Sam Ashurst's House Of Horror: Zombies, killers and ballerinas
13th May 2011 | 08:20
Plus! More from the secret set...
Hello fright fans, my name's Sam Ashurst and I'm Total Film's resident cult horror expert.
I spend so much time banging on about '70s giallo movies, '80s VHS trash classics, '90s serial killer flicks and '00s foreign chillers that TF have finally decided to give me my own column. Possibly to shut me up.
Each week, I'll be dissecting the latest DVD and Blu-ray releases, uncovering hidden gore gems, and rummaging through my VHS collection to bring you some of the most bafflingly beautiful video covers from the '80s.
And come back every Friday for exclusive clips, interviews and cool competitions to get your plasma pumping.
So, take off your razor-tipped gloves, hang up your cobweb-covered hat and gently rest your bone-blunted axe beside the door.
And welcome to my House Of Horror...
The Frankenstein Experiment
Out: Monday £15.99 DVD
It's cheaply shot and deeply amateurish, but despite some major flaws, this vague take on Mary Shelley's masterpiece isn't completely without merit.
Sure, it may update the original to the point of being unrecognisable (in this version, stem-cell research creates black bile puking zombies) and most of the first-act dialogue is fake science nonsense spoken-very-quickly in the hope that people won't notice NONE OF IT MAKES ANY SENSE.
But a mesmerising middle-act is packed with interesting ideas - one of the corpses loses the strong accent he had when he was alive after being re-taught to speak; now there's an idea that deserves to be in a better movie - and performances that slowly start to grow on you.
Sadly, any electricity generated by the surprising second-act quickly runs out, leaving the lights off for a desperately disappointing climax.
Rent it, and fast-forward the first 20 minutes. Then, when it all starts to go a bit Silence Of The Lambs, switch it off. You'll have created a decent short film, instead of a fairly rubbish full-length.
Out: Monday £19.99 DVD £24.99 Blu-ray
Black Swan contains so many nods to Dario Argento's work I'm surprised its head hasn't fallen off.
The lighting of the club dance sequence is clearly a direct homage to Suspiria, which also features a put-upon ballerina as its protagonist.
In fact, every shot feels like it's riffing on Dario's early output. And even his later flicks; one surreal sequence involving artworks wouldn't look out of place in The Stendhal Syndrome.
But it's lacking the manic energy of Argento's greatest work. At times it feels too stiff, too precise.
And, despite the fact it's a ballet picture, it lacks a truly memorable score. Where's Goblin when you need them?
However, if you haven't seen it, you probably should. It's arguably the most important horror film released in 2010 - how many other horror flicks were nominated for Best Picture this year? And make no mistake, it is a horror flick.
It's become a ridiculous cliche to say that Natalie Portman earned every ounce of gold on her Best Actress trophy. But her gruelling, brave performance is made all the more unflattering by Blu-ray's clarity.
Which isn't to say Black Swan is a BD demo disc, Aronofsky's beloved grain is present and correct, so the image never really pops. And I've heard better sound on much older films.
But I'm nitpicking, probably because I'm slightly bitter that Black Swan can be nominated for multiple Oscars, when the Academy probably wouldn't let the man who directly inspired it onto their red carpet, let alone through the front door.
Black Swan is a brave, creepy film, with a surprisingly brutal final act.
But, let's face it, it's no Suspiria, is it?
Black Swan is out on DVD and triple-play Blu-ray on May 16 from Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment. To win a copy on Blu-ray, email me @ email@example.com with the name of Dario Argento's first film as director. The first person to respond will get an instant reply, asking for their postal address. Good luck! :) (Ed's note: We've had a winner, well done Joe!)
Psycho II (1983)
I'm going to make a confession. I prefer Richard Franklin's Psycho II to Alfred Hitchcock's original.
That statement is probably going to get me barred from the Critics Circle forever, but I don't care. Psycho II is glorious, arguably the best psycho-thriller of the '80s and definitely deserving of a place amongst the greatest sequels of all time.
And yet some people aren't even aware that it exists.
Those folks are missing out on a twisted, surprise-packed plot that positions Anthony Perkins' twitching killer as the sympathetic hero of the piece, pitching his victims' family members as the manipulative villains.
Sounds interesting, doesn't it?
The set-up sees Norman Bates released back into the world after 22 years of therapy, cured. He doesn't escape from an asylum, pull on a mask and start slaughtering innocents. He steps into the sunlight with a kindly doctor patting him on the back, wishing him well.
It's a neat premise that not only deals with the massive gap between the two films, but adds a new level of tension not seen in the original.
Because, believe it or not, almost from the opening moments, you deeply care for Bates, desperately wanting him to find his place in society.
You may find it impossible to imagine sympathising with Bates, but thanks to Perkins' delicate performance and a script filled with wonderful lines, you welcome him home like an old friend.
And then everything starts to go wrong.
Because if Norman's mother despised Bates' sexual impulses in the buttoned-up '60s, she would have puked at the sight of him exploring her beloved motel in the '80s.
Norman returns to find his business turned into a sex motel by a repulsive sleazebag manager who sums up the worst excesses of the '80s.
He's fat, he's sweaty, he's two-steps away from being a drug-dealing pimp. He openly insults Norman, mocking him for his serial killing past.
And all the while, Bates desperately clings to his sanity.
I've barely touched the surface of a plot that is filled with twist after twist. That's intentional, I really want you to discover its delights for yourself.
Hopefully I've said enough to make you seek it out. Psycho II deserves to be rescued from its near-obscurity, and lauded as the ultimate '80s slasher flick.
It's an incredible film. Just thinking about the final shot gives me goosebumps as I'm writing this now.
So, if I'm crazy for admitting I think it's a better movie than the classic most critics consider to be the greatest horror film ever made, then so be it. I just want you to see it, even if it's only to tell me I'm wrong.
Looks Like: An undead special effects-heavy fantasy epic. Probably featuring the combined work of Tom Savini, Greg Nicotero and Rob Bottin.
And, as the title on the cover is The Video Dead, it'll definitely involve videos at some point.
Actually Is: A silly, micro-budgeted craptastic masterpiece about a bunch of zombies that pile out of a telly (there's no VHS player in sight for the whole film), occasionally stopping to pick up chainsaws and take hot irons to the head.
Starring a kid whose CV almost certainly includes the words 'cut-price Corey Haim,' with lines like: "I guess life in Saudi Arabia isn't all the fun and games it's cracked up to be" and with a lead female majoring in aerobics and minoring in music videos (honestly), it couldn't be more '80s if it tried. It's lots of fun.
Imaginary Dialogue: "Wow, that zombie coming out of the television is the most impressive thing I've ever seen! It definitely doesn't look like a bloke climbing out of a hole in the ground! This looks so real and exciting I'm not sure if my mind can cope!"
I enjoyed I Saw The Devil so much last week, I decided to drop director Kim Jee-Woon (A Tale Of Two Sisters) a line to have a quick chat about it. And it appears he found its extreme violence just as amusing as I did...
How did you feel when you first read the screenplay?
Like a chef staring down at piece of red meat on a chopping board? It was a very instinctive, rough and raw feeling. I thought of these factors as advantages, and added a cinematic rhythm and my unique colour to it, without trying to lose the original’s instinctual power.
What are your memories of the first day on set?
The first shoot was in the beginning of February. There are a lot of places in the film that are dark, chilly and wet, so the cold was the biggest enemy.
In other words, it wasn’t simply about the cold but there had to be a feeling of the space’s characteristic dampness, so most of the places were dark even during the day, like in the slaughter scene at the beginning of the film.
That is also why in the garage where the murder scene with Jang Kyung-Chul took place, there was a chill so you could see the victim’s breath. He was shivering.
The acting and atmosphere was very realistic. In one word, it was terrible and oh…I thought that this film had to maintain this type of energy.
What was the most difficult scene to film?
There wasn’t a difficult scene in particular. However, one episode I can think of is when they discover the dismembered head of Soo-Hyun’s, the main character’s, fiancé. At the test shot before filming, the image I wanted came out unbelievably perfectly.
I had wanted a very scary, grotesque but bizarre beauty, which came out easily and exactly how I’d wanted it to. Surprised, I began filming but then had to take about 23 takes.
There was a lot of material to shoot and as it was also a mob scene the intensity of the work could not be underestimated either. Whilst being very anxious, I kept thinking back to the scene at the test shot and continued to re-take.
Finally with the 24th take, the staff who had been anxiously waiting were happy that it eventually came out. Even I thought that it was close enough and okayed it, but we actually ended up using the 15th take in the film. In truth, the most difficult aspect of this film was how to maintain the two characters’ enhanced emotions.
What was your favourite scene to film?
Personally, I like the opening sequence of the snow falling on the country road, shot from inside the moving car, and the ending scene where Soo-Hyun sobs as he leaves Jang Kyung-Chul’s house.
After deciding that the opening scene would be a snowy one, when beginning the shoot, the snow which had been so heavy suddenly stopped. I was worried, but at the very end of February, it started to snow heavily again.
There wasn’t a shooting schedule planned on that day but the production team and camera department had no choice but to come out and shoot. With the lyrical opening music, it conveys the film’s atmosphere very well.
For the ending scene, I thought throughout filming what Soo-Hyun’s final image after finishing his revenge would be.
I had pictured the sobbing of a man’s destroyed inner world, who’d had to become a devil in order to punish a devil. I felt this was delivered.
How tough was I Saw The Devil to edit – did you ever worry you were going too far?
Of course I can’t say that I did not at all, but from the perspective of a filmmaker it is easy to become insensitive. So when I was shooting and editing, one side of me was frowning and another side was laughing.
I thought it had to go to this extent in order to claim to be a gore thriller. Also, I used the explicitness of violence in films currently released at home and abroad as a reference point for this film’s explicitness, so I wasn’t too worried.
What do you think of the reaction the film’s received?
It was very hysterical, especially in Korea. The review board decided twice on a restricted rating that meant it was only suitable for adults older than 18, which had never happened before.
In Korea, there are no cinema showing restricted ratings so this decision was the same as banning it. Particularly, this board was full of conservative members but I didn’t know that there lacked such cinematic perspective. This event was played out as a hot topic by Korea’s media so it was introduced purely as a very violent film.
If there wasn’t such a bias, the audience would have embraced the film, appropriate to the text. However, even before the audience saw the film, it had become a monster of a violent film.
So jumping on that bandwagon, there was a slight tendency to focus the film as either violent or not violent. That part is regrettable in Korea.
With the exception of Korea, internationally, of course there were some shocked impressions regarding the explicitness of violence but it was not judged by its violent content or lack thereof.
I think they enjoyed the film more cinematically with a richer text.
It's a brilliant performance by Choi Min Sik, what was he like to direct?
In Korea, he is a model actor who is intense and strong but exudes a humane warmth at the same time. Due to his training on stage for a long time, he has a very stable and trustworthy voice and range; and another advantage is his suitable expressions.
He is an actor that uses deep breathing, so expressing sudden animation sensually could be difficult without a director’s solution. He is an actor with powerful weight and presence, and put simply, he is an actor that hits you like a sudden burst of energy.
How long did it take to cast your leads - did you have actors in mind as soon as you read the script?
Out of all the films that I have made, it was the quickest and easiest to cast.
The scenario was first suggested to me by Choi Min-Sik, so with that the scenario and one of the main actor’s had already been decided. In Hollywood, the shooting schedule of Lee Byung-Hun’s G.I. Joe 2 had been delayed so he agreed easily too.
The rest of the supporting actors were easily cast, perhaps because there were a lot of new actors involved.
After A Tale of Two Sisters, I think it will be recorded as the film with the quickest pre- and post-production period out of all the films that I have made.
How did you develop the relationship between Choi Min Sik and Lee Byung-Hun, was there a lot of rehearsal time?
Before shooting I spent more time with Choi Min-Sik rather than Lee Byung-Hun.
I had thought that it would be easy with Lee Byung-Hun’s emotions but had a lot of questions about what the psychopathic killer’s state would be. That is why I had many more meetings with Choi Min-Sik.
It was usually out drinking, and Choi Min-Sik would often drink more than I expected so we could not share much productive talk, but we could share our imagined concept of the devil with each other.
However, I am not actually the type to spend a lot of time with actors before shooting. I wouldn’t want to invade the actor’s imagination or vice versa, in case of blunting the vividness.
I prefer to have many conversations during shooting; and because we are talking about the presenting problem, there is more vitality.
I don’t tend to have many rehearsals either. It is the same case of not wanting to blunt that vividness due to too many rehearsals.
How would you feel if an American director decided to remake I Saw The Devil?
I would like to see it, and see what kind of actors would join in and how they would join in.
Come back next week for my exclusive interview with the lovely Graham Humphreys - the genius artist behind the iconic Evil Dead, Evil Dead 2, A Nightmare On Elm Street, Return Of The Living Dead and many more insanely cool VHS box covers
I arrived on the set of the secret short film shoot at 8am, half-asleep and primed to be turned into a zombie.
Yes, I can officially reveal that the secret short is a zombie flick, albeit one with an astonishingly cool hush-hush twist.
The first thing I saw when I entered the cast room was my discarded head, lying on the ground, without any eyebrows.
It was wearing a weird Beatles style wig, which I was assured would be replaced. "Or we'll just run some talc through it. You know, because of your grey hair."
After that particular bit of extreme flattery - seriously, it was all I could do to keep my ego in check - I sat in the make-up chair, over-excited and ready to be covered in blood by special effects genius Dan Martin.
Meanwhile, out of the corner of my eye, I could see his impossibly cool assistant (and make-up artist in her own right - she'd just come off being head of the Cockneys Vs. Zombies make-up department) Jenna Wrage using a large sharp implement to stitch some yak hair into my face.
Yak not pictured
I probably should have been disconcerted by the fact that in front of me, a man who had just placed a strategic bruise to my temple was flicking blood into my eyes, while to the right of him a woman was stabbing my features with something that looked like a cross between a hypodermic needle and a poison dart, but I enjoyed every second.
Before the make-up
And then it was time to make my big screen debut.
I can't say exactly what the scene involved, but I can reveal that I got to attack one of the stars of a supercool British horror movie, which did very well at a famous film festival recently. And that she caved my head in with a sharp implement. And that it was extremely awesome.
Oh, and I can also show you a world-exclusive first-look still, featuring me as a zombie.
And then it was back to the cast room, where we waited. And waited. And then waited some more. Filming involves a lot of waiting, apparently. And waiting.
And then some waiting
Eventually, it was time to go back on-set to watch my fake head get its big scene.
Dan Martin, laughing at something. Definitely not my hair though.
It's hard to express the feeling of excitement and tension on a film set when an effect is taking place, especially a one-day shoot like this. If the effect goes wrong that's it, something that's taken hours and hours of work doesn't even make the movie.
But, thankfully, despite the fact there were several complicated money-shots (or 'gags' as they're known in the industry) in the secret short, they all went off beautifully.
Mine was a bit special though (even if I do say so myself).
It was the last shot of a very long day. It was around midnight. And the director was shooting in such a cramped space he had no choice but to get up-close to my fake head, which we all knew was due to explode in a fairly spectacular way.
There was a countdown. Dan signalled to an off-shot assistant. A lever was pushed and, suddenly, we were all covered in fake blood (which tastes very minty, by the way).
I turned to the director, concerned, half-expecting him to be annoyed that he'd been spattered with blood after such a long shoot.
He had a massive smile on his face. Half-shock, half-glee. "Great!" he said.
And it was.
Video Of The Damned is on hold this week, as I was offered this world exclusive Priest 3D featurette and figured it was good enough to go with.
Priest 3D is out now, and it looks like a lot of silly fun, especially if this featurette is admissible as evidence.
But don’t worry, I’ll be back to weird clips from odd ‘80s movies next week.
Oh, and that awesome zombie profile photo of me is by Colin J Smith. Use him for all your undead photography needs.