Worst censorship ever?

You know how sometimes an old memory just pops into your head apropos of nothing?

It recently happened to me regarding perhaps the lamest, most pathetic piece of horror movie censorship in UK history.

First of all, take a look at this original poster for Dario Argento’s masterful thriller Tenebre – A powerfully simple image that invokes the sex, style and savagery of the giallo film in one stark image.

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Pretty great huh?

Well, here in the UK we have the VPRC (Video Packaging Review Committee) to protect our sensitive eyes from extreme imagery, and they clearly took exception to eerie beauty of Tenebre’s poster.

Thus, we ended up with this

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Yeah, they added a fucking red ribbon round her neck to hide the trickle of blood. A ribbon! What is she, a cat? A Christmas present? A haberdasher’s dummy?

Mind you, just imagine how quickly civilisation would have crumbled into anarchy had the VPRC not acted, so I suppose we should all be thankful.

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Bloody Muscle Bodybuilder in Hell + my Home Video Horrors

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Bloody Muscle Bodybuilder From Hell is a 62 minute, shot on 8mm Japanese remake of The Evil Dead trilogy that has inexplicably found its way onto DVD here in the UK.

It’s bonkers, a lovingly crafted homage to 80s splatter comedies that manages a couple of decent scares before letting the OTT splatter scenes take precedence.

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Despite being three people in a couple of identical looking rooms, there’s ambition to spare, particularly the frequent stop motion effects work and the excellent ambient score that sounds like something out of a Silent Hill video game, though the less said about the incongruous techno tracks the better…

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I wonder if remaking The Evil Dead is some kind of rites of passage for young horror fans. I only ask because, back in 1994, I did the same thing in SCOTTISH NINJA 9: THE UNHOLY DEAD.

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That’s me on the left, with the Manchester United goalie top and unfortunate bowl haircut.

The Scottish Ninja series started in 1990 when my friends and I were 8 years old, but after making eight of them in four years, we were starting to run out of ideas. This is why, one Summer afternoon, I got together with my friends Duncan and David and remade The Evil Dead. Of course, I was the only one out of the three that had even seen the film, so I gave them the basics and we improvised the rest of the movie.

The wonders of childhood imagination!

We shot in my granny’s house, which was rife with such chilling props as…THE BOOGIE WOOGIE POLKA SONGBOOK!

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Costumes were limited, so when we killed off Duncan in the first few minutes…

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…we created a new character, who looked very similar to Duncan but was wearing a hat, sunglasses and a chain around his neck.

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See? Different person altogether. When that character died after a gruesome scalping…

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…we brought him back again as a new character, this time with a moustache and a different hat.

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Has there ever been a better example of the magic of cinema? If nothing else, those trousers are a great example of the magic of 90s fashion.

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I tried to stick to the plot of The Evil Dead as much as possible, and there’s a lengthy scene where I go on about Sumerian burial rites and Kandarian daggers and funerary incantations.

Guys, I was 12 years old. Horror bit me young, and it bit me hard. It’s hard to see, but for much of the film I’m wearing a Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein t-shirt.

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To this day, I’ve still never seen the film.

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This shot was my attempt to pay homage to Steve Christie’s death in Friday the 13th. I repeat: I was 12.

Luckily though, we knew how to have a good time, and the film ends in…

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…an improvised song and dance number.

Isn’t this how all films are supposed to end?

I finally wrapped up the Scottish Ninja series in 2013, with a Swedish language black and white movie shot almost entirely in slow motion and starring my parents.

Sometimes, life can be just great.

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2017 Horror Movies: Part 1

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Get Out (2017, Jordan Peele)

2016 was such a total dud for horror movies, but this year has at least gotten off to a strong start. Get Out is The Little Horror Film That Could, breaking into the mainstream whilst still satisfying the horror hardcore, a tight and unexpected thriller that deftly mixes horror and comedy in a way I’ve not seen for a while.

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It’s not a film I think I’ll have the urge to revisit anytime soon, but I left the cinema satisfied, which is more than I can say for pretty much any horror film I saw in the cinema last year.

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Kong: Skull Island (2017, Jordan Vogt-Roberts)

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Another pleasant surprise was Kong: Skull Island. The original King Kong was one of the first horror films I ever saw aged about 4 or 5, and I’ve still never seen the second half of Peter Jackson’s laborious remake (my girlfriend at the time got too upset when Kong was captured and left the cinema in tears, with me dutifully following after her), but none of that matters because this is a reboot with both hairy feet firmly planted in the monster movie genre.

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A major complaint is that there are briefly some giant spiders, but then they’re gone for the rest of the film. What gives? Don’t tease me with giant spiders and then take them away from me – that’s just cruel.

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Kong won’t change your life or anything, but it was a good, fun monster romp that runs over an hour shorter than the bloated 2005 version, and that is something to be celebrated.

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Raw (2017, Julia Ducournau)

Raw, not to be confused with Eddie Murphy’s stand up film Raw (although it would make an interesting and ultimately pointless double bill) is the new French horror that people are talking about because it made wimp some vomit in a screening or something.

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It’s a surprisingly tender and blackly comic coming-of-age story that just happens to be about cannibalism. The style hews closer to arthouse horror like Goodnight, Mommy and The VVitch, though unlike those flaccid bores the horror hits hard, though there’s nothing much here to turn the stomach of the average horror-goer.

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Garance Marillier is a revelation in the lead role in a film that is equally funny, frightening and erotic. Inexplicably, this French language art movie played in my local multiplex in the biggest screen, the one usually reserved for Marvel movies. Naive hopefulness or administrative error? You be the judge.

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The Void (2017, Jeremy Gillespie, Steven Kostanski)

From the crackpots that brought you the insane Manborg and the even more insane Father’s Day comes The Void, a glorious practical effects laden throwback to the heyday of John Carpenter. It’s The Thing meets Assault on Precinct 13 meets Prince of Darkness, and is almost as much fun as that sounds.

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I have a soft spot for any film that depicts a vision of Hell (yes Event Horizon, even you) and The Void nails it, even throwing in an homage to The Beyond that both annoyed and thrilled me.

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It lacks the humour of the director’s previous films, but is right up there with Raw as the best film I’ve seen so far this year. That said, there’s still plenty of good stuff to come – The Love Witch, The Belko Experiment, IT – so hopefully there’ll be at least one stone cold classic amongst the bunch.

That’s not too much to ask, is it?

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Cannibal Holocaust 2: The Beginning (Bruno Mattei, 2004)

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Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980) is one of the most divisive films in the history of horror. The lurid mixture of sensational screen violence and real life animal cruelty creates a pungent masterpiece that is both reprehensible and astonishing, disturbing and fascinating.

Almost 25 years later, we finally got the long awaited sequel, Mondo Cannibal aka Cannibal Holocaust: The Beginning.  It’s directed by Bruno Mattei, the Italian schlockmeister that gave us Rats: Night of Terror and Hell of the Living Dead. Was it worth the wait?

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No.

No it most certainly was not.

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Cannibal Holocaust 2 is shot on a consumer level camcorder and plays out like your most nightmarish home video fantasies come to dreadful, gasping life. It shamelessly cribs the plot and entire scenes from the original, but only after carefully excising any semblance of power, wit or intelligence from them.

What it does offer, however, are some of the greatest facial expressions ever captured on tape. But first, a warning from our lead character, Grace –

‘What you are about to see, will, I imagine, send you out of your minds.’

You have been warned.

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Guys, these three frame grabs are from the first two minutes. The reason for their repulsion is that a native woman is having her intestines pulled out of her through her breasts(?). Don’t even ask how that works – anatomy is not Mattei’s strong point.

Sadly, neither is filmmaking. Despite nominally operating in the same Found Footage milieu as Deodato’s film, Mattei can’t even commit to that film’s two camera set up, constantly cutting to shots that couldn’t possible be being filmed by the camera operators.

But that, my friends, is the least of the films problems.

We are quickly introduced to our protagonist, Grace Forsyte, who has the longest arms I’ve ever seen on a person.

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We know Grace is a badass, because as she walks the streets of Hong Kong, limp porno-sax plays out over a Casio drum beat. She soon discovers that her tv show has been temporarily suspended.

‘Temporarily suspended? What the hell is that supposed to mean?’ she demands. Erm, do I really need to explain it to you, Grace?

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Grace is furious with the ‘powers’ from ‘administration’, and calls them every name in the book, and even some that aren’t in the book, because she just made them up.

‘Senile filthy assholes! A bunch of snot fanciers! A decrepit bunch of shit holes!’

Snot fanciers???

Soon, she meets up with Bob Manson and ‘the old squad’, a motley collection of halfwits who always look like they’re posing for their bands first album cover.

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Don’t believe me? There’s more…

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You see, in a pathetic concession to topicality and the ideas of the original, Grace is told that the war in Iraq has awakened a bloodlust in the public that must be satisfied. Therefore, Grace and her merry band of idiots head out to try and find proof of the existence of cannibalism.

It’s a dangerous mission, but luckily there is still time for some topless sunbathing.

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Grace continues to demonstrate her way with wicked one liners, my favourite being, ‘Hope doth spring eternal, you bastard.’ I’d like to get that on a shirt. Later, when they find their first evidence of cannibalism, she says, ‘All our stomachs are jumping like palsied butterflies.

That one I don’t need on a shirt, thanks very much.

Along the way we get some stock footage that also turned up in Mattei’s Hell of the Living Dead and also, with crushing inevitability, the real life animal violence that seems to go hand in hand with this frequently loathsome genre. It seems even more bizarre and depressing coming from a film shot only a few years ago in 2004, and isn’t able to use the tired defence of ‘oh, but it happened so long ago! Things were different back then.’

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Luckily, Grace soon gets us back on track by getting in a catfight with her camerawoman, causing them to roll around in the dirt while the men stand around laughing, as men do.

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But goofball moments like this are becoming few and far between, and the ugly image and painful dubbing are starting to take their toll. I need some action. I need some excitement. I need…Grace grabbing a cannibal in a headlock and wrestling her to the ground! I need…Grace kneeing a cannibal in the head! Love her or hate her (I hate her), you have to admit that Grace consistently delivers. I can understand why she is ‘the host of thousands of successful programs.’

Wait…thousands? That’s a lot of programs.

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After that highlight, the film plays out like Cannibal Holocaust’s devastating climax minus the devastation, wimping out on all the extreme violence and horrifying imagery. Apparently it’s okay to slice open a lizard on camera, but chopping a fake dick off is just bad taste and has to happen offscreen.

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It all ends in the most extraordinary, inexplicable fashion. The old squad is dead, but the tv execs decide not to inform the public of their deaths. Instead, one of them explains that, ‘Avant garde virtual techniques will enable the audience to find them.’ Sorry, did I say explain?

It’s an appalling film that will be hated by anyone who liked the original, and equally hated by anyone who didn’t like the original.

But let’s end on a high. Here’s another topless sunbather along with the most outrageous mangling of a well known phrase in the history of language.

‘Hey, remember what they say about pigs claiming to be able to fly?

You look up long enough and you’ll get pig shit on your face too.’

Words to live by, guys. Words to live by.

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The eyes! An appreciation of The Beyond

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And you will face the sea of darkness,

and all therein that may be explored.

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The Beyond (Lucio Fulci, 1981)

Look, let’s get this out of the way first – The Beyond might just be my favourite horror film ever. It’s a masterpiece of grand guignol gothic horror, combining sinister atmosphere and full blown gore freakouts into one perfect package. The plot, if you really need one, concerns Liza, who has inherited a Louisiana hotel. Naturally, the hotel is built on one of the seven gateways to hell (bet they don’t put that in the brochure) and Liza, along with her doctor friend John, find themselves centre stage of a miniature zombie apocalypse.

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It’s a film where everyone involved seemed to be at the height of their powers. Sergio Salvati’s photography is some of the most evocative the genre has ever seen, capturing the sweaty terror perfectly, the earthy browns that dominate the colour palette contrasting with the red blood of Gianetto De Rossi’s extreme splatter sequences. Special mention has to be reserved for the score by Fabio Frizzi, heavy on the mellotron and squishy bass noises. If you don’t get chills when that first choral score kicks in over the opening credits as flames erupt from the book of Eibon, then you may be reading the wrong blog.

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Even the casting, so often a weak point, is spot on. David Warbeck is the ideal macho manly-man and Catriona MacColl carries the film in what could otherwise have been a thankless damsel-in-distress role. Try and imagine this film with Zombie Flesh eaters alumni Tisa Farrow and Ian McCulloch in the lead roles and shudder in fear at what could have been!

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Everything about the film is deliciously off-kilter. People seem to walk around in a daze, speaking only in doom laden tones of ominous portent. There’s no room for small talk here. The characters for once seem to have backstories, which are alluded to but never explained. Why does Arthur seem so concerned about Joe The Plumber? Did Joe and Martha used to be a couple? Why does everyone keep exchanging strange, nervous glances? And why does no one seem concerned at all the corpses floating about in the basement?

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There are several surreal touches that push The Beyond out of the realms of the standard zombie movie and into nightmare logic territory. When Liza meets Emily, the odd blind girl with all the answers, Emily gets frightened and runs away. In a truly avant-garde moment, the sequence replays five or six times, with Liza gradually coming to the realisation that Emily did not have footsteps and may in fact be a ghost. It’s something you might expect to see in an Alain Robbe-Grillet film, not an Italian exploitation picture. Then there’s a scene about halfway through that seems to sum The Beyond up perfectly.

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Joe The Plumber’s daughter is waiting in the morgue while her mother goes in to see the body. There’s a bone chilling moment where a squeaky gurney goes past her, followed by a scream from her mother. The girl goes in to investigate and finds her mother lying on the floor with acid pouring on her face. A vaguely funky piece of horror music starts to play as the girl is chased around the morgue by a gelatinous pile of goo, until she opens a door and a corpse falls on her. None of it makes a lick of sense, but it’s carried out with such devil-may-care aplomb and skill that the lack of logic becomes a plus for even the most level-headed viewer.

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There’s almost too many great moments to talk about – the choreography and staging of Martha’s death, the abandoned hotel coming to life with zombie silhouettes in the window, the entire hospital sequence, it just goes on and on.

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All this good stuff is easily enough to make you overlook the film’s occasional flaws, like the preposterous pipe cleaner spiders or the hospital sign that reads ’DO NOT ENTRY!’, although Al Cliver hooking a decomposed corpse up to brainwave machine may be too much for some to swallow.

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But if all this talk of surrealism and experimental cinema is too much for you, then know this – The Beyond is one of the goriest, most spectacular films of the 80s. Eyes are routinely gouged or popped from sockets. A throat is torn out by dog in a scene that looks at Cujo’s canine carnage and laughs. A man’s face is torn apart by spiders, and a child gets a magnum blast right to the face.

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Fulci would never top The Beyond – I doubt any director ever could – but at least he had one more masterpiece in him, the delirious The House By The Cemetery.

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Horror Holidays and Movie Locations

I love visiting horror movie locations, guys.

There’s just something about walking in the footsteps of Dario Argento, Jess Franco etc that I get a real kick out of.

It all started innocently enough. My now-fianceé Heather and I were going on our first holiday together and had decided on Spain for a few days. We wanted somewhere nice and quiet to relax, and so chose a delightful little coastal town called Calpe, located just far enough away from Benidorm.

And that was where it all started.

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The Peñon de Ifach, a giant slab of limestone rising out of the sea. It’s the main tourist attraction of Calpe (and also the most dangerous – I tripped and nearly plummeted to my death), but I knew it from somewhere different.

Jess Franco’s Bloody Moon.

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The Peñon de Ifach actually crops up in several Franco films, including Attack of the Robots (1966) and Eugenie (1980).

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But that wasn’t even the best. Because after a bit more research, we discovered Calpe was the home to the architecture of Ricardo Bofill.

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Yeah, if you’ve ever seen Franco’s She Killed In Ecstasy, this building will be instantly recognisable.

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40 years later and nothing has really changed, apart from a fence put up for health and safety.

Right opposite is another iconic building featured in several Franco flicks.

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It was quite a feeling to imagine I was standing in the exact place that Uncle Jess must have stood with his camera. And it wasn’t over yet!

On our last day, we had to fly back home from Alicante, home to the Castle of Santa Barbara, where Franco shot several of his more gothic films, such as Count Dracula and Dracula Prisoner of Frankenstein!

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The next year, we decided to go on a short break in February down to the English Peak District. We booked a lovely wee cottage in a village called Castleton. I remembered that one of my favourite zombie films, The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue, had been shot around the Peak District (not the Lake District, as the film seems to imply.)

I did not expect to discover that Castleton was where much of the film was actually shot!

2014

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1974

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2014

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1974

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A 15 minute drive away was Hathersage, where the film’s first major zombie action was shot outside the church.

The sign outside was a dead giveaway that we had arrived.

2014

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1974

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The sign is a bit splintered at the bottom, but otherwise intact after 40 years.

We looked for the big cross tombstone to get our bearings.

2014

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1974

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And there it was. Sadly, the entrance to the cellar was padlocked, so we never got to meet Guthrie and his friends.

Not far from here was also Thor’s Cave, a magnificent cavern that you may remember from Ken Russell’s Lair of the White Worm.

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In 2015, Heather and I headed on a mini tour around Europe, taking in Munich, Lucerne, Venice and Rome, on the trail of Dario Argento.

First up was Munich, where we quickly tracked down the location of the extraordinary opening double murder of Suspiria.

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We tried to get to the plaza where the blind man has his throat ripped out, but it was being refurbished or something.

Regardless, we moved on to Switzerland, where we didn’t find any locations, but we did get engaged, and then on to Venice, where naturally we recreated the famous ending of Don’t Look Now.

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Yes, we brought the red raincoat specifically for this photo.

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Lastly, Rome. The main one here is the Piazza Mincio, where some of the action in Inferno took place.

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This is a good time to mention that my poor fianceé Heather doesn’t actually like horror movies! Though I did persuade her to sit through Living Dead at Manchester Morgue and Bloody Moon, she had never seen any Dario Argento films…until that evening in Rome, when we got back to the hotel, switched on the telly and there it was…

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Dario’s Deep Red, in unsubtitled Italian. The perfect end to a holiday!

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Rings and the sad state of studio horror

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Rings, the latest US entry in the Ring franchise, made me wonder why I even bother going to see modern studio horror films anymore.

Sadly, I’m not joking.

It’s not even as if Rings is a terrible movie, because it’s not. It’s totally competent in every conventional sense. It is professionally made by, y’know, professionals, and it money has definitely been spent on it.

It’s just so utterly soulless, so devoid of freshness and originality and ideas, so bland and homogenised that halfway through you’ve forgotten what film you’re even watching.

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It didn’t have to be this way.

I listened to an interview with the director, F. Javier Gutierrez on the Shock Waves podcast and he spoke passionately about his attempt to marry his ‘extreme ideas’ with the studio’s wish for a mainstream movie with young, attractive stars.

Javier, I believe the studio won this particular battle.

There are glimpses at the start of what could have been. An opening scare on a plane, almost entirely unrelated to the rest of the movie, suggests an over the top rollercoaster ride of multiple Sadakos (damn, I mean Samaras) emerging from every built-in tv screen, but doesn’t actually go there.

Then, we discover a scientist (well, a biology teacher) who has set up a large scale experiment to study Sadako (Aaaargh, Samara, whatever). A line is dropped about Samara (nailed it!) getting angry about being messed around with, and all sorts of possibilities as to where this story could go are still racing through my mind when the thread is unceremoniously forgotten about to focus on a virtual remake of the original, but with added young-people-in-their-underwear.

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And so follows a plodding retread of The Ring, tiresomely trudging from one tedious expository sequence to the next. The once-fresh scares of the Japanese original are now so hackneyed, the filmmakers don’t even bother with them, instead setting up a human villain who falls totally flat.

I almost never walk out of movies (Dogma and Air Force One are still the only two), but after checking my watch and seeing the minutes crawl by for the umpteenth time, I strongly considered it. But I stuck with it, hoping my perseverance would be rewarded with a batshit crazy conclusion, an amusing twist, anything. But the climax, when it finally limps around, is the old ‘put-the-villain’s-bones-to-rest’ idea, as fresh as Samara’s corpse at the bottom of that well.

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It’s a tedious, impotent misfire of a movie, a braindead, pandering, charmless slog aimed only at the lowest common denominator. Luckily for the studios, us horror fans are so committed, we will go and see anything.

But no more.

I’ve had enough.

I’ve had enough of sequels, of franchises, of remakes, of prequels, or remaquels, of reimaginings.

I’ve had enough of films where nothing is truly bad enough to be entertaining, but nothing is good either. I’d call it Fifty Shades of Gore, if these films had the balls to go harder than PG-13.

Frankly, I’ve had enough of studio horror.

It’s no surprise that the only great horror films of the last few years have been from just outside the mainstream, where gifted directors have been allowed to follow their own paths and put their obsessions up onscreen unexpurgated. Starry Eyes, It Follows, The Devil’s Rejects, Maniac, all films that push boundaries, that defy convention and often logic, films that stick with you.

It Follows is a great example, coming under fire from, of all people, Quentin Tarantino for not following it’s own ‘rules’. I’m sorry, but who the fuck wants rules? I’d take the strange and unsettling twists and turns of It Follows over the rigorously dry formalism of Tarantino’s Hateful Eight, which devotes it’s entire last act to explaining, in detail, something that never even needed explaining. And the man supposedly loves Fulci’s The Beyond, a film that revels in it’s own nonsensical nature and emerges triumphant as one of the great surrealist horror masterpieces.

Guys, I’ve just had an image of Fulci ramming Tarantino’s head back onto a nail and his eye popping out. Let’s take a breath to enjoy that for a moment.

I think I remember seeing an interview with that most unfairly loathed of directors, the incomparable Jess Franco, where he spoke about how we need more amateurishness in movies. Now I admit I may have dreamt this – my dreams are so boring it’s entirely possible. But regardless, it’s a great quote that perfectly sums up what I look for in a movie these days. People can laugh at Franco’s films, and deride them for not being slick and professional, but they’re missing the point.

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Because what we’re seeing is unique, a one-off vision from a one of a kind man, an idiosyncratic auteurist making deeply personal films. So what if the dubbing isn’t always great, or some shots are out of focus? So what if he has the actors move slowly because they couldn’t shoot slo-mo? So what, so what, so what. There’s a beauty and a poetry alive in his films, a personality, a stunning audio-visual synthesis. The same goes for directors like Jean Rollin, Andy Milligan, Sergio Martino et al, filmmakers whose work is recognisably their own and all the better for it.

What I think I’m saying is this; we need more idiosyncratic horror films. Now I know they’re still getting made outside the mainstream, but why can the two no longer exist hand in hand like they once did? The Exorcist, The Omen, The Shining, all studio films by serious directors. But they don’t all need to be classics like those, just give me something that isn’t bland teens being menaced by bland PG-13 ghosts to a bland soundtrack.

It can still happen.

There’s one studio that is bucking the trend, even if they’re not one of the majors.

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Blumhouse Films gives it’s directors a small enough budget to allow to them to have some degree of creative control, and while it’s not always successful, it has given us entertaining and memorable fright flicks like Insidious, The Conjuring, Sinister, Oculus and The Visit.

Compare, for example, Blumhouse’s surprisingly okay Facebook horror Unfriended with the DOA studio version Friend Request, which featured the usual CGI insects. crappy girl ghosts, false jump scares and dream sequences.

What other studio would release a horror film that actually stops for five minutes to allow the lead actor to sing an Elvis song to two children, in a deeply moving scene that tells us more about the characters than a thousand expository scenes? That’s The Conjuring 2, by the way.

Having said all that, you know as well as I do that we’ll still go and see the next dumb studio horror that comes out. Why? Because that’s what we, as horror fans, do.

We trawl through the shit. Sometimes the stench gets too much and we emerge gasping for air. Other times we just vomit. But sometimes…yeah, sometimes…we find that diamond. That one film that reignites our passion for horror, for the fantastic and macabre.

And that film makes it all worthwhile again.

Happy hunting guys.

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