Ghostbusters 1984 *****

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One should never neglect the obvious; Ivan Reitman’s 1984 comedy was the biggest of all-time on release, and feels like it’s never been away. Despite Bill Murray’s lack of enthusiasm for running the ghost-busting theme into the ground, there have been official sequels, reboots, animations, video-games and yet another revamp in the works circa 2020. The original film is a fluke, an accident of unrepeatable proportions; the right star, the right scale, the right politics, and just the right sense of humour. So much, in fact, that Ghostbusters is well worth a look for adults as well as kids.

Class seems to be the central issue here; the ghost-buster crew are introduced meddling about with psychic research at Columbia University, before Raymond Stantz (Dan Ackroyd) indicates that ‘the private sector’ would be a better home for them. Yes, there’s nothing children or family audiences enjoy more than a film that debates the merits of private vs public sector, but that’s just the tip of the agenda here. Almost everyone the ghost-busters meet are moneyed beyond belief; Rick Moranis and Sigourney Weaver play the residents in a well-upholstered Central Park West apartment building, and the wide-corridors and fresh decoration indicate that they’re above most earthly problems. Similarly, encounters with snooty librarians, officious doormen and dismissive politicians await Stantz, Venkman (Bill Murray) and Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis) as they work their NYC beat; the film’s biggest laugh, at least in the unedited version, remains Murray’s ad-libbed and amusing dismissive comment about uptight jobs-worth William Atherton ‘… this man has no dick.’

Such take-downs are the real meat of Ghostbusters, which artfully positions the heroes as blue-collar workers who the crowds identify with as if they’re rock stars. Why? Because Ghostbusters is a celebration of the ordinary overcoming the extra-ordinary, with a humble, uniformed squad cutting a swathe through all manner of special-effects creatures. The explanation, that a group of Satanists previously used the Central Park West building for sacrificial rituals, is another crowd-pleaser for kids, as it the scene where Stantz is fellated by a ghost. In short, nothing in Ghostbusters suggests comedy or box-office gold; it’s success is the happiest of accidents, a triple rebound that somehow punches the ball through the hoop.

Nomads 1986 ****

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Did you know that John McTiernan made a film before his Predator/Die Hard double-bill that made him one of Hollywood’s biggest action directors? McTiernan’s work on 1986’s Nomads prompted Arnold Schwarzenegger to give him the initial Predator gig, and blowing the dust of Nomads, it’s obvious that the Austrian muscle-man had a good eye for talent. Nomads was a disaster on release, but looks pretty good now, with muscular direction and an unconventional urban horror-story that’s hard to pigeonhole.

Nomads also marked a first lead role for Pierce Brosnan, somewhat irrationally cast here as a bearded French anthropologist Jean Charles-Pommier. Poor Pommier dies in the opening moments of Nomads, but Eileen Flax (Lesley-Anne Down), the LA hospital medic who tries to save him, starts to experience key moments from Pommier’s life in flashback form. If that sounds odd, things get stranger still as Pommier tangles with a group of leather-clad ‘nomads’ led by a wordless Adam Ant who may, or may not, be Eskimo shape-shifting spirits who want to use his house as a place of worship for a dead serial killer.

If Nomad’s already sounds completely barking, we’re not even halfway done. How about a score from Rocky’s Bill Conti? B Movie queen Mary Wonorov as Dancing Mary? Nina Foch as an estate agent? And the whole style of Nomads is truly bizarre; McTiernan is clearly working out a few moves, and the famous Rickman fall from Die Hard is road-tested here. Yet the editing looks like it was completed by Nicolas Roeg’s janitor, skipping backwards and forwards in time in a way that dislodges and unsettles.

Nomads, written by McTiernan, is more in the vein of The Hunger, Cat People or Wolfen in that it belongs to an early 80’s sub-genre of finding supernatural interlopers in a collapsing modern society. It’s a baffling, yet hugely entertaining film that works its way to a strange yet unforgettable trick-ending. I honestly didn’t know this film existed until a couple of days ago, but having seen it, I’d absolutely love to hear from anyone that’s familiar with it. Do you know Nomads? Have you seen it? I’m here with a trained team of therapists ready to hear your experiences of this astonishingly odd film…

High Spirits 1988 ***

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The supernatural comedy was something of a mother lode in the 1980’s, with Ghostbusters showing that an aimiable ramshackle vehicle with decent effects could produce a huge box-office hit. But a varied series of disappointments also befell the genre, from Transylvania 6500 to The Witches of Eastwick, and Neil Jordan’s High Spirits was as prominent as any of them. Jordan reportedly has his own full cut of the movie in a cobwebbed vault, and it would be worth an airing for sure; High Sprits is a bit of a shambles, but it’s worth a watch.

The concept is familiar but timeless; an ancient Irish hotel fakes ghostly activity in the hope of attracting lucrative American tourists, but the guests (namely Police Academy and Cocoon star Steve Guttenberg plus National Lampoon’s Beverley D’Angelo) end up falling for a couple of genuine ghosts, played by Daryl Hannah and Liam Neeson. Overseeing this whole strange melange is Peter Plunkett (Peter O’Toole), and this distinguished thespian has the difficult job of adding gravity to a series of pratfalls with people falling out of windows, into moats and various other indignities.

Even the B-Cast here (Connie Booth, Ray McAnally, Liz Smith, Peter Gallagher, Donal McCann, Jennifer Tilly) is better than most A-casts, so maybe Jordan’s extended cut may have something more to offer. George Fenton’s score can’t repress the desire to leap into Irish-jig mode, and it’s never quite clear is the film is parodying or celebrating the Irish talent for myth making. And yet a cast like this is never boring, with the romance working better than the broad comic highlights.

High Spirits is more like the ruin of a castle than a castle itself; attempting to revive the screwball appeal of The Ghost Goes West or I Married A Witch was a nice idea which didn’t catch on. Jordan’s hot streak (Angel, Mona Lisa, The Company of Wolves) ended unceremoniously here, but maybe there could be life after death for this star-heavy whimsy after all.

The Lighthouse 2019 ****

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There was always something cinematic about WW Gibson’s poem Flannan Isle, which was based on true events. The three man crew of a remote lighthouse, mysteriously vanished, a Marie Celeste on dry land. The sight of three birds in the distance, suggesting some supernatural force at work; it’s an ancient touch-stone that’s simply begging for a fully-developed narrative. That didn’t happen in 2019’s risible The Vanishing/Keepers, in which Gerry Butler chewed his beard to no effect in a dull story of rivalry and mercury poisoning. As his follow-up to The Witch, writer/director Robert Eggers takes a far more daring and cinematic approach that mixes semen and sea-monsters to both comic and alarming effect.

Shot in black-and-white, and with set-ups that recall early silent and sound films, The Lighthouse might seem like a pastiche, but it plays out without a wink to the audience. Wickie Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) is joined by newbie Epharim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) on the remote lighthouse he maintains; the young man doesn’t share his penchant for booze and sea-shanties, but the two of them make a decent fist of holding things together. Winslow seems obsessed with fingering a figurine of a mermaid that he discovers inside the stuffing of his mattress, and the younger man’s sexual desires seem to set him up as a target for the older man’s derision.

The Witch seemed to take an eternity to get to a supernatural punch-line; The Lighthouse is more subtle in the mechanism by which it delivers chills, mainly through the dreams and hallucinations of the two men. The games are multi-layered; at times, Pattinson and Dafoe are seen doing actors exercises together, and Eggers seems to be playing on audiences awareness of the actors and the type of genre film he’s subverting. This is horror here, but it’s something more insidous than just jump-scares.

The Lighthouse is a cheeky provocation, cleverly made and making great use of two deservedly popular actors. Pattison makes something other-worldly of Winslow, while Dafoe’s monolithic monologues are something to behold in the style of Melville’s Moby Dick. The Lighthouse will have some frustrated customers; this isn’t the unvieling of a new horror talent as it is a black-comedy merchant, but  Eggers’s film has a playfulness that makes it a must see, even if there’s certain images you’ll be keen to unsee afterwards.

Doctor Sleep 2019 ****

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‘When I was a kid, I didn’t understand the shining,’ says Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor) in Mike Flanagan’s adaptation of the novel by Stephen King. It’s a fair point; I saw The Shining when I was 12, and was chilled, filled with dread, hugely impressed, but also genuinely didn’t quite understand what I’d just seen. Stanley Kubrick’s film has since been much discussed and dissected, with many fanboy and conspiracy theories about the possible meanings, and that elusiveness it a key part of the haunting appeal. The biggest problem Doctor Sleep has is that, by positioning The Shining as part of a larger story, the meanings are nailed down and the sense of mystery is palpably reduced.

That said, Doctor Sleep is probably the best adaptation of King’s work since 1980, and a lot more faithful to the letter of his writing. Young Danny is seen getting advice from Dick Halloran (Carl Lumbly) about how to put his demons to rest, imagining a series of boxes into which his fears are captured and forgotten. But Danny has demons of his own, and his battle with alcohol mirrors that of his father Jack. Danny starts life in a new town, but his ‘shining’ creates a connection to Abra, a young girl with a similar gift. Meanwhile, a new plotline details the antics of Four Non Blondes-influenced vampire Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) whose crew require the ‘steam’ of innocent young victims to survive. Rose has designs on Abra, and Danny is torn between his fears of his past and his desire to help the young girl.

Flanagan is something of a whiz with post-modern horror; his Ouija: Origins of Evil showed he could take rote characters and plot elements and fashion something fresh and memorable from them. And his Haunting of Hill House tv show brilliantly used the original Shirley Jackson novel as a base for a much more expansive but spiritually connected story. He was the perfect choice for the film, and does well to create a work that’s faithful both to King and Kubrick; fans of The Shining in all its incarnations will know that Halloran’s fate differs in the film to the book, but Flanagan cleverly fudges whether the character is alive or dead as the story starts. He clearly enjoys working in the Stephen King meta-verse, and Doctor Sleep also links ingeniously with many of King’s preoccupations.

Kubrick famously cut many of the supernatural elements from King’s novel, and created something suggestive, grim and foreboding. Flanagan and King have repurposed many of the familiar elements as part of a new and very different story, one that riffs neatly on the original property while going off in a fresh direction. McGregor gives probably the best performance of his career as Danny, wrestling with his demons in some depth, while Ferguson is a slippery foe in Rose. Doctor Sleep can’t aspire to be the game-changer that Kubrick’s The Shining was, but it’s a styling, entertaining sequel that thrills and chills on route to a satisfying finale that brings back the many demons of the bad place for one more chilling go-round.

 

Zombi Child 2019 ****

 

If you’re only going to see one film about black magic in a girls’ school, then you’d probably be best to skip the Suspiria remake and head straight for Zombi Child, a remarkably poetic yet properly horrific film from Bertrand Borello, whose Nocturama has become a cult item; he’s likely to increase his considerable reputation with this hard-to-categorise, highly original film.

The presence of real-life historian Patrick Boucheron, seen delivering a lecture on French history and specifically on the meaning of the revolution, is an early tip-off that Zombi Child is not one for the casual viewer. The history lesson is at a posh girls school, where the pupils include Fanny (Louise Labeque), who strikes up a friendship with and Haitian refugee Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat) over a mutual love of Stephen King’s writing. Mélissa has a story to tell, shared with the audience in a counter-narrative about the death of her uncle Clairvius (Mackenson Bijou) who died in Haiti circa 1962 only to be reanimated as a zombie. Mélissa has a certain discomfort mixed with respect in terms of her own family history, but Fanny is keen to explore, leading to a climax that revitalises familiar horror tropes due to the careful work that’s led to that point.

Jump-scares, cap-doffing, in-jokes and such conventional horror-movie moves are entirely absent here; Zombi Child plays so hard and straight with the material that it’ll work for the art-house crowd in particular. But there’s enough frisson in the activities of Fanny’s aunt Katy (Katiana Milfort) to draw a sophisticated crowd; the modish pop-culture references to Rhianna help keep Borello’s vision fresh.

The weight of the past, and of French colonialism in particular, loom large over Zombi Child, a horror film of rare intelligence and wit; the final scenes are frightening, but also satisfying, and the long wait for the pay-off is more than worthwhile. Screened at Cannes in 2019, it’s a smart pick-up for MUBI, who have this exculsively on their books from the 18th of Oct 2019.

https://mubi.com/films/zombi-child

Hellboy 2018 ***

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The knives were out for Neil Marshall’s reboot, rehash, re-imagining of the comic book property Hellboy, which crashed and burned at the box office with barely a whiff of brimstone or sulphur. And yet, it’s not by any means as bad as might have been expected, with some flashes of wit in the script, some huge visuals and a decent centre in Stranger Things’s David Harbour. Having an enormous face seems to be the requisite for getting cast in this role, and while Harbour’s countenance is undeniably huge, it’s not quite of the ironing board dimensions of Ron Perlman. Harbour seems a little lost under the latex and make-up, but still makes a fist of Hellboy’s laconic attitude, with Ian McShane having some fun as his dad. The story, about secret societies, Nazis, sorceresses and the usual Hellboy elements is familiar, although Milla Jovovich is a memorable villainess. Truth be told, this isn’t much better or worse that the two Guillermo del Toro versions, which were no great shakes either; for Marshall, who musters a certain vulgarity as well as some big action scenes, it’s a setback perhaps, but one that suggests he’s got what it takes to deliver a great action film one day.

Penda’s Fen 1974 *****

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An untypical entry from Alan Clarke, this BBC Play for Today has developed a cult following and a BFI re-release. Written by David Rudkin, Penda’s Fen is as deliberately obscure as the title; Spencer Banks plays Stephen, a young boy wrestling with homosexual urges, but also struggling to understand the community around him at his Woostershire home. Elements include the appearances of supernatural creatures, conversations with composer Edward Elgar, potentially lethal environmental and pollution issues, and a religious father whose beliefs are not those of a conventional minister. Penda’s Fen is a mystical coming of age drama which looks beyond Christianity and attempts to find something else in the dreams of Albion of an English teenager. It’s hypnotic, doesn’t bother to explain itself and expects the audience to do the heavy lifting; it’s a unique slice of UK television history and as an insight into the kind of high quality  casually dropped into 1970’s tv schedules, a terrific primer in the lost art of drama.

Hereditary 2018 ****

Ari Aster made a big name for himself with his debut feature Hereditary, a sombre horror flick which manages to create it’s own scary ecosystem, despite a few clichéd speed-bumps along the way. Toni Collette gives a full-on performance as Annie, a mother who struggles to control her two kids in the wake of her own mother’s death.  Charlie (Millie Shapiro) is a young girl with strange obsessions, and prone to making a strange clicking noise with her mouth. Her brother Peter (Alex Wolff) is a frustrated stoner, and unwisely agrees to take Charlie to a party where he’s hoping to make out with a girl. Things go badly awry, and Annie begins to sense that Peter may have been possessed in some way. The worst part of any horror movie is when the old books with pictures of demons and rules about how to deal with them; Hereditary keeps this kind of hokum to a minimum, and manages to create an atmosphere of pure dread, with Annie’s uncanny evocations of scenes in miniature cleverly used to throw visual curveballs at the audience. There’s some startling and occasionally sickening visuals on the way to an intense finals; Hereditary might tick all the boxes in terms of clichés, but the silliness is only visible once this nerve-jangling film is over.

Truly Madly Deeply 1990 ****

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Writer/director Anthony Minghella made the jump to Hollywood with the sensitive and charming BBC drama, a British version of Ghost with less sentiment and more depth. Juliet Stevenson plays Nina, who finds herself lost in her rat-infested London house after the death of her soul-mate Jamie (Alan Rickman). Jamie returns to haunt her, but not in a sinister way; they enjoy music (Bach), share jokes, and he gradually moves back in, frequenting the sofa to watch old movies with his undead friends.  Nina is initially delighted, but comes to realise that much as she loves Jamie, she has to move on and allow his memory to rest.  Truly Madly Deeply is a very British affair, beautifully played and with something fresh and moving to say about the bereavement process.