Thursday 23 March 2017


In cinemas from Friday 24th March is Nicolas Pesce's beautiful and disturbing horror, The Eyes of My Mother.

"Everything we see passes through here" says a mother to her young daughter as they dissect a cows eyeball at the start of this film. A surgeon in her home country of Portugal, she is now living in small town America with her husband and daughter, Francisca. When a seemingly kind and well mannered stranger called Charlie approaches the house, this film shows the level of tension that can be induced by being both eerily still and sinister at the same time.

Presented in black and white, The Eyes of My Mother is a startlingly atmospheric film that is both grisly and gorgeous, and one that is deeply unsettling in its ability to shock whilst showing you very little. By stripping the film of a normal colour palette, your brain is required to fill in the blanks and left to imagine what colours are being cleaned off the kitchen floor. And that is among the film's greatest strengths; the ability to play on the audience's fear of the unknown, refusing to conform to traditional horror expectations. Just as you think a character is about to see their end, the film cuts away to the aftermath. It also plays on some basic human fears, such as eye trauma (especially eye trauma) and the danger of picking up a stranger in your car. Add to that the perceived mundanity of Francisca's life as she cares for her father, and there are many factors that the audience may find disconcertingly familiar.

Separated into chapters (I. Mother. II. Father III. Family) that see Francisca at different times of her life, there are prolonged periods of silence interspersed with distant hums in the background, as if someone is playing music in a room at the end of a long, dark corridor. The passage of time is fluid and able to jump forward, leaving you to ponder the consequences that have befallen some of the less fortunate characters.

Often drenched in darkness both figuratively and literally, the extent of the trauma Francisca is able to inflict is slowly revealed and is utterly horrific in nature, from a place that will linger in the mind of the audience for a long time. As played by Kika Magalhaes, Francisca appears to be a quiet, pure woman, hiding the most awful of her deeds in the barn and the life she lives behind a shroud of innocence. It's a fantastic performance of a complex character, reserved with the capability of shocking us through the simplest of actions.

With photography and some tonal elements that recall the work of Jonathan Glazer and directed with tremendous skill by first timer Nicolas Pesce, The Eyes of My Mother is a genuinely terrifying film with startling visuals of retina pervading power that travel deep into the darkest recesses of the soul.

The Eyes of My Mother is in cinemas from 24th March.


Monday 20 March 2017

GLEASON review

Charting his diagnosis with ALS/MND and subsequent battle against the disease, Gleason follows former New Orleans Saints player Steve Gleason as he prepares for fatherhood amidst the deterioration of his body.

Diagnosed in 2011 with ALS/MND at the age of 33, former NFL player Gleason and his wife found out 6 weeks later that they were expecting a baby. Realising he may never have a conversation with his unborn child and faced with the prospect of being unable to be the father figure he wants to be, Gleason started to record video journals that his son can look at later on in life. His aim was simply to "give you as much of myself as I can, while I can".

His wife Michel's pregnancy is such an important part of the early stage of his diagnosis and of the film, providing us with a firm timeline of how far the body can grow in 9 months, but also how fast it can deteriorate in the same amount of time. As a recently retired professional athlete, we see Steve take part in a triathlon 4 months after his diagnosis and be notably fatigued in a way he never has been before, and the emotional realisation from Michel of what lies ahead.

It would be doing her a disservice to simply state that Michel shows great strength throughout this experience. Faced with having to care for her husband as well as a new baby, it's remarkable how composed she remains. When baby Rivers arrives (and is possibly the cutest kid on the face of the Earth), Steve actively tries to find ways around his physical limitations to ensure that father/son bond is solid.

This parental connection and what it takes to be a good father is what drives the film. It's clear that Steve had issues with how he was raised by his own father, and is desperate not to repeat the same mistakes. Steve's mother hardly appears in the film, but it's clear that there was an active choice to pursue the often combative and strained relationship between Steve and his father. This lingering resentment occasionally boils over, and although the two men are able to openly discuss what has caused the atmosphere between them in a frank and honest manner, it is evident that Steve is keen to not see history repeat itself when concerning his own son, Rivers. The ALS/MND may distance him from his son against his will, but Steve is willing to fight against what may be inevitable.

With differing opinions on matters of spirituality and faith and on how Steve's treatment should progress, when taken to a faith healer by his father (much to the chagrin of Michel), it's heartbreaking to see Steve push the limits of what his body can manage in front of the congregation. Gleason covers similar ground to the also excellent documentary Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet, and shows a man who even before his ALS/MND diagnosis was a symbol of triumph over adversity for the role he played in the New Orleans Saints' comeback, post Hurricane Katrina.

As professional athletes go, Steve is a relatively calm and composed individual with a love for the simpler things in life (he loves his wife, he loves football and he loves Pearl Jam), but when put to the test his fighting spirit and desire to win is undeniable. Equal parts love story, fight against the odds and search for that connection that fathers and sons have, this extraordinarily powerful documentary is a testament to what family and the human spirit is able to achieve.


Saturday 18 March 2017


The second release on the new Maison Rouge DVD label, Helga, She Wolf of Stilberg is out now on DVD.

AKA The She Wolf of Spilberg and not to be confused with Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS, Helga is part of the Nazisploitation genre that sprung up in Europe in the 1970s (Basically, they still like to wear military uniforms with symbols on their arms, but their moustaches are different), and is still going to this day to some degree, although often with added zombies. 

Helga stars Malisa Longo as the nymphomaniac prison warden title character, dominating the women that are rounded up and sent to her to be used as currency with the local farmers who line up the women and decide who they are going to rape in a barn. I'd go as far to say that Helga isn't the main character, as the focus drifts onto Elisabeth and her attempts to free herself and her fellow prisoners from this cycle of abuse.

Something of a recurring theme in the exploitation world, Helga, She Wolf of Stilberg is a hell of a title that may garner more enjoyment from saying it out loud than actually watching it. That's perhaps to be expected from Patrice Rhomm, the director of bawdy titles like Captive Women 4 aka Elsa, She Devil (also in the Nazisploitation genre). Under various pseudonyms including the frankly amazing Homer Bingo, Rhomm directed a number of films in and around the "adult" movie genre of Italy, and that's fine, but hopefully they contain better sexual politics than Helga.

There's whipping, leather, sexual and physical domination and the sexual procurement of women, and although there is an inevitable fight back against this patriarchal regime by some spirited young prisoners tired of their treatment, their knee high leather boots and high hells slow down their attempts to escape, and they are easily recaptured. Typical.

The sexual violence here is often displayed as something sensual, and that's a very clear and disturbing issue you have to try to come to terms with in order to enjoy this film. In one scene the prisoners are forced to strip off one by one for examination by a moustachioed officer, but the fact that this clinical procedure is meant to excite and potentially arouse the audience says it all, really.

As a document of the era in which it was made that's fair enough, but by modern standards it can make for uncomfortable viewing. Unlike the first release on the Maison Rouge label, Bare Breasted Countess, that could be appreciated as tittilating fluff, Helga's focus on sexual domination may leave a bitter after taste. There's some value in Helga's exploitation tropes, but only as long as it's viewed by an audience who can distinguish that this is a product of its location, genre and time.


Sunday 12 March 2017

PET review

One of the biggest crowd pleasers at last year's Frightfest in London, Pet, starring Dominic Monaghan as a lonely man living in LA who decides to lock a girl up in a cage, is out now on DVD.

After a chance encounter with an old classmate on the bus, dog pound worker Seth (Dominic Monaghan) starts to be obsessed with Holly (Ksenia Solo), stalking her online, visiting her at work and following her home. Deciding that she is in danger and he is the only one who can offer her salvation, he captures her and secretly cages her at the pound where he works. Holly begs for her freedom, but is there truth to Seth's motivations?

Monaghan has one of those faces where he can play either sympathetic or a creep with ease, and he often takes advantage of this to switch from slightly endearing oddball to full on sociopath. Likewise, the seemingly normal Holly appears to be your average young woman trying to make something of herself, but when confined to the cage she is able to call upon the darkness within herself and gain control by manipulating Seth's desire for her.

It would be conceivably hard to find new ground within the literal and figurative limited space her character has to work in, but it's a bold, gung ho performance from Ksenia Solo that offers a few interesting elements, including Holly's attempts to talk to her roommate (Jennette McCurdy) that raise a number of questions with intriguing answers.

The direct-to-video market is liberally littered with horror films and abduction dramas where a girl unexpectedly finds herself captured and caged, but Pet is among the best of the bunch, offering a new spin on where this well worn set-up could go. Feeding off the sado-masochistic nature of its premise, Pet works hard to sell its twisted romance storyline to reasonable effect, knowing the genre conventions we are expecting and trying to subvert them as often as possible.

Dark, twisted and occasionally very nasty, Pet is an enjoyably unpredictable thriller with two solid lead performances.



Now showing at the ICA and on demand from 17th of March, Uncertain is Ewan McNicol and Anna Sandilands' documentary about life in a town in the back end of nowhere.

If you find a place on a map labelled "Uncertain", you know there's going to be people there with some stories to tell, and that's what directors Ewan McNicol and Anna Sandilands decided to explore in this award winning documentary. Situated on the border between Texas and Louisiana, Uncertain is a small town with a population of 94, often used as a passing through point for criminals crossing state lines. The entire town has an eerie calm, like the setting to a Coen Brothers crime thriller lying dormant in wait for the next bad guys to show up. This documentary focuses on three different men from the town to uncover what life is really like there.

What is initially striking about the film is how gorgeous a location it is. The Caddo Lake and surrounding vegetation resemble a scene from a film set 50 years after an apocalypse, with the greenery allowed to grow unfettered. This is something of a concern for the current locals, with the unwelcome weed Salvinia (actually quite a sweet thing to look at) growing across the lake and choking the town of its fishing industry. Scientists are trying to find a way of stopping the lake from being entirely engulfed, with the future for the area looking bleak but then also quite beautiful.

It's on the Caddo Lake that we meet Henry, an old fisherman with a criminal past but who since the loss of his wife spends his days on his boat reflecting on his life, hoping he did enough good to balance out his misdeeds. He has a wonderful face that tells a thousand sad stories, and brings so much deep introspection to the film. The next key figure is Wayne, a hunter on the trail of a wild hog he dubs Mr Ed. Another man with a past he is haunted by, he is driven to catch and kill Mr Ed by the need for a sense of purpose more than anything. His past is the most colourful, and he is the most forthcoming about his struggle to grapple with his demons.

The last of the main subjects is Zach, a young man facing an Uncertain future with a drinking problem that is hampering his treatment for Diabetes. He sees no future for himself and hopes to leave the town before it is too late, but with minimal job prospects and declining health, the most he can aim for is a better standard of living elsewhere. As a young man he is leading a very different life to Henry and Wayne, but it's not a huge leap to see connections and possible similarities within the lives and journeys of these men. Zach has the potential to be the most tragic or hopeful of the subjects here, depending on what route he takes next.

With echoes of Alma Har'el's Bombay Beach (set in a visually different but equally neglected small town in America), it is the human element and how they survive within this landscape that is most captivating. As a consequence of the make up of the population all of the key figures are men, connected by a feeling that Uncertain is some sort of purgatory for them, stuck there to pay for their pasts and wait for the weeds to overtake them.

Uncertain is a visually striking and absorbing documentary that reflects on the ghosts of the past, the prospects of an uncertain future and the consequences of those choices made as a young man.


Wednesday 8 March 2017


Driven to commit heinous crimes by an evil force, the Countess (Lina Romay) returns to the island she calls home and slowly begins to kill the locals using her powers of seduction.

Jess Franco's Bare Breasted Countess aka Female Vampire has been released under various guises and cuts in its lifetime (including a hardcore cut going by the not so subtle name of The Swallowers) and is rife with all the hallmarks of a Franco film; female nudity, dealings with the occult and a subject matter that made him the bane of film censors. It's also very, very silly. So the question is how best to approach this review? Tongue in cheek or tongue in.... well, I'll let you finish that sentence off yourself.

The opening scene sees our lead, the Countess Irina Karlstein (a mute ingenue with a penchant for parading around with her top off) meeting a young man at a farm, where she performs fellatio on him before chomping down to feed from him in semi (pun intended) traditional vampire fashion. As a mute it is hard to establish her motivations, but luckily she does provide a winsome voiceover to her cliff top drives and there's a handy reporter on hand at the start to help out with a lot of the exposition. Using her mouth as her weapon of choice she lures innocent young men with her feminine wiles and then performs deadly fellatio on them, or as the coroner puts it when he is presented with a corpse drained of semen and blood, he was "killed by mouth".
In terms of cinematic craft there's not a lot going for it, but the tropes and language of this softcore era are all present and correct here. At a time when throwback genre films such as The Love Witch are currently in cinemas, this is a great opportunity to see how close it comes to recreating the real thing. It's almost entirely dialogue free, just occasional snippets to connect one softcore scene to another; and although perhaps not as immediately reference friendly as Franco's Vampyros Lesbos, this is still classic European exploitation cinema. As well as direction from Jess Franco (under a pseudonym), this film also features two of his regulars in his muse Lina Romay and friend Jack Taylor, moustachioed and resembling a cut price Franco Nero.

Surprisingly and almost certainly accidental, there is a feminist subtext to this film with Irina ranking somewhere near Jess Weixler's Dawn in the horror/comedy Teeth for female characters who use their sexuality to satiate their needs against the wishes of the male led society. I'm certain that this reading was not what was intended during production and it's a bit of a stretch to imagine this film wanting to appeal to anything other than the male gaze (you could get yourself in serious trouble by having a drinking game for every time the camera lingers on a gratuitous crotch shot), but at least that way it affords the character more depth than what is on show.

Partially due to, shall we say, more sophisticated cinematic tastes and storytelling methods, it's hard to not make this kind of 70s era straight-faced eroticism look a bit funny by modern standards (just look at the success of Belinda Blinked), but that doesn't mean there isn't fun to be had here. The depiction of female sexuality is frankly ridiculous and laughable as she dry humps her bed frame and then a phallic shaped pillow, and the mere fact that the main character is a beautiful, sex-crazed woman who isn't able to speak a word says everything you need to know about the sexual politics of the time.

The first release from new boutique horror label Maison Rouge with collectable art cards and a reversible sleeve included with the DVD; if you're a fan of this kind of euro erotica then Bare Breasted Countess should be in your collection, and if you're a fan of cheesy, over the top films that will give you plenty to ponder over, it's worthy of a place too. I'm still not completely sure why she masturbates over the corpse of one of her victims, though.

Verdict 2/5 for filmmaking
Verdict 4/5 for fun, so...

Overall Verdict

Thursday 2 March 2017

WE ARE X review

Filmed in the run up to their concert at New York's Madison Square Gardens, We Are X charts the 30 year career of X Japan, quite possibly the most famous rock band you've never heard of.

The following is an updated version of the review published after We Are X's premiere at the 2016 London Film Festival.

It's hard to see a music bio-doc these days without what I call "getting a touch of the Anvils". The life of a musician is a ridiculous collection of screaming fans, cliches and rock star behaviour, and although there's clear comparison points with Anvil, X Japan are a rock band who actually made it, but with a surprisingly small following in the western world.

Director Stephen Kijak's previous films include the Scott Walker documentary 30 Century Man and the Backstreet Boys doc, Show 'Em What You're Made Of, and here he wisely chooses to focus his lens on band founder member Yoshiki in favour of the others. He is the heart and soul of the band of androgynous appearance and almost indeterminate age (he could pass for someone younger than the band he created), who has dominated Japanese music, fashion and art for decades, starred in his own comic book by Stan Lee and is kept together by doctors whose various medications and therapies allow him to keep touring and performing. I'm sure there's a certain amount of showmanship involved, but Yoshiki wears a neckbrace when he drums to combat the damage from the excessive head-banging of his youth, which might be the most rock and roll injury there is.

The running joke in This is Spinal Tap is that the drummer's chair is a continuously revolving door due to its occupants choking on their own vomit/spontaneous combustion, but the opposite is true here. Yoshiki is the band's creator and chief songwriter who has remained the one constant, but there has been an immense amount of tragedy within the other roles in the band, including multiple suicides and unsolved deaths. These subjects are handled sensitively and are a tad under investigated, but in order to focus on the band as a touring entity, that's understandable. There is also a certain amount of unexpected comedy to their larger than life career, and lead singer Toshi's brainwashing by a religious cult is approached as an example of the pressures of being in the band.

Like their epic 30 minute rock ballad Art of Life there are many different facets to X's success, and this documentary (made with the full co-operation of the band) goes a long way to respectfully cover as many aspects as possible. It's hard not to fall in love with them and appreciate the longevity of their appeal, and even if you aren't a fan of their music beforehand, the performance footage with thousands of cheering fans chanting their battle cry "We Are X!" may soon change that.

There are a number of talking heads from famous western rock stars, including Gene Simmons who puts forward the idea that if X were comprised of white, English speaking men, they would be the biggest rock band in the world. He may have a point. Made with real affection for the band and its fans, We Are X is a crowd-pleasing documentary that proves that X go all the way to XI.