16. Snow Way Out

base camp

The Thing
(Dir. John Carpenter, 1982)

Movie In Four Words

Trust no-one but yourself.

Category: Favourite

This has always felt like a tough film for me to get my head around as on the one hand it deals with huge issues and asks some very important questions in an intelligent way.  On the other hand, it’s incredibly straight forward and I appreciate its capacity to feel both wildly complex and utterly simplistic. It also always feels much longer than it’s 1hr 49 minutes running time something I’d normally site as a negative. However, in this case it’s a testimony to what a fine job the film does of conveying the isolation and the paranoia until you are just willing it to stop. There’s an extensive cast of characters to keep track of too which adds to the sense of disorientation and if I’m honest, some of them do feel expendable. Drawing from John W Campbell’s original novel: Who Goes There, Agatha Christie’s: And Then There Were None and Howard Hawks’ 1951 film adaptation: The Thing From Another World Carpenter had a wealth of resources to refer to but just like any project the Director heads up, he added that sprinkle of Carpenter pizazz.

New Thing I Learnt

chase dog
Wolf dog 1, Norwegians 0

I’m usually too occupied with the brilliance of Ennio Morricone’s evocative soundtrack to concentrate on much else, but I watched The Thing twice over two consecutive days for this blog so I was able to apply my attention in a way I hadn’t done before. In reference to the opening, those Norwegian’s either have terrible gun technique or that dog is the luckiest pup in the world! How many times do they aim and miss, aim and miss? Of course, I’m cheering for the wolf-dog all the way right up until the point where he paws away at George suspiciously this is.

There are shots of empty spaces throughout the base camp in the early segment of the film that felt reminiscent of the final shots of Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978). Whereas Carpenter created the feeling that Michael Myers was still looming everywhere, in The Thing he is showing us the environment that will soon cease to exist and creating a sense not of being watched but being completely alone.

It’s interesting that Mac and Doctor Copper never have a conversation about whether or not they should take their finding back to camp, they just do it without question. Given the impact this could have and their lack of knowledge about it’s origins I think this is a potential oversight. In fact, the group never talk about what’s happening or how it is affecting them instead they make frenzied decisions the best they can. The closest we get to a heartfelt conversation is when Mac speaks the chilling words: ‘nobody trusts anybody now’ into his Dictaphone which he plays back again, as though to affirm his declaration.

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Speaking the truth: Mac recording into his Dictaphone

Old Thing I Loved

I really love the characterization of the men all of whom are affected in different ways; Childs initially dismisses the events as ‘voodoo bullshit’ whereas Blair is so emotionally struck by what he discovers whilst consulting the computer that he has to be locked away in the tool shed. The diligent and likable Fuchs confides privately in Mac his suspicions about Blair and Benning chipperly jokes that their finding will: ‘win someone the Nobel Prize’.

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Just chilling…the men kick back and relax

As viewers, we are placed in the same position as the men, we don’t know who to trust or who is infected. To begin with, Carpenter is careful to show the group interacting in a relaxed and easy manner; they smoke joints together and play pool / cards whilst knocking back a few drinks. This scene of cosy normality not only helps us relate to the characters but also gives us something to remember when events do take a turn, adding to the bleakness of the film.

Lessons to be Learnt

Beware of dogs (even though this one is so god darn handsome)

very supersticious
Very superstitious….

Memorable Line

‘Five minutes is enough to put you over out here’ -Naules

‘Will you turn that crap down, I’m trying to get some sleep. I was shot today’-George

‘I know you gentlemen have been through a lot, but when you find the time, I’d rather not spend the rest of this winter tied to this fucking couch!’-Garry

Stand Out Performance

So committed to the role of RJ Macready was the scintillatingly good Kurt Russell that it took him a year to grow out his hair and beard for The Thing. Macready (who will henceforth be known as Mac) is a complex character and upon my viewings this time I was surprised and a little saddened to discover that on occasion he says / does things that make me pull back from him. His attitude towards the Chess Master which he calls a: ‘cheating bitch’ before destroying it with whisky has a nasty undercurrent. He also doesn’t seem to care too much for the Norwegian’s (as demonstrated by the way he ignorantly and constantly reference to them as ‘The Swedish’) unlike Doctor Copper (Richard A Dysart) who accompanies him to the site . When they arrive at the Norwegian camp keen to find out more Dr Copper asks: ‘What’s happened here?’ and prolongs their stay by insisting on taking back the documentation he finds. In contrast to his partner’s inquisitive nature and reacting (as he often does and not incorrectly) on his survival instinct, Mac is eager to leave. It’s also crucial I think, that it’s Mac who discovers the ice shell; the symbolism connected to this representing his nihilism and foreshadows his future as he literally stares into an empty void. This image of staring into nothingness is echoed again when three of the men visit the spacecraft site and when they find the missing chunk of ice where ‘The Thing’ has been.

chess master
Check-mate: Mac plays chess master

One of Mac’s strengths however, is that he’s always quick to react, when he hears a suspicious muffling sound from the dogs he responds quickly by hitting the alarm button; quite rightly he doesn’t take any chances. When Bennings is infected the group encircle him motionless, uncertain what to do. Notably, Mac is the only one who acts declaring: ‘it’s not Bennings’ before setting him alight. It’s slightly chilling how unaffected by this Mac appears to be as Garry (who has known Bennings for 10 years) confronts him about the incident. During Blair’s outburst Mac (who has not yet officially assumed the leadership role) steps up again, naturally taking control of the chaos directing the group out of the situation-even the headstrong Childs takes orders from him.

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Man of action: Mac burns the infected Benning’s

Mac’s also not afraid to face the truth, even when it’s disturbing such as when he tells the group openly that if they wait until Spring they could all be infected. Later during another briefing, he asserts that he is human and the reason he knows that everyone is not  infected is because they’re not all attacking him. While this makes perfect sense, it’s also rather self-indulgent but its the only mode Mac has left to turn to in order to survive.

Having seeded Mac as the hero of The Thing, I think Carpenter provides a good twist in showing Nauls finding his torn clothes. This occurs just a few scenes after Mac’s Dictaphone entry where he states that ‘The Thing’ rips through the clothes of whoever it infects. The group then proceed to turn on their leader, forming a resistance against Mac and it’s at this same point that we see the bearded protagonist really loose his cool as he threatens them with a bundle of dynamite. Could it be that just as the dogs were a life line for Clarke that leading the group becomes Mac’s reason to survive and once this is taken away from him, he feels he has nothing left?

mac dynamite
Armed and dangerous

Although he has shortcomings as discussed above, ultimately Mac displays a selflessness and bravery at the films conclusion as despite knowing that he’s going to die, he refuses to allow ‘The Thing’ to freeze again. In bringing the remainder of the group together into a pact, Mac leads them in a mission of burning the camp to the ground. An incredibly dramatic final act contains only a momentary offering of light relief when the underground the manifestation of ‘The Thing’ whips the dynamite out of Mac’s hands. We are left with two survivors, Mac and Childs neither of whom really know much about the other and have no choice but to resign to their fate: ‘maybe we shouldn’t make it’, Mac says and Childs does not argue back.

mac and childs
Survival of the fittest: Mac and Childs at the end of the film

Scene that Stayed With Me

One of the groups most shattering moments is when they learn that the blood has been taken. The guilty party is among them and this news fractures an already weakening morale as they now favour themselves individually over the general well being of the group. In quick succession they turn on one another, throwing about blame and accusations and its deeply saddening to watch them breaking from within. They even start putting doubts in one another minds: ‘he could be one of those things’ in a frantic attempt to understand their fear and save themselves. Garry (played as sometimes honourable and at others down right terrifying by Donald Moffatt) swears quite believably, that he did not take the blood although the finger is pointed firmly at him as the holder of the key. Seeing that he no longer has the faith and trust of the group, he hands over his gun before nominating Norris (who declines). Childs quickly seizes his opportunity for leadership but equally quick Mac snatches the gun from him, declaring that it should be: ‘someone a little more even-tempered’ and no one, not even Childs himself objects.

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One of us: the group learns that the blood has been stolen

The special effects in The Thing are incredible, not only for the time, but even now I firmly believe they hold up and this is all thanks to the incredible imagination and craft of Rob Bottin. Of all the terrifying set pieces he created none provoke a reaction in me quite so much as the chest defibration scene. It happens so quickly that despite seeing the film numerous times I never have time to prepare for it and I’d actually forgotten the full horror of the scene. Part of me feels that given it’s extremeness it should be funny but it isn’t, it’s absolutely shocking and gruesome; my brain actually struggles to comprehend the level of pain involved. Carpenter doesn’t hold back either, not only do we see Copper’s arms lodged in the mouth of Norris’ stomach but we see his half bitten off limbs. We’re hardly allowed an intake of breath before we manifestation of The Thing comes out of Norris and his head breaks away from his body like a massive cheese string. This scene is visually spectacular and contains another very fine quote: ‘you gotta be fucking kidding…’

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The doctor will see you now…Mac prepares the men for their blood test

The lengthy blood testing scene is absolutely heaped with tension as the men are tied down (with I noticed, the rope which was hanging as a noose in Blair’s tool shed) and cut almost ritualistically by Mac for samples. Again, despite having seen the film many times before, it’s always hard to recall who is infected and who is not adding to the mounting fear which is now at its peak. Needless to say that chaos ensues as men are freed, found out or as in one case, incorrectly shot dead by Mac.What this scene shows is that what the men thought to be true isn’t the case, meaning they can no longer rely upon their own judgements.  Childs seems to think he could be infected but, as the test shows, he is human. Mac is convinced that Garry has been attached by ‘The Thing’ but is proven wrong and we learn that Clarke was in fact in the clear. The truth is now forever in doubt for the men as they learn that at Outpost 31, things are not always what they appear to be.

 

 

 

 

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15. We are such stuff as dreams are made on….

House

A Nightmare On Elm Street
(Dir. Wes Craven, 1984)

Movie In Four Words

Freddy is always ready!

Category: Favourite

There’s no other film that I look forward to watching with more excitement than Wes Craven’s seminal masterpiece: A Nightmare on Elm Street. For anyone who has been following this blog, you will no doubt have discovered by now that my favourite horror of all time is Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). However, if you’ve ever watched it, you will also know that it’s not really a kick back and binge out on popcorn kind of film. In terms of themes and cinematography TCM will always be my personal forerunner but A Nightmare on Elm Street might be the coolest horror ever made. It’s one of few films that as soon as I switch it on, I am instantly transported back to my younger years and although it deals with some dark subject matters its always a deeply nostalgic and magical experience. The notion of someone being able to enter or tap into my dreams has been a secret fear of mine since watching The BFG (Brian Cosgrove, 1989) as a child. However, whereas Dahl’s giant trumpets in pleasant dreams to the sleeping children, Freddy invades the dreams of the Elm Street kids, turning them into violent nightmares.

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Sleep tight: Freddy looms above Nancy

New Thing I Learnt

I think a lot of people skim over the character of Marge (played by Ronnie Blakely using methods I’ve never seen before) and it’s easy to see why, she’s rather surreal, like something out of a tragic fairy tale or a comedy sketch. Thus, it’s hard to relate to her or indeed at times, take her seriously. I’d like to argue that Mrs Thompson is more complicated than she might seem at first glance as I deviate between empathizing towards her as a single mother who is struggling with addiction and finding her wholly irresponsible. In caring (too much?) for Nancy and trying to do the right thing by installing bars on the windows / doors of their home, she essentially creates an enclosed space for Kreuger to hunt down her daughter. Not only this but her decision ultimately results in her own death too. I’m not saying it’s certain, but I get the impression that although her flaws prevent her from being a stable and dependable role-model for Nancy, there is a genuine love and tenderness detectable in her character.

Marge_Thompson
Troubled: Ronnie Blakely as Marge Thompson

Old Thing I Loved

Freddy has one of the most deeply chilling back stories in horror history. He was, we will later be told in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (Chuck Russell, 1987) ‘the bastard son of a thousand maniacs’ , this explicitness has echoes of Craven’s earlier and highly controversial film The Last House On The Left (Wes Craven, 1972) where similarly, parents also take revenge into their own hands for crimes committed against children.  However, while the adults of Elm Street stepped up many years ago in burning Kruger, they are oblivious to what’s happening with their own children in the here and now, either being too wrapped up in themselves or disconnected from reality.

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John Saxon as Donald Thompson 

One of A Nightmare On Elm Street’s greatest strengths is its truly amazing concept. Everyone has to fall asleep which means that by placing the monster within the world of your dreams, encountering Freddy is not something that can be avoided- it’s an inevitability. How many times have we watched this film and been frightened to turn off the lights and close our eyes? The concept is so effective because it applies to us all. No one is safe from Freddy and there are no exceptions.

Finally, I love how this film epitomizes the 80’s. The hair, the make-up (what on earth is going on with Ronnie Blakely’s?), the costumes (specifically Johnny Depp’s crop top!) and the music. I must discuss the music which is just goose bumpingly good! Charles Bernstein’s pioneering and experimental soundtrack conjures up a  dreamscape from the darkest recesses of your imagination. Full of shrieking synths and electronic disturbances, the score is peppered with notes that are ever so slightly off. I  listen to the soundtrack at home quite often, whether I’m having a lazy Saturday or working on a blog (!) and it evokes a beautiful combination of uneasiness and exhilaration. I read somewhere that Bernstein used a small Casio keyboard to create the electronic violin sound for the main title, so I’m using that as something else old that I loved too!!!

dont-fall-asleep
Caged in: Nancy in her newly fortified home

Lessons To Be Learnt

This seems fairly obvious but (and you’ll understand why), I have to quote it:

‘Whatever you do, DONT fall asleep!’

Memorable Line

I’m your boyfriend now Nancy (Freddy)

Oh god I look twenty years old (Nancy)

Maybe I should just pick up that bottle and veg out with you, ignore everything going on around me by getting good and loaded (Nancy)

Screw your pass! (Nancy)

Stand Out Performance

Heather Langenkamp perfectly embodies the 15 year old school girl who in her resourcefulness and determination represents the anti-victim. Nancy never screams helplessly in the corner, waiting for her killer to approach. Instead, she gets ahead of the game by actively reading up on and preparing a series of traps for Freddy. Nancy is hands down my favourite final girl!

nancy-thompson-setting-traps
Ready or Not: Nancy prepares a series of traps for Freddy

Her strength and independence are remarkable, she relies upon no-one. In fact, being let down by those around her is a reoccurring theme for our heroine. We’ve already touched on Marge’s behaviour but what’s also notable is how the men in Nancy’s life fail her time and time again. Despite being a Police Lieutenant, her father isn’t there for her when it counts. This can be evidenced in its fullest during the culminative scenes of the film where he not only refuses to listen to Nancy, but patronizes her with his responses and as a result of not taking her concerns seriously his daughter is almost murdered. Sadly, it’s not just adults that neglect Nancy; her jock boyfriend Glen falls asleep on two occasions when she specifically asked for him to watch her. No wonder Nancy is self-sufficient, she has to be!

glen crop top
What was he thinking? Johnny Depp in that top as Glen.

Freddy will forever occupy a space in the slasher movie hall of fame along with Jason and Michel and each will have their own followers for various reasons. It’s undisputable that as Freddy, Robert Englund made the role his own and thus masterfully cultivated a character so unsympathetic that it’s impossible to feel even the most far reaching degree of compassion for him.  Unlike the two aforementioned killers, Freddy A) has more dialogue and interacts directly with his victims and B) displays a sense of humour (less so in this first outing but it’s still present).

freddy
The man of your dreams: Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger

Slimly built and cartoonishly dressed, Freddy does not immediately provoke fear in the way that his counterparts do- until you see his hand that is! Uniquely, Freddy’s weapon is a part of him which we see engineered (by him) during the opening titles. Crucially, Craven does not reveal Freddy to us at this point and all we are shown is the razor encrusted glove, enhancing the level of suspense. While many horror villains rely on masks to conceal their identity and add to their foreboding presence, Freddy has no need for an artificial ‘mask’ as his face is arguably much more alarming; literally baring the scars of his heinous crimes.

Scene That Stayed With Me

This was the toughest film for me to reach a decision on, even to narrow it down at all, let alone to single out one scene! As soon as I settled on one choice I immediately thought of another and I was all in conflict! I separated my final list of eleven into three categories that I labelled very crudely-Death, Fear and Humour. In the interests of being objective, I’m going to select one from each category as I think there’s something worth exploring across each of them.

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Iconic: Tina’s death scene

Death: This may cause some contention but I’d like to name Tina’s death as my personal favourite, not only in this film but it’s actually right up there for me in horror as a whole. This is a true spectacle and what is achieved in the final cut is just extraordinary. There is nothing superficial in this scene to detract from the excruciating tragedy that befalls Tina. As she crawls her way up the wall and across the ceiling (The Last Exorcism anyone?) and slashes are revealed on her body, we share in Rod’s horror. I think the power in this scene is in Craven’s choice not to show Freddy which enables us to  empathize with Rod and by concealing the attacker he creates some of the most disturbing images in horror cinema.

bathtub
Fun in the tub: Nancy’s bath time is disturbed 

Fear: The Bathtub Scene- (which I secretly think might be my secret favourite of all) simply because I find it so terrifying and that the bathroom ought to be a place of relaxation and calm. Nancy is trying to take a moment to chill after her earlier ordeal at the school and this is ruptured by Freddy. This scene also acts as a literal representation of falling from the waking world to the sleeping one as Nancy slips into the bathwater, serving to highlight how vulnerable we are once asleep.

What this moment demonstrates is that Freddy is on constant standby for the first moment when his victims slide into dreamland. His gloved hand moving tentatively between Nancy legs also hints at a darker, sexual connotation that harks back to Freddy’s original crimes. In surviving this scene, it’s unclear whether Nancy is getting to understand the rule or if she is simply just lucky. But one thing is certain, Nancy is definitely not looking forward to that glass of warm milk!

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Sweet dreams: Heather Langenkamp as Nancy Thompson

 

Humour: I’ve written before about the fine line between a laugh and a gasp and Freddy certainly walks a tightrope at times of being terrifying and incredibly funny. There’s one scene in A Nightmare On Elm Street that provokes both amusement and horror every time I see it. Its towards the end of the film and takes place in Nancy’s bedroom. Reality and the dream world are clashing dramatically as after she has pulled the ringing phone from it’s socket and we hit a moment of sickening fear as it rings again, which we know is impossible. The tension builds as she approaches slowly to answer the call . Almost too terrified, she puts the receiver to her ear and is met with a wholly disgusting, fat, extended tongue protruding from a pimpled chin. Freddy then delivers the tormenting line: ‘I’m your boyfriend now Nancy’ as his tongue touches her face causing her to recoil in revulsion. There is something about the juxtaposition of the playfulness of Freddy and the horrifying impact on Nancy that always manages to make me simultaneously wince and titter at the same time.

freddy tongue
Unwanted caller

In closing, I just wanted to make one final point concerning the list of scenes that stayed with me. When I broke them down and considered the content, mood and action within each I came to the realisation that all these scenes indiscriminately teeter between dreamland and the real world. All these scenes could have been dreams and have a dream-like (or rather nightmarish) quality to them. This is Craven’s brilliance at work; small touches such as Nancy’s feet sinking deep into the stairs and Freddy’s grotesquely elongated arms feel as though they belong in our nightmares, everyone can recount something similar from a bad dream. The beauty of setting so much of the film in dreamland is that we are never quite sure whether what we are seeing is real or not and therefore constantly question what we are seeing. In this respect, the two worlds not only exist side by side but merge into one, having an affect that will stay with you forever.

 

 

 

 

14. Meat Feast

iris and rose

We Are What We Are
(Dir. Jim Mickle, 2013)

Movie In Four Words

An all consuming tradition.

Category: Undecided

It was some three or four months ago that I was scanning my DVD pile for something to watch, doing my best to avoid falling into the usual pitfalls of picking a favourite or playing it safe with a classic when I found We Are What We Are. Purchased in a discount store, there was always going to be a element of risk…would this be a waste of an evening? Couldn’t I just watch ‘The Shining’ for the fiftieth time? ‘No!’ I told myself, be bloody, bold and resolute! Thus fully committed, I switched on my projector and settled in for a night of patriarchy and cannibalism.

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Head of the Table: Bill Sage as Frank Parker

New Thing I Learnt

We Are What We Are was originally a Mexican film Somos lo que hay (Jorge Michael Grau, 2010) in which the family’s struggles are explained as a result of their current poverty, not due to the famine / hunger of their family generations earlier as we see here. What specifically interested me about this reworking was Mickle’s decision to replace the early death of the father with the loss of the mother. By choosing to keep Frank (Bill Sage) in the picture, this shifts the dynamic and the girls are compelled to enter into dark activities not just through loyalty, but through fear and physical threat.

As a small aside, it’s obvious that the Parker’s are meat eaters so I thought it was pretty funny that their nosy but well meaning neighbour next door, Marge (Kelly McGillis) brings them a home cooked meal that she purposely states as being ‘vegetarian’. Is this just all Marge had in the cupboard or does she know more than she is letting on?

Old Thing I Loved

The initial premise of this film as a town where something is going on but what that might be is shrouded in ambiguity is an old favourite of mine. Girls are going missing, including the daughter of Doctor Barrow (Michael Parks) who becomes instrumental in driving the narrative forward through his very personal quest to uncover the truth. Neighbours of the Parker’s are also moving out and away from the town, are they just leaving because jobs are scarce or are they making sure they get out before it’s too late? When approached by Barrow who has his suspicions about the Parkers, Sherriff Meeks (Nick Damici) refuses to investigate, leading us into thinking that he too might be involved in some way. Everyone in this town is connected and some, like Deputy Anders (Wyatt Russell) and Iris (Amber Childers), more than others. This closeness puts a great deal of pressure on Frank who has to be doubly vigilant in keeping the truth concealed.

preparations
Stepping Up: Iris and Rose preparing to keep the tradition going

Lessons to be Learnt

Check your stew for arsenic.

Some family traditions ought to be broken.

Memorable Line

‘You hungry doc? We have plenty’ Frank Parker

Stand Out Performance

It’s the young performers that really shine in this film and as much as I tried, I couldn’t find anything to split Rose (Julia Garner) and Iris. As the older sister, Iris must bare the weight of responsibility, fulfilling the role which her mother previously embodied. There’s a fragility about Iris, she is vulnerable and likely to break at any time but finally, amidst the everyday monotony and misery of her life there is a hint of promise when she begins to rekindle her relationship with Anders. However, Frank soon puts a stop to this and his actions mark a change in Iris as from this point on she finds the motivation to fight back against her father.

WE ARE WHAT WE ARE
Safety in numbers: Iris, Rose and Rory 

Rose, although seemingly compliant on the surface, has a silent strength in her that helps create an investment in where the story is going, if anyone can change the shape of events, she can. In particular, she has a touching relationship with their infant brother Rory, slipping him cereal when he should be fasting and whispering tenderly to him as they make their escape: ‘you need to be a brave boy’. Rose also has an explosive relationship with her father and although he tells her: ‘you are just like your mother’, with her will of determination and her ability to rely solely upon herself, perhaps she is, in ways, more like Frank.  A special mention must be given to Jack Gore as Rory Parker who at such a young age cultivates a highly engaging performance.

Scene that Stayed With Me

The family sitting down for dinner stands out as being most memorable scene as it’s loaded with unspoken tension and dread. We know everything now and the fear is stacked even higher as we’ve seen the lengths Frank is willing to go to in order to ensure this ritual takes place and witnessed the girls reluctantly partake in preparations.  There is a hushed quiet in the room which prevents Rose from alerting her sister not to eat the stew which she has discovered that Frank has laced with arsenic.

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Man on a mission: Michael Parks as the justice seeking Dr Barrow

Unable to get their attention, we watch for a few unbearable seconds as Rose stares at Iris and Rory cracking bread over their meals. Although only brief, the moment seems to last long enough to build to a crescendo as Rose jumps to action, flinging Rory’s bowl from the table. At the same time, Barrow arrives at the Parker house and there’s a touch of dark humour as Frank offers him some of the stew, which of course he politely declines. It’s clear at this stage that Frank knows Barrow is onto him and yet he remains untroubled by this, maintaining his subtle but menacing demeanour. The two men lock eyes across the table, Frank full of arrogance and Barrow seething with anger as he puts forward the question he’s been afraid to ask: ‘Have you eaten my daughter?’ leading us into the final chaotic, blood filled act.

dinner
The Parker Family assemble for dinner

 

 

13.Expecting the unexpected

 

phone booth

Rosemary’s Baby
(Dir. Roman Polanski, 1968)

Movie In Four Words

Baby night goes wrong…..

Category: Favourite

Rosemary has it all, the man, the apartment, the lifestyle. Well almost, because what Rosemary doesn’t have is a baby and she wants one, she wants one more than anything in the world. Roman Polanski’s 1968 film is a beautifully paced and carefully crafted example of psychological horror. We are captivated from the opening credits onwards with our eyes fixed on Rosemary, watching passively as her dream evolves into a nightmare, unable to (but wishing we could) reach out and help her.

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Pretty in pink: The famous opening titles of Rosemary’s Baby

Rosemary’s Baby, adapted from Ira Levin’s 1967 novel of the same name, looks incredible and it’s hard to believe that it’s six years older than my favourite horror, Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974). It’s stylish, it’s intelligent and puts you inside the mind of the protagonist to such a degree that as events unfold, you begin to doubt your own sanity. Despite focusing on the objectives of a cult, there is nothing overblown or fantastically supernatural about the film, everything we see feels believable.

Guy offers up his wife’s womb literally to ‘the cult next door’ as a trade in for the promise of a successful career. In using Rosemary as a bargaining tool, he demonstrates that he favours ambition and status over everything else. His values are not Rosemary’s values. I found listening to and especially reflecting back on some of his lines utterly disturbing. At one point he tells her: ‘they promised me you wouldn’t be hurt, and you haven’t been really. I mean, suppose you had a baby and lost it; wouldn’t it be the same? And we’re getting so much in return, Ro’ He fails to comprehend the consequences of his selfishly motivated choices upon Rosemary; her health, happiness and their relationship. Likewise, his self-interested nature shines through again at a pivotal moment following the party. When Rosemary tells Guy she wants a second opinion, he justifies his refusal by declaring that this: ‘wouldnt be fair to Saperstein’. and there is a moment of shaking disbelief from Rosemary as she bellows: ‘Not fair to Sapirstein? What about what’s fair to me?!’ Guy is not only a terrible husband, the man is a criminal as he ultimately conspires in the rape, drugging and unwilful impregnation of his wife.

guy and rosemary
Pre baby night dinner: Rosemary and Guy raise a glass

New Thing I Learnt

I always thought of the party as an example of Rosemary breaking out and liberating herself. However, upon re-watching I wondered if she I indeed trying to break free and regain some of her previous identity, or if this is also a cry for help? Deep down is Rosemary secretly hopeful that if she can showcase herself among friends they will help her and her baby?

Rosemary friends
A friend in need: Rosemary is comforted during her party for the under sixties

When she pours Minnie’s drink away, this is a small act of defiance but why does Rosemary delay? Is this her fatal flaw? Or is her decision to succumb to the demands of the cult a reflection of the ‘Is God Dead’ Time magazine cover (a cover that actually existed) which highlights that America’s attitude towards faith is changing?

time magazine
The big question: Rosemary reads Time magazine whilst waiting in the surgery

Old Thing I Loved

The opening track sung by Farrow and composed by Krysztof Komeda is haunting; hypnotic, curious and lullaby-like, it creeps across the film as though casting a spell. Sometimes it can be slightly upbeat, smooth or jazzy but whether it be through whispering chants or piercing, distorted strings, it always returns to a darker place.

Bramford itself is also a key character in the film, a building of monstrous proportions that are impossible to get your head around. The setting for macabre historical tales, suicide and rape, Bramford is a vessel for black magic and terror. It’s also the location where Rosemary must be confined to in order for the cult to exercise control over her. Notably we only see her outside on a few occasions and when we do, she is usually urged to rush back indoors or escorted home.

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Neighbour from hell: Minnie Castevets administering her herbal drink 

Lessons to be Learnt

Remain hostile to your neighbours!

Steer clear of chocolate mousse!

Memorable Line

‘It’s going to be a very special party, you have to be under sixty to get in’ Rosemary Woodhouse

‘As long as she ate the mousse she cant see or hear. She’s like dead now.’ Minnie Castevets

Stand Out Performance

I’ve written a lot  in this blog about how much I love complex female characters and how important it is that women are not portrayed as inactive, two dimensional figures just waiting for things to happen to them. Rosemary is no exception. Satan is the father of Rosemary’s baby which complicates her feelings about her faith. Interestingly, Mia Farrow also struggled with the darker side of religion explored in the film as she was raised a catholic and had even once considered becoming a nun. For her first film role, Farrow showed that she wasn’t afraid of a challenge and she has famously said that no other role has asked so much of her whilst been so rewarding. I’d argue that her performance is flawless, she brings us totally on side, conveying a broad range of emotional states with tremendous realness.

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Unexpectant mother: Rosemary meets her child for the first time

Two of the key themes I think Polanski explores is that of people taking control and making choices. In the early parts of the film, the cult carefully timetable everything so that Rosemary is watched, influenced and given herbal drinks around the clock. When she finally realises what’s happening and flees to Hill, she is firmly returned right back in her place.  This made me wonder about who Rosemary is within a social context and whether she belongs more to the traditional adhering world of the 50’s than the hippie, independent seeking movement of the 60s? She hears a lot of opinions from a lot of people but never really has the chance to make up her own mind. Sadly, the one person she needed to listen to was Hutch but although she fails to adhere to his advice it’s his gift of a book that helps her uncover the intentions of the cult.

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Spelling it out: the tiles say it all

Continuing on the question of choice, there is the matter of the ending and why Rosemary decides to take up a maternal role to the son of the devil. It’s possible to assert that in agreeing to mother the child, Rosemary is finally assuming control of her situation. Personally, I would challenge this notion as she is fully aware of the origins of her baby but she does not consider what he will grow up to be or do. As part of this child’s conception, the actor Baumgart looses his sight and the faithful Hutch has been dispatched of using dark practices. If Rosemary is choosing to honour the needs of her baby over her own values, isn’t she also choosing to love the devil over the safety of humanity? Or now that she is host to the anti-Christ has she lost her agency to the power of evil meaning that her choices are no longer her own? So many questions!

Scene that Stayed With Me

When Rosemary goes to see Dr Hill, we are still hopeful that this could result in a happy ending for her. Throughout the scene where she confides in him, the camera remains focused almost entirely on Rosemary, making sure that all our sympathies are with her. As she recounts the events of the last few months, she is so firm and matter of fact in what she’s saying, that it’s hard to imagine how someone listening to this could ever disbelieve her. At this point, she’s figured out everything, that they stole one of Hutch’s belongings before he slipped into a comma, even that Guy probably done a deal-his fame in exchange for their baby, but what Rosemary hasn’t allowed herself to consider is that she is mothering the child of Satan. When she is finished telling Dr Hill her story and he remarks that: ‘it certainly seems that way’ we share in the expression of relief and euphoria displayed openly on her face. Finally, she has found someone who she can trust who is not connected to the cult, someone who can help her and believes her story.

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A long ride home: Guy, Rosemary and Dr Shand

When we find out shortly after that Dr Hill is in fact, also part of the cult and has turned her over to Guy and Dr Shand it’s utterly devastating and we can now be certain that there is no hope for Rosemary. In this scene, Guy actually looks remarkably uncomfortable, unable to look at his wife at first and holding his head in his hands. Just when you thought things couldn’t get any crueller, Dr Shand insinuates that Rosemary is mentally unstable. Surrounded by the three men as she leaves the practise, she is led out by the arm in a catatonic state, this time they will not let her go.

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To 1966: The Year 1!

12. A most lamentable tragedy…

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Theatre of Blood
(Dir. David Hickox, 1973)

Movie In Four Words

Death can be imaginative!

New Thing I Learnt

I am so thrilled to be posting on Theatre of Blood which stars one of my favourite ever actors in what I think of with affection as his best film. This was always going to be on my list, not only because I revere it so much but also, I thought its’ mellow, datedness would be a welcome reprieve amidst all the slashers and monsters I planned to subject myself to. I’ve adored Vincent Price for as long as I can remember from classics such as House On The Hunted Hill (William Castle, 1959) and Witchfinder General  (Michael Reeves, 1968) to the lesser known works of The Bat (Crane Wilbur, 1959) and House of Wax, (Andre de Toth, 1963) I indiscriminately love them all, and it’s owing solely to their leading man. I will literally watch anything with Vincent Price, safe in the knowledge that even if the script makes no sense, even if the rest of the cast are rubbish, Vincent will pull it through and add his famous touch of glitter.

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Rogues gallery: The Critics

Imagine my excitement when I discovered that there was a screening of this at my local abandoned superstore and to be held in of all places…. the basement! This was followed by a live recording hosted by none other than the amazing Screaming Queenz, a Liverpool based podcast that focuses on reading horror from a queer perspective and whose work I’ve been following for many months. Check out their fantastic work here, it comes highly recommended:

http://screamingqueenz.podbean.com/

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Watching this as part of an audience felt like the perfect way to see the film and it was a privilege to have the chance to share in some people’s first experiences of this twisted tale! So get your tights and feather caps at the ready for this cocktail of villainy, death, pride and poodles all told with a Shakespearean twist!!!

New Thing I Learnt

One of the first questions I asked myself as the film romped along was…is this a slasher film? It certainly bares all the hallmarks of a slasher and it seemed to fit although this could also easily be classified as a revenge film. There were a few things I noticed that hadn’t occurred to me before, one surprisingly was the extent of costume changes Price goes through across 104 grotesquely tongue in cheek minutes. How had I not spotted this before?! The more I started to notice (and I’m not just talking about the Shakespearean characters as I’d always paid close attention to them), the more hilarious it became. It reached its peak when Price emerges as Butch in the Henry VI Part one homage!!! The costume / hair & make up department must have had so much fun with this.

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Cut and blow Madam?: Vincent Price as Edward Lionheart as Butch.

What I also noticed was just how much Lionheart relies upon his band of homeless followers in order to exact his revenge. Their presence can be found in every death scene, the success of which they are absolutely fundamental to. They serve to blend the comedy and darkness of the film perfectly throughout but perhaps most memorably during the wine tasting and the ‘This Is Your Dish’ filming sequences. There was one final question that frustrated me; why does Devlin not give in at the end and present the award to Lionheart? What does it meant to him, is it really worth sacrificing his eyes for…?

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The final act: Edward Lionheart compelling Devlin to issue him with the Critics Circle Award

Old Thing I Loved

The humour and knowingness with which Price plays his carousel of roles has a sentimental quality about it that modern horror films just don’t possess. As Edward Lionheart, Price knows just where to pitch his performance and he is having a great deal of fun being allowed to run rogue! I also have to comment on the set design which is just stunning, the colours, the over the topness of it all, the final scene where we watch the theatre burn to the ground being one of the most visually impressive. What’s more, with the knowledge that the sets/ effects have all been achieved by hand via the creativity and ideas of those involved gives it a touch of magic.

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Food for thought: Edward Lionheart serves one of his critics a pie with an unconventional pie

Lessons to be Learnt

Never enter a fencing club alone!

Always check what’s in your pie!

Memorable Line

‘It’s him all right, only Lionheart would have the temerity to rewrite Shakespeare!’ Devlin

Stand Out Performance

Finally, Edward Lionheart can take his award (at least Vincent Price can accept it posthumously and on his behalf), for who else could this accolade go to? No one occupies so many roles with so much relish and variation. This is a Vincent Price showcase! He is also one of few actors I’ve seen who can handle comedy and horror combined, succeeding in drawing both elements out but never at the mercy of the other. As Lionheart, Price also cleverly manages to elicit empathy as despite seeing him go on a killing spree you feel his suffering, it’s palpable.  Notably too (perhaps with the exception of Devlin) the pompous critics are so unpleasant that I rather enjoy watching Price take them down!

Scene that Stayed With Me

Before we get to my choicest scene, I can’t overlook the fencing sequence, an utter treat! I thought I’d memorized every swipe and jump made by Lionheart and Devlin, so it was great to find that there were small (but terrific) details I’d forgotten. This is really a cartoon come to life and you never question what you are seeing, it plays a bit like a comedy sketch but within the context of the of the film’s narrative it triumphs in its overall effectiveness. It’s incredible how Devlin can claim ‘never to have seen you here before’ to Lionheart despite him being covered head to toe in fencing gear! Vincent Price also proves his trampolining skills are more than adequate!

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Showdown: Lionheart and Devlin fence it out!

Although this film is dear to me, the times when it has an emotional impact are few and far between. Of course, this is not a criticism as I understand the film exists primarily to entertain, not to make you brood over the big questions of life. Having said that, when Lionheart confronts the critics during their after-show drinks, I must admit to feeling a severe blow to the heart. This is particularly moving when his daughter Edwina (modest name) softly advises him: ‘don’t father, you are only helping them to hurt you more’, with a tenderness in her voice that could only exist between father / daughter.

There is a genuine sense of tragedy throughout this lengthy scene which carries a different tone to the rest of the film. Lionheart is literally ‘on show’ for the critics once more as he wonders outside with nothing but a sheet of glass between them. Let’s face it, he probably designed the whole thing this way! Although we know Edward as a melodramatic man with a propensity for grandiose gestures and an inflated ego, it’s cutting to watch the critics laughing at him cruelly. As they are forced to follow his movements when they realise his mental state might be fragile, the critics pull back the large, dominating curtains to reveal Edward Lionheart in the final performance of his life time.

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Man with a plan: Edward Lionheart in all his finery.

11. The Great Indoors…

The Descent
(Dir. Neil Marshall, 2005)

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Movie In Four Words

Don’t go off map!

Category~Favourite

I have a changing relationship with The Descent. When I saw it for the first time, I liked it. When I re-watched it, a liked it a little less and subsequently the dislike grew upon each further viewing of this underground nightmare. However, something kept me going back to the film and rather than giving in and calling it a day, I stuck with it. Thus, we arrive at October 2018 where I find myself having gone full circle. In short, I love this film!

Neil Marshall’s third film places women at it’s heart and in doing so it (I’m sad to be saying this), it feels progressive-how many horror films can you think of with an all female cast? It’s engaging because the characters are well written and superbly performed all within a clever, simple premise. From the opening scene amongst the freedom of the rapids (Deliverance anyone?) to the starkly contrasting claustrophobic environ of the caves, The Descent hits you at full force from the get go and it never really lets up.

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Happy on the surfaceSarah, Beth and Juno enjoying life above ground

In less than no time at all, we are witness to a car accident that will govern the entire way we read this film. Marshall takes great care to ensure that this story is about more than a group of women trying to survive a cave of possessed creatures; its a deeply personal exploration of loss and guilt. In 100 minutes we are taken to some uncomfortable places; be they literal as told through the confines and spaces of the caves or be they sentimental told in the way the women relate to one another.

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Facing her fears: Shauna Macdonald as Sarah

A word on the endings if I may, the original UK version shows Sarah (Shauna Maconald) getting out alive but then quickly flashes back to show her trapped inside the cave. The ambiguity around the prospect of whether this is Sarah allowing herself to be killed… presumably to be with her daughter is in my opinion, far more effective. Perhaps such darkness proved too much for American audiences as their ending stopped at Sarah being free (but toremented by a ghostly figure). Watch and decide for yourself!

New Thing I Learnt

The Descent is an example of how a horror film can balance staying rooted in itself whilst also being clever enough to reference classics of the genre with taste and subtlety that doesn’t detract from the story. Having ink and paper at the ready this time, I was able to scribble down the ‘nods’ I spotted. There are several times when I was reminded of the opening scene of Stanley Kubricks The Shining (1980) where the overhead shot of a car travelling along an endless path evokes a curious feeling of entrapment. One that I’m sure has been noticed by all is the wink to Brian de Palma’s Carrie (1976) as Sarah emerges from the crimson swap drenched in blood, looking vengeful.

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Reborn: Shauna Macdonald as Sarah and Sissy Spacek as Carrie

Lastly, when Juno jogs alone through the early morning of the woods with atmospheric music playing over the top, this echoes the famous opening of Clarice Starling sweating it out in Johnathan Deme’s (1991) Silence of the Lambs.

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In Training: Natalie Mendoza as Juno and Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling

I also read a very interesting theory on another blog examining the possibility that Sarah is responsible for murdering her friends in a post-traumatic state. To really answer to this, I’d have to give the film another watch with this specific interpretation in mind. However, it’s certainly an interesting one, Sarah does after all kill two of the group (Beth as an act of mercy, Juno as an act of revenge) but I’m not sure there is an argument for the crawlers being part of Sarah’s imagination as, from memory, they are clearly seen (and described) by others.

Old Thing I Loved

The Descent sticks to a pretty tried and tested formula; put a group of people in one space and watch them get taken down one by one by an unknown entity. But Despite this being an all too familiar framework, it’s still not easy to pull it off successfully but by mixing things up a little, this film certainly does. It’s not clear who the final girl is (Juno? Sarah?), the deaths are at the hands of not just the crawlers, but the women themselves which adds something interesting to proceedings and we have an ending (at least in the UK anyway) that is refreshingly uncertain.

Lessons to be Learnt

Caves are not cosy places….

Memorable Line

‘I’m an English Teacher, not fucking Tomb Raider!’ -Beth

Stand Out Performance

Am I allowed to give this one to the caves themselves…? Well, if not it’s a toss up between Juno and Sarah. I think Juno (Natalie Mendoza) makes the biggest impression onscreen (the woman is a tour de force!) but unlike Sarah, I just don’t feel any personal connection with her. Juno is a leader, but also an outsider; she drinks less than the others, is up at dawn exercising in preparation and when the girls are hugging at the beginning, she can only watch.

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‘Girl I didn’t know you could get down like that’

Let’s just recap on Juno’s behaviour too, she lied to the group about where she was taking them and I mean…this was not a pub crawl! This is potholing! She also had an affair with Sarah’s husband, Paul. To add to this, I believe her motivation come purely from an attempt to make herself feels better about the affair and for not being there for Sarah in the aftermath of the crash. On that note, I just want to call out a remark Juno makes when confronted by Beth about why she wasn’t there as a support for Sarah. Juno says: ‘we all lost something in that crash’. Did they? I know that Sarah did, I know that Juno did but as for the other members of the group, I’m not certain as to how this applies.

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Nice and snug: as Nora-Jane Noone as Holly

There may be a case for exploring the possibility of Juno and Sarah as opposites or as two sides of the same person. Whereas Juno lands the group into their predicament, it’s Sarah who identifies the crawlers, alerting them to the threat. Notably, it’s also Sarah who finds the handprint in the cave early on and the metal hat left behind long ago; Sarah has her eyes open and is always the first to make any kind of discovery.

Scene that Stayed With Me

I had such a long list for this that I knew there was work to be done on separating the contenders before attempting to go any further. When I started reviewing my list, I was startled to learn that there were just two categories; those involving the crawlers and the more emotional scenes involving human interactions. The crawler scenes unarguably provoke the biggest jump scares as they pounce from hidden recesses but these are short lasting and have no depth / distinction to them. By contract, the interactions between the group and what they experience (Juno accidentally kills Beth and Sarah discovers her still half alive later on) cuts far deeper and really stays with you. When Sarah is stuck for the first time in one of the passages, Beth tells her: ‘the worst has already happened to you and you are still here’, this closeness will make later events feel weighted with even more tragedy.

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Two sides of the same coin? Juno and Sarah

In summary, there is no one scene that stayed with me more than any another but there is a shot that I thought was worth singling out; that of Sarah climbing her way out up the hill of bones. Seen in landscape view, this shot literally evokes her entire journey at a glance-a slow, hard, upwards struggle from the darkness up towards the teasing distant glimmer of light.

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Following the light: Sarah tackling the hill of bones to escape

10. Boxed In….

Cube
(Dir. Vincenzo Natali, 1997)

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Movie In Four Words

Know your prime numbers!

Category~Not sure?

Cube is a film that I’m not a complete stranger to but I’ve only seen once or twice before and definitely a title that I wanted to revisit. This is quite possibly the least ‘horror’ of all the films on my list, sharing much with the sci-fi genre. Intriguing from the get go, this is Canadian born Vincenzo Natali’s directorial debut which that takes a closer look at human behaviour that is fascinating and at times, highly uncomfortable to watch. The film wastes no time in dropping us right into the heart of the narrative which is, essentially, a group of people stuck in a cube. Seven years prior to the first of the carousel of Saw films (Saw, 2004), Cube is streets ahead of its successor by placing the deaths that ensue against a sociological backdrop rather than as isolated set pieces. Do rules exist within the Cub and if so, what are they? The Crystal Maze, this ain’t.

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Working together:  Andrew Miller as Kazan, David Hewlett as Worth and Nicole de Boer as Leaven

New Thing I Learnt

As someone who likes to analyse practically everything in minute, grain of sand-like detail, I’m always keen to explore the ‘why’s’ that hover within and around my most beloved film genre of all. What Cube showed me, particularly on this second viewing is that, in this case, the why isn’t of overriding importance. After the 90 minutes are through and the Cube is opened, even though I still didn’t fully understand the reason for it’s creation (except a remark from one character who hints that it’s connected to the government) I don’t feel cheated and not knowing this doesn’t weaken the film. It’s the interactions and switching dynamics between Quentin, Leaven, Worth, Holloway and (shortly after), Kazan that steal your attention.

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Disrupting the balance: Maurice Dean Wint as Quentin

Old Thing I Loved

Like many wonderful plays, this film focuses on one group of people in one confined location and their situation makes it all the more tense to watch. The five captives are forced to make a choice; do they work together for the common good or do they do what they have to in order to survive, even if this involves sacrificing one another? A word about the films’ silent cast member-the Cube. Although the group calculate there to be over 17,000 rooms, Natali’s actual set was comprised of just one 14ft x 14ft x 14ft cube with only a single working door, a fact that doesn’t come off on screen at all and it deserving of much respect.

Lessons to be Learnt

Shoelaces can be live-savers….

Memorable Line

‘I’m sorry to shake your foundation Quentin, but you’ve no idea where your tax dollars go’ (Holloway socking it to the arrogant alpha male)

Stand Out Performance

Although everyone creates solid, believable characters it’s Kazan that has to take top spot as he has the toughest job in having to convey an entire performance almost wordless. A sensitive and compassionate soul, he also illuminates the truths and flaws of other characters, such as Holloway’s caring nature and Quentin’s violent streak when he throws Kazan against a wall. He’s also the hero (not the liability he is first thought to be) as he shares his intellectual genius in order to help everyone get to safety through his rare mathematical ability.

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Young hopefuls: Leaven, Worth and Kazan

Scene that Stayed With Me

Within The Cube, it’s not only the rooms that our captives need to be wary of, they also pose a threat to one another. It’s chilling that the scene which disturbed me most involved a death caused not by one of the ‘trapped’ rooms but at the hands of a group member. Notably, this moment comes only after we’ve had enough time to get to know our characters, how they view the world, how they view themselves and others as this is fundamental to understanding this key scene.  Upon reaching the cube’s edge, Holloway has to put her life and her trust at Quentin’s mercy which results in tragic consequences. As a maternal figure who was practical, supportive and sympathetic Holloway was a great asset to the group and therefore is a also a tremendous loss. Her death is the catalyst that serves to burst a rupture that’s been building since the early scenes as he ultimately proves himself to be self interested by deceiving the others with his account of the incident.

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Nicky Guadagni as Holloway