Monthly Archives: November 2019

November 22, 2019

NHE’s Modern Classics: 28 Days Later (2002)

28 Days Later

”28 Days Later” is not only one of the most iconic horror films of the 21st Century’s but also a pivotal one regarding British horror. 2002 turned out to be a landmark year for British horror films as it also saw the release of “Dog’s Soldier’s.” Both of these films led to the re-emergence of the UK horror film scene which it had been mostly dormant in the ’90s. Not that there were no horror movies from our fair isle in the 90s just most of them were rubbish, and it would be uncontroversial to call it one of the worst decades for British Horror, if not the worst.

Funny then, that the film the re-sparked the UK scene did not come from some with a track record in the genre but Danny Boyle who was at that point most known for “Trainspotting” and had not made a horror film before nor has he since. Boyle is now, of course, considered one of this country’s finest genre filmmakers and has long established his “national treasure” status but at this stage, he was looking for a career renaissance after two critical and commercial failure in “A Life Less than Ordinary” and “The Beach.” With even Boyle later openly disliking.

Both “A Life Less than Ordinary” and “The Beach” were glossier Hollywood productions and in the latter cases much bigger budgeted than Boyle had been used too. “28 Days Later” on the other hand saw Boyle come back to his roots not just due to it being a smaller British production but also it has a more rough and ready shooting style. You sense this was as much of a practical choice as an aesthetic one as the use of digital camcorders allowed Boyle’s crew to set up and move on quickly which came in useful for capturing many of the film’s most memorable shots of capturing desolate streets and empty motorways on the hoof.

The most iconic of which is where we see Jim (Cillian Murphy) standing on an empty Westminster bridge with Big Ben looming in the background. In fact, that whole section at the start where Jim wanders around a deserted London is so memorable that many forget that the film does not open with it but instead with a prologue where we see how the “rage” virus escaped in the first place.

The use of digital camcorders did not just help with shooting on quick turnaround, but it also suits the movie, in terms, of giving it a grittier, documentary-like look which makes the action that unfolds feel more visceral and realistic. There is something about this use of digital over film that suits the frenzied energy and kinetic pace that Boyle keeps going over its near 2 hours running time. It also seems to be appropriate for this British urban tale differentiating from glossier American zombie films. Not that "28 Day's Later" is really a zombie film as the hordes are not undead but infected with a virus. This fact did not, however, stop lots of subsequent zombie films take inspiration from 28 Days and introducing running zombies as a thing.

Away from the look of the film, there is a great deal else to admire about “28 Days Later”. For example, anyone who has seen it will remember John Murphy’s pulsating score which greatly adds to the tension of proceedings particularly the instrumental track "In the House – In a Heartbeat" which scores the climactic confrontation in the mansion house.

Director Boyle was also bold in his casting decision with the leads being played by, then, relative unknowns Cillian Murphy and Naomie Harris. Both of whom excel in their roles with Murphy playing everyman Jim who has just woken from a coma and Harris playing Selina who, initially at least, is a hard-nosed, take-no-prisoners survivor. Murphy and Harris both brilliantly portray their characters journey with Jim becoming more of survivor while Selina comes to show other things are going on underneath all those hard edges. Balancing out the fresh faces Boyle also cast experienced character actors Brendan Gleeson and Christopher Eccleston, both of whom leave there mark on the film although in very different ways.

Gleeson plays Frank a father who, along with his daughter, teams up with Jim and Selina to travel to a potential safe haven in Manchester. Frank is possibly the warmest and funniest character in the film and the relationship with his daughter Hannah is also nicely played. All this plus the brief sunny patch in the movie makes it all the more gut-wrenching when he is killed after becoming infected. Eccleston’s role as Major Henry West is entirely different initially seeming like a possible saviour before quickly revealing himself to be unhinged. The point this is revealed is a scene where our protagonists are welcomed with a dinner by Major West and his soldiers only for it to become one of the most unnerving dinner scenes this side of the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”

Not that Major West think he is doing anything unhinged, in fact, from his point of view his actions, which presumably most viewing would see as despicable, seem not only logical but vital for survival. Something which is a recurring theme both what would you do to survive in a situation like that? Moreover, is there meaning beyond mere survival in a world like that? No easy answers are given. Herein lies another key strength to the movie namely that while you can enjoy it as a pure piece of entertainment with explosive set-pieces, gory deaths, and kinetically charged action sequences, there is also plenty morally and intellectually absorbing elements bubbling under the surface for those inclined to engage with the feature.

While there is not much to criticise here, it would be fair to say the film never quite matches the intensity of its opening 20 minutes. On the other hand, it would be accurate to say that opening is up there with the very best in horror, so it is understandable the film is unable to sustain the same level of ferocity. If there is another criticism to be made it would be Garland script between its environmental allegory, political commentary, and ethical debate is thematically over-stuffed meaning not everything is explored as fully as it could be. In subsequent years this has become a hallmark of Garland’s work, but then again I would rather have that than puerile entertainments devoid of value.

Some of these weaknesses were also picked up by critics at the time but mainly “28 Days Later” was a major critical as well as commercial hit. The film also went to win several accolades and has only gone on to grow in stature ranking seventh in Bloody Disgusting top 20 Horror films of the Decade (the 2000’s). Also in that rarest of occurrences, it spawned a solid sequel in 2007’s “28 Weeks Later” which while no match for the original does a good job of building upon the world established by its predecessor. There has also long been talk of a “28 Months Later” to complete the trilogy but that project never really got off the ground and now seems unlikely to be made.  

November 8, 2019

NHE’s Modern Horror Classics: Pulse (Kairo) (2001)

Pulse (Kairo) (2001)

At the turn of the millennium horror, fans on both sides of the Atlantic were fast tiring of the self-referential slasher cycle kicked off by “Scream.” To the extent that there are horror fans to this day that hate “Scream” not so much, it appears, for anything the movie itself did but because of the wave of poor imitations it inspired. Due to this fatigue with mainstream American horror, fans looked elsewhere for their kicks and the J-Horror craze kicked in gear first off with “Ringu” (which was made in 1998 but did not receive a UK release until 2000) which was a like a breath of fresh air in a sea of generic horrors of the time.

Many believe that “Pulse” could have played a bigger role in that craze where it not for the Weinstein’s who bought the rights for it in order to make a remake. The Weinstein’s then stopped it from receiving a general release in the US at the time. Meaning this 2001 film did not hit American cinemas until late 2005 while in the UK it did not reach the big screen until early 2006 by which time the J-Horror craze had petered out. Despite this “Pulse” still managed to pick up a cult following due to many enterprising horror fans getting it on import DVDs.

 Whether it would have made a bigger splash with a wider release at the time is a matter as in many ways “Pulse” is less accessible than say “Ringu” or “Ju-On: The Grudge.” Both of which with their pale-faced jerkily moving ghost where unique at the time but at least they still have relatively familiar genre pacing and storylines you can follow if you are paying attention. Whereas “Pulse” not only has glacial pacing but narratively, with its crazy tale of internet ghosts which make people commit suicide, is a jumble even if you are watching in close detail. Not that this should come as a surprise to anybody anyone familiar with Kiyoshi Kurosawa, a director who has made his name making genre features but with an off-beat auteurist twist.

So while “Pulse” maybe a ghost story it is one less concerned with scare than it is with mood, atmosphere, and cultural commentary. The latter being the irony that in a world ever closer connected by the internet that people have never been more isolated and lonely. Not an original point or one it drives home subtly but one that seems prescient give this was made in 2001 when the internet had nowhere near the role it plays in people’s lives that it does now. Also unlike many films which have dealt with the same topic of loneliness in the digital age, few have the same impact or feeling as Kurosawa packs in every frame of the movie with a sense of dread and melancholy that resonates and makes it feel more than mere tutting ludditism.

 As well as referring to the effect of the internet the film’s social commentary also specifically looks at Japan and how work and education trump interpersonal relationships with the film given extra resonance given the very real spate of suicides which occurred in Japan, at the time, due to the economic downturn in the late ’90s.

A lot is going on here, not all of which is made explicit which is the same with the plot very little of which is explained. Questions such as how do people end up in spectral/internet realm? How do the ghosts appear in the Forbidden Rooms? What is the significance of the red tape? Why do all the victims leave behind a black stain where their corpse was?

Moreover, many others are left unanswered. Loose ends and unanswered questions are not necessarily a bad thing but the plot logic, or lack thereof, does test the patience at times. The movie also escalates from ghost story to apocalyptic dystopia without warning.

 The lack of coherence is not the only issue as there is also almost no attempt at characterisation. The ensemble is more character traits than characters as we have the cute nerdy computer girl (Harue), the laidback technophobe (Ryosuke) and the shy plant shop employee and caring friend (Michi). These characters incidentally are the three lead characters. You could take this as a sign of lazy writing, but equally, you can see this is a sign of tieing in with movies theory of the increased atomisation of modern culture due to technology, and therefore it makes a kind of sense we know nothing about the characters inner lives. Not necessarily a theory your writer here ascribes too but a possibility nonetheless.

Despite its flaws though “Pulse” is undoubtedly a film packed with memorable imagery and is likely to resonate long after you watch it. Amongst stand-outs is an excellently composed sequence where we see a woman commit suicide by leaping from a water tower. A woman who we initially see in the background of the frame as Michi (Kumiko Aso) is taking a phone call in the foreground only for her turn round in time to see the woman plummet to her death. What makes the scene more unnerving is the lack of reaction of the people walking down the street with only Michi going over to survey the horrific scene. This scene is not the only one to leave an indelible mark as there is a few other scattered throughout including one which impressively makes hands coming over a couch seem unsettling.

Predictably given the films oblique, even by Kurosawa’s standards, nature the reviews upon its release in the West were mixed with some hailing it a J-Horror classic while others were left baffled but overall the critical reaction it received was positive. The same could not be said for the dumbed-down 2006 remake which was critically savaged upon release for stripping out the creepy atmospherics and adding in a bunch of horror clichés. Possibly the saddest thing about the remake, besides the aforementioned, is that the late Wes Craven has a writing credit although at the time of release he stated: "I have had no influence at all on the film they are about to release.”[1]  After he had been removed as director and replaced by Jim Sonzero, Craven’s screenplay was also rewritten by Ray Wright so we will never know if Craven’s “Pulse” would have been better, but it seems safe to bet it certainly could not have be any worse. 

​Despite the remakes, critical beatdown and the lack of audience appreciation Hollywood decided to make two direct-to-DVD sequels (both 2008) which received even worse reviews. None of this in the end truly tarnished the original as the movie retains its cult classic status while thankfully the remake and especially the remakes sequels have been largely forgotten about.
[1] Losing the Pulse, by Calum Waddell, Fangoria Magazine, No. 255, August 2006

November 1, 2019

Review: Nightmare Cinema (2018)

Directors: Alejandro Brugués, Joe Dante, Mick Garris, David Slade, Ryuhei Kitamura

​Starring: Mickey Rourke, Richard Chamberlain, Elizabeth Reaser, Zarah Mahler, Sarah Withers, Eric Nelsen, Maurice Benard, Adam Godley, Patrick Wilson, Faly Rakotohavan, Annabeth Gish.

​Run Time: 119 mins

​"Nightmare Cinema" is the latest in a long line of horror anthology's to pop up in the last decade with the format becoming particularly popular again on the back of the V/H/S trilogy. It is an anthology that comes with a real pedigree as Mick Garris conceived it as a quasi-follow-up to his famed "Masters of Horror" series. The other directors involved here include the legendary Joe Dante (Gremlins), Ryūhei Kitamura (Midnight Meat Train), David Slade (30 Days of Night), and Alejandro Brugues (Juan of the Dead).

Garris himself provides the framing device as each story begins with a character inexplicably drawn into a seemingly abandoned run by a man simply known as "The Projectionist." A sinister figure played by Mickey Rourke. Rourke fans should not get too excited, though, as while heavily advertised, he is only on screen for a couple of scenes and seems to be mainly on autopilot.

After a quick intro, then we dive into our first story, "The Thing in the Woods," which may come from the least know of the bunch (Brugues) but is possibly the strongest of the segments. The story starts as a reasonably straightforward slasher parody, but halfway through takes an unexpected and inventive left turn. Honestly, if it had stayed as a slasher parody, it would have still been very entertaining as it effectively skewers a bunch of the genre clichés, and the cast is amusingly faux-wooden but the turn it takes, takes it to a different level.

A shame then that ​the next two up can't quite match that level. Not to say that they are rubbish as they are not. In fact, both Dante's "Mirare" and Kitamura's "Mashit" are solidly entertaining. The former is a tale of weird plastic surgery that trundles along a bit but does have a wonderfully slimy performance from 60's matinee idol Richard Chamberlain and a suitably nasty pay-off. The latter is an over-the-top tale of demonic possession at a Catholic girl’s school, which does little new with that particular well-worn territory but makes up for what it lacks in originality in attitude and gore. Even if you do wish, Kitamura had pushed the goofiness a little more.

In the fourth segment, "Welcome to Egress," we reach the peak of the opening story again as Slade delivers a surreal Lynchian tale set in a doctor's reception and shot in visually striking monochrome. It is difficult to say too much else about it without spoiling it, but it should be said that Elizabeth Reaser puts in an excellent performance as the possibly unhinged female lead.

After that, it is regrettable we end on the weakest of the bunch "The Dead," directed by Garris. This entry concerns a prodigal teen piano player Riley (Faly Rakotohavan), who, after a nearly deadly attack, ends up being able to see dead people. Admittedly while not terrible, this tale just feels flat with no real dramatic tension, little in the way of decent scares, and a sense that we have seen this all before and done better at that.

Overall: Like most horror anthologies, "Nightmare Cinema" is a mixed bag, but unlike most, it ends up in credit as out of the five stories; two are okay, two are excellent, and only one falls flat. All things considered a worthy addition in the horror anthology canon. 


​You can watch "Nightmare Cinema" on Shudder here