Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Film Discoveries of 2106 _ David Lawrence ""

Friday, February 17, 2017

Film Discoveries of 2106 _ David Lawrence

David Lawrence is a long-time reader of Rupert Pupkin Speaks and lifelong lover of films of all persuasions. In 2017 his resolution is to finally start his own blog, which is the same resolution he has had for about a decade.

He can be found tweeting about film at @1Mouth2Ears and on letterboxd at
I try to see at least a handful of films noir every year, but sadly saw far fewer than I hoped in 2016. Probably the high point of these was Malle’s ’58 thriller, which was his feature-length narrative debut. While undoubtedly an homage to the American genre/style/movement which was named by the critics of his home nation, it is also at the same time one of its best examples. 1958 was also the year of TOUCH OF EVIL, which is often considered the end-point of the classic noir, but both these films make clear that the noir form did not simply fade away. The film has a rather standard template of a man (Maurice Ronet) doomed by his own actions, but rather than being undone by a femme fatale he is at the very least fully complicit in the machinations of the story. The plot – from a script by Malle and Noël Calef, based upon Roger Nimier’s novel – is ingenious in how it schisms before bringing all the separate strands together, entwining the characters to their inevitable fates. However, it is the highly memorable score by Miles Davis and cinematography by Henri Decaë that truly make this film stand out; the monochrome images of Paris set to Davis’ jazz, particularly as a stand-out Jeanne Moreau wanders the streets by night, are practically iconic. This is well worth seeking out if you have not seen it, whether you are a seasoned noir viewer or are looking for an excellent starting point.
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THE HOUSEMAID (1960, Kim Ki-young)
I am not quite sure when I first read about Kim Ki-young’s film; it may have been in my copy of the 2004 edition of “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die” but I have a feeling it was before, possibly when a significant portion of the film was still thought lost. What I do know is that I wanted to see this film for years, but for reasons mainly related to access I only finally did in 2016. I am always trepidatious in such cases as often that means there is a considerable set of expectations for a film to live up to. I need not have worried – this film stands the test of time and deserves to be better known. Described as an erotic thriller in many synopses, this is more accurately a cautionary melodrama with its plot very much on the level of a soap opera. Although, to be fair, as are the plots of many erotic thrillers. Indeed, the film’s outline – a housemaid decides to invade the life of a family, leading to domestic warfare – certainly is not far removed from films like THE HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE that were semi-prominent in the 80s and 90s. But the film handles its plot with relative seriousness, at least most of the time, and the style points to a director in firm command of his material. Kim does reach for eroticism on occasion and he succeeds – I found the film far more erotic in its less-revealing, but nonetheless steamy, approach than the erotic thriller discussed further down this list. If your familiarity with South Korean cinema is scant at best, like my own, then I can attest to this being a great selection.
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TOWER OF EVIL (1972, Jim O’Connolly)
1972 was quite the stellar year for horror produced by UK companies or those with UK involvement, with many films that are excellent or which at least carry their own interesting points. Some of the highlights were Amicus releasing two superb portmanteaus, TALES FROM THE CRYPT and ASYLUM; Hammer releasing DEMONS OF THE MIND, DRACULA AD 1972 and one of their best later films, VAMPIRE CIRCUS; Tigon releasing the exploitative VIRGIN WITCH; AIP releasing DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN and other companies releasing DEATH LINE and TOWER OF EVIL. Moving away from the cinema, there were even the standout TV productions of THE STONE TAPE and A WARNING TO THE CURIOUS. That is quite the incredible line-up, and most of those which I have seen rank among my very favourites of the genre. What some of these titles also have in common is that they do not seem to be held in overly high regard when compared to other titles of the era, and TOWER OF EVIL is a horror film that does not comparatively seem to be discussed much at all. Boundaries were being pushed in horror in the early 70s – 1972 was the year of LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT – and for British horror that meant for an increase in gore and sexualised nudity, with the two sometimes combined. This was not so much of an attempt to challenge what could be shown on screen but more of an attempt to fill cinema seats with the promise of titillation, which would ultimately fail as horror films would continue to decline and the sex comedy would take over as the most popular genre for the cinema-going British public. TOWER OF EVIL thus contains the exploitative copious nudity and gore but does so within a highly effective horror film, one that combines haunted house tropes with beats that would be found in future slasher films. As a result, some have called this a proto-slasher; it is worth giving it a viewing to see if you agree. Whether you do or not, you will find a genuinely good horror from a strong year in the financial decline. It is a shame that nothing in the rest of O’Connolly’s filmography seems as interesting as this, but hopefully it continues to be discovered and has its status raised.
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TORSO (1973, Sergio Martino)
I continue to explore the giallo genre and in 2016 spent some rewarding time in the company of the films of Sergio Martino. It’s a close-call picking out my favourite of these films, but beating THE STRANGE VICE OF MRS WARDH by a hair’s width is TORSO. Whilst TORSO does not feature the presence of perhaps the queen of giallo, Edwige Fenech, it instead casts Suzy Kendall, who was also memorably in Argento’s THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE. I think Kendall is under-valued, and she makes for a strong protagonist here for whom it easy to genuinely care. For much of the film’s length it artfully treads familiar genre ground, including the gender attitudes which some may find challenging, but what really sets the film apart is the oft-mentioned prolonged final act. Taking a cat-and-mouse hunt that usually only lasts for a few minutes and stretching it until the tension is so acute that it feels like your skin is about to lacerate, TORSO not only achieves a genre high but also clearly points to the slasher films that would be invading American screens just over half a decade later.
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ROAD GAMES (1981, Richard Franklin)
A guilt trip by Cinemonster of this parish finally pushed me into viewing this Australian classic, and it made for a stellar night’s entertainment. I was expecting a slasher horror, mainly due to the movie’s iconic poster, but instead found this to be more of a psychological thriller than horror movie. Another misdirection is in the marketing of the presence of Jamie-Lee Curtis in the film; although she has a prominent role, it is one very much in support of Stacy Keach. It is his film through and through and he is perfectly cast, here rivalling his work in THE NINTH CONFIGURATION and FAT CITY with a character that once again seems slightly ‘off’. He truly excels as a truck driver used to much solitary time, and one who could quite easily initially seem like he could be the antagonist of the film. The serial killer-based plot builds to a unique chase climax that flips those seen in the likes of THE FRENCH CONNECTION and shows that suspense can come at many different speeds. Franklin has been called the Australian Hitchcock, which is an unfair comparison but perhaps one that helps get attention to a director who should be better known; I also have a soft spot for his FX 2. Umbrella Entertainment’s Blu-Ray release presents the film with superb picture quality and comes with substantial extras; it is well worth picking up.
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AFRAID OF THE DARK (1991, Mark Peploe)
One of only two feature length films directed by Peploe, who is more illustrious as a screenwriter (he co-wrote Antonioni’s THE PASSENGER and Bertolucci’s THE LAST EMPEROR), and a film about which I want to reveal very little. I was fortunate not to know much about it all prior to this first viewing, and only sat down to it because someone had listed it as one of their favourite obscurities (unfortunately I cannot remember who that person was – the film has never been profiled on this site, and only been mentioned once when Brian listed it as one of his favourites of 1991). It is a film that gradually reveals its mysteries, on the surface being a thriller about a young boy witnessing a serial killer’s rampage but containing much deeper horror relating to childhood and disability. The casting of Catriona MacColl as a blind woman is a knowing genre nod, but it is the shoulders of the child actor Ben Keyworth on which rests the film’s weight; he is a revelation, and surprisingly he is only listed as having one other acting role before apparently segueing into computer game reviewing. Out of all the films I have listed here, this is the one that I really think deserves to be better known; it’s a shame that Peploe was not more prolific as a director, but he leaves us with one film that is a supreme triumph.
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GHOSTWATCH (1992, Lesley Manning)
This is another example of a film that it is better not knowing too much about before your first viewing. GHOSTWATCH originally aired on BBC 1 here in the UK on Halloween 1992, and I remember watching part of it before the channel was promptly changed by my protective parents. I wanted to see the rest of the documentary for years, but unfortunately it was never to be repeated on domestic television after there was a high level of complaints as well as links to the suicide of a troubled young man shortly after the programme aired. Thankfully it has been available on UK DVD since 2002 and it only took me another 14 years to sit down to it. Featuring four prominent UK television personalities of the era investigating an alleged haunting of a single-parent family, the occurrences that are relayed to us are similar in many ways to the Enfield case that was the inspiration for THE CONJURING 2. What makes GHOSTWATCH unique is that many viewers believed that they too were experiencing ominous paranormal activity whilst they watched the live documentary, and telephoned in to the show to report such events. The documentary ends very abruptly and it would have a lasting effect: to quote that height of cinematic achievement, 8MM, if you dance with the devil, the devil don’t change. The devil changes you. Three of the four main participants stayed away from material like this for the rest of their careers.
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A MIDNIGHT CLEAR (1992, Keith Gordon)
I had seen and appreciated Gordon’s WAKING THE DEAD, but did not fall in love with it to the extent that others have. A MIDNIGHT CLEAR, on the other hand, floored me and I was as moved as much as I have been by practically any other war film. War is tragedy, in both its large and small stories, and here Gordon has a smaller story of World War II to tell, based upon William Wharton’s novel. The film focuses on a small group of soldiers – boys, really – and we get to live through their fears, paranoia, and mistrust in a bleak snowbound setting. To the film’s credit, this is far from a jingoistic wartime adventure film; when the Germans show up, they are treated somewhat sympathetically. As fatalistic in feeling as most films noir, you get the sense early on that things will not turn out well for at least some of these soldiers. 35 years earlier Kubrick made PATHS OF GLORY, a masterpiece that showed war to be a hell manufactured by bureaucrats sacrificing the lives of others. Gordon hits similar notes with these boys being sacrificed as expendables, to equally heart-breaking ends. It is sad to think that in 2027 a similar tale will probably be able to be made, and still be relevant.
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PAYBACK (1995, Anthony Hickox)
I have long enjoyed that staple of the ‘90s, the often straight-to-video/television erotic thriller, believing it to be the natural descendant of the neo-noir, itself a descendent of the earlier films noir. I must give special mention here to WHISPERS IN THE DARK (1992), which does not count as a discovery because I had seen it before, but a revisit in 2016 reminded me that it features perhaps my favourite ever Alan Alda performance. He does not so much chew the scenery as make a banquet of it. Instead, my choice here is for Anthony Hickox’s PAYBACK, featuring the genre stalwart Joan Severance in one of her better roles. C. Thomas Howell leaves jail with revenge on his mind, having apparently never read Confucius during his time in stir. He does his best to hide the big “sucker” stamp across his forehead, but it is not long before he has decided that he wants to take Severance’s diner waitress’ order. The plot is then filled with all the twists and turns you would expect along with the requisite sex scenes set to a jazzy score, including one on a car that surely must have resulted in a long hot wax being needed. If you appreciate these films, as I do, then you are not looking for a film to break the genre mould but instead to follow the tropes to the best possible effect. With those expectations, this is one of the better films of the genre I have seen with possibly my favourite Severance performance. After viewing this, I discovered that I had not seen any of Hickox’s other films – and if such a confession makes you want to stop reading, I truly understand.
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PARIS-MANHATTAN (2012, Sophie Lellouche)
I am breaking the host’s rules here by including a film released this century, but since Brian himself ignored this requirement with some of his selections I am merely following precedent… 2016 brought dark moments and events for most people, and in such times seeking the solace of a feel-good film can be life-affirming. Along with CHEF and THE INTOUCHABLES, PARIS-MANHATTAN completes the trio of the best such films I saw last year. Although by far the weakest of the three, it was the best discovery as I had already heard rave reviews of the first two but very little about this film.
Lots of people carry music around with them in their heads, playing internally as the soundtrack to their lives – virtually everyone I have ever known, including me, has been prone to burst into song at certain points, not just in the shower. But what surely must be true for anyone who loves film is that we also carry scenes from films around with us at all times, playing out alongside our lives and living with us forever. We may not be able to interact with the movies like in THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO but the films and their characters are still part of our lives; I would hazard a guess that we have all fallen in love at the movies. The movies do not tackle this anywhere near as much as one might expect; Woody Allen broached this to some degree in his scripted PLAY IT AGAIN, SAM when his obsessed character got to interact with “Humphrey Bogart” in full Rick Blaine mode. So it is perhaps appropriate that this slight and breezy French film has a main character obsessed by Allen and his movies, casually dismissing anyone who would dare to criticise them, and offering DVDs of films to people as remedies for illnesses. Writer-director Lellouche does not present Alice Taglioni’s lead character as a female Allen-substitute, but instead as a French woman whose whole life has found resonance in Allen’s words, and I think this decision distinguishes the film and prevents it from being an imitation of his films. This romantic comedy is not the height of the genre and I doubt it will change the world for anyone watching it, but it is a delight for anyone like myself who is a die-hard Woody Allen fan or, indeed, for anyone for who film is a central part of their life. Which, I would assume, is everyone reading this.
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Andrew Wickliffe said...

Finally someone else who thinks of the 90s naughty noirs as an extension of film noir! woot!

David Lawrence said...

I'm really surprised that the link doesn't seem to be commonly made; then again, I've not seen much written about the erotic thriller of the 90s. Linda Ruth Williams published a book, but I've not read that yet.