By the time Ringu had hit UK cinemas, a full two years had passed since Hideo Nakata’s vision based on the novel by Koji Suzuki was realised in front of a Japanese audience, becoming the highest grossing horror film for the country.
When I finally sat down to watch the film to shelter from a wet summer in London, at one of my regular haunts, The Curzon Soho, I was unaware of the significant impact it would have on my own journey through the realms of horror cinephilia. It would mark the rise of J-Horror alongside Pulse (Kairo) and The Grudge and in its wake, would revolutionise the genre, and push numerous Western remakes and similarly styled movies for the best part of a decade.
Part of its appeal would be generated through the grainy film effect, with a slowly drawn out, tension building threat to generate a new style of scare. It came at a peak time during the transition of old and new technology, thrusting the fears of ancient beliefs and rituals with a growing anxiety over the future of mankind. By infusing these two elements, it confronted its audience, daring them to awaken their agitation and curse them, fueling this further and forcing the characters we follow to an early grave.
For me though Suzuki and Nakata’s brilliance comes through bringing the onryō, otherwise known as a vengeful spirit, before a modern audience. With the character of Sadako, the creatives found a host to enact her wrath and fury upon any who encountered her spirit. With all this pent up aggression tied in with her supernatural abilities; a visually striking and haunting look, namely the long black hair cast over the female face, hiding the true horror from the unwitting recipient, whilst clothed in a full white dress; a symbol itself a juxtaposition of innocence and purity, would thrust her front and centre into cinematic history.
It’s now been 25 years since its official release and yet its resonance is still felt. When watching it again, I am instantly transported back to my first viewing in a darkened auditorium, and the thrills and scares that were evoked. It’s why Ringu always makes its way towards the top of my all time favourite horror film list. It’s iconic and translates across time and culture.
Check out more thoughts from the Surgeons team in our podcast episode about the Ring franchise.
One of the first things you learn in the field of advertising is the concept (and then painstaking explanation of the difference) between Idea and Execution.
In an advertising sense, a strong execution can make for a great one-off ad, but a STRONG IDEA can make for a great campaign (made up of MANY executions) over a period of months.
And a BRILLIANT idea? One that speaks to the HEART of the proposition or product you’re promoting? That can last decades.
This isn’t restricted to creative endeavours either. In an episode of the Big Bang Theory, Sheldon and Leonard get into it over which is more important (idea or execution) when they haggle over credit of a scientific discovery they’ve made together.
And therein lies the crux of this review.
On the surface it would seem the answer to the question, “which is more important, idea or execution”, the answer would appear to be…Idea.
That’s what I was always taught. But as a director once told me many years ago – when discussing different video gauges – “What’s the point of busting a nut shooting something on the best format possible if the person watching it sees it on a TV that looks green?”
This was in the days before digital formats and flat screens, but what he was saying made an uncomfortable sense. There’s a reason why cinemas are still in business despite recent innovations in home entertainment systems. Nothing beats a cinematic experience, even if the movie itself is shit.
Another way of looking at it is through your ears. A lot of sound engineers & producers will tell you, if the album you’re crafting sounds good on shit speakers, it’ll sound AWESOME on good ones.
So, execution is not nothing. And – in this reviewer’s typically long-winded way – we get to the crux of Smile.
On the surface of it, it is a completely unoriginal idea. An unseen all powerful McGuffin tortures a person, puts them through hell, kills them, and then moves on to the next victim.
It Follows anyone? Truth or Dare anyone else?
For those of you who saw the trailer and thought this was another “one of those” type of films, you’d be right! Right down to the way they usually start, middle and end.
But UNLIKE those movies, this one has been wildly successful ($216 million to date against a budget of just 17). In fact it’s been so popular it has crossed over into mainstream popularity (you know you’ve made it big when you get mentions on American late-night talk shows).
But why? Admittedly it had a clever marketing campaign but at the risk of alienating my advertising brethren who I so lovingly mentioned at the head of this article, so what?
People don’t throw money at a volume of 12 to 1 at a movie unless it has something IN the product itself. And so with Smile, what is it?
Well – if you’ve been paying attention so far – if it’s not in the idea, then it has to be in the execution.
Here at Surgeons of Horror we have mentioned several times during our many podcasts that horror –as a film genre–is easy to do. But hard to DO WELL.
That’s because in the moment of actually making a horror, NOTHING is scary. The moment is out of context, contrived and repeated until an acceptable take is achieved.
The scary comes in the editing, and this movie is well put together.
From accomplished jump scares to decent tension and build up, a film like this hinges heavily on the lead actor (in this case Sosie Bacon) to sell the trauma of what she’s going through without getting annoying; and she by & large does a very creditable job.
In a nutshell, Smile is a cookie cutter template taken straight from the maguffin curse book. A curse puts a person through hell before killing them (in this case, by making them commit a grisly suicide) before leaping on to the next person (specifically, the one who witnessed the suicide) and so on.
What ensues is the usual steps of unsettling happenings leading to bigger and bigger scares; the protagonist goes through the standard stages of disbelief of the curse, believing the curse, understanding the curse, and finally, defeating the curse by – and this bit is a must – FINDING A LOOPHOLE as laid out by the rules of the curse.
But does it work? Well – how Smile handles that is straight out of the playbook too. Twisty twist included. Although – and this is an interesting observation to its execution; because the movie Truth or Dare would make people smile in a crazed CGI assisted way, this movie – when anyone does the same – does so without digital assistance.
Which is a pity, as a slight and unnaturally skewed smile is very unsettling in the best traditions of the uncanny valley. And although it is ALWAYS trendy to say ANY movie with SPFX is better without CGI, in this case it would have helped an already well made film even better. CGI is an arrow in a film-makers quiver. And as with all such tools, it’s all about how you shoot it.
So Smile is not very original. But it is very well done, and there is the (now) ancient and famous fable taken from the greatest summer blockbuster horror of all time – as said by its director – “If I’ve done my Job right for the first 100 minutes, then people won’t care that shooting an oxygen tank in a shark’s mouth won’t blow up in the last 2”.
(I may be paraphrasing)
But the point is, as a movie Smile earns a lot with its reminder that whilst Idea is indeed more important, a great idea will never be great without a fitting Execution. And that’s something to… err, grin about.
Admittedly my only entry into this feature for my retrospective journey into Universal Horror movies of the 1950s, would be through the comedy review series, Mystery Science Theater 3000. The fact that the object of said show is to ridicule the subject under scrutiny didn’t bode well for my viewing experience, but I tried to do so with an open mind.
The Thing That Couldn’t Die would be helmed by Will Cowan for what would be his last feature film as a director. Based on an original screenplay by David Duncan (The Monster on the Campus) entitled The Water Witch, where a young psychic woman, Jessica (Carolyn Kearney) discovers a mysterious box from the 16th century. The contents of which contain the head of Gideon Drew (Robin Hughes), a man executed for sorcery 400 years ago and begins to use telepathy in order to control people. This far-fetched tale is hard to connect with, much like Drew’s plan to reunite his head with his body. Even if you are willing to bow to the whims with a suspension of disbelief, there is little substance beneath the melodramatic telling on show.
It is inevitable that an achilles heel be placed to set up Drew’s downfall, and this comes in the guise of an amulet that Jessica is in possession of. The mold may have been set but it’s a struggle to find any glowing elements to give it praise for. It doesn’t help that upon its release, TTTCD was billed alongside Hammer’s The Horror of Dracula, a film marking significant changes on the celluloid screen. The years have not been kind and with little availability out there, most cinephiles have to resort to the comical observations that MST3000 as its only source to survey with.
As we close in on the end of the 50s and my introspective look back at Universal Pictures shift away from the horror genre in contrast to the rise of Britain’s Hammer Film Production, I cast my gaze upon the 1958 feature, Monster On The Campus. The focus of the American film distribution was to scrutinize the subject of evolution and devolution from the perspective of University Professor, Dr. Donald Blake (Athur Franz). Written by novelist David Duncan, MOTC would be directed by alumni Jack Arnold (Creature From The Black Lagoon, The Incredible Shrinking Man) who would go on record to state that this wasn’t his finest work; an opinion which I’m inclined to agree with.
The story would find Blake becoming infected with a partially-thawed coelacanth. This produces a transformation in his cells into an ape-like creature that causes havoc through the campus, drawing inspiration from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It takes the player involved some time to work out the cause of this mayhem however, allowing for anarchy to reign until the inevitable dramatic conclusion and the reveal of the cause to the effect. The tragedy however is a little bereft of any real impact and the viewer never really grips or raises the tension out of the scenes as it unfolds.
The film itself would be somewhat dwarfed by the more colourful British feature, Blood of the Vampire, which it shared billing with on the cinema circuit. It does boast solid supporting roles in the mix, with Joanna Moore cast as the women in peril figure Madeline; Judson Pratt as Lt. Mike Stevens; and Troy Donahue in one of his earlier performances, here playing local boy Jimmy Flanders. From a modern perspective it is hard to shift away from the make up effects that are a little less than desired, especially compared with today’s standards, but stuntman Eddie Parker does a convincing job of portraying the ape creature when in its fits of rage. Some scholars have also used this feature as a subject on conformity, and the need to fit into society when one feels constantly on the periphery. For this, it is a bold story and deserves your attention. It does fall foul to the more impressive and grand features that were rising up at the time in contrast and suffers as a result across the ages.
First things first, if Rebecca Hall is in something you’ve already got my attention. You’re guaranteed to watch a captivating performance and in her latest feature, Resurrection she goes above and beyond, perhaps contributing her finest performance on screen to date.
On the surface Margaret (Hall) is perfection personified. She has a successful career, where she is in complete control of her environment and a bastion of strong leadership amongst her peers; a symbol of success and an inspiration to those who she works with. On the homefront, her daughter Abbie (Grace Kaufman – The Sky is Everywhere) is turning 18 and heading off to university. And Maragert’s sex life appears wild and passionate. All of this appears to be held together with effortless grace. What we see however, is a facade to a darkly, traumatic past that Margaret has been buried in the recesses of time, forging on and hoping that it won’t ever resurrect itself.
Unfortunately, it all unravels when David (Tim Roth) appears back in her life, forcing her to confront those horrors, whilst still hanging on to some sense of control. The tighter the grip though, the more will slip through her fingers. Her job, her love life, her daughter. What will it cost her to save herself and those she holds dear from absolving her guilt and the scars of time once lost in oppression and grief.
Andrew Semans, the writer and director for Resurrection in what is his second outing behind the camera, carves out a harrowing and hardy tale of trauma. It’s a captivating take on the effects and impact caused when something hauntingly tragic occurs and we try to squash it down and run away from our past.
Hall is magnificent in her portrayal, personifying every aspect of a woman trying to keep everything collected but being forced to heal in an agonisingly cathartic way. To watch her is to be schooled on acting prowess, such is the effortless way she encapsulates her character.
Roth also delivers a fine performance of David devoid of compassion and intent in maintaining the disturbing hold he has on Margaret.
Combined, the performances, narrative and direction weave together to scrutinise dominance, power and domestication. The journey is hard, the scars run deep, and the impact may be confronting, but the result is to share in the purge.
Resurrection will be available on digital platforms from November 30th.
It’s been 6 years since Damien Leone’s torturous creation Art the Clown inflicted audiences with his harsh and violent manner of dispatching victims with revel and glee. His silent mockery as the fatalistic few who encounter him is part of the shock manner which juxtaposes the brutal way that he delves into his maniacal fantasy.
The sequel (currently screening in select cinemas) paves way for further immersion into the realms of macabre reverie with Art being resurrected by some unknown entity, lending itself to a more mystical approach to the narrative. In doing so, it stretches the reams of believability, where anything can be possible in this franchise. There are great moments involved in dream-like sequences and visions that would even make Freddy Kreuger envious, but where Freddy has the gift of the gab, Art has the gift of the gore.
Leone even marks time for humour to be included as Art (once again portrayed by David Howard Thornton) finds solace in an imaginary girl who is equally dressed in clown attire. In particular, there’s a quirky and quaint scene in a laundromat where Art goes to wash his blood-drenched clothes following a pretty gnarly murderous event.
The tale picks up with a broken family dynamic centred on Sienna (Lauren LaVera), who may have magical qualities of her own, inherited from her now deceased father; her brother Jonathan (Elliot Fullam), who is subjected by misrepresentation and feels ostracised as a result; and the grieving, over-protective mother (Sarah Voigt).
There is something intrinsically drawing both Sienna and Art together, where their orbits will inevitably align among the clown’s killings,that will bring about an ultimate match up, but not necessarily a finality; a potential for further instalments yet to come.
Dubbed by Director Mike Flanagan (Midnight Mass) as the birth of the Megaslasher, Damien Leone has created an extension of the splatter movie, blending it with slasher tones. The gore factor has been dialled up to the max, which is also surprisingly peppered with macabre humour. Terrifier 2 goes above and beyond its predecessor with a bold and fantastical tale, providing an ARTform that cements its antagonist at the heart of modern horror.
Slash/Back is one of those movies that flickers between sci-fi horror and kids action drama in the vein of The Goonies but without the witty banter. It struggles to nestle into either of these domains strongly though and whittles along regardless with little resonance at all.
Set in an arctic hamlet, a group of youths who call themselves the girls from Pang led by a headstrong Maika (Tasiana Shirley) are faced with an alien invasion which only they may have the resolution to defend their homes. As with such films they must first overcome their differences and form a united front if they are to have any chance of outwitting their predators.
Luckily they come equipped with some handy knowledge of horror films to help aid them and the ability to go Macgyver with some choice weapons to arm themselves with.
The style of antagonist sits nicely and disturbingly as these alien entities use animals including humankind to hide in, in order to stalk their prey. The result is deliberately unsettling, as they shamble uncomfortably around in their skin of choice, unable to manoeuvre themselves with any sense of grace. It not only strengthens the foreign, unearthly element to the proceedings but the uneasyness slips well into the realms of horror.
The performances are not solid but one could argue that this lends itself to a more realistic portrayal, and at times it does so with effortless charm, but occasionally it grates and pushes the audience out of the narrative. It’s a gamble that pays off but not often.
Nyla Innuksuk offers an authentic voice to an oversaturated horror landscape with beautiful sceneries to capture his homeland. This allows him to play comfortably in his own domain and flex some creativity. There’s an element of charm at play, that is let down through some script decisions and the casting of a young group of actors with little experience in front of the camera becomes all too noticeable.
The charm and clear vision being expressed marginally pushes this into watchable territory though and quietly hooks you in.
– Saul Muerte
Slash/Back will be streaming on Shudder ANZ from Friday Nov 18th.
1958 would prove to be an eventful year for Hammer Film Productions. Having hit the early half of the year with the iconic Dracula aka The Horror of Dracula starring Christopher Lee in the titular role, and then releasing the sequel to The Curse of Frankenstein, equally projecting their franchise with Peter Cushing returning as Baron Frankenstein having escaped the guillotine in The Revenge of Frankenstein. To round out their trilogy of cinematic releases, Hammer would work with Columbia Pictures to distribute the feature as part of a double bill contract with wartime feature The Camp On Blood Island.
The Snorkel plays out like an Alfred Hitchcock feature with its elaborate murder and macabre dealings by the murderer himself, twisting and turning to achieve his goal in financial gain. There is an element of gaslighting at play too as Paul Decker (Peter Van Eyck) who is masterful in his manipulation, wields his power over his step-daughter Candy (Mandy Miller). Candy continuously questions Paul, convinced that he is responsible for the death of her mother. The issue is that all the evidence points to suicide, not homicide.
The writing by Hammer staple Jimmy Sangster and Paul Myers from a story by Anthony Dawson (Dial M For Murder – another Hitchcock connection) is cleverly played out for melodramatic purposes but lacks in dialogue in places.
It has some choice moments and hesitantly dangles the idea of a questionably dark ending before tying up loose ends. It also had a higher budget than Hammer had dealt with but this was primarily due to shooting on location in an Italian villa. This actually plays in the films favour and grounds the narrative.
The Snorkel has been a little forgotten over the years, masked by the Gothic features that Hammer released at the time, but warrants further attention as it’s a fun little tale of murder and suspense.
Hot off the tails of Hammer’s iconic release of Dracula aka Horror of Dracula, the British Film production company would look to follow up on the success of their other Gothic feature, The Curse of Frankenstein. That film as noted at the time had the titular Baron played by Peter Cushing (returning once more here) heading for the guillotine. His resurrection would be a simple enough with Frankenstein paying off his executioner and escaping to form an alternate identity as Dr. Victor Stein set up his own successful practice in Carlsbruck. His alias is soon uncovered however by fellow doctor and admirer of Frankenstein’s work, Hans Kleve (Francis Matthews). Hans teams up with Frankenstein, eager to learn his methods and the two set work in picking up where he last left off, with the creation of life.
As part of these scientific methods, Frankenstein is accompanied by a hunchback, Karl (Oscar Quitak) who volunteers his brain in the promise of a new body (Michael Gwynne). It wouldn’t be a Hammer film without its share of drama and conflict which comes at the hand of Karl being beaten by a janitor damaging his brain and transforming his personality into a cannibalistic, decaying frame. From here, Frankenstein’s demise is on the cards and the town will awaken to his dark deeds.
Despite having a rushed script, the final cut would do well for Hammer, pulling in enough income at the box office and would be commended for a well handled screenplay ably supported by Jack Asher’s cinematography along with Terence Fisher’s directing. This is Cushing’s film though and his poise and acidic portrayal is one that lifts The Revenge of Frankenstein marking a successful franchise return and arguably one that is seen by some as better than its predecessor.
Beaten to Death is the epitome of being put through the wringer. From the get-go, Sam Curtain’s third feature from the director’s chair (which premiered recently at Australia’s A Night of Horror International Film Festival) is relentless in carrying out its mantra in promising to beat a man to death. Our opening shots are of a guy literally being pummelled by a brute of a man; the reasons why yet to be disclosed.
Set in Tasmania, where Curtain, who also takes on writing and cinematography duties, takes full advantage of the beautiful-yet-brutal landscape; a metaphor for the narrative as it unfolds. Both Man and Nature are at its most harshest to put our everyman to his final test.
Jack (Thomas Roach) is the man to be subjected to all forms of torture. He along with his partner Rachel (Nicole Tudor) have rolled the dice on a gamble that could help them through their struggles, but the path they choose and fate have a different tale to tell.
Beaten to Death is one of those rare movies that does exactly what it says on the tin. It is not for the faint of heart, take note of the title. It’s spelt out for you.
What Curtain does offer is anything but predictable, carving up the narrative to draw out the ebbs and flows of Jack’s suffering. He allows the audience to breathe but just enough to catch our breath and throw us into the grinder again. There is heart too as we slowly learn of Jack’s initial plight and ultimate descent. Hats off to a solid performance by Roach too to lure the audience in with his solid portrayal.
Curtain keeps dangling the hope of survival throughout, and thus the tension hits you squarely in the face… repeatedly until the end. Brace yourself.