Film #37: War of the Colossal Beast (1958)

film 37 war of the colossal beast

Rating: 2.5/5

“There’s no place in the civilised world for a creature that big.”

A quickie sequel to the previous year’s The Amazing Colossal Man, War of the Colossal Beast asserts that, contrary to the government’s assumptions, Lt. Col. Glenn Manning did not actually die when he fell from the top of a dam after having been blasted with heavy artillery. While writer/director/special effects maestro Bert I Gordon directly continues the narrative established in the first film, it doesn’t matter if, like me, you’ve not seen it. Using the wonders of recycled footage, the original plot, including the plutonium blast that kick-started Manning’s excessive growth and his subsequent “death” that concluded The Amazing Colossal Man, is retold, indicating the first film’s superiority in terms of both concept and characterisation.

While it seems that Manning (Glenn Langan in the first film, replaced by Duncan “Dean” Parkin in the second) underwent not only a physical transformation but an emotional and psychological one following his unfortunate radiation poisoning, War of the Colossal Beast largely eschews any such conflict. Manning, pursued across Mexico by his sister Joyce (Sally Fraser) and a number of military men, including Major Mark Baird (Roger Pace), is less of a complex individual than a grunting, deformed Neanderthal. His mental breakdown is explained as a side effect of both his plutonium radiation and his fall from the Boulder Dam; in essence, this is a film about concussion, albeit on a giant scale.

Gordon’s screenplay is minimal and formulaic, offering little in the way of novelty in a decade when science-fiction saturated and dominated the movie industry. Despite being a whopping 60foot (although he frequently appears to be either bigger or smaller than that), Joyce, Major Baird, the scientists and the army seem to have great difficulties in tracking their target down: working on the dubious conceit that the disappearance of a person this size, following a public tumble from a dam, is not only acceptable but expected, the group then spend the majority of the film locating poor Manning, then losing him again.

The script is filled with inconsistencies – Manning is first discovered following his attempted robbery of a grocery truck but, when his secret hiding place (behind some rocks in a mountain range) is located, there are at least half a dozen other trucks, despite there having been no apparent reports of such disappearances. More galling is both Joyce and Major Baird’s attitudes towards the poor man. His sister, who has never given up her belief that Manning survived, is nothing less than callous in her attitude, seemingly ambivalent to Baird’s constant claims that death is the only solution, right up until the very last moment, when she sobs and begs for an alternative. Similarly, Baird has a sudden change of heart and seemingly forgets that he had ever made such claims, ordering his soldiers to capture, rather than kill, Manning. Thus Manning spends the majority of the film lying prone in a giant warehouse, where everyone seems to find him more an irritation than anything else – no one is surprised or intrigued, there is no discussion about a possible cure, he’s barely even viewed as a curiosity.

Despite the aggressive connotations of the film’s title, War of the Colossal Beast features very little in the way of action. In fact, the most effective moments are predominantly those recounting the events of the first film. Superimposing Parkin into scenes to show his massive size is effective, and models and miniatures are exploited in other sequences. It does work, though by today’s standards the effects are both dated and obvious. Yet the film is entertaining, and culminates with a potentially devastating finale, in which a bus-load of school kids are wielded as a weapon by poor, addled Manning. As with the majority of radioactive monsters, however, the sympathy does eventually revert back to the former army lieutenant: he may be a vicious beast now, but these 50s movies always made sure to remind the audience that, like Frankenstein’s creation several decades previous, they were once men, now negatively transformed through scientific mishap and meddling. In a final unexpected flurry of budget, the final minute of this black and white movie bursts into colour.

War of the Colossal Beast was one of a number of science-fiction films of the 1950s that exploited height difference in their narrative. Its predecessor was most obviously a response to The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), an intelligent film based on a short story by legendary sci-fi author Richard Matheson. One year later, as Gordon released his giant sequel, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman was also released, which shares not only the concept but a similar conclusion. Of these films, Manning’s second outing is arguably the least interesting or novel; it is neither bad enough to be laughed at consistently (although a mother’s half-hearted attempts to get to her teenage daughter in the final scene is rather entertaining) nor innovative enough to be memorable. As sequels go, it is acceptable, but overall fails to make much of an impact.

Film #36: Mr Ice Cream Man (1996)

film 36 mr ice cream man

Rating: 1/5

“Actually, I don’t really have a dog.”

Generally speaking, I’m not a fan of remakes, but if there was ever a film crying out to be redone, it is Mr Ice Cream Man. With a bigger budget, (much) better actors, and a revised script, Mack Hail’s directorial debut could be a classic, albeit trashy, slasher picture – like a cross between Black Christmas and Stephen King’s It. As it stands, it’s terrible: not quite as bad as Children of the Living Dead, but close. It is, however, fun to watch and, in contrast to the aforementioned incoherent zombie atrocity, Mr Ice Cream Man at least has potential.

This second-hand DVD was purchased for precisely three reasons: one, it was cheap; two, the title is great; and three, the front cover showed an ice-cream cone filled with bloody eyeballs. Needless to say, this wonderfully enticing imagery is non-existent in the film. This is not even the least accurate thing about the DVD’s casing (in fact, it harks back to a long-running tradition among low-budget genre pictures, which routinely exploited creative license to get people to pay for tickets to films that could never live up to their advertising claims): what is even more outrageous is the fact that both the box and IMDB claim Mr Ice Cream Man is a short, but acceptable 85 minutes long. It is, in actuality, 61 minutes and, even if one were to include the trailers (each depicting an equally low-budget “horror”), it still wouldn’t hit feature length.

Hail’s script (as with the most notorious bad-filmmakers, his credits include writer, director, editor and actor) is entirely generic, and all the clichés of a slasher flick are here: the nice young kid, Joey, cared for by his older sister Samantha; the most drippy police detective ever conceived whose life’s mission is to protect the neighbourhood’s children from an unknown murderer; the sinister-looking stranger (the ice cream man) with a hidden agenda; the token chubby black kid who is at least twice the height and age of his friends. The latter easily wins the award for worst acting – quite an achievement in a film filled with children. It goes without saying that, with the exception of Hail himself, none of the cast have appeared in any other movies. It’s difficult to think of any one specific scene that exemplifies the terrible performances: the stilted conversation between Samantha and Detective Hailey in a supermarket involving chat-up lines based on dog food is perhaps the most memorable moment, but equally ripe for consideration is the obnoxious jogger’s mockery of the ice cream man (if you want to imagine it, just picture yourself saying “I’m not being sarcastic” in the most overly sarcastic manner possible, and you’re close to this deluded satirist’s level of wit and flirtation). I could, however, just as easily cite every scene featuring the aforementioned stereotypical black kid, who apparently features solely to be so supremely annoying that, when he is inevitably axed by the serial killer, we as an audience rejoice rather than recoil at the death of a child.

That being said, Mack Hail himself is actually quite intriguing. He plays the title character as a simple, constantly smiling, quietly deranged psychopath, and is surprisingly effective and unsettling. With his grey pallor and red hair poking out from his hat (except for one scene, where he apparently forgot to don the make-up), he looks and acts like a barely-functioning marionette puppet, and really the one star I’ve given the film is entirely because of him. He is also most likely the reason for horror magazine Fangoria’s apparent praise of Mr Ice Cream Man, and why I make my earlier claim as to the film’s potential for a remake. There is little else to admire – the location (the outskirts of Las Vegas, although it could be any dusty American suburbia) is uninspiring, the plot simplistic, the deaths lack even the slightest hint of gore, and the washed out, soap opera lighting and stilted script offer little in the way of either tension or professionalism. To be fair, the score, consisting of child-like tinkling xylophone cords, works well, but it’s hardly innovative, while the lack of establishing long shots and over-use of close-ups create a sense of spatial incoherence rather than a tense atmosphere.

Mack Hail has achieved some level of cult success due to Mr Ice Cream Man, and the film is apparently enjoyed by viewers who, like me, embrace the stupidity and amateurish production of the film. Made on a micro-budget, it is woefully dated when viewed today. It fails on all levels, and there are too many examples of badness to list (although a few include: the longest chase sequence to have ever taken place between a fat child and an ice cream truck; a dinner date in which small talk and dessert come after the bill has been paid; the worst drunk/hungover performance of all time; the callous teacher’s threat to take the children’s anti-abduction whistles away should they be misused; and the aforementioned whistles serving no purpose whatsoever; a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, completely gratuitous topless shot that, had you actually blinked, would be more erotic). Yet for whatever reason, Mr Ice Cream Man is memorable, and its brevity allows it to be entertaining rather than irritating. Will you be able to look at an ice cream truck in the same way after watching this movie? Probably, but somewhere, deep in the darkest corner of your mind, you might just feel the slightest pang of apprehension.

Film #35: Beginners (2010)

film 35 beginners

Rating: 4/5

“Well, let’s say that since you were little, you always dreamed of getting a lion. And you wait, and you wait, and you wait, and you wait but the lion doesn’t come. And along comes a giraffe. You can be alone, or you can be with the giraffe.”

Beginners is partly autobiographical, based on writer-director Mike Mills’ experiences when, following his mother’s death, his father came out as gay. It is, perhaps, a slightly more idealised version of real events – Oliver (Ewan McGregor) accepts this revelation, and his father’s subsequent lifestyle changes, without hesitation, and there is little indication as to any sense of emotional or personal conflict. Despite this, however, the film’s most effective, and most heartfelt, moments are those shared between Oliver and Hal (Christopher Plummer) – although, at the risk of sounding twee, they are closely matched by those in which Oliver and Arthur, Hal’s Jack Russell, feature.

Beginners begins somewhere in the middle, and flits between past and present. We first see Oliver packing up his father’s home after his death. It’s 2003; Oliver’s mother had passed away five years earlier, and shortly after this, Hal admits he’s gay. He embraces his new lease on life; his style changes, he enjoys the inviting company of other gay men, and gets a young boyfriend (Goran Visnjic). He refuses to let terminal cancer get in the way of this second chance that finally allows him to be the person he’s always known he was. Hal is stubborn, pragmatic, and kind – Plummer embodies the role to perfection, and deservedly won Best Supporting Actor (amongst other awards) at the Oscars for it. Of all the characters, Hal is the most complete; Oliver is sympathetic, but bland, while quirky love interest Anna (Mélanie Laurent) is kooky and cute, but at times threatens to become an indie cliché.

This is, however, an indie film, and unapologetically so. Oliver, a graphic designer, illustrates his voice-over with rapid montages, showing photographs and advertising campaigns from the 1950s, when his parents first met, in contrast with similar contemporary images. He amends his memories and reveals his emotional state through his art; simple doodle-like drawings depicting sadness and an almost self-indulgent sense of grief. Yet it works, and neatly retains the pacing of the film’s temporal meandering. There are some subtleties at play too: while this is essentially about a father and son’s relationship, and the son’s attempts to cope with his father’s death, flashbacks to Oliver’s childhood omit Hal entirely, suggesting there is an unexplored complexity to their relationship, despite their closeness in later years.

As a film about relationships (the title indicating not only Hal’s new beginnings, but the fledgling romance between Oliver and Anna, neither of whom seem to be ideally equipped to deal with such a situation), it is perhaps inevitable that some work better than others. As tender and poignant as Hal and Oliver’s is – and, it must be said, Hal and his young beau display a similar effortlessness and authenticity in their few scenes together – there is something very sweet about Oliver’s relationship with Arthur, who silently, loyally follows his former owner’s son everywhere like a shadow. Arthur allows Oliver to retain a connection to his father, and both human and dog need each other in a way that pet owners in particular will understand as both genuine and entirely valid. Mills’ exploits Arthur’s cuteness, channelling Oliver’s thoughts into the dog by way of subtitled responses, adding both humour and an unusual source of insight into the film.

Beginners is heartfelt and funny – not an out-and-out comedy, but ultimately uplifting. Mills’ provides a largely romanticised view; arguments are literally muted and briefly dotted into broader montage sequences, and there is little conflict, even during Oliver and Anna’s on-off relationship. It works, however, because of Hal as a character and Plummer’s portrayal of him, which is consistently sincere and utterly authentic. No doubt the autobiographical nature of Mills’ screenplay encourages this authenticity, and there is a deftness of touch and a sense of consideration and care present in the scenes focused on Oliver and Hal’s relationship that is less visible in other scenes. It is an intimate portrait of a father and son and, when it concentrates on this aspect of the story, Beginners is both understated and tender.

Cinema Lottery #8

cinema 8 world war z

After a brief hiatus, the FDA’s fortnightly press days have returned. As with previous weeks, the films were mostly average (perhaps the most damning critique) and, thinking about 2013’s releases so far, this seems to be a trend. Is this going to be a largely forgotten year in cinema? Feel free to let me know your thoughts.

World War Z
Release date: 21 June 2013
Rating: 2.5/5

It’s been plagued with problems – a sloppy trailer, delayed release, lengthy reshoots (some twenty minutes of the final sequence are new), the entirely unnecessary addition of 3D – but World War Z is not the disaster that was anticipated. That being said, it’s far from perfect. It sits most comfortably among disaster films, rather than zombie movies and, even then, is most reminiscent of Roland Emmerich’s overly-ambitious, ultimately disappointing 2012. In fact, its general format is almost identical, albeit with the undead replacing volcanoes, earthquakes, and tidal waves: father Gerry (Brad Pitt) travels from one location to another, narrowly escaping major catastrophe each time. His global exploits culminate in a small facility in Wales, where the previously large-scale action is reduced to a handful of zombies – its pace is jarringly slow in contrast to the frenetic bedlam of early sequences and it’s an unsatisfying anti-climax. Much like a number of recent weak horror films, World War Z winds down the action, rather than builds up to it, and none of the later sequences match the opening scene’s tension, fear, or panic.

Despite being based on Max Brooks’ novel of the same name, World War Z takes little from its source. Gone is the clever political and social subtext (a staple of the zombie genre), and absent are some of the book’s most memorable scenarios. This is a film that, if you dig below the surface, you just find more surface. If you suspend your disbelief and accept that, in the entire world, a man called Gerry is the only person who can possibly conceive of a cure, it’s a fairly entertaining two hours, but that’s all it is. Horror fans will be appalled at its bloodlessness: the swarming, racing, feral undead may have teeth, but we never get to see the aftermath. Yet there are some exciting moments – the demise of Israel, for instance, and the effect of an unwanted stowaway on a jumbo jet – but, as apocalypses go, bizarrely this one lacks any sense of peril.

Despicable Me 2
Release date: 28 June 2013
Rating: 2.5/5

When its predecessor was released, not-so-bad bad-guy Gru’s minions were the film’s biggest surprise and biggest success. This time around, they take centre stage – they are at the forefront of all publicity and advertising, so much so that Despicable Me 2‘s plot seemed to be largely irrelevant. They are, however, also central in this regard, but it’s not necessarily to the film’s benefit. These adorable, dungaree-wearing, party-loving morons, who speak in unintelligible gibberish and create more problems for their creator, are better when they are supporting characters and, in their attempts to give them as much screen time as possible, the overall narrative has been compromised. While the sequel continues, and completes, the unconventional family unit established in the first film, at the same time it is this family that is sidelined here. Gru (Steve Carell) spends little time with his adopted daughters, while the girls themselves seem to feature only as an afterthought, and the main story – Gru is enlisted by the Ant-Villain League to locate a new baddie – offers a number of possibilities that are bypassed in favour of, you guessed it, more minions.

The biggest shame here is that the once-novel minions have, by their overuse, become dull, and there is little else in the film to get excited about. Kristen Wiig provides the voice to love interest Lucy, a quirky cutie who contrasts well with awkward Gru, but their narrative is the only one that doesn’t feel rushed and under-developed. Visually, Despicable Me 2 retains the colourful pizazz of the first – it’s bright and cheery, with some refreshingly gimmicky 3D moments. As a kids’ film, it’s harmless and pleasant, but neither as funny nor as engaging as its predecessor.

Snitch
Release date: 21 June 2013
Rating: 3/5

Loosely based on a PBS/Frontline documentary, Snitch may be marketed as a fast-paced action thriller, but is less focused on exaggerated fight sequences than on the lengths a father will go to to protect his son. Here, the dad in question is John Matthews (Dwayne Johnson), whose teenage son is set up by a friend desperate to avoid a jail sentence for drug dealing. Desperate to see his son released, John elects to become an informant, infiltrating a drug cartel specifically so that he can offer the District Attorney a trade. Both the documentary that inspired the film, and the film itself, aim to highlight the irrationally lengthy jail terms imposed by officials, specifically designed to create snitches.

For once, Johnson’s impressive physique is not exploited here – he keeps his shirt on, and the only fight scene involves him being beaten up. In fact, his physical appearance is irrelevant. So too is his trademark charisma and charm (that big smile only features once); instead he displays a sensitivity and a subtlety that has largely gone unnoticed until now. John’s need to save his son feels authentic throughout, as does his increasing frustration as to the government officials’ exploitation of him. Supporting Johnson are Susan Sarandon, as the DA, and Jon Bernthal, who is excellent as an ex-con enlisted by John to introduce him to his mark.

It’s a shame that writer-director Ric Roman Waugh feels the need to include a rather preposterous conclusion to his narrative. The authenticity of the story, and its message, are compromised by the characters’ sudden ambivalence towards the sanctity of human life – it may be wicked drug dealers who are quickly dispatched, but there is no indication as to even the slightest twinge from John’s conscience, nor are there apparently any repercussions. Snitch‘s conclusion panders to both the action genre and to Johnson’s reputation as an action star, to its detriment. It may not be a memorable film, but it does provide an indication as to Johnson’s continuing development as an actor, and for that reason more than any other, was a pleasant surprise.

Hummingbird
Release date: 28 June 2013
Rating: 2/5

(Spoiler alert – though it barely matters.)
Firstly, let me say: while I am a massive fan of Dwayne Johnson, I have yet to submit to the cult of Jason Statham. Both appear to share similarities though, in that their biggest successes (to date) have been the films that allow them to kick ass, wise crack, and generally not take themselves too seriously. Both also appear to be attempting to break away from this role, and perhaps it is my bias that lets me claim Johnson is doing a better job than the Stath. While I have already said that Snitch is rather unremarkable, with the exception of Johnson’s performance, Hummingbird is, quite frankly, a mess – it too takes itself seriously, and appears to have some kind of message (this time about the effects of war on soldiers) but it is a garbled, incoherent film that, despite some sharp cinematography, rapidly succumbs to the very stupidity it appears to be trying to avoid.

Statham is predominantly one-note as Joey Jones, a homeless, alcoholic former soldier suffering from PTSD who literally falls into an empty apartment one day and decides to clean up his life. Over the course of six months, he goes from pot washer to gangster, working for a Chinese family as a driver/heavy. He searches for a girl with whom he shared a box during his homeless days, and then searches for the man who killed her after she is forced into prostitution. He falls in love with a mousy Polish nun, who is the most saintly person in the world despite her troubled past (involving, of course, sexual abuse as a child). He does nothing to reconnect with his daughter, except partake in a bizarre, stilted photoshoot and stockpile vast quantities of money. He also pretends he’s gay, buys the homeless people pizzas, and hallucinates hummingbirds – just the once, mind you – presumably so the pretentious title becomes relevant. It’s overly complicated but mindlessly simple; the writers seem incapable of concentrating on any one thing, and neither his character progression nor his actions are believable, interesting, or engaging. Quite frankly, I was rolling my eyes long before he threw the misogynistic toff off the building.

Now You See Me
Release date: 3 July 2013
Rating: 3/5

With a great ensemble cast, including Jesse Eisenberg, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Mark Ruffalo, Isla Fisher, Dave “brother of James” Franco, and Woody Harrelson, Now You See Me is a perfectly entertaining, if ultimately forgettable, film, combining the wonder of magic (the Las Vegas show kind, not the supernatural kind) with the intrigue of elaborate heist thrillers. It’s light-hearted and unpretentious, and the “big reveal” may come as little surprise to anyone who’s seen any number of similar previous films (The Usual Suspects and Ocean’s Eleven in particular), but it’s not trying to be anything more than fun and, in this respect, works well.

Eisenberg, Fisher, Franco and Harrelson are four magicians, each with different strengths, who are given a common objective by a mystery person. After this introduction, the film’s focus quickly switches to concentrate on FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Ruffalo), tasked with capturing these “Four Horsemen” after they somehow manage to rob a Parisian bank during their first Las Vegas show. What follows is a fairly formulaic cat-and-mouse chase, with added mystique thanks to the seemingly wondrous abilities of the magicians. As the exposer of illusions, Thaddeus Bradley (Freeman) provides the how, but not the why, of the gang’s actions but, of course, this is a film filled with deception and subterfuge so, naturally, red herrings abound. My recommendation is, don’t think about it too much, but sit back and enjoy the (rather ridiculous) ride.

Film #34: District 9 (2009)

film 34 district 9

Rating: 4/5

“When dealing with aliens, try to be polite, but firm. And always remember that a smile is cheaper than a bullet.”

In 2006, then-unknown South African director Neill Blomkamp made a short film, Alive in Joburg. He was then signed to direct an ill-fated Halo adaptation and, when this project collapsed, Peter Jackson offered Blomkamp $30 000 000 to direct whatever he wanted. District 9, based on the aforementioned short, is the result.

By today’s standards, thirty million is a relatively small budget, particularly considering the grand scale and special effects required for Blomkamp’s science-fiction tale. District 9 feels like a small film, oddly enough; more reminiscent in tone to the likes of recent sci-fi output like Moon and Monsters than, for example, Avatar. Yet this is more because of its social commentary and political subtext than muted action or weak design – visually, the effects are such that, despite the physical impossibility of the alien refugees being people in creature suits, it is still a surprise to learn they were not, while a recurring image of the alien vessel floating, stationary above the city is understated and truly beautiful, and there is little indication as to its “meagre” cost.

Shot in documentary style (at the beginning at least), we are told that, some twenty years ago an alien ship came to a halt above Johannesburg. Contact eventually revealed its inhabitants to be malnourished and disorganised – hardly capable of providing the celestial enlightenment the human race was expecting. Due to public pressure, the aliens, dismissively referred to as “prawns” due to both their appearance and their percieved inferiority, were relocated in a camp/slum outside the city where the aliens were consigned, without rights, indefinitely.

Having been informed of the situation’s history, District 9 introduces its protagonist – Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a newly assigned head of MNU, a private security firm tasked with the relocation of 1.8million prawns to a new location, away from the increasingly disgruntled human population of Johannesburg. Wikus is a dislikeable simpleton, a dim-witted pencil pusher – he tries to impress too much, he’s incompetent and, much like the bullish men he works with, is not only blatant in his belief as to his superiority over the prawns, but goes about his duty with sadistic glee: an early scene shows his and his colleagues’ delight in destroying an alien’s reproductive apparatus, complete with unhatched offspring. Yet his ignorance, and arrogance, leads him to accidentally ingest a fluid that contaminates him, leading him to begin mutating into one of the prawns. Consequently, he begins to understand the true intentions of both MNU and the government, who are more interested in the aliens’ weaponry than in humanitarian relief.

Like the best science-fiction films, District 9‘s events are rooted in real social events; its story is based on Blomkamp’s experience of apartheid, xenophobia and subjugation in South Africa. It offers a damning indictment of humanity, from the deep-seated racism on the streets to the callous cruelty and desire for power and profit among politicians and multi-national corporations. It is no doubt deliberate that, when war does break out, it is between different human factions, not between humans and aliens. The former’s greed is such that, despite seeing the prawns as a nuisance, they do not enable them with any rights or control that might allow them to return home. Instead, the humans exploit the aliens, plying them with cat food in exchange for a daunting collection of weapons; there is no suggestion that any kind of mutually beneficial agreement or understanding was even attempted when the aliens first arrived. Yet, while Blomkamp’s message is never far from view, it never overwhelms the narrative and is delivered cleverly; it never feels forced or overly preachy – unlike the heavy-handed simplicity of, for example, Avatar‘s environmental warning, here the social commentary is perfectly rooted within the plot and emerges from it organically.

If there is a flaw in District 9, it is Blomkamp’s uneven style. The documentary filmmaking so prominent in the film’s early scenes – newsreel footage, interviews direct to camera spoken by a number of academics and sociologists – is abandoned quickly. This is necessary due to the narrative’s demands, but does damage the film’s overall coherence, particularly when we are suddenly reminded of the retrospective documentary style through jarring voice-overs ruminating on the events occurring on screen. Yet it is also a testament to Blomkamp’s screenplay that this is not more distracting; while it is an issue, it does little to detract from the film’s overall success.

As Wikus, Copley is superb. The initially pathetic, slimy bureaucrat transforms before our eyes – not just physically, but emotionally, and it is entirely believable throughout. He quickly becomes an unlikely hero, and it is difficult not to empathise with him. As the main human character, his performance comes to the fore, but it is important to not downplay the prawns themselves, namely Christopher, with whom Wikus forms an alliance. Although entirely a CGI creation, the special effects here serve the character, rather than the other way around and, while District 9‘s effects may lack the polished sheen of bigger budget productions, it is far easier to accept Christopher and his son as “real” than many other computer animated beings (I cannot help but return to Avatar, with its bland, two-dimensional stereotypes).

No doubt benefiting from Jackson’s involvement, District 9 became not only a sleeper hit with unanimous critical acclaim, but went head to head against James Cameron’s record-breaking sci-fi smash Avatar at the Oscars, with both nominated for Best Picture. Neither won (that accolade went to The Hurt Locker) but, if one had, it would surely have been Blomkamp’s film that deserved it more. It is brutal and unflinching in both its point and its delivery – the war sequences and effects of alien weaponry, not to mention Wikus’ mutation, are grotesque and uncompromising. It is a fine example of contemporary science-fiction, a film that recognises simply providing spectacle is not enough for more discerning audiences; unlike some recent, empty big-budget productions, District 9 matches its effects with thought-provoking insight and is far more memorable, interesting, and entertaining as a result.

Film #33: Braindead (1992)

film 33 braindead

Rating: 4/5

“Your mother ate my dog!”

Firstly, let me say something that might incur the wrath of the web. I hate the Lord of the Rings movies. They should be part of the Movie Lottery draw but, thankfully, are exempt following a marathon a few months ago, inflicted upon me by my boyfriend (which, consequently, led to the subsequent Twilight marathon, mostly out of revenge). Suffice to say, I find them visually impressive but narratively boring, nondescript, devoid of character development, and mind-numbingly repetitive. Quite frankly, once you’ve seen one epic, CGI battle, you’ve seen them all.

I say all this because Peter Jackson’s come a long, long way in the last twenty years, and I’m not a fan. His glossy, spare-no-expenses, family-friendly fantasies may win awards and five-star reviews from popular movie magazines, but his visionary style has moved in a direction I am not interested in following. Whereas today his name is, like James Cameron’s, associated with new technology (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey‘s high frame rate, for example), back in 1993 he was more interested in old-fashioned special effects. Braindead, Jackson’s third feature film, takes its inspiration from the deranged horror output of the late 1970s and 1980s and, had it been made then, would have undoubtedly taken pride of place among the thirty-nine films now collectively known as the “video nasties.”

The premise is simple, with an introductory sequence showing the capture of a Sumatran rat monkey and its subsequent arrival in a zoo in Wellington, New Zealand. Within five minutes, a man – the explorer who found the beast and accidentally got bitten by it – has been dismembered, but it’s only the smallest of hints as to the bloody carnage that will ensue. This scene, however, neatly demonstrates screenwriter Stephen Sinclair’s tongue-in-cheek approach – Braindead is disgusting, graphic, and utterly repugnant, but the gore and bad taste is delivered with a healthy dose of irony and, as a result, it’s both hilarious and grotesque.

Once in Wellington, it’s only a matter of time before the hideous rat monkey has bitten affable Lionel’s beloved mother. She’s a ghastly woman, controlling and possessive, while he’s amiable, a bit simple, and so downtrodden by his domineering matriarch that even when part of her face falls off, he’s only too willing to super-glue it back on and act as though everything’s normal. He seems to take everything in his stride, whether its pulling the furry corpse of an Alsation out of mummy’s mouth or attempting to maintain a sense of normalcy during one of the most revolting, vomit-inducing dinner parties ever imagined. But, if you think that watching a man happily chow down on his custard-and-zombie-pus dessert while said zombie eats her own ear is as revolting as it gets, you’re wrong. Sinclair and Jackson are just getting started.

Braindead is a must-see for fans of good, old fashioned gore. Its special effects are a superbly realised combination of prosthetics and stop motion – visceral, over the top and unrelenting, evocative of both Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead (and, indeed, it shares a lot in tone with that cult classic) and John Carpenter’s The Thing. As the film progresses, it gets increasingly carried away, and it’s a delirious delight. It pays homage to all the classic tropes of exploitation cinema and 1950s drive-in movies, from its greaser gang of thugs to the karate-chopping ninja priest, culminating in a sock-hop house party that rapidly degenerates into a zombie-ridden bloodbath. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, something happens – the result of an undead, rotting love affair is born, for example – that forces you to readjust all your previous beliefs about cinematic taste.

As Lionel, Timothy Balme is excellent – his comic timing and flair for visual comedy and slapstick should not be ignored. He’s constantly likeable, in a Norman Bates kind of way; he may be amiable and gormless, but by the end, inevitably it will be he who wields the lawnmower. He is surrounded by a cast who perform their roles just as gamely as he; while most merrily endure a wide variety of ridiculously indulgent mutilation and disembowlment, his mother (Elizabeth Moody) in particular undergoes the most hideous of bodily transformations. The film’s weakest link is love interest Paquita (Diana Peñalver), although she is perhaps hindered more by the character (naïve and nondescript) than by her acting abilities. They are, however, all clearly having a great time – and how could you not, in a movie like this?

After the success of Lord of the Rings, Braindead has enjoyed renewed interest and is the perfect example of a cult classic – not really acknowledged on initial release, now it’s praised by critics and fans alike. I’m sure there are articles that offer serious analyses of its themes (the obvious being the uncomfortable relationship between mother and son, which is seen through to its disgusting, mythic conclusion), and I’m equally sure that at least some present a strong and interesting argument. Yet I’m reluctant to read too deeply into it; for me this was pure enjoyment. It’s repulsive and hilarious, acknowledges its inspirations but doesn’t veer into parody. This is not a spoof, but a joyous, late addition to a genre that prides itself in pushing the boundaries of taste; in this respect, Braindead is a triumph and, as it turns out, I like at least one Peter Jackson film.