Review- ‘Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile’ (2019)

Review- ‘Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile’ (2019)

When I first saw a still of Zac Efron as Ted Bundy I thought that whoever came up with that casting choice deserved an award. Not only do Ted and Zac look very similar but there was a sweet irony that the star of High School Musical had progressed to portraying one of America’s most notorious serial killers.

I first learnt of Bundy’s crimes after watching the brilliant 1986 TV movie The Deliberate Stranger which was released on two video tapes here in the UK soon after it aired in the US. This production showed that one thing is vital to any depiction of Bundy and his history- casting. Bundy was as all American as apple pie. He also goes against the stereotype of the type of person most think that a serial killer is. He was educated, handsome and extremely charismatic. Mark Harmon was cast as Bundy and this choice was brilliant. Harmon had been the star of many TV shows (most famously St Elsewhere)  and always as the dashing leading man. Harmon was using these very qualities to depict a man who used the same attributes for his own evil ends. It’s also worth noting that the man (Harmon not Bundy) who was voted The Sexiest Man Alive by People Magazine in 1986 (the year that Deliberate Stranger was made and aired) should be portraying the serial killer who had multiple female fans who decided that his good looks and sex appeal outweighed his alleged crimes.

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Since this TV movie there have been other movies regarding Bundy but none have been especially noteworthy in terms of either casting or content (it’s a shame that the adaptation of Ann Rule’s amazing book ‘The Stranger Beside Me’ wasn’t either cast or made better. It’s still, in my opinion, the definitive book on Ted).

So when it was announced that Zac Efron was to star in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Wicked and Vile as Bundy I just wished that the whole film would live up to the genius casting decision. I resubscribed to Netflix in time for the premiere date of 3rd May only to learn that whilst it’s being shown on Netflix, that isn’t the case in the UK. The movie could either be seen on Sky Movies (no thanks, Rupert Murdoch) or at one of the few cinemas which were showing it.

This, however proved to be a blessing in disguise. The film looks gorgeous and deserves to be seen on the big screen. In fact, there is plenty to like about this movie.

I had never heard of the 1981 book The Phantom Prince by Elizabeth Kendall which was written by Bundy’s fiancee about their life together. This book is still out of print- a golden opportunity for a reprint to coincide with this movie missed. Although there is an online copy available to read (Google is your friend…)

The fact that this story is from the perspective of Bundy’s partner proves to be a major strength here. This isn’t a straightforward account of Bundy’s crimes resplendent with depictions of them but rather what happened as seen through someone else’s eyes. This is a novel take on one of America’s most infamous serial killers and because of this feels fresh and original. Bundy is depicted as charming, charismatic and utterly human. It also means that when Bundy’s partner (and the audience) hears the details of Bundy’s crimes they appear even more shocking and appalling.

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Careful with that knife, Ted

Zac Efron’s depiction of Ted is rightly garnering plaudits from critics. His performance is multi-facted, nuanced and utterly brilliant. He portrays Bundy as not only as the All-American success story but also as a human being wearing a mask or shell. Check out the scene in the courtroom as Bundy is rising to his feet to hear the first of many verdicts- the trumped up show of confidence is shown to be a facade by Efron as we see that this event is so traumatic that it has actually mined down into the darkest and genuine core of Bundy. The mask has slipped as Bundy is about to discover his fate. Also, check out the scene where Bundy has just had sex with his ‘girlfriend’ after Liz leaves him. Momentarily we see the revulsion on Ted’s face when he has just shot his load and realises with whom. We see more evidence that Bundy doesn’t love Carole at all and is just using her so she will extol his innocence to the outside world. His skills of manipulation and control have been brought to the fore and we get to see behind the huge smile and good looks. We also then see the shell come back into place as Bundy starts to recompose himself and falsely reiterate his ‘love’ for her. She’s important to him but not for the reasons she thinks.

But this isn’t just a one performance film. The rest of the cast are great with Metallica’s James Hetfield and The Big Bang Theory’s Jim Parsons also shining. John Malkovich is as ever brilliant in his role as Judge Cowart presiding over the Florida trial. He makes parallels against the fact that himself and Bundy have a great deal in common with Ted being a law student whilst he was committing his heinous crimes. It is one of the most poignant scenes in the film in which the judge mentions that Bundy had decided to use his considerable judicial skills for evil rather than good and that if he had decided to go down a better path Cowart would have loved to have witnessed these skills used in his courtroom.

The film also brilliantly examines the celebrity status given to serial killers. Bundy’s trial is the first in which cameras are allowed in the courtroom and so the trial will be transmitted to millions of homes across America. Bundy knows this and fully exploits it whilst using his charm to bewitch and enchant his audience. He puts on a dazzling performance, makes sure that he peers directly into the camera at multiple occasions to establish a bond with his viewers and even on one occasion, proposes to Carole live on air. It’s showbiz, baby.

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The courtroom as TV studio

The film also examines the phenomena of hybristophilia- the term used to describe the sexual attraction to serial killers. Ted always has a strong female groupie contingent in the courtroom. This will be multiplied many times over with the cameras catching the carefully cultivated performance and sexual charisma Bundy is having broadcast across America and indeed the world.

Whilst the film isn’t a straightforward chronological timeline of Bundy and his crimes we do get to hear about his alleged crimes throughout the film, especially the Chi Omega sorority house that he invades before going on a one-man massacre of several of it’s occupants. But even with the details of these crimes being peppered throughout the movie, the ending in which Liz confronts Bundy is still a shock to behold. She has been given a photograph of one of Ted’s victims by a detective that has brought home the true evil of his crimes. We get to see the picture of a naked female corpse which has had it’s head removed. Bundy still protests his innocence as he has throughout the duration of the film up until this point. He even offers the flimsy explanation that wild animals could have inflicted that on the cadaver. Liz demands to know the truth. We then get to see Bundy take off his mask altogether. He argues that he couldn’t tell her the truth as the phone they are using to communicate with each other is probably tapped by the authorities. He then calmly puts down the receiver he is speaking into and writes the word ‘HACKSAW’ onto the plastic screen that separates them. It’s an immensely powerful scene as it shows that Bundy is ‘Bad’ and not ‘Mad’ and that he knew exactly what he was doing and that there are no multiple personalities at play here.

This scene is also one of the movie’s major aces up it’s sleeve. Up until that point we had never seen Bundy commit one of the crimes he has been accused of or even admit culpability for them. Here he has. The whole celebrity status awarded to serial killers and that grimy culture has now been placed under the spotlight. We have been watching High School Musical’s Zac Efron charm his way into our hearts throughout the film. And we have been duped. For all of his escape antics, winks to camera and good looks, he is a monster and knew exactly what he was doing. Just as Bundy charmed his way into Liz and Carole’s lives for his own ends, he has done to same to us. The film has also done this without glamorising Bundy and his deeds or trying to substantiate them. The audience was kept in the dark regarding his crimes just like Liz was, which is fitting as this story is told from her perspective and not Ted’s. We get to see the full impact of the full truth and how it must have felt for Liz.

It also brings up the question of if he truly loved her or if that was just a well manicured and cultivated lie. The film also begs the question that what we have seen during the movie might not be the whole truth. One early scene involves Bundy being next to Liz in bed under the covers using a torch. When she wakes up startled he gives the explanation of reading a law book ahead of an exam and not wanting to wake her up. We later see the same scene replayed but the audience is awarded the knowledge of what Ted was actually doing- looking at Liz’s dormant sleeping body under the sheets. Was he aroused by her unmoving form? Was he aroused by his victims in the same way? Was he planning to do away with Liz?

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The mask slips

The main question I had after seeing this film was whether Efron is eligible to be nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal with this film being a Netflix production. Now just imagine that- Ted Bundy winning an Academy Award.

4/5 out of 5 stars

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Review- The Servant (1963)

Review- The Servant (1963)

After he has come back from travelling, a wealthy young man named Tony (James Fox) decides to employ a house servant. Hugo Barrett (Dirk Bogarde) successfully applies for the position. The relationship works well but this soon changes when Tony’s girlfriend Susan starts to spend time at Tony’s abode. She seems not to treat Barrett as human and takes the role of ‘master’ to his ‘servant’ to almost cruel lengths. Things get even more surreal with the introduction of Barrett’s ‘sister’ who comes to work under Tony in the same subservient role.

I’m surprised I’ve only just seen this film for the first time. It was worth the wait. This is brilliant on every level. There are universally fantastic performances especially from Fox and Bogarde who throw themselves into the descent into madness which Harold Pinter’s adaptation of Robin Maugham’s book portrays.

In fact, Pinter has a cameo role in the scene in the restaurant which epitomises the convention-breaking nature of the material at hand. We are shown an excerpt from the conversation from each table in the venue. We’re privileged enough to become privy to multiple different narratives and stories from many different characters, not just Tony and his girlfriend. One of these pairings is Pinter as a socialite and his date.

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Check out director Joseph Losey’s use of mirrors to portray the action but also to distort it’s view to the audience just as the film’s events are being shaped and distorted. Also, check out Douglas Slocombe’s cinematography which is breathtaking.

The film also reverses, subverts and delightfully fiddles around with the power dynamic of the ‘master’ and ‘servant’- who is serving who? Do the truly subservient characters even realise?

In fact, things get so surreal that I would have sworn that Pinter had written this story himself rather than just adapting it. This would make a great triple-bill with William Friedkin’s The Birthday Party (also written by Pinter) and Polanski’s Repulsion.

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On The Servant’s release it won a raft of awards and rightfully so. It also resides on The BFI’s Top 100 British Film’s list.

4 out of 5 stars

 

Review- ‘Border’ (2018)

Review- ‘Border’ (2018)

Before I saw this film I heard a film critic on TV say that the least you know about this film, the more you will get from it. Oh, and that it’s a real gem of a film that leads it’s audience to some truly unexpected places!

After seeing the film I can agree 100% with both of these points! This film is amazing. But if you’re here looking for a plot synopsis then you’ll be disappointed. All I will say is that this is the best movie featuring a character who possesses an over developed sense of smell since John Waters’ Polyester. And this is NOTHING like Polyester!

Border is a Swedish film (it’s called ‘Grans’ in it’s native language) which is amazing on every level- but especially acting, cinematography, locations and direction. And then theres the plot. Oh my. There were times during this film that made my jaw hit the floor.

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Nope- my movie review isn’t even going to feature pics from the film. You’ll thank me when you see the film. Less knowledge is more when it comes to ‘Border’. 

There are many themes contained within the film including issues of identity, feeling like you have no proper place in the world and that you don’t ‘fit’…A major theme that the film makes it’s audience contemplate is when others have sought to make you feel like less than human just because of who you are, realising that everything you’ve thought to be the truth about you and your life is a lie and feeling empowered, euphoric and liberated after you’ve learnt the truth. You’re bolder and stronger because of this and so you start living a better and truer life. You won’t get this from watching Captain Marvel.

This was the most unique cinema-going experience I’ve undergone since a friend took me to see Irreversible in 2004. No, I’m not saying that this is the cinematic shocker that Irreversible is (and let’s face it- no film is as shocking as Irreversible) but it’s vision is just as unique, thought provoking, beautiful and disturbing.

If Border isn’t on my end of year list for 2019’s best movies then I’ll eat my hat. If I wore a hat that is.

4/5 out of 5 stars.

2019- The Year of ‘Cruising’- Soundtrack and Blu ray release due

2019- The Year of ‘Cruising’- Soundtrack and Blu ray release due

Today is my birthday. What would I love more than anything to celebrate 44 years on this planet? World peace? Sure. An end to poverty? That would be on my wishlist. The soundtrack for William Friedkin’s 1980 masterpiece ‘Cruising’ remastered from the original master tapes? HELL YEAH!!!

And that’s whats happening. The brilliant company Waxwork Records is releasing the ‘Cruising’ soundtrack after sourcing master tapes, liaising with Mr Friedkin and giving the release the love and respect it truly deserves (something we’ve come to expect from Waxwork). And it’s here and it’s queer. Apparently this project has taken the company 4 years to complete. IMG_5472

This release comes at a time when Arrow Video (who are thankfully one of the best Blu ray labels) are due to release the film on Blu ray later this year.

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Mark my words- 2019 will be the year that ‘Cruising’ is finally fully reappraised as the classic film that it really is (something that some of us have known since we first saw the film) and will be viewed as a cinematic gem that deserves to be in a lineage of other classic films such as The French Connection, The Exorcist and Sorcerer.

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The soundtrack drops this Friday. My essay on ‘Cruising’ is here.

This news is the best birthday present I could have wished for.

It’s Almost Here! Cruising Hits Blu Ray in Spring 2019!

It’s Almost Here! Cruising Hits Blu Ray in Spring 2019!

The news that I’ve been waiting for for many years has finally come to fruition.

William Friedkin’s masterpiece Cruising is coming to Blu Ray in Spring 2019.

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And not just that but the company handling the release are none other than the amazing Arrow Films. I couldn’t be happier. This release should exceed all expectations.

Heres my essay on the film. Grab your poppers and make sure you’re wearing the correct hanky in the correct back pocket…

 

Review- Black Christmas (1974)

Review- Black Christmas (1974)

Whilst it’s widely thought that it was John Carpenter’s Halloween that initiated the slasher genre those who actually know anything about horror know that it was actually Bob Clark’s Black Christmas made in 1974. In fact, Clark and Carpenter worked together on a project after Black Christmas was made. Clark said to Carpenter that he no longer worked in horror but that he had had an idea for a horror film that was never realised. This would be based around the occasion of, you’ve guessed it, Halloween! Carpenter then later asked to use the idea for a film he was to due to work on and the rest is history. This isn’t to say that Carpenter ripped off Clark but this explains how The Babysitter Murders (the original idea for Halloween) suddenly morphed into the masterpiece we now know and love.

In fact, the opening shots of Black Christmas are similar to those of Halloween- the killer’s point of view camera shot. Halloween reveals who this person is (and it’s one hell of a reveal) but Black Christmas doesn’t. In fact, the killer isn’t revealed fully throughout the entire film which is the first reason that Black Christmas is so revolutionary.

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The story involves a group of female students on the night before they leave their sorority house to go home for the holidays. They start to receive very disturbing phone calls and things start to get dramatically worse soon after.

Another reason to love Black Christmas is that the extent of the killer’s mental instability is shown by the first girl he kills. She is suffocated and then placed in a rocking chair in the attic where the psycho is hiding out. Throughout the film we see him ranting and manically rocking her.

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Arguably some of the most disturbing sequences within the film are when the intruder calls the girls. They don’t know the calls are actually being made by the killer who’s in the attic within the same house. From the calls we come to learn that the person making them is called Billy and that he seems to be playing out incidents from his past, incidents rife with cruelty, abuse and possibly murder. Bob Clark used five different actors for the calls. These phone calls are some of the scariest, most disturbing and unsettling sequences I’ve ever seen in a horror film. They were even cut when the film was first released in the UK.

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Theres also the fact that Black Christmas was the first film to use the now established trope of a killer’s phone calls coming from inside the same house as their potential victim(s). This was years before When A Stranger Calls.

Another great thing about the film is the humour contained within the movie especially from Margot Kidder’s character, Barb. It’s amazing that such an unnerving film can still have genuinely funny interludes but without forsaking the movie’s tension.

But maybe thats because the film is extremely tense indeed. Theres a certain sense of doom to the proceedings that are depicted in the movie. A great example is where Olivia Hussey’s character Jess has just found out that the calls are coming from the sorority house, that Billy is ensconced within it but so are two of her friends (the audience knows otherwise as we saw them get dispatched earlier). On going upstairs (even though the police have phoned and demanded that she leave the house immediately) she enters one of the girl’s bedrooms to discover their dead bodies- and the killer looking at her through a crack in the door. This sequence is one of scariest in horror history.

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Add to this one of the most warped endings I’ve ever seen in a horror movie and you have a masterpiece.

Theres only two horror films with the ability to give me sleepless nights. One is The Exorcist, the other is Black Christmas. Essential.

5 out of 5 stars

Blu Ray Review- When A Stranger Calls (1979)

Blu Ray Review- When A Stranger Calls (1979)

I learnt about When A Stranger Calls after seeing the excellent horror film compilation Terror in the Aisles. I then saw the full film and was blown away. I bought the bare bones American DVD release years later and thought that was the best cineastes would get regarding this film.

So I was thrilled when I learnt that the amazing company Second Sight Films were releasing the movie on Blu ray with a ton of extra features. These include the sequel. And the original short film The Sitter that director Fred Walton made prior to the feature length film. And the soundtrack. This sounded like one hell of an amazing package. Does the reality live up to the specs?

The Film-

A young babysitter receives phone-calls asking if shes ‘checked the children’. After numerous calls to the police she learns that the calls are coming from inside the house (this plot device had only been used one time before in film terms with that film being Bob Clark’s Black Christmas in 1974).

After this extremely tense first 20 mins the film shifts gear and the second act of the film involves the killer, the cop determined to catch him and a bar patron the killer first rather clumsily tries to pick up and when that fails, stalks.

The last act of the film involves the babysitter years later again with the killer trying to kill her again.

Lazy critics and film fans will have you believe that the first and last acts of this film are great, with the middle act (and majority) of the film being boring and pedestrian. This is utter rubbish. My thoughts on the film and particularly the middle act of the film can be found here.

When a Stranger Calls is a masterpiece and I believe one of the best horror films ever made. Really. It should be mentioned in the same breath as Halloween, The Shining and Psycho but isn’t. Maybe this Blu ray release will help to rectify this situation.

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Video-

The transfer on Second Sight’s Blu ray is amazing. The picture quality is flawless and visuals crisp even though the intended look of the film is quite soft. I compared this release to the Region 1 DVD I mentioned earlier and this transfer represents a significant step up in terms of visuals especially in the scenes that happen at night or where shadows are involved. One scene that nicely demonstrates this is the nocturnal walk home the character Tracey takes from the bar.

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Audio-

The audio is just as great as the visuals. Previous releases had a tendency to sound muffled and flat in places. Second Sight’s release rectifies this to such a degree that both music and dialogue are crystal clear and easy to hear. There no need for a manual sound mix using your remote with this release as with so many other releases from other labels.

Features-

This release is jam-packed with special features and the kind of features that fans of the film were waiting decades to see.

Firstly, we get director Fred Walton’s short film The Sitter that was made as a short film with Walton hoping to expand this into a full-length feature after the success of Halloween. It’s interesting to see that a lot of the nuance and detail that are present in the When a Stranger Calls are already a part of The Sitter. The ice maker as a source of terror, Dr Mandrakis’ funny line about ‘we even have low fat yoghurt’ and the opening of the front door to reveal a detective are all in place in The Sitter showing that attention to detail was there from the very start. These elements weren’t added as an afterthought into the full length feature. I’ve waited years to see The Sitter and the wait was worth it. It certainly feels like the embryonic streak of genius that would later be more fully realised in the later film.

The Blu ray also includes the TV movie sequel When A Stranger Calls Back. It was great to finally see this film after hearing so much about it. The character arcs of Carol Kane and Charles Durning’s characters feel realistic and authentic and this is a worthy continuation of their stories. As with the main feature the video and audio on this movie are both top notch.

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Also included are interviews with director Fred Walton, stars Carol Kane and Rutanya Alda and composer Dana Kaproff. For a film of which little was known, fans suddenly have a treasure trove of information about the film’s genesis, it’s production and it’s reception. Walton’s interview is the most revealing and is full of anecdotes which shed considerable light on the film. One such is how actor Tony Beckley felt massively insecure about acting with an actress as great as Carol Kane. Colleen Dewhurst said something to him that instantly remedied the situation beautifully and restored his confidence in his abilities.

And if these special features weren’t brilliant enough we also get the film’s soundtrack on CD (a great addition as Dana Kaproff’s score is a massive part as to why the film works so well), a booklet including an excellent essay on the film and a replica of the original film’s poster.

Of all of the Blu rays I’ve bought this year this is by far the best. A great film has been given the treatment it truly deserves. But I have come to expect this kind of product from Second Sight Films as they were responsible for the amazing package released for The Changeling. I look forward to their release of Boys in the Band early next year.

5 stars out of 5.