Monday, March 28, 2011

Short Film: Ring of Fire (Germany, 2000)

"We never fell. We never even stumbled. We just waited for the spirits to rise from out of the ground."

Written, directed and designed by Andreas Hykade and animated by Ged Haney, Andreas Hykade and Anita Ortega, Ring of Fire is a production of the German animation studio Film Bilder, an under-appreciated little firm in Stuttgart that has been around for over twenty years and has made a plethora of true animated visual treats, many just as amazing as the one chosen as this month's feature short film. The tale told here to the at times wonderfully ironic county-tinged music composed by Steffen Kahles is, on a visual level, not one for prudes and, at one point or another, easily features all of the seven deadly sins – wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony. But the sins are not what the film is about; much more so, it is about that which its title, taken from the classic country song, infers.
As anyone with half a brain knows, Johnny Cash's classic country pop song Ring of Fire (written by his then future wife June Carter and currently #87 on Rolling Stone's list of "The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time") is an ode to falling in love – as one line in the song puts it: "Love is like a burning ring of fire." And though the song never is heard in this roughly 15 minute film, the allusion is clear, for love is a major aspect of this B&W visual smörgåsbord of a morality play.
True, due to the overflow of erotic and sensual imagery the initial impression is that the film is more about sex than anything else, but in the end Ring of Fire reveals itself to be truly about love – not to mention forgiveness and redemption.

Surreal, beautiful, disturbing, sensual, enthralling: Ring of Fire.

Friday, March 18, 2011

R.I.P.: Michael Gough

Michael Gough
23 November 1916 – 17 March 2011

After a year of ill health, the British actor Michael Gough died at the age of 94 on March 17, 2011. Born in Kuula Lumpur in 1916 to British nationals, he made his film debut in 1948 in the costume crime drama, Blache Fury. Most people know the name Michael Gough – if they know his name at all – from his extremely effective four-film stint as an understated Alfred the Faithful Butler in Tim Burton's excellent Batman films and Joel Schumacher's less than good Batman films. But even amongst those who don't know his name, many know his face from the numerous entertaining horror and cult films, mostly English productions, which he graced throughout the 1960s. Usually his acting was enjoyably less than understated in those films, although he did gain an ability for effective but understated acting in his later films, so perhaps his early "style" was more a product of the directors than the actor. A reliable character actor and occasional lead – or, as he called himself, a "jobbing actor" – Michael Gough, a presence that was always noted and enjoyed, appeared in over 150 films and did innumerable voice-over jobs.

Here are some of his films of note – and of lesser note. He retired from acting in 1999, though he did resurface long enough to lend his pleasant voice to Tim Burton's last two animated projects.

(1951, dir. Marc Allégret)

Three years after his debut in Marc Allégret's crime costume drama Blanche Fury, Michael Gough makes it onto a film poster! Yes, that's his name in small print on the poster above, and him in person (as "Maurice Edwards") on the German film program below. Anyone know what the film is about?

The Man in the White Suit
Michael Gough didn't make it onto this groovy poster for a comedy by the director of the original version of The Ladykillers (1955). The trailer can be seen here at; regrettably, the embedding function has been disabled. A young Michael Gough (as " Michael Corland") can be seen glowering over the shoulder of the film's lead star a couple of times in the trailer.

(1958, dir. Terence Fisher)

Finally, his first true classic – and what a classic it is! Alone for this film, Gough earned his place in film history.

Model for Murder
(1959, dir. Terry Bishop)
A year later, he (alongside great Hazel Court was in a "[…] mundane second-feature thriller that fails to excite despite the best efforts of a spirited cast." (Britmovie) Love the posters.

Horrors of the Black Museum
(1959, dir. Arthur Crabtree)
In this cult classic, he plays the lead as the killer – a role he was often to play.

What a Carve Up!
No Place Like Homicide!
(1961, dir. Pat Jackson)
Plays Fisk, the Butler, in a forgotten horror comedy loosely based on Frank King's novel The Ghoul, previously filmed in 1933 with Boris Karloff as The Ghoul (trailer).
Here is the full version of What a Carve Up! at AMC.

(1961, dir. John Lemont)
Once again, the bad guy – in a trash classic fondly remembered by many a trash fan. As Gough himself said about the film (at Cinefantastique): "Konga was such a howler: no one that saw it could ever let me live down my dialogue, once Konga had me in its paw – simply unforgettable." At this point in his career, subtle acting was no longer an option for Michael Gough.
Beneath the trailer below, a cover from the comic book the film inspired.

The Phantom of the Opera
(1962, dir. Terence Fisher)
Two posters from the film, the flop – but then, there has never been a version that comes close to being as effective as the original with Lon Chaney (here's the original full silent film at Internet Archives).

Black Zoo
(1963, dir. Robert Gordon)
Another fun film produced by the great producer Herman Cohen, who produced both Konga and The Horror of the Black Museum, amongst many. Director Robert Gordon also directed the fun nature takes revenge film, It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955 / trailer), famous for its six-tentacle monster octopus by Ray Harryhausen (octopi have eight tentacles). Of the five films Gough did for Cohen, he has the following to say of Black Zoo: "The best experience I had on a film produced by Herman Cohen. […] I will always have a fondness for that film […]." Below, a murder scene from the film – without Gough, who played Michael Conrad, the lead and villain of the movie.

Dr. Terror's House of Horrors
(1965, dir. Freddie Francis)
The first of the famous series of anthology horror films from Amicus. Gough is in episode 4, Disembodied Hand, in which he plays a painter who loses his hand and whose hand then terrorizes the man responsible for the "amputation," the pompous critic Christopher Lee.

The Skull
(1965, dir. Freddie Francis)
Gough is in the opening pre-credit scene, as the man who robs the grave of Marquis de Sade and then strips the flesh from the skull of the great writer. He doesn't survive long...

Alice in Wonderland
(1966, dir. Jonathan Miller)
The full television play, with Gough as the March Hare. More art than children's story, for sure, but oddly fascinating at times.

(1967, dir. Jim O'Connolly)
Joan Crawford! Diana Dors! Director Jim O'Connolly went on to direct The Valley of Gwangi two years later. Michael Gough meets a great end in the film, helping to prove that smoking can be deadly. The trailer can be seen here, at the great Herman Cohen memorial website.

They Came from Beyond Space
(1967, dir. Freddie Francis)
Based on the novel The Gods Hates Kansas, the film is a real turkey. If I remember correctly – I saw it a long time ago – for half the film a number of characters run around wearing steel colanders on their heads. Right up there with Thin Air (1969) as one of the truly less noteworthy genre films of the time. Watch the full film to make your own judgment.

Curse of the Crimson Altar
(1968, dir. Vernon Sewell)
To quote Gough from Cinefantastique: "[The film] was an absolute disaster from day one, yet Boris Karloff was such a sweet man and was adored by the crew. […] Barbara worked only a couple of days on it, and I don’t think I worked more than a week myself."

Full Film

Women in Love
(1969, dir. Ken Russell)
A bit part in one of Ken Russell's duller films – though the wrestling scene is enjoyable, if you like hetero bears.

A Walk with Love and Death
(1969, dir. John Huston)
A bit part in the debut film of Anjelica Huston. There is a reason you've never heard of this movie before – it's miserable. Have a laugh at the trailer – in which Gough is nowhere to be seen.

(1970, dir. Freddie Francis)
What do you mean you've never seen it?

The Corpse
Velvet House
Crucible of Horror
(1971, dir Viktors Ritelis)
Michael Gough's character's son and daughter in the film were played by Gough's real life son, Simon Gough, and daughter-in-law, Sharon Gurney.

Savage Messiah
(1972, dir. Ken Russell)
Again, Michael Gough has a minor character role and is not on the poster – but including this film on the list gives me the excuse to include this prolonged scene of an exceptionally sexy and very naked and young Helen Mirren.

Horror Hospital
Computer Killers
A film by the greatly underappreciated exploitation film distributor and director, Antony Balch. According to the website British Horror Films: "Horror Hospital is a wonder. A film unknown by the world at large, and pretty much unknown by fans of general horror films, yet rightly lauded by British horror film fans as one of the greatest - if not the greatest - horror films ever made on these islands."
A scene (in Spanish) from the film… Tell me you don't want to see it after seeing this!

The Legend of Hell House
(1973, dir. John Hough)
I snuck into this film as a child – highly doubtful that the film would get a PG rating were it released today. Gough only appears at the end, and then he is literally stuffed – but the film is fun!

Satan's Slave
Evil Heritage
(1976, dir. Norman J. Warren)

The Boys From Brazil
A tiny part in an outrageous film, but if you keep your eyes open you'll see him in the trailer. Who knew that Gregory Peck could actually overact this well.

(1981, dir. Piers Haggard)

Top Secret!
(1984, dir. Abrahams, Zucker & Zucker)
One of their best comedies – shame it was such a flop.

And an additional scene just because I like the film and it also accurately reflects East Germany before the Wall came down.

(1986, dir. Derek Jarman)
Saw this when it came out – Jarman was de rigor in Berlin – but I dunno anymore what it is about anymore. It's ahhrt dahrling… but Gough is at least in the trailer, too.

The Serpent and the Rainbow
(1988, dir. Wes Craven)
Dunno why this film has such a bad rap, it's a lot better than people like to admit.

(1989, dir. Tim Burton)
OK, it was good and truly influential – but not great. Jack Nicholson is overrated and Kim Bassinger sucks. But for that, Michael Gough is the best Alfred since Alan Napier, and much better than Michael Caine (and I like Michael Caine).

Let Him Have It
(1991, dir. Peter Medak)
Peter Medak can make great art and make great trash – this is closer to the former. An effective message film. Gough is all over the trailer.

Batman Returns
(1992, dir. Tim Burton)
The best Batman film ever. Basta.

The Age of Innocence
(1993, dir. Martin Scorsese)
A frigging great film. Makes me hungry every time I see it.

Batman Forever
(1995, dir. Joel Schumacher)
Not half as bad as people like to claim, but a step down from the two films that preceded it.

Batman & Robin
(1997, dir. Joel Schumacher)
In a perfect world, this film would never exist.

Sleepy Hollow
(1999, dir. Tim Burton)
A great film, simple as that. Gough in his last live film appearance as Notary Hardenbrook.

Corpse Bride
(2005, dir. Mike Johnson and Tim Burton)
Gough supplied the voice of Elder Gutknecht in this amazing film.

Alice in Wonderland
(2010, dir. Tim Burton)
The voice of the Dodo in Tim Burton's visually stunning but oddly dissatisfying riff on the classic tale. Michael Gough's last involvement in a film.

Another fine tribute to Michael Gough is found at at Black Hole.

[REC] (Spain, 2007)

(Just an aside: as someone who regularly translates subtitles [German > English], I find that the obvious non-native speaker who did those of the following trailer really made some hilarious mistakes. Can you spot them yourselves?)

So, if we're to believe this film, the Vatican is quite capable of doing worse things than protecting their own when it comes to Priests playing pattycake with kiddies; going by [REC], Vatican employees are also quite willing to concoct deadly demon viruses and then run for them there hills when they lose control of their creation, leaving the innocent folks to suffer and die…
For [REC], Catalonian wanna-be-maestro horror director Jaume Balagueró – having seen three of his other films, namely Fragile (2005 / trailer), Darkness (2002 / trailer) and The Nameless (1999 / trailer), and not having really liked any of them, I am loath to call him even a semi-maestro – joins forces with Paco Plaza, the director of Romasanta: The Werewolf Hunt (2004 / trailer), to be the first Spaniards to jump onto the shaky-cam cinéma vérité horror film bandwagon made popular by The Blair Witch Project (1999 / trailer) and copied in the US (and England) in various forms in films ranging from Diary of the Dead (2007 / trailer) to Paranormal Activity (2007 / trailer) to The Zombie Diaries (2006 / trailer) to Cloverfield (2008 / trailer) to The Last Exorcism (2010 / trailer) to The Fourth Kind (2009 / trailer) to Grave Encounters (2010 / trailer) and Evidence (2011 / trailer).*
And the result? Well, a film that could possibly be described as 28 Days Later (2002 / trailer) in an apartment house, or perhaps The Crazies (2010 / trailer or 1973 / trailer) meets Demon 2 (1986 / trailer) but with fewer characters and an older building. No matter how you describe it, however, [REC] remains true seat jumper and probably Jaume Balagueró's best film to date. True, there are a few odd flaws to the tale, but [REC] barrels along at such fast speed once the shit hits the fan that the viewer is way too busy spilling their beer to really immediately notice the few inconsistencies or loose ends in the narrative. Afterwards the questions might come to mind, but while the film is running the immediate thrill is literally palpable and sphincter-tightening. [REC] is meant to be a scary film, and it is one – básta! It is easy to see why the film was promptly picked up for a US American remake, which as everyone knows came out in 2008 entitled Quarantine (2008 / trailer)…
Shot on location in Barcelona, Spain, most of the film plays out in an old, large but effectively claustrophobic apartment house. Only the first ten minutes or so, which set up the uncomplicated basic premise and introduce the core characters, take place elsewhere (at a fire station). It is there that we get introduced to the delectable Spanish dish Ángela Vidal (Manuela Velasco of School Killer [2001 / trailer]), the TV announcer of a program called While You're Asleep, and her faceless cameraman Pablo (Pablo Rosso), who are to spend the evening with the fire department to share the normal working night of the fireman with the world – only the working night ends up not being very normal.
Just as the boredom of waiting sets in, the bell goes off and off they go to answer a routine call at an apartment house; it seems that the batty old cat lady upstairs has been screaming behind her locked doors, though all is silent now. Meeting up with the cops on scene they bust down the door and discover the filthy, disoriented old lady – who promptly bites a chunk out of one of the cops. Man down, goes the emergency call, but by the time they get back to the ground floor, the building is already under quarantine. A loud "SPLAT!" later the shit hits the fan as more and more people quickly turn into rabid, virtually unstoppable killers… and from there until the last, consequent event of the movie (and the only logical ending), the viewer is subjected to nail-biting tension, amply supported by great sound and a properly disorienting camera work…
As mentioned before, [REC] is part of the Blair Witch school of filmmaking, so everything is seen from the eye of Pablo's camera. It works, which is the important thing, adding a nice disorientation to the events, though I seriously doubt that anyone really in that situation would have the nerves to continue filming as throat-chomping killers attack from left and right. It is a bit odd that the first two men bitten need a relatively long time to change over – in comparison to all others, who seem to flip in mere minutes if not seconds – but had Balagueró and Plaza not drawn out a few of the developments, the film is such a fast one it would have been over much too quickly. One death fails to scare at all because you see it coming in miles advance – really, how stupid can you be to stand in front and with your back turned to a barred but glass door behind which a bitten man is locked? That "SPLAT!" is even able to turn is amazing, too, but then the various infected seem to be pretty much unstoppable – even bullets seem to only put them down for a minute or two at most – which is perhaps understandable if you keep in mind that the virus is less a virus than a viral form of evil, distilled from a possessed girl by the previously mentioned priest (the one who took to the hills) in order to create a vaccine against possession. (I said the film was a good scary film, not that the premise was believable.)
The previously mentioned (and a few unmentioned) quibbles aside, [REC] is a nasty, scary, killer film and one dynamite rollercoaster of terror that delivers in spades and definitely pulls no punches. Of great asset to the film are the lead babe Ángela (Manuela Velasco) and the longest-lasting fireman Manu (Ferran Terraza): both are likable – hell, she's positively hot in a Spanish way – and they easily generate and keep the sympathy and concern of the viewer.
Dunno what the remake is like, but the original might easily make the more impressionable out there wet their pants… if nothing else, the film will definitely make you spill your beer. I know I spilt mine.

*There are surely more out there, these are just those that came relatively quickly to mind.
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