High up in the Colombian Andes, a squad of soldiers manning a remote mountain bunker mysteriously all go missing. Believing their disappearance to be the work of the enemy guerrilla, base command sends another squad to investigate. However, the new arrivals soon find themselves unwittingly re-enacting the events leading up to their predecessor’s fate and it may not be the work of enemy agents.
(2011) Written by Tania Cardenas and Jaime Osorio Marquez Directed by Jaime Osorio Marquez
(You’ll find a trailer at the bottom of last week’s post)
“Haven’t you realized it yet? There’s nobody out there! The only murderers are us, goddammit!”
The above quote may seem to give away the film’s twist, but The Squad, sitting somewhere between horror and claustrophobic thriller, is a dark tale that will keep you guessing until the end. Taken as horror, it’s a story that benefits from director Jaime Osorio Marquez’s solid understanding that invoking the paranormal effectively benefits from the ‘less is more’ approach. This is not a man interested in cheap thrills. In fact, some viewers will question whether or not there really is a paranormal element to the film, given that it flirts with, but never conclusively states, an otherworldly force behind the drama. The most obvious example, and I will try to avoid spoilers, is the soldiers’ discovery of an old woman seemingly kept prisoner by their missing comrades. Speculation turns to fear when she is accused first of being a guerrilla spy, then an unfortunate local caught up in the country’s perpetual civil war, and then a witch – in any event the source of all the misery that befalls anyone cursed with entering the bunker. Marquez walks a fine line with all three possibilities, and gives just enough circumstantial evidence to allow the viewer to conclude that any one of them might be true.
However, since The Squad is so Spartan with its horror elements, it is predominantly a thriller about claustrophobia and fear in general. The war has completely polarised both sides of the conflict, and so the only dimensions of character among the soldiers we meet range between the aggressive, bullying nationalists and the moderates forced into a military environment they have no taste for, yet they too have no sympathy for the other side. It’s probably the most important thing to understand about the citizens of any country where national service is mandatory.
Add to this a deep sense of battle-weariness that the characters seem almost to breathe out from the very first scene. Although the narrative is entirely confined to the isolated Colombian outpost, lines of dialogue make it clear that this is simply the latest in a long line of engagements with the enemy. In peacetime, we often have trouble wondering how certain people are able to commit certain acts, and in The Squad, the elastic has already been stretched a good way for everyone involved. This, we are being told, is what it means to live amidst civil war.
Then the story actually begins and, after a quietly tense sequence in which the characters survey their surroundings, the screws start to be tightened even further. In many ways, The Squad is a base-under-siege film, both figuratively and literally. Visually, Marquez could not have chosen a more perfect location: it really is a bunker high up on a mountain somewhere, where the fog is so frequent that venturing in any direction will make you hopelessly lost if you’re lucky. The weather itself is a mental and physical barrier. All of which only helps make the ‘siege’ very much the cabin fever variety, taken to new heights by human weakness and paranoia. Already convinced they are under attack by guerrilla forces that always seem to be one step ahead of them, the unraveling of self-control for each beleaguered soldier seems only a matter of time. Yet as indicated earlier, there may be other forces at work.
“In peacetime, we often have trouble wondering how certain people are able to commit certain acts, and in The Squad, the elastic has already been stretched a good way for everyone involved.”
I couldn’t help but be strongly reminded of the in-many-ways-similar Korean horror-thriller Antarctic Journal, where a group of initially optimistic team of scientists attempt to be the first Koreans to reach the South Pole. There, writer/director Yim Pil-Sung similarly tries to offer both mundane and supernatural reasons for the group’s ultimate descent into madness and murder, so much so that he almost makes two different films running concurrently, and the whole doesn’t quite come together. Marquez is clearly the more adept at weaving the seemingly real with the seemingly unreal – perhaps because his main commentary is upon the prolonged effects of war on the psyche, especially when cornered. And yet in many ways, I find Antarctic Journal the more enjoyable film for all its faults.
Perhaps The Squad is too claustrophobic. Its protagonists, seemingly doomed to begin with, make the transition from ‘bad’ to ‘worse’ rather than Antarctic Journal’s ‘good’ to ‘bad’. We are thrown into the tension almost immediately, and when characters aren’t descending into madness, they are sniping at each other or making intense declarations of family loyalty. The true protagonists of the story are helpless from the outset, dominated by their unstable, aggressive and wholly unpleasant colleagues. Add to this an ongoing barrage of tight close-ups, washed-out colour and a very confined set, and there really isn’t room to breathe in The Squad. On paper, the almost Blair Witch-like approach should work well, but you can have too much of a good thing.
And perhaps the imbalance of the supernatural and the more down-to-earth brutality of the situation is another factor. If the film is allegory for the horrors of war through the use of supernatural elements – as John Carpenter’s The Thing is allegory for Antarctica-as-blue-collar-dystopia via sci-fi elements – then it doesn’t go far enough to work as allegory. Or to put it another way, while I applaud Marquez’s carefully-judged use of the supernatural (if, again, that’s what it is – and it’s up to the viewer to decide this) for the purposes of intelligently-made horror, there’s too little of it to work as a symbol of real-world psychological fear. Equally, since The Squad is therefore mostly a real-world study of human madness, that weighty discourse is derailed somewhat by occasionally saying ‘Hey, maybe these guys are being manipulated by forces beyond their understanding.’ This is where Antarctic Journal also ultimately fails: film-makers not deciding clearly enough as to what their story is ultimately about.
Which is a shame, as there are certainly a lot of interesting ideas in The Squad and a location setting that was absolutely made for horror. Then again, if true horror is human behaviour, then those Colombian mountains have likely already told that story many times over the years. While the film lacks clarity in some areas, not even the cold blanket of the fog can enshroud the utter senselessness of a never-ending conflict that exists now only to consume man until nothing but his fear-stained face, frozen in death, remains. If the film-maker somehow lost his way slightly in getting his story across, there is a certain irony in the fact that his characters – and the real-world analogues upon which they are based – are so deep within their society’s conflict that they are fated only to disappear without trace, like the lost people of whom they came in search.
We travel to the remote island archipelago of Comoros and discover how the locals cope with the country’s massive brain-drain in its very first film, The Ylang Ylang Residence. Plus: how to turn a real-life tragedy into a cheap melodrama. Air disasters and asinine production choices in the Ethiopian farce Comoros – next time on World On Film.
So far in this series, we’ve explored the triumph of science in the South Pole, looking at the ways in which Antarctica has been a frontier for advancing the human endeavour and a deeper understanding of our planet, both in fiction and genuine footage of a famous expedition. Time for a change of pace now. Antarctica isn’t a place of eternal wonder for all who have worked there, or, as with Virus: Day Of Resurrection last week, a land where the nations of the world put aside their differences for the greater good. Behind every polar expedition there were the grunts – the blue collar workers who carried out the actual hard work and fixed things when they broke down. Inevitably, their Antarctica would be far less glamourous.
Neither is Antarctica universally seen as simply a giant laboratory for altruistic science. Even during Byrd’s time, there were many who saw the South Pole as new land to conquer, its position more of strategic than scientific value. The U.S. Antarctic Expedition of 1939-1941 had as much to do with establishing an American presence there as it did exploration. Today, when the major nations have indeed become a permanent fixture at McMurdo and other base camps, many who work there simply see it as a job – one they are even taxed for – and certainly bound by government and commercial interests just as with anywhere else. Add to that the fact that Antarctica is a hostile environment far from most of the basic comforts, where holding onto one’s sanity is a very real concern, and where one is frequently trapped for months on end with people they don’t necessarily like, and the rose-coloured lens through which the Byrds of the world viewed Antarctica become mottled.
This rather sobering perspective forms the ethos for John Carpenter’s excellent remake of The Thing From Another World, itself an adaptation of the novella ‘Who Goes There?’ by John W. Campbell Jr, published in the August 1938 edition of America’s longest-running science fiction magazine, Astounding Stories. In terms of cinema, it is Carpenter’s version of the tale that has most famously – and most effectively – depicted the blue collar perspective on Antarctica, using the science fiction and horror of the novella as allegory for the difficulties they face there.
(1982) Screenplay by Bill Lancaster Directed by John Carpenter
(You can find a trailer at the bottom of last week’s post)
“Somebody in this camp ain’t what he appears to be. Right now that may be one or two of us. By spring, it could be all of us.”
In the story, a group of scientists stationed at an American Antarctic base encounter an alien life form able to change its shape into that of the host body it has infected. Suspicion turns to paranoia as it quickly becomes apparent that no-one is who he seems. As the fight for survival turns the base personnel against each other, the greater cost is soon realised: if the thing were ever to make contact with the outside world, all of humanity would be destroyed within three years.
One of the ways in which The Thing succeeds so well in its genre is the careful minimalism of Lancaster’s script and Carpenter’s direction. At no point do we ever truly learn, for example, of the alien’s origin, the reason it crashed to Earth, why it landed in Antarctica, whether or not it is sentient, or indeed its true objective in taking over other life forms. Even the title of the film makes this ambiguity plain and if anything, underscores not only the mystery, but the anti-intellectualism of the base personnel: it is simply a threat to be dealt with, its extra-terrestrial identity more of an irritation than of interest. Unsurprisingly, any survivors might argue that its lethality renders any such disinterest entirely justified.
“Behind every polar expedition there were the grunts – the blue collar workers who carried out the actual hard work and fixed things when they broke down. Inevitably, their Antarctica would be far less glamourous.”
Nor indeed do we learn a great deal about the characters themselves or the purpose of their presence in Antarctica. There seems little, if any, significant research being conducted there and what work does take place is of supreme indifference to the staff. They are simply filling out a contract and counting down the days to its completion. The base staff in turn appear merely to tolerate each other akin to Adamsian office workers, albeit office workers forced to see their colleagues round the clock and to the exclusion of all else. Conversation is stifled by familiarity, contempt, and lack of stimulus (until the drama begins) and entertainment takes the form of alcohol, months-old off-air television recordings, ping-pong, and a well-worn record collection.
Embodying this seemingly-pointless, isolated existence is the classic antihero and main character of R.J. MacReady, very convincingly played by a young and hirsute Kurt Russell. The perpetually Stetson-wearing, hard-bitten and cynical time-server is purposely constructed as a cowboy of the modern age, able to fit quite easily into the seedy saloon bar of some Tombstone-like frontier town of over a century ago. The anti-intellectualism inherent in MacReady and his fellows is expertly summed up in an early scene where his response to losing at computer chess is to pour the remains of his whisky into its circuitry.
The cynicism and mistrust is further exemplified and exacerbated by other common elements of Antarctic life. Not only is technology seen to cause problems rather than solve them, but so too other nations – a far cry from the spirit of global fellowship seen in Virus. It is the Norwegians – often derided by others in Antarctica for their prowess in polar climates (and derogatively dubbed ‘Swedes’ by the main character) – who bring the alien to the U.S. base, having failed ironically to deal with it. Even in Virus, it is the Norwegians who are quicker to succumb than their multinational counterparts. Elsewhere, in another role-reversal, an Alaskan malamute, typically used as a sled dog, is the initial carrier of the alien creature.
The Antarctica of The Thing is not the land of adventure and opportunity. Its snow-covered jagged mountains are uninviting, its rolling plains bleak and lifeless, and its terrain offering nothing but mortal danger. It is far from the warmth of civilisation, will quickly kill anyone who strays from their electric-powered shelters with its sub-zero temperatures, and the ground beneath harbours monsters who bring swift, painful oblivion. The ‘thing’ is the ultimate Antarctic allegory for the long-term resident – the near-unbeatable agent of death who threatens to rob them of their humanity, not with merciful swiftness, but by rotting them slowly from within. The South Pole is still the giant laboratory it has always been for those looking at the other end of the microscope: at the furthest frontier of civilisation, humans are unwittingly being tested to see how they fare in extreme conditions. In reality, British Columbia doubles for the frozen continent, but is visually no less convincing to all but perhaps the skilled geologist. The brooding atmosphere is strongly accentuated by Ennio Morricone’s evocative score, different in style from Carpenter’s own compositions and unsurprisingly smoother and more accomplished, yet still fitting quite well into the era of the early Halloweens and The Fog.
The veteran horror director had by this point established his expertise in suspense-filled, well-paced tales of the macabre. The two films mentioned above were both classic examples of highly-effective base-under-siege drama, and in The Thing, Carpenter finally takes the term to its most literal conclusion. The cold, functional, and labyrinthine Antarctic base we see in the film is a perfect counterpoint to the bleak perpetual winter of nothingness outside. The disillusioned denizens inside provide only a candle-flame of human warmth, serving not even enlightened self-interest, but simply the powers of inertia. This disillusion is Carpenter’s contribution to the story, with the original novella produced during the positivist golden era of Byrd-mania. As is typically the case, the remake shows the rising cynicism of the public since the time of the original, no longer so easily caught up in nationalist fervour.
“The Antarctica of The Thing is not the land of adventure and opportunity. Its snow-covered jagged mountains are uninviting, its rolling plains bleak and lifeless, and its terrain offering nothing but mortal danger.”
Carpenter and Russell had already collaborated on the director’s earlier apocalyptic outing, Escape From New York, with the young star by now fully aware of what was required of him. Other standouts in the cast include Wilford Brimley as Blair, the scientist who realises no-one present should be allowed to get out alive, Keith David as disbelieving aggressor Childs, and Donald Moffat as Garry, the self-admitting ineffectual leader of the base. A great deal of credit at this point should also go to both Jed, the Alaskan malamute, and his trainer, who between them do an excellent job of creating the dog’s alien nature. Jed, who would go on to play the title character in White Fang, though obviously unaware of the script, is one of the best trained dogs in the business, his body language convincing the viewer of his alter-ego’s menace with every step.
Pushing the envelope for early-80s practical effects is master of gore Rob Bottin, who in The Thing really gives contemporary innards wizard Lucio Fulci a run for his money. Bottin, whose make-up effects work includes The Howling, Twilight Zone: The Movie and Total Recall, lived on set for over a year during the making of The Thing, working round the clock to create visuals that were so gruesome for the period that they polarised film critics worldwide. While from a modern perspective, the clunky movement and obvious puppetry of the alien invaders is evident, so too is the sheer amount of detail in their construction. They are still far more ‘solid’ than any CGI equivalent, and still just as horrific in their design, helped by the well-matched screeching sound design. It could be argued effectively that a number of sequences exist simply to serve the visual effects extravaganza and a more cerebral interpretation of alien metamorphosis might have been employed. The Thing, however, is not intended to be The Midwich Cuckoos, and thanks to good pacing, does not fall into a long, drawn-out visual-effects love-fest at the cost of a story, which is more than can be said for Fulci’s The Beyond of the same period. It’s probably also fair to say that time and familiarity have dulled the senses with my reading of the film, and its efforts seem tame compared to say, Rob Zombie’s Halloween II.
The somewhat forgiving nature for old cinema and a healthy suspension of disbelief also help in areas where The Thing does not accurately depict Antarctic life, allegorical or otherwise. Compelling though his performance is, Kurt Russell’s cool cowboy image is more 80s action hero than Antarctic expedition pilot, likewise Childs and Garry fit the typical formula of antagonist and weak authority figure, while radio operator and Jeff Lynne lookalike contest runner-up Windows clearly went to the Crispin Glover school of ‘We’re All Going To Die, Man!’ acting. The easy availability of firearms and flame-throwers to all personnel, along with the high population of open-standing fuel drums also tends to stretch credulity, even before the coming of the Antarctic Treaty. It’s easy to hold up the extra-terrestrial element as justification for action-genre fantasy, but every story should still operate within its own internal logic. Nonetheless, the abundant weaponry and especially flamethrowers are used to satisfying effect, the latter proving especially critical in helping contain the alien menace. Dramatic license is well-served, and the film reaches the type of satisfying ending one would reasonably expect of its horror shoot-em-up credentials, indeed concluding in Carpenter’s signature open-ended dystopian fashion.
And it seems that the story is not over. In 2011, viewers will discover just what happened at the Norwegian base prior to the events of The Thing in a new prequel due for release at the end of the year. Only time will tell if the exercise worthwhile. In the meantime, I encourage interested parties to rediscover the flawed, but entertaining ‘original’ in all its blu-ray glory. I had occasion recently to do just this and found it held up extremely well. It needn’t wash away all that optimistic Antarctic fervour, but perhaps the last word should go to Mr. Campbell himself in this extract from Who Goes There? as the alien spacecraft is destroyed in a mass of flame:
Somehow in the blinding inferno we could see great hunched things, black bulks glowing, even so. They shed even the furious incandescence of the magnesium for a time. Those must have been the engines, we knew. Secrets going in a blazing glory -secrets that might have given Man the planets. Mysterious things that could lift and hurl that ship -and had soaked in the force of the Earth’s magnetic field.
The human adventure continues.
- Keep up to date with the latest news on the U.S. Antarctic program and the people who make it possible with the Antarctic Sun.
- Serious Thing enthusiasts might like to read Robert Meakin’s in-depth analysis of the film here.
- Learn more about today’s Antarctic program and meet the people who actually work there, as well as discovering how they view the place.
Antarctica, February 1953: The first year of Japan’s new Showa Station has drawn to a successful close. The expedition team depart from the base to make way for the relief crew, leaving 15 huskies remaining behind with a small supply of food to keep them nourished during the changeover. However, adverse weather conditions prevent landfall and the second expedition never arrives. The dogs are abandoned to their fate, forced to survive alone in the harsh, polar landscape. Antarctic Film Month concludes with the epic true story of Antarctica, when World On Film returns. Click below to see the original trailer.
Dark skies overhead this week as the self-righteous are forced to reveal their darkest secrets in Stephen King’s miniseries Storm Of The Century.
Normally focused upon international cinema, this post forms part of World On Film’s break time between series. To find out what is upcoming over the next few weeks, please scroll to the bottom.
But now, we travel to the North American state of Maine – the fictional Maine, where savage clowns plague the dreams of the young and where cemeteries are more likely to bring back the dead than house them. Eleven years ago, I happened to discover Stephen King’s then-latest epic in the VCD section of Central, Hong Kong’s HMV, and it’s stayed with me ever since.
Storm Of The Century
(1999) Written by Stephen King Directed by Craig R. Baxley
“Born in lust, turn to dust. Born in sin, come on in!”
All hell breaks loose when a stranger visits the remote Maine community of Little Tall Island on a cold Winter’s day. As the biggest storm on record rolls over the town, a series of murders plague the community. All evidence points to the new arrival, who seems to know everyone’s darkest secrets. Powerless to stop him, the locals quickly learn that they will only see the last of Andre Linoge if they give him what he wants – the price for which may cost them their very souls.
I have yet to pinpoint the moment in which prolific horror writer Stephen King became his own cabaret act, however it was most certainly long before Storm Of The Century, in many ways another ‘greatest hits’ package of King’s themes and stories. Again, we are presented with a cast of working-class Maine residents with dark – but entirely human – secrets lurking just beneath the veneer of their New England community spirit. Again, it is the presence of a dark figure from Christian mythology who upturns the shared lie of their ordered lives, offering the weakest a choice that will rob them of their humanity and for which the chief protagonists will rail against with righteous self-sacrifice. And again, it takes place in a sleepy town somewhere in between genuine Maine population centres creating a base under siege drama. Even of the villain of the piece may or may not have been seen before. If King wasn’t so good at the formula, it would be so much easier to scorn all but the original attempts at his oeuvre. Storm Of The Century may offer little in the way of new storytelling, but its trademark lengthy build-up of menace and character development work once more to good effect, tense atmosphere all-pervasive, and its villain compelling and well-acted.
Even when the human participants of Stephen King’s novels are rather idealised caricatures of humanity, the author always pulls them away from the edge of schmaltz with his strongly Christian morality of mankind’s frailty. Virtually every adult of Little Tall Island has ‘sinned’, be they adulterers, thieves, drug runners or closet homosexuals lashing out American Beauty -style. Regardless of one’s own perspective on the vices presented, Storm Of The Century’s morals are very black and white, and they need to be in order for the villain to function in the story, judging them from on high for their faults. Some reviewers I have come across online have found the townspeople therefore so unlikeable and hypocritical in their pretense at professing to be good, Christian parishioners, that they have found themselves in many ways siding with the story’s antagonist. Others still have been so disgusted that they refuse to believe such people actually exist. As King demonstrates, it is only extreme duress that people will reveal their inner demons, and the most vehement denial may come from the very people he condemns for their doublethink. How well do we really know anyone? we are compelled to ask.
This, ultimately, is perhaps the true horror of Andre Linoge. Fairly explicit lines of dialogue imply his Biblical origins, a background he shares closely with the chief antagonist of The Stand and the Dark Tower series. Until we find out precisely what he wants of his victims, the tale seems to be the book of Revelation in miniature, except that salvation may lie in wait for no-one once Little Tall’s list of crimes has been read. Yet it is not Linoge’s demonic origins that terrify us, but his ability to force us to drop the masks we hide behind in our attempt at civilization. His disgust at the inhabitants is not so much their hidden criminality, but their pious masquerade atop foundations of insecurity. King’s religious beliefs prevent his characters from adopting the excuse that they are merely behaving as all animals do – the veneer of civilization atop barbarism cannot be equivalent to the skein of sentience thinly stretched across millions of years of instinct. These are a people ‘born in sin’ willfully straying from the path laid out for them by God, and their stubborn denial of their nature dooms them from the outset – able to keep secrets, they are easy fodder for the demon who knows they will tell no-one of his presence. Unsurprisingly therefore, those same viewpoints depict children as beings of perfection – until of course they hit puberty, where sexuality instantly makes them sinners, of which the drama has several such examples. The cynical viewer may put off by the oversimplistic Christian moralising of the piece (not to mention the rather sickening idolisation of the young along the lines proscribed), but will at the same time be compelled by the uncompromising treatment of humanity that unfolds. It may be King’s most Christian-themed tale, but that brutal reckoning of human nature is a common element of his stories that reels his fans in so successfully.
“The cynical viewer may put off by the oversimplistic Christian moralising of the piece (not to mention the rather sickening idolisation of the young along the lines proscribed), but will at the same time be compelled by the uncompromising treatment of humanity that unfolds.”
All of which could fail miserably if not realised well on screen, however, the acting and production values are generally up to the challenge. Filling the boots of self-righteous town hero is actor Tim Daly, known to many as the voice of fellow moral crusader Superman, and possessing just the right looks and bearing to play alpha male and Little Tall Island’s chief of police, Michael Anderson. Daly effortlessly convinces as a well-liked leader figure, more religious than the town priest and more capable than the self-serving town manager Robbie Beals, excellently portrayed by Jeffrey de Munn, who again just looks the part. As does Debra Farentino as Anderson’s wife Molly, who in every way must be alpha in female form, and Farentino delivers. The assembled cast, many wielding that distinctive Maine accent one would expect (and I now know how to pronounce ‘Ayuh’) are by and large as I would have imagined them to be, and every bit as proud and defiant of their superficial outer values as they should be.
Colm Feore, meanwhile, does a fantastic job as Andre Linoge, the dark stranger making impossible demands of the town. Feore gives a carefully balanced performance, neither over-the-top as the part so easily descent into nor too understated to be sufficiently menacing. His Linoge is long-lived, world-weary, and tired of humanity’s self-deception. Yet for all this, he is intelligent and capable of compassion. Murder is seen as a necessity to prove a point, but not something to be dispensed randomly. Feore manages to depict this complexity well, perhaps descending into pantomime only when forced to display Linoge’s animalistic nature.
The character’s supernatural nature is where much of Storm Of The Century’s CGI comes into play, as well as helping render the storm of the title. It’s pretty good for a television miniseries made in 1999, as is the enormous island set used throughout. That we’re on a soundstage is fairly obvious in places, but understandably necessary in order to realise the many practical effects needed to create a town beaten by the weather. This is enhanced further by judicious use of additional shooting in Canada and fairly seamlessly interwoven.
I was in fact only dimly aware that Storm Of The Century had been a miniseries, and watched its entire 4 hours of runtime in one sitting. To me, it had been a surprise find on VCD in Hong Kong the following year and having experienced IT, The Langoliers and King’s 1997 adaptation of The Shining in much the same fashion, Storm Of The Century simply seemed another epic in the same vein. However, this is to undersell the well-paced script, acting and Craig R. Baxley’s direction which are ultimately the reasons why such a long commitment was not overlong. For all its flaws and painful moralising, Storm Of The Century is another successful squeeze of the lemon by a writer in his element. It offers nothing new, but is very good at rehashing the old, and something most King fans will find plenty within to enjoy. And is Andre Linoge Randall Flagg? Let’s not go there.
As the icy winds of winter depart the northern hemisphere for the south, we’ll be travelling with them all the way down to the South Pole for a special 4-part miniseries on Antarctica. I felt that one week in the massive continent wouldn’t do it justice. The selected films will cover both fiction and non-fiction, through which Antarctica will be viewed as both a place of wonder and exploration, and also a dangerous white wasteland and time-serving outpost for the ordinary worker.
First up, we travel back to a time when the South Pole captured the imagination of the world: On November 1939, two vessels carrying 125 crewmen between them departed Boston for the Antarctic. Travelling with them was a young man about to make filmic history. The first chapter of Antarctic Film Month next, when World On Film returns.
This week: isolation, abuse, and vengeance in Yang Chul-soo’s provocative horror-thriller, Bedevilled. World On Film is currently on break from its main series of film reviews, but having watched this recently, I couldn’t resist throwing in my two cents’ worth. Fans of Korean cinema can also read my brief account of my time at the 2010 Pusan Film Festival.
(2010) Written by Choi Kwang-young Directed by Yang Chul-soo
“There are kind people?”
When Hae-won, a highly-strung and unsympathetic young woman, is forced to take sick leave from her high-pressure job as a clerk in a busy Seoul bank, she decides to recuperate on Moo-do, the remote southern island of her birth. There, she is reunited with childhood friend Bok-nam, who unlike Hae-won, never left the island in search of greater fortunes, and lives with a violent wife-beating husband, a brother-in-law who routinely rapes her, and village elders who despise her for being a woman. Matters reach breaking point when her husband turns his lecherous attentions to their young daughter, and Bok-nam can finally endure her abuse no longer. However, her friend even now may not be on her side.
Script-writer Choi Kwang-young quickly earned a name for himself in 2010 with the release of two crime-thrillers, the first being Secret Reunion, which I reviewed last year. While it fell far more into typical odd-couple comedy territory, Secret Reunion did nonetheless contain some quite brutal murder scenes, suggesting that Choi might well have intended his tale of a North Korean assassin infiltrating the South to be far darker. Bedevilled, therefore, feels like the next logical step.
Meanwhile actress Seo Yeong-hie had by this time already proved herself a veteran of grim, blood-splattered thrillers, having played one of the lead roles in The Chaser, in which police struggle to catch a twisted serial killer who preys on young women in a downtown suburb of Seoul. There, Seo gives a memorable performance as one of his prey, and in going on to play the tortured character of Bok-nam in Bedevilled, has seemingly become the go-to performer when casting abuse victims. Hardly surprising, since in Choi’s uncompromising melodrama, the female protagonist is put through the wringer akin to those in Pascal Laugier’s squirmfest, Martyrs, with Seo providing a painfully incredible, and indeed real, performance.
Some viewers may have trouble agreeing with this verisimilitude, given that the island is populated by a series of characters so horribly sadistic and sociopathic that it may be hard to accept the idea of anyone in real life being so horrible. However, Choi draws his characters from the cultural wellspring of what is still one of the most patriarchal societies in the world, where historically man was the undisputed ruler of his domain and woman was his property, there only to tend to his needs. Since it was the traditional male role to look after the parents in their dotage, men were valued far higher than women, who would inevitably marry into another family, and daughters-in-law were therefore little better than indentured servants. This attitude is compounded still further in the rural setting we see here, where only men are deemed capable of the endless physical labour required for survival. Korea’s gender imbalance is testament to the enduring nature of the long-held Confucian belief, and only beginning to dissipate in more modern times. Bedevilled’s cast sits at the extreme end of the scale, which Choi has taken to its logical conclusion: a remote island populated by characters uneducated, far from modern social attitudes and driven to antisocial behaviour due to their isolation, and the almost Wrong Turn-like devolution is the result. However, it is not a cheap shot commentary on the isolated community of hillbillies, but the effect they have on their unwitting servant that sits at the heart of the film.
Bedevilled is something of a catharsis for every woman who has ever suffered the indignities of male-dominated social imprisonment. That same society teaches such women that suffering is part of existence, and something they must bear with fortitude, no matter how great or for how long it may be inflicted upon them. Kim Bok-nam however, is taken over the edge, and when the moment comes, Bedevilled rapidly begins to earn its slasher-horror stripes. On the one hand, it plays like a very typical Korean melodrama, with abuse and indignity piled upon the tortured lead until you begin to wonder how anyone could possibly endure any more. This is contrasted with the character of Hae-won, played by Ji Seong-won. She too is a victim of a male-dominated world, but is both too afraid to confront it and lashes out the wrong people because of it. Yet her abuse is inflicted in stages rather than as dramatically as Bok-nam’s, pushing her into self-absorbed narcissism rather than sympathetic compassion, depriving Bok-nam of her one remaining lifeline to sanity. This is of course is necessary if Bok-nam’s eventual descent into madness and quest for swift revenge is to be believable, and not simply the cheap contrivance of B-grade horror. Precisely because it is done properly is why Bedevilled is so powerful, and in a cast of such thoroughly unlikable characters (again, necessary to justify what is to come), it is the murderer with whom we ultimately have the most sympathy.
“Bedevilled is something of a catharsis for every woman who has ever suffered the indignities of male-dominated social imprisonment.”
For all this, the script is unburdened by heavy-handed morality. There is a complete lack of “This behaviour is wrong because…” or “That’s what you get for being a rapist!”-type dialogue throughout. Bok-nam, who had known no-one else but the unsympathetic islands her whole life, has no basis for comparison for most of the film, thus her judgement is based purely on her experiences, allowing for an organic rather than didactic tale despite its pro-feminist overtones. It would be hard to imagine the inevitable Hollywood remake treating its viewers in such an intelligent fashion.
Shot on location on Geum-o Island in Korea’s south, Bedevilled has the perfect visuals to create its prison-like setting, contrasting them with Seoul’s concrete wilderness, which is not necessarily seen in a much better light, where misogyny is no less rife. Full credit to cinematographer Kim Gi-tae for simultaneously bringing out the stark contrast between these two locales yet showing their dark similarities.
The film does suffer from certain issues, firstly a tremendous jump in the action at the climax, presumably done for reasons of time, but standing out a mile. It raises questions about how certain characters manage to end up from one location to another given their predicament, and is something that director Yang Chul-soo cannot have failed to miss. Also, while the gore scenes are for the most part handled as realistically as one could imagine them being, Bedevilled does suffer a little from Michael Myers/Jason Voorhees syndrome, where antagonists cannot possibly have managed to survive the death blows inflicted upon them so unharmed, forcing the audience to put the superhuman endurance down to masses of adrenaline caused by madness. Still, noticeable though they are, the discrepancies do not undermine the story’s principal aims, and one way or another, Bedevilled burns its mark into the psyche – or should that be ‘slashes’?
Full marks finally for the subtitles on my copy, which being the official release, should be the same for you as well. You know a film is being translated well when the subtitler works hard to capture dialect and slang in another language. In Moo-do’s grotesque denizens, it manages to heighten their inhumanity, while in Bok-nam, it brings out the simple, country girl who yearns for both affection and to see Seoul, which through Hae-won, she has equated with the entire world beyond.
Ironically, I have yet to meet any Koreans who have seen Bedevilled, although that’s clearly just the people around me, and they all knew it by reputation. Its dark, unsubtle character study and melodramatic brutality, not to mention blood-splattering second act will not endear it to many, but when viewed in the right context, which I have hopefully established for the reader above, it functions as an extremely powerful film and comes highly recommended.
In case you’re wondering, the original Korean title, which rather gives everything away roughly translates to ‘The Circumstances Surrounding Kim Bok-nam’s Homicidal Episode’. Then again, subtlety is not the point of the exercise here.
And now, for something completely different. Several months ago, I had fun writing about two of my favourite soundtracks to films I hadn’t actually seen before. While a good score should arguably be inconspicuous, it takes on a whole new meaning when heard in isolation. On this occasion, I look at two soundtracks to films that I would go on to see and attempt to put what I at least can hear into words – a possibly foolhardy and ill-advised effort that may make counting sheep an adrenaline-filled rush by comparison. The two scores thus afflicted are Neil Diamond’s Jonathan Livingstone Seagull and Victoria Kelly’s Under The Mountain next, when World On Film returns.
This week, romance in Benin as World On Film explores the straight-to-video Nollywood ‘classic’, Abeni, which until now, I had happily forgotten all about. We also discover the signature work of amateur English film-makers Wild Herb, who, despite being very visibly strapped for cash, manage to achieve what the BBC seemed utterly incapable of last December: a literary adaptation that actually used the book as its reference point.
Before we dive in, I’d just like to quickly mention that I have learned slightly more about WordPress in the last week and have added a search function to the blog – well, several actually, until I can figure out which are more useful. Scroll to the bottom of the main page to see how you can more easily access past entries, and I hope those widgets make life easier.
And now, brace yourselves for the entirely unnecessary existence of:
(2006) Written by Yinka Ogun & François Okioh; Directed by Tunde Kelani
“You want to destroy my plans? I’ll deal with you mercilessly!”
Abeni and Akanni, two childhood sweethearts in Nigeria, are separated forever when an embarrassing incident at Abeni’s 10th birthday party convinces her boyfriend’s father to relocate the family to Benin and a new life. A chance meeting brings the two together many years later and they waste little time in picking up where they left off. The possibility of marriage however is threatened by Abeni’s father, who hasn’t forgotten the sins of the past and vows to stop the union at all costs.
Abeni was a film I decided to watch purely because I hadn’t seen Beninois cinema. Technically, I still haven’t, for although it is a Benin-Nigeria co-production, Abeni is more accurately a product of the unstoppable Nollywood juggernaut. Nonetheless, much of the story is set and filmed in Benin, which gave me some insight into a country of which I know little. Due to the nature of the storyline, one even gains an idea of the incredible disparity of wealth in both locations, and, if the film reports correctly, a certain cultural prejudice between the two states.
And yet by analysing these background themes, I feel myself elevating Abeni’s discourse far higher than it deserves, for beneath the colourful splendour of these West African nations lies an incredibly average romance tale of the type that Nollywood, Bollywood, and indeed those masters of formulaic rubbish in Hollywood churn out on a regular basis like supermarket-brand crackers because they know this tired and worn-out dime-store mediocrity sells. The foreign viewer may find themselves distracted by the different cultural presentation of the formula, but dross does not lose its pallor simply for wearing a different-shaped hat. A continual desire to get up and make cups of tea throughout the duration despite a lack of thirst may also indicate how little my body was willing to cooperate with the screening.
“A continual desire to get up and make cups of tea throughout the duration despite a lack of thirst may indicate how little my body was willing to cooperate with the screening.”
Certainly, the cultural landscape in which the conflict operated went some way towards making the story interesting, dealing as it does with a massive generation gap wherein arranged marriage is acceptable to the elders, while their Westernised descendants struggle for personal choice. Intermingled with this are the designs of wealthy families more concerned with empire-building than individual happiness. Handled in a considered, intelligent way, these themes would make for a good story and one that doubtless rings true with anyone who has ever had to face disapproving potential in-laws. However, Abeni is clearly another pre-packaged entry on the production line in which if one takes even a single step backward to view the larger picture, they will find many similar such offerings.
Conflict arising from the plot elements mentioned is never built up with any real seriousness that would give it meaning and the ending doesn’t even bother to follow through with the resolution that is employed. I found myself wondering as the credits rolled if perhaps my copy of the film had a scene missing. Alas, it merely seems to be an example of cheap melodrama on the part of a director who presumably can’t be bothered anymore. Add to this a bizarrely-inappropriate soundtrack, which in its levity, sends the exact same message – that and the fact that it seems to be more about shoehorning in the popular chart entry of the moment. Indeed, upon closer inspection, one finds the name Abdel Hakim Amzat in the credits not only as star beau Akanni, but also as head honcho of the music department and as a producer. The priorities of this vanity project are abundantly clear.
It may come as no surprise then that much of the characterisation is stereotypical in form and annoyingly realised on screen as a result. While the two leads are probably best-served and peroxide shiny for the youth market, the script divests the antagonists of all but two dimensions – not that the others can boast a multitude of depth, either. Kareem Odepoju plays Abeni’s father with a disregard for subtlety that reminds me of why pantomime is so awful, while Ayo Badmus as Ogogu, the paternally-approved rival for Abeni’s affections, clearly felt the best way to depict his character’s reckless behavior was to enact mental instability. Ogogu, we learn, was sent by his wealthy parents to the U.S, presumably so he could study how to be a cretin – an interesting snapshot into Nigerian perceptions of American culture that would be amusing if Ogogu weren’t so expertly irritating.
Quite a shame therefore that Abeni fails to be an interesting snapshot into any of the leitmotifs presented, though the Nollywood fan might perhaps argue that this would be like expecting to find the qualities of Perrier in grey water. It is ultimately little more than a hackneyed star vehicle for its leads – the filmic equivalent of a Happy Meal – no different to that one sees in Western cinema with monotonous regularity, but with that audience, the chimera of ‘ethnic’ unconventionality.
(2008) Based on ‘A Warning To The Curious’ by M.R. James Adapted & Directed by Jim Elliot
Wild Herb Films are a small amateur group of film-makers operating out of England who, thanks to the powers of the internet, have been able to make their productions available to the world. As has been readily apparent in recent posts, my Christmas involves the watching of ghost stories, preferably those based on the works of the old masters. The Crown is based upon M.R. James’s celebrate tale, ‘A Warning To The Curious’, which was dramatized by the BBC back in 1972. One of my major criticisms of Aunty’s recent adaptation of Whistle And I’ll Come To You was that the producers, locked in the self-referential world of the television industry, could only see the merit in using the Jonathan Miller screenplay as their source material. This sort of short-sighted arrogance is precisely what we don’t need when it comes to bringing the classics to screens either small or big. So it was very pleasing to see that The Crown, for all its modifications to the text, had clearly used the original printed word as its inspiration, not some previous director’s work.
The plot centres around a young, amateur archaeologist by the name of Paxton in search of the last surviving crown of East Anglia, which is said to protect the land against invasion. Paxton is victorious in his quest, but discovers that the crown is protected by forces not of this world that have no intention of letting him succeed.
“ The Crown, for all its modifications to the text, had clearly used the original printed word as its inspiration, not some previous director’s work.”
To be sure, there are a number of departures from the short story, such as setting it in the modern day, and the climax is wholly different. However, much of this seems purely down to budgetary constraint than the irritating belief that one can ‘improve’ upon classic literature – or that the audience actually wants them to – and so as something of a purist, I can cut them some slack. It would, for example, require a massive wardrobe and props budget to recreate the 1920s. I do think that the climax could have been faithfully recreated without too much expenditure, but again, one gets the impression that for whatever reason, it wasn’t a viable option. Although the lack of funding is glaringly obvious during indoor scenes, the external shoots where Paxton is searching for the crown and encounters its guardian fare far better, with one pursuit scene very faithful to the original. The film, coming in at around 45 minutes, is largely a two-hander, the acting not being especially stellar, although fortunately, the best performance comes from the cast member playing Paxton, whom we see the most. While Lawrence Gordon-Clarke, director of the BBC effort, hasn’t too much to worry about, Euros Lyn and Neil Cross, instigators of the new Whistle, could learn a thing or two about literary fidelity.
You can watch or the download the production for yourself here, where it is available in 3 parts.
World On Film encountered homophobia in the Bahamas, locals dancing through the streets in sailor suits in Barbados, and now Bermuda beckons. To say however that Bermuda has a thriving film industry would be a complete and utter lie, and therefore a certain amount of creativity had to be employed to make possible my efforts to include the country. For now, let’s just say it involves tourism and turtles and you can find out next time precisely how I once again had to stretch my own criteria to breaking point. Until then.
This is a follow-up to last week’s post in which I reviewed Jonathan Miller’s memorable screen adaptation of the M.R. James classic short story, Oh Whistle And I’ll Come To You, My Lad. Below is my review of the recent ‘remake’. You may wish to read the previous entry first to get the whole story.
Whistle and I’ll come to you
(2010) Teleplay by Neil Cross Directed by Andy De Emmony
I think it’s important to begin by saying that the BBC’s efforts to bring the classic ghost stories of M.R. James to the small screen, have, over the years, been a continual source of joy for lovers of old school horror such as myself. While not every adaptation has been as accomplished an approach to film-making as Jonathan Miller’s iconic 1968 retelling of Whistle & I’ll Come To You and Lawrence Gordon-Clarke’s memorable interpretation of A Warning To The Curious, even the comparatively more pedestrian entries have evoked not only the much-anticipated foreboding and supernatural atmosphere of the source material, but a good degree of faithfulness to their underlying themes. Indeed, the BBC proved that this intuitive understanding of this literary fidelity was still very much alive when the classic ‘Ghost Stories For Christmas’ series was revived in the 2000s with the worthy additions, A View From The Hill and Number 13. This, however, cannot be said for 2010’s apparently necessary remake of Whistle And I’ll Come To You, wherein the terms ‘remake’, ‘intuitive understanding’ and ‘source material’ are applied with the same degree of dubiousness as any arguments in support of the production’s validity.
For those unfamiliar, as indeed many still will be after watching the new Whistle, the plot of the original centres around the cocksure academic bachelor Professor Parkins (Parkins in the original text), who takes a vacation during the off-season at a remote Norfolk seaside village for golf and exploration, the latter prompted by a colleague’s request that he inspect the remains of an old Templar preceptory to determine its archaeological worth. This he duly does, and within the crumbling ruins, discovers an ancient whistle, unable to resist putting its practical function to the test. From that moment on, Parkins is never alone, having awoken forces beyond description and quite beyond all human understanding. The heart of the story is the folly of arrogant presumption, that there will always be realms of understanding beyond mortal man, and to believe you can quantify existence is to invite downfall. James’s overconfident scholar and protagonist is the perfect vehicle to deliver this message, and an archetype that the writer, who was himself a highly-accomplished academic, knew better than most. The rapid destruction of Parkins’s self-assured, almost autistic world is almost as disconcerting as the unknown forces he has unleashed, for which we are given only fleeting glimpses and very little explanation.
All of which clearly flew over the heads of the 2010 production team, who presumably felt that the core elements of the story were its beach setting, the university professor more inclined to the rational than the superstitious, and the general bleakness of his existence. So long as some vague continuity with these components was maintained, it seemed perfectly reasonable to completely rewrite both story and characterization to the point where the result was a vague shadow of its former self yet could still be legitimately broadcast under the same title.
The Neil Cross teleplay, in which the action is relocated to the present day, sees a Professor James Parkin committing his wife, apparently suffering from advanced senile dementia, to a care home before taking a long overdue vacation on the Kentish Coast in order to come to terms with his loss. The seaside resort also happens to be their one-time honeymoon destination, and the discovery of a ring in the sand dunes brings to life more than mere memories for Parkin. Something seems keen to communicate with him on the deserted coast, and it may not be as unfamiliar as it first appears.
Cross’s script quite spectacularly fails to grasp the point of the James tale, retaining only superficial vestiges of its substance. Gone is the arrogant, antisocial university mandarin of the original. In his place is the more socially-capable doting husband whose rational worldview is in no way extreme and borne of great personal tragedy – again entirely caused by the most intimate of social interaction (the original Parkins wouldn’t even know what to do with a woman). The character’s ultimate fate is seemingly more extreme, yet far more simplistic and obvious, undercutting the psychological ramifications of his plight.
“Cross’s script quite spectacularly fails to miss the point of the James tale, retaining only superficial vestiges of its substance.”
The ‘ghost’ of the story is equally less subtle and, by the climax of the tale, extremely more quantifiable than its antecedent, of which one understands no more by the end than they did when it first appears. Its intangible mystery is precisely the point of its existence, being something so alien that not even the well-read professor can define it.
The whole dramatisation is, in short, comprehensively dumbed down. The rapid departure from the original narrative is, according to those behind the camera, because Jonathan Miller had already dramatised the story so well that there seemed little point in retreading the same ground. The truncated title, the fact that the character is named Parkin and more significantly, that he is middle-aged, are further clear signs that it is the 1968 Omnibus adaptation rather than the book from which inspiration was drawn. The reigns are firmly in the grip of Marshall McLuhan’s prophesied generation wherein the televisual medium has become the message for those who work in the industry. Television is its own reference point and must now be the source material for rehashing plots with diminishing returns. Heaven forfend that the book be the wellspring of inspiration instead. Telling the same story is surely the point, and the fundamental element of a remake. Artistic vision and execution are surely the obvious ways in which it can be taken in new directions. And if there is little point in retreading ground well-covered in the past, this, surely, is proof that the exercise was unnecessary in the first place.
Cashing in on a popular title is perhaps the greatest offence and indeed irony, since the Cross script under the direction of Andy De Emmony does deliver its own chilling moments. Add to this the very capable cast headed by John Hurt and Gemma Jones and some excellent location shoots, and there is much to otherwise praise. More damage is done to it by being arrogant enough to masquerade it as something it is not, whereas a more favourable analysis would be quite easy if it were touted as a new work in its own right. It isn’t, however, being instead an unwarranted ‘Disneyfication’ of a far darker psychological piece that a new audience will mistakenly equate with Britain’s greatest master of the macabre. It is the same blind egotistical behaviour that Hollywood is typically blamed for. With them, however, such silliness is expected.
As indicated last week, World On Film will be going all Nollywood for the Benin-themed film, Abeni. I’ve even found a trailer, which you can see here. No subtitles, but you’ll get the general idea.
World On Film takes a side-step this week as its author, in the grips of the festive season, festively gets to grips with an old Christmas tradition.
Some years ago, when I was abandoning the bloated, overpriced and utterly tedious corpse that Christmas had then become and keeping only the core elements that made sense to me (decent food, wine, the company of people genuinely close and a few laughs), I realised one key element of traditional Northern European yuletide festivities was missing: ghost stories. Enjoyable horror, as opposed to the dreaded misery of the Eastenders Christmas Day special, the terrifying wit of Graham Norton and the bone-chilling inevitability of a youthful Aled Jones. Thankfully, the BBC have over the years seen fit to adapt the work of yesteryear’s masters of the macabre, such as J.S LeFanu (Shalken The Painter), Charles Dickens (The Signalman) and many dark outings from the greatest British scribe of the Victorian ghost story of them all, M.R. James.
Indeed, 2010 was the year one of his most popular tales would be remade for a modern audience, but before it is held up to scrutiny, World On Film explores the still-powerful original, that being:
Whistle And I’ll Come To You
(1968) Written by M.R. James Teleplay & Direction by Jonathan Miller
“There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in philosophy.”
(To see a brief clip, look to the bottom of last week’s post.)
A university professor, arrogantly believing he holds all the answers to life, the universe and everything, faces the ultimate horror during a vacation at a quiet coastal village in Norfolk when he encounters something that goes beyond all rational explanation.
It was a rather bleak and overcast afternoon several years ago when I happened to catch Whistle And I’ll Come To You, Jonathan Miller’s excellent adaptation of Montague Rhodes James’s signature ghost story. The iconic tale was my first visit to the Jamesian world of understated Victorian horror – a world he seemed to inhabit effortlessly – and I would as quickly as possible go on to devour every other work that I could get my hands upon. Although Whistle is a very different beast in many ways to the original short story upon which it is based, Miller expertly brings the essential underpinnings of the tale to life with a balance of modification where perhaps budget intervened, and fairly instinctive faithfulness. Filmed some 50 years after it was written, it is almost that long again since and the monochrome retelling still has the power to delight and scare.
Miller seems to grasp the author’s restrained and quiet approach to drama effortlessly. James belonged, and very comfortably inhabited, the old school of literary horror. It is a discipline largely of the implied, of the vaguely-suggested, an enormous sepulchrally-lit room wherein the rational must fight to be heard and, finding no familiar ground, is often mercilessly subdued by that which it cannot define. It is the world of the oblique and the unseen, save for a few terrifying half-interpreted glimpses into a forbidden dimension of chaos, the dark denizens of which will inflict upon the ordinary man only terror and madness should he gaze upon them too closely, or worse still, attempt to make sense of them. Even the most intact survivor is forever changed and robbed of all previous convictions. It is, in essence, a horror that derives from what is unseen save for a few tantalising details that will unseat the ego carefully crafted to cope with the everyday world and shatter the anthropomorphic world view. While Dickens did not attempt, like James, to glimpse at the Hadean talons behind the shadows, he nonetheless understood the fundamental mechanisms of the genre: The Signalman is a celebration of the power of description set within maintained unease. Much of the drama is down to the buildup of suspense and atmosphere, with the audience left largely to draw their own conclusions in the theatre of the mind, save for one or two terrifying, yet tantalizing and well-timed glimpses into the abyss provided by the writer. Lovecraft, the successor to both authors, carried on the tradition of reluctant descriptive prose for the purposes of implication, where the full revelation opens the curtains with unsubtle recklessness, calls in the daylight and the mood is forever destroyed.
“[Director Jonathan] Miller expertly brings the essential underpinnings of the tale to life with a balance of modification where perhaps budget intervened, and fairly instinctive faithfulness.”
This approach, now the benchmark of the proper ghost story, is precisely what we get in the teleplay, shot on location in Norfolk, where the scenery and incidental sounds do much of the work. This is especially important given that the overconfident lead character, who almost entirely inhabits a world of his own creation and does not engage in a great deal of dialogue. The less-is-more approach is wonderfully effective: much of the tension comes from nightmarish dreamscapes and strange objects ominously kept in the distance, and the lack of continuing verbal commentary allows for wonder and suspense to build to great effect. And indeed the true horror is psychological: that which cannot be qualified, a true terror to one who thinks they have reality fully understood, and poignantly, one they have brought entirely upon themselves. The monochromatic nature of the film lends to the bleak and cold surroundings of the Norfolk coastline, although as viewers were to find in the BBC’s next James adaptation, A Warning To The Curious, full colour is by no means more comforting.
Headlining the cast, the late and legendary Michael Hordern is a good deal older than the Professor Parkins of the text (Parkin in the film), which unfortunately loses the idea of arrogance in one so young, but Hordern is such perfect casting and fits the character so well that one can more or less forgive the character’s transformation. The other principal lead of the Colonel, played with great understatement by Ambrose Coghill, also finds his part reduced in the teleplay, although his conversational foreshadowing, in which he suggests that the realm of knowledge may be greater than Parkin smugly allows for, is crucially intact. Indeed, Miller’s assured hand preserves the essentials of the storyline and ensures that things move at a consistent pace, realising the ambiguous supernatural elements with skill to a satisfying conclusion.
Any fan of classic horror would be doing themselves a disservice to pass on this marvellous visual retelling of one of M.R James’s most celebrated ghost stories. Even now, as a new version is about to hit the small screen, I will be very impressed indeed if it manages to surpass the wonderful and original monochrome masterpiece.
The Creature That Came In Answer
The following section is a comparison of the film and the original short story. Please do not read this section if you haven’t seen/read either and don’t wish to be spoiled. Scroll down to Further Reading below therefore to avoid any major revelations.
Jonathan Miller’s monochromatic adaptation of ‘Oh Whistle, And I’ll Come To You, My Lad’ was the first time the story had made it to the small screen. That very same year however saw Robert Eddison (probably best known today for his portrayal of the Grail Knight in Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade) star in the fourth James adaptation for the highly-successful ITV anthology series Mystery & Imagination, ‘Casting The Runes’. Whistle was also part of an anthology series, though unusually, it was the BBC’s long-running Omnibus program, primarily known for its documentaries on a variety of subjects.
Those familiar with the original short story may consider Miller’s efforts to be a somewhat truncated version of the tale, with character motivations removed and certain key scenes omitted from the film. Even the title (a line from a Robert Burns poem) has been shortened, as if symbolic of Miller’s desire to distill the story down to its core potency. It is a Professor Parkin, not Parkins, who comes to the remote Norfolk seaside village for recreation. He is middle-aged rather than young, and is entirely disinterested in golf, while for his literary counterpart, the sport forms fully half of his reason for choosing the venue. Golf appears frequently in James’s short stories as the sport du jour of the upper-middle class academic, though he is often dismissive of it, as in ‘The Mezzotint’, where it is enough to mention the fact that the main characters spend an afternoon on the green, “but [the details of] which the conscientious writer has no right to inflict upon any non-golfing persons.” Ironically, a significant golfing scene occurs in ‘Oh Whistle, And I’ll Come To You, My Lad’ between Parkins and the Colonel, who becomes annoyed at the young professor’s prowess. The sport becomes the common ground for their growing relationship and when not searching the sands for a Templar preceptory, they often found in each other’s company. By their second golfing game, “they got on so well together in the morning that there was no talk on either side of their separating after lunch.” On television however, they merely know each other through mealtime conversations and from this principally is their relationship developed.
Of course the Templar preceptory, a crumbling ruin largely buried beneath the sand on the shores of the beach, becomes instead a more modern Christian cemetery upon the embankment high above the beach. Doubtless Miller would have been only too happy to have showcased the former if an obliging Norfolk beach had presented itself (filming in Lincolnshire might have yielded results), though the ridiculous ease with which Parkin finds his whistle is entirely faithful to the equal good fortune Parkins has within the sand. The absence of the preceptory also robs Parkin of another of his ambitions while in the area. In the short story, it is a fellow colleague who asks him to check the ancient ruins to see if “it would be any good to have a dig there in the summer.” On television, it is Parkin who plans his visit to the cemetery, simply to indulge his own curiosity.
“Those familiar with the original short story may consider Miller’s efforts to be a somewhat truncated version of the tale.”
The ghost of the story is largely the same in both versions. In the climax to the short story, it is “a horrible, an intensely horrible, face of crumpled linen” (sic), as if framing the face of the invisible monster within. As with the not readily available Templar artifacts, Miller does not quite have the technology to reproduce such a visage, which the prose so successfully invokes in the theatre of the mind. One final noteworthy absence is the earlier scene involving a small boy terrified out of his wits upon seeing a white sheet rise up to the window of Parkins’s room seemingly animated by nothing of the material world. The youngster, half-crazed, relates the vision to the room’s occupant, foreshadowing the nightmare he will soon experience for himself. Given that it is a related tale rather than in real-time, Miller perhaps has decided that it would undercut the ghastly revelation of the haunted bed sheet.
Here then we return to the idea of distillation, for despite the many trims made for the screen adaptation, there is no doubt whatsoever that Miller has understood the heart of the tale. While not “young, neat, and precise in speech”, his Professor Parkin is no less arrogant and cocksure, more than content to the point of preference to inhabit a world populated exclusively by himself, with human company welcome only either for the purposes of showing off. Company becomes more desirous when this world is thrown into disequilibrium. Parkin is less “precise” in his speech however, often so caught up in his perpetual interior discourse that words are frequently fumbled and sentences disjointed. Parkin’s disinterest in golf, the one opportunity Parkins of the text has to maintain social interaction, makes the elder character of the film even more isolated and withdrawn.
The decision to make Parkin older may have come down entirely to the casting of Michael Hordern, who captures the haughty academic perfectly. Hordern gives Parkin a delighted self-assurance that his world view defines the very building blocks of the universe, only later to quickly unravel when the paranormal sends him into meltdown. He engages in frequent muttered dialogue with himself, chuckles happily at his genius, and generally glides through life seemingly unaware of it. At the climax, Hordern wonderfully plays Parkin’s abject horror at the indescribable, the inexplicable reality that nearly destroys him, and unlike the text, this is also the point at which the credits roll, giving no hint of how successfully he will recover, if it all.
“Michael Hordern captures the haughty academic perfectly… giving Parkin a delighted self-assurance that his world view defines the very building blocks of the universe, only later to quickly unravel when the paranormal sends him into meltdown.”
Similarly, although absent of any Crusading knights’ stronghold, the filming locations are otherwise very authentic and faithful to the original. The lonely Norfolk coast is every bit as isolated as the text describes it: “On the south you saw the village of Burnstow. On the north no houses were to be seen, but only the beach and the low cliff backing it.” Indeed, only the guest house appears on screen as proof civilisation’s existence, making sandy shores even more remote. The interior of the brightly-lit residence is a sombre space, where sound is an exception rather than the rule. Indeed silence plays a huge part of the production, with Miller keen to emphasise not only the great isolation of the world Parkin has stepped into, but the tremendous distances between himself and the rest of humanity. The monochromatic nature of the film only serves to emphasise the gloom.
Technological limitations aside, the apparition of the story is recreated more or less as one would expect it to appear. More importantly, the slow build-up wherein the ghost’s presence is felt more than seen except occasionally in the distance, is entirely faithful and effective. The dream sequences are very carefully actualised so as to appear as they did in prose, even down to the fact that no matter how often Parkin opens his eyes, the nightmare instantly returns when he closes them again; while the odd pulsing sound effects expertly build up the tension of pursuit and menace, with the beach groyne described in the text shot from below to good effect. In all the places where it matters, Miller has remained as faithful to the original as his 1968 budget and technical capabilities have allowed him to be. Coming in at approximately 41 minutes, the adaptation is just long enough to build up the slow, but steady pace of the source material without being too long so as to lose momentum.
Christmas Eve 2010 saw this most celebrated of Jamesian ghost stories return to the small screen. It too bore the name Whistle And I’ll Come To You and starred John Hurt in the lead role – both suggesting that it may owe more allegiance to its television predecessor than the short story itself. That however, is for another time.
The short stories of M.R. James are now out of copyright. Subsequently, you can read ‘Oh Whistle, And I’ll Come To You, My Lad’ right here for free. ‘The Mezzotint’, also mentioned above, can be read here.
The End of the Beginning
And with that, we come to the final entry for 2010. There will be no ‘proper’ update next week while I, and very likely the rest of you, ring in the new year. However, I may write a follow-up to this post praising or lamenting the remake of Whistle.
Otherwise, World On Film returns in early January to continue the ongoing mission. Coming up: childhood sweethearts reunited, but their parents have other ideas for their marital futures. Love and melodrama in Benin as we explore the Nollywood flick, Abeni.
Welcome to another edition of World On Film. This week, we travel to Austria for the excellent character study, Revanche, and back to Australia for the mystifyingly bad horror film I caught a few days ago (in much the same way one catches the flu), Road Train.
(2008) Directed by Götz Spielmann
“Killing someone out of vengeance – I know you don’t believe, but it’s a sin.”
When his girlfriend is murdered during a bank robbery escape attempt, former convict Alex vows to take revenge on the man who pulled the trigger. Vengeance seems to make perfect sense until he meets his target face-to-face.
‘Revanche’ is a film that holds its cards close to its chest. Just when you think you have the story pinned in the first half-hour, all hell breaks loose and the film takes a wholly unexpected turn. It is a film that not only challenges you to predict what comes next, but one that forces you to decide whether revenge ever makes sense, to confront feelings of anguish and make decisions you can live with. In the character of Alex, we have a man used to dealing with the rougher side of humanity, which has hardened him in order to survive. The loss of his girlfriend Tamara robs him of the only time he allows himself to be someone else, at peace with the world. Into this world comes the unassuming presence of Robert, a policeman committed to serving the public, yet whom has never faced the hardest part of the job: taking a life. When Robert is confronted by this reality, it is then that we truly learn who he is. This, ultimately, is what the film is about – throwing ordinary people into life’s darkest waters and seeing whether or not they will swim back into the light. Writer and director Götz Spielmann presents the viewer with a very compelling drama, which, through its cast of identifiably real characters, engages the viewer throughout. The lines may be drawn between those who feel wronged, but at no time is it ever easy for the viewer to take sides.
“Writer and director Götz Spielmann presents the viewer with a very compelling drama, which, through its cast of identifiably real characters, engages the viewer throughout.”
This perhaps explains the film’s pacing and choice of photography. The basic storyline as described could very easily apply to a fast-paced Hollywood blockbuster, trading humanity and intelligence for cliché and car chases. Yet in the truer world of grocery shopping and household chores, moments of high drama are spaced apart by long periods of calm inactivity, leaving people to brood into the small hours over the choices they have made – the perfect environment within which feelings of revenge and misery can blossom. ‘Revanche’ is paced in such a way, with the principal characters having to tend to family and the ordinary demands of life while barely holding themselves together over the losses they have suffered. Yet these are their only opportunities to heal and come to terms with their pain. Spielmann accentuates these sequences with often picturesque long shots within which silence reigns and the magnitude of the suffering seems to pale into comparison with the enormity of the surrounding world.
Johannes Krisch, who some reviewers have intriguingly compared to Robert Carlysle, is well-cast as the hardened Alex. He not only looks the part, but conveys just the right mix of softness within a wary, battle-worn shell. Andreas Lust, as Robert, expertly portrays the policeman whose life collapses beneath him, propelling him into a world of anguish and self-doubt. Credit also goes to Johannes Thanheiser as Alex’s grandfather, a man for whom life is much the same each day, yet this is no reason to complain, and Ursula Strauss as Susanne, who, as Robert’s wife, must balance her role as supporter in difficult times with her needs as a woman.
“In the truer world of grocery shopping and household chores, moments of high drama are spaced apart by long periods of calm inactivity, leaving people to brood into the small hours over the choices they have made.”
Ultimately, the film leaves the viewer to tie up the loose ends, inviting comment on the drama that has unfolded. This is definitely a strong effort from all concerned, and a very mature approach to what easily could have been a simplistic action snuff piece. It’s art imitating life with frankness and honesty, and worthwhile viewing.
Road Train (aka Road Kill)
(2010) Directed by Dean Francis
Four youths camping in the Australian outback are nearly killed when a road train turns their car into a spinning lump of metal. Licking their wounds, the unwitting group discovers the driverless vehicle parked near the scene of the accident and decides to commandeer it. But the road train has other plans for the four and survival isn’t necessarily among them.
Every so often, one comes across a film that truly defines the horror genre. It rises above the formula of B-grade horror to really delight the senses with astounding ideas, a bulletproof script, brilliant practical effects, and an irresistible moreish quality that makes it an instant classic you’ll want to come back to every couple of years, marveling at how deep is its rewatch value.
‘Road Train’, however, does not have such rewatch value, being about as irresistible as the chance to fly a hang glider held together with paper clips. The script is about as bulletproof as a KFC refresher towel, while the only formula it adheres to is that of a Molotov cocktail, bombing as it does with unsanctioned alacrity not long after the opening credits. It is the true definition of mind-numbing ineptitude, and projects an obvious contempt for the audience by its conceptual laziness.
“[Road Train is] about as irresistible as the chance to fly a hang glider held together with paper clips.”
Characterisation is probably the key offender. Certainly, it would be ridiculous to expect a Camusian exploration of behavioural absurdism in the face of demonic supernatural transport, but we should at least like the people on screen. In ‘Road Train’, the writer seems to be going out of his way to ensure this doesn’t happen by enmeshing the loathing and betrayal of recent infidelity with the inadequately explored mood swings supposedly brought about by otherworldly possession. There is the murky implication that the road train is a sort of Amityville House on wheels, but its effect on all who go near it is sloppily handled and way too immediate, resulting in characters flying off the handle with mystifying, unexplained regularity. This completely undermines any attempts at character conflict, since the viewer is unable to determine whether their problems are caused by said possession or a manifestation of their down-to-earth guilt and loathing.
Within this disjointed narrative, we also have the age-old problem of lazily-written horror films wherein characters continually place themselves in dangerous situations common sense would normally step in to prevent. Thus, whether from psychosis or incredible stupidity, the viewer is robbed of any real chance they may have of caring overmuch for the so-called protagonists. Devoid of empathy, they have little left but their curiosity as to what the vehicle truly represents.
In this, ‘Road Train’ stays fairly mute: as with ‘The Car’ 33 years earlier, the viewer is encouraged to guess, with clues in the form of a snarling three-headed dog and surreal sequences of otherworldly descent. This approach works best, however, when the major characters speculate on the horror that has befallen them. We may never know who or what Michael Myers is, but the speculation of Dr Loomis that he is the embodiment of evil sets the ball rolling, leaving space for the viewer to draw their own conclusions. The internal dialogue not only gives them something to work with as they piece the puzzle together, but faith in the characters, who have behaved as anyone would by asking such obvious questions. Yet in ‘Road Train’, the hapless victims are seemingly too narcissistic to even notice the madness of their situation until the climax, by which point most of them are beyond redemption. How this encourages us to care is yet another mystery.
“We also have the age-old problem of lazily-written horror films wherein characters continually place themselves in dangerous situations common sense would normally step in to prevent.’
This in turn leads to the great revelation of how the road train operates: an admittedly unusual and horrific idea that on closer examination makes no sense whatsoever within the internal logic of the film. In ‘Road Train’, we are encouraged to simply accept the improbable existence of the antagonist without question, for questions lead to the punishment of frustration.
If anyone may be absolved from this nonsense however, it should be the actors, who are simply performing as required by the script. The Australian film industry is not especially large, and actors there have far less opportunities for prominence. Morley, Lowe, Haig and Samuel join the likes of Melissa George, for whom the comparatively superior ‘Triangle’ may just keep her in orbit long enough to attract attention.
Praise too goes to the setting: the wilds of the South Australian outback make for the perfect horror film backdrop. The isolation and desolate dryness, properly utilized, can lend themselves to a truly claustrophobic drama. A shame therefore that the rich attributes of this timeless, ancient land is squandered on such dreck.
“A shame that the rich attributes of this timeless, ancient land is squandered on such dreck.”
Such then is ‘Road Train’, a horror film for the reality tv generation and no less disposable. If the challenge had been to outdo ‘Houseboat Horror’, then it would leapfrog over the competition into first place. There was, however, no such challenge and I would urge everyone to take inspiration from the film’s U.S title and run over any copies they may come across.
Coming Up Next
Azerbaijan beckons for a double feature: the light, but likeable short film, Bu da belə, and the unfortunately full-length silliness of Seytanin Telesi, for which there is no trailer, I’m afraid. It’s all Azeri, all the time when World On Film returns.