SEAT AT THE BACK

SEAT AT THE BACK - SCRIBBLES! ~ Films on the Seat at the Back playlist right now: KIDS IN LOVE; JUNE; CURVE; WILD, BARELY LETHAL; GODDESS OF LOVE; THE VATICAN TAPES .. What a night in!

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

NIGHTMARE MUSINGS! ~ KIM NEWMAN AND MARK KERMODE IN CONVERSATION @ THE BFI/ LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH ~29th April 2011

















* The review of Let's Scare Jessica To Death at the end of this article may contain plot spoilers hiding in the lake - watch before reading!*
 
 
 
Two dapper men wearing lovingly polished shoes (I know this - I was in the front row at shoe level) talk horror films and Nightmare Movies - the book, and the films of the book. Kim Newman is one the country's leading genre film critics and film magazine contributors (horror, fantasy and low budget madness a speciality) as well as a bestselling horror and fantasy novelist and short story writer. Mark Kermode is a fellow leading film critic and friend of Mr Newman - often spotted on BBC2's The Culture Show and on Radio 5 Live when not on stage with his skiffle band, The Dodge Brothers.


It's to be an infectious, adrenalin rush of a chat. But just before their appearance on stage, these two good men had been spotted at the BFI restaurant, deep in conversation. We find out later that such issues as: which film is better, 1983's Chained Heat (a campy exploitation movie starring a grown-up Linda Blair of The Exorcist, chained up and undoubtedly 'in heat' in an L.A women's prison) - or 1985's Red Heat (which is pretty much the same as the previous movie but this time cast into the East German 'sunshine' with Sylvia 'Emmanuelle' Kristel joining in the fun in a way only she knows how) had been among the hot topics of conversation gesticulating gastronomically at the table.
 
Oh to be a fly on the napkin at a dinner where a debate on low budget cinematic trash rages between these two men; these two giants of the critical whiplash and tender reviewer's hugs and kisses - possibly the only two men on the planet who can make such movies as Chained Heat seem suddenly so obviously comparable to the best works of Polanski, Welles or Bergman. I think Mr Kermode later confirmed they both eventually agreed that Red Heat was the better film. They never told us why - and we probably dare not ask.
 
In an earlier edit of this article, I incorrectly assumed they were both talking about the 'Red Heat' actioner from 1988 that starred Arnold Schwarzenegger as a Russian narco-policeman on the trail of a US drug dealer, until corrected later by Mr Newman himself that they were actually talking about the Red Heat where Sylvia Kristel and Linda Blair get all sweaty (both of body and attitude) with each other as prisoners in a West German warm shower. Oh alright, more accurately then - prisoners in a West German prison camp! With a big shower. I always hated that Scwarzenegger movie though.
 


Despite an admiration and love of recent horrors as well as the classics of old, it was obvious that many modern genre films don't float either Mark or Kim's boat as much as some of the less recent horrors still do: the audience was asked to raise a hand if any of us actually thought Transformers was a good movie. A few did raise a wrist limply skywards. Not many though. Kim Newman made the point that the old horror masters of old; the likes of Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper for instance - often lived and really thought what they filmed; hippy artist drifters all. They vented their fury at their country's politics into the films they made. Unlike today, when horror directors are more privileged, working their way up through more sensible training in advertising or the like - their fears and obsessions more thought out and more likely to be against 'those awful foreigners you meet on a very expensive holiday in the sun'!
 
Still, both Newman and Kermode obviously hold strong affection for all horror movies of all types and from all decades – if it’s good, it’s good, and when it’s bad . . But there's no snobbery involved. Both critics support and appreciate modern horror film making and raise the profile of movies that normally would be forgotten outside of a lonely bottom shelf in Blockbuster.

No other critic as Newman has given as much hope and dirty blood-red spotlight to low-budget, independent horror and genre directors working in the industry today. Just because he is sceptical of some modern-day horror film making, doesn't mean he doesn't appreciate it - he defends Rob Zombie, remaker of Halloween (2007), and all-round certifiably 'out there' horror film director, as being a maker of fairly enjoyable movies if not exactly being typically 'good' at his craft; stating that Zombie has an infectious love of horror that creeps through into the films he makes, pulling you towards an admiration for the movie, if not exactly always rating it artistically. 
 
Zombie (the director, not the living dead - though he could be both) earns respect from Kim for including the kind of themes you 'want' to see included in a horror movie, even if, to do so - to add the kind of condiments that some critics loathe, sometimes makes the film look a little more ridiculous and open to abuse. I don’t think Newman is bothered by the term ‘ridiculous’ masking his love of any movie. Tobe Hooper’s Funhouse (1981) is a little ridiculous. He loves that one too. For the same reasons he can appreciate a Rob Zombie directed movie that puts in all the things it shouldn’t - not so much kicking out the trash perhaps, as taking the whole can and emptying it right out into the movie; a celebration of popcorn putrescence. Kermode simply says that all Rob Zombie movies "are crap" - and he says it with some anger. "No really, they’re crap" - he repeats even more angrily than before, despite not really being challenged on this by anyone.
 
 
 

I get the feeling that while Kim Newman doesn't agree with Kermode on the 'Rob Zombie' issue, they both know the stage isn't the place to have a mini chainsaw massacre about it. I wouldn’t be surprised if Kim knows the director Rob Zombie personally (as I’m sure Mark Kermode does - or their paths have at least crossed) and Newman clearly appreciates Zombie’s intentions, if not always the finished movies - at least to his own extent. He's also, you suspect, too nice a guy to get involved in a public hanging of any director who at least tries to inject some new blood into cinema, unless he really has to. Although, not exactly true - he later publicly hangs the recent movie Sucker Punch (2011) a number of hilarious times.

I'm glad there isn't total agreement on stage. Newman and Kermode are good friends as well as being close professionally, both having (we are told tonight) worked their way up through the same kind of training grounds where they cut their razor sharp reviewers teeth on trash - even once reviewing (for Monthly Film Bulletin; a BFI publication that ran from 1934 to 1991 before being absorbed into the perhaps less eclectic, but equally studious, Sight and Sound magazine) a stack of heavily cut porn movies that they wonderfully tell us they started to make up their own alternative plots to, just to pass the time! Even with both men being perhaps the two most prominent and infectious film critics we have in the UK, it's clear - from the Red Heat/ Chained Heat debate they mention from the earlier dinner, that they like to argue and debate movies as much as the rest of us mere mortals, even when not being paid to do so. Often with gloves off. And boy do these two terrify when the gloves are off. But no love - no mutual respect – is ever lost on the big screen battlefields they love to debate.
 
 


While Sucker Punch gets a laugh, Newman comments that he still respects the current generation of filmmakers and their love of more flashy, well-groomed scary movies and still even gets scared by some of them, or at least gets to jump in his seat a few times – he can value to an extent, remakes that are shot with less love and less imperfections, that are more polished and are perhaps less raw that some of the films he still loves from his childhood, and even admits his opinion isn't the only one out there, or even the right one.
 
Newman's a flamboyant, opinionated, and often stubborn or scathing critic, but he’s not a snob - his Nightmare Movies book covers all kinds of nightmare-drenched genres, including modern day tortures and evil Japanese schoolgirls (he talks about the evil Japanese schoolgirl genre rather a lot, with an extra glint in his eye as he does!) as well as the old familiar horror tour de forces, such as possession movies and a genre I have decided to call slasher-dasher (mainly from the 80s and featuring a quick teen sprint finish of five stabbings, two bonks and a joint).
 
Newman even admits later to admiring films that, despite having little critical value, are still good fun - he mentions the teen road comedy Eurotrip (2004). I think he's right, it’s a fine movie: sexy, satirical and funny in all the right places, with a fresh, energy-drink-buzzing cast that keeps things grinning all the way to the end of the road. No European culture or caricature left unscratched, rather like the equally awfully appealing National Lampoon's European Vacation prickled privates and ruffled feathers 20 years earlier. Michelle Trachtenberg, from Buffy, is outstanding in her role as tag-along-for-the-ride, bloke-girl Jenny, who later shocks her male pals when she suddenly blooms wildly on a beach in a (loosened) bikini in the film's most teasing (and best remembered) pivotal scene. Trachtenberg plays the role smart, innocent, savvy - and should have had a bigger career in movies rather than a constantly big career (still) on US TV.
 

 
We all have favourite films we like to call 'our' films - the ones that everyone else hates, that our friends scoff at. Our very own secret-video-box-in-the-attic kind of favourite movies; I have a deep love of Howling VII: New Moon Rising (1995) a film that scores 1 out of 10 in user reviews on IMDB and which is essentially just a few country music-loving oddballs singing and dancing their way through bad line dancing, with lots of drinking and eating hot dogs in the local bar (and random guitar strumming and country sing-a-longs - or sing-a-bit-badly-a-longs) before everyone remembers at the end that there's supposed to be a werewolf - cue: someone puts on a mask for a 5 minute horror film-like chase in the final reel. But, despite being crap, I love it! That's all that matters. The people, the 'actors', in that movie are like close friends to me now, every now and then I like to see them get up and dance and talk about that werewolf that runs around outside in the last five minutes of the movie like an afterthought, or a post-dinner burp.
 
 


Of course, the classic horror films that defined a generation are praised by both Kim and Mark the most tonight: Night of the Living Dead, Hammer horrors, and, notably - Abel Ferrara's infamous Driller Killer (1979). Kim Newman praised this movie way back then, and still does today; there's a bad pop group in the film, that he says "should be bad" - it's symbolic of driving the lead character insane! Both Kim and Mark see Driller Killer as a great film, but there's no mention as to whether it would have been so great without the UK video store poster campaign that featured a close-up of a man's head being drilled and which was pasted on early video shop walls and in shop windows without shame - it was great being a kid back then! You never got that in Blockbuster! Actually, the poster art of the up-close drilling work on the Driller Killer posters was one of the few moments of actual horror. The rest of the movie is more like Polanski's Repulsion, and rather cerebral a fright flick, not at all a slasher movie. But nightmares come in all genres.


A question from the audience talks of the decline of great horror directors such as Dario Argento and William Friedkin. Newman states that perhaps fans are too often looking for a repeat of past classics such as Argento's Suspiria to notice what comes next. Personally, I don't think Argento has slipped into a decline. His last couple of movies have stuck two fingers up at the critics and even the fans (like myself) by going against the expected and generally freaking out, as if Hitchcock had suddenly started making romantic westerns set in Birmingham starring a blow-up doll - kind of wrong, but clearly great (sadly he never did do such a thing!).
 
I love that bloody-mindedness that Argento has shown in his recent films such as Mother of Tears and Giallo. Kermode also mentions some great Friedkin movies other than The Exorcist (and this man loves, lives, breathes The Exorcist) as being his guilty pleasures; such as Al Pacino’s Cruising (1980) but doesn't include the 'difficult' Friedkin film The Guardian (1990) which I adore.
 
The Guardian is troubled, a little jumbled up, but it's also a quietly great horror film (about a nanny played by Jenny Seagrove who sacrifices a well-to-do family's baby to a demonic tree in the nearby wood - so how’s that for original?) with a screenplay from Stephen (Ghostwatch, The Awakening) Volk that provides an earthy, erotic, Grimm’s-Fairy-Tale-take on the usual horror film conventions; similar in tone and wicked dread to The Evil Dead or The Company of Wolves. The Guardian even has much to remind us - but don't burn me alive in a wicker-stitched effigy of Kim Newman or something for saying so - of one of the greatest horror films ever made - The Wicker Man.



Any debate on the current state of scary movie-making couldn’t end before more modern day extreme and headline-hugging horror is discussed; films such as Saw and Hostel. Which kind of seem like Disney movies (although Disney back in the day was as scary as anything - I still shudder at the thought of the old warty witch in Snow White or the rather more attractive, demonic witch and the slithering black dragon in Sleeping Beauty) compared to two other horror films that have caught all the 'corruption of the people' headlines in recent times: the enfant terrible twins of A Serbian Film and The Human Centipede (First Sequence). Shudder!


Kim Newman says that he didn't think either 2010’s A Serbian Film (the movie that caused a stir at that year's London FrightFest and was dropped from the festival due to organiser outrage at the heavy BBFC cuts) or The Human Centipede (2009) were as shocking in reality as "the thought of them". Not long after tonight's debate at the BFI, the film 'The Human Centipede II', the so-called 'Full Sequence', gets banned outright by the BBFC (the film since released in the UK with heavy cuts). Maybe the thought of a sequel - for film censors - was too much to cope with second time around. A step - or a slither - too far.
 
The sequel is actually a smarter movie; delving into far darker territory than the first film's surprisingly more mainstream frights and ickiness. This time around, we have the tale of a man, obsessed with horror films, who tries to act out the movie The Human Centipede, to a less slick conclusion as the skilled surgeon did in the first film (and he wasn't all that skilled). The plot of the second centipede is undoubtedly horrid film-making, but also a nice comment on the reasons perhaps that horror fans think the BBFC cut films like this in the first place; in case 'people like us' do 'things like that'. It's the 'Chucky syndrome' from the late 80's where every mass murderer must have watched Child's Play at least once, despite the fact that - even if they had - there's no firm link between fictional horror and real horror; or certainly no more so than any kind of fiction or filmmaking ferments a desire to act out these roles for real in public places for some people.
 
The out-loud mention and description of horror film themes or on-screen shocks (such as those found within The Human Centipede or A Serbian Film), as Kim Newman reminds us tonight - often astounds those who are listening far more than the films themselves actually do. Or ever could.
 
 


There's no doubt that the themes and scenes witnessed in A Serbian Film are extremely disturbing to watch as well as hear about. It would be hard not to flinch at the raw violence and taboo tragedies unfolding before your eyes, all set to a frankly terrific film score of relentless ominous electronic surging and dark, heavy drum beats. But to be fair, it’s actually very well acted (hey, we need to repeat that word more often; 'acted' – as films that frustrate the censors and often the likes of the Daily Mail, really are 'just movies', and they aren't real, at least - I hope not!). Shocking and taboo-baiting yes, but a film still far less flinch-worthy than the media may have us believe, as a lot of the horror is suggested. Oh, and also of course, in this country - cut.
 
A Serbian Film undoubtedly remains a raw, unflinching work from (surprise!) a Serbian director angry at the apparent 'rape of his country' and the work exists - in theory - as a metaphor for the real life horrors the Serbian people have endured. Or so the director, Srdjan Spasojevic, says. I think I mostly believe him. Others don’t. It’s a film you couldn’t 'love' in any right sense of the word, and understandably caused outrage among many of those who have seen/endured it. But it’s only the second half – or even the second half of the second half! - that really, and really brutally, shocks. The first half is quite languid, if ominous, like waiting in a dental surgery watching kids play, and the flowers on the table sway in the breeze, while all the time a whine of a drill can just about be heard - and you know; you KNOW, that you're going to that bad place next. Soon . .
 
Inevitability is everything in a horror movie. But anyone with an interest in horror film or ‘nightmare movies’, especially from a critical perspective, should probably see films such as A Serbian Movie as well as the obvious, more 'loveable' classics of the genre such as Kubrick's The Shining, Hammer's Dracula, Karloff's Frankenstein, because even if you do watch it, and then hate it - it’s a far more justifiable hatred once you have actually seen the film itself, than if you haven’t.
 
 
 
 
The cut UK DVD of A Serbian Film opens with an introduction from the director drinking some liquid that he tells us slyly not to worry about, as it’s only the iced tea they used as a special effect in the film (my god, I'm trying to remember now for what effect they used a liquid such as this - or is that the joke itself, that they didn't?) and ends his intro with a comment, referring to BBFC cuts of a fearsome four minutes: "I hope the BBFC don't cut this introduction as we.." as the screen cuts straight to a test card. All quite gorgeous gallows humour (for me anyway!) - and worth purchasing the UK DVD for alone!

Kim Newman clearly doesn't appreciate - or like all that much - the more extreme, so-called ‘torture porn’ horror and anticipates the fast approaching, or possibly already approached, demise of the genre that saw the likes of Hostel and Saw hit the mainstream with a big fat splat (and become almost as familiar as a family gathering on a rainy Sunday afternoon). Despite a recent Saw movie; Part VI, seeing the lowest returns for this series yet, it's still a potentially lucrative franchise; enough to justify the recent 7th entry luridly, lingeringly shot in splattery 3D (that was mostly critically laughed off as a desperate step too far, although it's not the worst in the series by any means - and box office takings for this one suddenly broke all kinds of records again). The franchise, for the moment, lives on, if not in the quality control of new plotlines.
 
The Saw sequels are really only just about hanging in there, with the series currently on uncertain hiatus, but certain to be back. They've become mainstream, as controversy seems to do to films like this; like Human Centipede - the more mentioned in the mainstream media these films are, the more familiar they become. As a tried and tested line from a super-villain in a bad movie might say: "The more you fear me, the stronger I become". Much like kids in the 80's wore Freddy-fingered gloves with plastic blades on for scaring younger brothers and sisters with (and still do!) despite the decline of the franchise itself - the Saw movies have now become a family ride at a theme park for kids to brag about going on, much like the JAWS ride took a big bite out of the pockets of panicky punters nearly 40 years after the original movie was made. Popularity may wane, but some ideas live on in the memory, past and present, to keep on playing with. Even after everyone has stopped watching. Although, since writing this article, the JAWS ride is criminally no more (RIP-January 2012).


Of the tortuous terrors genre, Newman mentions a particular liking for Hostel: Part II, at least a 'liking' over the first part, that I totally agree with - the sequel being far more politically-motivated and scathing, and better. He mentions other films (prompted by a question as to whether horror can still shock us) such as the infamous and mostly stupid Japanese-made Guinea Pig (1985) movies for which he gave up on watching for most of the many sequels that were made; it’s not his thing, although he says those films are probably not as extreme as their reputation suggests. Earlier he tells us he 'worries about' film fans who actually enjoy horror films that revel in only the torture without anything else to go with it.
 
I suspect that such films will always need some kind of morally redeeming quality or decent plotline to save their souls with, as horror is actually one of the most redemptive and morally imbued of all film and literary genres; most horror movies serving as a moral fable of some kind - even if it's just the 'don't have sex in a tent in the woods while smoking drugs when your parents aren't watching or you may end up dead' kind of a moral. Even the modern-day scandal that is A Serbian Film had political motivation to defend itself with. Human Centipede too had human friendship in the face of blind terror as justification: to work together and escape the clutches of evil; the cast having to unchain themselves from human bondage and the corruptive nature of modern-day medicine and move their legs as one to achieve personal freedom.
 
 


Oh, come on - who am I kidding here? Myself? Not all rules work for all movies. And horror is entirely unpredictable as much as it can be totally predictable at times. Newman is equally dismissive of the equally infamous Faces of Death series of films from the 80's (real-life accidents and suicides mixed with fake mock-ups of the same). He tells us he has volumes 3 and 4 in a box somewhere of Faces of Death that he keeps thinking he may watch when he has a spare few hours but never does get round to watching them - he always chooses a more favourite classic movie to watch and love and chill out to in those precious few hours instead.
 
There’s not much horror Kim Newman hasn't seen - the good, the really bad, the ugly, the brilliant. I can’t see him hiding behind the sofa anytime soon at the horrors of cinema, extreme or otherwise. In fact, he tells us that it’s right horror should still shock and seem dangerous and sometimes subversive, that horror retains the image of being a genre "you wouldn’t want your dad to like with you" – it all goes back to creeping into cinemas late at night when you shouldn’t; seeing films you know you wouldn’t normally be allowed to see. Perhaps that’s why the horror films you see in your childhood are the ones you will forever think are the best – because it’s a peak time to get scared.
 
You never forget that moment. You never forget the moment you watch: Lon Chaney Jr as the Wolf Man, running through the dark woods howling, snarling - maybe at you; the moment Frankenstein’s monster throws the little girl into the water; the two hitchhikers checking out the pub on the Moors before the werewolf attacks in An American Werewolf In London; the vampire child floating in the air, tapping at the window in Salem’s Lot, the shark in Jaws chomping down on Quint as the boat lifts up in the air; the moment the Nazi guard melts in the trail of demonic angels in Raiders of the Lost Ark . .
 
Nightmares - movie nightmares of the type Kim Newman talks about in his definitive book on the subject, aren’t just found in horror movies. They can cross genres. They can be Robert DeNiro as Al Capone agonisingly slamming down a baseball bat on some rival gangster’s head (with a sound that chills and cracks the bone) in the viscous The Untouchables (1987) or Kurt Russell finding his wife has gotten a lift with a truck driver in the desert who later denies ever having met the couple in the brilliant Breakdown (1997) – that’s nightmare. That’s Nightmare Movies.
 
 


Newman still sees nightmares in all kinds of places, after years of watching them creep up and bite; sometimes he finds them in the movies where you would least expect them to live. He tells us he ends his currently updated book with a quote from a film that he loves; the Oscar-winning western There Will Be Blood (2007), a film that he sees as having a dark undertone of horror running through it; the vampire legend reborn (and Newman still obsesses over vampires, his classic, award-winning Anno Dracula novels currently being republished and new instalments written). Daniel-Day Lewis's character of Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood is not much of a step away from Christopher Lee's Dracula, cruelly manipulating and seducing the innocent and baiting those of faith; biting down with blood-spurting lustful venom on those that fascinate or challenge his ways. The last words of There Will Be Blood are also the last words of Newman's revised Nightmare Movies book - 'I'm finished’.
 
And for the moment, for all Newman's renewed work and updating of his iconic publication (this important and essential reference work for all lovers of horror movies, from the casual, remake or old-school fan - to the Human Centipede-obsessed kind that I'm thinking the BBFC loathes and maybe slightly fears) he really is done and dusted - finished. But I suspect, only for the time being. I can see an updated version reappearing in a couple of decades, opinions slightly changing on films he's loved but with even more blood-stained stories to tell of less merciful vampires, longer centipedes, hairier werewolves, more eccentric exorcists and a whole slew of new favourite horror films to tell us about. I, for one - like the armies of the dead, buried not as deep in the ground as we might soon have liked, all worryingly waiting, ready to rise; ready to push a hand through the dirt and be birthed to the surface one more time - really can't wait!


It was an unforgettable night on the South Bank, hearing Kim Newman discuss his favourite horror movies as well as some of his most hated (though I secretly think he quietly adores those kind too!) with the cheers of a Royal Wedding day outside all but faded away. It was inspiring to hear both Kim and Mark recount movies that give us all such great nightmares; movies that you may not even think about being nightmarish at all and that reside outside the mainstream. Special praise tonight goes to the David Lynch film (Kim mentions Lynch as perhaps being the ultimate purveyor of movie nightmares) - Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992), a film that Kermode says annoyed the hell out of many Twin Peaks fans who described it as complete rubbish in fanzines.
 
Since this debate, the BFI have run a David Lynch season, and Fire Walk With Me was, for me, the highlight - far sleazier, trickier and effortlessly weirder than the series itself, full of great, applaud-in-the-head moments such as a setpiece in a drug-drenched nightclub with music so loud and driven that words are rendered useless; a perfect nightmare and a subversive, genre-defying, bloody difficult evil twin of a movie that melts the Twin Peaks mythology as deliriously as the Wicked Witch of the West went down in The Wizard of Oz. Buying my ticket for the Twin Peaks movie at the BFI became essential after hearing Newman and Kermode remind us all of how wonderful a work of cinema it is.
 
 


That's the trouble with Nightmare Movies and with Kim Newman; you just want to watch all the films he's watched, even the ones he hates. The enthusiasm of Mark and Kim together on stage was infectious, like a David Cronenberg-like virus spreading (but not quite as messily as it does in that man's movies) through the drooling watchers all twitching in their seats (or at least, I was beginning to wonder about the man in the big hat next to me; his hand often lodged in a plastic bag of possible sinister tricks that he never took anything out from . . something wicked this way was sat - right next to me).
 
Mark Kermode was, of course, the perfect host at this party, and the ideal man for Newman to be ‘in conversation’ with, letting his guest do most of the talking - but also joining in and giving his opinion too, without stealing the show (not that anyone could ever steal any show from the flamboyant Mr Newman, it has to be said!). Mark even talks of his now immortal (among horror film fans) defending of the Wes Craven (now the man most famous perhaps for the more mainstream Scream movies) shocker; that 1970's ultimate urban natural nightmare of a movie - Last House on the Left. It's a film that I remember was released in a DVD version back in the 90's, where the BBFC cuts could be seen via a website link to a few movie stills of what was actually missing (hey; those were the good old days, and of course, any self-respecting horror fan would own the uncut US DVD anyway; ownership feeling even more evil than any film itself could actually live up to upon viewing - but that Last House did).
 
Talking about his scholarly defence of this movie led to a hilarious comment from Kermode that, upon defending the merits of the film and the restoration of the film cuts, and even appearing in court to do so (thinking, he says, of himself as "Doctor Mark Kermode" to the rescue) the BBFC subsequently increased the original cuts they had made - from 15 seconds to 30 seconds, as a result! The film is released uncut in the UK today. Compared to modern horror cinema it’s a walk in the park, but it’s still a nightmare park to be walking in.
 
At the end of tonight’s event, Newman introduces his movie screening choice; it's Let's Scare Jessica to Death (1971). He catches Kermode out with a trivia question about a link between this movie and The Exorcist. Both films share an actor. Kermode (who couldn't guess the link) jokingly chastises Kim for this, and says he was doing Kim "a favour as a mate" hosting this event, only to be caught out by an unexpected and on-the-spot Exorcist trivia question. Mark Kermode and The Exorcist; his most favourite movie - don't mess! Anyway, Kim recounts that the film he has chosen is rarely seen theatrically. In fact, it was last shown on the big screen at the launch of the first edition of Nightmare Movies, decades back. It's also a film that hasn't had a video or DVD release in the UK yet, despite a great reputation for scaring the hell out of anyone who watches it.
 
 


Kim talked earlier about how movie nightmares can be born out of the time and place you saw them first, and it’s the same here. Let's Scare Jessica To Death reminds him of when his family moved to a farm in the country when he was young, and experienced such odd events as the locals cutting his parent's hosepipe into four segments, for no good reason, in the same way perhaps we don't know why the locals picked on Burt Reynolds and his pals in the film Deliverance - other than because it was a Tuesday and the nearest bar was closed, perhaps. As mentioned earlier, some movies, especially rarely seen ones, can be a secret favourite, that you like to share now and again. Kim tells us that such movies are perfect to have stored in the head; for those times when someone importantly tells you that Carrie is the best horror film ever made, only for you to say: "Ah, but, have you seen Let’s Scare Jessica to Death?" Well - have you?


There's a 70s movie called The Brute that I often like to parade as a little seen nightmare. It's a bit like Let's Scare Jessica. It has some slightly ridiculous, over the top scenes and over-acting, but also has: real atmosphere, power, ability to shock, beauty of location (lingering shots of early mist in the wild countryside), long sequences where not much happens - or moments where too much happens at once, jolts and shocks, unexpected romps in the bed (or on the sofa) and a powerful, resonant, but serious, theme of domestic abuse at its heart. Basically it has everything.
 
What The Brute doesn’t have, is my favourite sequence from Let’s Scare Jessica that features a lovingly-shot apple orchard and the rape of the natural landscape from the out-of-towners through the endless clouds of unnatural pesticides from their crop-spraying tractor; up and down, up and down - a city boy bringing this new abuse to the natural landscape while wearing a quite horrific looking mask to protect his identity from his obsessive tainting of the natural beauty around him. It’s a surprise when this young man (driving his tractor like an excited boy with a new bike) is seduced by the pretty ‘lodger’ back at the house and stands there in front of her, covered in that chemical dust that he says he should really "clean himself up" from - his bizarre seductress doesn’t seem to care, at all. With hindsight, it’s unfortunately obvious why.
 




Throughout Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, the three out-of-towners are warned off by the quick suspicious looks of the sinister locals as they force their lifestyle on the people and the place around them; making the languid, zombie-like existence of the rural community seem preferable to the loud and show-offy, crop-spraying, greedy lifestyle (symbolised by the aggressive selling of goods that aren’t even theirs to local shops) that the newcomers lead; ‘invaders’ of a place where they are clearly not welcome.
 
There's a beauty in scaring Jessica to death, although, out of the three people in her group, Jessica is the only one who clearly doesn't deserve what might happen to her when we get close to the end credits. Although, in one way, maybe she does - she deserves a kind of peace. And there's a kind of serene beauty in Jessica slowly giving in to all the horror that soon surrounds and threatens her; a sense of tranquillity and total escape from the abuse and madness of her own reality - the one she finds hardest to cope with. You kind of wonder, in the moments where she does try to get away, whether she should just stop running and give in to it all, that one last time; dissolve herself into the welcoming arms of the mother-like figure that now approaches her. Embrace 'the monster'. Embrace 'the nightmare'.
 
 


It's a wonderful movie; beautiful and chilling. The BFI apologised for the pink-tinged print of the film. Apologise? It's great. It's crackly and full of scratches, and yes, pink-tinted, but it's how we need to see a movie like that on a night like this. It also has a BBFC 'X' Certificate card to open it with, and that card is later given to Kim from the film's distributor. The original card. Not many film critics, not many supporters of movies that the rest of us hardly hear about, let alone get to see, can earn that amount of respect. But this man does. Kim mentions that he was asked whether the wedding dress scene in Let's Scare Jessica To Death influenced his choice of film tonight, considering that it’s the day of the Royal Wedding of William and Kate. It’s not deliberate at all, he tells us - but admits the coincidence isn’t entirely without interest. Funnily enough, the wedding dress worn in the movie, and notably in the film’s most startling, chilling sequence - isn’t that far off the one worn by our future Queen. More proof, if needed, that nightmares really can be born out of just about anything.



Words: Mark Gordon Palmer
 

Original image of Newman and Kermode at BFI by Bex Walton http://www.flickr.com/photos/bexwalton/














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Kim Newman's Nightmare Movies nominated for a 2012 British Fantasy Award for non-fiction.

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