Wednesday, 29 May 2013

interview: Robert Scott Field

Here is an unpublished interview with Robert Scott Field, the Japan-based, American actor who played Android M11 in Godzilla Vs King Ghidorah. Mr Field very kindly granted me this interview when he was a guest at the wonderful G-Fest convention in Los Angeles in 1999.

How did you get the role of Android M11 in Godzilla Vs King Ghidorah?
“I went to Japan as a baseball player professionally, and it didn’t work out. It’s a very long story so I’ll just say it didn’t work out. But while being there I happened to teach a little bit of English at a school over there, and a famous Japanese comedian wanted to learn English, so I taught him. And then I worked in radio, and then I worked on another radio show, and one of the other guests who was on the show with me was Mr Kazuki Omori, who is the director of Godzilla Vs King Ghidorah. At the time, because we did this radio programme together, he liked me and he wanted to put some foreigners into his movies. But just because I knew him didn’t mean I had the part. I had to go to an audition in Tokyo and at the audition they had me run, they had me lifting, they had me do a lot of things. They said, ‘You’d be perfect for the android part.’ And it just started from then. At the beginning, M11 was really not that big a part either, but as one of the scenes went really well, they said, ‘Hey this is great. We have to use him for some more.’ I got a very big script and a lot of lines and a lot of action scenes and it just went from there. It got bigger than life, actually. It was great.”

Had you done any acting before?
“In Japan I’d done a little bit in a few plays over there. I picked up Japanese fairly fast, so I’ve done a couple of comedy shows with Japanese comedians, and a few other things. But Godzilla was my first big break. So not very much at all, actually, but it just started from there.”

Is there a pool of westerners that the Japanese call on?
“There are about five really famous foreigners in Japan. One of them’s from Africa, and I think the other three or four are from the United States. I think they’re pooled into the same agency; I am not. I live in Osaka, which is about three hours away by bullet train from Tokyo; it’s the second largest city. So I’m not completely national yet. Saying you’re very big somewhere isn’t really good, but I’m fairly well-known in Kansai which is Osaka and Kobe and Nagoya and places like that. So I’m very well known there. I’m working to go national, and I’ve done a few television programmes that are national, so people know me from all over. But I’m pretty much freelance myself, I have my own agency now, and you just work from your connections that you get through different associations. That’s how it’s happened for me.”

How familiar were you with Godzilla when you took this role?
“As a child I loved Godzilla and in fact I thought he was an American monster when I saw that first movie. So I was really worried about it when he fought King Kong because I found out he wasn’t an American monster so I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to cheer him on when King Kong was American! But I heard a lot of people who did the same thing, so I felt better about that. But yes, I’ve seen him since I was a little kid. I haven’t collected as many toys as everybody else here: this is really amazing - to see all the toys everybody is buying. But I’ve loved Godzilla ever since I was a kid; never thought I would be in a movie but I really feel good about that.”

Had you seen some of the new Godzilla films from the 1980s?
“Yes, I’d seen some of them. In fact I think I saw Godzilla Vs Biollante before I was even in his movie. So I’d seen what Mr Omori had done before. In fact I like Godzilla Vs King Ghidorah best of all; not because I was in it but just because it had story to it and the action was good. I thought it was a very nice movie.”

Did you get to watch any of the special effects sequences being shot?
“Yes I did. I got to see how they handled King Ghidorah - all the ropes that they have on him for the wings and the heads and the tails and everything else. It was a piece of work, it was really nice. Nowadays, they use some computer graphics and stuff, but still for a lot of their basic shots, they have - I don’t know - 15 or 20 people working on it at one time sometimes. Which is amazing - all that teamwork they have to go through.”

Did you dub your own voice?
“Not for the English version, no. I don’t even know who dubbed my voice. In fact, I didn’t even see the English version until about two months ago when somebody sent me the tape from the States. I wasn’t even asked to do it. I guess somebody else just decided to put it out. It’s an English voice, it’s not even my voice. It was kind of funny watching it. But in the actual movie I’m speaking Japanese and English at the same time, so the new voice is not mine.”

Some of your dialogue was in English?
“Yes, for example, ‘Time warp engaging now,’ or something like that, then throw out some Japanese. Simple English that Japanese people would understand. Then because I was an android I spoke like an android, a little bit stiffer than most of the humans. But apparently they seemed to like it very much.”

For some sequences your running is speeded up.
“In fact, to speed up my running they told me not to run as fast but to run in longer leaps so it looked like I was running faster when they speeded it up. So I did my best and that turned out pretty good too.”

Were you involved in promoting the film?
“Yes, I was. I went to all the previews, signed autographs for many, many hours at a time. I wore a Japanese kimono and they seemed to like that too. At the beginning they didn’t even know who I was. When they showed the preview, we did our part before some of them and after some of them too. So when I went to one where they’d seen the movie and then they saw that I was M11 they really got a big kick out of that. They just loved it, and I was signing autographs for three or four hours at a time before they had to make me quit. It was excellent, I was in heaven, it was just a lot of fun. I never thought I’d be famous in Japan.”

Godzilla Vs King Ghidorah has a really complicated time travel story. Could you follow it?
“When we were making it, I read the story so I could basically follow it that way. But as we were filming it, because we were filming out of order, I didn’t understand a lot of what we were doing. When I finally saw it I understood pretty much what was going on because I do speak Japanese, I understood what the Japanese actors and actresses were saying. So I basically picked it up but it was a little bit difficult at the beginning. You basically need to see it twice to understand it more.”

Did the Japanese cast and crew accept you, or were you seen as a bit of a novelty?
“At the beginning, I think most of the foreigners were a novelty. But in my case I speak Osaka dialect and it’s very big in Japan right now. Although we filmed most of it in the Tokyo area, they got a big kick out of my Japanese dialect. So we got along great from the very beginning. I would throw out jokes here and there and they would laugh about it. Mr Omori, who is also from Konsei, which is also in the Osaka area, he and I have got on very well ever since we did a radio programme together. So we’d throw jokes at each, and it worked out very well. They took me right in; I think if I was only a novelty it would have worn off after a couple of days, but we seemed to get along for the whole three and a half months that I filmed.”

That’s a hell of a shooting schedule.
“I wasn’t on every day, though. They had a lot of other things going on. But yes, it spanned over about three and a half months.”

What effect has this had on your career?
“I’ve been in one TV movie, and two other movies for the movie theatres. It’s done me well; it’s started something. In fact, I thought it would be a lot bigger than that actually, but a lot of people have forgotten that I was in a Godzilla movie until you remind them sometimes. The children all remember me but the adults don’t remember me all that well. But it did start me in a good direction, so now I’m doing radio and TV and lectures all over Japan. So it’s helped my career, given it a boost.”

Did they ever do an M11 toy?
“They were thinking about it, but apparently they didn’t get round to it, because I haven’t seen any. In fact, they were thinking at the time, because my character was so popular, they were going to make a TV series out if it, and probably not even base it on Godzilla Vs King Ghidorah. Just make an M11 series. And they started it but apparently, because the economic bubble had just burst in Japan, they never had the money or the funding to do it. So it never came around. But there’s always talk that it may happen sometime in the future. It would be nice - I’d love the job!”

interview originally posted 22nd January 2005

interview: Larry Fessenden

I interviewed Larry Fessenden in July 2007 and used a very small part of this to accompany a review of The Last Winter in DeathRay magazine.

What I particularly liked about The Last Winter was that it was a mixture of scientific horror, supernatural horror and psychological horror all melded together. What was your aim in terms of what sort of horror you were going for?
"I think you’ve hit it on the head. Those are the components that interest me. I’m obviously interested in the science of global warming and the changes that are going on all over the planet, particularly in these Northern climates. I’m interested in the psychology of these characters who find themselves in an increasingly untenable situation. And I have a deep affection for the real monsters and the old mythology of old monster stories. So I find myself getting into this soup of different approaches to the genre and that’s what I ended up with.

“I would say my films ultimately are about the constant battle between reality and imagined reality. The characters are dealing with very real trauma to the climate, very real things are happening around them, but they’re also suffering from some sort of mental breakdown as they try to process what’s happening. All that intrigues me. I have approached classic horror tropes before and tried to update them into the modern vernacular."

I must admit that I haven’t yet seen any of your previous films.
"You’re not alone!"

How has your work developed from your earlier movies?
"In a way, I keep making similar films. This is almost a combination of my first three films. No Telling had a rather ecological angle to it; Habit is a very psychological story about one man’s perception of his cracking reality; and Wendigo is about a kid who needs to conjure up a creature to make sense of his misfortune when his father gets shot. So in a way, this is a combination. It’s taking a more dramatic environmental crisis and putting characters in this world and they’re slowly starting to deal with it. I just find these issues extremely interesting: contemporary, social issues and basically seeing the real horror that exists in different storylines. And that’s what interests me. Like Habit is about addiction basically and a guy who’s an alcoholic and he’s convinced this woman he’s with is a vampire but it’s obviously a projection. It’s interesting how the mind plays tricks to deal with a difficult and arbitrary reality."

You wrote your last couple of scripts by yourself but on this one you’ve collaborated with a guy from New York named Robert Leaver. What did he bring to the project?
"Robby is just a great spirit and it was just so fun to have somebody to bounce ideas off. I hired him so I was still able to maintain control over the whole thing and pursue my own twisted logic and imagery but it was greatly liberating to work with another writer. Robby had a great gung-ho spirit and really understood the character of Pollack. We had a lot of fun working out all the angles. So it was just really nice to have someone to develop the ideas along with.

“Also my producer made a lot of contributions, not least of which is he took me up to Alaska. A lot of the script that Robby and I had written was then supplemented with the real information. Just actually seeing these vistas changed the way we saw the story because we had written these beautiful Alaskan landscapes with pine trees and great mountains and what I found in reality was that the area we were thinking of depicting in the story was very, very flat. That brought a whole new level of horror to the story, this idea of a claustrophobia in open spaces. My producer is very technical minded and he loves the details of the oil technology and all those potentials so it was a wonderful level with Robby and also with Jeff Levy-Hinte."

Why did you shoot it in Iceland?
"We looked, as I say, in Alaska and we were both taking in the scenery and also seeing if it was practical to shoot up there and it really became clear that there was not enough of a film community. And no film community would be welcome in the Northern clime where there really is the oil drilling and there’s a great deal of secrecy and just general antagonistic atmosphere to outsiders. They have a job to do and there’s issues of safety and then also they’re feeling that they don’t want prying liberals walking about.

“Then we went to Canada which was the logical place, also very flat, but I found that the snow would be unreliable and we just weren’t sure that we could get the landscape right. Then Jeff had some connections to Iceland and the producer Jony Sighvatsson. So we went there and we scouted and it was just a delightful array of locations and welcoming, experienced crews, so we set up the picture there."

I think that the Icelandic cinematographer makes a big contribution to the film.
"Working with Magni was absolutely spectacular. He’s a very young guy; I think he was 26 when we shot. But he was a native of Iceland and what I think was a wonderful move by myself and Jeff the producer was to embrace the idea of a completely Icelandic crew so they all knew each other and they were all very at home in this brutal weather. They knew the landscapes and they knew how to take a 35mm camera and a couple of lenses out on a skidoo and set up a shot, something that you just couldn’t get from an imported director of photography.

“Magni had a great sense of the light and a great love of the landscape so that just contributed tremendously. And we of course had a lot of films in common that we liked and that we referenced. We had a whole way of speaking in code about what we wanted to do. We called locked-off cameras ‘Gordos’ after Gordon Willis and handheld cameras were something else. We really had a great rapport and it was an excellent experience."

You’ve also got a terrific cast. What stands out is that there are no beautiful young people stuck in there for the kids to relate to.
"Well I must admit that I approach my films as stories about real people in real situations and, as you see, there was no real opportunity to have some young nubiles. That would be nice, I look forward to making that film of course. I’m going to make a movie about a high school next...

“But I was very interested in telling this story of the two main characters, played by Perlman and LeGros, just being guys who are working for a living, who have strong world views. Those world views clash and Abby, played by Connie Britton, is the woman who is somehow stuck inbetween. In a way, she is the everyman in the story. She is the one who is being told either that the world is going to collapse at any minute from global warming - the Al Gore sect if you will - and then there’s the other side of the coin which is: we must carry on with business and keep the economy strong, the gung-ho spirit that everything will work out if we just keep our nose to the grindstone. This kind of old-school, American spirit. Those two views are clashing and she’s in the middle, being torn between each point of view."

Was it difficult to create a fully rounded, sympathetic character for Pollack whose views are obviously opposed to your own?
"As I say, I feel like he represents this gung-ho American spirit which is something that even a raving liberal has to appreciate, the spirit with which this country was built and this kind of can-do attitude. It’s something that I had no trouble in embracing and having a deep affection for. What I wanted to convey is that he’s out-of-step with an encroaching reality and he’s unwilling to adjust. If I was making a commentary, that is what I’m trying to convey: that somebody can be wrong and still somewhat loveable and certainly compelling as a character. I wanted Ron Perlman in the role because I’d seen Hellboy and there is a grumpy character but there’s so much pathos and affection underneath the red skin that I knew Ron could bring that to this blowhard character that I was trying to depict."

Am I right in thinking that Douglas Buck shot a Making Of documentary on the film?
"Yes, Douglas is a great friend and we’ve helped each other and encouraged each other over the years with different projects. He wanted to come and make a portrait of my process. He’d already done a portrait of Abel Ferrara in the past. It was fun to have him over for four or five days to get some behind the scenes footage.

“Doug has remade Sisters by Brian DePalma and that has made a splash. I don’t know what will happen over in the UK with that. So he’s underway now. He’s hoping to make another feature this fall. So yes, the masterpiece will come but it just takes time sometimes when you’re working with the restrictions that come with these low-budget movies.”

How has the movie been received where it’s been shown?
"Well, all my films have strong reactions because of course they don’t fit neatly into the horror model. And now we have an increasingly extreme graphic violence which is what we associate with horror films. So those who come to see that are going to be sorely disappointed. On the other hand I think people who like horror for other reasons - for the metaphors, for the mood, for the potential titillation of a supernatural presence, all the things that horror actually has to offer - those people often are carried along with my style of filming. It’s always a love/hate thing and maybe that’s just as well. I always say if I’m objecting to my own culture in general, why would I expect it to embrace my work?"

Finally, what have you got planned next?
"Well, I’m involved with projects at different levels in different roles and I enjoy that. I’m producing a number of low-budget genre fare and other types of films. For myself, I expect to make a very low-budget film in Mexico if I can get my head together on that. So I’m interested now, after this luxurious budget and the demands that come with that, the expectations. I had no restraints but there’s still an implied restraint that you have to listen to more voices when you have an enormous budget. This was a small budget by most accounts but enormous by my standards. So I look forward to doing something very small that’s really not going to damage anyone’s pocket book but where I can be even more creative. It’s just for me to be able to jump around different budget levels and continue to push the envelope of my own twisted vision.”

interview originally posted 22nd July 2008

interview: Sherilyn Fenn

I interviewed Sherilyn Fenn on the set of the thriller Dangerous Obsession on the Isle of Man on 1st October 1997, a film which was eventually released under the title Darkness Falls. This interview languished in my files until appearing in the programme book for the 2002 Twin Peaks convention Damn Fine Con.

How’s it going on the film, from your point of view?
“I think it’s going really well.”

Have you done any other films in the UK?
“I haven’t. This is my first one.”

So how are you finding it different from American films?
“I think people have a lot more fun. I don’t think I’ve laughed as much in my whole life as I have since I’ve been here. I’ve just laughed and laughed and laughed. It’s wonderful. It’s a better quality film than the things that are being made in the States. Ray Winstone keeps telling me that they’re just making better films here. So I’m actually contemplating moving to London for a period of time. I’ve been in Los Angeles for 15 years and I’m really really tired of it. I’m continually really uninspired by what’s being sent to me. Even by huge films that they’re doing there. It’s amazing. They’re just awful. I loved the script when I read it; it’s a wonderful character piece. I saw Ray’s work, like Nil By Mouth, and Tim Dutton’s work, and I just was really excited to be a part of it.”

What about the crew?
“Everybody is really good to work with. I brought my make-up artist from the States - so one friend along for the ride. But no complaints. I’m really having a good time! The Isle of Man is a little bit difficult, just because I have a three and a half year old and there’s not much to do here for him. Everything’s sort of slo-o-ow.”

How do you think perceptions of you as an actress are different between here and America?
“I’m not really sure, to be honest. It was interesting because a couple of months ago I had a meeting with a director, Mike Figgis. He could tell I was feeling low, and he was really encouraging me to come to England and to spend some time there, saying how different it is. Like, when you’re in Hollywood it seems like that’s all there is in terms of the business. He said to me, ‘You have a great body of work and you’d work all the time if you went to Europe. You should just go and get out of here.’ So from his perspective, he made it sound like it would be very positive for me to do that. But I’m not really sure what the perception is of me there, if I would work more there. But I suppose I’ll find out.”

In America, are you doing a lot of TV movies?

Am I correct in thinking this is the first theatrical thing you’ve done since Boxing Helena?
“Hmm. No, I just did a film at the beginning of the year with Eric Roberts. That was a film. What are they calling it now? Encounter? Something like that. They keep changing the name around. It’s a family who have an encounter and how it messes up their lives and stuff.” [Directed by Timothy Bond, this was filmed as Men in Black and released as The Shadow Men - MJS]

When you say ‘an encounter’...?
“Like an encounter with an alien. Actually I’ve done a couple of things, but they’ve been smaller independent films. I did a film, Friends of Friends, and I did another one called Just Write. All of these since Boxing Helena.”

Do you like doing small, independent things? Are they more fun than the big corporate studio things?
“The big corporate studio things, I’m not necessarily considered for because, well, first of all I haven’t been in a studio film, which is interesting. MGM was the biggest studio that I worked with: Of Mice and Men. But, I’m sure you’ve heard, the way it goes there is simply: you get hired, regardless of if you’re right or wrong for the role, if you have made a movie that made so much money. So that list of girls, women, whoever they are, are considered and cast for all those roles. Not that I necessarily want to do them anyway. Because there’s very few that are big budget that have any substance or any depth or any integrity. They don’t do anything for me. So I find that in the independent world I find things that I’m more excited by. I’m more willing to take three months away from my son and feel happy to be doing it. And what I’ve done to help support that is to do a few television movies to pay the rent. And sometimes they’re really nice stories, sometimes they’re okay. It’s just the way that it is.”

You did The Elizabeth Taylor Story.
“Oh, that was really fun. That was really an event in terms of television. That wasn’t just a run of the mill thing, so I liked it. That was very difficult, but I loved having done her story.”

Did you watch a lot of her old movies to research it?
“Well, I’ve always been a really big fan, so I’ve known her work for many years. But what I got the most out of was live interviews with her. There were some wonderful, candid moments in those live interviews with her that to me really revealed who she was.”

Is there a difference between playing a role of a real person and just doing an impression of her?
“I fought to keep the integrity of the story because the producer was bringing in a horrible writer that was making it very soapy. They wanted many scenes of her when she was very overweight. I said, ‘I’m not doing that. I’ll do one. That is not this woman’s life.’ For me, it was just: I didn’t want to do an impression. She’s a lot like my mom in certain ways. My mother’s been married many, many times and grew up at the same time as she did it. Somebody that can keep believing in love like that, it’s remarkable. I just tried to play the truth of the woman; not the legend, not the stories that we hear about her. Because even when she was a child, you were seeing a version of her that was manipulated by the studios, so you didn’t really see her.

"I thought the closest she ever came to revealing herself was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and she lost herself in that role. It was cathartic for her to do that in a lot of ways, to let herself be that wild and that ugly and unattractive. Because the stories I would hear were: she could drink men under the table; she was like, ‘You fucker...’, then you’d see this beautiful, angelic-looking woman, and it was shocking, just shocking. Richard Burton said the first time he met her he saw her at this pool party across the pool. Then when he got closer to her she was just, ‘Oh fuck that!’ and he went like, ‘Whoa! Oh my God!’ So in the context of the script, which was really well written - what we could keep - in its original form.”

Hollywood biopics don’t have a reputation for being accurate, like The Buster Keaton Story. But have you ever found out what Liz Taylor thought of it herself?
“No, but a friend of hers - supposedly: she said she was a friend of hers - approached me, strangely enough, at my dermatologist’s office and congratulated me and said I did a really good job.”

Who would you have play you when they make The Sherilyn Fenn Story?
(Laughs) “I have no idea!”

What was it like 'working with' Humphrey Bogart in a Tales from the Crypt episode?
“It was odd. You were always acting to the camera. It was wonderful working with Bob Zemekis and Isabella and everybody was really nice. But it was just a weird experience because it’s all about the end product, so you’re just acting to the camera. Strange.”

Had they shown you the footage of Bogart they were going to put in there?
“No, but you know what they did? Sometimes they had a man there who looks like him. He does certain commercials, looking like him. So sometimes he would be there, but oftentimes it was just acting directly into the camera. But it was Humphrey Bogart. I starred with Humphrey Bogart.”

How familiar were you with David Lynch’s work before you got the role on Twin Peaks?
“I’d always loved and respected the work he did on The Elephant Man. It’s a devastating, beautiful, beautiful film. And Blue Velvet, which freaked me out completely! It was like, ‘Oh my goodness!’ - one of the more disturbing films I’ve ever seen. So I suppose that was it. I didn’t see Eraserhead until he requested that I see it, once we were working together. But I was very excited at the prospect of working with him. It was the only time I had gone up for television in my career up until that point.”

What is David Lynch actually like?
“I’m sure you’ve heard that description: 'Jimmy Stewart from Mars.' Yes. Because a part of him is really so sweet and pure and innocent. He’s like a big kid. He’ll tell me my take was, ‘Jim-dandy’. Or, ‘Doggone it, Sherilyn, that was cool.’ I don’t know. I forget now my little Lynch-isms, it’s been so long. I can’t think of other things he used to say. His direction is abstract. He doesn’t ever say, ‘Go do this,’ or, ‘Go do that’. He’ll just tell you some weird story, or when I did Wild at Heart he kept talking about, ‘The bobby pins, the bobby pins.’ Did you see Wild at Heart?”

Yes, I liked it.
“So you see, he’s wonderful. He’s very very creative and unafraid of taking chances. We’ll sit down and, ‘Oh, I don’t like this scene’. In Twin Peaks he rewrites this entire scene and has me dance in the middle of the room for like three minutes. ‘Just groove, honey. Just ke-e-ep moving.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, okay. I feel like an idiot. What am I doing? Okay.’ Then you see it and with the music, he’s set this whole world up, this whole mood. I really respect him, he’s wonderful.”

What were these tentative plans to spin your character off into her own series?
“They had wanted to do that but I didn’t want to do it. My agent didn’t want me to do it.”

Would that have been David Lynch doing that series as well?
“Yes, he was talking about Mulholland Drive, he talked about doing, like 'Audrey Goes to Hollywood'. I don’t know what she was going to do in Hollywood! She’s driving along Mulholland in this convertible car... But it didn’t end up happening, obviously.”

How is David Lynch different from Jennifer Lynch who you worked with on Boxing Helena?
“Man - woman. Night - day. It’s a really huge difference. It’s completely different to work with a woman that is my age, maybe younger. David’s encouraged her, through his example of exploring dark places within oneself, but she’s less abstract. I was blown away by the script. I had heard all the stories and I didn’t want to read it. Then my agent said, ‘It’s a dream. Just read it. It’s pretty interesting.’ I was shocked that a 19-year-old girl had that perspective on relationships, that understanding. Then I met with her and we just clicked. Because we didn’t really meet - just once or twice, very briefly - on the set of Twin Peaks.”

Were you aware of all the fuss there had been with Kim Basinger?

Did that affect production in any way?
“No. I thought they were lucky to have lost her, frankly. I’ve never seen her do the kind of work that that role required.”

You did guest appearances in Cheers and Friends.
Cheers was frightening, because I was like 19, and I think I had two lines. This big, live audience: I was so afraid, it was awful. But Friends was recently, Friends was a couple of months ago. It was fun, but I came out with the feeling that I’m just not a sitcom actress. (Laughs). You say a line and you wait for them to laugh, then you say another line and you wait... It felt weird to me. But it’s interesting and the energy is almost like theatre, I suppose, with all the people there. Matthew Perry was darling and really funny. All my scenes were with Matthew, basically, so it was fun. I like the show. I was happy to be part of it.”

What role did you play?
“I play a woman that Matthew meets and starts to go out with that has a wooden leg! And he judges me for my wooden leg and I judge him because he has three nipples. Like: how ironic!”

You started acting when you were 17 - was it something that you just fell into because you were in LA?
“Yes, it wasn’t something that I’d always wanted to do. My mother had met an agent who had spent some time in our house and kept encouraging me. I figured: why not? It looks fun.”

Had you done any acting at school or college?
“No. Make-believe stuff as a little girl in the basement: I did The Towering Inferno a hundred times. I was Faye Dunaway with curtains for an evening dress, but that was about it.”

Your mother was a rock musician and your aunt is Suzi Quatro. Was there ever any thought of you going into music?
“My grandpa - their father - would always ask, ‘What instrument do you hear when you listen to music?’ I’m like, ‘All of it!’ He’s like, ‘Well... then you’re a singer!’ And I love to dance. But I don’t like being up in front of tons of people. I didn’t have that in me to do it, the desire to be performing in front of a lot of people. If there’s a lot of people on a set, I get nervous. So it just wasn’t something I ever seriously considered.”

Do you go everywhere with your three-year-old son?
“Yes, everywhere. He’s been all over the world. He’s great. He’s the best thing in my life, the best thing I’ve ever done.”

What is Nightmare Street?
“This is a movie that I just did. Let me see the poster. That’s not even the daughter. I can’t believe they did that. There was a beautiful little girl played my daughter named Lauren and she was six. That little girl played... I wonder why they did that. Anyway, it’s a movie I just did for television. This is something I just did in Vancouver about three months ago. It’s a weird story. It’s basically: they’re asking you to believe that two places, two different realities, can exist at the same time. This woman, her daughter almost gets hit by a bus, and she goes after her. Then wakes up in a hospital and they’re calling her something else. She slowly has to work it out to try to get back to her child. It was interesting. It was different for television to try to do something like that. A really nice director, an Englishman called Colin Bucksey. It was really funny. But I can’t believe they did this poster. That makes me so angry, because I was so close to this little girl, Lauren. I still write to her, and that is not her. That’s another girl. She’s prettier than Lauren, maybe that’s why they did it.”

Colin Bucksey has done some episodes of Sliders and was doing some episodes of a sci-fi series, Space Island One, here on the Isle of Man recently.
“He was. He was here.”

Did you meet up with him while he was here?
“No, I didn’t. I’ll have to see him when I go to London.”

You’ve done quite a lot of sci-fi/fantasy things, like The Wraith. What were you in The Wraith?
“That was so long ago! Don’t bring up The Wraith! It wasn’t a good movie. And someone even got killed when we were making it and someone else got paralysed, so it was not good. That was with Charlie Sheen.”

Meridian, aka Kiss Of The Beast: is that another one worth forgetting?
“That is worth forgetting. That was: I go to Italy for two months and live in a castle. That was wonderful, but the movie is...”

What about Of Mice and Men? Lon Chaney Jr did a famous version.
“I never saw the original and, honestly, I’d never read the book in school or anything. So when I read the screenplay I just cried my eyes out. I couldn’t believe - it was just such a beautiful story. When I met with Gary Sinise, the director who starred in it as well, he just said, ‘You know, she’s always played - and she was written - as this horrible vamp. At one point, she threatens to get - I can’t remember the character’s name - the black man lynched. She’s horrible. And he didn’t want her to be that way. He said, ‘I see her as a sad angel, and lonely.’ She just wants attention, she wants to be loved, she wants people to talk to her: ‘What’s the matter with you? Why can’t you talk to me?’ So I was glad that he wanted to do that. He actually added a scene that was never written where she’s crying because Curly broke all her records. The only thing she has in life is her little records. So that was a wonderful experience for me, making something like that.”

With a really intense, emotional story, does that filter into the production. Can you keep morale up when you’re making something so sad?
“I think people were really happy to be a part of it. It’s wonderful when you can do work like that. You can open your heart and deal with human situations. We all have sadness in our life and things that we can draw upon. I loved it because I thought it was a love story between Lenny and George; they both need each other equally. I think people are pleased to be part of it and really excited.”

Would you like to do more adaptations of classics?
“Like that, yes. Like I say, that was just a great experience. I love John Malkovich, he’s a great actor. We ended up having so much fun. Those trials were going on then, with the guy appointed to the supreme court and Anita Hill and all that. We’d go home at night and watch these trials and argue about what happened. John’s like, ‘Oh, he fucked her. You know he fucked her.’ Making these Italian dinners and cooking. It was just a great, great time. They rented me a house, I had my dog there. We were out in the country. It was just really really nice.”

I’ve got this list of your work off the internet so it’s probably grossly inaccurate.
“Well, it’s probably not. It’s so funny, it’s so different than my resume. Because my resume is: scratch that, scratch that.”

What sort of stuff is on your resume that you’re proud of?
“I’m proud of Of Mice and Men, I’m proud of Ruby, I’m proud of The Liz Taylor Story. That’s surprising because it was a horrible shoot. It was six day weeks, 15-16 hour days. I was in every scene. It was a huge hair and make-up show. Not enough time for pre-production. I had two weeks to learn a dialect and I was doing wardrobe fittings inbetween. It was crazy. I lost so much weight. I was really sick during shooting, so I just kept thinking, ‘Just trust your instincts.’ I was so scared to see it, but when I saw it - I never like my work - but I was surprised that it worked. I liked Boxing Helena. I think it was an almost impossible story to tell. Although it has some flaws, I think it’s neat. I think it’s a really neat story, it’s a beautiful story.”

What about Two Moon Junction - are you happy with that?

What has been your favourite role?
“I think Twin Peaks, I really loved Twin Peaks. She blossomed in a way that I never knew, and nobody knew, was going to happen. Because she was a very inconsequential character to begin with. Nobody knew that would happen. She just took on this life of her own, and she was such a brat. It was fun. It’s fun to watch that.”

My editor asked me to specifically ask you: when you made Twin Peaks, could you work out what the bloody hell it was about?
“No! I couldn’t! I’ll tell you something. When I saw the two-hour pilot, they screened it in the big theatre. When I left, I said, ‘I don’t know what is going to happen. I’m in this and I don’t understand it. This is never going to sell. Who’s going to watch this thing?’ So I was more shocked than anybody at what happened.”

Do you know what it’s about now?
“I think it’s just basically that on the surface things seem all one way, this nice little small town. But underneath there’s a lot of dirt and a lot of sadness and deprivation. Two girls in plaid skirts and sweaters, smoking cigarettes and talking about murder in the girl’s bathroom! That’s my kind of movie - I loved it!”

The big thing with Twin Peaks was: who killed Laura Palmer?
“The thing was, that was just a way to open the door to all these amazing characters in this strange world. The hard part about it was that you could be shooting for eight months and you only lived two days in the life of Twin Peaks. It was like: aargh!”

Did you work much with David Duchovny?
“No, but he was around when I was around. We’d see each other and talk, but we didn’t have scenes together. He was a transvestite in it, ordering, ‘Canteloupe Daquiri, please?’ He’s funny!”

As a film actress, how does a regular role in a big TV series affect your career?
Twin Peaks was special because it was so groundbreaking. In the early ‘90s it really changed television a lot. A bunch of weird shows, like Northern Exposure, came on after that. And I got nominations for it - Emmys and a Golden Globe - and as a result of that, the doors went swinging open. I was meeting with Dustin Hoffman, I was meeting with top people, and I was a brat. I didn’t like anything, even then. It was crazy, I was very picky. In other words, I didn’t take advantage of what was happening necessarily then.”

You’ve just done something called National Lampoon’s The Don’s Analyst.
“Oh, that’s a film I did with Kevin Pollack. It’s a comedy that was really fun.”

Love Life?
“That was Friends of Friends, that film.”

Just Write?
“That’s another romantic comedy, with Jeremy Pivan. But these are small independent films. My brother just called and said Just Write won something at - I don’t know where - some little film festival. Love Life and Just Write are very small films, very small. It’s very hard for those kinds of films to bust out.”

What was your first film?
“My first film? You’re asking me about my first film? My first film was a thing called Out of Control where I just played this young girl. I had a small role. We shot it in Dubrovnik in Yugoslavia. Martin Hewitt, the guy from Endless Love, was in it. It’s these kids, this rich family take these kids, it’s their prom night or something. There’s a plane crash and they get stuck somewhere, and I’m like the little sister so I don’t say much! Which suited me just fine, because it was the first film I did. I was frightened.”

interview originally posted 29th November 2004

Friday, 24 May 2013

Wrath of the Crows

Director: Ivan Zuccon
Writers: Ivan Zuccon, Gerardo Di Filippo
Producer: Zack Ewans
Cast: Tiffany Shepis, Debbie Rochon, Suzi Lorraine
Country: Italy
Year of release: 2013
Reviewed from: screener

Ivan Zuccon made his feature debut 13 years ago with The Darkness Beyond. Now, with his seventh feature, Ivan has come of age. Wrath of the Crows, coming to us a full five years after the terrific Colour from the Dark, is his most mature and accomplished film to date. But it’s more than that, it’s magnificent: a whole new level of film-making. In my opinion, this is a genuine, no-holds-barred, world-class masterpiece which finally establishes Zuccon as a globally important director. In years to come, perhaps this will be seen as an iconic title in the history of Italian horror (or maybe not - I’m notoriously bad at predicting these things...).

Wrath is also (if this stuff matters to you) by a considerable margin Ivan’s goriest film, with simply masses of blood and some superb prosthetics.

As so often with Ivan’s films, a somewhat rundown location is key to the story; in this case, a prison where a handful of inmates await the verdict of an unseen Judge, spending their days in bare cells with shit- and straw-covered floors. But, through some finely integrated stock footage, the story does take us outside the prison walls for some scenes. (We know it’s stock footage because there’s an elephant in one shot. It looks like Ivan’s working with a bigger budget, but there’s no way he’s hiring elephants.)

It’s clear that this prison, with its two uniformed, sadistic guards and a slavering, animalistic human guard dog, is not in the real world. This is a film of allegory, or metaphor, or fantasy, maybe nightmares. A gripping ten-minute prologue sees one prisoner offered freedom, then tortured - but cuts suddenly to the same character in a very different situation. Then cuts back equally suddenly to the prison. Is one of these a dream? Is either real? Or neither?

There is a natural assumption - and I’ll make it for you - that in a situation like this, we’re in Hell (or Limbo or somewhere) and everyone is dead. That’s along the right lines but there is much, much more to Wrath of the Crows than a simple ‘they were dead all along’ twist. This isn’t a film that builds towards a twist, it’s a finely wrought, expertly crafted exploration of morality, reality, brutality and fatality (and indeed fatalism) - but, as one expects from a Zuccon picture, never normality.

These prisoners, these lost souls in a borderline unreal world which, from their limited, caged viewpoint, could be as real as many a 21st century third world prison, are not simple cyphers who can be summed up with individual glib sentences. They are at one and the same time complex, real people yet also hollow shells of humanity. We know nothing about them except what we can see in their interactions and relationships with each other and with the guards. The interstitial scenes which take us outside the prison walls (and back? forwards? sideways? in time) tell us more but are not simple, pat explanations of how and why these benighted figures ended up in this hellhole, resigned to their fate. And they feed directly into the main story in a variety of sometimes startling ways.

Debbie Rochon, returning to Studio Interzona after her fine performance in Colour from the Dark, is Debby. The awesomely named Domiziano Arcangeli is Larry. Brian Fortune (looking exactly like a post-revolution, pre-execution Saddam Hussein) is Hugo. Tara Cardinal is Liza. These characters are individuals, united only by their isolated existence, sharing only Ivan and Gerardo Di Filippo’s carefully chosen words as days become weeks become years and they lose all memory of a life before prison. They never question what might be happening in the outside world. For them, there is no outside world. They have been locked away and forgotten.

Then Princess arrives: a new prisoner, with a different attitude. Dressed in an amazing crows’-feather cloak over a leather basque, she exudes a brash confidence that the others have lost, but intriguingly exhibits no overt defiance against the rules or the system, despite being penned into the same row of barred cells as the rest. Princess is as accepting of the filthy, bleak, sunless world of the gaol as the four others; in fact she almost seems to relish her new life and the chance to taunt, cajole and maybe even dominate her neighbours.

Everyone in the international cast, without exception, gives their all. As in the past, Ivan has coaxed magnificent performances from actors who all too often ply their trade in hoky B-movies where opportunities for characterisation are sparse. Debbie Rochon’s 18 other 2013-listed IMDB titles, for example, include Return to Nuke ‘Em High and Bikini Bloodbath Shakespeare. Those sort of gigs are fun - God knows I love Uncle Lloyd and can’t wait to see a new Nuke ‘Em High movie - but they don’t stretch an actor. Sometimes an actor wants to take their tongue out of their cheek and really, you know, act. Rochon is a fine actress, but like every other fine actress she needs the roles.

Tara Cardinal is a name I’m not familiar with but that’s because I’ve never been sent copies of Bite Nite, Quest for Comic-Con or Fable: Teeth of Beasts. I don’t think I’m prejudging these movies of which I know nothing in assuming, based solely on their titles, that they aren’t deep character studies. And Domiziano Arcangeli is another new name to me, although he has been making films since he was discovered at the age of eleven in 1979, with more than 150 IMDB credits, about two thirds in Italy and the rest following his move to Hollywood in about 2006-ish.

He was in a 1982 ETA Hoffman adaptation, Vampirismus, and that same year appeared in Antonio Margheriti’s Hunters of the Golden Cobra opposite David Warbeck (reteaming with both for 1984’s Ark of the Sun God). His CV is packed with legendary European directors albeit not necessarily their best-known - or best - works. So we find him in films by Lucio Fulci (Ghosts of Sodom), Aldo Lado (Ritual of Love), Umberto Lenzi (Demons 3), Tinto Brass (Paprika), Andrea Bianchi (Le Perversioni degli Angeli), Bruno Mattei (Capriccio Veneziano, Land of Death, Mondo Cannibale) and even a spell working for Jesus Franco (Vampire Blues, Red Silk, Incubus). (But interestingly not, so far as I can tell, Argento.)

Once Stateside, Arcangeli started out in such low-rent titles as Jeff Leroy’s Werewolf in a Women’s Prison, The Asylum’s Omen knock-off 666: The Beast and Sean Cain’s heartwarming festive classic Silent Night, Zombie Night. He was Victor Frankenstein in Frankenstein Rising, Renfield in Waiting for Dracula (which he also wrote and directed) and Dr Van Sloan in something called Creep Creepersin’s Dracula. (Mr Creepersin has previously escaped my attention, despite making about 40 films in the past seven years; Arcangeli is also in his delightful romcoms Orgy of Blood, Alien Babes in Heat and Brides of Sodom.) My point is that Arcangeli has, like Debbie and Tara, paid his dues in the Z-league but, despite having actually worked with Fellini (an uncredited bit-part in Intervista but hey, it’s still good), it looks like he has rarely been stretched. Directors who average more than five films a year rarely provide the most satisfying opportunities for their casts.

Irish actor Brian Fortune has a less obviously cheap’n’cheerful CV: mostly Dublin-based shorts but with a few horror features including Dave McCabe’s Shackled, Eoin Macken’s The Inside and Eric Courtney’s An Irish Exorcism (maybe there’s an Irish Horror Revival...) plus he was in a couple of episodes of Game of Thrones, which probably paid the rent for a few months. So: a quartet of solid, talented thespians, capable of turning their hands to anything but rarely given the opportunity to explore a story and characters as powerful and thought-provoking, as harrowing and haunted as Larry, Debby, Hugo and Liza. Great work by all.

But Princess is something else. Princess is Tiffany Shepis.

Seriously, if you retained any doubts that Shepis is the reining Queen of Horror, dispel them now, because in Wrath of the Crows La Shep is simply awesome. I won’t bore you with a canter through Tiff’s recent career - the IMDB is over there if you want to take a look - but I will point out how I have observed before that, when given the chance, she is a fantastic actress with a sympathy for the genre that shines through every role. Sometimes, amid the gleeful horror hoopla, Shepis finds a part - and a film, and a director - that she can work with: a complex mixture of confidence, vulnerability, mystique, danger, passion, torment, reproach, violence, horror (of course) and a dozen other personality traits, mixed in the right proportions to make a character cocktail. Stirred, not shaken. We saw this in Zuccon’s NyMpha, we saw it in The Frankenstein Experiment/Syndrome, and we can see it again here. (Frankenstein Experiment helmer Sean Tretta shot second unit for Ivan; he also has the envious position of being Mr Shepis.)

Princess is an amazing performance of an amazing role, standing out even among such a strong and well-handled cast. This is an extraordinary character: layers of understanding and mystery gradually peeling away as we start to find out more about who she is, and why. The other prisoners consider her a witch, maybe because of her costume if nothing else. What does she know? Where has she come from? What makes her different from the others? Should they welcome her or reject her, fear her or trust her? Shepis strides through the film, investing every syllable of dialogue, every glance, every movement, every frame with fantastical, horrific significance. I‘ve never seen her better than this.

So now I’ve gushed about the principal cast (and skipped through their filmographies), let’s return to the movie itself. This is more accessible and less obtuse than some of Ivan’s earlier work, which often prioritised elegiac qualities over straightforward narrative, but that is not to say that there is a simple story here or a simple structure. This is a multi-dimensional web of narrative which is so bound up with characters and settings - and indeed photography, editing, costumes, make-up... - that the film feels like a total cinematic package rather than just a story told on screen. There is a clear third act, a development of the story which introduces a new set of prisoners and I’ll not deny that I found that slightly disconcerting but it serves its purpose and does not in any way detract from the sheer enjoyment of this amazing horror film.

Ivan’s work has always been influenced to a greater or lesser degree by his love of HP Lovecraft but Wrath of the Crows seemed less Lovecraftian and in fact reminded me more of another much-adapted classic author (one whom, truth be told, I have always preferred). And that is Poe (and not just because of the corvid connection). Edgar Allan Poe was a poet: even his fiction has a poetic quality to it, a lyrical evocation of gothic imagery in contrast to Lovecraft’s reliance on things being ‘indescribable’ (both approaches have their merits). Wrath of the Crows is a film poem, and I know that sounds pretentious but that’s the impression that I got while sitting, spellbound for an hour and half. Every syllable of every word of every sentence has been carefully selected and positioned, and the same approach has been made to every camera angle, every lighting choice, every cut, every sound, every costume, every scattering of straw on the prison floor.

Just like a poem, the film only really works as a whole. That’s the main reason I’m not going into too much detail about the plot. Not because it’s unfathomable, but because a summary could never do it adequate justice. It would be like summarising a poem: well, there’s a raven which has learned to mimic a word and it perches on a bust... See what I mean? Just like a cloak of crows’ feathers, Ivan has taken dark and rarely considered things then woven them together to create a satisfying, unexpected, extraordinary whole which works brilliantly in both what it does and how it does it. Taking that apart again wouldn’t leave a cloak, just a pile of old feathers.

One of the feathers that Ivan has woven into his witch’s cloak of darkness is a level of blood and gore above anything he has done previously but this is never gratuitous, never used to just titillate the baser elements of the audience (though it might well enhance their enjoyment of the movie). People are stabbed, people are beaten, people are bitten, people are mauled. Eyes are gouged, throats are slit, skulls are cleaved, teeth are pulled, a tongue is cut out. But every violent act - and its consequences, fatal or otherwise - feeds into the greater body of the film and is handled with the skill of a past master who loves and understand horror cinema.

And there’s religion, and there’s sex, and there's families. Because it wouldn’t be an Italian horror film without those. (Oh, and there are crows too, though quite how wrathful they are is hard to determine.)

This is the key to Ivan Zuccon’s success: he is Italian horror. He knows and loves this genre. But what he is not is a slave to tradition; quite the opposite. Ivan is at the forefront of what, for want of a better phrase, I’ll call the Italian Horror Revival. The IMDB lists about a hundred Italian horror features released since 2000, seven of them Ivan Zuccon joints. So clearly something is going on but people aren’t seeing the bigger picture, just like the British Horror Revival (and potentially that Irish one I mentioned). Many people ignored the boom in fantastic home-grown horror because they believed that British horror would only rise again when Hammer returned. But The Woman in Black was an anomaly (and an over-rated one at that).

By the same token, Italian horror fans seem to live in expectation of the Second Coming of Dario Argento - but he is an old man who, however good his 21st century outings, is never going to make anything like Suspiria or The Bird with the Crystal Plumage again, no matter how many times his prophet Alan Jones raises people’s hopes. The best modern Italian horror is new and different and vital and low-budget and fiercely independent and contemporary and very, very Italian and it reacts against, at least as much as it is influenced by, classic Italian horror. I bet Ireland’s the same. Heck, I bet every country’s the same. They’re all just waiting for somebody to join the dots and realise what has been happening in the indie/DTV market while everyone was suffering from terminal nostalgia.

Ivan has moved on from the Italian Horror Revival. His last film premiered in London; this one premiered in Hollywood. All six of his previous features have achieved international distribution, something that virtually none of those other 2000-and-after spaghetti horrors have managed, a couple of latter-day Argentos notwithstanding. He is a cinematic force to be reckoned with, and Wrath of the Crows is the next step in his journey towards global acclaim.

So who else can we spot in this international all-star cast? Well, Suzi Lorraine plays a number of roles. She has more than 70 IMDB credits including Sea of Dust, Last Rites of the Dead, She-Demons of the Black Sun, Satan’s Schoolgirls, a bunch of Seduction Cinema crap from the early 2000s (under a different name - smart move) and a handful of BHR entries including Monitor, Three’s a Shroud and Dead of the Nite. Zuccon regulars Michael Segal, Giuseppe Gobbato, Matteo Tosi and Emanuele Cerman are respectively the head warden, the savage ‘dog solder’ he keeps on a lead, an executioner and ‘Spoon’, a trustee prisoner with OCD who distributes the slop (and has a disturbing interest in cutlery).

Gerry Shanahan is another Irish actor and another alumnus of Studio Interzona. Since making Colour from the Dark he has appeared in three gore’n’Guinness features - Shackled, Hotel Darklight, and Portrait of a Zombie - plus another Italian horror flick, Zombie Massacre (which also features Michael Segal, Tara Cardinal and... Uwe Boll as the President of the USA?). John Game, who plays the prisoner featured in the prologue, is a British actor who is also in a new Benelux film called A Warning to the Curious (which may or may not be an MR James adaptation). He’s particularly good in a physically demanding role and I suspect we’ll be seeing more of him in the future.

Other cast include Carl Wharton (Zombie Massacre again, plus British SF-thriller The Turing Enigma), Andreea Togan, Chris Pybus, Svetlana Bekleseva (also one of two credited Tiffany Shepis body doubles), Roberta Marelli (also co-producer), Marcella Braga (who was in an Italian Star Wars fan film!) and Ivan’s young daughter Miriam (in two roles, including ‘Young Debby’). To a man and woman (and child) they are all excellent.

Danilo Carignola and Elena Sardelli of leading Italian make-up effects house Crea-Fx provided the excellent blood’n’gore; what a busy time they must have had. Visual effects supervisor Luca Auletta worked recently on an intriguing-looking spaghetti horror-western, Undead Men. Antonio Masiero was the sound designer but there is no composer credited: all the music came from stock libraries. David Bracci, who has worked on most of Argento’s pictures since the late 1990s, gets an ‘additional special effects’ credit. The production designer, as ever, was Valeria Zuccon and the costume designer was once again Donatella Ravagnani. As with the cast, all those behind the camera worked their socks off and have produced outstanding work.

And holding it all together is Ivan, the director, the co-writer but also the cinematographer and the editor (“cut and shot” as his credits traditionally say). As director he leads his cast into wonderful performances, but they would go to waste without the exquisite camera-work, extraordinary lighting and spot-on editing. But this time, curiously, he is not the producer. That is someone named Zack Ewans, a name which returns precisely no hits on Google, not even an IMDB credit. Is it Ivan under a pseudonym? Could be: it is sort of a bit like his names reversed.

Look, I know this epic review has seemed like a gushing love-in, and I know that I always rave about Ivan’s films, and I also know that there are people out there who disagree with me and don’t like the Zuccon movie(s) they’ve seen (hey, some folk can’t stand the Beatles). But you all know by now that I only ever write honestly. I write what I feel about each individual film. And if I keep giving the impression that every Ivan Zuccon picture is better than the last one, that’s because in my opinion, each one is. I still recall that day in 2000 when I first met Ivan at Cannes (in a hotel suite being rented by Tiffany,as it happens - my god, we were all so much younger then).

Ivan’s career since then has been a journey, a progression through which he has taken his natural, God-given talent and refined his skills through a succession of fascinating horror films. And it has been a privilege to travel alongside Ivan on that journey towards Wrath of the Crows, eagerly unwrapping each new VHS tape or DVD as soon as it arrives and watching his body of work develop. Yes, Ivan is my mate. But I’ve had mates who have dropped their game and made poor films, or at least films which weren’t up to their usual standards. If that happens with Ivan, I’ll say so. (Or I’ll say nothing; if I ever don’t review one his movies, you’ll know I found it disappointing). So yes I know Ivan personally, and a few of the other names here, but I don’t praise things because I know the people who made them. I praise things because they’re great. And Wrath of the Crows is great.

I expect good things from an Ivan Zuccon film, but Wrath exceeded even my high expectations, and for that I have to give serious consideration to awarding it my highest rating. I very, very rarely give a film A+, not least because if I do, there will be nowhere to go if something better comes along. Perhaps Ivan’s next film will be even better than this one. But, realistically, I was so blown away with Wrath of the Crows, with the work of Ivan, Tiffany, Debbie and everyone else involved, that if I am honest with myself I have to say this is a perfect horror film. Instantly one of my favourites ever. I want to watch it again. Now.

Bravo maestro.

MJS rating: A+

Friday, 17 May 2013

Full Moon Massacre

Director: Thomas Lee
Writer: Thomas Lee
Producer: Thomas Lee
Cast: Thomas Lee, James D Messer, Toni Bird, me
Country: UK
Year of release: 2006
Reviewed from: screener DVD

Full Moon Massacre is the debut feature from teenage director Tom Rutter who makes films as Thomas Lee and posts on forums as ‘britsploitation’. It’s barely feature-length at 65 minutes but that’s still longer than recent Full Moon pictures (if you discount their glacial end credits) and is commendable brevity for a picture of this type.

Tom shot this for as close to no budget as makes no odds. Most of the cast are his mates or family, most of the locations are around his home and his werewolf is a rubber mask/handpuppet with pingpong ball eyes for which the adjective ‘unconvincing’ would seem to have been purposefully created. But this is a likeable and enthusiastic horror spoof with some suitably silly, Troma-esque gore effects and a few genuine, deliberate laughs (“Was it a poodle?”) in both the dialogue and the direction.

Lee’s full tally of credits is director, writer, producer, editor, photography, special effects creator and puppeteer; he also plays the main character (named Tom) but nobly and sensibly keeps his name off the list of actors on the sleeve.

Attacked by a werewolf in Newcastle, Tom returns to Birmingham where he meets up with his pal Jay (James D Messer) who has a new girlfriend named Kate (Toni Bird). Tom owes money to local wannabe gangster Dino (Dean Greatbatch) but has bigger problems in his regular lycanthropic attacks, which leave a trail of zero-budget death and destruction across the West Midlands. Into this mix comes Ken Mood, reprising his Axel Falcon character from A Home for the Bullets and its zombie-filled sequel A Grave for the Corpses (which I haven’t seen). The director of those two films, SN Sibley, gets an executive producer credit here.

Shot over a considerable period of time, reflected in the changing hair-lengths of some actors, Full Moon Massacre incorporates some footage from an abandoned zombie project, mostly around the Jay/Kate romance. This shows up briefly towards the end when the young couple are cowering in a garage from Tom’s lupine monster and talk about the threat as “them”. But on the whole, considering that this film was shot mostly on the fly with no real script and incorporates parts of another, unrelated film, Lee has done an impressive job of making some sort of sense out of the whole thing.

There is the expected over-the-top, tuppeny-ha’penny effects: arms ripped off, a tongue pulled out by the roots etc. It won’t fool or scare anyone but it’s all great fun. The director’s influences are obvious in the large collection of videos and DVDs in his bedroom, including numerous titles produced by Lloyd Kaufman or Charlie Band.

Lee keeps his camera tight on his subjects in many scenes, cutting backwards and forwards but rarely indulging in a two-shot or over-the-shoulder shot-reverse-shots. I suspect this could be because some of the dialogue scenes were probably filmed with the two actors separated by a considerable distance and a lengthy amount of time.

Andrew John (62 Pages) has a brief role and gets an ‘additional photography’ credit while the director’s mother has a cameo as a taxi driver (with one terrifically apt line: “This isn’t a taxi.”). Also in the cast are Colin Cuthbert, David J Nock (who was production assistant on The Killin’), Sean Kenney, Phil Wilden and Yours Truly as TV reporter Griffin Dingley. I certainly had a good time shooting my scenes and I hope that comes across (most of my stuff is halfway through the film but I also crop up in the end credits and you can catch even more of me in the gag reel on disc 2!).

Nobody is ever going to mistake Full Moon Massacre for a professionally made feature film. On the other hand, it’s a few steps up from the Dad-can-I-borrow-the-camcorder school of film-making. The characters are distinguishable and sympathetic, the sound is clear, the lighting is competent, the pacing is kept up and the fun and enthusiasm which went into making this film comes across. Being completely honest, this is going to appeal to friends and family of the people involved and werewolf or British horror completists. But far, far worse horror movies have been shown at little local film festivals around the UK.

Every director has to start somewhere, every director has to make that first feature. You learn from experience. Thomas Lee clearly has the talent and the determination to make movies and will, if he sticks at it, go on to bigger and better things. His debut is good, gory fun which, while it certainly doesn’t overcome is deficiencies, at least manages to distract the viewer’s attention from them.

MJS rating: B
review originally posted 28th February 2006

Full Metal Gokudo

Director: Takashi Miike
Writer: Itaru Era
Producer: Fujio Matsushima
Cast: Tsuyoshi Ujiki, Ren Osugi, Tomorowo Taguchi, Shoko Nakahara
Year of release: 1997
Country: Japan
Reviewed from: R2 screener DVD (Artsmagic)

Takashi Miike is now very definitely the darling of Asian cinema fans in the west as more and more of his enormous and varied back catalogue receives an official release. After bringing us his 1996 film Fudoh: The New Generation, ArtsMagic move on to 1997’s Full Metal Gokudo. However, unlike Fudoh - or such recent, better known Miike flicks as Audition and Happiness of the Katakuris - this was one of the director’s DTV films. Consequently not only are production values relatively low, but also the script and direction are not as polished as in his later movies.

Geeky Ken Hagane has joined a yakuza family out of admiration for top gangster Tosa, whom he meets briefly before Tosa attacks a rival gang boss and then heads off to jail for seven years. During that time, Hagane attempts to rise through the ranks but we are shown that he is frankly rubbish at being a yakuza: attempts at extortion fail, his girl dumps him, and the final indignity is being beaten up by four teenage toughs.

When Tosa is released from prison, Hagane is one of the group there to greet him, but is the only person left with the boss in a trap set by rival yakuzas. Tosa and Hagane are both shot to pieces.

Hagane comes to in a strange lab, apparently still alive but with a body that makes whirring noises when he moves. He escapes (on a bicycle!) and bumps into the young toughs again, kicking their arses with his superhuman strength. Then it starts to rain and he short-circuits...

Yes, Hagane has been rebuilt as a cyborg - by pervy Hiraga Kenpaku (“self-proclaimed genius scientist but others call me the Nutty Doctor”) who wears a PVC catsuit under a yellow teddy-boy coat and speaks Russian. Kenpaku bought both Hagane’s and Tosa’s bodies - the former’s brain was still alive and the latter’s heart was still working - and combined them into one being. It has Hagane’s face but Tosa’s massive dragon tattoo on its back - and Tosa’s massive dick (obscured by digitisation).

The rest of the movie is Hagane/Tosa’s revenge on various yakuzas, though it’s very difficult to follow, since there appear to be several gangs with various mergers and alliances in progress. Plus of course everybody blames someone else for the hit on Tosa when they see Hagane’s invulnerability: he is bullet-proof with massive strength, super hearing and X-ray vision (one of his eyes is detachable).

Hagane ends up living in a ramshackle tent/hut on the beach near a small cemetery which contains the Tosa family tomb, where he meets Yukari, the young woman who was with Tosa on the night when he attacked his rivals. Yukari and Hagane fall in love - she says he reminds her of Tosa - but he cannot bring himself to be intimate with her. “I am a monster with a metal body,” he says, showing her Tosa’s tattoo.

Yukari then disappears and attempts her own revenge on the yakuza who killed her lover but is captured and tortured. Shown a photo of Yukari in bondage, Hagane is forced to work for the yakuzas but then fakes his own death when they blow up his hut, leaving his detachable eye as proof. This is carried into the warehouse where Yukari is held, and so Hagane sees her gang-raped and then committing suicide in a particularly unpleasant manner.

The film culminates in the expected violent revenge, but quite frankly nothing that happens in the last five minutes makes any sense whatsoever. The difference between this film and the stylish professionalism of Audition, made only two years later, is very obvious.

Most western reviews of Full Metal Gokudo say that it is a spoof of RoboCop which is both lazy and inaccurate. Yes, both films involve someone being converted into a cyborg without their consent and then using their new-found power to fight criminals - but that’s an entire subgenre of which RoboCop is merely the best-known and biggest-budgeted example. Cyborg Cop, ROTOR, Steel and Lace, even The Six Million Dollar Man - all have a similar premise, as do many other B-movies and TV series. Hagane is not a cop, either before or after surgery, and there is none of the introspection or futuristic satire which characterised the Verhoeven film.

One thing that sets Full Metal Gokudo aside from similar films is that the cyborg is created from two people, and Tosa’s heart affects its actions as much as Hagane’s head. It’s not quite an All of Me situation, but ‘Hagane’ has flashbacks to aspects of Tosa’s life, and it is ironically highlighted in Yukari’s tearful goodbye letter to him, explaining that she cannot love two men at once.

There are plenty of guns in this film, but also loads of samurai swords, which are always much, much more interesting to watch. Plenty of blood and occasional decapitations are well-done, but there are also some CGI effects which are so badly matted in that they look like they’ve been done on a laptop.

The widescreen transfer is as faultless as one expects from ArtsMagic, but reviewing this from an advance disc, I don’t know what extras they are planning to include. I’ve sent them bio/filmographies for Miike and the lead actors (not that I’m sure who plays who as the end titles aren’t translated on my disc). Principal players include Tsuyoshi Ujiki (Cure), Shoko Nakahara (Miike’s Visitor Q), Tomorowo/Tomo Taguchi (who starred in Tetsuo the Iron Man - which may also have influenced this film - and its sequel, as well as Android of Notre Dame, Tokyo Fist, Gamera 2 and 3, and DANGAN Runner) and the ubiquitous Ren Osugi (Sonatine, Hana-Bi, Brother, DANGAN Runner, Parasite Eve, Exte: Hair Extensions, Cure, Audition, Hypnosis, Uzumaki...).

Full Metal Gokudo (or Full Metal Yakuza, as it is called on this release) is an odd film, a mixture of violence, bonkers B-movie sci-fi and patches of unsubtle comedy (the actor playing Hagane tends to gurn when called on to play any extreme of emotion). Perhaps not the best movie to start your appreciation of Miike’s extraordinary oeuvre, but fans of Takashi Miike will need no encouragement to snap up this top quality release of one of his most interesting films.

MJS rating: B
review originally posted before November 2004

Fudoh: The New Generation

Director: Takashi Miike
Writer: Toshiyuki Morioka
Producers: Yoshinori Chiba, Toshiki Kimura
Cast: Shosuke Tanihara, Riki Takeuchi, Kenji Takano
Year of release: 1996
Country: Japan
Reviewed from: UK screener DVD (Artsmagic

This is the fourth Takashi Miike film I’ve seen, following Audition, Happiness of the Katakuris and Full Metal Gokudo. The only thing these films seem to have in common is that they are all very different from anything else - and very different from each other too.

I thought Fudoh was just going to be an over-the-top yakuza thriller but really this is borderline fantasy territory. Shosuke Tanihara (Pyrokinesis, Godzilla X Megaguiras) stars as Riki Fudoh, the younger son of a gangster who, as a child, saw his father behead his older brother. Forced to grow up fast, he has established himself as a majorly cool crime lord while still in his teens.

This means he is still at high school while co-ordinating a network of operatives his age or younger, and he uses these kids to take out the old guard of gangsters. Innocent-looking little tykes of about seven or eight blast away with uzis at adults - I’m watching this from an advance disc and wondering whether the BBFC will pass this. Even more astounding are two girls who seem to be Riki’s closest allies. One of them works nights in a gentleman’s club where she demonstrates her special talent, firing darts from - well, let’s just say it puts one in mind of Wynona Ryder and ping pong balls...

Also into the mix comes man mountain Akira, played by wrestler Kenji Takano who must be the biggest guy in Japan! Even allowing for simple tricks like standing him next to short people, putting him on a box and filming from the waist up (the sort of stuff they do with Robbie Coltrane in the Harry Potter movies) it’s clear that this guy is huge!

With its high school setting, the film becomes almost surreal: Riki Fudoh, who wears seriously smart suits, has the teachers in his pocket and the young ladies all wear those sailor suits (when they’re wearing anything at all) - very Sukeban Deka. Lots of people get killed in ways that will leave your jaw hanging open, and there is a sexual surprise later on that ramps the whole thing up a gear. Plus a character comes back from the dead as a sort of cyborg. Or something.

The low budget shows sometimes, mainly in the use of painfully obvious stock footage, and the plot gets rather convoluted, but the sheer audacity of this enormously entertaining cornucopia of sex’n’violence makes up for any shortcomings. This was far more enjoyable than I expected, and I’m left wondering - as I have been after each of my previous three Miike viewings - what else this guy can do.

MJS rating: B+
review originally posted before November 2004

Thursday, 16 May 2013


Directors: various
Writers: various
Producers: various
Cast: Martin Shaw and others
Country of origin: UK
Year: 1992
Reviewed from: UK VHS

Nightmares is an ersatz anthology: three short films, compiled into one not-quite-feature-length movie for video release. Not that there is any newly-shot linking footage or presentation, just a single title caption before the first film.

This is Oilman, a 30-minute short written and directed by Steve Gough in 1986 for Channel Four, the Arts Council and the National Film and Television School. Almost wordless, the film looks suitably professional but is obtuse to the point of incomprehensibility. I can do no more than describe what happens.

Shaw (ever associated with The Professionals, who would have made this just after starring as Scott of the Antarctic on The Last Place on Earth) plays a character named Mr White, who we see in a room with a white guy and a black guy. This scene is captioned ‘West Africa, two weeks earlier’ but since the prologue is a very short scene of a woman getting into a car at night, it’s not clear what this is two weeks earlier than. The black guy goes into the bathroom and the other two follow and show him, wrapped in a white handkerchief, a black woman’s severed finger with a diamond ring on it.

The black guy is so shocked at this that he faints, whereupon Mr White opens up and rifles through his briefcase. He throws out onto the floor various papers and two clear plastic pouches of what may be blood, one of which bursts. Then he finds what he’s looking for: photographs, which are difficult to identify but I think they show people in an African village killing a goat. He takes the photos and tosses a tightly-wrapped roll of money into the case. As Mr White and the other white guy descend the stairs, the black guy appears above them and throws the unwrapped money back at them.

“Wake up, Mr White, we’re there,” says an air hostess, leading the audience to wonder whether the preceding scene was a dream, although I don’t think it was. Back home there’s White’s son Mark (Nicolaus Mackie Jr, son of the film’s producer) and a brunette woman (Georgina Wilson) who, we only learn in the end credits, is an au pair. The brunette leaves as a rather glamorous blonde (Diana Goodman: Curse of the Pink Panther) arrives. Until I saw the ‘au pair’ credit I was assuming that the brunette (who we saw giving the son a bath) was the first Mrs White, spending quality time with her son while his dad was in Africa, since the blonde is evidently not his mother. When she arrives she admires, accidentally breaks and hides a small vase so she obviously doesn’t live there.

Without dialogue and with only a limited running time, the relationships between characters need to be made clear - and here they’re not. Over dinner Mr White shows the blonde one of those pouches of dark liquid; later, while they’re canoodling on the couch, the boy opens a similar pouch and smears some of the contents on his face, giving himself a droopy moustache. His father is annoyed by this, though it’s not clear why.

The boy is sullen and introspective and when we see the three of them in a car, he is playing with a large bug. White is talking animatedly - or rather, listening to an animated voice - on what was known in those days as a ‘car phone’ while the blonde drives. There’s a whack and the car screeches to a halt, and on inspection it seems that they have hit and killed a young stag. As they examine the body, they are watched from a distance by a small group of men with guns and dogs who I think we can assume are hunters. The woman is upset at hitting the animal and, when White consoles her, she takes his handkerchief from his pocket, neither of them noticing the severed finger as it falls to the ground. When White subsequently spots that the finger is missing, it’s too late to go looking for it.

White, possibly deciding that he fancies venison for dinner, ties a rope to the stag’s legs and drags it over to his car, cramming it into the boot - and off they drive. When next they stop, to swap drivers, the boy gets out and wanders off. The two adults wander across the countryside calling for him, watched by the hunters, one of whom eventually shoots Mr White. As he lies dying beside a stream, blood and oil staining his shirt, the blonde somehow trapped in a net or wire fence a few yards away, his son gives him a handkerchief. Finally we see the blonde getting into the car and driving away, as per the prologue. These final scenes are far too dark unfortunately but I think that’s what happens.

I profess myself absolutely flummoxed as to what is going on here. I don’t know the significance of the severed finger or the African scene. I don’t know what is in the pouches: blood? oil? I don’t know the significance of the photographs, which White watches at home on a screen, evidently having had the prints converted into slides. I can see some sort of ironic justice in the fact that he is some sort of ruthless person (drug dealer?) because he carries a severed finger around with him, who is then killed for a death he didn’t intend (though he wasn’t actually driving when the car hit the stag). But I don’t know why the hunters shoot him, or where he was driving to or why.

Oilman is competently directed and produced but one gets the impression that there were a great deal of things in the script which simply become impossible to fathom on-screen. We don’t know who any of these people are, what they’re doing or why, their circumstances, their relationships with each other. We see what is happening but don’t know any context or reason or motive. The minimalist blurb on the Nightmares video sleeve says: ‘A macabre story about a contract killer whose life is turned upside-down after an assassination.’ Unfortunately, there is absolutely nothing in the film to indicate that White is a contract killer or that his life is being turned upside-down, nor is there anything which really warrants the adjective ‘macabre’ apart from the severed digit. And there is absolutely no reference to an assassination. Perhaps the photos show an assassination but we don’t get a clear enough look at them, which is why I thought it was a goat...

Steve Gough went on to write a few other productions for the BBC and Channel Four and now teaches screenwriting and production at the University of Westminster. Producer Nicolaus Mackie later set up a company called ‘United Media Ltd’, one of whose unproduced projects announced at Cannes in 1996 was Deadly Asylum, ostensibly to be directed by Julian Richards (The Last Horror Movie, Silent Cry). Mexican-born cinematographer Gabriel Beristain (whose actor father Luis was in The Exterminating Angel!) went on to greater things including DP duties on Talos the Mummy, both Blade sequels and The Ring 2.

Considerably easier to follow, and hence more enjoyable, is the second film on the tape. False Profit is a 14-minute short written and directed by Mark Logan in 1989. Set in what was then the near future of the early 2000s and based around a corrupt TV preacher with his own channel, it reminded me favourably of Steven Saylor’s The Pope of Utah.

Emma Healey plays motorcycle-riding teenager Valentine (though the character’s voice-over narration is by Shauna Baird for some reason). When her father (Simon Thomas) suffers a fatal fall from the roof while trying to adjust the family’s giant satellite dish, her mother Doreen (Valerie Bell, in episodes of The Avengers, Steptoe and Son, Z Cars etc) falls for suave tele-evangelist Earl who is on screen at that moment. Earl (prolific TV actor Dennis Chinnery, who was in an episode of The Prisoner, played a copper in Plague of the Zombies and was also in The Kingdom of Shadows) has his own satellite station, funded by viewers of course and providing him with enough money to own a limousine with the licence plate GOD 1. He marries Doreen who joins him in his work; Valentine dislikes her new stepdad intensely but not so much as to turn down a job delivering ‘autographed filo-bibles’ to viewers.

One night The Earl and Doreen Show is interrupted by TV hacker CP Ellis (Richard Leaf: whose interesting credits include Jupiter Moon, Oktober, Neverwhere, Mary Reilly and The Sin Eater), an unshaven youth who wants to expose Earl’s corruption and hypocrisy. The police can’t catch CP, but Valentine finds him and falls for him; there’s a great narration line about falling in love and imagining that you’re the only people it has ever happened to and so on, which ends with the cynical comment, “Sickening, isn’t it?”

Initially aghast at CP’s interruptions, Earl discovers that they boost his ratings enormously and since that is all that matters to him, he too tracks down the young man, offering him a suitcase full of cash to keep it up. “You’re a cult hero but your arse is hanging out of your trousers,” says Earl, and when CP says he wants no part of it, the older man points out, “When you hack into prime time you become prime time.” Unknown to either of them, Valentine is hiding in the corner of the room with a (big, clunky, 1980s-style) video camera. Disgusted with CP’s acceptance of the money as much as Earl’s offering of it, she determines to bring them both down.

This is a smashing little short, a bit dated by hairstyles and clothes, as depictions of the near future so often are, but tightly scripted and adroitly directed. I can’t see any trace of Mark Logan on the net (unless he’s the guy who worked as a location scout on some of David Cronenberg’s recent movies) but the credits identify this as a student film: ‘WSCAD Farnham’ is the West Surrey College of Art and Design.

Finally we have The Sweet Shop which is the most recent of the three films, written, directed and produced (and edited) by Melanie Viner in 1991. Andrew Howard plays Sam Willett who, on his 17th birthday, is made a partner in his parents’ sweet shop business. His father (Bill Monks, who was in the excellent early 1980s sitcom Brass) is a sort of middle-aged nerd - round glasses, bushy moustache, receding hairline and a fastidious attitude which manifests itself when he removes a couple of sweets from the scales to sell only a quarter and nothing more. His mother (Linda Regan, one of the yellowcoats in the later series of Hi-de-Hi) is a tarty Liverpudlian who dotes on her only child.

Sam has no interest in the shop but daren’t rebel against his parents until he meets Ben (Barry Morse: The Fugitive, Space: 1999, Whoops Apocalypse) who tells him stories of his evacuation from Dunkirk, his exploits in Egypt and so on. Emboldened by this, Sam finds the strength to tell his parents he doesn’t want to run a sweet shop - and sets off to see the world.

That’s it. It’s a nice enough character study with some excellent acting and a couple of brief, surreal animated sequences (three if you include the title) featuring a laughing jelly baby; William Correia is credited with these. But it does just end, like that - there’s no real sense of resolution and the Sam/Ben relationship is under-explored. It probably needed to be about ten minutes longer. No college or other institution is identified in the credits but William Jeffery is listed as producer and since he also produced False Profit it’s reasonable to assume that this is another WSCAD production.

What The Sweet Shop plainly is not, as you will no doubt have spotted by now, is a nightmare (laughing jelly babies notwithstanding). In fact, none of the three films really deserves that soubriquet. ‘From macabre to black humour,’ says the video sleeve. ‘A selection of Three Nightmarish Stories.’ The front image is of a full Moon shining through the clouds. This might lead one to expect some sort of horror movie, but one would be disappointed.

With the best will in the world, neither False Profit nor The Sweet Shop could ever be described as even slightly nightmarish. Maybe Oilman could be - if you really, really bend the definition and interpret the film loosely: it does feature a severed human finger and perhaps the final scenes could be considered as some variant on The Most Dangerous Game. But that’s a hell of a stretch.

MJS ratings: C+ (Oilman), B+ (False Profit), B- (The Sweet Shop)
review originally posted 9th January 2005