DVD Review: A Doctor’s Sword

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June Butler unsheathes the DVD of A Doctor’s Sword, Gary Lennon’s documentary  about Aidan MacCarthy, an Irish doctor, who, at 28, joined the RAF in London as the 2nd World war began.

 

Ensconced in MacCarthy’s bar in Castletownbere, Co. Cork, hangs a Samurai sword with still razor sharp edges and evidence of it being a working weapon. Such blades were far more than merely a form of defence – they were used as proof of filial devotion and a sign of dynastic honour – once holding great meaning for the person who previously possessed it. Carefully contained inside the worn handle, ashes of ancient warriors lie in state. The sword is accompanied with photographic evidence of its former owner – 2nd Lieutenant Isao Kusono. On the reverse side of the image is a profound declaration of true friendship between Lieutenant Kusono and Dr Aidan MacCarthy, a survivor of the Nagaski bombing and prisoner of war,interned in two separate Japanese camps during the Second World War.

The story of Dr Aidan MacCarthy related in great detail by director Gary Lennon is one that would have even the most hardened of cynics accepting of MacCarthy’s greatness. In this poignant tale, lies the narrative of a medical doctor who truly merited the Hippocratic Oath of ‘first do no harm’ despite the many injustices he himself received.

One of ten children, MacCarthy was born in 1914 to a middle class family and attended Clongowes Wood secondary school as a border. Upon leaving Clongowes, a medical career beckoned and MacCarthy went to UCC where he graduated as a doctor in 1938. Jobs in his home town of Castletownbere were scarce so MacCarthy and a number of his classmates mooted heading to London where they might fare better. War was on the horizon and MacCarthy decided to join the armed forces – his choices lay between the RAF or the Royal Navy – an obliging dance-hall hostess flipped a coin and MacCarthy duly signed up for the RAF. He later claimed all medical checks and paperwork were done with such haste that following his enlistment, MacCarthy arrived back in the local bar before they opened their doors at eleven o clock.

What unfolds in this remarkable story is something far more than miraculous – MacCarthy was marooned for three days and nights at Dunkirk – survived and went on to receive the George Cross for bravery when his direct intervention saved the crew of a crash-landed Spitfire. He was captured in the Japanese attack on Singapore and from there, spent three arduous years in a prisoner of war camp. First in Java, later in Nagasaki. Despite horrendous abuse and torture meted out to those captured by the Japanese, MacCarthy rose above his experiences to emerge a forgiving and empathetic figure having never lost his faith in humanity nor his ability to absolve the actions of others. Of even greater inspiration is the sword that takes pride of place among MacCarthy’s possessions and how it came to be located in a small bar in rural Ireland.

Lennon deals sensitively with the issues surrounding MacCarthy’s incarceration and follows his daughter, Nicola, as she journeys to Japan in search of the history behind the sword. It is clear that this topic is one of great interest to Lennon given that no stone is left unturned in the telling of a truly amazing story. Archive radio interviews with MacCarthy were unearthed in the course of making this film and it is heart-warming to hear his rural burr and kindly tones as his story is relayed without the slightest hint of rancour.

On being asked by the interviewer what he put down his survival to, MacCarthy deftly responded saying that it was “a combination of my Irish Catholic Heritage, my family background, and lots and lots of luck”.

 

  • Directors: Gary Lennon
  • Producers: Gary Lennon Bob Jackson
  • Format: DVD-Video
  • Language: English
  • Region: All Regions
  • Number of discs: 1
  • Classification: Exempt
  • Studio: Wildcard Distribution
  • Run Time: 70.00 minutes

 

A Doctor’s Sword can be purchased on DVD in stores including Golden Discs and Tower Records, the Triskel Arts Centre in Cork and the Irish Film Institute in Dublin, MacCarthy’s Bar in Castletownbere and also online on Amazon and the Wildcard Distribution website.

 

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DVD Review: In A House That Ceased To Be

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Dee O’Donoghue takes a look at Ciarín Scott’s documentary which follows the Irish humanitarian and children’s rights activist, Christina Noble.

A musical tale of tragic proportions, when Christina Noble was dubbed ‘The real Miss Saigon’ by The Sunday People newspaper in 1990, the world’s media decisively took note and the children’s rights activist finally received the media exposure she desperately sought to accentuate the plight of indigent children in Vietnam. Ciarín Scott’s affecting film, In A House That Ceased To Be, documents Noble’s astonishingly complex biography, from the slums of Dublin’s inner city to the establishment of over one hundred child rescue projects through her Christina Noble Children’s Foundation, via her own traumatic journey of physical and emotional abuse. Borne from a dream, Noble’s unwavering determination to penetrate the cycle of child poverty, victimization and sexual exploitation in far-flung countries such as Vietnam and Mongolia through healthcare, education and community development, achieved the impossible for the Irish crusader whose own horrifying childhood mirrored those she sought to rescue, locating her as one of the most important global children’s charity campaigners of recent times.

Tracing Noble on the ground in Vietnam and Mongolia, Scott’s portrait of Christina at work exposes the sheer desperation of its innumerable forgotten children, where thousands upon thousands bed down in city sewers and manholes in up to minus 40 degree conditions, many deformed with irremediable illness or many simply needing comfort and love, owing to a culture of child invisibility in the world’s developing countries. Although a haunting reflection upon humanity’s shame in its treatment of those it should be safeguarding, the most compelling aspect of Scott’s documentary lies in a narrative that becomes greater than an appraisal of Noble’s steely commitment to expunge child oppression in remote Asian countries, demonstrating that suffering is not exclusive to adventitious lands. The film equally becomes a staunch polemic on the Irish State and Catholic Church, as Noble and her siblings became some of the untold victims of institutional abuse prevalent in 1950s Ireland.

Although Noble’s activism was inspired by a dream on the Vietnam War, it becomes evident that her indelible motivation is her own fraught biography, deluged with fear since her mother’s death at the age of ten and the ensuing separation from her siblings and detached, alcoholic father into disparate orphanages around the country, each informed the other was dead. As with many Irish narratives of the era, Noble’s experience was written into the scaffolding of a culture of abuse at the hands of those in systematic power, her only means of solace to sing pop songs to herself, fuelling her spirit, compelling her to survive against those who profoundly failed her. The unavoidable probing into Noble’s own personal trauma becomes a trauma in itself as she struggles to articulate the level of abuse she experienced in a West of Ireland orphanage. Compassion and warmth sit alongside explosive anger and scathing vitriol at the supposed beacons of Irish light and hope, who repeatedly failed countless of children in their care, a stain all too familiar in Ireland’s relationship with its historic institutions, asylums and orphanages.

It is the unspoken narrative that lies beneath Noble’s unresolved rage that becomes as equally distressing as the graphic images of child torment in foreign lands. As with the ever-familiar tactic of Ireland’s ability to sweep its shameful stains under the carpet, so too does Noble’s censor her own profile, her anger speaking volumes, her vivid recollections refusing to fade with time. A passionate, gregarious and outspoken woman rendered speechless, unable to give voice to her adversities, her adulthood clearly shaped and steered by anxieties she is unable or unwilling to release, surmised by her sister as a ‘demolition of our life, a demotion of our home, a dismantling of our togetherness’.

While Noble, the child saviour, finds great catharsis in rescuing the destitute from perilous conditions and infusing their young lives with hope, it is the tacit reflection of her own scarred history, including gang-rape and enforced adoption of her baby son by the Church that becomes more vivid as it unfolds through her charitable actions towards those who endured similar fates. It is what is seen rather than what is said that is most illustrative in Scott’s film, achieving a highly emotive balance between the comfort and deep empathy Noble radiates for her Asian children and the outrage and torment she endures at her own violated self, not only compelling Asian countries to inwardly reflect on its reprehensible neglect but also confronting Ireland with its own ignominious history and the treatment of its young, necessitous citizens.

Taking the film’s title from the popular Dublin song, ‘The Rare Ould Times’, Ciarín Scott’s portrait of Christina Noble fuses a past with a present that is both contemptible and hopeful.  It is not only a compelling, heart-wrenching and contradictory account of a forceful, yet fragile woman’s biography but equally of the nation she was born into and its disturbing legacy of child institutional abuse. Christina Noble may have all the love, songs and words in the world for children in need but her anger, emotional fragility and silence towards her own unresolved past becomes just as torturous as the suffering of the underprivileged children she is saving. It is an extremely important account, not only in its recognition and celebration of a lowly Dublin girl from the slums who achieved global acclaim for her charitable activism but also in its highly significant reflection upon Ireland’s unsettling history and those in power who helped shape its trajectory and maintained the cycle of child oppression.

 

 

Available for rent or purchase now and is also available to stream or download in Ireland from Volta.ie

 

  • Director: Ciarín Scott
  • Producers: Rex Bloomstein, Paul Duane, Ciarín Scott
  • Format: PAL
  • Region: Region 2
  • Number of discs: 1
  • Classification: 15A
  • Studio: Element Pictures Distribution
  • DVD Release Date: 6 Nov 2015

  Run Time:  91 minutes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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DVD Review: Song of the Sea

 

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Ellen Murray reviews Song of the Sea, “a breath of fresh air in a market that is continually being crammed with commercial-driven, sub-par content.”

If the fact that it was nominated for an Academy Award was not enough to tempt you to see Cartoon Saloon’s stunning Song of the Sea in cinemas, then you now have the chance to view it in the comfort of your own living room. A suitably strong follow-up to the studio’s 2009 work The Secret of Kells, the film follows the story of two siblings, Ben and Saoirse, as they discover a magical world of selkies and faeries on the brink of extinction, all the while trying to uncover the truth about their mother’s mysterious disappearance on the night of Saoirse’s birth.

Director Tomm Moore deftly guides the film, balancing the whimsy and drama so that neither is undermined by the other. For all the mythological elements present in the story, the film also takes time out to examine the hard realities of loss, grief, and broken families- but, like all good family films, it is never ham-fisted and offers no easy answers. In traditional Cartoon Saloon style, the flat, picture-book backgrounds of the film lends it an air of surprising depth missing from most mainstream animation today. At times, the animation reaches moments of such dazzling beauty that it becomes worth taking a timeout to pause the film and just gaze at the image before you. The superb animation is further aided by the commendable voice performances provided by the cast. Moone Boy’s David Rawle as Ben and Brendan Gleeson as the children’s grieving father, Conor, shine in particular.

The DVD contains a couple of extras, including a segment on the art of the film, clips of animation tests and, of course, audio commentary from director Tomm Moore. It would have been interesting to hear from others who worked on the production, which was split between animation studios in five different countries, but Moore provides such an engaging in-depth look into the background of the production that he alone is sufficient.

A wonderful film for families, and for lovers of animation, Song of the Sea is a breath of fresh air in a market that is continually being crammed with commercial-driven, sub-par content.

 

Available for rent or purchase now.

 

  • Directors: Tomm Moore
  • Producers: Tomm Moore, Paul Young, Claus Toksvig Kjaer
  • Format: PAL
  • Region: Region 2
  • Number of discs: 1
  • Classification: PG
  • Studio: Studiocanal
  • DVD Release Date: 9 Nov. 2015
  • Run Time: 94 minutes

 

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DVD Review: The Thief of Baghdad (1924)

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The Thief of Baghdad (1924)

Director: Raoul Wash

Cast: Douglas Fairbanks, Snitz Edwards, Charles Belcher

 

Alan Shalvey checks out the Eureka! Entertainment release of The Thief of Baghdad, a glittering Arabian Nights adventure fantasy, in a Dual Format (Blu-ray & DVD) edition as part of their award-winning The Masters of Cinema Series.

The Thief of Baghdad, featuring one of Douglas Fairbanks most enduring performances as the title character, has recently been remastered and released by Eureka’s ‘The Masters of Cinema’ series. Specialising particularly in remastering films from the silent era, this edition of the 1924 classic is a sight to behold, and beautiful to look at. Having been remade in 1940, and with both films regarded as classics by critics, The Thief of Baghdad is one of those rare exceptions in cinema where a film and its remake are held in equally high esteem.

Based on the legendary collection of stories, ‘One Thousand and one Arabian Nights’, the story follows the thief Ahmed’s journey from a petty thief to winning the hand of the local princess after proving himself worthy of royalty. However, he must contend with Cham Shang, Prince of the Monguls, The Prince of the Indies and The Prince of Persia. When the princess chooses Ahmed, and his way of life is revealed, though, there is uproar, and the men must find a valuable item to win her favour, though Shang plans to take Baghdad by force regardless.

The Thief of Baghdad has come to be recognised as one of the classics of American cinema’s silent era, and it is easy to see why. In June 2008, the American Film Institute named it ninth on their list of the ten greatest fantasy films in American cinema history. The film is quite long for its time, running almost two and a half hours long. Nonetheless, the time flies, as the sweeping spectacle, fantastic score, and Fairbanks energetic lead performance all combine to keep the audience engrossed for the full journey.

The film is masterful in almost all aspects. However, the props, sets, and action scenes are the aspects which truly stand out from the rest of the film’s attributes. One of the most expensive films of the decade, Fairbanks (who played a large role in the film’s artistic direction) left no stone unturned in his quest to bring Baghdad to life. The sets throughout the film are nothing short of spectacular and, combined with the score, makes the audience feel like it is fully immersed in this authentic world.

The action sequences are also of particular note. In fact, considering the direction Hollywood blockbusters have taken in recent decades, it is arguable that this film, in terms of the directing and cinematography used in the action sequences, is one of the most important films of its era. One scene which is particularly noteworthy is the penultimate scene in which, having been told Baghdad is under siege by the army Cham Shang snuck into the city, Ahmed returns to fill the role of unlikely saviour to the city. The shots in which the camera pans across as Ahmed summons a vast army using the magic powder he acquired are nothing short of exemplary filmmaking. It is easy to see the influence this scene has had on countless films, such as The Lord of the Rings and many other films with wide shots of enormous armies.

Overall, the film is one of American cinema’s endearing classics, having had a profound effect on cinema, which has become ever clearer in recent times, with the production of large-scale battle scenes similar to those seen in the film. ‘The Masters of Cinema’ has, on its 90th anniversary, presented the film perfectly to a modern audience, with an excellent documentary ‘Fairbanks and Fantasy’ included on the DVD disc. For any fan wishing to witness the joys of this or, indeed, any film from the silent era, ‘The Masters of Cinema’ leaves all other competitors in the dust in terms of their remastering and incredible volume of extra material.

 

SPECIAL DUAL FORMAT (BLU-RAY + DVD) EDITION includes

 

  • New high-definition 1080p presentation of the film on the Blu-ray
  • Audio commentary by Fairbanks biographer Jeffrey Vance
  • 40-PAGE BOOKLET including new and exclusive writing on Douglas Fairbanks and Raoul Walsh

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DVD Review: Diary of a Lost Girl

 

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Ellen Murray checks out the Eureka! Entertainment edition of G. W. Pabst’s masterwork of German silent cinema, Diary of a Lost Girl, released as part of their Masters of Cinema Series. 

 

The release of The Jazz Singer in 1922 was the beginning of the end for the silent film era. By the end of the decade virtually all mainstream releases were sound films, or ‘talkies’. Though the technology had yet to be perfected and some of the recorded dialogue sounded stilted, the novelty of hearing actors talk on screen drew in too many viewers for film producers to ignore. G.W Pabst’s Diary of a Lost Girl (1929), made in the twilight of its genres popularity, stands today as a monument to the best silent film had to offer.

The story begins with the young and innocent Thymian Henning (Brooks) on the day of her confirmation. The happy occasion is marred however by the departure of the family’s housekeeper, Elisabeth (Schmitz), who has become pregnant after having an affair with Thymian’s pharmacist father. In a desperate attempt to better understand the situation Thymian turns to her father’s assistant, Meinert (Rasp), who claims to have all the answers. In actuality, Meintert uses this opportunity to seduce the poor girl and she subsequently gives birth to an illegitimate child. After refusing to marry Meinert on the account that she does not love him, Thymian finds herself in a backwards reformatory for ‘fallen women’ which is ruled with an iron fist by a tyrannical woman (Gert) and her equally as bad assistant (Engelmann). Escaping the horrible institution, Thymian finds herself enveloped on a life of prostitution and debauchery. One twist of fate after another ultimately leads our protagonist down a road that will test both her character and emotional endurance.

On paper, the film reads like a Dicken-esque tale of the fallen woman and Christian redemption. In reality, Pabst handles his material in a surprisingly nuanced and sophisticated manner. Moments of great melodrama are still sprinkled throughout but there’s a distinct lack of the black and white morals that dominated other films of the era. Rather, the director takes time convey to the audience the fuzzy greyness that defines human existence. In this, Pabst is greatly aided by Louise Brooks’ magnetic performance. The lack of dialogue in silent films meant actors of the time were prone to using overt facial and bodily expressions to portray emotion. Brooks does not fall into this category, appreciating that subtly can still get across big emotions. In place of words, Brooks uses her eyes. Thymian is certainly a victim of circumstance but she is no weakling. There’s a quiet strength to Brooks’ character that makes us believe that she is capable of surviving anything that is thrown at her. No swooning for this lady!

Considering the time period in which it was made the film also puts forward a very progressive message regarding society’s treatment of so-called ‘fallen women’. All our sympathy lies entirely with Thymian and her fellow inmates at the reformatory. In contrast, the reformatory’s overseers are presented as sadistically cruel and wholly unlikeable. The hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie, who happily turn away any girl unfortunate enough to find herself pregnant and unmarried but willingly turn a blind eye on the married men who put them in that position, is also highlighted. Female sexuality is nothing to be feared here; rather society’s attitude towards it is the problem. Today’s mainstream Hollywood could learn something from the film.

They say great art never dies and this film is a perfect example of that. As engaging now as it was when it was first released, Diary of a Lost Girl marked the end of the silent era in a blaze of filmic glory.

 

Diary of a Lost Girl is released in a Dual Format (Blu-ray & DVD) edition as part of their award-winning The Masters of Cinema Series on 24th November 2014.

 

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DVD Review: The Hobbit:The Desolation of Smaug

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Ciara O’Brien gets her hands on the precious DVD of The Hobbit:The Desolation of Smaug.

The second instalment of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy; The Desolation of Smaug is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray in various editions. Here we will be discussing the standard DVD edition.

The story picks up where the previous left off, and we follow Bilbo Baggins on his infamous adventure to assist in the reclaiming of the dwarven homeland. Having found (or stolen, depending on who you ask) the infamous ring of power, Bilbo now seems more willing to embark on the adventure ahead of him, despite the mocking of his band of merry dwarves.

Unfortunately for the now semi-cheerful Bilbo (masterfully played by Martin Freeman), he manages to do the one thing he hoped not to. He wakes the beast. Smaug is the infamous dragon fans have been waiting for and Freeman’s BFF Benedict Cumberbatch does not disappoint, playing the beast with equal parts menace and humour. It is Smaug’s evident intelligence which makes him all the more fearsome and the scenes featuring both Bilbo and Smaug are some of the best that have come from the prequel franchise.

The Desolation of Smaug sees Jackson use more artistic licence to present moments that he feels his viewers will love, being a fan himself. Jackson just about manages to steer clear of over-simplifying the text here, but at points he does come close. Jackson respects his audience enough to know that they can tell the inherent differences necessary in working with the medium of film as opposed to book, but he also knows not to push his viewer too far. It is a delicate balancing act at which he has become adept.

Unfortunately for Orlando Bloom, the appearance of Legolas doesn’t quite inspire the joy and delight that Jackson might have expected, and this moment falls a bit flat. The issue is that Jackson doesn’t need to remind us of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, he merely needs to focus entirely on The Hobbit as a standalone text.

  • Format: PAL, Subtitled
  • Language: English
  • Subtitles: English, Italian
  • Region: Region 2
  • Aspect Ratio: 16:9 – 2.40:1
  • Number of discs: 1
  • Classification: 12
  • Studio: Warner Home Video
  • DVD Release Date: 7th April 2014
  • Run Time: 155 minutes

The standard DVD edition is something of a disappointment for fans as it is very light on special features, having only the second part of the New Zealand: Home of Middle Earth documentary. This is interesting viewing for fans as we can witness the transformation of the landscape into one we immediately recognise as Middle Earth, but compared to the plethora of features that came with the Lord of the Rings DVDs, it seems inherently disappointing.

It’s hard to have patience these days, but die-hard fans of the franchise are as always advised to wait until all movies are released in a box set of inevitably epic, lengthy proportions, with more special features than you could watch in one sitting.

Like Bilbo himself, we might not initially be too keen on running off on an adventure, but thankfully this allows us to follow his from the comfort of our own couches, where the dragon population is significantly lower.

Ciara O’Brien

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DVD Review: Quirke

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Cathy Butler checks out this Dublin Noir, out now on DVD.

 

Dublin’s urban landscape seems to move between shades of grey rather than ‘noir’, but aspects of the drab and foggy streets of 1950’s Dublin lend themselves rather well to the genre in BBC’s crime noir thriller Quirke, based on the novels released under John Banville’s crime genre pen-name, Benjamin Black. The three part mini-series is now available on DVD, shortly after ending its run on RTE.

 

Gabriel Byrne plays the eponymous Quirke, (first name unknown, Inspector Morse style) a pathologist with a troubled past and a drink problem. He has a rocky relationship with his adoptive brother Mal Griffin (Nick Dunning), a doctor who works in the same hospital as Quirke, and a history with Malachy’s American wife Sarah (Geraldine Somerville). His 20-year-old niece, Phoebe (Aisling Franciosi), adores him a little too much, much to the chagrin of her father, Mal.

 

The series opens with the peculiar circumstances surrounding the death a young, unmarried woman named Christine Falls, whose death certificate Quirke discovers Mal tampering with in his office. Mal has listed the death as due to pulmonary embolism, yet Quirke’s autopsy suggests she may have died giving birth. As his own family is now implicated in an apparent cover-up of something that would have been scandalous in that era, Quirke must try to get to the bottom of the young woman’s death and deal with repercussions.

 

Thematically, the show hits on some of the likely subjects that such a period in Irish history would feature – the iron rule of the Catholic Church, Magdalene Laundries, unmarried mothers – while some are glossed over. The first episode is quite rigorously anti-Catholic, the various religious figures exuding caricaturish villainy as they discuss their underhand plans or obfuscate the dark truth from those who would seek to expose it. This is understandable given Ireland’s religious history, but somewhat heavy-handed nonetheless.

 

On the other hand it is difficult not to question the abundance of upper class people who feature in the narrative. Perhaps the various cultural representations of early to mid-20th century Ireland have been so populated by poverty and the working class that a representation of such a time featuring mostly wealthy and privileged people seems lacking in credibility or plausibility. The ease with which some of the main players hop back and forth to America seems a stretch, as this was at a time when ‘American Wakes’ were being held for those who emigrated as the cost of travel likely meant that most Irish emigrants would never see their families again. Perhaps this shows how far removed the likes of the Griffins were from most people in the country at the time, rather than being an oversight or narrative convenience.

 

The series features some striking visuals, with excellent use of colour – or lack thereof. In episode one,  as Quirke bumps into Sarah outside his house, Sarah’s clothes and hair are rendered in full colour against the grey background of the street behind her, in almost a Pleasantville-effect style. Similar effects used when Quirke is spending time with Phoebe seem to suggest that from Quirke’s perspective these two women are the brightest aspects of his life, being otherwise constantly surrounded by dead bodies and Dublin’s grey streets.

 

The noir-ish elements are strong throughout, with some differences. The plot is slower paced, often more concerned with Quirke’s own story than the fate of the unfortunate women. Each episode sees another young, beautiful woman dead or murdered. This trope does grow tiresome, not just in this particular production but in countless crime novels and television shows. The endurance of this trope and audience and reader appetites for it seem to suggest that it is easier to feel sorry for a beautiful young woman who gets murdered than, say, an ugly man. In Quirke, as with much other crime narrative, man must mete out justice for the poor ‘fallen women’. The idea is reinforced thematically and narratively; to ‘fall’ pregnant, a fallen woman, Christine Falls. Looked at in this way, the much used trope is effective as a tool to highlight the position of women in Irish society of the time.

 

Performance wise, Byrne fits the bill as the brooding alcoholic with a dark past. Geraldine Somerville is standout as Sarah, managing to convey in one character the woman Sarah has become due to the choices she made in her youth, as well as that girl she was when she first fell for Quirke. Somerville meshes these girlish and mature aspects of Sarah together with great artistry, making her quite compelling to watch. Stanley Townsend is a scene-stealer as the sardonic Inspector Hackett, always having time for tea and a cigarette, and an occasional ally to Quirke’s endeavours. Hackett is possibly one of the most likeable characters, my only complaint being he wasn’t featured prominently enough.

 

All things considered, Quirke makes up with its strong visuals and capable cast what it is lacking in its narrative. If anyone has ever wondered what ‘Dublin Noir’ would look like, Quirke would hit pretty close to the mark. A certainly unique and interesting take on the genre.

 

With a combined running time of 270 minutes, the double disc  of Quirke is available to buy on DVD from 7th March from select stores nationwide, including: Tesco, HMV, Xtra-vision, Golden Discs and Tower Records (Dublin).

Quirke DVD is also available to buy online from www.elementpictures.ie/shop

 

 

 

 

 

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… Halloween. Arghhhh – Screen Screams. Memories of Horror

Halloween

Alien – Peter White


In space no one can hear you scream. I can say that over and over and it never loses its power. Much like the film itself, Alien‘s tagline is hypnotic, terrifying and utterly memorable. Sitting down to watch this bona fide classic again this week, I struggled to approach it with anything but wide-eyed wonder. I had to remind myself that Sigourney Weaver’s character, Ripley, hasn’t always been around. That in 1979 people sat down to watch this film and fully expected the ship’s captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt), with his roguish good looks and manly beard, to save the helpless lady astronauts. Despite my best efforts I couldn’t remove the facehugger from my psyche or the residue of the exploding-chest xenomorph which coated Alien‘s innards all over the face of modern cinema.

Having discarded my attempts at an unbiased reading of Alien, I settled in with the crew of the Nostromo and we screamed our silent screams together. What struck me over and over was how well the visual design of Alien has held up. For a modest budget of $11 million, Ridley Scott and his crew created an environment which remains absolutely believable today. The sets for the interior of the spaceship have a solidity to them which computer effects and green screens fall far short of today. The familiarity of the Nostromo’s design with its recognisable cockpit and mess room amidst airlocks and hibernation stations adds enormously to the film’s believability; fuelling the terror of the whole messy situation.

As impressive as the set design is, the iconic design of the film’s titular enemy remains Alien’s strongest asset. The perfection of the xenomorph’s biology combined with its demonic appearance makes it one of cinema’s greatest creations. Watching the ship’s crew initially chase the creature with a net is, from our vantage point thirty years later, sadistically hilarious. How quickly they run out of ideas and go from hunter to hunted, being outsmarted at every turn, is terrifying and testament to the dazzling design of the alien.

While the alien does indeed look like a man in a suit when we see it briefly in its entirety, I would still take this over the more recent swimming, computer-animated incarnations. The animatronic close-ups of the alien have lost none of their impact. Similarly, the face-hugger remains skin-crawlingly effective. Watching it tighten it’s grip when the crew attempt to remove it from John Hurt’s face before it bleeds acid through the floor is as much nightmare territory now as it would have been thirty years ago.

To appreciate Alien is to appreciate cinema. While it is an excellent story in its own right, it is the design of Alien which makes it so memorable. It has lost none of its aesthetic pleasure and still looks more realistic than most special effects oriented films today. For a sci-fi film to retain its impact after so many years places Alien within a very exclusive echelon of cinema. Treat yourself this Hallowe’en to a face-hugging film you won’t soon forget.

 

Carrie – Sarah Griffin


It’s one of those films that everyone thinks that they know – so embedded in our collective consciousness that even those who have never seen it feel as though they have. Carrie emerged from a hive of creativity and innovation in 1970s Hollywood, where directors were defying boundaries and making waves in every genre, blowing apart preconceptions of what a movie should be. No other horror movie is so lovingly rendered and artfully shot, and very few shlockers manage to cross the barrier and impress the Academy with its skills. Echoes of Carrie still ripple through horror movies today, as the formula of sympathetic terror is often copied but never equalled in its nuances – and there is no greater compliment to the prescient status of its iconography that it has remained a benchmark for the psychological horror.

What terrifies and enthrals about Carrie is the slow pace – the loving introduction of its main character, and her terrible life. The persistent bullying and aggression, followed by her mother’s religious freak-outs, are all underscored by Sissy Spacek’s soft-voiced, sad and lonely Carrie. She is a fully rounded psychologically realistic character – a rarity as a horror film antagonist – and within moments, our sympathies are fully with her. In fact, our compassion is so closely contained in Spacek’s unprepossessing portrayal of this little girl that as the climax excruciatingly builds, we almost wish the apocalypse upon these townsfolk. When that iconic pigs blood begins to pour, we yearn for the flames and carnage – vicariously cheering on Carrie’s revenge, then breaking down alongside her in terror and fear at her (and our) horrifying actions.

Perhaps my viewing of Carrie is coloured by being a girl, and having seen the movie post-puberty…when her craziness seems just that little bit more understandable. There is a nagging feeling throughout that, though her emotions are exaggerated and accompanied by telekinetic power, there was a touch of kinship in this movie relationship. And perhaps even a moment of vindication and relief…the vicarious living out of puberty fantasy, where the boiling emotions inside could result in flipping over a car or burning down the school!

Again though, the film’s director Brian De Palma – in a career kick-starter – defies our cheering dualism. Carrie is still lost and terrified, and after her cathartic high-school revenge, returns to her state of confusion and horror. She is no devil, despite her mother’s fanaticism, and wants only to be loved. Her tragic avowal of this is her inability to continue living with what she has done – the revenge now seemed outside of herself, and beyond her control. When she returns home to her mother, seeking reassurances and some semblance of love, she is greeted with the biggest betrayal of all…and her emotional collapse at this final insanity is so painful to watch that it bleeds onscreen. But at its centre, under the complex psychologies and emotional rendering, Carrie is still a horror movie – and its beating heart is terror. Carrie might be sympathetic, she might be understandable…but she is still a supernatural murderer, who wreaks a terrifying revenge. The prom-night massacre is no simple matter – she methodically locks the doors, and picks off her victims one by one as her eyes flash and the music soars. Spacek, covered in pig’s blood, stands compressed on the platform, electricity surging through her movements and fists clenched in concentration, slowly and gruesomely murdering her foes. And the final terror is yet to come – generations of movie-goers have still to discover that unbelievably horrific final jump. How I envy anybody who has never seen Carrie, who has yet to experience that moment of release as you think it’s all over, before it delivers its final, terrifying, screaming, wake-you-up-sweating-in-the-middle-of-the-night punchline. If you’ve got a taste for terror, take Carrie to the prom!

 

Drag Me to Hell – Geoff McEvoy



I love the logo for Ghost House Pictures, one of the production companies behind Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell: A skull jauntily bounces out of the screen with the company name written in ‘spooky’ letters. It’s great. Its retro style reminds me of the yellowed horror novels you see gathering dust in second-hand bookshops. But it also serves as a sort of mission statement, it promises a movie that will provide old school scares with a few knowing winks to the audience.

Of course this all came with hindsight. At the time I didn’t really settle in to the movie until about half an hour in. By that stage we’d already had some enjoyable, mild gross-out comedy when the elderly Mrs Ganush arrives at the sweet-natured Christine’s bank. Then there was an uproarious fight scene followed by a gypsy curse. Brilliant. But it was when the curse took effect and Christine’s home was attacked by a shadowy something that I realised I was in the hands of a master. I had laughed when he wanted me to laugh and now I was jumping when he wanted me to jump. It sounds simple I know and yet so many get that balance wrong. Sam Raimi gets it exactly right; the laughs enhance the scares without ever undermining them. After that I settled down and let the film carry me along safe in the knowledge that it wouldn’t disappoint.

It didn’t. It never misses a trick, the jokes are funny, the scares are scary and for two glorious hours Sam Raimi wrested control of the horror genre from crass remakers and torture pornographers and reminded us how it should be done. Oh, and it features the best use of a goat in motion picture history.

 

The Exorcist – Ciara O’Brien


Horror is not a genre of subtleties, it reflects the world it is created in, and it pulls no punches and whimpers no niceties about the era. Horror not only shocks its audience with what is on screen, but also with revelations about the world outside the doors of the cinema; it ain’t pretty, but somehow we always go back for more. Human suffering was the cinematic flavour of the day in the 1970s, with scandals piling upon scandals, no one was to be trusted. The Exorcist explores the subject in a manner that no film before or since has attained.

The Exorcist marked a turning point in cinema in many ways. After its 1973 release horror was no longer wholly associated with exciting Vincent Price chillers, but could now be a vicious assault on the audience. Many have taken the idea of audience and gotten carried away but few have succeeded in replicating the atmosphere of The Exorcist, which abuses its audience and yet leaves them wanting more. The film is a possession in and of itself as it both shows suffering onscreen and causes suffering amongst its audience, it remains one of few films which have caused fainting and hysterics in its audience, and one of even fewer to be so sought after that bus trips were arranged to see it during its UK ban. So what made The Exorcist so special? And why should we care now?

The Exorcist was the beginning of atmospheric horror, which remains the most profoundly affecting form of the genre. The set was cooled to below freezing in Reagan’s bedroom and whether we watch it in the depths of winter or the middle of summer, there’s a moment in which we believe that we have seen fog on our own breath.

The Exorcist can also be seen as the origin of character-driven horror. Until that moment it was rare to truly love the characters in a horror movie, but here we had an ensemble cast who captured the heart of an audience, and for me, that is the true genius of director William Friedkin and writer William Peter Blatty. The Exorcist marked the beginning of the end for pre-pubescent children in horror, it seems that one fear has transcended eras. There is nothing more frightening than a little girl, particularly if she’s not quite a little girl anymore. Since its release it’s impossible for an audience not to feel some level of suspicion as soon as little Timmy appears on screen, something that recent release Paranormal Activity 2 has utilised fully in advertising. So Reagan is verbally and physically aggressive throughout her possession, and we see very little of her prior to the possession, and yet somehow we love her, we feel her mother’s growing frustration, and we want her to be healed.

The reason for this is simple. As visually violent as The Exorcist is, it has remained on the right side of a very thin line. There is more character than pea soup, and everything stays just below that visual wasteland of ‘too much’. The ‘spider-walk’ sequence is an impressive, now over-used one, and Friedkin’s removal of the scene is necessary to retain some level of ambiguity. Whilst it is suggested that Reagan’s possession is real, it’s also suggested that it’s the result of mental illness, we will never really know, and the psychological impact of not knowing is what creates true terror and cements The Exorcist as the genre’s first bona-fide mainstream classic.

With this Halloween seeing the most violent audience assault we have seen in the shape of Saw 3D, it’s easy to lose sight of the origins and purpose of modern horror cinema. Each time The Exorcist is popped into a DVD player something special happens. When we lose sight of that little silver disc, we enter a world where the special effects of a long-lost era are still affecting, the characters remain dazzling. The first horror film to be nominated for an Academy Award®, The Exorcist is the horror genre’s greatest cinematic triumph.

 

The Fly – William O’Keefe


There is many a hardy soul immune to the gore and frights of horror; the classics may have become muted over time, through re-watching or over exposure, and contemporary horror can be as frightening as an Andrex puppy through predictability and reliance on gore. Away from the movie screen however and offer that same person a piece of chicken, left atop a kitchen counter and let them see for a moment that a fly has had a moment to perch on the chicken meat and do its worst – even in pangs of humour, the meat will be avoided. While there may be scientific fact and documented medical cases, there is the much more impactful warnings of our mothers of flies landing on food intent on planting eggs to gestate. This is not a pleasing prospect – food, riddled with the spawn of a matted black, winged buzzing insect with compound eyes. So, even with all the detachment you can afford yourself in watching a horror movie and assurances this could never happen, the events of The Fly; the literal erosion of Jeff Goldblum’s human body, and transformation and mutation to one that seems comprised of oozy, navy cream filling when splatted on a window will strike a pre-natural fear in you.

The Fly is uneasy to watch, though of course entirely watchable – it is a visceral story which hardly steps outside the doors of our ill-fated scientists lab and as with most stories there is a girl at its heart. Film, and in particular horror, is full of morphed characters, awakened to instinctive, primal urges, becoming heightened versions of their former selves and most often maniacally violent. Everyone from Harvey Dent to Tweety Bird has had some evil unleashed from within, but this has always been tempered by the effort of their good intentions to win through. There is no finer example of this conflict than Jeff Goldblum and the work he does in The Fly – no amount of gore and dismemberment by toxic vomit can take from the compassion for our hero as he struggles with the way his body and mind changes and the desire he has to right things. His initial self is arrogant but determined, not a clean living character to corrupt but nonetheless the tension that follows puts us on a journey with him. For all the cliché that may smack off, we do want to support his search for a solution no matter how desperate the predicament becomes and unlikely a positive outcome will be. Even in the final moments he looks for solutions and to construct a family. His final resignation is all the more wrenching. Whatever science fiction or horror genre you might assign to The Fly it is most certainly a tragic tale.

The look of the transformation is key; it is convincing and it is vivid. The slow but steady change is unnerving, expanding from odd hair growth to a complete grotesque molting at the finale. (Should the rumoured re-make go into production, it is doomed if it considers CGI – only man-made, caked-on layers of crusty make up that needs peeling off will create the right effect). All the while love interest Geena Davis stays as loyal as possible, her own sense of dread growing, she gets to offer the ultimate of warnings and a now classic movie tag line ‘Be Afraid… Be Very Afraid’. The Fly is considered one of the finest movies of the ’80s and it is a very worthy entry for your DVD collection. It is a simple construct but over achieves in its noble aims, telling a good horror story with plenty of images to make you shudder.

 

HalloweenGemma Creagh

 

One of the original slasher movies; my mum wouldn’t let me watch Halloween when I was a ‘tween. She claimed (and rightly so) that it would give me nightmares. In retaliation, myself and my merry young amigos arranged an evening of horror at one of the less clued-in parental homes, where we had a triple bill of Jason, Chucky and Freddie himself. A few bowls of popcorn, two multipacks of sweets and a whole host of nervous squealing later, my devious band and I had one of the fearful and restless sleepovers in history.

Although not quite as frightened during my latest viewing, as I had been in that golden era of the mid-nineties, I was taken aback at how, after over three decades, the classic film’s tension and story still remain strong. Halloween was the ultimate low-budget independent horror, with meagre funding of $320,000. However, not only did it manage to gross over $60,000,000 but it spawned one of the most well-known and profitable franchises in horror movie history. The Halloween universe now spans a total of 10 films as well as a number of books, graphic novels and a range of stylish masks – the original of which, Jason’s mask, is actually an old William Shatner death mask from a Star Trek episode, only painted white.

By taking time to get to know the likable characters and their small cosy world of Haddonfield, Illinois, and then introducing an almost supernatural element of threat and terror; Halloween challenges the ideas of home and safety. In fact, Michael Myers is such a great evil figure because although we know his back-story, we essentially see so little of him that we can create the monster in our own imagination; a much scarier world than that any Hollywood prosthetics of CGI could ever create.

Apart from the odd slices of ham, there are some truly talented actors in the cast; the highlights being Donald Pleasence as the hapless Dr. Loom; and a young and talented Jamie Lee Curtis playing the prim and proper Laurie Strode. (Spoiler) It’s Laurie’s strong will and lack of interest in the less-fair sex that ultimately sees her survival.

Meanwhile her more promiscuous classmates get hacked to pieces mid-to-post coitus as a severe punishment to their loose morals.

Here’s an interesting side note courtesy of IMDB; the adult Michael Myers was portrayed by Nick Castle in almost every scene, except for a number pick-up shots and the unmasking scene, where he was replaced by Tony Moran. Castle was an old friend of John Carpenter and went on to be a successful director himself, now with the children’s movie Dennis the Menace under his belt – a far cry from his previous position, stalking and murdering young teens.

One of the best, and also the most frustrating aspect of this slasher classic, is its lack of reveal. This is instrumental in creating the tone, both with the gore as well as in constructing the mystery of Jason’s character. John Carpenter does a superbly subtle job of building the tension excruciatingly slowly so the viewer is both rooting for the spunky teens but also dying for some gory action. Then the murderous rampage is delivered in a swift and clean blow, so by the time the credits roll, you’re left abruptly with an odd sense of unease as the iconic music plays in the background – it’s hard to imagine that Williams composed and recorded that eerie soundtrack himself within four days. Legend.

 

The Omen – Peter Larkin


The Omen is a part of a group of films that symbolise a child being associated with devil. Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) also feature this theme. It is written by David Seltzer who famously said, ‘I did it strictly for the money.’ Jerry Goldsmith’s epic film score won the much deserved Oscar® in 1976. The film was released in the U.K. on 6th June 1976; it stars Gregory Peck as Dr. Robert Thorne, his wife Katherine is played by Lee Remick. In Rome, on 6th June, Robert Thorne is told that his newly born has died, he decides to substitute it with an orphan and protect his wife by never telling her the truth.

Soon after, Thorne is elected as the US Ambassador to Britain, He moves to Fulham to live happily with his wife and the child whom they name Damien. On Damien’s fifth birthday, the nanny commits suicide on the top floor looking out at all the guests. A new nanny Mrs. Baylock (Billie Whitelaw) replaces her shortly afterwards. Father Brennan (Patrick Troughton) knows of Damien’s origins and warns Dr. Thorne and also tells him that Katherine is pregnant and Damien plans to kill the unborn child. Photographer Keith Jennings (David Warner) has been investigating the Thorns ever since the Nanny’s suicide.

The thing that makes the original 1976 Omen so memorable is that it is so believable. What would you do if you were told that your child was the literal antichrist? Ignore it as Peck’s character does?

First-time actor Harvey Stephens plays Damien with a sense of subtle ambiguity. Gregory Peck and Lee Remick give brilliantly realistic performances. Billie Whitelaw is unforgettable as the mysterious Mrs. Baylock. There is good support from David Warner and Patrick Troughton.

Every time that I hear the track from Jerry Goldsmith’s score on my iPod as the Thorns approach the church, I can feel the roots of my hair being pulling at, just as the late great Lee Remick’s hair was by the little devilish Harvey Stephens.

It is a film about our fears. Richard Donner’s dazzling direction not only illustrates the material, but also orchestrates it to a high intensity. Gilbert Taylor’s cinematography makes England a bleak and eerie place. Stuart Baird’s editing is sharp and coherent.

The Omen is a masterpiece of horror cinema. Every time I watch it I marvel at how seriously it takes itself. You will never forget that last shot. It is one to truly remember.

Psycho – Steven Galvin


‘No! I will not hide in the fruit cellar! Ha! You think I’m fruity, huh?’

‘Mother-m-mother, uh… what is the phrase? She isn’t quite herself today.’

Ah yes…  My youth. Coming out of Rocky and wanting to be World Heavyweight Champion. Rushing home from Karate Kid to aim high kicks at my younger sister, and, of course, after seeing Psycho, hanging around outside showers brandishing a knife dressed in Mother’s clothes. Such memories…

Alfred Hitchcock is undoubtedly one of the oddest characters ever to have had their wicked way with film. He totally understood how it worked upon the audience and ceaselessly re-invented genres with his perverse mangling of storytelling and in doing so shaped so much of what is modern cinema.

If cinema is the best medium for suspense, then Hitchcock directing Psycho stands tall as one of the finest manipulating inducers of celluloid tension. He is the master magician, using sleight-of-hand, pulling rabbits out of his hat, employing techniques that mischievously implicate the spectator in the evil at the heart of the film. Who hasn’t unwittingly found themselves holding their breathe when Norman pushes the car with Marion’s punctured body into the swamp and, for that brief moment, it seems the car won’t sink. ‘Sink… sink… please sink’, you find yourself willing. Indeed, Hitchcock ensures that for the most part the viewer is essentially seeing through Norman’s eyes.

From Saul Bellow’s introductory screen credits that dementedly cut apart the screen backed to the manic paranoid-fuelled music kicking off Bernard Herrmann’s wonderful score, so essential to the mood of the film, through to the last shot of Norman Bates’ face with a still frame of Mother’s skull superimposed over it, Psycho is a feast of demented thrills and intense bursts of psycho-illogical eruptions. Hitchcock took Anthony Perkins’ timid monster, took the Norman out of normal and shacked him up in that eerie house with the skeletoned corpse of his own mother. What can possibly go wrong?

Anytime I see a house that reminds me in any way of Bates’, I always check the upstairs window for ‘Mother’ and can always hear her calling Norman’s name in her twisted voice and goading him: ‘As if men don’t desire strangers! As if… ohh, I refuse to speak of disgusting things, because they disgust me! You understand, boy? Go on, go tell her she’ll not be appeasing her ugly appetite with my food… or my son! Or do I have to tell her because you don’t have the guts! Huh, boy? You have the guts, boy?’

God knows what Hitchcock’s own Irish mother would have made of it all…

I once drunkenly argued that Psycho was the reason people replaced shower curtains with those horrible glass doors on their showers. People laughed at me but deep down I reckon I’m right – and they should consider themselves lucky they don’t have shower curtains; otherwise I’d be there, in Mother’s clothes, with my knife – cue shrieking violins and stabbing cellos.

Thank you Mr Hitchcock…

Rosemary’s BabyLiam Brennan

Over the past five years I have rented four different apartments and every time I attended a showing I always started out by asking the same question: What are the other tenants like? Are they quiet, easygoing neighbourly types who will nod their heads as you pass them in the hallway or step into a crowded elevator? Or are they rambunctious sex-fiends whose padded leather headboards will bark at you through the walls all night long? In my case, it was inevitably the latter and the same thought popped into my head by the end of the first week in a new pad: I wonder if they’re part of a satanic cult?

I have but one man to thank for these thoughts and his name is Roman Polanski. I recall the night I first watched his 1968 horror classic, Rosemary’s Baby. It was a warm summer night in Winnipeg, Canada and, being a homely teenage shut-in, I’d taken to renting heaps of old Hitchcock thrillers each week until the manager of the video store so kindly asked me to ‘watch something other than that old shit already’.

I asked him what he’d recommend, what would really scare the shit out of me? He started rooting around in the returns bin, which was nothing more than a cardboard box sitting underneath a broken window at the corner of the store, and returned with a video he assured me would be the scariest thing I’d ever seen.
He was right.

Hell, even the cover of the box scared me; that ominous green glow across Mia Farrow’s blank profile, that tiny black pram which seemed to be staring back at me saying, ‘You really don’t wanna see what I’ve got in here’. And for a moment I didn’t, but curiosity gets the best of you and, well, I’ve hated the process of renting apartments ever since.

The film itself is so perfectly executed that it’s hard to say where its blood-dimmed dreamscape begins and Rosemary’s reality ends. But that’s what makes it the quintessential horror film; Polanski knows that, as with any good scary story, the screams are only as horrifying as they are true. In this case, the viewer never really knows what’s to be believed and what isn’t. There is no line on the horizon that marks the waypoint between belief and, gasp, what lies beyond belief.

 

Salem’s Lot Charlene Lydon

It may seem rather an odd addition to this list of such great horror films, a three-hour-long TV adaptation of a Stephen King story, but this is definitely a film that deserves a second look. I read King’s novel when I was way too young to be exposed to such horror and it started a lifelong love affair between me and King’s books. I first saw the movie as a child, rented by my older sister from the video shop and I remember it being the scariest thing had seen in my life, up until that point. I revisited the film recently and despite the fact that it has aged terribly in parts, including the odd freeze-frame here and there and the dodgy floating demon children, the film still terrified me and the other members of the audience. Because it was originally a TV movie, there is surprisingly little blood in the film. This is something I realised after the fact and had trouble believing how little onscreen violence there actually was, especially considering Tobe Hooper was at the helm.

Salem’s Lot is a story about a journalist, Ben (David Soul) who returns to his home town of Jerusalem’s Lot, Maine to write about the Marsten House, a place that had frightened him as a child and has haunted him since. He has arrived at the same time as the mysterious antiques dealer Mr. Straker (James Mason) and his as yet unseen partner Mr. Barlow, who have rented the Marsten House.

The film is part haunted house horror, part vampire thriller, part indictment of the passive masses. King has been known for his tendency to favour small-town Americana. Perhaps this is because his good-evil dichotomy has always had an observer; the passive townsfolk who get picked off one by one. Salem’s Lot is a fine example of this.

The standout aspect of Salem’s Lot is the fact that it features a truly terrifying vampire, a rarity in cinema these days. Mr. Barlow is not sexy, he is not a tortured soul and he is not tragic…he’s evil, he’s ugly and he’s scary! I can’t remember the last time I saw a depiction of a vampire that was truly a bloodsucking demon and nothing more. The introduction of Barlow after almost two hours of anticipation is brilliant, one of the greatest scares in all of horror cinema.

The very long running time of the film may seem excessive but the character exposition and the slow burning tension ensures that it rarely drags. Some of the characters stories may seem superfluous but it all acts as a gateway into the lives of the town’s inhabitants and how far they all are from the world of vampires and demons.

Salem’s Lot is a genuinely tense and scary film; a good, old-fashioned horror film and a film example of what can be done without overuse of blood and gore. Flawed and at times a little cheesy, this is still a truly terrifying film which has been unfairly overlooked for a long time. Maybe it’s time to give ol’ Mr. Barlow another look. You might just find it’s the perfect film for a dark, spooky, Halloween night.

 

The Shining – Scott Townsend

For any misguided soul who views the horror genre as inferior, The Shining is probably the definitive response. Stephen King’s lengthy novel provides a cheap pulpy premise: a writer takes a job as a caretaker in an abandoned hotel for the winter with his family. The hotel, however, has a dark past, and begins to cloud his mind. King’s book took this premise and filled it with literal monsters and the supernatural. Kubrick, meanwhile, threw out the hokier parts of the book (living hedge-monsters anyone?) and instead focused on the family and psychological elements. Famously, King wasn’t impressed, calling Kubrick a man ‘who thinks too much and feels too little’. It’s this rejection of horror-movie grammar, however, that makes the film great. Almost every scene takes place in either a brightly lit area or in daylight. There are no shadows for anything to hide in, no darkness. In Kubrick’s world, evil is perfectly visible, staring you straight in the face. There is no direct antagonist, with the only villain being the hotel itself and the madness it brings out it in the characters. Kubrick’s mastery of atmosphere, compostion and editing brings out a chilling quality in the most ordinary things – a ball being bounced against a wall, a child’s tricycle. Case in point – the scariest image isn’t the tidal wave of blood, or the hag in the bathtub, but simply two twin girls standing in a hallway with dodgy wallpaper.

Despite lukewarm critical reaction at the time, and King’s dismissal of it, The Shining endures as one of the greats. It remains terrifying despite one of the finest ever Simpsons spoofs (‘That’s odd. Usually the blood gets off at the second floor’). Even on television, its chilling composition and electrifying sound design can haunt your dreams. The final shot raises a fascinating, head-scratching mystery that haunts you the more you think about it. And those twins are unspeakably creepy.

 

The Thing – Jack McGlynn

I was fully grown when first I saw The Thing. Darkness was no longer scary, night-time bumps were easily identified, and blood and guts in films was yearned for, not feared. A veritable Big Brave Dog, if you will.

And still it scared the piss out of me.

Long had I been searching for a horror that could evoke genuine fear, not cheap jumps or scares. I had tried and tested all the great horror classics, finding them wanting. Then one cold dark night, a friend suggested John Carpenter’s underrated masterpiece, so we flicked off the lights and settled in for two hours of isolation, tension and grotesquery.

I realised this was a particularly distressing feature as I was laughing inside of ten minutes. Each of us responds to fear and tension in different ways. The Thing was so distressing, I laughed hysterically. And it wasn’t simply the ingenious creature effects which caused it (though I’d be lying if I said they didn’t help).
It’s actually The Thing’s subtler themes which haunt us so much: An isolated station, no help coming, an unknown threat, friends turning on friends. Mundane yet effective. In fact, the only aspect not immediately relatable in this horror is the titular creature.

There are no plucky virgins, no chauvinist jocks who could probably benefit from a good stabbing, no would-be heroes offering a glimmer of hope before some wrestler wearing a hockey mask rends him in two with a gigantic butter knife. Every single character is average, relatable, and ordinary.

The real terror here comes not from the prospect of being absorbed by the gross alien baddie, as that’s a relatively unlikely scenario for any of us to encounter. Instead the idea of best buddies turning on each other, becoming each other’s nemesis due to the fear and isolation, that’s what’s really affecting.

Death may come to us all, but it only comes the once. Fear on the other hand, has no such limits, and can take generally decent, civic minded folk, and turn them petty, selfish and unpredictable. What’s so scary about The Thing is that by the time the credits roll on this depressing film, you’ll be a lot less confident in how good and decent a person you really are.



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