Hammer Blogathon – Horror of Dracula (1958, Terence Fisher)

This post is part of the Hammer-Amicus Blogathon hosted by RealWeegieMidget and Cinematic Catharsis.

Hammer-Amicus Blogathon_Lee1

“I did not sleep well, though my bed was comfortable enough, for I had all sort of queer dreams.” 

p8 Harker’s Diary, Dracula 

Hammer and Amicus films were regular fixtures on late night television when I was growing up in the 80s’ and early 90s’. Dracula: Prince of Darkness stood out as being the best of Hammer’s Dracula movies but I honestly can’t remember much about the others. They have all merged into the landscape of my childhood TV memories, a place where Steed and Mrs Peel are forever visiting small  countryside villages only to find there’s something wrong with the locals, and Sid James is getting endless bollockings from Joan Sims in a caravan. I can’t tell you which Frankenstein movie scared me so much as a child  I couldn’t sleep because I thought the monster was roaming the countryside looking for me, but I still feel that way if I’m sober and awake at 3 in the morning.

Bram Stoker’s novel I’ve read a few times. Once as a child and several times at university while studying a course on Scottish/Irish novels as part of an English degree. Thematically it’s fascinating because there’s so much going on in there and I found these elements (fear of female sexuality, immigration, drug addiction, sickness, mental illness, and death) far more interesting than the story itself. Stoker’s overly moralistic approach is undercut by his clearly erotic fascination with the idea of vampirism especially during a sequence in which middle-class lawyer Jonathan Harker is fed on by three of Dracula’s brides. It’s meant to horrify, but Stoker gets carried away and ends up writing four pages of Victorian erotica. Like Dracula’s victims Stoker’s drawn to the darkness without quite knowing why.

Horror of Dracula is a pared down adaptation of the novel. Hammer would have the backing of Warner Bros for later films but here resources are obviously limited. Jimmy Sangster’s screenplay removes the ship’s journey to Whitby, Renfield’s treatment at the asylum, and some of the supporting characters. Hammer did bring a more explicitly sexual approach to the horror film but we’re not quite there yet. There’s a 50s’ era strain of conservatism running through this and any eroticism in the movie is seen as a threat. An act decent people must be protected from by the stern patrician Professor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing). Despite these drawbacks Horror of Dracula has Terence Fisher’s flair for the Gothic. It looks wonderful and the opening image of bright red blood dripping on Dracula’s tombstone sets the tone. Unlike Universal’s monster movies there’s colour and gore here. 

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The opening section of the book is written in diary form and is essentially a travelogue. Harker recounting his journey through the Carpathian mountains and the sights he sees, the food he eats (“get the recipe for Mina”), and the people he encounters. Most of all Harker is struck by the superstitions of the locals which to an urbane Londoner seem archaic and absurd. This is always my favourite part of any adaptation. Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu does it best I think but the Hammer films are good at this too albeit in a much campier way. There is no “don’t go up to the castle” moment until the beginning of the second act when Van Helsing irritates the owner of a tavern by asking for directions. Instead we meet Harker as he arrives at the castle by coach in broad daylight. There’s no real suspense at this point despite their being nobody there to greet him. There’s a gracious note from his host and food left on the table as well as a description of the amenities available to him. Harker looks like a tourist checking into an Airbnb and being pleasantly surprised by the size of the apartment he’s rented.

Stoker’s Harker is an innocent abroad, a young legal clerk sent out on his first big work trip to help facilitate the purchase of property in London by Count Dracula. The Count is an old man, a bit eccentric, overly proud, but seemingly nothing out of the ordinary. He’s polite, articulate, and afflicted by melancholy. 

“I am no longer young; and my heart, through many years of mourning over the dead, is not attuned to mirth. Moreover the walls of my castle are broken, the shadows are many, and the wind breathes cold through the broken battlements and casements. I love the shade and the shadow, and would be alone with my thoughts when I may.”

It’s only gradually Harker begins to realise he’s trapped in the castle with something inhuman. Little tell tale signs like a woman crying for her lost child outside the castle, or the Count casting no reflection, or being more than a little freaked out when Harker accidentally cuts himself shaving and blood drips from the wound.

In Horror of Dracula Harker is played by John Van Essen as being officer class. This Harker is older, more assured, and has a reason for being there. Rather than being an innocent abroad he knows all about Dracula and vampires and intends to kill the Count. In the book he represents the corruption of innocence, but here he’s an onward Christian soldier type of guy.

“It only remains for me now to await the daylight hours, when with God’s help I will forever end this man’s reign of terror”

The good guys in Stoker’s novel are thinly drawn representations of various archetypes of Victorian society. They represent order. Doctors, professors, lawyers, ladies. Because they are all perfect none of them are that interesting and Van Helsing apart (mostly thanks to Cushing) it’s the same in the movie. Dracula holds the attention right from the moment the 6’5″ Lee appears at the top of a staircase, his profile hidden in shadow. Harker feels his presence before he sees him and Fisher holds the close-up on Van Essyen  for long enough to build suspense.

Then Lee bounds down the stairs (he was light on his feet for such a big man) and greets Harker like an English gentleman meeting another belonging to the same social class. Their exchange of pleasantries is the only time there’s any sense Dracula is anything other than a monster in the movie. In the novel Dracula attempts to manoeuvre his way into British society by purchasing property and using his aristocratic heritage to move among them. Here Harker has been employed to work in Dracula’s library (I want to see how that job was advertised) but quickly finds himself being locked in his room at night. This turns out to be partly for his own safety as there is another vampire roaming the castle. A young lady who suckers Harker into thinking she needs his help to escape then sinks her fangs into his neck.

The make-up is interesting here. The marks are swollen, more like insect bites than lacerations made by fangs. I can’t work out if there’s only one bride due to budgetary constraints or 1950s’ mores which meant even Count Dracula had to be monogamous. Either way Harker is undone by his own sense of chivalry. Then his own foolishness when given a chance to destroy Dracula as he sleeps in his coffin he inexplicably decides to kill the bride first. That goes on my list of top 5 moments in horror films where I’ve shouted what are you doing at the protagonist as they’ve  unwittingly brought about their own demise.

Van Helsing then takes over as the film’s protagonist and we get what for me is the most important scene in a Dracula movie. The passive-aggressive behaviour of the peasantry towards some rich fool who wants directions to Dracula’s castle. Or in this case a second rich fool who’s searching for the first rich fool who went up to the castle and for some reason never came back. Van Helsing enters the tavern and the clientele immediately goes quiet, as if this is were a western and a stranger in town has just pushed open the swing doors to a saloon. The innkeeper claims to have no knowledge of Harker’s stopping there, but his good work is ruined by the waitress who’s clearly new and hasn’t learnt the house rules about treating tourists with suspicion.

Van Helsing does find his way to Castle Dracula, but he’s too late. Harker has turned into one of the undead and Dracula has moved out. Seeing a picture of Lucy (Carol Marsh) Van Helsing realises she’s his next target and returns to England to meet Lucy and her brother Arthur (Michael Gough). Sangster has rejigged the the relationships from the book. In the novel Harker and Mina are together, while Lucy has three suitors, Holmwood, Dr Seward (here an ageing doctor treating Lucy), and tough-talking Yank Quincy Morris who’s been written out completely.


But it turns out Lucy is sick and nobody knows why. Arthur and his fiancé Mina (Melissa Stribling) are furious at Van Helsing for his refusal to elaborate further on the cause of Harker’s death and the whereabouts of the body so they can give some peace of mind to Lucy. They’re a tiresome pair. Arthur’s wound tighter than his wife’s corset, and we’re stuck with them for the rest of the movie.

I generally find Fisher’s work a little staid, particularly in dramatic scenes, but his use of imagery is always effective. The most evocative scenes in the movie involve Lucy who is of course under Dracula’s spell. After receiving treatment from a Dr Seward her family bid her good night and she pretends to go to sleep. As soon as they’re out of the room Marsh gives a look so raunchy I’m amazed the censors allowed it back in 1958 and sprints out of the bed to fling open the doors wide and invite her new master in. After she succumbs to Dracula’s attentions she haunts the forest near the graveyard trying to lure her niece back to her tomb until Van Helsing convinces Arthur to hep him hunt her down in an effort to prove vampirism is real.


Horror of Dracula breezes through the novel in 80 minutes. Dracula turns his attention to Mina but Van Helsing is able to break the spell and pursue the Count back to his castle leading to one of the most memorable confrontations in cinema. At 45 Cushing still has a touch of athleticism about him which is handy because Christopher Lee throws him about like a rag doll. It ends with the gory sequence promised in the opening titles with Dracula melting in sunlight, which doesn’t quite have the same effect today but must have shocked audiences back in 58′.


It was interesting watching Horror of Dracula again after all these years.  As a straightforward retelling of the novel it’s fine. I personally prefer versions that take the source material and do something new as with Penny Dreadful. I watched some of the other Hammer sequels after this and thought Lee’s striking presence was wasted in them. I can see why he preferred his work in Jess Franco’s Count Dracula which gave him more screen time and a character to play rather than a monster. I just wish he’d done Roy Ward Baker’s kung-fu Dracula movie Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires though. That film badly needed a decent antagonist.


Favourite Films of 2017

10. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (Luc Besson)

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Besson’s spaced-out adaptation of a cult French comic strip couldn’t find an audience in the US but it’s an imaginative and beautifully realised sci-fi movie. The film is hamstrung slightly by the casting of Valerian. Dane DeHaan is nobody’s idea of a swashbuckling hero. Cara Delevigne though has the kind of otherworldly presence that suits Besson’s love for beautiful outsiders. Cult status surely beckons.

9. Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (Angela Robinson)

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Jenkins film can’t quite break free from biopic conventions but this is a fascinating look at the kink BDSM origins of the Wonder Woman comic strip and the polyamorous relationship that helped inspire it. Better suited to a double-bill with Mary Harron’s The Notorious Bettie Page or Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method than Patty Jenkins Wonder Woman.

8. Brawl in Cell Block 99 (S. Craig Zahler)

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People seemed genuinely surprised by Vince Vaughn’s turn here but he’s always been a charismatic performer and Zahler’s bruising prison movie makes great use of his imposing physicality. As with Bone Tomahawk the dialogue is artfully constructed and gives Vaughn, and his veteran co-stars Udo Kier and Don Johnson plenty to get their teeth into.

7. Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan)

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Nolan’s tribute to the greatest generation is the kind of old fashioned war movie that used to air on Sunday afternoons in the 70s’ and 80s’. Understated and moving with fine performances from a mixture of well known faces and newcomers Dunkirk is easily Nolan’s best film since The Prestige.

6. Beyond the Gates (Jackson Stewart)

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Inventive low-budget horror film with two estranged brothers inheriting their father’s video store only to find his disappearance might have something to do with a board game and accompanying VHS tape presented by 80s’ horror star Barbara Crampton. It’s witty and fun although it can’t quite deliver on making the other world seem like either an alluring place to visit or somewhere to fear. It did however make me miss the old independently run video stores you used to get back in the day and making some bizarre new cinematic discovery.

5. Call Me By Your Name (Luca Guadagnino)

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Did not love this as much as Guadagnino’s earlier movies but it seems to have helped bring about a reevaluation of James Ivory (who provided the screenplay here) after years of his work being mocked by 90s’ Tarantino-loving critics so I’m all for it.

4. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska)

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Smoczynska’s wonderful debut is a fairytale musical about two beautiful vampiric mermaids who are lured onto dry land by a handsome bass player who wisely ignores their song (“we won’t eat you”). Instead they become backing singers and strippers at a dodgy nightclub but while one sister longs to return to the sea the other is falling in love. Mixing 80s’ music with a cautionary tale common in fairytale mythology it really is one of a kind.

3. Moonlight (Barry Jenkins)

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Understated and moving coming-of-age story worthy of comparison with the work of Wong Kar-Wai and Clare Denis. So pleased and surprised to see something this good win an Oscar especially as something terrible (Three Billboards) will probably win this year.

2. Alien Covenant (Ridley Scott)

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Ridley Scott continues with the grand philosophical themes of Prometheus and sidelines the Xenomorph in favour of Fassbender’s dual android roles as the innocent Walter and the worldly sophisticated David who fancies himself a creator. It’s a work of Romanticism,  open about it’s literary influences (David quotes Percy Bysshe Shelley while both androids are versions of Mary Shelley’s creature in Frankenstein) and I really want to see where Scott takes this franchise if he’s allowed to continue.

1. Jackie (Pablo Larrain)

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Focusing on the direct aftermath of JFK’s assassination and Jackie Kennedy’s attempts to deal with the public rituals required after the death of a President while also trying to cope with her own grief. Larrain’s biopic deconstructs the mythology of Camelot by showing how much spin was behind its creation but also gives a feeling that something was lost when JFK died. Most of all it’s about the shock of bereavement, of the isolation it brings, which here is accentuated by Kennedy’s fame, and the feeling the world is moving on without you.

The Vault (2017, Dan Bush)


The Dillon sisters, Leah (Francesca Eastwood) and ex-con Vee (Taryn Manning), stage a bank robbery to help their troubled brother Michael (Scott Haze) get enough money to pay off the gangsters threatening to kill him. Their plan is to hit the place fast and be gone before the local authorities can react but things quickly get out of hand when the manager refuses to co-operate and they find the safe is too sophisticated to crack. The situation escalates when a female bank employee is badly injured trying to escape and the police surround the building.

However one of the employees, Ed Maas (James Franco), seems strangely calm and offers to help the robbers in return for 5% of their take. There is it seems another vault in the basement, much older and easier to break into which he insists contains six million dollars and another way out. The Dillons are so desperate they don’t notice Ed seems a little too keen for them to open the vault.

Dan Bush co-directed The Signal (2007), an intriguing little horror about society collapsing through a message sent through television screens which turned the viewer into a raging psychotic. There’s a similar theme here of people turning into savages here though this is a much more conventional film, a mixture of heist movie and supernatural horror which doesn’t really move far beyond genre tropes. It’s atmospheric enough in the early sequences with Franco’s quiet stillness a counterpoint to all the aggression going on around him but once access is gained to the vault what lies within proves to be something of a let down.


Bush’s direction in his segment of The Signal  is spare and haunting but the goriness present in The Vault  recalls the worst excesses of the torture porn era diminishing his good work in the opening first act. The earlier film was violent but at least had something to say about contemporary life. The Vault is efficient and the final revelatory sequence does send a chill down the spine before The Vault reverts to the familiar with one of the most overly used horror movie endings.

What is clear from The Vault though is that Hollywood studio bosses who are trying to promote Scott Eastwood as a movie star are backing the wrong sibling because with her charismatic turn here and her equally fierce performances on television in Fargo and the Twin Peaks finale it’s clear Francesca Eastwood is the one to watch.


Content Media

A Dan Bush Film

The Vault 

In Cinemas & On Demand on September the 8th


DVD Review – Revolution : New Art for a New World (2016, Margy Kinmonth)


Kustodiev – Demonstration in Uritsky Square (image courtesy of Foxtrot Films)

Mary Kinmonth’s visually striking documentary examines the avant-garde art movement in Russia which emerged alongside the Revolution. Both shared similar aims, to sweep away the old order and create something new. Many of these young artists supported the Revolution and allowed their work to be co-opted for political means. However in the years afterwards as Stalin came to power and began the purges they would become enemies of the state and their work would be hidden away or in some cases destroyed.

The avant-garde movement was already underway before the Czarist regime fell but the Revolution gave it impetus. Young visual artists like Wassily Kandinsky and Kazamir Malevich rejected the traditional European influences on Russian art and embraced the extremities of the avant-garde. They found an ally in Lenin who recognised the power of the image in country where most of the population was illiterate. “Art is the most powerful means of propaganda available to the socialist cause” said Lenin who allowed a certain amount of freedom as long as they obeyed the party line and did not belittle the Revolution.

There are ground-breaking advancements in photography through the work of Alexander Rodchenko and in film two of the most influential directors of the 20th century emerge, Dziga Vertov (Man with a Movie Camera) and Sergei Eisenstein (Battleship Potemkin). Indeed, Kinmonth’s interest in making Revolution: New Art for a New World came from seeing the storming of the Winter Palace sequence in Eisenstein’s October 17: Ten Days that Shook the World and finding out it was a myth designed to please the Bolshevik regime. Eisenstein in effect was doing what John Ford would later do with the Western. Printing the legend.

Having worked in Russia directing a film for the South Bank Show about the origins of The Nutcracker ballet Kinmonth has used her contacts in the arts world to gain access to paintings long unavailable for public viewing. These artworks appear alongside archive footage, photographs, interviews with art historians, and readings by actors (including among others Matthew Macfadyen, Tom Hollander, and Daisy Bevan). Location filming gives us a sense of time and place as well as the social conditions under which this work was done. An amusing role playing sequence performed by young art students recreates the arguments over Malevich’s ‘Black Square’ paintings, literally paintings of black squares to which the viewer is invited to find their own meaning.

‘Black Square’ by Kazamir Malevich (image courtesy of Foxtrot Films)

Kinmonth also speaks to descendants of the artists, some of whom have devastating stories to tell about the effects of Stalin’s purges on their family. Some fled the country, others survived by amending their art to suit the demands of the state, while others faced the gulag or execution. Sergei Eisenstien’s assistant-editor on October 1917 was a certain Josef Stalin who personally oversaw the movie’s final cut and made sure there was nobody resembling in any way shape or form his political rival Leon Trotsky. Film director Andrei Konchalovsky (Runaway Train, Tango & Cash) talks about his grandfather, the painter Pyotr Konchalovsky, who turned away from the avant-garde and focused on more traditional forms of painting in his later years.

Revolution: New Art for a New World is fascinating to watch during our own current period of political uncertainty, especially with new media and technology clearly being used for propaganda purposes. Great artworks may well outlast the society in which they are created, but this illuminating documentary suggests they are better understood together.


A Foxtrot Films Production

Revolution: New Art for a New World

On DVD from 3rd April

Directed by Mary Kinmonth

Running time 85 minutes

Films of 2016

10. The Nice Guys (Shane Black)


After digressing with a Marvel movie and the pilot for a Western show for Amazon, Shane Black returns to the kind of wise-cracking buddy movie which made his name. Ryan Gosling’s hopeless PI teams up with low-level enforcer Russell Crowe to solve the disappearance of a porn star. The retro 70s’ era stylings add a new element to Black’s familiar tropes (yes, we’re in L.A., yes it’s Xmas) and while I’m not entirely sure what’s going on it’s very entertaining.

9.  Creed (Ryan Coogler)


Successfully paying tribute to the franchise’s history while also moving it forward Ryan Coogler’s Creed mixes the pathos of Stallone’s wonderful Rocky Balboa (2006) with the gritty underdog status of John G. Avildsen’s original Rocky (1976). Michael B. Jordan’s Adonis Creed follows in his father’s footsteps, only this time he’s the unfancied contender given a shot at the big time in a show fight with the champion while Rocky is the grizzled seen-it-all Burgess Meredith figure. Creed can rightly be ranked alongside Rocky, Rocky II, Rocky III, Rocky IV, and Rocky Balboa as being the best movies in the franchise.

8. Elle (Paul Verhoeven)


Excerpt from LFF review.

“Though Elle may seem like Verhoeven is being deliberately provocative it’s his most restrained film to date, a character study of somebody who has already suffered a horrendous trauma (the matter-of-fact way Huppert reveals this is shocking and hilarious) and is now more than capable of dealing with anything else life might throw at her.”

7. Nocturama (Bertrand Bonello)


Excerpt from LFF Review

Touching on themes of a disenfranchised youth, Europe’s collapsing institutions, misguided political idealism, and materialism, Nocturama perhaps the most prescient film of the year.

6. Hail Caesar! (Joel, Ethan Coen)


Eddie Mannix was by all accounts a son-of-a-bitch and totally undeserving of being the centre-piece of the Coen Brothers love letter to classic era Hollywood, but hey it’s the movies and this is essentially what the film is about. Everything being awful behind the scenes but turning out perfectly in the final cut. Particular highlights are Channing Tatum’s “No dames” routine, a Christopher Lambert cameo, and the exchanges between haughty English film director Ralph Fiennes and Aiden Ehrenreich’s singing cowboy. The payoff to their celebrated “would that it were so simple” scene is beautiful.

5. Pikadero (Ben Sharrock)


Hoping Ben Sharrock’s melancholic but very funny movie gets a UK release. It’s about a young couple trying to consummate their relationship while also trying to deal with effects of the financial crisis in Spain and the limited options now available to them.  

Excerpt from EIFF review.

“Both are still living at home with their parents. Mostly they just hang out having conversations about their hopes for the future. Their ambitions are modest. She’s contemplating going to Edinburgh. That’s how bleak things seem, working in a hotel in Scotland seems like an attractive proposition.”

4. Tale of Tales (Matteo Garrone)


Something of a departure from the director of the gritty gangster film Gomorrah (2008), this anthology of fairytale stories is filled with beautiful images, occasionally grotesque sequences, characters who are selfish and cruel but who retain out sympathy, and dark humour. As adaptations of fairytales go it’s up there with the best of Borowczyk, Demy’s Donkey Skin (1970), and Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves (1984).

3.Goldstone (Ivan Sen)


That rare thing, a sequel that not only improves on the original but adds depth to it by showing how much events in the earlier film affected the protagonist.

From LFF review.

“Like Mystery Road the film utilizes the Western genre to tell a story about the culture clash between the disenfranchised indigenous community and those who seek to exploit the land for profit. The charismatic Pedersen’s taciturn hero is a wonderful creation, a man trapped between cultures but increasingly drawn back to his roots. “

2. The Love Witch (Anna Biller)


Excerpt from EIFF review.

“Anna Biller’s stunning retro-styled fairytale borrows the iconography from classic movies but the result is anything but derivative. There are nods to Hitchcock’s Psycho, Douglas Sirk melodramas, and Jacques Demy’s fairytale romances but The Love Witch has most in common with Angela Carter’s feminist reworking of Brothers Grimm stories with Biller critiquing female roles and masculinity.”

1.Personal Shopper (Oliver Assayas)


Assayas audacious ghost story is an unpredictable and moving study of grief with a tremendous performance from Kristin Stewart. It also has a scene in an empty mansion which is more terrifying than anything I’ve seen in a straightforward horror movie in years.

Excerpt from LFF review.

“there is a hint of ambiguity present suggesting Maureen’s grief may have taken form, just as Eleanor’s anguish might be the cause of the strange occurrences in Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Haunting of Hill House.’ Yet Assayas and everybody in the movie treat her gift with respect which suggests this is a world where the supernatural is possible and the dead exist alongside the living.”

LFF Round-Up

Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas)


Olivier Assayas reunites with Kristin Stewart following their success with Clouds of Sils Maria for this unusual tale of a young woman trying to come to terms with her twin brother’s death. Maureen (Stewart) lives in Paris and works as a personal shopper for a supermodel. She hates her job collecting expensive items from high-end department stores, but it pays the rent. She has a reason for staying in the city.  Maureen is a medium and believes Lewis is haunting the house they grew up in so she spends her nights there trying to make contact with his spirit. These scenes are unsettling and eventually become downright terrifying, though there is a hint of ambiguity present suggesting Maureen’s grief may have taken form, just as Eleanor’s anguish might be the cause of the strange occurrences in Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Haunting of Hill House.’ Yet Assayas and everybody in the movie treat her gift with respect which suggests this is a world where the supernatural is possible and the dead exist alongside the living. There’s a sub-plot about mysterious texts sent by somebody who seems to know her whereabouts at all times,  a Vertigo like transformation into her boss, and a murder but it’s plot is less important than the mood Assayas creates. Personal Shopper may prove divisive for audiences but it’s an audacious study on grief, and urban loneliness with a terrific performance from Stewart.

Nocturama (Bertrand Bonello)


Bertrand Bonello’s remarkable film is a real gut-puncher. Opening with a beautifully choreographed wordless sequence showing a group of youngsters repeatedly crossing paths as they move through the Paris Metro, then towards their various destinations at the heart of the city it’s clear they are carrying out some kind of well thought out plan. Bonello gives us hints through flashbacks but retains this ambiguity until they’ve completed their missions. The kids then retreat from the real world of the city, and into an upmarket department store where they hide away from the consequences of their actions. Running wild through the various floors this place becomes like a fantasy world occupying their time until the inevitable happens and the real world catches up with them. Touching on themes of a disenfranchised youth, Europe’s collapsing institutions, misguided political idealism, and materialism, it’s perhaps the most prescient film of the year. Bonus points for using John Barry’s theme for the 70s’ Roger Moore/Tony Curtis TV show The Persuaders to haunting effect.

Barakah Meets Barakah (Mahmoud Sabbagh)


Funny and occasionally melancholic romantic-comedy from Saudi arabia about a young couple trying to further their relationship while also dealing with societal pressures and their families. The first time we see Barakah (Hisham Fageeh) he’s walking towards the screen like ‘Beat’ Takeshi’s introduction in Violent Cop, but he’s a gentler sort of fellow. As a civil servant his job requires him to patrol his local neighborhood and hand out fines for minor civic infringements, but Barakah usually just warns them instead. Barakah is beginning to feel life is passing him by until he meets social media star Bibi (Fatima al-Banawi) and the two become although their personalities are very different. He’s working-class, while she’s the adopted daughter of rich parents. Barakah is quiet and obeys the rules, Bibi walks around with her head uncovered and sails dangerously close to the wind with her Instagram account. The presence of the religious police is never directly shown except in one absurdist sequence but the threat is always there in the background. The couple meet in public places for moments at a time making sure these encounters look more like chance than romantic liaisons in case somebody reports them. There’s a beautiful riff on the “this is 2003/1955…” scenes from Mike Mills Beginners (2011) contrasting the freedoms his grand-parents generation enjoyed with the limitations they’ve placed on the young. It is first and foremost though a romantic-comedy though, and both Fageeh and al-Banawi are very charming together.

Blue Velvet Revisited (Peter Braatz)

David Lynch, Isabella Rossellini



Documentary put together from behind-the-scenes footage taken by a German filmmaker Peter Braatz. As a student Braatz asked if he could shadow David Lynch during the production of Blue Velvet and to his great surprise Lynch agreed. Blue Velvet Revisited is for die-hard Lynch fans only, a mixture of still photography, on-set interviews, and footage taken of scenes being filmed presented with little context for the uninitiated. The most interesting part is hearing Lynch talking thirty years how he would like to experiment with new computer technology and his dissatisfaction with the process of shooting on film. No wonder he was one of the first directors to embrace digital filmmaking.


Dog Eat Dog (Paul Schrader)


Easily the biggest disappointment of this year’s LFF is the normally great Paul Schrader’s adaptation of Eddie Bunker’s crime novel about three recently released ex-cons and their return to their violent old ways. Dog Eat Dog reteams Schrader with Nicolas Cage after the poorly received Dying of the Light which did at least have production problems to use as an excuse for its failure. On paper Bunker’s novel seems the perfect material for Schrader, director of the cool detached adaptation of Comfort of Strangers (1990) and the stylish crime thriller Light Sleeper (1992) but the darkly comic tone here and the occasional digressions into the kind of dream-like fairytale stylings of David Lynch don’t suit him. An opening scene in which Mad Dog (Willem Dafoe) murders an overweight mother and her teenage daughter is shockingly played for laughs and this glib tone continues throughout the movie despite the obviously fatalistic direction the story is clearly taking. Bunker’s story about ruthless none too bright criminals who will hurt anybody who get in their way is still in there behind Schrader’s excesses but despite excellent performances from Cage and in particular Christopher Matthew Cook as hulking enforcer Diesel this is an unpleasant and (remarkably considering the age of its director) adolescent work.


LFF 2016 – Elle (Paul Verhoeven)


Fairly convinced Paul Verhoeven is engaged in the process of shaping his own CV so each film is part of a matching pair. Basic Instinct (1992) is a glossy Hollywood version of The Fourth Man (1983), Black Book a female tale of heroism to go with his earlier WWII epic Soldier of Orange, while Showgirls (1995) essentially tells the same story as his period drama Katie Tippel (1975), with a young woman trying to make her way in a workplace where men hold all the power and frequently abuse it. Now with Elle he reworks medieval action movie Flesh + Blood (1985) into a film that manages to be both a revenge thriller and a French comedy of manners.

Like Flesh + Blood it concerns a rape victim shifting the balance of power against her attacker by beginning a relationship with him. Video games CEO Michele (Isabelle Huppert) is brutally assaulted in her own home by a masked intruder. Rather than reporting the incident to the police she clears up the damage to her home and washes away the physical evidence by bathing. Though Elle may seem like Verhoeven is being deliberately provocative it’s his most restrained film to date, a character study of somebody who has already suffered a horrendous trauma (the matter-of-fact way Huppert reveals this is shocking and hilarious) and is capable of dealing with grief.

Michele refuses to be a victim and indeed proves stronger than those around her, most of whom are reliant on her for money or seek to use her as an emotional crutch. It wouldn’t have worked so well without Huppert who can play characters who refuse outright to ask the audience for sympathy (see also White Material). Maybe Adjani could have matched her but I’m not sure. It’s a complex and ambiguous film and I’m not sure I’ve got a handle on it after one Film Festival screening.

LFF 2016 – Goldstone (Ivan Sen)


Ivan Sen’s impressive sequel to 2013’s Mystery Road sees detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen) once again searching for a lost girl in a remote area of Australia. Last time we saw Swan he was standing tall in true Western style having just faced down a violent gang in the outback, but it’s clear from Pedersen’s demeanour he’s no longer the same man. We learn later Jay’s drug-addict daughter from the first film has since died and he’s taken to drink in a big way. Sent out to the tiny mining town of Goldstone on “light duties” to investigate the reported sighting of a missing young Chinese woman he spends the first night in jail after being pulled over by local lawman Josh (Alex Russell) for drink-driving.

Josh  is the only lawman in town, but his job is basically breaking up drunken brawls and doing the bidding of local mining company boss Johnny (David Wenham, think evil Rhys Darby) and town mayor (Jacki Weaver). Josh might not be taking the cash bribes offered to him, but he knows when to let things slide. There is no evidence a Chinese girl was ever in Goldstone and nobody’s talking. Even the local indigenous community wants nothing to do with Jay. The sighting was called in by Maria (Ursula Yovich) months ago but it’s only now the authorities have taken an interest and sent him out there. Jay’s visit is watched over by company man Tommy (Tom E. Lewis) who warns him off the next day. Later his mobile home is machine-gunned by a biker gang.  Josh wants Jay gone before he causes any more trouble, while Jay thinks the Goldstone man is shirking his duties. Both rile each other into action. Jay to sober up and Josh to finally start acting like a cop despite the intimidation they both face from those intent on protecting their business interests at any cost.

Like Mystery Road the film utilizes the Western genre to tell a story about the culture clash between the disenfranchised indigenous community and those who seek to exploit the land for profit. The charismatic Pedersen’s taciturn hero is a wonderful creation, a man trapped between cultures but increasingly drawn back to his roots.  Once again he faces corruption from authority figures, an outlaw gang, and even a rival gunslinger (Aaron Fa’oso) this time but there’s a departure away from the realism of the first film towards a kind of mysticism where the land has a profound haunting effect on those who are willing to make a connection with it. Sen’s dialogue is occasionally portentous, but Goldstone is an ambitious film, beautifully shot (by Sen who also wrote the music and edited) with a rousing finale as the two lawmen join forces for a stunning showdown. There’s a sub-plot which hints at a possible third film and I sincerely hope they Pedersen and Sen make this a trilogy.


52 Films by Women – Three Examples of Myself as Queen

19. Three short stories by Anna Biller, whose latest film The Love Witch is currently winning acclaim on the Festival circuit. Biller writes, edits, designs the costumes, provides the music, directs, and occasionally stars in her own movies. She uses classic forms of cinema to tell stories about women’s roles in popular culture, all firmly located in the aesthetics of 1950s’ melodrama through their use of Technicolor and retro stylings. Though The Love Witch may prove to be her breakthrough movie she’s been working on short films and made her feature debut with in 2007 with Viva. In this 28 minute short film Biller creates three different musical narratives all built around herself as a woman being the subject of adoration.


In the first story ‘The Queen’s Sad Life’ Biller plays a melancholy Arabian Queen sitting alone in her palace. The set design recalls big epic Hollywood productions from the 40s’ and 50s’ when studios would greenlight movies based on stories from the Arabian Nights. She is visited by a Rajah who asks her why she’s so sad when she has everything she could want. The Queen describes the repetitive nature of her life in the palace, the isolation, the feeling of missing out on other things. The Raj admits he feels the same but then scolds her for asking difficult questions about the nature of existence. She turns to her consorts for comfort and they perform an old-fashioned song and dance number called ‘Let Us Dance’ to make her feel better.


In the second, ‘The Queen Bee,’ Biller plays an exhausted queen bee who is on the search for a place to build a new hive with her colony. Her followers describe potential locations for a new hive but none are suitable until the last member of the swarm returns and describes a place surrounded by flowers. In their new hive the worker bees all sing a song praising her as “the loveliest of bees.”


The final story, ‘The Queen Poinsettia,’ is set in the 60s’ as Poinsettia (Biller) and her friend Buttercup attend a house party together. There’s a live band present singing a song whose lyrics seem to be about a man pressurizing a woman into sex. “Please say yeah, oh don’t say no, yeah, no.” Poinsettia is so into the music she doesn’t notice she’s now the only woman there and Buttercup has left without her. The guys begin to come on strong so she runs from the house, but they follow her. When a handsome hero turns up on a white horse and saves her from harm the story turns into a fairytale. Poinsettia asserts her authority over her attackers by assuming the role of fairy queen and using “mystification” to turn them into dogs. Then she leaves them all behind,  including the now crestfallen hero, and escapes towards towards her castle in the sky.

EIFF 2016 – Round-up

Pikadero (Ben Sharrock)


Set in a small town in the Basque area of Spain, Scottish director Ben Sharrock’s comedy-drama follows a young couple as they attempt to consummate their relationship. The title translates as a discreet place where couples can meet for sex. There’s even an app listing locations though Gorka (Joseba Usabiaga) is so skint he can’t afford a phone, or in fact a car. Girlfriend Ane (Barbara Goenaga) is also struggling financially having recently completed her studies. Both are still living at home with their parents. Mostly they just hang out having conversations about their hopes for the future. Their ambitions are modest. She’s contemplating going to Edinburgh. That’s how bleak things seem, working in a hotel in Scotland seems like an attractive proposition. Gorka has an apprenticeship in a factory, but knows getting the job will keep him there for life.  The film’s deadpan humour and the muted sadness of the characters are reminiscent of Roy Andersson, while Sharrock often frames his characters in the corner of the screen, or against plain backdrops to make them seem isolated by their surroundings. Pikadero is prescient about problems facing working-class twenty-somethings in the current economic climate and its ending is quietly devastating.

The Love Witch (Anna Biller)


Beautiful witch Elaine (Samantha Robinson) moves to a small town to start a new life after the death of her lover. Though outwardly she seems positive and intent on pleasing men her voice-over makes it clear she’s unhappy. Despite her recent heartbreak she’s intent on finding the man of her dreams and has concocted a love potion to help her identify him. Unfortunately this potion has side-effects reducing would-be alpha-males to weeping needy wrecks and eventually leaving them dead. Square-jawed Detective Griff Meadows (Gian Keys), follows the trail to Elaine’s door but arresting her is the last thing on his mind when he sets eyes on her.

Anna Biller’s stunning retro-styled fairytale borrows the iconography from classic movies but the result is anything but derivative. There are nods to Hitchcock’s Psycho, melancholy Italian horror movies, Douglas Sirk melodramas, and Jacques Demy’s fairytale romances but The Love Witch has most in common with Angela Carter’s feminist reworking of Brothers Grimm stories with Biller is using familiar tropes to critique female roles and masculinity in popular culture.

Moon Dogs (Philip John)


Visually impressive coming-of-age road movie with an impressive score by Anton Newcombe of the Brian Jonestown Massacre. Screenwriter Raymond Friel’s original draft was apparently a raucous teen comedy and you can still see traces of his original intent here but the finished film is more interested in the emotional journey taken by the youngsters. Michael (Jack Parry Jones) follows his girlfriend to the mainland when her family moves to Glasgow. Dragging his troubled step-brother Thor (Christy O’Donnell) along with him the two team up with Irish singer Caitlin (Tara Lee) who’s heading for a Celtic music festival in the city. I didn’t always appreciate the humour and Caitlin is a bit of a manic pixie dream girl, but director Philip John and his director of photography Alasdair Walker make spectacular use of locations making Moon Dogs feels like a distinctly Scottish take on a well-worn genre.

Sixty Six


Director Lewis Khlar is primarily a collage artist and Sixty-Six is a collection of twelve short films formed from magazine cut-outs and Roy Liechtenstein pop-art drawings all telling stories formed from 50s’ Melodrama and Film Noir. I haven’t heard an audience give out an audible sigh of relief when a film ended since albert Serra’s Story of My Life at LFF a few years ago but it’s worth the effort.