Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Guillermo del Toro and Julia's Eyes

With Spanish horror, Julia's Eyes in cinemas now, Colm McAuliffe wonders if Guillermo del Toro should be viewed as the man with the golden touch, or just a patron saint.

As well as being a director of some renown, Guillermo del Toro has more recently fashioned a niche for himself as a the saviour of the Spanish indie horror genre, swooping in to attach his name as producer to films which otherwise would have difficulty in securing distribution. With del Toro on board, films such as 2008’s The Orphanage and now, Julia’s Eyes, attain an immediate gravitas, the name alone providing the necessary cachet to penetrate the markets.
Remarking that ‘studio infiltration into specialty films was the worst thing that could have happened…. [but] this is a ripe time now for retaking the fort’, del Toro could well be referring to his inaugural major studio experience, 1997’s Mimic which was plagued by interference from that notorious despot Bob Weinstein, resulting in a potentially thrilling horror being reduced to rather anemic anonymity. Del Toro’s career since can be viewed through the prism of this initial experience and he appears to be flourishing in his role as a self-styled cinematic polymath. His intuition for the macabre has rapidly filtered into the zeitgeist, propelling him into the public sphere and he currently appears to have a whopping eleven projects on the go, ranging from The Hobbit to Pinocchio and even stretching to the video game Insane.

Aside from adhering to del Toro’s own unique brand of grotesque beauty, del Toro’s actual role in his film productions is questionable. He differentiates from the evil movie moguls in viewing his role as being the arch-protector of the indie underdog from financial partners needless meddling, a move which certainly worked in terms of The Orphanage (del Toro also claimed minor credit for some of the film’s more frightening moments).The massive success of this, both in Spain and internationally, ensured praise was showered upon him for his apparent hands off approach. Similarly, del Toro’s name was all over the film’s marketing push. He was not simply the producer but he also chose to ‘present’ the film – so far so very Hitchcockian.

The breadth and uniqueness of del Toro’s filmmaking is so well-defined, it has made his name into a genre of its very own which, of course, in with his decision to ‘present’ these films. His stylistic touchstones of magic realism, fairytale fantasy and the grotesque recur throughout his own films from The Devil’s Backbone through Hellboy and his mainstream breakthrough Pan’s Labyrinth, ensuring that the Del Toro brand is a surefire signpost to a carnivalesque miasma of supernatural mythos and high-octane horror.

Julia’s Eyes, the latest ‘Guillermo del Toro presents…’, is again directed and co-written by a newcomer, Guillem Morales, and re-unites much of the team behind The Orphanage. While the latter film essentially centred around a re-telling of a ghost story, using classic horror talismans such as mysterious caves, lighthouses and cellars for suspense, Julia’s Eyes is also fundamentally conventional in its approach, devoting itself to the ‘extremely hot blind woman in peril’ genre.
Belen Rueda plays the dual role of two sisters, one of whom hangs herself in her basement in the opening scene while the other spends the remainder of the film heaving her wondrous bosom while being hounded by an enigmatic individual. Both sisters have been afflicted by a degenerative disease which ultimately leads them to blindness and the symmetry of the movie is provided by the antagonistic characters - a woman losing her sight versus a man who never wishes to be seen.

Amidst the sporadic bursts of tension and crime solving, Guillem Morales has crafted a reasonable homage to the classic Italian Giallo films of the 1970s without ever fully resorting to psychological profiles of his characters. Our enigmatic stalker is masked in mystery and while we occasionally see through his eyes, these fleeting insights are never enough to sustain our interest (the film clocks in at an over-long two hours). During the last half hour, Morales decides to change tack entirely and Julia’s Eyes reveals itself as a straightforward horror, replete with pinched eyeballs, mindless killing and the unmasking of our stalker. This slide into sub-Almodovarian camp provides a rather unsatisfactory ending as the loose threads are tied up in a roundabout fashion with some predictable ‘revelations’ coming to light.

This is to all intents and purposes a Spanish production but Julia’s Eyes ultimately has more in common with overblown, bombastic American remakes of the genre. The cinematography is impressive but workmanlike, under-utilising the theme of blindness and only sparingly uses moments of reduced vision to capture Julia’s descent into darkness.

While del Toro’s heart still beats for Spanish indie horror, Julia’s Eyes is perhaps one beat his heart could have skipped. Take our indie hero out of the equation and you have left a passable horror flick. Morales does manage to punctuate his film with moments of genuine tension - particularly the potentially gruesome scene whereby Julia eavesdrops upon a conversation between some vindictive former friends of her sister at a centre for the blind – but the film is more of sign of Morales potential as a director rather than indicative of any current prowess.
As for del Toro claiming to ‘retake the fort’ for indie cinema, ironically, a more hands-on approach as producer may have catapulted this from so-so horror to impressive psycho-drama. However, by virtue of having del Toro as a mentor, Morales has furthered his position as a filmmaker with potential while del Toro himself can carry on regardless, safe in his role as the saving grace of indie cinema. Let’s just hope the lines are not being blurred between his hands-off approach and a genuine need for some creative direction. Sometimes a little bit of compromise is not necessarily a bad thing.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Onibaba - What lies beneath the reeds?

We put out a call for some contributors to our blog, and in what will hopefully be a regular element, we'll be visiting a variety of films spanning gutter trash to art house and all that exploits, thrills and bleeds in between.
Onibaba is a glorious and stunning film, and Gary Budden tells us why, plus, I get to show off one of my favourite Mexican lobby cards -

I was about sixteen years old and an interest in what lay outside the confines of Hollywood cinema had begun to grow in me; Japanese films held a particular allure for all the predictable reasons that would thrill a teenage mind from Kent – attractive young women from a very different culture being violent, anime like Akira, Ninja Assassin and Ghost in the Shell (with lots of blood / stuff blowing up), and the general cultural cache of being into cult and foreign movies (or what seemed exotic and underground in Canterbury circa 1998).

I can’t remember where exactly but, I had seen a still from Kaneto Shindo’s Onibaba and read a short review – I think it was the NME (yes, I used to read the NME) – and it was being shown very late on Channel 4 back in the days when Channel 4 still screened things worth watching. This was, of course, before the Film4 Channel, but even now you’re only likely to come across a film like this late night in the schedules after the 809th rerun of ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ that week.
The still, rather tragically, reminded me of the Fighting Fantasy book ‘Sword of the Samurai’ where they had, I retrospectively discovered, nicked the iconic demon mask image from Onibaba for one of their more memorable monsters.
I taped the film that night on my mum’s trusty VHS player and dutifully watched the film, slightly annoyed that I’d missed the first half hour due to various programming mistakes. I’d have to wait many years until the Criterion company, followed by Masters of Cinema in the UK, finally released a decent copy on DVD, so for years I was left with the slightly hazy impression of a wonderful film set entirely in swaying reed beds, sometime in feudal Japan during a vicious civil war, with two women in various states of undress murdering lost samurai, pushing them into a black hole and selling their weapons and armour to get by. Which, it turns out, is actually a rather large part of the film.

So years pass, I nearly forget about Onibaba but my interest in cinema in all its forms grows and grows, and when I see that demon-mask once more online, I get my hands on the aforementioned Criterion copy (early on I’d worked out the mysteries of multi-region DVD players) and watch Shindo’s art-house horror, properly, for the very first time.

I am glad to say that it held up to my teenage recollections. Existing in the grey area that makes a film sometimes appears too art-house to horror/cult fans, and too trashy for art-house cineastes, the film focuses on a middle aged woman and her daughter-in-law (whose husband has been killed during the war), who eke out a living in the reed beds from murder and theft. Then a man, Hatchi, arrives, a close friend of the young woman’s deceased husband. A sexual relationship begins to develop between them, threatening to destabilise and ruin the already tenuous relationship between the two women.
The older woman’s sexual jealously becomes, literally, a demonic force in this film; she becomes the very thing she warns the young woman about, personifying destructive lust and corrosive jealousy. Let us just say the demon-mask plays a crucial role in this.

Visually the film is stunning; in fact it is the most appealing thing about the picture, as the bare bones of the story are rather slender, loosely based on a simple Buddhist instructional tale.
But it’s all in the presentation, and the film’s lustrous black and white photography from director of photography Kiyomi Kuroda is beautiful, as is the marshland location which is as much a psychological landscape as anything; the swaying reeds are only punctuated by the river, the hut of the two women, and the infamous black hole. The setting adds a great deal of physical and metaphorical depth to the simple story, and the entirety of the drama plays itself out within this landscape, culminating in one of the most memorable endings in horror cinema that stayed with me even from my initial shaky VHS viewing all those years ago.

Kaneto Shindo has made many other films in his long career (he was born in 1912 and is still not dead), such as Children of Hiroshima, the strange feline ghost story Kuroneko (also available from Masters of Cinema), the remarkable, near silent analysis of Japanese island peasants in The Naked Island, before making a lot soft-core erotica during the pinku eiga era; but Onibaba remains his best and most recognisable film. Highly recommended.