Film #116: The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

film 116 the nightmare before christmas
Rating: 5/5

“Yet year after year,
It’s the same routine
And I grow so weary
Of the sound of screams
And I Jack, the pumpkin king,
Have grown so tired of the same old thing.”

Although it’s probably been about ten years since I last watched this, as soon as the opening credits began, I was immediately transported back, and everything felt so completely familiar. Watching the film on a surprisingly undamaged VHS (quite possibly the tape I’ve had longest in my collection – this is one of the few films I’ve owned since my childhood), I couldn’t help but be impressed at just how good The Nightmare Before Christmas is. I liked it as a kid, but as an adult I really appreciate the nuance of it, notice the little details that fill every scene (this time around, I noticed that the Christmas Land folk have pet penguins).

Of course, this is the most quintessentially Tim Burton picture around. His name is synonymous with the film, and its glorious gothic expressionism and unconventional protagonists are so completely and utterly Burtonesque that it seems to exemplify the contemporary auteur’s style even more than Edward Scissorhands. Yet, of course, this is not a Tim Burton picture – not really. In fact, he didn’t even write the screenplay, though the story and characters are based on his concepts. Yes, this is Henry Selick’s picture, and the director has created a vast, rich world, one that he came very close to matching in Coraline some fifteen years later. Tim Burton finally created his own feature-length stop-motion world in 2005 with one of his many collaborations with Johnny Depp, Corpse Bride, and ironically that film never comes close to reaching the same levels of immersive gothic fantasy that Selick’s creations inspire.

The story is probably well known to most people. Jack Skellington, the pumpkin king, has led the inhabitants of Halloween Town in another successful, scare-filled holiday, but is having a mid-life crisis. Knowing that he’s great at his job, nevertheless he craves something new, and finds inspiration when he accidentally stumbles into Christmas Land. Overwhelmed by the concept of laughter, joy, and happiness, he returns to his home and announces his plans to do Christmas this year. Yet despite their enthusiasm, the townspeople are incapable of looking beyond their own nature, and their attempts to recreate Christmas with the inevitable Halloween influence are wonderfully misguided, transforming the happiest time of the year into something horribly disturbing. People expect to be scared on Halloween, but no one expects their holiday wreath to kill their granny. (On a side note, they should be praised for managing to organise any kind of Yuletide celebrations in such a short time frame – they start after Halloween, and most shops now begin in September at the latest.)

Jack is understandably the most iconic character in the film, and props to Selick and his animators for bringing such a warmth and emotion to what is essentially a skeleton. When he first lands in Christmas Land – the warm colours, cosy homes and twinkling lights in stark contrast to the grey, almost-monochrome world of Halloween Town – his amazement and sense of wonder is instantly conveyed. With only the slightest change in eye-socket-size, Jack Skellington is vulnerable, terrifying, childishly enthusiastic, and world-weary. The rest of the characters are afforded just as much care and attention. Halloween Town is filled with all the creatures and grotesquerie that your nightmares can conceive – all the Universal monsters are present in some guise, and there’s a wonderful array of new characters too. Among my favourites, it’s hard not to love the Mayor, with his alternating faces, and Oogie Boogie, the only real villain in the film, and one of my favourite villains in general. His jazz-inspired number, gambling with the captured Santa Claus’s life, is wonderfully catchy, and genuinely intimidating.

This brings me onto the final point – the music in The Nightmare Before Christmas. While there has(understandably, I would say) been a critical backlash towards Tim Burton in recent years, and also with his continuing collaborations with people who once seemed inspired and now appear unoriginal and lazy, composer Danny Elfman is a perfect match for the unconventional filmmaker. A household name – a rarity for screen composers – Elfman’s soundtrack is perfect here, bringing real emotion to the little stop motion characters on screen. And it’s perhaps surprising to realise just how much of a musical this is – in fact, almost the entire story is relayed in song, and Elfman’s score permeates every scene regardless, bringing life and atmosphere to both Christmas Land and Halloween Town alike.

Although today The Nightmare Before Christmas has become slightly tainted by the over-saturation of film-related products – it’s become one of the ultimate “alternative” films for angsty youngsters, and for a while it seemed like every emo or goth came complete with a Jack Skellington backpack – ignoring all the merchandising and paraphernalia, the film itself remains a triumph. It’s a small world, filled with big characters with even bigger plans, yet at its core, it’s a tender romance, and a film about accepting who you are, about learning to embrace your own natural weirdness. As morals go, it’s a pretty good one.

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Film #103: Flesh Gordon 2 (1990)

film 103 flesh gordon 2

Rating: 1.5/5

“You thought you’d killed me Gordon, but my drive for lust and power is relentless! Your penis – and MY brain – will be a marriage, made in Hell!”

This is definitely one of the stranger charity shop purchases – bought for about 20p on old VHS years ago, Flesh Gordon 2 (also known by the much niftier title, Flesh Gordon Meets the Cosmic Cheerleaders) is, as you might have guessed, a sex comedy rip-off of Flash Gordon. It’s also my first and only experience of either Flesh or Flash, and perhaps seeing the first one – this was made a whopping sixteen years after the first instalment – would have been useful. That being said, plot is generally irrelevant here, but I got the distinct feeling that the final reveal of the true identity of the Evil Presence would have made more sense had I some knowledge of the previous film’s characters.

The film opens with a strangely meta film-within-a-film – Flesh (Vince Murdocco) is travelling in his penis-shaped stop-motion spaceship (yes, it’s a subtle movie, this) with some thong-clad hotties, shooting re-enactments of his (s)exploits for his devoted Earth following. Soon, however, it goes horribly wrong, and poor Flesh is kidnapped by some other thong-clad alien hotties, the cosmic cheerleaders of the title, who intend to copulate with him because an impotence ray has rendered all the boys on their planet (particularly the Cod-Ball team – think a cross between basketball and baseball, but dirty) useless. Naturally, it’s up to Flesh’s Earthling girlfriend Dale (Robyn Kelly) and sex-scientist Dr Flexi Jerkoff (Tony Travis) to save Flesh and, by default, help restore erections to whatever planet the cheerleaders come from.

If the premise and the characters names haven’t already made it obvious, Flesh Gordon 2‘s humour is particularly juvenile, despite the 18-rating. I have no idea who its intended audience is – fourteen year old boys, perhaps? It’s crude and stupid – but largely inoffensive. It’s so tacky that it’s difficult to be insulted by the chicken-sex jokes, for instance. Were it not for the blatant sex themes (in an effort to hide from a gruesomely rampant penis-with-a-face, Flesh and Jerkoff hide in a “cave”, enter the womb and find the whole Cod-Ball team dressed as adult-babies) this would appeal to no one over the age of ten. Oddly, the sex-gags are interspersed with literal toilet humour – following the pair’s journey to the centre of the womb, they end up accidentally saving two trapped turds. The female turd has breasts. That being said, although it’s crude and insidiously stupid, it’s quite entertaining (I say this as a bad movie fan, it should be said) – it plays out like an X-rated Masters of the Universe, complete with doofus leading man.

Flesh himself, rather like He-Man, is utterly bland – reasonably good looking, in a 90s kind of way, he appears to have no personality whatsoever. Despite his name, he seems to be quite prudish (in his defence, he only had sex with that chicken to get the spaceship moving again). Like He-Man, he has about five lines of dialogue and none of them are particularly memorable, but the role is hardly a taxing one. (On a sidenote, since this glittering debut, Murdocco has gone on to become a reasonably successful stuntman, appearing in a number of Marvel films).The rest of the acting is equally nondescript, with the exception of Bruce Scott as the Evil Presence’s mad scientist Master Bator (Scott is also responsible for the film’s soundtrack) – wide-eyed and manic, he’s like a low-rent Christopher Lloyd on Viagra.

In a way, the film’s message is actually quite encouraging – as well as stealing everyone’s mojo, the Evil Presence is evil because he wants to dominate women (he’s just interested in his own pleasure) and, in the… climactic… final fight between him and Flesh, our hero chastises him for this mentality. Yet the progressive message is somewhat lost in the mass of thongs (not just on the females, it should be said – this is an equal-opportunities buttock-flashing movie) and the fact that the good guys routinely grope whatever female is nearby. There’s also something uncomfortable about the fact that the cosmic cheerleaders appear to be schoolkids – they go to classes, have lockers lined along the corridors, and generally act like teenagers, not adults. While this mirrors the general tone of the film, the constant vulgarities and fetish jokes seem more than a little out of place in this context. At the risk of sounding flippant, however, this seems like the wrong kind of film to be reading sex- or gender- politics through – it’s obviously not meant to be taken seriously. The acting is wooden, the sets are reminiscent of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 or Red Dwarf – deliberately tacky, but also just plain shoddy, and the story is merely a guise to allow the characters to move from one juvenile sex joke to the next. This is not the movie for anyone who gets easily offended, or, to be honest, anyone old enough to actually watch it. Put it this way: if your first instinct when confronted with a calculator is to write 8008 and then giggle, you’ll probably enjoy this movie. (Heh heh, boob.)

Film #56: A Town Called Panic (2009)

film 56 a town called panic
Rating: 5/5

“Oh no! C’est ton anniversaire?! OH NO!!!”

If ever there was a film liable to make your head explode, this is it. A Town Called Panic, one of the most inventive, utterly bonkers movies of the last decade (and one of my favourites of 2009) is a brief seventy five minutes of sheer lunacy from the Belgian animation duo Stephane Aubier and Vincent Patar. The names might seem unfamiliar but a surprisingly large amount of (UK) readers will probably have seen several of their shorts: these are also the people behind those bizarre, manic Cravendale milk adverts. If you remember them, with the footballer (?) and friends whose fridge takes them back in time to provide Cleopatra with the appropriate kind of milk for her baths, or the angry bull who gets de-spotted on a milk-flume, then you’ll have a pretty good idea of what to expect from A Town Called Panic.

Aubier and Patar’s film follows the exploits of three housemates – Cowboy (played by Cowboy), Indian (played by Indian) and Horse (played by Horse). Really, the chaos ensues when Cowboy and Indian realise it’s Horse’s birthday, but they’ve neglected to buy him a present. Their master plan? Build him a barbecue, of course. So they go online and buy some bricks, but accidentally purchase 50 million of them, instead of 50. Inevitably, everything goes a little bit pear-shaped: their house collapses under the weight of the stashed bricks; someone (or something) keeps stealing their walls; their neighbour is wrongfully imprisoned; our intrepid heroes end up travelling to the centre of the Earth (and also underwater); a giant penguin robot throws huge snowballs at unsuspecting deer; and poor Horse just wants to get to his music lesson. If you think it sounds incoherent, it’s actually not. It is, of course, insanity, but the really fun, surreal kind of insanity, and just short enough to allow viewers to remain largely unscathed by the whole experience.

It’s not just the narrative that is manic: in truth, it’s Aubier and Patar’s animation style that really threatens to fry the brain. They offer audiences the antithesis to the crisp, polished stop motion animation of the likes of Aardman (Wallace and Gromit), Tim Burton (The Corpse Bride), and Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas) – while Aardman’s creations occasionally reveal their hand-crafted nature through the faint indentations of a finger print, Aubier and Patar have apparently barely even bothered to make their own models. Cowboy and Indian stand on little green platforms, instantly reminiscent of cheap childhood toys (although, it should be pointed out that at one point Indian gets such a shock that he falls off his); Horse may as well be bought out of a poundshop. The same goes for the rest of the “cast” – the assortment of farm animals and some equally crudely realised people living in the village appear, at first glance, to be bought from a local toy shop for less than a tenner. One almost expects to see the “Made in China” stamp on the bellies of the pigs.

Yet, using this rudimentary style, something quite wonderful is created. The stop motion appears crass, almost, but the artistry and sheer style of the finished product is something truly unique and, in an unconventional way, often rather beautiful. The characters move in unnatural, disconcertingly jerky motions – their constant physicality making up for their unchanging appearance (their expressions, for example). Yet they are utterly expressive at all times despite this facial inertia, although the voice artists should be equally included in this success, due to their quick-fire, frequently hysterical (in both senses of the word) interpretation of the script. Meanwhile, the backdrops and settings are inspired and powerfully cinematic; simple painted skies and basic model landscapes instantly capture the deceptively amateurish aesthetic. And, despite the literal size of the characters, Aubier and Patar never scrimp on their ambitious creativity – this is a film on a vast scale, both narratively and visually. As Cowboy, Indian, and Horse travel around the world – far from the comforts of their little village – the places they travel to are impossibly grand. Just consider the extreme long shots underwater, for example, or their exit from the tiny igloo into the snowy wasteland.

To be honest, I’ve barely scratched the surface of this piece of madness. A Town Called Panic is a very tangible film; relying heavily on slapstick and physical humour, its visual appeal is difficult to really do justice, its dialogue might appear stupid or repetitive when written down. It is a little masterpiece, however, and a surreal, head-shakingly hilarious one at that. Truly, I cannot imagine how anyone who has watched this film could possibly forget it – and if you haven’t seen it, well, trust me when I say, watch it (here’s the trailer to whet your appetite): your understanding of, and appreciation for, stop motion will never be the same again.

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.