Sunday, 28 August 2011

Dark Star (1974)

Hi y'all, a little interim post as I'm going out for a while and I may be some time... this review was published by Den of Geek website earlier on this year so thought I'd re-up it on the blog in a slightly abridged format, you can read the original here. Enjoy and keeping watching the skies!

April 1974. Richard Nixon is in the last days of his presidency. The bloody war in South East Asia rages on. Abba win the Eurovision song contest with Waterloo. And Dark Star, a low budget sci-fi comedy, hits the screen. Fast forward into hyperspace almost 40 years and Dark Star has achieved a mighty cult status as a late night movie standard and a post-pub classic. Made on a shoestring budget of $60,000 by film school graduates John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon, Dark Star is now a major player in the sci-fi hall of fame. Its influence can be seen in many a space opera from all mediums - Red Dwarf, Sunshine, Hitchhiker’s and Carpenter’s own The Thing to name a few. The film also proved the basis as a dry run for Alien for which O’Bannon wrote the script. Yup, Dark Star can rightly be awarded the seminal tag. Many films may lay claim to it but this one’s the real deal.

The film is set in the year 2250 and follows the trials and tribulations of the crew of the Dark Star as they career around the galaxy blowing up “unstable planets” that stand in the way of Earth’s space colonisation. The five astronauts have been stuck on the spaceship for 20 years already and are clearly bored and frustrated with each other’s company and the monotony of their existence. Like the crew of the Nostromo they are a lonely unglamorous bunch of blue collar workers who are just doing their job. With only the soothing female voice of the ship’s computer (think “Mother” with a few technical faults) to keep them company, insipid lounge music to listen to and bland space food to eat, they are slowly flipping out.

Lt Doolittle, the lead ranking officer, is a soulful ex-surfer who has created a musical bottle organ which he plays alone in his downtime in one of the ship’s many engine rooms. His main ally on board is space cadet Sgt Talby who spends his time in the observation dome at the top of the ship. Sgt Boiler is a cigar smoking grunt who practices the “knife trick” (as favoured by Bishop in Aliens) in his spare time and who also likes to use the ship’s laser gun for random target practice.

Sgt Pinback (as played by O’Bannon) is a paranoid, victimised character that acts as the ship’s scapegoat - his only solace is in watching back the video diary entries that he has kept throughout the voyage. As the film progresses it’s revealed that Pinback is actually on the ship by mistake. His real name is Bill Frugge, a fuel engineer whose attempts to save the original Pinback from suicide led to him being mistakenly identified as the astronaut just before Dark Star launched into space. The final starman is Commander Powell who accidently died in another of the ship’s many system failures, but who is kept alive in a frozen animated state in the ship’s hold.

Also on board is the ship’s mascot alien, a red spotted beach ball with webbed claws that holds court in the food cupboard and leads Pinback a merry dance around the ship at feeding time. In the film’s longest sequence Pinback, armed with a broom, chases the Alien through air locks, passageways and into the lift shaft (shades of Alien again) where he ends up stranded and hanging on for dear life.

While John Carpenter directed and scored the music to Dark Star, Dan O’Bannon seemed to have had a hand in most other facets of the film’s production. Along with acting, editing and co-writing the script he was heavily involved with the special effects for the movie. The FX, animation, set designs and costumes in Dark Star are what you might expect from a student film in the early 1970s – they are striking, but basic. For example, the space suit design follows very much the Blue Peter school of thought in its use of disused household implements. Look closely and you can see frying pans, vacuum cleaner nozzles and silver sticky tape. In the main though, the effects work and their simplicity serve to lend the film its satirical edge.

Dark Star is very much a product of its time. Channelling the disillusioned ideals of the 60s peace and love era with the darker, more paranoid mood of the 1970s, the film takes influence from a number of sources. O’Bannon was a big fan of anarchic psychedelic comics of the 60s such as Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers and the graphic novels of Robert Crumb (he was reading Crumb’s “Book of Genesis” when he died in 2009) and the mood of Dark Star is very much derived from these. And it is a funny film – a mixture of slapstick and stoner schtick with a few bleaker more cynical laughs and some gallows humour to boot.

As far as influence from other movies goes, an obvious mention goes to 2001: A SpaceOdyssey. Dark Star spends much of its time lampooning Kubrick’s grand opus to good effect. The jump to hyperspace in the first few minutes is a reference to DouglasTrumbull’s “Stargate” sequence from the earlier film, although on a much smaller scale. The “character” of Bomb 20 is a direct nod to HAL as is Doolittle’s space walk and his “phenemological” conversation to try and convince the bomb not to explode in the ship’s loading bay. Director John Carpenter has referred to Dark Star as “Waiting for Godot in Space” and whilst it never tries to seriously answer questions about life, the universe and everything Dark Star is more than just a run of the mill genre spoof.

After Dark Star, John Carpenter’s career rose rapidly. As director of horror and sci-fi classics such as Halloween, The Thing, Escape from New York and They Live, Carpenter cemented his name in the annals of movie history. O’Bannon went on to work as an effects technician on Star Wars, then came Alien and he also had a hand in Total Recall. He never reached the same heights as Carpenter though and the pair didn’t work again after Dark Star completed. A new documentary on the making of Dark Star “Let there be Light” was shown at the Sci-Fi London festival earlier this year. The film’s legacy is a great one and it deserves to reside in any top ten list of outer space classics.

Flipping out in Space...

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Blood Simple (1984)

Blood Simple is a brilliant modern noir thriller from the brains of Joel and Ethan Coen. Set in the heart of deepest, darkest Texas, the movie follows a chain of events set into action by jealous and violent bar owner Julian Marty. Suspecting his wife Abby of having an affair with one of his barmen Ray, Marty hires a private detective, the insidious Loren Visser, to follow them. When Visser returns with photos of the couple caught in the act, Marty pays him $10,000 to kill them both. What follows is murderous tale of revenge, betrayals and double-crosses, mixed up communications and emotions with some nasty Gothic horror for shock value.

The movie contains all the themes that classic film noir has to offer - illicit lust, betrayal, greed and murder. Indeed in content, Blood Simple comes across like the bastard offspring of classic American pulp writers such as James M Cain and Jim Thompson with a touch of playwright Sam Shepard thrown in for good measure. Style wise the movie takes it's tips from 40s and 50s crime dramas such as Build My Gallows HighCape Fear and The Postman Always Rings Twice, with lots of sparse lighting giving many scenes a threatening edge. What light there is mostly comes from the neon signs inside the bar or a streetlamp outside a bedroom window. And when the light does pierce the sparse interiors, it comes in shards, cutting through slatted blinds or branches of a tree. It's ironic that the one of the only times we see a light bulb on in a room, it instantly results in death.

So with the story and art direction the stars of the film, the performances of the leads come across as a bit functional without being bland. Both Frances McDormand and John Getz put in good shifts as doomed lovers Abby and Ray, without having to show too many emotions apart from an increasing sense of unease as the story unfolds around them. Instead, top acting honours go a pair of great American character actors - the sleazy supporting duo of Dan Hedaya and M Emmet Walsh who play Marty and Visser respectively. Walsh has stared in over 100 films in a long career spanning 5 decades, but I don't think he's ever been better as the repulsive and corrupt private investigator Loren Visser. He plays the role as one part Hank Quinlan from Touch of Evil, one part Rod Steiger from In The Heat of The Night and the rest coming from a wealth of experience.

The world of the Coen Brothers is a strange one. People end up doing very stupid and desperate things for both love and money and it's more often than not those that don't reach for the stars that remain on top... or alive. Motifs and themes are often recycled in their different films, but always in new and original ways. As writer/directors they seem to be able to hop genres at will going from 30s gangster movie (Miller's Crossing) to anti-Hollywood movie (Barton Fink), from romantic comedy (Intolerable Cruelty) to a remake of a classic Western (True Grit), yet always instilling a dark sense of comedy in everything they produce. People die in ridiculous ways like being fed through a wood-chipper (Fargo) or running across a boardroom table and out of an 80 story building (The Hudsucker Proxy). Blood Simple is no different and black humour abounds, in even the most grisly of scenes. Now, about those fish...

Watch the whole movie here...

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Sisters (1973)

No late night movie list is complete without a schlocky horror film and Sisters is schlock horror at its best. Written and directed by Brian De Palma, it's a bloody slasher flick that delivers psychodrama, shocks and plenty of ketchup to boot. Underrated and often neglected, it should be regarded as classic of its genre and is well worth catching for some midnight thrills and chills.

The film begins with French Canadian model Danielle and New York insurance man Phillip meeting by chance on TV game show "Peeping Toms" (a sly nod to Michael Powell's seminal serial killer film as well as De Palma's own voyeuristic tendencies). In an attempt to escape from her stalker ex husband Emil, Danielle agrees to go out for dinner with Phillip after the show and then takes him back to her flat for a nightcap... The next morning is her birthday which she shares with twin sister and current flatmate Dominique. Whereas Danielle seems sweet and innocent, Dominique is insanely jealous and insecure. In order to placate Dominique and earn a few brownie points with Danielle, Phillip goes out to buy a birthday cake for the sisters, but bloody murder awaits on his return. Watching from the opposite block of flats is journalist neighbour Grace who, in a stunning split screen set piece, rings the police frantically whilst she views the mayhem across the way. The film then follows Grace's determination to uncover the mystery and bring the killer to justice as she investigates into the strange and twisted story of Emil, Danielle and Dominique.

De Palma has always borrowed heavily from Hitchcock with themes and sometimes whole story lines recycled from the master's earlier classics and Sisters is no different. Conveniently near the beginning of the film, Danielle wins a set of kitchen knives for her part on the gameshow, a typical Hitchcock MacGuffin. A neighbour investigating a murder whilst spying from the flat opposite is straight out of Rear Window. The study of twin personalities and investigation into the female psyche has shades of both Psycho and Marnie whilst Bernard Herrmann's grand and spooky score could be out of any of Hitchcock's masterpieces.

But whereas Hitchcock would tease and suggest at the horror, De Palma shows the gore full on. Sharp knives slash at men's crotches, blood and entrails are smeared along kitchen floors and the claret flows freely. There's also a very nasty and sadistic underlying atmosphere to Sisters (another generic trait of De Palma's pictures) and the whole movie has a really uncomfortable feel to it. The film has a touch of the Giallo to it, the lurid Italian horror genre of the 60s and 70s that spawned Dario Argento, Mario Bava and many more. And indeed there are moments in Sisters where sheer madness and hysteria reign, where the suspense and tension is built up to such an extent that the only a shrill and piercing scream can provide release.

At the heart of Sisters lie two strong female performances. Dark eyed 70s glamour-puss Margot Kidder has never been better in her dual role as the sultry and unbalanced Siamese twins Dominique and Danielle, showing vulnerability and despair as well as a ton of sex appeal. Equally good is De Palma regular Jennifer Salt as the streetwise journalist Grace, who's determination to uncover the story and make her name in a man's world leads her to some grotesque revelations about the twins. De Palma, Kidder and Salt were all part of the same Hollywood milieu (as documented in Peter Biskind's book Easy Riders Raging Bulls), and like many films from that era Sisters was borne out of a diet of sex, drugs and film school graduates.

Post Sisters, Kidder went onto be Lois Lane to Christopher Reeve's Superman in the superhero franchise. A car accident in 1990 had major repercussions on her career and she was diagnosed with a bi-polar disorder soon afterwards (not unlike Danielle/Dominique). Salt appeared in the long running US sitcom Soap. She recently retired from acting and turned her hand to screenwriting... jury's still out on that one. De Palma went from strength to strength throughout the 70s and 80s with Carrie, Scarface and The Untouchables. To be honest his films can range from the goddamn awful (Bonfire of The Vanities) and tasteless (Body Double) to taught thrillers (Blow Out) and multi-million dollar blockbusters (Mission Impossible). Whichever, they are not for the faint hearted and Sisters is no exception. Lesser mortals might view through parted fingers or from behind the safety of their sofa. Late night movie viewers should revel in the grand guignol...

The truth behind the strange story of Dominique and Danielle