Film Review: The Amityville Horror

For a film with the word ‘Horror’ in the title, The Amityville Horror is not a very frightening film. Although the 1979 film is effective in building atmosphere, it is let down by the lack of frights.

George and Kathy Lutz and their three young children move into a house in Amityville, New York. The scene of a multiple murder, the couple begins to experience strange occurrences in their new home. After their family priest attempts a failed exorcism, things seem to get worse, especially for George…

Adapted from a book by Jay Anson, which is apparently based on true events, The Amityville Horror offers plenty of stock horror conventions. Influence from films such as The Haunting and The Exorcist are clear, in both theme and on-screen devices. Young Amy’s apparent connection with a spirit evokes William Friedkin’s 1973 film, while the moving chandelier can be compared to Robert Wise’s 1963 haunted-house classic. Nevertheless, The Amityville Horror perhaps has also influenced later films in the genre itself. The scene where George attempts to break through the bathroom door with an axe instantly recalls 1980’s The Shining, although Stephen King’s novel was published two years before in 1977.

The Amityville Horror is not usually remembered with such fondness as other horror pictures of the era. There appears to be two main reasons for this. Firstly, despite the supernatural context, there are very few actual scares in the film, and those that do appear are mild rather than shocking. Secondly, the pacing of Stuart Rosenberg’s film is awry. The film builds very slowly, and in comparison the ending feels rushed. The slow momentum of isolated incidents each day suggests a major pay-off, but sadly this never occurs.

Where the film excels is in generating a pervading atmosphere. George’s slow decline enhances the sense of unease, coupled with the gentle release of information about the house’s past. By far the most effective tool in building tension is Lalo Schifrin’s fantastic score. Given Amityville Horror‘s low budget, the filmmakers are wise to keep special effects to a minimum; the ones that are featured have not aged well.

James Brolin and Margot Kidder both do well as the unlucky couple, despite the material they have to work with. Rod Steiger brings passion and urgency as Father Delaney, while Helen Shaver is jarringly over the top as friend Carolyn. Natasha Ryan is well cast as the young Amy, providing both innocence and an air of menace in the role.

Although The Amityville Horror was a big box office success on its release, the film has not really stood the test of time. Sadly, there are plenty of other haunted-house movies that are far more affecting.

The Amityville Horror was screened at Union Chapel by the Jameson Cult Film Club, as part of their Chills in the Chapel Halloween event.

Film Review: The Insatiable Moon

Overall a positive film, The Insatiable Moon is let down by its unevenness. Although there are a few flaws, the often amusing and at times touching New Zealand film has its heart in the right place.

Arthur believes he is the second son of God. Living in a boarding house for the mentally ill, Arthur’s life changes when he encounters a woman he believes to be the Queen of Heaven…

Whilst the focus undoubtedly is on Arthur and his relationships with other people and particularly Margaret, The Insatiable Moon is also preoccupied with mental illness as a wider issue. Along with Arthur’s story, there is the secondary strand involving the threat of closure for the boarding house. The meeting in the church highlights the arguments for and against care-in-the-community schemes.

Perhaps the biggest triumph of The Insatiable Moon is its depiction of characters with mental health problems. There appears to be a real understanding of the complex nature of the illnesses by screenwriter Mike Riddell. The characters featured in the film have an array of psychological problems, mirroring the diversity of mental illness in reality. The depiction of these characters are almost wholly positive; despite their difficulties, Arthur, Norm, Pete and the others are portrayed as likeable and amusing protagonists. The Insatiable Moon offers a redeeming illustration of people with mental health problems in a format where too often depictions are negative.

Arthur is an engaging character who keeps the audience entertained throughout. The filmmakers are wise to keep the audience guessing over Arthur’s state of mind; it is unclear for the most part whether Arthur is just suffering from a mental illness or whether there may be some legitimacy to his claims. His relationship with Margaret is mostly endearing, although her behaviour is sometimes questionable considering she is married.

There is an unevenness to both the directorial style and the narrative in The Insatiable Moon. The film begins well, but loses its way in the last third, in terms of plot. The life of Arthur and his subsequent relationship with Margaret dominates the film, but it then changes tact in the final third, choosing instead to concentrate on the plight of the boarding house. The climax, in terms of Arthur’s story, feels too abrupt considering the weight given to his character for most of the film. The visual style of the film, meanwhile, remains unbalanced throughout. The combination of hand-held, documentary-style images with more traditional filming gives the movie an amateurish feel. Director Rosemary Riddell would have been wiser to stick with either one style or the other.

Best known for Whale Rider, Rawiri Paratene offers a strong performance as Arthur. Greg Johnson offers both passion and a great deal of amusement as Bob, owner of the boarding house. Performances are generally good across the board.

Although the execution lets the film down, The Insatiable Moon is worth a watch for the some great performances, frequent humour, and a few moving moments.

The Insatiable Moon was shown at a gala screening at Cineworld Haymarket. The film was followed by a Q&A session with Mike Riddell, Rosemary Riddell and Rawiri Paratene.

Film Review: Back to the Future

With an excellent screenplay, perfect casting and a superlative theme song and score, it is not an overstatement to assert that Back to the Future is one of the finest films of all time. It is not a stretch to imagine the reaction of audiences in 1985; the film has retained that rare magic twenty-five years on.

After helping his friend Doc Brown with his scientific experiments, teenager Marty McFly is sent back in time, from 1985 to 1955. As well as trying to get back to the present day, Marty also has to ensure his parents meet as they should, otherwise there will be no future for him at all…

Back to the Future‘s script, by Bob Gale and director Robert Zemeckis, captures a dose of all the necessities in good measure. Part science fiction fantasy, part action comedy, the film also dips into the teen film and sprinkles a generous helping of retro kitsch. In amongst the plentiful humour is a real sense of peril; Marty’s quest at times seems unlikely to succeed, even though the idea of him failing is unthinkable. The pacing of Back to the Future is faultless; the film moves quickly enough to sustain interest, but at the same time allows sufficient space for character development.

The narrative is a paradox, being simple but also elaborate. Like many other 1980s fantasy and action films, Back to the Future follows a straightforward quest narrative and is linear in its structure. However, the time-travelling aspect is a little more complex than this. Such is the precariousness of Marty’s position, that one wrong turn could alter the fabric of history. Whilst the young protagonist attempts to cause as little damage as possible, at the same time he cannot help leaning on his knowledge of the future; introducing the 1955 contingent to Chuck Berry and Darth Vader, for example.

Michael J. Fox is perfectly cast as teenager Marty McFly. He exudes likeability and has great comic timing. Crispin Glover is excellent as Marty’s dad George in both 1955 and 1985. Christopher Lloyd, however, steals the show as Doctor Emmett Brown. He encapsulates the zaniness that makes the character so memorable.

Back to the Future features a now classic score by Alan Silvestri as well as the indelible theme song ‘The Power of Love’ by Huey Lewis and the News. As well as the music, there are a whole host of other elements that affirm Back to the Future as very much a product of the mid-1980s.

As a film that is itself concerned with nostalgia, watching Back to the Future on the big screen now is a hugely nostalgic experience for those who remember the eighties. For those who do not, the film is a paragon of the original, immensely entertaining and exceptionally popular blockbusters that appeared much more frequently in that decade than they do now.

Back to the Future has been re-released in cinemas to celebrate the film’s 25th anniversary.

Film Review: The Innocents

In its finest moments, The Innocents is deeply unsettling in a way few body horrors ever rival. It is a masterclass in psychological horror, in this respect. The film is not without its flaws, but for the most part in remains one of the eeriest British horror films.

Young governess Miss Giddens is employed to look after two young orphans by their uncle at their country house in Victorian England. Soon after she arrives at the idyllic estate, Miss Giddens becomes convinced that the place is haunted, and her fears for the children grow…

The Innocents excels in the way in which it generates a sinister atmosphere. Frequently the action is seen from the viewpoint of protagonist Miss Giddens. Therefore, when she is initially enamoured with her new surroundings, it is easy to agree with her. Similarly, when unusual events start to occur, it is understandable why she is so perturbed; after all her perception is the one the audience shares.

Director Jack Clayton builds tension slowly but assuredly in The Innocents. At first the pace is slow, as little by little it is revealed that something is amiss. What works adeptly is the way any supernatural activity always sits firmly in the category of the uncanny. As the apparitions are seen from Miss Giddens’ point of view, it is ambiguous as to whether such things are occurring, or whether they are figments of the protagonist’s mind. The slow reveal employed in The Innocents allows ideas to ruminate in the mind of the viewer. What we imagine is often far worse than what a film is able to depict.

When supernatural activity becomes apparent, it is suitably chilling. As there is a wait for such incidents to occur, anticipation has been adequately built. With the skillful use of lighting and cinematography the atmosphere is ripe. After a few false scares, Miss Giddens experience with the apparitions is incredibly tense.

After such a wonderful build up, the climax feels rushed in comparison. Although there are moments of fear, it feels unsatisfactory given the uncanny feel to the rest of the film. Furthermore, whilst the sound aids immensely in generating the atmosphere, at times it is simply to high pitched and causes more discomfort than anything else.

Deborah Kerr gives a formidable performance as Miss Giddens; both her love for the children and her torment over events appear sincere. Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklin as children Miles and Flora are perfectly cast. The unsettling nature of the film owes a lot to their performances.

The Innocents is not the greatest horror film, but it should take its place in the upper echelons of haunted house films. Fans of this sub-genre should definitely check it out.

The Innocents was shown at the British Film Institute, as part of the Deborah Kerr season.

Film Review: Taxi Driver

Taxi Driver is one of Martin Scorsese’s best films, featuring one of Robert De Niro’s finest performances and Paul Schrader’s excellent screenplay. Simply put, it is one of the greatest films in cinematic history.

Insomniac Travis Bickle drives a taxi in New York City at night. Gradually, Bickle’s instability is revealed as his disgust with the city grows, leading to him making some life-changing choices…

Taxi Driver is an affecting film because it works on numerous levels. It is both a study of violence and a violent film. Taxi Driver depicts Bickle’s disgust at the violence that surrounds him, yet later reveals his inclination to turn to this same method to make his stand. Whilst the climax of the film is famously desaturated to lessen to the effect of the gore, this does not detract overly from this incredibly violent scene. Although the graphic nature of the climax may be shocking to viewers, it is depicted as an act of heroism by the media in the film. Thus, Taxi Driver offers a view of violence in society but remains refreshingly ambiguous in passing judgement.

To describe Travis Bickle simply as an anti-hero does a disservice to the complexity of the character. Schrader has constructed such an intricate protagonist in Bickle. He elicits both sympathy and aversion from the audience. Bickle exhibits in awkwardness in social situations which is sometimes difficult to watch. At the same time, some of his actions appear antagonistic for both other characters in the film and the audience watching. Bickle describes himself as “God’s lonely man”; a very perceptive description of his isolation. This facet of his character is quite relatable, and stands in contrast to other aspects of his personality.

Robert De Niro gives an exceptional performance as Bickle. He truly inhabits the character, portraying his mental disturbance through more subtle tics as well as the troublesome nature of his narrations. Jodie Foster is convincing as young prostitute Iris; she is remarkably solid considering her young age. Cybill Shepherd’s Betsy is the other woman is Bickle’s life. There is quite a divergence between these two females; each of them fuelling his motivation in different ways.

Taxi Driver offers us the final score of legendary composer Bernard Herrmann. And what a score it is. Ranging from a laid-back sax solo to a thunderous rumble, Herrmann’s music is the perfect accompaniment to the visuals, setting the tone for the film.

As a tale of urban alienation, Taxi Driver remains unrivalled. Often movies are described as “must-see” films. In the case of this 1976 classic, that really is the most fitting label.

Taxi Driver was screened at Brewer Street Car Park by the Jameson Cult Film Club. It was introduced by Riz Ahmed.

Film Review: Darling

Not as well known as it should be, John Schlesinger’s Darling is very much a product of the mid-1960s, yet its themes are entirely contemporary as to have resonance with audiences today.

Diana Scott is a beautiful young woman living in London. In order to fulfill her modeling and acting aspirations, Diana decides to do whatever is necessary, and finds herself increasingly socialising in circles which can offer her the fame and fortune she desires…

Whilst the idea of a young woman sleeping with people in order to get ahead in her career may have been salacious in the 1960s, it is not such a shocking proposal these days. What makes Darling resonate with more modern audiences is Diana’s quest for fame, and her manipulation of the media. It is something we see emanating from celebrity magazines, websites and television shows everyday. In one sense, it is heartening to know that this was also occurring fifty years ago.

Julie Christie certainly deserved her Oscar award for her portrayal of the title character. As Diana she is enchantingly beautiful, yet there is a ruthlessness to her character that quickly dissuades any warmth one may feel towards her. Christie is utterly believable in this role; the necessary coldness she displays sets the tone for the entire film. Diana narrates the film, as if she is giving an interview. This device works incredibly well, depicting the disparity of actuality of events and the spin she wishes to put on them.

Dirk Bogarde offers a convincing portrayal of Robert Gold, the one man Diana actually loves. Although he has his flaws, he is one of the more redeeming characters in Darling. Laurence Harvey is excellent as the well-connected Miles. His character is quite believable, and brings a healthy dose of humour to proceedings.

The Oscar-winning costume design, as well as the cinematography offers such a beautiful aesthetic, which contrasts perfectly with the ugliness of the narrative. As social commentary, Darling works as well today as it did in the 1960s. The film perfectly exhibits the hollowness of Diana’s lifestyle. The audience will be left perhaps in awe of the protagonist’s beauty, but certainly not of her life.

Overall, Darling is a gem of 1960s British cinema; a film well worth discovering.

Darling was shown at the British Film Institute, as part of the Screen Epiphanies season and in conjunction with Elle Magazine. It was introduced by Roland Mouret.

Film Review: Cherry Tree Lane

This low-budget thriller from the director of The Cottage and London to Brighton aims for a tense atmosphere throughout, but is only partially successful.

Christine and Mike are having dinner in their London home when the doorbell rings. A gang of youths push through, looking for the couple’s son, who is due home shortly…

The film takes place solely in this one house; therefore you would expect a feeling of claustrophobia. This isn’t really reached as often action takes place off-screen, in other rooms of the house. Cherry Tree Lane is not so much a horror movie; it doesn’t offer the moments of fear you would expect from a film like this. Rather, it contains elements of a thriller and a crime film.

The action takes place in real time, an attempt, it seems, to make the film as realistic as possible. Whilst this works on some levels (such as the limited time before the couple’s son is due home), it also reveals the mundaneness of the situation. The tension of the couple being bound and gagged is off-set by one of the gang grabbing a digestive biscuit when he goes into the kitchen. Whilst this real-time style may add authenticity to the action, unfortunately it is not very interesting to watch.

Paul Andrew Williams, who wrote and directed the film, seems to have developed his villains, but only to a certain extent. Of all the characters, Asad (played by Ashley Chin) is the most believable. It seems he has only gone along with the plan on the say-so of leader Rian, and seems to show some compassion to his captives. It is unclear whether the message advocated here is that evil comes in many forms, or that there is good even in those who have shown wickedness.

It is the sound used in Cherry Tree Lane that does the most to generate tension. The film does contain some violence, but most of the more gory segments take place off-screen. It is the sound of these incidents that is unnerving; nothing too graphic is actually depicted but the sound feeds the imagination sufficiently.

The acting is a bit hit-and-miss in Cherry Tree Lane, but perhaps that is not too surprising considering the low budget and brief nature of the shoot (the whole movie was filmed in fourteen days).  The main problem with the film isn’t the acting or the plot holes; it is that Cherry Tree Lane fails to sustain the apprehension so essential to a film such as this. It may aim for the heights of Hitchcock’s Rope, but does not even get close to The Last House on the Left.

Cherry Tree Lane was screened at the Curzon Soho followed by a Q&A session with director Paul Andrew Williams.

Film Review: Tangled

The latest effort from Walt Disney Animation Studios, Tangled is a retelling of the Rapunzel fairy tale. Due to be released later this year in the US, the film is not yet complete.

Stolen as a baby from the king and queen, Rapunzel spends her whole life in a tower. Believing her ‘mother’ has her best interests at heart, Rapunzel nevertheless still longs to see the world outside. A chance encounter brings the dream closer…

In the completed scenes, the animation is excellent. The attention to detail is particularly evident in Rapunzel’s hair; her long locks appear incredibly realistic. The musical numbers are solid, although perhaps not as instantly catchy as some of Disney’s previous animated musicals. As the film is unfinished, it is perhaps too early to judge this.

Following on from The Princess and the Frog, Disney have chosen once again to plunder the fairy tale genre. This is by no means a bad thing – many of the best Disney animated films have been based on fairy tales. There is one gripe with Tangled, however. It is a little too reminiscent of other animated features. There is a particular scene that harks back to Beauty and the Beast, and Rapunzel’s initial upbringing is remarkably similar to the She-Ra: Princess of Power origins film The Secret of the Sword.

Nevertheless, the film is filled with enough humour, action and romance to please a wide audience. Added to this are the likeable characters. Voiced by Mandy Moore, Rapunzel is sweet-natured, but like many recent Disney Princesses, she shows some spirit. Both children and adults will be amused by the two animal sidekicks that feature in Tangled.

With Tangled, it looks like Disney have another hit on their hands. I look forward to seeing the finished film when it is released.

Tangled was viewed at a test screening. Although the full film was shown, it was not completed and is subject to change.

Film Review: King Kong

With good reason King Kong is considered one of the greatest fantasy films of all time. Although it has aged in some ways, the film still delivers the element of spectacle so fundamental to this type of picture.

Film director Carl Denham takes his cast and crew, including his new female lead Ann Darrow, to a mysterious island to film scenes for his upcoming movie. Unforeseeable to even Denham himself is that the giant gorilla Kong will take a shine to Ann…

Perhaps more emphasis has been placed on the special effects and set pieces of this 1933 film, however equally as significant is the narrative and pacing. The film excels at building tension, until the exciting moment of the reveal. Screenwriters James Creelman and Ruth Rose cleverly expose little about where the group are heading or what they can expect, initially. Though prior to their arrival on the island, Denham speaks about the myth of Kong, this does not detract from his colossal first appearance later in the film.

In building the anticipation, and sustaining tension, the score is an incredibly effective device. The ominous repetitive drum, and the rest of Max Steiner’s score, used in pivotal scenes drives home the precariousness of the crew’s situation. The pioneering stop-motion techniques used in the film, along with the other effects, must have been thrilling for the 1933 audience.

The relationship between Ann and John Driscoll is warming, despite his initial dislike of not only her, but all women. It serves as a sharp contrast to Kong’s affection for Ann; a tragic situation that only generates sympathy for the monster. As Ann, Fay Wray cements herself as the original scream queen.

The elements of misogyny and racism evident in the film may sit uncomfortably or amuse modern audience members, but serves as a reminder that this film was produced in a very different age. Nonetheless, even today King Kong stands tall as a classic, and as both an influence to many filmmakers and a benchmark that fantasy films of this nature should be measured against.

King Kong was shown at the British Film Institute, as part of the Screen Epiphanies season. It was introduced by Ray Harryhausen.

Film Review: Touch of Evil

Orson Welles’ film noir classic is still affecting over fifty years since its original release. Whilst the themes Touch of Evil focuses on are nothing new, it is the combination of said themes with the direction, cinematography and art design that generates a pervading atmosphere.

Charlton Heston plays Mexican cop Vargas, who along with his new American bride Susan (played by Janet Leigh), witnesses a murder at the American-Mexican border. What follows is a police investigation that proves more complex and iniquitous than the hero could have imagined.

Touch of Evil juxtaposes Vargas with Quinlan, an overweight, former alcoholic, veteran American detective, played by Welles. The film firmly sets up the two as distinct opposites. Vargas is the idealistic, clean officer, well-respected and rising in his career. Quinlan, on the other hand, who is tired, racist and corrupt, is clearly nearing the end of his career.

Through these two characters, themes of corruption, the abuse of power, and prejudice are played out. The lengths that Quinlan goes to protect himself – as far as endangering Susan, and then some, are pivotal in depicting such a malevolent character. The atmosphere is kept tainted and at times claustrophobic by the use of lighting, the stylised cinematography, and the art direction of Robert Clatworthy, who went on to do a magnificent job in Psycho two years later.

It is also the direction by Welles that creates a cantankerous mood. The close-up shots of the sweaty Quinlan, the cat and mouse finale, and the fortune teller’s abode work together to generate a film noir as beguiling as any of the earlier quintessential noir pictures. Furthermore, the opening shot following the car as it weaves throughout the streets is classic Welles – adding a touch of class to Touch of Evil.

Touch of Evil was shown at the British Film Institute, as part of the Psycho: A Classic in Context season.