Monday, 20 January 2020

Cult Cinema #20: Live Together or Die Alone

Doomsday (2016)


The Doomsday we're looking at here is not to be confused with Neil Marshall's bonkers 2008 “post-apocalyptic Scotland, as run by Festival Crusties” action movie, or any other film or TV show of that name. This one is a strange and probably incomplete streaming drama about a peculiar cult that has been available on Amazon Prime Video for a little while now, and which I stumbled across, almost by accident, a few weeks ago, and watched through three times, which sounds a lot, except there's only two episodes (IMDB says it's four, but that's because each of the two existing episodes was released in two parts) and there are unlikely to be more.

Anyway, as usual, this post contains spoilers.

Monday, 6 January 2020

We Don't Go Back #92: Worzel Gummidge (2019)

(Did you see Mackenzie Crook's adaptation of Worzel Gummidge this Christmas? Wasn't it great? I'm going to talk about how great it was in detail here. That means spoilers. You know the score by now.

Screen adaptations of books usually become better known than the books themselves, and it's basically true that you're more likely to have seen the film or TV adaptation of most literary works than you are to have read the actual book. This isn't a bad thing. Making an adaptation is a work of democratisation. It allows you to access a story and may in fact introduce you to the books. My dad only heard of MR James because of the BBC Ghost Stories for Christmas, and I only heard of him after my dad consequently got a book of MR James stories from the library. I first heard of Jorge Luis Borges (my favourite author basically) because I saw Alex Cox's adaptation of Death and the Compass on BBC's Arena strand back in 1996.

In some cases, the adaptation itself becomes so much more familiar than the books that a large chunk of the general public never realise that it was a book in the first place.

Disney has a lot to answer for here. I can guarantee that when you mention Mary Poppins, the proportion of people who think of PL Travers's melancholy, occult-tinged books rather than those heartwarming song and dance numbers performed by Julie Andrews and Dick van Dyke (or even Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda) is vanishingly small. The same goes for Dumbo, Bambi, The Rescuers and Lady and the Tramp: there's a good chance that you may not even have known that they were adaptations.

One classic example of this is Worzel Gummidge.

Friday, 3 January 2020

On a Thousand Walls #26: The Man Who Killed Hitler and then the Bigfoot (2018)


There is a way to phrase a title that raises an expectation, to tell you about style, tone and content. For example, let's look at the early work of George Lucas, because it's an easy one. Star Wars (as Episode IV: A New Hope was simply called on release) is a pair of booming, declarative, internally alliterative monosyllables that almost have their own echo. It is the title of a film where a planet gets blown up, and if it does not disappoint in that department, that's less of a surprise than you might think. The title of American Graffiti, meanwhile, suggests a sentimental approach to the indiscretions of youth – you may be ambivalent towards the concept of graffiti, or for that matter the concept of America, but juxtaposition of the two makes both better. Graffiti is just writing on walls, but American graffiti is something to feel nostalgic for. On the other hand, there's something brutalist about THX-1138. Something that evokes the mechanistic, the Soviet (or, more accurately, the Western idea of the Soviet). And indeed it's a bleak, chilly sort of film. Not Soviet, though. THX-1138 is very much a capitalist dystopia. It's the future Elon Musk wants.

But. The point is, there's a lot in a title. Repo Man. Excalibur. Jupiter Ascending. Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story. Apocalypse Now. The Shining. The title is a vital part of your engagement going in, and creates an expectation, or inspires investigation into a mystery, or simply tells you what sort of film you're watching.

It's actually very rare that a title is apparently made with the intention of wrongfooting you. And it's sort of complex how The Man Who Killed Hitler and then the Bigfoot does that. To talk about those expectations, there will necessarily be, as ever, spoilers.

Thursday, 2 January 2020

On a Thousand Walls #25: The Love Witch (2016)

No film so nails what it feels like right now, how the past haunts the present, as The Love Witch.

No preamble here: there will totally be spoilers.

Monday, 30 December 2019

On a Thousand Walls, interlude: We Are Haunting Ourselves

One of the theses that I have about the cultural scene right now is that it reflects wider society. I mean, OK, that should be a no-brainer, except that it isn't, because if it really was, people would have noticed. But put it this way. I wrote a wildly successful (in niche nonfiction terms) book about folk horror. It is not successful because it is good. It might be good, and I like to think it's quite good, but that's not why it succeeded. It succeeded because it had an audience.

Friday, 27 December 2019

Cult Cinema #19: The Atrocity Tour, Part 3

Red State (2011)

Unique among the big Cult Atrocity Stories is the story of what happened at Waco in 1993, in that although the cult in question was belligerent and awful, the atrocity was done to them, rather than by them. The Branch Davidians were in fact a fringe group of Seventh Day Adventists, who were as horrible as you would imagine the sort of right wing group that holes itself up in a barbed wire surrounded compound would be. In 1993, a splinter group of them – remember that cults split like crazy – led by Vernon Howell, who called himself David Koresh, wound up besieged by agents of the ATF, who had become concerned about their stockpiling of automatic weapons, along with the Texas Rangers and the FBI. It's a long and miserable story, but the upshot is that it got out of hand, the agents wound up storming the place, and accidentally setting it on fire, killing most of them, including David Koresh.

The Waco siege became one of the cause célèbres of the Far Right in the USA, along with the so-called Ruby Ridge siege, and revenge for it was eventually one of the rationales for the Oklahoma City bombing. Right Wing wingnuts in the US are terrified that it will happen again. And they're frankly not a hundred percent unjustified. American agencies do like to shoot first, after all. It's pretty much their defining feature.

The extremist end of the Christian Right of course has other examples, and of course the Branch Davidians, who are still around, aren't by any means the only bunch of ultra right Christian extremists.

The poster children for evangelical bigotry are the Westboro Baptist Church, the congregation of the late Pastor Fred Phelps, who died in 2014. Westboro Baptist Church, almost entirely composed of the hate-spitting patriarch's descendants and relatives, is of course infamous for its preoccupation with sodomy as the primary sin besetting the USA. They are known for courting outrage with extravagant public statements, and staging protests, often at the most offensive and extreme places they can, especially at funerals. Their most infamous slogan, “God hates fags”, is the first thing you think of when you think of them. They live in a weird in between place, halfway between respectable functioning members of society with jobs and cult loons. They are probably the most single famous protestant church congregation in America.

When Kevin Smith wrote and directed Red State, then, he made the wise move of realising that if he was going to make a movie with Not-Waco, then rather than having an obscure and specific subsect of a subsect of a sect (where you'd have to at least take a stab at some of the politics and offbeat theologies), he'd go for the recognisable. So the elevator pitch for Red State is very much: what if the Waco siege, only with the Westboro Church rather than the Branch Davidians?

Thursday, 26 December 2019

On a Thousand Walls, Christmas Special: Pottersville (2017)

Today we will be talking about the surpassingly, bizarre Christmas movie Pottersville. We will spoil plot elements of the movie. But we will not spoil Christmas.

Obviously we've already dealt with our favourite Wyrd Christmas Movie. That's Gremlins, because of course it is. Why would it not be? Obvious festive horror fare isn't thin on the ground, but let's face it, the bar for Christmas movies is never high. I'm not really interested in a scary Christmas anyway. But Christmas is weird, it is, and yet, Christmas movies try so hard not to be. My kids have been raiding Netflix and Prime for low bar family Christmas films, and there seem to be three basic themes in modern Christmas movies: the kids defeating bad guys and winning over negligent parents at Christmas, good people finding another chance at love at Christmas, and good people saving something important at Christmas. The fourth traditional theme, the inhumane curmudgeon taught human feeling at Christmas, has sort of fallen out of fashion, but then, in our cultural climate, that's really not a surprise, is it?

Several films exist in the lower reaches of the streaming services that cleave hard to at least one and often more of those formulae, and sometimes Names will appear: Sonequa Martin-Green wasted inexplicably and horribly as the second fiddle love interest for a guy who once voiced a cat opposite Paula Abdul in a movie about Finding Christmas Love and an independent radio station Saved For Christmas (Holiday Rush (2019)); Danny Glover, easing into his role as the Cool Person's Morgan Freeman ever since he played the President in 2012 (2009), appears to have done a Christmas movie every year for ages, but Christmas Break In (2018) has a smart, resourceful little girl abandoned in her school at Christmas and defeating a couple of Comedy Hoods with the help of Wise Janitor Ray (Glover) and on the way teaching her parents a lesson in responsibility, which is a film you've seen before, even if you haven't seen this one.

Few films cleave so hard to the formula, however, and yet are so very, very strange as Pottersville. Saved for Christmas. Love Found. Also, the Sasquatch. And furries.