Archive for the Psychological Horror Category

BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO (2012)

Posted in 2013, Art Movies, British Horror, Compelling Cinema, Enigmatic Films, Giallo, Independent Cinema, LL Soares Reviews, Psychological Horror, Unusual Films with tags , , , , , , on July 9, 2013 by knifefighter

BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO (2012)
Movie Review by L.L. Soares

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The sense of atmosphere in BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO is so thick, you could chop it with a machete, and that’s a big part of what makes it so fascinating. More a character study (and a study of a specific time and place in film history) than an outright horror movie, Peter Strickland’s BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO nonetheless has a pervading, unsettling mood throughout.

Toby Jones (probably best known for playing Truman Capote in 2006’s INFAMOUS) plays Gilderoy, a mild-mannered Englishman who seems to have mostly done sound for children’s shows and nature programs back home, is somehow plucked from his small existence and inserted into an Italian horror movie studio. The vibe is completely 1970s, at the high of the giallo craze. Gilderoy is a fish out of water, and there’s more than a little Kafka in his situation. Many of his co-workers do not speak English. Those who do, specifically the film’s producer Francesco (Cosimo Fusco) and the mysterious director, Giancarlo Santini (Antonio Mancino), are tall, intimidating men whose comments to Gilderoy can sometimes seem more like threats.

Gilderoy is not really sure why he was chosen for this project, especially based on his previous work, but, as Francesco tells him at one point, there are people dying to do his job for free, so he should be happy to do it. The implication being that he should be willing to do it for no money, which he isn’t. But trying to get reimbursed for his flight to Italy alone is an ongoing dilemma, as he keeps getting shuttled from Francesco, to his secretary Elena (Tonia Sotriopoulou), to the Accounting Department. It’s quite clear that the studio isn’t very eager to pay for anything unless it really has to. At one point, the guy in accounting tells Gilderoy that there was no record of a flight leaving England the time he said he flew, and that they cannot pay him back. By then, Gilderoy is so frustrated (since he clearly was on this supposedly non-existent flight!) that he begins to lose his cool, and the worm finally begins to turn.

For hardcore film fans, BERBERIAN is a fascinating look at a side of cinema we rarely see. Sure, we’ve seen the making of a film from the actors’ point of view, or the director’s, but this movie finally gives us entrée into the studio where the sound engineers and foley artists do their thing. We get to see which vegetables and fruits, when smashed or otherwise destroyed, make for the best sound effects, and how a scream can be amplified and manipulated to set your hair on end.

I thought the technical aspects in BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO were fascinating. But I didn’t find much of a plot here. Not that this is particularly detrimental in BERBERIAN’s case. As his ordeal goes on, Gilderoy feels more and more cut off from the outside world, and the movie does a good job of making us feel as claustrophobic as he does. The only people he sees every day are Francesco and the other sound guys. Occasionally Santini stops by to strut around and tell Gilderoy how wonderful he is for the project (meanwhile laughing behind his back in Italian with Francesco). There are also actors and actresses who come and go, spending time in sound booths to either dub dialogue or make vocal sound effects. Or scream.

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It is one of the screaming actresses, Veronica (Susanna Cappellaro)  who befriends Gilderoy. She’s the only one who really seems interested in him as a person, and who confides in him that Santini has been sexually harassing her (as he seems to be doing with all his actresses, some of whom are more responsive to his advances), when he’s not treating her and her co-stars like garbage when they don’t scream just right for his satisfaction. She decides to get revenge on Santini and the production in a way that is very effective (if bloodless).

There are scenes of menace. One particular scene involves Gilderoy waking up to someone thrashing his door and wildly shaking the knob. When he grabs a knife to investigate, he wanders out into the hall, eventually finding himself in a screening room, where the projector starts running and plays footage on the wall behind him of everything that had just happened (inside his room!).

The film the crew is making, concerning 16th century witches who rise to fulfill a curse, and who are in the tunnels beneath an equestrian school—the Italian title translates as “The Equestrian Vortex—bares more than a passing resemblance to Dario Argento’s classic SUSPIRIA (1977), which involved witches and a girls’ dancing school. Of course, we do not see much footage from the film. Early on, we see the opening credits. But the rest of the time, we only know the story based on the recitation of lines by the actors in the sound booths.

Gilderoy is clearly uncomfortable with the subject matter of the film. Whether he is ripping radishes from their stems to replicate the sound of hair being torn from a witch’s head, or listening to women scream over and over (as they are forced to do retakes), he clearly is not thrilled with what he’s doing, even if he realizes it is a unique opportunity for someone who has only done sound for films for the telly back in England (and, despite his age, who still lives with him mum).

His only contact with his former life is in the form of letters from his mother, which start out mundane enough, and which get stranger as time goes on. When an actress recites the contents of one letter, line for line, in front of him, you know something sinister is afoot.

As he is forced to redo sound for scenes over and over, we start to wonder how long this job is going to last, and then wonder if he will ever be allowed to leave. We never see him go outside. He is either in the studio (which is most of the time), or in his room. If there is horror here, it’s the horror of being trapped in an unpleasant place without knowing if you’ll ever escape. Because the longer Gilderoy stays there, the more it seems he won’t be permitted to leave.

The cast is quite good, led by Jones, who is one of those gifted actors who, because of how he looks and sounds, will never be a traditional leading man, but who you want to see more of. Aside from playing Capote in INFAMOUS, Jones’s Hollywood career has amounted mostly to small roles as a character actor (like playing one of the commentators in THE HUNGER GAMES, 2012),  so it’s nice to see him take center stage again in this smaller, British production.

The emphasis on technical details and atmosphere and subtle menace makes this a little different from the usual horror-related film. As I said early on, it’s much more interested in giving us a glimpse into one man’s life than scaring us, but the sense of dread is strong here, and seems quite real.

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Director Strickland has created a unique film that reaches in the direction of art. While it won’t appeal to everyone (it does move at a slower pace than most summer blockbusters), the audience that will appreciate it will obviously have a good time with it. I know I did.

I give BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO, three and a half knives.

© Copyright 2013 by L.L. Soares

(Note: BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO has been having a very brief run in arthouse theaters in some cities. It is also currently available on some cable OnDemand services)

LL Soares gives  BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO ~three and a half knives.

MURDER BY DECREE

Posted in 1970s Movies, 2011, Jack the Ripper, Michael Arruda Reviews, Mystery, Psycho killer, Psychological Horror, Screaming Streaming, Sherlock Holmes with tags , , , , , , on August 19, 2011 by knifefighter

SCREAMING STREAMING!
Movie Review: MURDER BY DECREE (1979)
By Michael Arruda

 

Today on SCREAMING STREAMING! it’s MURDER BY DECREE (1979), an atmospheric mystery/thriller that pits Sherlock Holmes against Jack the Ripper, and it’s now available on streaming video.

I remember liking MURDER BY DECREE when I first saw it back in 1979 . I was especially intrigued by the Sherlock Holmes/Jack the Ripper storyline . Unfortunately, I have seen a lot of Jack the Ripper movies since then, and so the plot points and revelations made here in MURDER BY DECREE regarding the identity of Jack the Ripper don’t possess the power they once did.

And if you’ve seen any movies or read any books about Jack the Ripper (and who hasn’t?), the plot of MURDER BY DECREE offers nothing new . Yes, prostitutes are being viciously murdered in Whitechapel by Jack the Ripper, and the world’s greatest detective Sherlock Holmes (Christopher Plummer) is called in to investigate, along with his partner Dr. Watson (James Mason).

A psychic named Robert Lees (Donald Sutherland) informs Holmes that he believes the Ripper murders are the result of a government conspiracy, and the clues that Holmes and Watson uncover during their investigation seem to back up this premise . Holmes is led to Mary Kelly (Susan Clark), who confides in him that she is protecting her friend Annie Crook (Genevieve Bujold) and her child from threats which she intimates are from the highest positions in the British government, including the crown itself . Holmes finds Crook in an insane asylum, and what he learns from her confirms his theory regarding the identity of Jack the Ripper . He and Watson then set out to catch the Ripper and expose the conspiracy.

If you’re looking for an atmospheric period piece, you can’t go wrong with MURDER BY DECREE . The film looks terrific, as it depicts 19th century London at its foggy best . It has the look of the Hammer Films period pieces from the 1950s and 1960s .

And if you’re looking for good acting by veterans of the field, MURDER BY DECREE satisfies here as well . The film enjoys strong acting performances, especially from its two leads: Christopher Plummer, as Sherlock Holmes and James Mason, as Dr. Watson. They share an amiable chemistry, and when they are onscreen together, they are fun to watch . The rest of the cast is also excellent.

The film even gets off to a good start with some creepy murders in the London fog .

But then it slows down halfway through and never really picks up again . Towards the end, when the story should be picking up steam, it falters, and its conclusion, whereby Holmes explains all that he has learned and proved, is interesting, but it’s nothing new nor all that dramatic.

Even though there are some eerie murder scenes, MURDER BY DECREE is rated PG, so don’t expect much blood and gore . FROM HELL (2001), this ain’t! Further complicating matters is that some of the key murder and action scenes are shot in slow motion, and this doesn’t work at all, as it only results in slowing down the suspense.

The two main reasons to see MURDER BY DECREE, then, are the strong acting performances from its veteran cast, and the atmospheric photography of this period piece thriller.

Christopher Plummer is very good as Sherlock Holmes, and he plays the world’s greatest detective as a more compassionate and human man than he’s usually portrayed in the movies . Plummer’s Holmes is also very emotional, especially when the investigation brings him closer to the lives—and deaths— of the women he’s investigating .

James Mason, one of my all-time favorite actors, makes a very likeable Dr. Watson . Mason was an accomplished actor who starred in all types of films, and he enjoyed some memorable roles in genre movies, from the heroic Sir Oliver Lindenbrook in JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (1959), to the conniving Dr. Polidori in FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY (1973), to the evil Straker in Stephen King’s SALEM’S LOT (1979), to name just a few . Here, he makes a very distinguished Watson, applying some understated humor to the role.

The rest of the cast is full of veterans of the field . David Hemmings, a popular actor from the 1960s, who I remember most from movie roles in the 1970s, plays Inspector Foxborough, a Scotland Yard inspector with ulterior motives . Hemmings made a ton of movies, and one of his last was THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN (2003) with Sean Connery, before his death later that year at age 62.

Frank Finlay plays Inspector Letrade, and he’s another actor I’ve always enjoyed, from his performances in Richard Lester’s THREE MUSKETEERS movies in the 1970s to Tobe Hooper’s LIFEFORCE (1985), that bizarre space/vampire movie that should be on everyone’s “must see at least once” list . Finlay was also in THE PIANIST (2002), the film in which Adrien Brody won the Best Actor Oscar, but my all-time favorite Finlay role was his portrayal of Professor van Helsing in the 1977 Great Performances production of COUNT DRACULA, a neat and faithful retelling of Bram Stoker’s tale . Alas, as good as Finlay is, he doesn’t do much here in MURDER BY DECREE.

Donald Sutherland fares better as psychic Robert Lees, and his performance serves as a solid reminder as to why he was such a popular actor in the 1970s . Genevieve Bujold makes the most of her one scene as Annie Crook, so much so that she delivers probably the best performance in the film, other than Plummer and Mason . She’s really good . Susan Clark is also very good as the tragically doomed Mary Kelly.

MURDER BY DECREE was directed by Bob Clark, the man most famous for directing the Christmas classic A CHRISTMAS STORY (1983) . Of course, Clark is also known for a less family-oriented Christmas movie, the 1974 Christmas horror movie BLACK CHRISTMAS, starring Margot Kidder . Clark also directed PORKY’S (1982) . Quite the varied resume!

MURDER BY DECREE doesn’t showcase Clark’s best work . The film lacks effective pacing, and the murder scenes don’t really pack the punch that they should, hindered by the annoying slow-motion photography .

John Hopkins wrote the screenplay . Hopkins is one of the writers who worked on the Sean Connery Bond film THUNDERBALL (1965) . In MURDER BY DECREE, there’s entertaining dialogue between Holmes and Watson, but there’s not much else that makes this one special in terms of writing .

Neither the direction nor the writing does much in the way of building suspense in this movie.

I remember liking MURDER BY DECREE when I first saw it back in 1979, but watching it now, all these years later, it doesn’t hold up all that well . It’s a beautifully photographed movie, it enjoys solid acting, and the first third of its story is rather compelling, but then it slows down and it remains slow all the way to its dramatic revelations, which, if you know the Jack the Ripper conspiracy theories, really aren’t that dramatic or surprising.

MURDER BY DECREE is one of those movies that, if you catch it in the right frame of mind, you might like it, but the fact is, there are better Sherlock Holmes movies, and there are better Jack the Ripper movies .

Watching MURDER BY DECREE is like looking at a mediocre painting . It catches your eye, and as you stay to look at it, you like what you see, but before long you tire of the experience and move on, and since it didn’t knock your socks off, you see no need to look at it again.

—END—

© Copyright 2011 by Michael Arruda

The Geisha of Gore Says, “I SAW THE DEVIL!”

Posted in 2011, Asian Horror, Geisha of Gore Reviews, Horror, Psychological Horror, Psychos, Serial Killer flicks with tags , , , , , , on August 18, 2011 by knifefighter

THE GEISHA OF GORE:
I SAW THE DEVIL (2010)
By Colleen Wanglund

One of my favorite movies is the Korean horror film A TALE OF TWO SISTERS (2003), which was written and directed by Kim Ji-woon, and is still the highest-grossing film in Korea. Kim has developed quite a cult following among fans of Asian horror, but not just because of his movies. When Kim puts out a DVD, he oversees the process himself and loads it with extras and commentary. Kim has also directed the segment “Memories” in THREE EXTREMES 2 (2002) which was the best segment, in my opinion, and he directed the Sergio Leone-inspired THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE WEIRD (2008), which is a bizarre western with a cool twist ending. The movie that just may catapult Kim Ji-woon to the top of the list of best Korean directors is I SAW THE DEVIL (2010).

I SAW THE DEVIL stars Min-sik Choi, who was brilliant as the main character in OLDBOY (2003) and also starred in LADY VENGEANCE (2005). Choi plays Kyung-chul, a serial killer who has managed to evade arrest and prosecution. On a snowy night, Kyung-chul spots a young woman in her car on the side of the road. The young woman, Joo-yeon (Oh San-ha), is waiting for a tow truck to fix a flat tire. Kyung-chul stops and offers Joo-yeon help; she refuses and he returns to his vehicle. A few minutes go by when Kyung-chul then attacks the woman, knocking her unconscious and dragging her, bloody, through the snow—symbolic of the loss of innocence. He loads her into the school bus he drives (another symbol of lost innocence), taking her to a hidden room in his home. Joo-yeon, now stripped naked and tied up, begs Kyung-chul not to kill her but he does it anyway. He then dismembers and disposes of her body.

The movie then cuts to a scene of a boy finding a severed ear near a river (a nod to David Lynch’s BLUE VELVET (1986) no doubt), and the police force is out en masse because Joo-yeon’s father is Section Chief Oh (Ho-jin Jeon) of the local police department. When Joo-yeon’s head is found, the scene becomes total chaos with police trying to get the head to the CSI team as quickly and discreetly as possible and reporters swarming the area hoping to get a picture. After all, the more sensational or controversial the picture, the more money they make—it’s a disgusting display; like sharks on a feeding frenzy. Then we see the utter despair on the face of Chief Oh and on the face of Joo-yeon’s fiancé, Secret Agent Kim Soo-hyeon (Byung-hun Lee, who also starred in THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE WEIRD). Cut to the funeral and the grief suffered by everyone.

Soo-hyeon takes a two-week leave of absence from work and with the help of Chief Oh decides to go find Joo-yeon’s killer on his own. He is given the files of the four main suspects and seeks them out one by one until he hits on Kyung-chul, who has another victim in his clutches when Soo-hyeon finds him; that victim was one of his charges on the school bus. Soo-hyeon has his chance to avenge his fiancé’s death but in an odd twist, he doesn’t kill or capture Kyung-chul. Instead he forces a capsule down Kyung-chul’s throat and breaks his wrist. The capsule is a tracking and listening device. It seems as though Soo-hyeon wants to play with his prey. Soo-hyeon has yet another chance at Kyung-chul and beats him to a bloody pulp, and in a difficult scene to watch, Soo-hyeon severs Kyung-chul’s Achilles tendon. He then leaves him to get medical care and continue the intricate cat-and-mouse game.

Soo-hyeon follows Kyung-chul to a house where a friend—and fellow serial killer and cannibal—is hiding out. This is a weird but important turning point in the movie. It is here, after telling his friend what has been going on, that Kyung-chul figures out who it is that’s chasing and torturing him. There is another violent confrontation between the two men, but this time things are different. Soo-hyeon has underestimated Kyung-chul and he will pay for that mistake. The cat-and-mouse game continues, but who is the cat and who is the mouse?

I SAW THE DEVIL is an amazing movie. Kim Ji-woon manages to push boundaries in this genre-bending epic about the effects and consequences of unrestrained violence. And make no mistake, the violence is extremely graphic and at the heart of this story. It is what motivates Kyung-chul and what results from Soo-hyeon’s grief. DEVIL is part horror, part revenge fantasy, part action flick and all psychological thriller, and Kim takes every opportunity to delve into the darkest parts of the human psyche.

Kyung-chul is one of the most frightening characters since Michael Rooker’s Henry in HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER (1986). Choi Min-sik, who had proven his acting ability in Park Chan-wook’s OLDBOY, plays Kyung-chul brilliantly and with a charisma that keeps the viewer thoroughly interested in him. He is repulsive and evil to the core and yet engaging—you are disgusted by Kyung-chul yet you cannot look away. Kyung-chul commits violence because he can and he enjoys it. He is very matter-of-fact about his actions. There is no emotional response of any kind—he is a man without a moral compass.

On the other hand, Soo-hyeon’s violence is the result of a devastating event in his life. He is responding the only way he knows how to an extreme emotional upheaval, and Byung-hun Lee brings that across effortlessly. His expressions, and at times lack thereof, tell the viewer what he’s feeling. The subtext of I SAW THE DEVIL is the twisted relationship between Kyung-chul and Soo-hyeon. And it is a relationship of co-dependency. Soo-hyeon needs Kyung-chul to feed his rage at the loss of his happy life. Kyung-chul eventually needs Soo-hyeon to get his thrill, especially after the tables are turned in this dangerous game of revenge. At one point Soo-hyeon’s would-be sister-in-law says to him “Revenge is for the movies.” What Kim shows us in DEVIL is that the need for revenge can potentially lead to the loss of one’s soul.

As I’ve said, the movie is quite violent, but in no way is the violence gratuitous. What I find interesting is that Kim gives us an up close and personal view when victims of both killer and agent are beaten into unconsciousness. The camera doesn’t flinch when Kyung-chul is beating a woman with a lead pipe or a hammer, nor does it flinch when Soo-hyeon breaks Kyung-chul’s wrist or when he slices up his Achilles tendon. These scenes of violence are prolonged and squirm-inducing in their intimacy.

What I do find interesting is that Kim takes that intimacy only so far. For example when Kyung-chul has Joo-yeon naked, bloody and begging for her life, the scene of her murder and dismemberment is framed very differently. We don’t see the cleaver slice into her flesh….although we do hear it. We see the blood flow and the body parts briefly in a basket but the act of her murder is never shown. Kim leaves the act itself up to the viewers’ imagination, which in my opinion makes it far more disturbing. In some respects DEVIL is reminiscent of Takashi Miike’s ICHI THE KILLER (2001), although without the black humor.

Another aspect of DEVIL that I enjoy is that Soo-hyeon starts out the “hero” but slowly becomes an anti-hero. He seems to believe that even though he is hunting and torturing an evil and remorseless murderer, he has the moral high ground. The capsule he uses to track Kyung-chul is almost symbolic of Soo-hyeon playing God. Ultimately Soo-hyeon is nothing more than an angry man who is capable of the same level of depraved violence as his quarry, and at times it’s enough to make your skin crawl. The only thing that actually makes these two men different is what motivates them. And just when you think that Soo-hyeon may be able to redeem himself, the unnerving end of the film makes you wonder—where is the line between good and evil? It can get quite fuzzy at times and Kim makes that glaringly clear.

I SAW THE DEVIL is a long movie, clocking in at 144 minutes, but it is definitely worth the time. There’s plenty of gore and violence to satisfy most horror fans, but the real driving force of this movie is Kim Ji-woon’s unflinching look into the dark souls of two men. Kyung-chul is an emotionless monster, while Soo-hyeon’s emotional response to his loss can potentially turn him into a monster. If you have the stamina to sit through this gut-wrenching and polarizing future cult classic, then I strongly suggest you do so. Between Park Hoon-jung’s script, the beautiful eye of cinematographer Lee Mo-gae, and the stylized directing of Kim Ji-woon, I SAWTHE DEVIL has easily made it into my top ten best Asian horror movies list. While definitely not for the squeamish, I highly recommend it.

© Copyright 2011 by Colleen Wanglund