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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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- Death Wish 2 (1982)

Review- Death Wish 2 (1982)

Due to all of the controversy regarding this film I had to wait until I was living in Australia for a year to see this opus fully uncut. This film still remains cut here in the UK. At the time of the film’s release the BBFC cut over 3 minutes from the film (chief censor James Ferman seemed proud of this and said that it was surely a record) due to two rape scenes contained within the movie.

The vigilante Paul Kersey (played with badass aloofness by Charles Bronson aka ‘The Man’) has moved from New York (the setting of the original movie) and is now practicing his considerable architectural skills in L.A. But after his housekeeper is raped and killed and his already traumatised daughter is subjected to the same treatment Kersey goes back into ass-kicking mode.

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There’s so much to love about this film. Firstly there’s Jimmy Page’s sleazy, unsettling soundtrack. It suits the film perfectly. There are sounds, moods and textures heard that make you want to luxuriant in it’s aural squalor whilst also wanting to run to the shower with a bottle of bleach and a wire brush. Yes, it’s THAT good. The soundtrack was actually nominated for a Razzie in the year of it’s release. As was Ennio Morricone’s score for The Thing. I’m part grinning, part grimacing as I write this…

The movie adores Los Angeles and lovingly shows its sun-drenched beauty but also the rotten underbelly of LA by night. The sequences when Kersey rents a dirty motel room, dresses down and prowls the nocturnal streets to find the scum who killed his daughter are some of the best ever captured on film of inner-city horror and urban decay. They also give the city’s amazing freaks, punks and ‘local colour’ centre-stage. These moments are worth the price of admission alone.

Hell, we even get Charles ‘Sheriff Bracken’ Cyphers thrown into the mix.

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But the thing I love most about this film is that Winner knew what he was directing. He was making an exploitation film and so the core elements of violence, retribution and gunplay are all exaggerated and amplified. Y’know- EXPLOITATION!

And this is what makes the film so enjoyable- and why Winner was so unfazed by the level of criticism that certain (but not all) critics levelled against the film. He knew that the hacks of the day always (and very predictably) slated films that audiences loved in drive-ins and 42nd Street cinemas. And he didn’t give a toss. He knew what audiences wanted and gave it to them. But rather than creating a rushed piece of crap he crafted a polished film that truly delivered but also had enough room for social commentary.

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It’s worth watching the studio debate on the film that was televised before Death Wish 2’s release. Enjoy Michael Winner’s relaxed, considered and educated response to criticism of the film from the hysterical feminist Anna ‘Rabies’ Raeburn and the show’s presenter.

It’s also worth seeking out the TV programme about film violence that Winner took part in with none other than Mary Whitehouse. Yes, the woman who spoke about The Evil Dead as if it was a snuff film EVEN THOUGH SHE HAD NEVER SEEN IT!

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Bore off

This is something that exploitation film fans understand- the actual genre and it’s conventions and tropes. We know that The Evil Dead is the horror equivalent of a dark comedy (in places, anyway) with blood by the gallon load replacing custard pies. We also realise that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is just as darkly comedic. This is because we’ve actually bothered to watch such films unlike the blinkered, elitist journalists or moral panic perpetuating self-appointed public decency crusaders.

And Michael Winner knew about this genre of films also. Enjoy his expertise.

4 out of 5 stars

31 Days of Halloween- Day 31- Dawn of the Dead (1978)

31 Days of Halloween- Day 31- Dawn of the Dead (1978)

The sequel to George A Romero’s Night of the Living Dead shows that the zombie epidemic has gotten much worse and society is on it’s knees. Two television workers plan to escape with two SWAT team members in the TV station traffic helicopter in search of…whatever they can find that’s better than their current situation.

There is so much to love about this friggin’ film. The tenement opening scene (the shoulder bite was cut by the BBFC as was the exploding head), the way the film suddenly changes course completely as the four fly off in the helicopter, the scene where they land to fill up the copter with fuel (theres the taboo of zombie kids being shot here. Theres also the amazing scene of the zombie having his head decapitated by the helicopter’s blades) and then we get to THE SHOPPING MALL!!!

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The shopping mall/man trap

The mall is one of the greatest locations ever used in a film. Imagine having this shopping centre at your personal disposal with everything inside being free and your property. I love Romero’s social commentary regarding this. The dream of consumerism quickly rings hollow as do the images being conveyed within the advertising produced before the zombie epidemic. Within the extended cut of Dawn (which is just as good, if not better than the original theatrical cut of the movie) the female character Francine is the only person who wants to leave the mall when the topic comes up of whether to move on or not. The men state that they have everything they need here and so should stay but Francine says that the mall is ‘a rut. A trap’. Ans she’s completely right.

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The four main characters

The zombies continue to come to the mall (Stephen mentions that ‘this was a big part of their lives’) which is a brilliantly wry observation by Romero. In this film the living dead have a very aesthetically pleasing blue tinge to their skin. Within the film the blood is redder than red making the film fully realise it’s comic-book vision. But it’s more than this. The film looks like a series of Pop Art paintings come to life. Andy Warhol had plenty to say about consumerism and mass production (his studio was called ‘The Factory’). It’s almost like he was art director on this opus.

But aside from all of the insights and allegories, this film is just great, great fun! The kills are innovative, disgusting and completely brilliant (Tom Savini returns to make-up and special effects duties and this film is probably the best demonstration of his work). Savini also stars as the members of a biker gang who try to take over the mall and seize it from the main four characters.

Wanna see a custard pie fight between bikers and zombies? Wanna see a zombie Hare Krishna, nurse and nun? Wanna see John Amplas (the lead from Romero’s earlier ‘Martin’) as a Pop Art Hispanic dude? It’s all in this film- and much much more.

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A zombie gets a custard pie in the kisser

I also love the character arc for Francine and the bromance between Peter and Roger.

This film has it all. Seriously.

5 out of 5 stars

31 Days of Halloween- Day 30- Night of the Living Dead (1968)

31 Days of Halloween- Day 30- Night of the Living Dead (1968)

A mysterious radiation thought to have been brought back to Earth after a space probe to Venus is bringing the dead back to life to feast on the living. A young woman named Barbara is visiting her dead father’s grave with her brother Johnny when…

This film has so much of a great reputation amongst horror fans and cinema scholars alike. Does it live up to this?

In a word- YES. Not only does it feel real (it’s based in the America it was made in and looks almost like a documentary) but you get the impression that the events that take place in the course of the film could actually happen. We are witnessing the fabric of society unravelling magnificently due to the disaster which has occurred. Life (and death) will never be the same again after this literally Earth-changing event.

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Hitchcock may have ripped up the horror rulebook by disposing of Janet Leigh’s character Marion Crane early on in Psycho when the audience wrongly thought of her as the main female character who would make it to the end of the film. But George A Romero goes one better in Night. Barbara is still in the majority of the film but is so traumatised by her ordeal that she is rendered catatonic for the rest of her tenure. And what a great performance it is- a mental breakdown captured on celluloid, a brilliant portrayal of a response to trauma. Watch the scene where Barbara comes across the music box. It’s one of the most unsettling scenes I’ve ever seen.

Romero also holds a mirror up to societal tensions and conflicts throughout the film. Duane Jones as Ben is the lead of the movie but is also African American- unheard of except when depicted by Sidney Poitier in mainstream Hollywood films that felt groundbreaking and progressive but also marginalised. These films squarely tackled race (and rightly so). But Jones just happens to be black and this is never mentioned in Night. His race isn’t an explicit issue in the film- but maybe directs the actions of other characters (check out the conclusion to Night. There are MANY different readings and interpretations of this. It’s the most shocking ending I have ever seen in a film and just as relevant today as it was back then. I actually get a shiver down my spine just thinking about it and what we see during the end credits of this film).

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Duane Jones plays Ben

But there are other societal echoes within Night. Notice how Ben gives his monologue regarding the backstory as to how he ended up at the farmhouse. Jones is truly astonishing especially here. But then watch how he reacts when Barbara tells her story- her account is no less serious or devastating as she’s just seen her brother being knocked unconscious after being attacked by a member of the undead during an event that should have been humdrum and routine. She is termed hysterical by Ben who tells her to calm down. Different oppressed sectors of society with equally disturbing back stories to tell but instead of each being given their time to share their experiences, a member of one group tells the other to effectively shut up. 50 years on, this film is still relevant.

This film also has a lot to say about the family of that time. The traditional family is under attack from the zombies (as Robin Wood expressed using his theory of ‘Return of the Repressed’). The notion of Mom, Dad and 2.4 children (possibly with an apple pie on the table) is no more. The new family in the farmhouse consists of disparate members of society who are forced together to survive against what has gone wrong in the outside world. In fact, in one scene we see Ben actually taking apart the notion of the family and the household from within as he starts taking apart furniture like the kitchen table to barricade the doors and windows with. The scene where the mother is stabbed to death by her daughter who has been bitten by a zombie represents the death of the outdated notion of the family in it’s purest form. The new killing and replacing what and who has gone before.

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Child kills parent, the new killing the old

The first time I saw this film it had actually been colorised but still worked. The thinking behind this colorisation was probably the video company thinking that all horror films made within a certain timeframe were ‘kitsch’, camp and unworthy of serious analysis or enjoyment. I believe the term is ‘so bad it’s good’ (vomit). I remember an advert for a screening of the film on the UK’s Channel 4 that billed the film as a typical 60’s drive-in B movie- cue emphasis on bad acting, rubbish make-up and all round tack. Wrong on EVERY count.

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It was a revelation when I first saw the film as it was intended to be seen in black and white. It’s actually a beautiful film with every frame resembling the work of the Nouvelle Vague rather than some Grindhouse fodder made on the cheap to be shown to the stoned.

I saw this film yesterday on the big screen. It was the Criterion 4K restoration and it looked and sounded amazing.

If punk is seen as Year Zero for music then this is Year Zero for horror and one of a whole slew of films that represented a turning point for American film in general.

Fun fact- this is the film on in the background when Harold is having a sandwich made in Halloween 2 (1981).

5 out of 5 stars

31 Days of Halloween- Day 29- The Amityville Horror Part 2- The Possession (1982)

31 Days of Halloween- Day 29- The Amityville Horror Part 2- The Possession (1982)

I love a sequel that not only ups the ante regarding the original film but decides to be as extreme as possible and really ‘go for it’.

In this film theres a new family who move into Amityville. You know that any family that includes Burt Young and Rutanya Alda as members is going to be dysfunctional. And, by Christ, I mean VERY dysfunctional. Any film that deals with incest is going to be special. Theres also a domestic violence subplot which is just as shocking.

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Keeping it in the family

Add to that some of the grossest special effects as the teenage son is possessed and transformed into an utter beast of a nightmarish character and you have a great, twisted and truly messed up (in a good way) sequel.

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I remember this having one of the most disturbing sleeves of any horror video in my local video stores which instantly made me want to investigate this further.

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Truly disturbing VHS art for Amityville 2

There is also a scene involving a Sony Walkman which freaked me out so much that it made me question using mine for days after seeing this filth classic.

Don’t miss this messed up gem of a movie.

4 out of 5 stars