Film criticism for movie fans who want to think again about their cine chills and thrills.



MEXICO, 2015

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Even before it was butchered by an inept English translation the title was terrible. Los Mismos would have been a better effort at a handle but something must happen to Castilian Spanish in South America. Los Parecidos was described as a distressingly familiar film by one critic. Homage is important to both the style and plot, but there cannot be many films as nutty as Los Parecidos. Although packed with references to horror movies and The Twilight Zone there is something singular about this Mexican movie.  The famous Hollywood producer Sam Goldwyn said that a film should begin with an earthquake and build to a climax. Los Parecidos begins with a thunderstorm and the arrival of two hysterical passengers in an almost empty bus station. The arrow aimed at the climax, though, misses the target. Sam Goldwyn would not have approved. It is clear that director Isaac Ezban intends Los Parecidos to amuse and scare. Not everyone will think he succeeds. For those who relish modest gore and knowing silliness the playful absurdity of Los Parecidos will have appeal. Some of the ideas deserve applause. The scenes are played straight but fast and with comic timing.  Horror fans can have an odd sense of comedy, which is why Los Parecidos has collected devotees. Comedy is at its best exploiting desperation and not the desolation that exists in this Mexican bus station, and that is a weakness in the film, but the insistent silliness of Los Parecidos cannot be begrudged.


The waiting passengers endure terror for two reasons.   The bus will not turn up because of the torrential downpour outside the bus station, and everyone including the women will grow a beard and look the same. The person everyone looks like is Ulises played by actor Gustavo Sánchez Parra.   Ulises is anxious about his wife who is in hospital and giving birth.  Irene is pregnant and needs to get to a hospital.  Gertrudis already has a son.  These three people are particularly distraught. The rest are just moody, strange and cantankerous.  The beard of Ulises makes him, and everyone else of course, look like Sam Phillips the record producer in Memphis that helped Elvis Presley create rockabilly.  This may be more than a coincidence because Los Parecidos exists as a reminder of how Mexico and the USA share iconography.  The remote setting in the film looks like somewhere from rural Texas.  Los Parecidos has an odd rock and roll edge.

The neat trick in the film is that the terror that haunts the people in the bus station is not that terrifying. Rain downpours stop at some point, and beards can be shaved.  All the people need to do is settle down, have some patience and apply a little thought. The thinking and conversation that occur do not help. Instead, violence becomes epidemic. In Los Parecidos sympathy and support for the plight of others rarely last more than an instant, and paranoia and resentment affect everyone. For the viewer it means having to observe relentless and often mindless hysteria. Bewildered by the hair that has grown on her face the bathroom attendant attacks her beard with a knife until her face is ripped to shreds, the bathroom is covered in blood and her body has had enough.   The reaction is extreme but it is a very thick beard. Outside the bathroom the waiting passengers search for a plausible suspect that carries the beard-inducing virus.   Irene tries more than the others to be reasonable but no one emerges with credit.  The accusations come thick and fast.


Anyone with any sense will assume that Los Parecidos has a political sub-text. The sacrifice of individuality and the aggression that we witness are a consequence of an authoritarian capitalist society.   Raise the stakes in a competitive society to ensure that survival is always at stake and winners will gorge on greed and the losers will scramble for scraps. Unaware that their lives are blighted by distorted rewards everyone will feel threatened by the others and feel compelled to attack rivals.  Inevitable envy is resented by those envied.

Throughout the film the news on the radio in the bus station mentions the Tlateloco massacre. This occurred in 1968.  Ten days before the Mexico Olympics began students in Mexico City staged a protest against the Government. The students felt that the money spent on the Olympics was extravagant and the oppression of farmers and labour unions excessive. Between 300 and 400 students were killed during the protest, and nearly 1500 were arrested. In a sane world the 1968 Mexican Olympics would have been cancelled. There was some indignation but most of it was restricted to the three African-American athletes who put single fists in the air.  Fans of athletics soon forgot the 300 dead students. All of this should confirm that Los Parecidos is a political film.


Director Isaac Ezban, though, is adamant. According to him he included the Tlateloco massacre reference to acknowledge Mexican movies of the sixties and the political context of those films. That loop in thinking is typical of what occurs in the film. What he said about the political context may be true or not but whatever he really thinks Ezban is determined to have fun, and some of it will be at our expense.   The joke, though, may be on him. The film he has produced may be a lot less flippant than he is. In his defence Ezban might argue that there is a lot more silliness than politics in Los Parecidos.

The music on the soundtrack is orchestral and relentless. It is at best a decent imitation of the music by Bernard Hermann, it does quote the Psycho soundtrack, or at worst an echo of the production line scores that accompanied B horror movies in the sixties. If it has an effect, it is to remind us of how persistent melodramatic musical exaggeration can soon be ignored by a viewer. Throughout the film the pitch does not vary. There is no shading between individual scenes. Like the rest of the film, this may be a sly and affectionate tribute to bad taste and thwarted imagination.

Rather than film Los Parecidos in widescreen black and white Isaac Ezban decided to desaturate colour film. It looks like black and white but it is not as sharp.   The claim is that it creates a dreamlike atmosphere. These days the demand for black and white film is minimal, and that makes it expensive. Desaturated colour film helps to keep costs under control. In certain scenes there are odd items that appear in pale colour, blue seats and the yellow raincoat of the child.  It is an effect and different but how it helps either the comedy or the tension is unclear. Black and white film facilitates both crisp images and exaggerated shadow and light. Desaturated colour film like the music in Los Parecidos offers little variation. It also undermines the tribute that is being paid to the past.


Fans of The Twilight Zone, though will not be disappointed. The idea behind the plot, the actual threat to the waiting passengers, is taken from a highly rated episode of The Twilight Zone called It’s A Good Life. The episode was aired in 1961. In that episode the consequences of the threat are more serious and terrifying but the action is gentler. It takes place in the social stability of suburban America and before a Mexican Government waged its ‘Ugly War’ and slaughtered 300 students. Back then we had an alternative view of both the past and the present, our fears about the future and our sense of humour were different. As used to happen in every Twilight Zone episode, there is a spoken introduction and summary to Los Parecidos. The narration at the beginning of the film is more successful than what occurs at the end.  The final narration is fanciful and the whimsy, in view of what happened in 1968 to 300 students, is odd.


Much of what happens in Los Parecidos consists of human beings trying to not only apportion but deflect blame. Each person at some point in the movie asserts that one of the others does not belong to the group. These assertions are not consistent, and the accusers are willing to accuse more than one person and for different reasons. In national politics such behaviour is often accompanied by the waving of a flag. Since Brexit there has been much flag waving in the UK and much pointing of fingers. Newspapers create scurrilous headlines about politicians not just having unacceptable opinions but about them meeting someone who possesses what are regarded as dangerous thoughts. Boris Johnson lectures the British people with a speech that says he can unite everyone providing we all agree with him.  The British economy flounders but those who like to quote depressing statistics are shouted down with lies. So far there has been mutual hatred and contempt but limited violence.  Unwelcome beards are under control but an outbreak of the ‘flu has made the NHS vulnerable. In Los Parecidos no one is able to help the others.  This, of course, has been the tragedy of much of the politics of South America.  Watch Los Parecidos and it is tempting to think Britain might share a similar tragedy.  We could become the Mexico of Europe, a bewildered and impoverished cousin that will eventually recognise with envy the more stable mainland  across the Channel.

Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.






USA 2016

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Mike Flanagan has powerful friends. Writer Stephen King and director William Friedkin think that the latest film by Flanagan is great. Stephen King said that Hush is way up there with the 1967 movie Wait Until Dark.   Hush is not fabulous but it is superior to the mechanical and uninspired Wait Until Dark, which is not way up anywhere.   Now we are here something has to be said about Stephen King. The American writer is rich and famous and deserves to be. He is prolific and has a knack for ideas that attract interest from readers. But a gift for abundance and modest premises transformed into tales that have moments but few genuine surprises do not constitute exceptional literary merit.

In 2013 Mike Flanagan wrote and directed the interesting Oculus.  Initially, the achievements of Hush appear to be restricted to mechanical mastery and directorial flair. The tale is simple. Maddie is a writer. Because she had meningitis when she was 13 years old, she is now unable to hear or speak. She lives alone in an isolated house.   A serial killer knocks on the door or rather he drags to the window the attractive neighbour he has just killed. For the rest of the film the audience watches the struggle for survival between likeable Maddie and the not so pleasant serial killer. Hush is a horror movie, and Flanagan is a fan perhaps devotee of the genre.  Some of the violence is explicit, and the lone woman fighting against the home invader is typical fare for horror fodder. Yet the confrontation in Hush also has elements of the Western.   The fight on the wooden terrace at the front of the house resembles the climactic gunfight in Man Of The West, the classic revisionist Western by Anthony Mann.  More significant is how Flanagan pays obvious homage to Scream by Wes Craven.   The killer stalking Maddie even wears a similar Halloween type mask.  Hush does have merit, and director Flanagan is an obvious talent, but the never to be forgotten terrorisation of poor Drew Barrymore makes the attempt at suspense in Hush seem pitiful.

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This happens because Flanagan attempts the impossible. In Scream the confrontation between the human invader and solitary female occupies a few minutes of the film. In Hush it is almost everything. Most people will expect Maddie to survive the terror. What might make them anxious is the doubt that Flanagan will be able to stretch his idea for the length of a whole film. There are serial killers who mean business and the others who mess about. The psychopath in Hush would make striking a match look complicated. Director Flanagan makes the most of limited material but so he should because he wrote the script with the help of his wife Kate Siegel who appears as Maddie. When the serial killer hesitates about invading the home and explains his ambition is to prolong the suffering of Maddie, we realise what is really happening.  Flanagan has just written a tame excuse for why the film will last 87 minutes. Once we hear the creepy killer reveal the basis of the film we have to settle for an academic exercise.


Academic application, though, is not without appeal. The action is confined to a house where bright lights are taboo.  Maddie cannot hear anything and somehow has to survive. Despite her lack of hearing she has to match a serial killer armed with a crossbow, a sharp knife and two good ears. Two of the violent confrontations have ordinary elements. We witness a stabbing and an attempted strangulation. Nevertheless these encounters are given a strong sexual edge.   Near the beginning of the film the killer stabs the female neighbour while he observes Maddie in her kitchen. Mike Flanagan is not the first director to recognise the symbolic potential of a long knife. In Hush the stabbings are phallic thrusts emphasised by how the victim is held and the lust we see in the face of the assassin. The final violent confrontation is not complicated.  Two people struggle for supremacy but the almost coital climax that violent death brings is memorable.   The sound design is also exceptional. It alternates between muffled murmur that represents the world of Maddie and a detailed soundtrack that reminds us of what Maddie cannot experience.

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Mike Flanagan had intended to make the film with no soundtrack but decided it destroyed the suspense in the action scenes. This makes sense but there was another option. We could have heard everything but the dialogue. None of it would have been missed, and we would have still had a sense of the awkward world of Maddie. If the dialogue is not always impressive, the cinematic skill of Flanagan elevates a basic story. This may be why Stephen King likes the film. He recognises a kindred spirit who has similar ambitions. At the beginning we see a Stephen King book on a bookshelf.  Hush was sold to Netflix. Since then Flanagan has adapted the Stephen King novel Gerald’s Game. This film, which is also available to Netflix subscribers, has supernatural elements but feels like reworked Misery and Hush. This alliance between King and Flanagan may not have a happy ending.

But, and this is where the film becomes interesting, there may be a good reason why the serial killer in Hush hesitates so much. Maddie is struggling to end the book she is writing, a book in which the narrator may be killed. What happens in Hush may be nothing more than a writer exploring an imagination. At one point she discusses what will happen next with her other self, the author, the person within Maddie that has a voice she can hear. She also imagines being killed by the home invader.  This fanciful scene is the most vicious in the film.   There are absurd moments in Hush and a meandering serial killer who is too complicated to be vicious. But interpreted as the development of a plot in front of our eyes the film becomes conceptual. It feels like a cheat, and, whatever way the film is viewed, the lack of credibility or reality punctures the drama and suspense.  Yet Hush also obliges us to think again about what we are watching. For that, Mike Flanagan, whatever his intentions, deserves some credit. The title of the film could refer to what all authors would like to silence, the ideas that have to be imagined and then abandoned.

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The comparison that has been made with Wait Until Dark is misleading. Audrey Hepburn played a blind heroine in a film that was a glossy suspense thriller, a weak attempt at Hitchcock thrills. Hush has moments that we associate with slasher movies.  Maddie has to not only struggle against a serial killer but also compete against all the other ‘final girls’ that survive horror films.  Flanagan may be being sly because Maddie, unlike her competitors, begins this film as a ‘final girl’, a female warrior who has already survived meningitis.   At times the film lapses into Tomb Raider moments.   Put a crossbow in the hands of an attractive brunette, a woman who already knows that she is a ‘final girl’, and you take that risk.  Indeed, Maddie has a facial resemblance to Lara Croft.  It all helps us to think more about Hush the cinematic construction than the fate of Maddie. Hush is an artefact that required effort to make, and, whether we like it or not, we are obliged to relate it to other movies and artefacts so that we have some idea of the creative process.   More than most Flanagan provides a helping hand. Maddie is an uninhibited author. At the beginning of the film she shares the creative process with an admiring neighbour and throughout the film she reveals more of how she works than we realise.   At one point the voice of the author inside Maddie asks, ‘You can’t run, you can’t hide, fight. What are you going to do?’ The answer Maddie gives is inadequate because there is nothing she can do and any response requires an alternative logic. The real answer is buried underneath a deliberately inconsistent narrative and in the imagination that created the terror. Neither can the viewer assume that the imagination of Maddie and the existence of the unnamed killer are exclusive.


Such sly tricks are not restricted to the cinema. Politicians have created a world that also has its own alternative reasoning. In political debates we hear strange utilitarian arguments that have nothing to do with reality and listen to politicians who are unable and unwilling to aggregate the suffering of their citizens.   Foodbanks continue to expand in the UK, and child poverty and homelessness increases.  Financial grants to City Councils and local authorities have since 2010 been cut year after year. Liverpool has had its Central Government funding reduced by 60%.   The treatment of Tory local authorities has been less savage but because of their ageing populations the Councils are flirting with bankruptcy. People were burned to death in a tower block because private contractors thought it clever to reduce unit costs. Yet we are told by a Government Minister that people are happier than ever with public services.   It is, of course, nonsense but a permissible utterance because Government now exists as an independent and almost irrelevant artefact. Like Mike Flanagan, our Government expects us to admire and evaluate this alternative world as an independent creation. How their actions increase the suffering of bewildered citizens can be ignored or so they think.

Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.