Archive for November, 2010

Haute Tension (AKA Switchblade Romance)

Posted in extreme cinema, french cinema with tags , , , , , , , , on Monday, 29 November, 2010 by Ed

Despite having an imaginative death scene involving a head stuck in a banister meeting an item of heavy furniture, and also a graphic throat slitting – Haute Tension is comparatively light on the gore and violence that is now expected from more recent offerings in the new wave of French extreme cinema. To avoid being misleading, the afore-mentioned scenes and others do provide plenty to cringe at but they do not form the staple of this fine example of modern European horror film-making.

Haute Tension is a tense psychological stalker movie that uses intrigue and suspense to draw the viewer in and then assaults the senses with brutal killings. There is more to the film than this though, and the plot development which ultimately defines the movie is satisfying and well worked into the story telling. Haute Tension is very definitely a film that is ruined by spoilers, so for those who have yet to see the film this review will be light on details.

The film begins with Marie travelling to stay at her college friend Alexia’s family farm house. As night falls a sadistic killer enters the home and brutally slays its inhabitants apart from the two girls. With Alexia bound in the murderers van, Marie secretes herself onboard and the three hit the road. From here the story powers forward with twists and turns towards a fantastic conclusion.

Haute Tension delivers because it doesn’t neglect any aspect of what a good horror movie should contain. It is filled with the atmosphere of dread so excellently honed in the best of the 1970’s slasher movies. There is tension generated by protagonists being stalked – having to hide and keep silent because their lives depend on it. We see the brutality the villain is capable of and the methodical way he goes about it, causing us to fear him more. Yet there are clues throughout the film that on first viewing we do not pay too much attention to, but none-the-less contribute to a subliminal sense that all is not as it seems. Repeated viewing of this film yields an even greater understanding and appreciation of how finely woven the tale really is.

The character of Marie is complex, and it is a shame that to avoid spoilers this review will not delve into those complexities – although I invite discussion in the comments section. Further to this however, she is quite unlike any other female character from the “slasher” genre and with precious little room for originality in horror this was appreciated. A pole apart from the plastic scream queens of Hollywood, Marie alone provides enough interest to keep watching. Add this to the excellent pacing of the film, and you have a horror movie which engages the viewer from start to finish.

Fans of the genre will love Haute Tension for all the reasons outlined above, but it is also an excellent starting point for those new to extreme cinema or for people who simply do not want the difficult experience of “A Serbian Film” or “Martyrs”. Haute Tension is not heavy-going like these films, it is horrific in places but not in a manner that will disturb or upset (unless the viewer is particularly sensitive).

Haute Tension is tense, exciting, shocking and intelligent – it is a “must see” for any aficionado of modern horror cinema and is highly recommended for anyone with a penchant for great films with a darker edge to them.

The Human Centipede (First Sequence)

Posted in extreme cinema with tags , , , , , on Thursday, 18 November, 2010 by Ed

As films about fusing one person’s mouth to another person’s anus go, this is a pretty good one! The most shocking aspect of this film is that it is not particularly gory or graphic, and it is the better for it.

In the initial stages of watching The Human Centipede I was preparing myself for a huge disappointment. The two female leads were initially terribly grating and irritating. Being generous, let’s assume that they were well acted to be this way. However as the film progresses the characters develop from vacuous party girls to capable individuals (well one of them, anyway) and we find ourselves rooting for them and caring about their plight.

I don’t think it is giving too much away to divulge that The Human Centipede is a film about three people (two female friends and one unrelated man) who are abducted by a deeply disturbed scientist who aims to create a living “human centipede” by attaching each of the abductees to one another, mouth to anus, thus creating a completely linked digestive system. Given this synopsis, the audience would think that they are in for a gore-fest of gratuitous nastiness; but they are not.

Shortly after we are properly acquainted with the female leads, who are looking for assistance after their car breaks down, they arrive at the house of the antagonist. Here the casting director should be praised as Dieter Laser, who played the mad scientist Dr. Heiter, is every inch the archetype. He is a bizarre looking man, skeletal with an almost demonic face, and his portrayal of deranged evil was superb. Instantly we know that this man is dangerous and we acutely sense that the girls are under imminent threat.

The character of Heiter is more complex than perhaps is expected. In less subtle films he would be a charmer, luring people under a false sense of security and then bludgeoning them. Not so in A Human Centipede, he is cold and unlikable. Despite his objective to abduct the girls he cannot control angry psychotic outbursts – eventually he manages to drug them, describing the details of Rohypnol as he does so.

With the emphasis on the “centipede” itself in the promotion of this movie, it is a pleasant surprise to find a reasonable section of the films second act given over to a taut, well constructed “cat and mouse” sequence within Heiters extensive home. These scenes were thrillingly tense, and a sense of empathy for the hunted girl was well crafted. A nice touch was added where an ultimatum is given to give herself up or face greater suffering when she is inevitably caught. The viewer cannot help but wonder “what would I do?”

The director should be applauded for only giving the audience a couple of brief “cringe moments” during the construction sequence of the Human Centipede. The horror comes not from much that we witness during this scene, but from what we graphically know is happening. Previously, Dr Heiter had demonstrated via a presentation to his captives exactly what he was going to do to them – using scientific language and un-emotive line diagrams. Hence, when the procedure is undertaken little is seen but we know every unpleasant detail that is happening.

We get a greater insight into Dr Heiters madness as he uses general anaesthetic during the procedure – he is not a sadist, he is genuinely focussed on creating what he perceives to be his masterpiece. When watching Heiter go about his work, it is hard not to think of animal vivisection, Nazi experiments and the Japanese Unit 731. This kind of thing goes on, and the people doing it consider themselves justified. This is the true horror that the film hints at.

It is truly chilling watching Dr Heiter training his creation once it is complete. A Japanese guy is “the front” and of course the only one of the tri-part centipede who can speak, yet only in Japanese. This creates a bizarre interaction between the doctor and his “creature”. The captive is of course filled with rage and hatred for his captor, but is utterly at his mercy. He soon learns.

Naturally, the scientist wants his creation to thrive and feeds it well from a bowl on the floor. The viewer is one step ahead at this point and, with the front part feeding, the film does address the inevitable result. As with the surgical scenes this is done briefly and with no gratuitous mess, however it does contain one of the most genuine apologies ever seen in film! The scene is disturbing not for the act occurring, but for Heiter cheering encouragement.

Eventually local police undertake a missing persons search and we are given a ray of hope for our beleaguered captives. I will not expand on whether this hope is in vain or not, but again the film has the viewer urging the victims on and builds tension in a capable manner. The final scene of the film was powerfully done, and invites us to put ourselves in the shoes of who we see on screen.

The Human Centipede is not a brilliant film, but it is a good one. Certainly it was vastly superior to the experience I was expecting and significantly less graphic. If you can handle the concept of what occurs, there is nothing in the film that will particularly trouble you. Given the central premise, this was never going to be classic cinema – but if you are intrigued enough to give it a go you are likely to find it a better film than you might imagine. Someone has clearly come up with a gruesome yet imaginative idea and built a film around it – surprisingly they didn’t do too bad a job.

Martyrs

Posted in extreme cinema, french cinema with tags , , , , , on Wednesday, 10 November, 2010 by Ed

Martyrs is like one of those chandeliers made of human bones. It’s grizzly and horrifying yet strangely beautiful. It is also a film that engages the viewer because just when you think you have it pigeon-holed, it changes tack and leads you in a new direction.

Martyrs takes us on a journey that starts with a young girl (Lucie) escaping from a disused abattoir where she has clearly been the victim of prolonged torture. She leaves behind others in her bid to flee her personal hell. Eventually she is taken in at a children’s home where she befriends another girl there called Anna. Some time in the future, as young women, Anna attempts to help Lucie who has tracked down accomplices to her previous tormentors. From here Anna experiences the suffering of Lucies past, and uncovers a new nightmare of her own. The film builds to a conclusion that you won’t see coming and will leave you to speculate as to its meaning long after the film has finished.

On first viewing one never knows what is going to happen next, this in itself is unsettling and exciting – two key elements to any horror film; but Martyrs is hard to classify. It is not really a horror film, but is certainly horrific throughout and genuinely scary in parts. It is also an effective drama and a nerve shredding thriller. It mixes perfectly-executed intrigue with uncomfortable violence. The feelings we share for the protagonists plight, and the motivations that put her there, are quite unlike in any other genre movie. All this is done in a manner which makes the film a thing of beauty, it is exquisite yet brutal.

I have to admit, I did get confused with the movie at roughly the half way point – and, as often the best films do, it definitely benefits from repeat viewings. Perhaps something was lost in the language barrier, but equally the film is one of those treats in an age of Hollywood dumbing-down that does not spell out every last detail, some aspects of the film are not as literal as they first appear. There are certainly head-scratching moments, but none of this detracts from the overall power and accomplishment of this excellent piece of film making.

There is a current trend to use the awful phrase “torture porn”. This is often utilised by those who did not like or appreciate a particular film. I suspect that the intention of such a term is to be condescending without giving justification, but if it means gratuitous violence for the sheer enjoyment of it, please be assured that this term does not apply to Martyrs.

Martyrs does have many challenging scenes, as a film it is an assault on the nervous system and the mind – but it does not employ cheap tricks and buckets of gore. Where some films might show you hacked limbs, Martyrs makes you cringe at the dull thud of a punch to a defenceless face. We feel the resignation of someone forced to endure unrelenting attacks, knowing that there will be no mercy from their tormentors. Just at the point at which the film invokes the viewer to consider their motivation for watching the suffering on screen, it delivers with a payoff that was as unexpected as it was a rewarding cinematic experience.

I am fully aware that it is slightly pretentious to call a film “challenging” as I did previously, but the experience that Martyrs gives is indeed a challenge in every way. It forces us to endure vicariously with Anna’s suffering, it challenges individual beliefs and it forces us to think for ourselves about how the film ends. Pascal Laugier, the writer and director, could have wrapped everything up for us with a little bow but he would have been letting us down if he had done so. The ending of Martyrs is what elevates it to being one of my favourite ever films.

It is to be expected that some people not familiar with this style of film-making will find a movie such as Martyrs too much to cope with. It is human nature, therefore, to want to attack the very thing that has made them feel this way. If they can belittle it they do not have to confront what it has stirred inside them. It is for this reason some may wish to patronise Martyrs for having a depth beyond a “plot by numbers” approach. Why can’t a film such as this carry a message? Why can’t it provoke thoughts and conjecture in excess of the basic movie experience? Just because a film has offended or upset in the build up to its conclusion does not mean it is unable to leave valid questions in the mind of the audience, indeed it is more likely to have done so. Fans of extreme cinema will know that to appreciate the payoff, they must endure the ride to the end. Martyrs beats you up until it leaves you raw and receptive to its final scenes.

Martyrs is one of those films that if you allow yourself to enter the world the director has created, and let him tell you a story, you will be thinking about it for months and years to come. Those who cannot see past its cruelty, and the reasons for it, will unfortunately see only that. It is a gem of extreme film-making and I strongly urge you to experience it for yourself.

A Serbian Film

Posted in extreme cinema, Serbian Cinema with tags , , , , on Tuesday, 2 November, 2010 by Ed

It was with an oppressive yet thrilling sense of dread that I anticipated watching A Serbian Film. I don’t think I’ve ever watched a film where I have gone into the experience with so many other people’s thoughts, feelings and opinions already in my consciousness, even from those who hadn’t actually seen the film. It’s fair to say that that my feelings of anxiety at what I was about to see were greater than anything actually experienced in the film. That said, it was certainly up there with the nastiest films I’ve watched in a fair while.

A Serbian Film is a very good movie, and given that it is a debut from an independent film maker high praise is due. It won’t happen because of the subject matter, but there can be few movies from relatively inexperienced directors that are this accomplished. I understood the main character (Milos) and strongly sensed his commitment to his family and his desire to be a provider. He knew that he was getting in over his head from the start, but greater was his need to offer his family security; and this is the main plot thrust for the film: Milos has entered into a contract to make an adult film for a life changing sum of money, and life changing it certainly turns out to be. 

The set pieces were brilliantly shot, and very unsettling. A lot of this was down to the quality of acting and direction that made me care about Milos and his situation. Srdjan Spasojevic, the director of the film, also scored highly by making me think I was seeing things that I didn’t during the more “boundary pushing” scenes. Often it was the concept of what was occurring on screen that repulsed, rather than any specific image. The now infamous “newborn” scene was a case in point. We didn’t see anything beyond a suggested action, which was vile, but we weren’t privy to the physical details of it.

A lot has been said about the motivation behind making this movie, and its metaphor to the atrocities that occurred in Serbia. It is enough to be told that there is an allegory in the film, it doesn’t have to be obvious. Someone has created art, and stated its motivation. It’s misguided to feel that we need to “get it” further, else all films with that intent will become tediously literal and pedestrian. There were several key pieces of dialogue that did present the metaphor and that was adequate without being intrusive. Further to that, the loss of innocence was a theme that was pervasive throughout; from conversations with Milos’ young son about arousal to the more brutal scenes of depravation and abuse. Speaking of which…

There is a scene involving a machete and a chained woman which can’t be topped for sheer in-your-face horror, it was the ultimate gore scene.  You could see what was going to happen and it did, viscerally and unflinchingly. As with most things in this film, there is always a little cherry on top – and here a comment is made about enjoying rigamortis and Milos needs to be “disengaged” from the victim by two men (I’ll leave that to your imagination!). It completed the scene, added an extra element of disgust and was also darkly humorous. I’ll avoid any further spoilers, although with all that has been discussed within the horror community I suspect it is too late for that. Suffice to say that the director builds to the horror slowly, but once it arrives there is image after image of unrelenting sadism, gore and violence – every single one with a horrific sexual overtone. We descend with Milos into the absolute depths of depravity and we are not allowed respite until we have completed the experience.

Accompanying these scenes was an extremely effective use of music and sound. Some might find the soundtrack intrusive, but given the intensity of the visual images it added a great deal and needed to be prominent to avoid being lost behind the degeneracy occurring onscreen. Some of the low frequency signal generator noises really heightened the sense of intimidation and fear, they resonated and churned in the gut. It was reminiscent of Gaspar Noe’s Irréversible in this regard, although this is where the comparisons end, as A Serbian Film makes Irréversible look like something from Cbeebies in every other way.

Even though I really liked the film, for want of a better verb, it was the victim of the hype and hysteria surrounding it. Maybe I’ve been desensitised, but I was expecting this to mess me up, and it really didn’t – ultimately it was just another film. I’ve mulled over some of the scenes since watching it, but not much more so than any other well made movie, and the films images haven’t been mentally replayed as part of some kind of brain scarring. I had heard I might want to “unsee” it, but I found it not to be the case as the film was ultimately a worthwhile experience.

Some horror journalists have reviewed this film and advised their readership not to see it, that it would be too much for them, and that they only think they want to watch it. If you are reading Transgressive Cinema, you won’t be patronised in this way. You are a horror fan and you understand that this film has a visual power that will shock you. Be prepared for some unsettling images, but I recommend this film to you if extreme cinema is your thing. Of course, if you found Twilight heavy going (or even watched it) you might want to stay away from this one.

In conclusion, it was stylish but with substance; viscerally violent and depraved but with justification. The horror, and the nature of the horror, is some of the most extreme you’ll ever see but this is built up to with a delicate touch. It is a really good film from a director I’ll be interested in following. It will deeply upset many, but for most of the modern genre audience, and that’s you, as nasty as it is it will not deliver on its notoriety, which is a shame because there is more to the film than simply trying to endure its horror. More importantly though, A Serbian Film represents the rarest of treats to the horror fan: a film that we are actually nervous about watching – and for some scenes at least, you are wise to be worried.

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It begins.

Posted in extreme cinema, films, horror with tags , , , , , , , , on Monday, 1 November, 2010 by Ed

Welcome to the Transgressive Cinema blog. Here you will find thoughts and musings from all the darkest corners of horror cinema around the world.

The subsequent writings are my opinions and please use the comment option to let yours be known too. The kind of films under discussion here at Transgressive Cinema are often very polarising, but also draw fanatical followings from those who appreciate them, hence interactive debate could be interesting – please indulge.

I will post regularly with reviews and articles on a different film each time. Some you will definitely be familiar with, some perhaps not. If you have any requests for reviews on your favourite horror, macabre or extreme cinema please let me know. Equally, if you think you’ve uncovered a little known gem I’d love to know about it and then review it here.

Please subscribe to this page, the first review will appear very soon and it will be discussing the most notorious movie of recent times –  A Serbian Film.

Thanks for visiting Transgressive Cinema, I hope you enjoy the ride.