Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Cell 211 (2009)

In this taut and claustrophobic prison thriller a freak accident lands an unfortunate guard, Juan, in the nightmare situation of waking up alone in the eponymous cell just as a full scale riot ensues; in order to survive he must convince the inmates he is one of them and tension rises as he befriends the imposing leader of the rebellion, Malamadre,brilliantly played by Luis Tosar. Can Juan sustain the deception? If so, how far will he have to go to do so? Will somebody 'out' him? Are all the prisoners as they seem? And will Juan get to see his pregnant wife again? You’ll be on the edge of your seat preparing to find out as the days unfold!

Successful prison-based films should leave the viewer feeling transformed, as if they have suffered a sentence, too. From Brubaker (1980) to Shawshank Redemption (1994) to A Prophet (2009), Carandiru (2003), Bronson (2008) and Hunger (2008), these films depict prisons as a bowel of hell, an immense pressure cooker, a place where testosterone levels can at any moment clash explosively; they embed the viewer in a confined, subnormal environment and brush them up against the dregs of society. Often these films span several years, or decades, and leave the viewer feeling like they've been on the worst journey imaginable; Cell 211 only spans a few days but leaves the viewer no less battered, which, along with its many well-deserved Goyasis, is a testament to this superb film’s power and Danial Monzon's brilliant direction.

Monday, 2 July 2012

King of the Ants (2003)

The King of Ants (2003) is a tough, bone-crunching crime thriller in which an odd-job man unwittingly falls in with a bad crowd that, with disturbingly little persuasion and a small sum money, he is assigned to spy and then murder an accountant. After carrying out the assignment but not receiving his fee and refusing to leave the country when told to do so, he is imprisoned by the gang. Then events get even more violent and twisted... I’ll leave it there with the plot, any more than that will do it a disservice.

Overall, The King of the Ants is a serviceable film with a brutal edge, and the harshness of that edge should come as no surprise to those accustomed with the films of Stuart Gordon. For the first 10 years of his filmmaking career (85-95) Gordon was known for his gruesome and blackly comic HP Lovecraft adaptations including Re-animator (1985), From Beyond (1986), Castle Freak (1995) and Dagon (2001). Since then he had a change of tack and brought his horror tropes to stories set in the real world, most notably Stuck (2007), which was based on a bloody true story. So, as in films like The King of Ants, Gordon brings an atypical abjectness to these dramas, and in this film in particular there are moments of horror and sadism where it really stands out. During the main protagonist’s imprisonment the gang ties him to a chair and wraps some foam around his head and proceed to repeatedly beat his head with golf clubs, their aim: to turn him into a vegetable. These scenes hurt. As a consequence the victim suffers from brief but horrific hallucinations involving transsexualism, chainsaws and a shit-eating creature that’s bizarrely a cross between a giant cactus and a woman; Gordon’s Lovecraftian past seeps in to sublime effect.

Another noteworthy feature is the film’s screenwriter: Charlie Higson, on whose debut novel the film is based. The reason this surprised me was down to the fact that, for me, Higson was synonymous with The Fast Show (94-01). I was aware he had become a successful children’s author but I did not know about his previous adult books. It was like finding out Johnny Ball had written Hostel (2005)! And if I knew about Higson's early novels and his perverse adult film Suite 16 (1994) then this revelation would have been even less of a surprise.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

The Ward (2010)

After dabbling in a spot of arson a disturbed young lady (Amber Heard) is admitted to a psychiatric hospital where she is subjected to Doctor Stringer’s pioneering therapies and accosted by an angry ghost that begins to kill her fellow ward-mates one by one.

Set in the late 60’s this workman-like horror achieves a good sense of time and place: the hospital has its obligatory haunted corridors and secret rooms, Jared Harris lends enough ambiguity to his role as the Doctor so we never know whether he is coolly mad or genuinely caring, but I never felt like the film added anything new to the genre. So it maybe a run of the mill horror that goes through its predictable machinations but the acting is sturdy and there are a few neat shocks; to be fair, it’s a perfectly good friday night chiller but what I found to be really at stake here is the reputation of its director, John Carpenter.

John Carpenter is responsible for creating classic pieces of cult genre cinema (Assault of Precinct 13, Halloween, The Fog, The Thing, Christine, Escape from New York, Big Trouble in Little China), and since those classics, which were made over 25 years ago, he succumbed to a series of flops (Memoirs of an Invisible Man, Ghosts of Mars, Escape from LA, Village of the Damned) which have left his fan base always eager to see if his latest work will rejuvenate or disappoint them. It’s a case of him not necessarily (re)creating a “Carpenter” film - especially when we have learnt that the likelihood of this happening is now so low - but more about containing enough  Carpenteresque moments to satisfy fans. The fans know Carpenter has the ability; surely his light will shine again, we hope, or maybe it will just be a faint glimmer, we will except.

This fall in standard is not unusual. For example look at Dario Argento (the less said about his input post The Stendhal Syndrome (1996) the better) and Francis Ford Coppola (after Rumble Fish (1983) what happened?). They had great periods, some spanned a handful of classic films, others more. Then the magic ran out. Maybe it’s not necessarily to do with talent being limited but more to do with a change in the way studios are run; restriction has dampened their flame.

So with The Ward, Carpenter did not create a new cult classic to add to his still impressive filmography, but the sad thing is that from a director who was so individual, this film could have been made by any horror hack.