Bone Tomahawk (2016)

★★★★★

Bone Tomahawk PosterDirector: S. Craig Zahler

Release Date: October 23rd, 2015 (US); February 19th, 2016 (UK)

Genre: Adventure; Drama; Horror

Starring: Kurt Russell, Matthew Fox, Patrick Wilson, Richard Jenkins

Bone Tomahawk is an audible treat. Not since Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio has a movie sounded so raw and striking (Sicario might warrant a shout, in fairness). During the opening segment here, in which a pair of drifters execute a travelling party before stumbling upon an eerie burial ground, we learn about the 16 major veins that exist inside the human neck. “And you have to cut through ’em all,” claims scavenger Buddy (Sid Haig). David Arquette’s Purvis obliges and we hear every squeak, twist, and snap as he does so. It is cringe-inducing for all the right reasons and the perfect introduction to S. Craig Zahler’s unforgiving picture, a western thoroughly bludgeoned by despair and horror.

Sometime thereafter, Purvis turns up looking a bit worse for wear in Bright Hope, a small town with a population of 268 according to its welcome signpost. He runs into sheriff Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell) and earns a bullet in the leg, the first of many indications that Hunt favours blunt practicality over weak-mindedness. And so begins the sequence of events which send the sheriff, his well-meaning deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins), the egotistical John Brooder (Matthew Fox), and local foreman Arthur O’Dwyer (Patrick Wilson) on a mission to rescue the latter’s kidnapped wife, Samantha (Lili Simmons).

Foreshadowing and foreboding are wilfully employed by Zahler — replacing what could have been a more natural music-driven score, the howls of wolves (or worse) ominously serenade events early on and then manifest in threatening form later. It’s the ambiance of the west, or at least this incarnation of the west. “Oh boy, that smells good now that I know it’s not supposed to be tea,” Chicory muses, referring to corn chowder but also reflecting the film’s underbelly. See, though there are plenty of traditional western strands at play — the gruff sheriff who commands authority, the isolated community tormented by threat, plenty of horses — Bone Tomahawk sets its stall out with a difference.

Slowly paced scenes reflect the slower time period, when face-to-face interactions dominated and long distance journeys relied on animal willpower. Russell taps into this considered approach, employing words with authority; patience really is a virtue and in Hunt’s presence you get the sense patience will be rewarded. Comparisons with The Hateful Eight’s John Ruth are inevitable, though the pair have less in common than you might think. Composure, for one: Hunt’s detective-esque apprehension of Purvis is the product of gradual interrogation, whereas Ruth’s treatment of Daisy Domergue is often abrasive and erratic. It is a testament to the actor that he has managed to create such varied yet equally compelling characters from two very similar seeds.

The version of the 1890s we see on-screen is one characterised by manual labour. O’Dwyer is a worker, though his involvement in the job has been tempered by a nasty leg injury that continues to plague him during the group’s arduous trek. Wilson does his utmost to sell his character’s ongoing pain in a performance that values physicality over emotional depth, though that is not to say O’Dwyer is a bland protagonist. Quite the opposite, in fact: the persistence of his injury only serves to bolster his heroic tendencies, to the point that we believe in him as a viable saviour and not just a tag-along husband.

Such ponderous momentum affords these characters natural breathing space, and Fox’s Brooder benefits too. Brooder is perhaps the most intriguing of the main quartet, certainly the most mysterious — the camera often shows him isolated from his fellow pack. One moment he inspires anti-heroic Han Solo connotations, the next plain ignorance, and then there’s his penchant for wry humour: “I’ll probably beat you to the draw,” Brooder boasts before amusingly justifying said boast. This is the best Matthew Fox has been in years. It is also one of Richard Jenkins’ most endearing showings, a real triumph given the overarching strand of impersonal cruelty.

Zahler’s film takes up a somewhat conventional western face for much of its running time, though said face is masked by an uneasy mist. It would be best to avoid specific details, but I will note that proceedings take a turn for the sickeningly gory and genuinely unsettling. This genre mishmash works because terror and anxiety have always been woven into the genre. The mishmash refrains from stopping at abject fear too. This is also a film about how men are impacted by separation (O’Dwyer’s wife is missing, Hunt’s is worried at home, and Chicory’s deceased). As the group traverse further from civilisation and closer to potential doom, the score unveils a pained melancholy, manifesting almost as a sort of death soliloquy.

On a technical front, Bone Tomahawk is infallible. I’ve already lauded the sound quality and the production team maintain a similar level of excellence in their set creation and landscape scouting. It feels like the end of the 19th century; that retro gunslinging allure in full effect. We ride across mossy vistas and tiptoe through ghost valleys that bear some resemblance to those in The Return of the King. Presumably working with a low budget, those behind the lens have smartly utilised nature’s virtues and rustled up quite the canvass for exploration, fusing the harsh brutalities of No Country For Old Men with the pilgrimage proclivities of Slow West.

All of the elements are furnished to oaky perfection but you could remove the lot — the charcoal landscapes, the wooden interiors, the deceptive humour — to leave just the four central characters, and you would still have something well worth two hours of your time. These marauders are wacky and layered. Zahler sticks to his guns even after the craziness takes off, winningly heralding the richness of his protagonists over shock value. A late, brief exchange between sheriff and deputy recalls the film’s intimate, considered mantra. In one moment, Bone Tomahawk cements its status as a future classic.

Bone Tomahawk - Russell, Fox, Jenkins, Wilson

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): RLJ Entertainment

Scream (1996)

★★★★★

Scream PosterDirector: Wes Craven

Release Date: December 20th, 1996 (US); May 2nd, 1997 (UK)

Genre: Horror; Mystery

Starring: Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox, David Arquette

Within minutes, it asks us to consider our “favourite scary movie”. Characters relentlessly quote or refer to other characters from other films, such Pyscho’s Norman Bates or Friday the 13th’s Jason Voorhees. Wes Craven’s Scream is both a love letter to horror cinema and a skilfully rammed knife in the genre’s back. It is vibrant and arrogant and brash. Kevin Williamson pens a screenplay that inverts commonality, and does so for two reasons: to offer fans something new, and to prove that you still can offer fans something new.

Take the bloody prologue as an example. One of the greatest bait and switch openings to ever grace the silver screen, it suddenly manoeuvres from harmless small talk between Drew Barrymore’s unsuspecting teen and an anonymous caller, to effervescent morbidity. “Turn on the patio lights,” orders the unidentified voice, and from then convention is flipped: our proverbial heroine dies in an instant, despite almost escaping, almost alerting her parents, almost relaying the correct answer. You need to know your horror history or else bad things will happen. If that’s not an advert for the genre, what is?

Scream’s role in revitalising the slasher genre ought to be celebrated. Diverting tonally from the superbly mean-spirited Texas Chain Saw Massacres and Exorcists of the 1970s, this embraced the madness and subsequently recaptured the imagination of viewers with self-reflective normalisation. Whereas earlier audiences sought out squeals and yelps (as seen in this recording of a 70s Halloween screening), cinemagoers in the 90s were clearly after something different. Craven obliged, combining wit with exhilarating chills to create an atmosphere that encouraged knowledgeable grins.

More recently, Final Destination and Saw have built entire franchises atop Scream’s perceptive hallmarks, and filmmakers such as Ti West and Adam Wingard likely fostered their own brand of creative horror having gazed upon Craven’s work. Edgar Wright published a touching tribute to the late director, noting the visceral influence Craven’s portfolio had on him in his younger years, an influence that once again reared during the production of Shaun of the Dead (you can read that tribute here).

The story is straightforward: a rampaging killer is loose in Woodsboro, a small Californian community seemingly dominated by obnoxious teens and roving reporters. Still living with the demons brought on by her mother’s murder, Sydney Prescott (Neve Campbell, who wholly endears) unwittingly gets caught up in the knife-wielding drama. Knowing the killer’s identity before seeing the film doesn’t undo its value, which is sort of the point; though guessing is part of the fun, horror doesn’t have to be about who is under the hood. The preceding thrill is worth its weight in gold.

Speaking of said killer, the villain here is a maniacal conglomeration of humour and fear. The way Ghostface runs is both funny and scary, as is the way his/her mask droops. Ghostface appears anywhere and everywhere: reflected in the eye of a deceased victim; scampering through neighbourhood forests; hiding behind school closets. It could be anybody under the black cloak and as such a prevailing air of bubbling uncertainty exists (“There’s a formula to it, a very simple formula. Everybody’s a suspect!”). Characters act erratically around each other, but no more erratically than normal teenagers act, which helps to harnesses any disengaging silliness.

Famous for breaking the fourth wall and openly discussing the rules of horror, Scream’s meta ambience still holds up almost two decades on. Perhaps this is indicative of a lack of evolution in the genre, or perhaps it is simply because Wes Craven had a penchant for predicting and challenging the future Zeitgeist. Regarding scary movies, Sydney lays it out for us: “What’s the point? They’re all the same. Some stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl who can’t act, who is always running up the stairs when she should be running out the front door. It’s insulting.” And normally it is insulting, but not this time.

Patrick Lussier’s snappy editing feeds the edgy (and also comedic) aura, as do Marco Beltrami’s brassy convulsions. Mark Irwin’s camera often shows us what Sydney does not see — for example, the killer’s feet and costume descending into view beneath a bathroom stall door that our protagonist checked only moments prior. Scream is not, incidentally, an out-and-out comedy. We laugh when the film acknowledges absurdity, a trait familiar to the genre that is often ignored in favour of a more serious approach.

At one point the song lyrics “say a prayer for the youth of America” ring out before the view instantly cuts to a house party. The insinuation could be anything. That youngsters lack focus and are too materialistic. That the teens in this film are in grave danger. It could even be a nod towards the social plight of kids in the real world — 1996, after all, continued to play host to the consumerist, ratings-gorging MTV Generation.

The outing even manages to appraise the media in between its scary movie satire. It is tough on said industry, embodied by journalist Gale Weathers’ constant need to invade the teens’ privacy as well as her less than admirable moral motivations (“Do you know what that could do for my book sales?”). But there is a blunt nod towards the media’s role in serving justice too.

It all culminates in an intense, enjoyable and smartly executed wild goose chase with so many well-earned twists and turns. And, like in all great horror flicks, you really want the innocent lot to make it through the bloodbath unscathed. Well, maybe a little scathed. Those are the rules after all.

Scream - Ghostface

Images credit: IMP AwardsPopcorn Horror

Images copyright (©): Dimension Films

CBF’s Genre Toppers: Horror

Horror is a vast genre that encompasses a wide variety of sub-topics and thus it is difficult to whittle down such a large volume of films to a few personal favourites. Therefore, rather than pick five horror films of similar ilk, I have decided to select five different styles of horror film. Of the five, some will have similar characteristics, whilst others will not — that is just the nature of horror — but this way I have at least attempted to vary each pick.

I would also like to mention that I’m fairly new to the horror craze having not really been attracted to the genre before 2010. But everything is well now, I have seen the light. Or dark, I guess.

Eden Lake (2008)

Eden Lake is a British horror film released in 2008 starring Kelly Reilly and Michael Fassbender as a couple seeking a peaceful, idyllic retreat. After settling in Eden Lake in the English countryside, their hopes for a relaxing break are quickly dashed when a group of unruly, violent youths decide to interfere.

This was filmed and released before Fassbender had really hit the big time and both his performance alongside Kelly Reilly’s (who recently starred in Flight with Denzel Washington) are one of the two reasons behind the success of this film. Not only are their performances convincing — which is often lost in horror — they are also harrowing, and this correlates nicely with the second proponent of this film’s success: it really is a horrifying watch. Rather than relying on scares, director James Watkins focuses on realism — even though the events of this film are somewhat rare, their depiction is realistic and they unfortunately do occur. The horror is delivered through the authentic nature of the film and, as a result, it is often an agonising and disturbing watch. Although it is gory at times, the gore is not over the top and did not take my focus away from the film, which again can be a detriment to some horror outings.

This is the kind of horror that gets to me most, when the events happening throughout the film are not illogical or far-fetched, but instead plausible, and that is what Eden Lake is all about.

Saw (2004)

“I’m so hungry — I just want to order a pizza!”

From the realistic to the highly unrealistic, 2004 delivered the beginnings of the gruesome, and eventually repetitive, Saw franchise. Although the Saw films did in the end amount to gore and nothing else, the original Saw — filmed independently before being swept up by Lionsgate — was not only intriguing and encapsulating, it was also smart. That is correct, a smart horror film — they do actually exist.

I do not think I need to outline the plot of Saw as I imagine most people who are reading this are already aware of the premise (two men stuck in a room: how did they get there, who put them there, what have they got in common? and so on). All I will say is that this is a prime example of a horror film that can appeal to both fans of blood and guts and also to those who want more of a challenge when watching a film. It is without doubt a shame that the later additions to the franchise were so disappointing, but at the end of the day those films all stemmed from the success of the first — so I cannot complain really.

Not as gory as the later films, but far more intelligent and gripping, director James Wan has created a genius piece of cinema in regards to Saw.

Triangle (2009)

Another British horror film, Triangle, directed by Christopher Smith and starring Melissa George and Liam Hemsworth, is of psychological descent. Released in 2009, the film follows Melissa George and a group of friends who get caught up in an electrical storm while on a boat trip. Fearing for their lives, they spot an oncoming cruise ship and climb on board… but all is not what it seems.

I had never heard of Triangle before I was recommended it by a friend — it was not commercially successful at all, grossing around a measly £260,000 on its opening weekend. I can only attribute this to a lack of publicity for the film or not enough people knowing about Triangle, because critically it was lauded. Melissa George is tremendous as the lead and the likes of Liam Hemsworth solidly support her. The twist completely caught me off-guard and film as a whole is scary and haunting. Smith manages the psychological aspect of the horror exceptionally well, ensuring the pace of film is upheld and there is no lull in the proceedings.

Daring, thought-provoking and creepy — Triangle exemplifies great psychological horror.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

“I’m here to apply for the vacant lumberjack position.”

Billed as one of the most shocking films ever made when it opened in cinemas in 1974, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is still as scary and intense in the present day. The film follows a group of friends who find themselves being hunted by a family of maniacal cannibals out in rural Texas. Directed by Tobe Hooper and starring a relatively unknown cast at the time, the film was banned in many countries across the world as it was claimed the film was too difficult for audiences to watch.

Everything about this film is terrifying: the antagonists, the setting, the atmosphere, and the music all adds up to an extremely chilling and unnerving experience. Perhaps the films’ greatest achievement is hardly using any violence whatsoever to create the horror, but rather forcing the audience into an uncomfortable viewing environment as a result of its consistently edgy plot created by a sense of helplessness the characters feel and the predicament we see them in. Then there is also that scene in the minivan with the hitchhiker — what is going on there? This film has a huge upside in that it is timeless. There have been many remakes, sequels and prequels (Texas Chainsaw splattered cinemas back in January of this year) but the original remains the cornerstone of horror in my opinion.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has gone on to be revered as one of the greatest horror films ever made and rightly so, it is an excruciating horror classic.

Scream (1996)

For me, the best all-round slasher film ever made is the first Scream film. Directed by horror king Wes Craven and starring Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox and David Arquette, the film is set in the fictional town of Woodbury where a series of violent murders have been committed by an unknown assailant dressed all in black with a “Ghostface” mask on.

Scream has it all: scares, laughs, intrigue and cleverness. Released in 1996, it is often credited as the film that revitalised the slasher genre after a massive loss of interest in them throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. Films such as I Know What You Did Last Summer and Urban Legend were born out of this re-emergence of slasher horror due to the success of Scream.  The script is witty and jumpy, harping back to old slasher classics like Friday the 13th and Halloween, and even incorporating the ‘rules of horror’ and ‘horror clichés’ in a satirical form. The classic whodunit format plays out both in an engrossing and comedic manner, whilst the cast perform their individual roles very well. One of the greatest upsides of not just Scream, but the franchise as a whole, is the consistency throughout the films. Unlike Saw before where the repetition of plot points became too much as the films progressed, the Scream franchise just about manages to overcome that repetition problem. Although I admit the third instalment gets a little jaded towards the end, the return to Woodbury ten years on in Scream 4 felt fresh — and creepy — once again.

The collective Scream franchise is tremendous in my view, but the first Scream film was a resounding success critically, commercially and in every other way. What else can I say: Scream might just top the horror genre for me.

 

Just before I end I’d like to relay a few honourable mentions:

The Birds (1963) — How can I write a horror blog post without including the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, in some way? The Birds is just that: full of suspense.

The Shining (1980) — Perhaps one of the most iconic images in cinematic history is Jack Nicholson sticking his head through a bathroom door he has just axed apart and exclaiming, “Heeere’s Johnny!”

The Silence of the Lambs (1991) — The ultra-creepy portrayal of Hannibal Lecter by Anthony Hopkins is one of the scariest performances of all time, not to mention Jodie Foster’s exceptional take on a young FBI agent tasked to take advice from Lecter in order to catch another serial killer.

All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (2006) — Though not considered to be anywhere close to one of the best horror films of all time, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this. A group of teens stuck in the middle of nowhere being stalked by a crazy guy — what more do you want?

Funny Games (2007) — I have not seen Haneke’s original Austrian version, only the 2007 US remake. If what I am hearing about the original being better is true, I cannot wait to see it because this is harrowing — but in an impressive way.

The Cabin in the Woods (2012) — This was the closest of the lot to making into my top five, and maybe it should be there. It divides opinion like Marmite, but The Cabin in the Woods is a highly entertaining horror film with an unbelievable twist. I will say no more. Just watch it.

Please feel free to list your top five in the comments section if you wish!