This edition features stills from Larry Fessenden's new movie, Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, and Hannibal homages to Kubrick.
The Descent. 2005. Directed & Written by Neil Marshall.
Starring Shauna Macdonald, Natalie Mendoza, Alex Reid, Saskia Mulder, MyAnna Buring, Nora-Jane Noone, Oliver Milburn, Molly Kayll, Craig Conway, and Leslie Simpson. Celador Films/Northmen Productions/Pathé.
Rated 18A. 99 minutes.
Personally I’ve enjoyed Neil Marshall from his debut, Dog Soldiers, and then he came on with this film and it all but cemented him as a solid horror filmmaker; hell, filmmaker in general. Since then he’s done two underrated movies – Doomsday and Centurion, neither of which are amazing, though, they are better than their reputations – a couple episodes of Black Sails, Game of Thrones, and one whopper of a Hannibal episode in the 3rd season “The Great Red Dragon“. He’s also got a segment titled “Bad Seed” in the upcoming Tales of Halloween I cannot wait to see!
What I enjoy about Marshall is that he’s not just a director with a neat way of looking at things, he’s also, what I think is, a pretty wonderful director in terms of form; he simply films things in an interesting way. There’s nothing boring about his films or the episodes of television series’ he has directed. The reason so many filmmakers, particularly in the horror genre I must say, fail to really get over with their work is because their style is either a) too bland in terms of story/character/et cetera, b) too flashy (with no substance), or c) it’s just not overly enjoyable to experience visually. With Marshall, and I’ll single The Descent out from his work as the best example, he doesn’t opt so much to jump scare you here in order to create that feeling of action, or horror (or whatever he happens to be going for at the moment). His visual style helps to keep you rooted and then everything else just builds on – the drama, the horror, the suspense and tension. In this film, there’s plenty of imagery, a good lot of horror, and the characters help make things fun (even in the grim sense). Marshall’s movie can easily be considered as one of my top 10 horror movies since 2000, I’ll say that without hesitation.
A trio of friends – Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), Beth (Alex Reid), and Juno (Natalie Mendoza) go rafting on the river; their idea of vacationing. On the way home, Sarah sits in the passenger seat of a vehicle while her husband Paul (Oliver Milburn) drives, and their daughter Jessica (Molly Kayll) sits in the backseat. All of sudden, though, they meet head-on with another vehicle – Sarah survives, but Paul and Jessica are horribly killed.
One year later, Sarah, Beth, and Juno, along with a bunch of other adventure seeking women, go on an expedition to a cave system in the Appalachians, somewhere in the U.S. Deep in the woods they eventually find their cave, making their way in. However, after a little while things start to get dicey. First, their climb starts to go wrong little by little. But then soon enough it’s apparent to the women they aren’t alone in the caves.
Deep underground, stuck beneath the vast and reaching Appalachians, the group of friends find themselves in a fight for their lives against terrifying, human eating monsters, adapted to their environments below the earth. They’ll have to fight hard in order to make it out alive; if that’s even possible.
So for me, and no doubt many others, what makes The Descent so incredibly effective is the sense of isolation and claustrophobia almost built into the setting. Furthermore, once the women get trapped after a tunnel caves in, this gets even worse as – plot point – Juno (Mendoza) has taken them all into an unknown cave, not in the correct system they’d all planned on, and so essentially even without any outside forces these women might have never made it out of the caves regardless. I think that’s one of the most interesting parts about this film is that you could easily have seen this as simply a dramatic thriller about a bunch of women heading into the caves, including the dynamics between Sarah (Macdonald) and Juno, in terms of what happened to the former and her family and how it connects with the latter.
Instead of being simple and dark, Neil Marshall has written a fantastic screenplay. Whereas a movie like The Cave (which I honestly enjoy as a popcorn flick even though it isn’t great) is lower common denominator for horror, more like a Michael Bay equivalent in the genre, The Descent opts to be more cerebral, and in turn when the visuals and the horror get thick things become pretty visceral, too. The characters here are complex, they aren’t one-dimensional type women. Which is another point, that Marshall has given us a bunch of excellent female characters and the man character, dare I say the heroine, she’s an ass-kicker. I like that it’s not the typical formulaic horror including women, such as the male dominated film with a “Final Girl”. Even though, yes, Sarah can be considered that “Final Girl”, it’s not the overused scenario, the same tired place where we’ve expected the plot to develop. Marshall brings all these women together, each different, and doesn’t need any men in order to instigate the horror, or any of the action. The faceless/featureless crawlers in the cave only bring further terror. Even while that whole KILLER V. VICTIM dynamic is playing out, as it usually does in one shape or another throughout the horror genre, I like that these female characters can inhabit a filmic space where these featureless monsters are the attackers, not some slasher, a deranged male who hates women; rather they’re simply the horror beneath, the unknown below.
More than that, these creatures also represent a symbolic sort of theme. Clearly the buried secrets between Juno and Sarah, concerning the former’s relationship with the deceased Paul (Milburn), are being unearthed; it’s possible without their predicament, the descent into the cave and into madness, this might never have come out. So in a way, these crawlers down in the cave are the literal, material embodiment of the ideas surrounding those buried secrets. They say secrets can eat you alive, right? Well in The Descent, this sentiment comes alive, in a brutally literal sense with secrets making their way out of the realm of ideas and into reality.
There are a few wonderful bits of imagery in this film, both in terms of symbolic/dreamy images and straight up horror visuals.
Right after the opening sequence, where Sarah’s husband/daughter die, there’s the beginning of a dreamy moment which crops up over and over, though not to overkill. Sarah has these short visions of a birthday cake with her daughter’s name on it, the candles lit up – I love the way these shots come to us, brief, really dark with what looks like natural lighting, and it has this eerie quality to it. What I enjoy is that these dreamy bits don’t feel particularly happy, more like the morbid remembrance of a dead child instead of anything happy. So there’s this really melancholy feeling I find struck in the character of Sarah without even much effort from Macdonald as an actor, although she’s great in spite of that making the role better for it. This is a striking visual Marshall uses a few times throughout the film, and while I say it’s melancholy there’s still part of it which sort of drives Sarah at the same time. Great, great stuff.
When it comes to the horror of Marshall’s film, several scenes and moments stick out ahead of the pack. I love how Marshall includes the first very close-up view of a crawler through the perspective of a camera in night vision. Why do I love it? He doesn’t use the camera as a gimmick other than, really, two or three times in the entire movie. It comes into play organically, with purpose, instead of simply being a way for Marshall to creep us out without doing the legwork. In opposition, the choice uses of the night vision camera shots make things creepy, knocking us off balance and in the case of the first time it’s used the effect amps the film’s pace up to a roar. The next couple times, again it’s not forced into the plot and works well. If the night vision was being used more frequently, as is the case in many found footage efforts trying to capture The Blair Witch Project magic in a bottle, there’d be a case for saying it was gimmicky, that it served no purpose and got jammed in for lack of ideas. Instead, Marshall uses this technique to his advantage and creates tension with how the handheld camera captures the monsters in the dark and the creepy environment of the cave. Plus, this is a director who doesn’t need any kind of trickery, he does well enough with his own sensibilities in terms of shot composition and overall visuals without having to settle for cheap scares.
Once the crawlers are out in the open, being seen full-on by both characters and viewers alike, there are some almost trippy visuals happening. There’s one incredibly tense scene where two of the women are hiding together, a crawler moving along by them, and their watch eventually goes off – all the while Juno is wandering alone, calling out to the others – and there’s this green filter over the two women/crawler (not really a filter; they’re using a huge glow stick), then for a few seconds we cut to Juno whose shot is bathed in a red light. There’s something about this which raises the tension. Not only that, the angles at which Marshall has things framed specifically while the two women hide from the crawler, it’s an unsettling, unstable sort of feeling it draws out; literally, the frame is askew, we’re off-kilter, not balanced, and the crawler coming at them sort of feels like he’s coming right at the viewer.
Furthermore, I have to say the effects – blood and gore, the monsters, et cetera – were at times really subtle, and other times (think: pool of blood scene) totally gnarly and in-your-face. My favourite honestly is the scene where Sarah finds herself in the blood pool, fighting off the crawler and stabbing it in the eye. Not only is it just wildly savage and bloody, the low lighting and the blood casts everything again in that red glow, so you’ve got two types of imagery – very visual in the sense of colour and visual in the way of actual physical nastiness, the blood and kills.
Overall, though, it’s the way Marshall manages to use the darkness to his advantage and he doesn’t make it dizzying. While some horror, mostly found footage these days, has your head swirling with the darkness too often being used to cover up a project’s low budget (or lack thereof), unless used correctly, Marshall manages to make things claustrophobic but doesn’t annoy us with how he accomplishes this feeling. It’s because, even when shots are frantic and full of chaos, he’s not making it seem so by having the camera itself being shaky, only the characters, their lights in the dark create the effect. He keeps in tight to the characters, putting us with them and in their perspective as much as possible without, for instance, putting us right in their video camera’s view while they run from the crawlers. Again this comes back to Marshall using that video camera perspective sparsely, when a lesser director may have exploited it too much to try and immerse the viewer. The way this film plays out in the dark and uses it appropriately is a big part of its effectiveness as a tensely frightening modern horror movie.
With truck loads of horror, both blood/gore and emotional terror, an impressive visual style, a solid script with real and well-written female characters, Neil Marshall’s The Descent is pound for pound a 4.5 out of 5 star film. There’s very little to say, in my mind, against this movie. There are so many other horror movies out there in the post-2000 landscape of film which go for bargain basement plots, silly characters with even sillier and less thought out dialogue, cheap jump scares and pointless (as well as badly done) gore. Marshall doesn’t do anything typically here, he crafts a genuinely scary, emotionally testing and at various points traumatizing horror. There’s a feeling in me each time I watch this, for a little while afterwards, as if I’ve been through an ordeal. It’s one of the closest experiences I’ve personally had to the one I have when viewing The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which is still my pick for scariest horror movie ever made, and pretty much my top favourite.
So if you’ve not yet seen The Descent, do yourself a favour and search it out soon because it’s worth your while to experience its dread and tension, its inescapable horror and wild plot. I also thought the sequel was an all right movie, though, it’s not near as amazing as this one.
Hannibal. 2001. Directed by Ridley Scott. Screenplay by David Mamet & Steven Zaillian; based on the novel of the same name by Thomas Harris.
Starring Julianne Moore, Anthony Hopkins, Gary Oldman, Ray Liotta, Frankie Faison, Giancarlo Giannini, Francesca Neri, Zeljko Ivanek, and Hazelle Goodman. MGM/Universal Pictures/Dino De Laurentiis Company. Rated R. 131 minutes. Crime/Drama/Thriller
★★★★Recently the Bryan Fuller helmed Hannibal series ended over at NBC, so I’ve been going back over the wonderful films to revisit the previous incarnations of Dr. Lecter in the movies.
While not everyone is a fan of the book Hannibal, nor are they keen on Ridley Scott’s adaptation penned by David Mamet/Steven Zaillian, I’m actually a fairly ardent fan of both. Something I always loved about the Thomas Harris novels was the fact they’re truly disturbing in a get-under-the-skin-and-crawl type of way; from Francis Dolarhyde in Red Dragon to Buffalo Bill out of The Silence of the Lambs, everything in those pages is pure dread and macabre storytelling.
When it comes to the film, it’s too bad most of Mamet’s adaptation was re-hauled completely by screenwriter Steven Zaillian; perhaps if more Mamet remained, the script would’ve appealed more to some of the detractors.
Either way, this is a pretty damn good adaptation regardless of the few flaws. An at times gory thriller, there is much darkness and disturbing subject matter within this Ridley Scott directed film. Though not all of Harris made it into the film, both because of Scott wishing to make changes and in the name of time (this is already over two hours), I do find the movie to be faithful in terms of how chilling much of the novel itself was, and I believe most of this did cross over.
After the events of The Silence of the Lambs, Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) is on the run, making his way across the globe. Back in the United States, Clarice Starling (Julianne Moore) is still going strong in the FBI. Her most recent case has taken her into the way of danger, as a fellow agent puts everyone at risk. Of course, the rabid sexism of the patriarchal Federal Bureau of Investigations takes Starling for a ride. Disgraced and with almost every single back turned to her, Clarice does her best to get by. Though, it isn’t easy with people like Paul Krendler (Ray Liotta) on her back.
Then, a letter arrives from Europe, smelling of fine perfumes and other fragrances. It is addressed to Clarice. It is from Hannibal. Rushing to figure out where he might be, Clarice tries to navigate the choppy waters of her current job situation. But even worse than the chauvinist Krendler is the presence of an old victim of Lecter’s from his earliest macabre work: a terribly disfigured Mason Verger (Gary Oldman) whose lust for revenge, old money and government connections allow his reach to extend far and wide. In Europe, the sly Lecter tries to avoid arrest by a rogue lawman hoping to collect a big bounty, Inspector Rinaldo Pazzi (Giancarlo Giannini).
Only after the tables turn does Starling realize her only hope of surviving it all might be Hannibal.
Even though many things from the original Thomas Harris novel didn’t make it into the final product of the film, there is a still grisly, nasty heart at the center of its being. Some things removed: the novel’s ending; Margot Verger the lesbian bodybuilding sister of Mason; plus, Mason’s predilection for molesting children and drinking their tears; the original death Mason endures and the harvesting of his sperm for Margot to use to have a child with her lover; and other things such as the absence of Jack Crawford.
While a few things can be forgiven, I don’t know why they chose to keep Crawford out of it, nor do I see how the ending of the film is any better than that of the Harris novel. First – Crawford is an important figure in the life of Clarice, almost like a part-time angel watching over her shoulder and even more at times, so his absence is a little strange to me; I understand there were time constraints, however, Jack could’ve easily been planted into the story at the beginning especially when Starling experienced blowback from the FBI. Second – the ending of the film is fun, but there’s such a tangled, creepy and unsettling aspect to the Harris ending: in his novel, Hannibal first tries to make Clarice into a living version of his sister Mischa, then at the end they run away together in a fit of madness and love. Now, I know some weren’t fans of the novel’s ending. Regardless I found it perfect, to end things in a strange, unexpected way. But is it really unexpected? Can you say there were no inklings or hints of a romance between Hannibal and Clarice? Even in SOTL, there is a strange connection between them, almost like a man lusting after a woman who doesn’t yet know she’ll fall for him down the road. Either way, I think it could’ve potentially set up another film if Harris were ever interested in exploring more of the story. And not to mention, it would’ve blown audiences away to see Clarice take off in the night with Lecter.
Some things I loved.
Gary Oldman plays Mason Verger perfectly. If you didn’t know it was him by looking on IMDB or in the credits, there’s a high chance of walking away without ever knowing. Virtually unrecognizable under prosthetics and make-up, Oldman falls into an upper class accent mixed with disfigurement, religious fervour, as well as a great deal of charisma. There are times you want to like Verge. Others, you understand the nastiness in him while hating what it’s producing. Many times you’ll laugh at some of the bits of dialogue from Mason, though, not in a funny way – more so, it’s a macabre and dark comedy from his lips making us kind of root for him. Above all else, Verger is a conflicting character on moral grounds, which makes us lean back and forth. Similar to the character of Lecter.
Then of course, there’s Anthony Hopkins returning with vigour to the world of Hannibal. Giving us another go round with the naughty doctor, Hopkins is almost even quieter, more subdued, more sinister and unnerving than before. Much of the dialogue gives him a chance to twirl us around his finger, sucking each viewer into his evil nature and never once letting us go. Seeing Hannibal in Europe is impressive enough as it is. Add in a spectacular performance by Hopkins, you’ve got yourself an interesting ride along with one of the most well-known villains of the cinematic universe ever.
Aside from performances and characters, Hannibal is at times fairly vicious. Though, if Scott and screenwriter David Mamet were to have kept more of the original source material in the script, it could’ve fallen even deeper into horror than it did. But scenes like the impromptu dinner between Hannibal, Clarice and poor Paul Krendler, the brief flashbacks to when Lecter disfigured Mason, even a very short video of Lecter biting the nurse’s face (a scene only referenced in SOTL) – these are all great examples of horror in a non-horror film. Really, Hannibal is a crime thriller. Yet so many moments bring us into the horror of the Harris universe. I can’t fault Scott, nor Mamet, too much for excluding bits and pieces of the novel because it’s a thick book, lots of plot and plenty of dialogue. However, I would’ve definitely rated this movie even higher if Scott kept some things in. They didn’t have to be totally in tact. He could have only alluded to certain plot points, and so on. Alas, we’re missing some very meaty, properly hideous bits that augment the entire story, and the movie is lacking because of it.
Despite my criticisms, I love Hannibal. It’s a 4 out of 5 star film, all the way. Many will not agree with me and say the movie is trash, an unnecessary sequel, or that it strays too far from the novel of Thomas Harris. I couldn’t care any less, I’ve always thought there was something special about this Ridley Scott film. He adds only a flair all his own, a style nobody else has, and it’s evident right from the opening moments. Again, it would’ve been amazing to see more of the Harris novel find its way into the script, but for what came out I think Scott did justice to SOTL and the character of Hannibal in general, even without a few key pieces. If you’ve never seen it, or are a newcomer to the Lecter universe, do yourself a favour. There is plenty to love and enjoy here. Lots of macabre nastiness from which to find a thrill.
Mason takes drastic measures to ensure the Verger family remains the way it should
30 Days of Night. 2007. Directed by David Slade. Screenplay by Stuart Beattie/Brian Nelson/Steve Niles; based on the comic by Steve Niles & Ben Templesmith.
Starring Josh Hartnett, Melissa George, Danny Huston, Ben Foster, Mark Boone Junior, Mark Rendall, Amber Sainsbury, Manu Bennett, Megan Franich, Joel Tobeck, Elizabeth Hawthorne, Nathaniel Lees, and Peter Feeney. Columbia Pictures.
Rated 18A. 113 minutes.
To start, while I don’t like that director David Slade did one of those junk Twilight movies, I’m a big fan of his work on Hard Candy, the episode “Open House” in the 4th season of Breaking Bad, and most of all I love his directorial efforts in the 5 episodes of Hannibal he directed (“Mizumono”, “Ko No Mono”, “Savoureux“, “Potage“, & “Apéritif“); he’s also produced nearly 30 episodes of the show, as well. One of the reasons I think he actually ended up involved with Hannibal might be due to his work here in 30 Days of Night because of the level of blood and how it looks, the visuals. I don’t think this is a spectacular movie, though, one of the things I do enjoy most about it is the overall aesthetic – from the atmosphere and tone to the actual look of the blood and the effects.
I have mixed feelings about 30 Days of Night. On one hand, I think there’s some decent acting along with incredible visuals and plenty of good ole blood and gore. But on the other, I do feel as if the script is pretty flawed in a few places where it ought to be much stronger.
Right off the bat, even though the tone of the movie is awesome and that aspect often takes time to build, I feel as if 30 Days of Night is a tad too long. I mean, I’m a person who loves both atmosphere and character development in horror. Really helps a movie sort of grab hold and not let go if you can fall into it those ways. Yet there’s a point where things go on too long. I think there could’ve been 15-20 minutes cut from and it wouldn’t have damaged the film, but that’s only my opinion; I’m not a director, I’m not a screenwriter. I just think that, while the concept of this movie is awesome, it isn’t particularly tough to grasp. There’s no need for this pushing two hours. And I get it – 30 days – but that’s the funny thing, even in that amount of time I still felt like those 30 days had passed quickly, so I find it all very strange.
That being said, I do really love the story. Funny enough, the comic series started as a film pitch. Ended up as a comic then began a movie; weird how the system works, as soon as it’s viewed as a commodity in the comic world THEN the execs want to use it because it has a base already. Sad, funny, weird.
Unfortunately, I have a few problems. Right off the bat, Barrow can be flown to almost every day of the year – like anywhere else conditions can vary, but it’s not inaccessible and especially not for 30 days at a time. Then, it’s as if Barrow is completely lit up one day then the next day there is complete darkness, stretching on for a month. Totally unrealistic. It’s a slight process until the darkness has sort of spread over the entire town. But, y’know, I guess if we’re talking vampires there’s a slight suspension of disbelief going on in the first place. Still it’s hard to get past blatant and upfront errors like that when the whole plot pretty much hinges on some of these facts. While it originates from the comic, it might’ve been better had the adapted screenplay tried to fix some of these mistakes. I don’t know how that whole adaptation process works, so I’ve no clue how much liberty the screenwriter would’ve had in terms of crafting a slightly fresh story. Either way, I don’t like how parts of the story’s logic works against the film, I don’t care if it went that way in the comic series or not. They would’ve been better off coming up with a fictional Alaskan town instead of using Barrow and so obviously distorting factual stuff.
There are pieces of the film I do truly enjoy.
Love the music. Of course, it turns out Brian Reitzell – another Hannibal alumni – is the composer. Great score, honestly. Lots of strings and some brass, interesting percussion for which he seems to have a fondness.
As I mentioned earlier, I think part of why David Slade ended up on Hannibal himself as both director and producer is because of how he works visually. For all the crappy storytelling and logic in 30 Days of Night, Slade injects a ton of brutal and beautiful imagery. One of my favourite shots – and everyone’s I’m sure of it – is the aerial view as the vampires first really take hold of Barrow; it’s this amazing shot sort of floating above, all the creatures feeding, blood spurted everywhere in the snow. All that white against red, the music, everyone screaming and the vampires making hideous noises. The movie is overall nothing special to me, but I have to say that this particular shot is one of the best shots in a horror movie over the last decade. Too bad the entirety of the film couldn’t hold up to the aesthetic Slade tried to give it. Unfortunately for him, the story’s just not there.
Big thing I did enjoy are the vampires themselves. It’s strange how Slade went from vampires like this to those of the Twilight persuasion; a conversation for another time. Here, though, the vamps are how they ought to be: cruel, Other-ish, savage. I thought the way the production of the film came up with a language for the vampires was interesting because it worked, as well as the fact it sounded pretty damn eerie to hear them communicating. Very mysterious and cool. I liked this aspect of the movie a lot. Naturally, a vampire movie’s main aspect needs to be the vampires – regardless of anything else, the plot, the subplots, the story, it’s all secondary to the vampires. Honestly, if you don’t have good vampires it won’t work no matter how fresh a story ends up.
At the same time, no matter how god damn scary your vampires are, no amount of savagery from them can save the lack of proper story and logic which is so evident in 30 Days of Night.
I don’t care how visually incredible I find this film, I can’t in all good conscience give this movie more than 3 out of 5 stars. To be honest, I want to give it 2.5 instead but I won’t simply because I think there’s a great all around look and feel to 30 Days of Night. There is a good story in there, however, I just cannot bring myself to get past glaring errors. Straight away, the whole inclusion of Barrow is a terrible decision; from the comic to the film, bad idea. Extreme weather would keep flights out maybe a day, possibly two, but there’s no way in hell Barrow would find itself cut off for longer than that. Certainly not for 30 days. Anybody with Google can figure out – from proper sources – all the information they need about Barrow, or any other god damn place on the map for that matter.
Okay, you know what? This gets 2.5 out of 5 stars. There’s too much bullshit nonsense happening for me to ignore and while I love the vampires, plus all the bloody, gory intensity which comes along with them, I can’t ignore enough for that to make this worth it.
30 Days of Night is good enough for the vampires. Come and see them, enjoy their bloodletting. Don’t come and expect to get a story and plot that’s ultimately going to make you think something fresh and innovative happened here. While the idea is great, using Barrow to accomplish it, trying to root this in reality, fails because REALITY WILL NOT LET IT WORK. There was a time I didn’t think too much about the logistics of this movie, I turned my brain off I suppose. I let the movie whisk me away with its aesthetically pleasing blood on snowy landscapes and the dripping gory faces of its vampires.
Now, I see you for what you are, 30 Days of Night: a farce and a letdown. You’re no better a movie than half of the crap getting churned out. This movie works for me only in the way any other mindless, nonsensical movie does, like that type of action or comedy or whatever you don’t need a brain for – switch off, tune out, enjoy. Took me a while to figure this out. If you want David Slade’s best work, go watch some Hannibal, or the excellent Hard Candy.
Family is everything. Or nothing at all.