Ken Russell’s Gothic

Ken Russell’s Gothic reminds me of one of those nights where you and a group of your friends all get hammered and take psychedelics together but accidentally forget to designate one amongst the group to stay sober and take care of the rest, so you all just kind of collectively lose it without a sane babysitter to steer you away from a bad trip. In this case the group of friends in question includes Lord Byron (Gabriel Byrne), his doe-eyed concubine (Myriam Cyr), Mary Shelley (Natasha Richardson), her poet husband (Julian Sands) and John Polidori (Timothy Spall), and if you’re even vaguely familiar with their real life literary works it wouldn’t even surprise me that the lot of them were out of their heads on all sorts of drugs. All metaphors aside this is a fantastic, warped, fever dream shock horror film that provides an abundance of perverse enjoyment, provided you have the strong stomach, deranged sensibilities and capacity for abstraction required to get perverse enjoyment out of what can only be described as really fucking weird shit. As the odd group engages in tantalizing swinger’s foreplay and picks each other’s brains, subtle supernatural things start to show up, then all hell breaks loose after they conduct an impromptu seance around a supposedly enchanted skull. This is my first Ken Russell film and I already love his work, the guy just likes to roll up his sleeves and get unapologetically bizarre for the sheer joy of it. Natasha Richardson’s Mary Shelley is the eventual main focal point of the group and both her wonderful, edgy performance and the night in question subtly suggests what past traumas and diabolical new inspirations led to the genesis idea for her iconic Frankenstein novel, while Byrne’s impossibly sleazy Byron hovers in the background, a hedonistic tornado of deviant sexual energy and debutant petulance that the actor, still early in his career, tears into with seething voracity. Russell himself is a wizard of hallucinatory panic, visual madness and disorienting, hair raising sound design, with a lot of help from a terrifically spine chilling score by the one and only Thomas Dolby. The experience is one of dementedly strange horror, with indescribable monsters lurking around every corner and edifice of Byron’s spooky mansion, a constant state of mental disarray, existential confusion and otherworldly anxiety inflicted both upon the characters and audience alike, a truly immersive realm of a film. It’s a shame this isn’t really more widely available, streaming, physical or otherwise because it’s essential for any horror fan. I watched it on YouTube with surprisingly decent picture and sound quality, I suppose that will have to do for now. Excellent film.

-Nate Hill

Steve Miner’s Warlock

Steve Miner’s Warlock is billed as a horror film but it looks, feels and works better as a sort of time travel adventure deal. There are elements of horror, and the sequel (which I’ll review next) definitely dabbles in horror more hardcore but this is a rollicking, spirited jaunt from 1600’s New England through space and time to 1990’s L.A. as a hyperactive witch hunter (Richard E. Grant) pursued a dangerous supernatural sorcerer (Julian Sands) before he can collect enough dark magic to unleash the apocalypse or… something. It doesn’t matter what your specifics are when your effects, journey and overall atmosphere are this much fun. Sands is mercurial, devilish and relentless as the Warlock and he carefully walks a tightrope between being an unstoppable, faceless force of evil like some horror boogeymen and having his own unique charisma and panache, like others. Grant is ridiculously fun as the initially boorish, then gradually likeable and by the third act downright adorable witch hunter, sporting a coat right out of The Revenant and a mullet that Chuck Norris would be jealous of. Also he’s called “Giles Redferne,” which might be the coolest name ever in cinema, and he sure lives up to it. He meets a bubbly 90’s valley girl who has no interest joining forces with him until the Warlock puts a nasty aging spell on her and then, well, you can imagine. The effects are naturally of the 90’s variety but they have their own kitschy charm, especially during a hilariously shocking sequence where Sands literally kills a child and uses its blood for a flying potion so he can become a cruise missile and engage Redferne in a raucous highway car/flying Warlock chase. This is a fun one with elements of horror, dark comedy and swashbuckling tinged adventure all at play.

-Nate Hill

Frank Marshall’s Arachnophobia

Scared of spiders? This is the perfect movie for you and no it’s not Eight Legged Freaks. Seriously though if you’re one of those people who are mortally, terminally and irrationally afraid of them then Arachnophobia will flare up just that kind of reaction. It’s produced by Spielberg too so it has that special kind of ‘menace in 80’s suburbia’ feel, this isn’t some cobwebby haunted house or fearsome jungle setting, this is killer spiders in the small town California which is all the more disarming. There is a jungle set prologue though because we gotta see just how these things did make it to Cali and you can thank scientist Julian Sands for that when he accidentally lets a breed of deadly arachnids hitch a lift in a coffin back to the states. There they slowly but surely begin to breed and wreak havoc on unsuspecting townsfolk until they’re basically everywhere. Jeff Daniels steps in for hero duty as a doctor who just moved into town and is getting a pretty suspect first impression of the area thanks to these creatures. It’s up to him and an intrepid posse to take them on while evading their deadly bites in the process. John Goodman shows up and steals the film as a boisterous, beer swilling exterminator who knows a maximum threat when he sees one and breaks out the non FDA approved methods for dispatching them. His character provides the film with levity and laughs as a kind of cross between Chris Walken’s kooky exterminator in Mouse Hunt and one of the Ghostbusters. This film is actually terrifying because it isn’t just giant spiders like in Harry Potter or The Hobbit and they’re not CGI or schlocky like countless other horror films, there’s actual craft and artistry put in and they use real spiders too so it’s pretty gnarly. There’s one scene where Daniels and his family are in the middle of the living room and there’s spiders literally everywhere.. the couch, ceiling, walls, appliances, floor… covered. We all know that feeling of seeing just one of them somewhere over in a corner, now amplify that by like a thousand. Yeah. It’s a great fright flick that never gets too gooey or gory and always maintains humour amidst the horror.

-Nate Hill

Leaving Las Vegas: A Review by Nate Hill

image

Upon my first ever viewing (I know) of Mike Figgis’s Leaving Las Vegas last night, I discovered that it’s not the film I thought it was all these years. I had an image of a quirky, star crossed lovers tale with a modicum of sweetness. What I got wasn’t insanely far off the mark, but I have to say I was disarmed and deeply affected by the sense of decaying bitterness which prevails throughout the story and hangs over it like the sour, neon stained moon over a feverish, perpetually nocturnal Vegas. Every character besides the two leads sort of flits dimly in and out of the story, never having any impact further than they need to service the plot with. This leaves Nicolas Cage and Elizabeth Shue eerily alienated and gives the movie a hypnotic flair. Even though these two abide in a bustling setting, it oddly seems at times that they are the only two human beings in existence. That also most likely stems from the film’s willingness to take the time to get to know them, lingering on every glance, murmur and mannerism, be it mundane or essential, to try and get a feel for these two completely broken souls. Cage is Ben, a failing Hollywood screenwriter who is quite literally drowning in alcoholism, plagued by some tragic past of which we never learn about. He is fired and splits for Vegas to hole up in a motel and deliberatly drink himself to death. There he meets Sera (Shue) a hooker with a heart of gold (Shue torches the cliche bravely). They are immediately attracted, and begin a relationship.  She continues to see Johns, after being freed of her sadistic Latvian pimp (Julian Sands, terrifying). He makes her promise to not attempt to stop his drinking. Their romance is born out of the primal lonliness that each human being feels to a certain extent, that instinctual urge to reach out and grab for anything, anyone to put out the pain. Cage is everything in the role: pathetic, charming, sad, manic, desperate and deeply, scarily committed to his lethal quest of inebriation. The scenes of liquor consumption in this film go beyond excess and make Denzel in Flight look like a high schooler. It will make many uncomfortable, but looking away for our own peace of mind takes away from the urgency and dark poetry of Cage’s situation. Booze is a low burn, but it’s still suicide, and an agonizing method for anyone to behold in action: the person has an extended period of time to rethink, reevaluate, and if they don’t, then their resolve is extended and far more disturbing than a split second decision. Cage displays this in harrowing form in a career highlight. Elizabeth Shue is heartbreaking as the girl who loves him but can’t quite say why, a girl who has spent years in loveless copulation, confused and torn upon feeling it for the first time. Her character goes through some truly hellish things here. You will cry for her, fall in love with her alongside Cage and swell with admiration at her steely resilience in the face of some of the ugliest things life has to offer her. Each member of the supporting cast is like a star in the desert sky, a moment of flickering purpouse before fading into the background again to let Cage and Shue continue their dance of the damned. Graham Beckel as a shaken bartender, Xander Berkeley as a cynical cab driver, Valeria Golino as as a Barfly and R. Lee Ermey as a taken aback conventioneer are all perfect. Director Mike Figgis composed the score himself, a moody blues melody that clings to your perception after the film like a dream that won’t let go. Just to make the film more haunting, it’s based on a novel by a severely alcoholic writer who took his own life two weeks after production was underway, furthering the disconcerting vibe to a saturation point. This one is a tough watch, and you’ll be forced to see two human beings at the absolute end of the road, miles past rock bottom with seemingly no hope in sight. And yet, if you are patient and try to empathize, you will see the kind of flickering positivity and briefly life -affirming intimacy and light that humans cling to even in the darkest of times. Cage and Shue beautifully paint a bittersweet portrait of this through their work. It’s overbearing with the better, but that makes the sweet all the more precious and lasting. Just watch something happy after.