Alex Proyas’s Dark City is a radiant jewel of sci-fi beauty, madness and mystery, one of the best films of the 90’s, a testament to just what kind of world building is possible using special effects and a textbook example of deep, ponderous ideas one might explore in this area of the medium. It kind of got overshadowed by the release of The Matrix the same year (which is also masterful) and slipped through the cracks a bit, but it managed to hold on and re-emerge with a kind of cult aura around it, a reverie that prompts discussions in hushed tones and friends holding screenings for new generations who haven’t had their minds and eyes blown out of their skulls by the experience just yet. It kind of goes the Blade Runner route by fusing inky black retro noir with startling futurism, albeit less monolithic tech design and something more organic and otherworldly. In a nameless, perpetually nocturnal city, a man named Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) wakes up in a dingy apartment next to a dead hooker, with no memory of who he is or what happened. Chased all through the night by mysterious, pale gentlemen in hats and trench coats, he doesn’t so much try to clear his name as much as find out what his name actually is, and why things have gotten so strange in this city. He’s supposedly got a wife in Emma (Jennifer Connelly has never been sexier), a lounge singer who knows more than she lets on, and wily detective Frank (William Hurt, fantastic) is on his trail too. Then there’s the creepy, wheezing asthmatic Dr. Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland playing against type) who has a connection to the trench coat brigade. To give too much away would be criminal, but let’s say that the story goes to some truly mesmerizing and disturbing places that explore far beyond the topical murder mystery of the first act and shake the foundations of the world we see built, rearranged and then completely disassembled right before our eyes. At the heart of the narrative lies perhaps the biggest question ever asked by humans: what are we, where are we and what’s the reason for all this? The film blazes it’s own trail of answers to fit the story, but is no less provocative than those age old quandaries, and there’s a point in the third act (you’ll know when it happens) where the lid is blown off of what these characters think their world is, and it’s like a collective gasp from all the universe, one of the most simultaneously harrowing and tantalizing moments in cinema. Sewell plays it opaque as always, I’ve never really been able to connect with him as an actor, but because his character here has sort of a vacant, blank slate thing going on anyways, it works. Hurt has always had a questioning in his eyes while at work, a tender, inquisitive nature that’s put to the test and then some over the course of his brilliant arc. Connelly has all the stars of the galaxy in her gorgeous eyes and it’s so cool to watch her go from sidelined wife/songstress role into take no prisoners, dark angel mode as she joins the search for truth. As the impending legion of trench coats there’s a handful of varied faces including Ian Richardson, Bruce ‘Gyro Captain’ Spence and the absolutely terrifying Richard O’Brien, who goes down in history as one of the scariest villains on hand here. Director Proyas did the classic The Crow in which another atmospheric metropolis takes centre stage, the man knows how to set us right in the environment and keep eyes rooted to the screen with each and every shot. The disconcerting score by Trevor Jones is a restless jangle that puts forth auditory fragments like half remembered clues from a dream before, adding further to the atmosphere. It’s simply one of the best tales ever told on celluloid, a timeless piece of storytelling that speaks on all levels of consciousness. Oh, and remember Shell Beach.
You know when you’re on some wilderness trip, out of your element, and all these crazy, far flung ‘what if’ scenarios enter your head, but they never happen? In A Lonely Place To Die, one of them does, to hapless hiker Melissa George and her friends. Traversing the Scottish highlands, the group hears an eerie crying coming from a random ventilation pipe in a remote area, and unwisely digs below ground to investigate. Imprisoned in a seriously creepy bunker is a young Eastern European girl, alone and afraid. So begins their waking nightmare trying to find out where she came from, pursued by all kinds of nasties and forced to kill or be killed to protect her. There’s a horde of British thugs including resident creeper Sean Harris, a faction of powerful Russian spooks led by intense Karel Roden, and all manner of psychos adding to the hubbub. As a breathless chase thriller it works wonders, with more than a few impeccably stages set pieces that orchestrate suspense well. There’s violence too, as Melissa is forced to dispatch the heinous baddies in terrifically gory ways, and fighting tooth and nail to protect the girl. The plot moves in a familiar direction as far as her backstory goes and loses momentum in resolution, but they had to wrap it up logically I suppose. The film is best when it goes full on crazy, and gets into borderline horror mode, it’s got a loopy sense of violence about it that is the strongest quality.
I’ve written about this film before, but I just keep coming back to it and having tantrums at just how unseen and overlooked it is. Crafted in Europe and given the darkly ambiguous title ‘W Delta Z’, it was picked up stateside by Dimension Extreme and now has the decidedly more accessible title ‘The Killing Gene’, but it’s like they say, a rose by any other name. This is one seriously blood soaked rose too, with a few deeply unsettling ideas to go along with copious amounts of grisly violence. People have compared it to both Saw and Sev7n, and while not inaccurate, it’s smarter than those two combined and twice as gruesome. The premise is terrific: Amidst a brutal gang war in some nameless inner city inferno, there’s a serial killer loose with a few elaborately cerebral methods. Kidnapping people and forcing them to the brink of death via torture, giving them one way out: flick a switch that promptly kills a loved one in front of their eyes, also in captivity right next to them. The goal? To try and find tangible proof that real ‘love’ exists beyond an illusory notion or simply to serve human function, based on a controversial mathematical equation. Pretty grim stuff, but fascinating as well. Weary Detective Eddie Argo (Stellan Skarsgard has never been better) does everything he can to find this maniac, stop the gangs from tearing up the city and wrestle demons from his own past, which have more to do with matters at hand than he thinks. Saddled with the obligatory rookie partner (Melissa George) and at odds with the psychotic ringleader of a gang (Tom Hardy), it’s a rough week for him and everyone in this hellhole. This is the first role I ever saw Hardy in and he’s terrifying, a mumbling urban joker who delights in doling out horrific violence and assault, just a pitch black, on point performance early in his now prolific career. I have to spoil one plot detail which is fairly evident from trailers anyway, and that’s the the identity of the murderer. Selma Blair is the perp in question, and not not once elsewhere in her career has she taken on a role that requires this kind bravery, grit and conviction. Her character is driven by fury, fuelled by vengeance and infected with the sickness that both those attributes fester among damaged people. She’s simultaneously a terrifying fiend and someone you can sympathize with, and even wish to protect. Her character has a bitter, twisted past and we soon realize that the chosen victims are all intricately woven into Eddie’s past, a dark web of violent secrets involving Hardy, another cohort (Ashley Walters) and all of the double dealing that has gone on between them in the past, a precursor of a narrative that comes back to haunt each and every one of them, including Blair herself. The distinct European flavour rushes up to meet the classic urban American crime aesthetic and creates a flavour both stark and irresistible, as we realize that the journey we’re being taken on is very, very different from most of the cop vs. killer flicks made by Hollywood. I can’t stress enough how great this one is. I rarely re-review films unless I feel like they really didn’t get a fighting chance out of the gate or that marketing wasn’t properly put in, and not enough people took notice. This one got seen by few, and just begs to be discovered by many folks out there who I know would really dig it.
Structured like a labyrinthine video game. Packed with loads of paranoid suspense and style. Tuned with the hazy thick atmosphere of a bad dream. A diabolical guessing game from scene to scene. Triangle is one of the most enjoyable mind benders out there, a funhouse of a thriller that sails into murky metaphysical water and doesn’t let either it’s protagonist or its audience off with a cheap resolution. Imagine Dead Calm crossed with Memento and you’ll begin to have some notion as to where this film will take you. It’s a freaky voyage, as star Melissa George finds out after a yachting expedition with friends hits a nasty patch of storm weather. Soon a massive, deserted ocean liner crosses their path, and they are forced to board it after the typhoon wreaks their smaller craft. The rest of her crew just seemed puzzled by the derelict vessel, but Melissa has an eerie, gnawing feeling that she’s been on this boat before, a feeling that something is very wrong. Suddenly there’s a mystery person hunting and killing them, and if I just made it sound like a run of the mill slasher flick, please be assured that it’s anything but. What I’ve described happens in what is maybe the first quarter of the film, and everything after that point is a trip into a dizzy, seafaring twilight zone of psychological mystery and reality warping uncertainty that makes George unsure if anything, including her own perception of reality, can be trusted. Events repeat themselves, characters dart in and out of the wormhole of a narrative arbitrarily yet with a hidden purpouse that managed to scarily elude me for much of the film. It’s scary in the way that ducks usual horror trends. There’s violence and even some ghastly gore, but the real fear here lies in the unknown, the idea that forces beyond what we perceive as reality are messing around with us, and indeed they do mess around with her and then some, right up until the last frame of an ending that’s commendable, haunting and difficult to process. George makes great work of the confusion that morphs into terror and then outright existential panic, keeping us on our toes with the way she handles her character arc. Keep an eye out for a young Liam Hemsworth too. For psychological thrillers, it don’t get much better than this, and it’s off the radar enough that you’ll be able to recommend it to your friends who chances are, haven’t even heard of it.