horror

THE MOVIE CHALLENGES

THE LIMEHOUSE GOLEM

UK, 2017

 lionsgate-LGIIUK95540-Full-Image_GalleryBackground-en-GB-1514580073585._RI_SX940_

The phrase mixed reception is a cliché that suits the polite English. The Limehouse Golem, though, really has had a mixed reception. English film critics have been friendly and positive. Across the Atlantic the Americans have dismissed the movie as nothing more than routine TV fare. As the more objective Americans have realised, the film is not great. Peter Ackroyd writes novels, non-fiction and produces articles and criticism for newspapers and magazines. Ackroyd has influence, and his British friends have been obliged to overpraise a film that was based on his novel Dan Leno And The Limehouse Golem. The book feels like something written by an intellectual slumming in genre fiction.   Bad things can happen when literary pretensions are added to basic thrillers. The dreadful Night Train by Martin Amis is a good example of a talented and serious writer underestimating the demands of popular fiction.  Something similar happens in The Limehouse Golem. The film begins with Dan Leno telling us that this particular story will begin at its end. This is more than a tedious affectation. It is incorrect because the film begins half way through its narrative. Not only do we have the slumming of Ackroyd but Jane Goldman, who confuses violence with horror, has also added her thick-eared sensibility to the script. Anachronisms are avoided, and the actors make an effort but the dialogue never feels like real conversation.   No one ever says ‘did you know that’ but there are too many moments of explanation and opinion.

The mystery element in the movie is basic, and that is being kind.   God help us if Theresa May sees the film. Despite rising crime rates in the UK, increased violence and the mysterious disappearance of policemen from British streets the Prime Minister remains convinced that the police force can withstand even more cuts in its budget. By 2020 the budget will have been reduced by £700m.  Without wishing to be fair to Theresa May, it has to be said that the police in The Limehouse Golem do dawdle.

maxresdefault

After seeing a scrawled phrase on a wall next to a Jack the Ripper style victim Inspector Kildare visits the reading room of the British Museum to check out the helpful reference left on the wall by the killer. Kildare finds a book on the original golem that happens to have across a couple of its pages a description of the recent murders. We can ignore that an awful lot has somehow been written in the margins of the pages. The book has been signed out of the Library by four people. All Inspector Kildare needs to do is check the handwriting of the four book borrowers and bingo he will have his killer. In a normal world the case would have been sorted by lunchtime and Kildare could have gone for a beer to celebrate. Instead the investigation is dragged out over several days and across various CGI assisted locations. Kildare and his assistant Constable George Flood even manage to somehow debate this nonsense as if it contains a complicated mystery.  Note that the names inspired by the supposedly fertile imagination of Peter Ackroyd are awful. Kildare is bad enough but a playwright who is also one of the four suspects is writing something called Misery Junction.   The idea is that the playwright lacks talent and misunderstands what qualifies as entertainment.   This is not subtle, and neither is the rest of the film.

Women are the victims in The Limehouse Golem or are supposed to be. There are two women in the movie who qualify as sadistic monsters, and none of the rest would you introduce to Mother. The heroes that do exist are both male, and the denouement buries the feminist concerns in less time than it takes Inspector Kildare to ask for a sample of handwriting.

still-02

Nothing is suggested in The Limehouse Golem.  The themes that do exist are suppression of women, the relationship of existence to performance and our vicarious relationship to violence.  We do need drama and we spend too much time imagining our lives as the spectacle that they are clearly not. If all our work and effort is mainly performance then it has serious implications for what we think is ambition.   The Limehouse Golem has several references to Jack The Ripper and it suggests that his mayhem was soon transformed by our imaginations and desires into a continuing spectacle that has had little concern for the suffering of his five female victims.  All of this is interesting and valid but we only become aware of these ideas because someone is always on hand to tell us what to think.

THE LIMEHOUSE GOLEM

Peter Ackroyd lives in London and he likes the place. His non-fiction includes biographies of Dickens and other famous natives.   Most of the time Ackroyd is attracted to supposed genius but in Dan Leno And The Limehouse Golem there is much about working class life in a music hall.  Ackroyd creates a sympathetic role for music hall star and comic Dan Leno. In the movie the music hall scenes are well staged but none equal what Hitchcock achieved on a small budget in The Thirty Nine Steps eighty years ago.   If the jokes by the performers in The Limehouse Golem are authentic, they are evidence that human beings have made more progress than we realised. If the jokes were created by Ackroyd and Goldman then they should be ashamed of themselves.   The fusion between the Jack The Ripper legend and the artistic ambition of music hall performers ensures that The Limehouse Golem is different.   But All About Eve combined with the savage slayings of a serial killer feels like a daft rather than an inspired idea, especially as the rivalry between the two women performers in The Limehouse Golem is thin cheese when compared to what happens in All About Eve.

film_thelimehousegolem

Elizabeth Cree and Aveline Ortega are the two female performers and rivals.   Aveline is a meaningless reference to Inspector Abbeline, the policeman who investigated the Jack The Ripper murders.  It is the kind of pun that can only be invented by the self-indulgent and self-regarding.  Actress Olivia Cooke plays the waif who wanders into the music hall and dreams of becoming a comic. The actress is fine and she has important moments including one in front of a mirror that has a real effect and helps us remember what Cree sought in the attention of an audience.   Cooke, though, does have to endure an awful lot of unbelievable silliness.  Bill Nighy plays Inspector Kildare. His remote style keeps him at a distance from the melodrama, and on two occasions he redeems previously bad dialogue. It feels like ad-libs from an actor who has more wit than the scriptwriters. Daniel Mays and Eddie Marsan are reliable English actors and provide good cameos. The decision, though, to choose Douglas Booth to play Dan Leno is bizarre. Presumably someone in one of the many production companies who financed the film insisted upon a handsome male in the cast.   Booth is a tall man who has the bearing of someone who has had a private education. This may sound unfair but Booth looks like a toff.  He also has impressive cheekbones.  Dan Leno was a short plain man ravaged by alcohol.   His looks helped him play female caricatures.  Booth in drag looks absurd. A film is not obliged to attempt reality but neither can we be expected to ignore cynical disregard for what defines a key character, especially as Ackroyd is good at identifying important aspects of Leno. The comic had a charitable nature and aspired to be a serious actor.

golem-2

Alfred Hitchcock was criticised for including a lying flashback in his unexciting 1950 movie Stage Fright.   Because each of the suspects has to write down what Kildare found in the book in the Library, there are four flashbacks that refer to murders. Each of these untrue flashbacks is defined by violent gore. For those who want a definition of gratuitous violence it does not get much better or more stupid than this.   Anyone who remains engaged after such repetition deserves credit for staying the course. One of the book borrowers is Karl Marx, so he becomes one of the suspects.   Not sure why but there is something very unsettling in seeing a key architect of left wing thinking decapitate a London prostitute.  No doubt it will make many smile but there is no need for ideological objections for it to feel like adolescent humour.

The episode with George Gissing is better but that becomes less interesting when the violence begins. Kildare, though, appears to have time to waste and he listens with patience.  Although Bill Nighy is watchable as Inspector Kildare he is too old for the role. But with all those cuts in the numbers of British police that Theresa May has demanded Kildare may have a future as an unpaid pensioner volunteer.   Efficiency targets will mean he will need to move at a faster pace than he does in The Limehouse Golem but from what we hear there are some desperate Chief Constables out there.

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.

 

 

Advertisements

THE MOVIE CHALLENGES

HAPPY DEATH DAY

USA, 2017

 Happy-Death-Day-Poster

The title is not as smart as the people who made the movie but the word happy is important.  Happy Death Day is feel good horror.   The movie borrows from the light but entertaining comedy Groundhog Day, which is referenced in the final scene inside the coffee shop.   It is not the only cinematic reference in the film. The reverse tracking shot up the staircase that first appeared in the Hitchcock masterpiece Vertigo is repeated in a cute almost sentimental suicide scene. There are also references to post-modern horror movies like Scream and Halloween. Films that paid homage to earlier movies are now themselves objects of deification. Talk about going round in circles.

Happy Death Day may depend on Groundhog Day for its basic theme and ideas but it is an okay film. It is not, though, much more than that. Utilising the idea of the self-recycling day so that the heroine is repeatedly slashed to death is bold and clever, a concept that any horror writer would envy. The execution of the idea is also accomplished.  Happy Death Day was made by Blumhouse Productions. So far the company has produced half a dozen films. None are weak although a couple are routine.  The Gift is not a bad idea for a thriller but the final result is a little flat. Sinister is well made and has strong performances but is unexceptional. Oscar winners Whiplash and Get Out are not to be missed movies. The films from Blumhouse Productions have made enough money to keep the Company in business for a lifetime.    Happy Death Day cost $4.6m to make and so far has earned $122m. The business model for the company is to produce independent films but then sell them to the big studios for distribution.   This can be called having your cake and eating it.  It is how smart people sometimes think, and the people at Blumhouse Productions are very smart.   If they are undone, and if Happy Death Day has weaknesses, it is not because of stupidity.

happy-death-day

Jason Blum has his full name on the film as producer, and his surname features in the title of the production company.   Blum learnt how Hollywood operates working for Harvey Weinstein.   He would have needed pragmatism or something to survive. Pragmatism is not as self-effacing as the pragmatists suggest.  Often it nurtures wilful determination. If Happy Death Day had been pitched as an offbeat horror movie for art cinemas, it would have less ambition. The writer would have settled for exposing how lives are defined by predictability and routine. The changing but same scenes would have revealed the way we unwittingly shape what is around us and how our decisions and development influence other lives more than we imagine.  Those elements exist in Happy Death Day but, because the producers want maximum audience appeal, we also have a feminist message wrapped inside sentimental and conventional concerns that are anything but feminist.

Tree the heroine escapes death and learns how to be polite to her father and fall in love with a young man who is as cute and as dull as a young Tom Hanks. Tree has scope for moral progress, being slashed to death every night is bound to change a person, but her rapid moral transformation that covers all bases will make many wary and unsympathetic.   And yes the name Tree is intended to have significance.

hero_Happy-Death-Day-2017

After preview screenings left audiences feeling something other than satisfied the final scenes of Happy Death Day were changed and that had implications for the rest of the film. There are holes in the plot of Happy Death Day but the repetitive day and its variations make it feel as if the holes are being filled in after the event. They are not. It just feels that way.  Tree assumes that the days will repeat themselves without a conclusion. Later she asks the question that has already occurred to the audience, whether there might be a day when she really does die. In one scene the boyfriend of Tree suggests how she can use the repeating days to discover the identity of the person who has slashed her to death. This scene is way too premature in the plot but on subsequent days it is ignored by Tree and has no consequence, so its slipshod heavy handedness is subsequently distilled. There are also loose ends like the issue of what happens to the other victims when days are repeated. Jason Blum has a track record that proves he is smart. Maybe, though, he thinks the rest of us are stupid. The climax has two twists, and in a film that is obliged to vary and repeat a single event the denouement needs to be simple and neat and not add more chaos.

Happy-Death-Day-Jessica-Rothe-Isreal-Broussard-Tree-Carter

Happy Death Day was directed by Christopher Landon who is the son of the Little Joe who left the big house of Bonanza to live in a little one on the prairie.   Christopher Landon has talked about being gay and how it affected his family. There is a brief reference to coming out in Happy Death Day. As the reincarnated and reformed Tree conquers all, she persuades an ex-boyfriend to admit to his sexuality. The scene is glib but is not alone. The reconciliation with Dad not only provides healthy competition but also adds to an overburdened plot.   Happy Death Day may or may not have a gay context. The repetitive day that requires a false performance and ends in disappointment is an idea that suggests the experience of suppressed sexuality. Happy Death Day begins with the suspicion of what was probably unsatisfactory sex, not remembered and best forgotten. And in a sense Tree does eventually come out to reveal her authentic self. It helps the film that the character is female, and the absence of a male hero is evidence of the progress that has been made since The Graduate appeared in the late 60s. Both films, though, are lined with treacle.  Happy Death Day would have been improved and made more sense if Tree had been gay.   That, though, would have meant commercial underachievement, and Jason Blum is too smart for that.

Happy Death Day, like other ‘slasher’ horror movies, requires a resolute woman but any notion of female emancipation is undermined by the romantic ending and the contribution of the Tom Hanks lookalike.  Happy Death Day is smart but heartless. Instead, we are given slippery and calculating sentiment. The movie is weighed down by astute commercial ambition and a determination to embrace a wide audience. It lacks the clarity and the genuine grievance that informed Get Out.  In its favour there is the energetic performance of Jessica Rothe who is believable as both good and bad girl. Despite being almost thirty years old she looks like an adolescent student and it is encouraging that her boyfriend is played by an actor who is seven years younger.

happy-death-day-stills-15

Happy Death Day, for all its superior compromises, is worth an hour and thirty-six minutes of the time of anyone. The defiance too often becomes a fashionable pose but the film has the charm and energy of TV hits Buffy The Vampire Slayer and I-Zombie. The movie is on the right side of tolerance and a reminder that we are too inclined to make decisions about who and what other people should be. Not only does this long-standing and regrettable inclination have unfortunate consequences for those we oppress it does not help us to make the right decisions about who and what we should be ourselves. Many go to their graves without a clue as to how their identity has been constructed, what is authentic and what is artificial.   In Britain right now we have a political leader whose identity was shaped by a narrow world and excess ambition.   Who or what she may be is for Theresa May to ponder. We are neither obliged to like the woman nor vote for her. Theresa May, though, has lost something in the construction of her identity. Otherwise she would not be able to tell conscience free lies in such a measured and confident accent or have needed to make the unforgettable hurried retreat from the victims of Grenfell Tower.   Her latest untruth concerns the dates documents of British citizens were destroyed, when the identities of some British people were redefined by politicians and opportunistic bureaucrats.

happy-death-day1

When she was Home Secretary, Theresa May was keen to create what she called a ‘hostile environment for immigrants’. Few of us thought that would include those who had been welcomed to the UK over 50 years ago to ease the problems of an economy that had labour shortages. As Home Secretary, Theresa May was determined to not just define the numbers of the British population but to insist on who would qualify as pedigree stock.  Britons live in a country where the homes of people are invaded so those without identification papers can overnight be separated from their families and dumped into detention centres. For some time this has applied to people we would expect to be accepted as contributors to our society.  Now we know it was even happening to long-standing British citizens. Because of a rush to prejudice and persecution, the British Government has forced some British citizens to live in countries of which they have no knowledge.  It has even prepared advice on how these British citizens can adapt to the local population and pretend to be something other than, well, British.  Meanwhile the Government and the press celebrate the colour of what is an increasingly dubious British passport. Welcome to the 2017 version of what we call the United Kingdom.

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.