate it. When I asked the local plumber what was behind it he told me an apocryphal tale which ended in the deathless words, Y’see, nobody wants someone with too much education in their neighbourhood. So when anyone asks me what it’s like to live in the countryside, I tell them, Watch Straw Dogs. As far as I’m concerned, it might be a documentary.

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Badlands (1973)

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At this moment, I didn’t feel shame or fear, but just kind of blah, like when you’re sitting there and all the water’s run out of the bathtub.  1959 South Dakota. Teenage girl Holly Sargis (Sissy Spacek) angers her father (Warren Oates) when she begins dating an older rebellious greaser, garbage man Kit Carruthers (Martin Sheen) who fancies he’s like James Dean. After a conflict between Holly and her father erupts, he kills her dog. Then Kit murders him, so the young lovers must flee. In the ensuing crime spree, they travel through the Midwest to the Badlands of Montana, eluding authorities along the way, killing as they go … Holly’s dreamlike and hilariously affectless magazine-like narration anchors this exquisite blend of drama and horror as the true-life 1950s killers Charles Starkweather and Caril-Ann Fugate inspired script doctor Terrence Malick to strike out and make a film of his own. The distance between the form and content is bridged by the effects of technique – was there every such wonderful magic hour photography (by Tak Fujimoto, Steven Larner and Brian Probyn) to offset the horror of a serial killer in his element?  As Holly begins to realise Kit is psychotic the shots place him further and further away from her. This is an astounding work with beguiling performances by two adult actors who inhabit this fairytale of deluded teenage desire with strange conviction. The score based on work by Carl Orff, Erik Satie, James Taylor and George Tipton is classic. A remarkable, lyrical, transcendent film. Unforgettable.

Psyche 59 (1964)

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It’s the welfare state. Once they nationalised sex people began to lose interest.  Allison Crawford (Patricia Neal) lost her sight in an accident at her home when she was about to give birth. Married to businessman Eric (Curt Jurgens) she is disturbed when he declares her ravishing younger sister Robin (Samantha Eggar) is not welcome at their house that summer following her divorce in America. However it’s too late, she is arriving imminently. At lunch with Robin, Allison tells her that doctors insist her blindness is psychologically induced but she has no memory of the events leading up to the incident, so her condition persists as ‘hysterical blindness’. Robin pursues a relationship with Eric’s employee Paul (Ian Bannen) but a long-buried memory of Eric’s adultery emerges for Allison as the sisters go to their grandmother’s (Beatrix Lehmann) house in the country with Allison’s young daughters, one of whom she has never seen. When Eric and Paul join them there are terrible tensions and Robin acts out and causes an accident that prompts the return of Allison’s vision – a fact that she keeps to herself… Adapted by Julian Halevy (aka blacklisted writer Julian Zimet) from the novel Psyche 63 by Françoise des Ligneris this is a little-seen melodrama that is worth checking out. The violence of the emotions is what is so striking, reflected in some shot compositions in a film that is a psychological drama but operates like a suspense thriller.  The mystery of Allison’s blindness is front and centre and her grandmother’s obsession with horoscopes guides some of the action. How Allison’s senses – particularly auditory – are heightened is compounded by the significance of objects and her perception of people’s conduct. The way her unconscious knowledge of the affair conducted under her nose is unravelled is fascinating:  she is never fully paranoid but the little teasers of other people’s behaviour fit in with what she knows in her heart to be true. Eggar and Neal are very good as the chalk and cheese sisters – Eggar in particular is a revelation as the screwed-up good time girl determined to taunt Jurgens – and the penultimate scene with Jurgens is quite jaw-dropping. Directed with real verve and distinction by Alexander Singer, who is responsible for the wonderful cult entries A Cold Wind in August and Glass Houses, but worked primarily in TV. There’s some terrific photography by Walter Lassally.

Winter Light (1963)

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Aka The CommunicantsThe passion of Christ, his suffering… Wouldn’t you say the focus on his suffering is all wrong? Tomas Ericsson (Gunnar Björnstrand) a pastor in a Swedish village handles his own existential crisis as he fails a fisherman Jonas Persson (Max von Sydow) who is suicidal about the possibility of nuclear annihilation; and his former mistress, local schoolteacher Märta Lundberg (Ingrid Thulin) whom he doesn’t think is as good as his late wife … Some years ago at a dinner party I was asked what I thought of Bergman. Being a smartass, I responded, Ingmar – or Andrew? That was my way of sidestepping a tough question about an auteur who can simultaneously leave me cold and move me unbearably. This is one of a loosely connected spiritual trilogy (known as Silence of God) which Bergman himself said tackled certainty. Here, it’s the pastor’s inability to understand the message of The Passion and the need for physical trials and to question the existence of God. It’s a thoughtful narrative with an unlikable protagonist and reflects on Bergman’s own relationship with his father, a Church of Sweden minister, and the position of the Church itself regarding the liturgy and its uses when a priest is unable to vocalise its virtues in a way that is meaningful to people desperate for reassurance. A serious film about major issues which are tackled and somewhat resolved in an astonishing 81 minutes by Bergman’s regular ensemble, with cinematography by the peerless Sven Nykvist whose camera traces the movement of sunlight through the church’s problematic spaces. Masterful.

All Night Long (1962)

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Oh, I belong to that new minority group: white American jazz musicians. They’re going to hold a mass meeting in a phone booth.  Up-and-coming jazz drummer Johnny Cousin (Patrick McGoohan) wants to start his own band, but he needs a singer. He attempts to court Delia Lane (Marti Stevens), a famous singer who’s retired now but when it’s clear that Delia won’t perform with him, he tries to convince Delia’s husband African-American band leader Aurelius Rex (Paul Harris) that she is cheating on him with road  manager Cass (Keith Michell). His attempts to end their marriage may well cost Johnny his own over the course of a very eventful night … Practically the embodiment of cult, this reworking of Othello is notable not just for being a screenplay co-written by HUAC-blacklisted Paul Jarrico (under the name of Peter Achilles) with Nel King, but for its outstanding array of notable jazz figures – Dave Brubeck, Johnny Dankworth, Charlie Mingus, Tubby Hayes – in an atmospheric and melodramatic tale that features mixed-race marriage and drug-taking. There’s marvellous dockside action and tasty East End scene-setting with McGoohan giving one of his best performances pre-The Prisoner in his take on the malevolent Iago and some good support from Keith Michell, Betsy Blair and Richard Attenborough’s role as a hipster millionaire is certainly memorable. Definitely one for music fans with some sensational tunes. Look fast for Carol White. Produced by that reliable team of progressives, producer Michael Relph and director Basil Dearden. Be seeing you.

Double Indemnity (1944)

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It’s just like the first time I came here, isn’t it? We were talking about automobile insurance, only you were thinking about murder. And I was thinking about that anklet. Insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) gets roped into a murderous scheme when he falls for the sensual Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), who is intent on killing her husband (Tom Powers) by arranging his ‘accidental death’ and living off the fraudulent accidental death claim. Prompted by the late Mr. Dietrichson’s daughter, Lola (Jean Heather), insurance investigator and Neff’s mentor Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) looks into the case, and gradually begins to uncover the truth… Staggering film noir, this early masterpiece from director Billy Wilder boasts a screenplay co-written (sort of) with Raymond Chandler, adapted from the James M. Cain story Three of a Kind. Rarely has the sensibility of a filmmaker been so attuned to the material in such crystalline fashion:  in this treatise on corruption, crime, sex, adultery and murder the casting plays to all the character strengths with Wilder seeing in the light actor MacMurray something infinitely schlemiel-like, sleazy and vulnerable.  It is literally picture-perfect, offering us a visual and psychological template for noir, a story told in flashback, shot on location all over Los Angeles, from Jerry’s Market to the Chateau Marmont, Glendale Station to the Hollywood Bowl, with venetian blinds, curling cigarette smoke and tilted fedoras filling out the emotional space shot by DoP John Seitz. Did a city ever feel so lonesome? Stanwyck was never better – dolled up in a blonde wig with bangs and an ankle bracelet begging to be opened, this is one of the fatalest femmes ever on screen. Robinson is fantastic as the fatherly man who unravels this story of these blackest of hearts, while this study of behaviour is decorated with the kind of dialogue that you savour forever. How could I have known that murder could sometimes smell like honeysuckle? Classsic Hollywood, in every possible sense of that term.

The Snorkel (1958)

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You think I’m mad, don’t you? They all thought I was mad when I said he killed my daddy.  Paul Decker (Peter van Eyck) kills his wealthy wife by gassing her in the living room of their luxury Italian villa. He survives in the sealed room by hiding under the floorboards with a snorkel. The police assume it’s a suicide:  Paul has an alibi from a sojourn just across the border in France.  Paul’s stepdaughter Candy (Mandy Miller) suspects he has murdered her mother – she says she saw him hold her father underwater and kill him too. Her dog Toto agitates Paul by playing with the snorkel which he finds in his hotel room and Paul poisons him. Candy is convinced he did it deliberately but her companion Jean (Betta St John) thinks she has a psychiatric disorder. Paul starts to seduce Jean and persuade her that Candy is mad. It’s only a matter of time before Paul tries to kill Candy too … An effective thriller from the House of Hammer, adapted from the story by Anthony Dawson (the crim who gets scissored by Grace Kelly in Dial M for Murder) by the man who would become a studio stalwart, Jimmy Sangster (and Peter Myers). The tension is nicely sustained in this slice of Gothic and Miller is excellent as the teen who persists with her suspicions. The dog is great! Produced by Michael Carreras and directed by Guy Green.

The Spiral Staircase (1945)

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Murderer, you killed them. You killed them all. It’s 1906. Helen is a young mute woman (Dorothy McGuire) working in a New England mansion as a domestic to bedridden Mrs Warren (Ethel Barrymore) who lives with her professor stepson Albert (gorgeous George Brent), a secretary Blanche (Rhonda Fleming) who used to be his girlfriend and is now romancing her newly returned son Steven (Gordon Oliver), verbally abused Nurse Barker (Sara Allgood), drunken housekeeper Mrs Oates (Elsa Lanchester) and her husband (Rhys Williams).  A maniac is killing off people with disabilities. After Mrs Warren warns her of the danger to her personal safety she makes plans to leave the dark old house with her boyfriend Dr Parry (Kent Smith), but it is too late. The maniac is in the house, and she is his prey… Mel Dinelli made his screenwriting debut with this adaptation of Ethel Lina White’s 1933 novel Some Must Watch – the  idea for the staircase came from a Mary Roberts Rinehart novel.  It’s a beautifully mounted gripping Gothic suspenser with an ideal setting, atmosphere and occasional flashes of director Robert Siodmak’s Expressionist roots by DoP Nicholas Musuraca, underscoring the murderousness at its core. Spinechilling from start to finish. 

Mother! (2017)

 

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You don’t know what it’s like to have a child. You give and you give and you give.  It’s just never enough. A burnt-out house morphs into a fixer-upper in lush Edenic grassland. In bed, Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) wife and muse to Him (Javier Bardem) a poet,awakens from a fiery nightmare and wonders aloud where Him is. While renovating the house, she starts seeing things that unsettle her, including visualizing a beating heart within its walls. One day, Man (Ed Harris) turns up at the house, asking for a room. Him readily agrees, and Mother reluctantly follows suit. During his stay, Man suffers coughing fits and Mother observes an open wound in his side. Soon Man’s wife, Woman (Michelle Pfeiifer), also arrives to stay. Mother is increasingly frustrated with her guests, but Him begs her to let them stay, telling Mother they are fans of his work and Man is dying. However, when Man and Woman accidentally shatter the crystal object, which Him had forbidden them to touch, Mother kicks them out and Him boards up his study. Before Man and Woman can leave, their two sons (Domhnall and Brian Gleeson) arrive and fight over their father’s will. The Oldest Son, who will be left with nothing, severely wounds his Younger Brother and flees. Him, Man, and Woman take the injured son for help. Alone in the house, Mother follows a trail of blood to find a tank of heating oil hidden behind the basement walls. Upon returning, Him informs Mother the son has died. Dozens of people arrive at the house to honor the dead son. They behave in rude and presumptuous ways that irritate Mother; she snaps when they break a sink, flooding the house. She orders everyone out and berates Him for allowing so many people inside while ignoring her needs. Their argument ends in passionate lovemaking. The next morning, Mother announces she is pregnant. The news elates Him and inspires him to finish his work. Mother prepares for the arrival of their child and reads Him’s beautiful new poem. Upon publication, it immediately sells out every copy. In celebration, Mother prepares a big dinner, but a group of fans arrives at the house before they can eat. She asks Him to send them away, but he insists he has to be polite and will return soon. Mother tries to lock the doors, but more fans arrive and enter the house to use the toilet. They start stealing things as souvenirs and damaging the house, but Him is oblivious due to the adulation he is receiving. Hundreds of people fill the house and an increasingly disoriented Mother watches it devolve into chaos. Military forces battle a cult of frenzied fans who tear rooms apart and engage in religious rituals. Amidst gunfire and explosions, the Herald, the poet’s publicist, organizes mass executions. Mother goes into labor and finds Him. He takes her to his study, which he reopens so she can give birth there. The havoc outside subsides. Him tells Mother his fans want to see their newborn son; she refuses and holds her boy tightly. When she falls asleep, however, Him takes their child outside to the crowd, which passes the baby around wildly until he is killed. Devastated, Mother wades into the crowd where she sees people eating her son’s mutilated corpse. Furious, she calls them murderers and stabs them with a shard of glass. They turn on her, viciously beating and stripping her until Him intervenes. He implores Mother to forgive them, but she escapes, makes her way to the basement oil tank, and punctures it with a pipe wrench. Despite her husband’s pleas, she sets the oil alight; it explodes, destroying the crowd, the house, and the surrounding environment.Mother and Him survive, but she is horrifically burned while Him is completely unscathed. He asks for her love and she agrees. He tears open her chest and removes her heart. As he crushes the heart with his hands, a new crystal object is revealed. He places it on its pedestal and, once again, the house is transformed from a burnt-out shell into a beautiful home. In bed, a new Mother appears and wakes up, wondering aloud where Him is… I didn’t know that the house’s octagonal shape had some connection with phrenology. Nor did I know (or care) that this was created as a philosophical allegory about creative destruction. You can get all that from the PR or production notes. You don’t get it from the finished film. What I do know is that this is what happens when good auteurs go bad (see Phantom Thread). Literally laugh out loud silly. Watch Rosemary’s Baby instead. Now that’s a film about demonic men and the horror of mothering. Written and directed by Darren Aronofsky. Life:  too short. Etc. Jesus.

 

Psycho IV: The Beginning (1990) (TVM)

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Get off of me! You are going to forget once and for all about that filthy thing of yours! You’ll forget that you even have one of those things! Do you understand me, boy? Released from a mental institution once again, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) calls in to tell his life story to a radio host (CCH Pounder). Norman recalls his days as a young boy living with his schizophrenic mother (Olivia Hussey), and the jealous rage that inspired her murder. In the present, Norman lives with his pregnant wife psychiatrist Connie (Donna Mitchell), fearing that his child will inherit his split personality disorder, and Mother will return to kill again… Both a prequel and a sequel, this made for TV entry in the series has the original writer Joseph Stefano (never mind Alma Hitchcock’s contribution!) and a whole heap of interest to anyone who either visited the Universal FLA lot where it was shot (I have the shower curtain!) or was addicted to Bates Motel (to which it bears no relation, but you know what I mean).  Apparently Perkins wanted to have his Pretty Poison director Noel Black direct it from a screenplay by III scripter Charles Edward Poague but that film’s commercial failure meant a change in talent and Mick Garris was brought in to direct. Stefano didn’t like the violence in the preceding two films and ignored the backstory about Mrs Bates in II and the aunt in III.  Now, Norman Bates is married. Whatchootalkinabout?! Yup, they go there. Literally the unthinkable. And having a child. With a psychiatrist. Gulp … Pushing Freudian and schizoid buttons galore, Henry Thomas plays the young Norman in out of order flashbacks that clarify the events triggering the break in his personality with a path straight up to the first film.  Ironically this is probably the weakest of the sequels despite Stefano’s desire to have a psychologically accurate portrait of a cross-dressing mother-loving voyeuristic serial killer. But you just have to watch. Don’t you?! A  must for completionists.