France

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Book Review: Films of the New French Extremity: Visceral Horror and National Identity

Published September 19, 2016 by rmpixie

Films of the New French Extremity: Visceral Horror and National Identity McFarland & Company Inc., 2016

 Films of the New French Extremity:  Visceral Horror and National Identity by Alexandra West ( McFarland & Company Inc., 2016)

Scholars and journalists Alexandra West and Andrea Subissati, hosts of the Faculty of Horror podcast, focus on in-depth analysis of the horror genre with a feminist approach that would sway the staunchest naysayer.  With their knowledge and background, it’s no surprise that West has recently written a book entitled Films of the New French Extremity: Visceral Horror and National Identity and after getting to meet the author herself, I had to buy a copy. Once I flipped past the first page I was hooked.

Films of the New French Extremity: Visceral Horror and National Identity came from a lecture West presented in 2014 for The Black Museum, a series put on by Subissati and Toronto-based writer and editor Paul Corupe where seasoned speakers and professionals in the horror genre present on various topics “from film theory to genre studies”.  It was here that her academic but extremely accessible book was born, and West successfully tracks the transition “from art-house films to full-fledged horror films” that came out of France from the early 90’s to the mid 2000’s.

The genre of New French Extremity is something that for a long time only a few could stomach or relate to. It is brutal, bloody and in your face, but West eases the reader in by giving you a solid base of French history and politics, along with the violence it spawned, in order to help you understand the environment these directors were coming from and the genesis of their films. In essence, French society tended to put a shiny veneer over the ills and wrongs of their actions, turning a blind eye to it all. These films attempt to peel back the shiny exterior of a country celebrated for its culture to show the societal warts that got bigger over centuries. While some of the filmmakers may have different approaches to their subject matter, be it murderous country folk, abused women, self-destructive characters or relentless serial killers, West brings them together to map their contributions to pushing societal, sexual and political boundaries, showing how their films soon became cinematic earmarks as well as social commentaries in the history of horror cinema and what is now considered a critical part of the genre.

Most horror critics and writers like myself have seen many of the films West writes about. I saw them because they were a) French and b) horror or taboo; things I love unconditionally, with Martyrs and High Tension sitting in prime positions on my shelves. They were terrifying films yet I was drawn to them. I couldn’t make connections other than they were all French and showed a darker side to the country I romanticized so much; dots on the same page without the lines to connect them. West is able to create threads of similarities with such coherence and logic, that any French extreme enthusiast feels a sense of almost relief as her analysis pinpoints characters, motivations and plotlines to make sense of the chaos you witness on-screen. All the chapters are riveting, but for those of you who search for some meaning from Martyrs as much as I have, West’s dissection and interpretation of the film comes very near to perfection.

Films of the New French Extremity: Visceral Horror and National Identity will resonate with those who love French Extreme cinema and those who have visited (and fallen in love with) France like myself; becoming lured by the romantic façade of an aloof yet beautiful country, only to scratch the surface revealing the grimy reality underneath.  Steeped in the history and culture of France, West’s book makes these admittedly horrifying films accessible and convey an understanding much like one would study a terrifying beast for meaning. It is truly a must read for any and all horror fans and academics out there looking for a comprehensive guide to the beginnings of French Extreme cinema.

This Wednesday September 21st, The Black Museum will hold a book launch for Films of the New French Extremity: Visceral Horror and National Identity in Toronto where West will do a reading. Check out the details here. Come out to support great Canadian talent!

 

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Monsters, Mayhem and Richard Stanley

Published April 18, 2015 by rmpixie

lost soul

Lost Soul:  The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau (2014,  1 hr, 37 mins)

 

I remember when the 1996 version of The Island of Dr. Moreau came out.  Being a monster fiend, I didn’t really care about the plot, although I did know the story; I was more thrilled about the promise of freakish animal-human hybrids.  And Val Kilmer.  Yes, I was one of the many women who swooned over his chiselled good looks and brooding demeanor, so to see him in one more film was a bonus.

I think my sister and I ended up renting the movie, and it might have been on VHS, or maybe we saw it late one night on T.V., but we were in for quite a shock.  What started out as a promising adventure/horror movie disintegrated into bizarro land and pee-your-pants giggles.  We loved when Marlon Brando recited the “Judge not, lest ye be judged…” psalm, and almost died when Val Kilmer imitated him in the disastrous third act, in fact we still recite our own version of that scene from time to time, just for shits and giggles.

How could a classic story by H.G. Wells, with big name talent like Brando, Kilmer and Thewlis, go this wrong?  I’ve always wondered what the studios were thinking when this film was put out, and I got my answer with the Rue Morgue Cinemacbre presentation of Lost Soul:  The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau, a 2014 documentary by David Gregory.  It is here that we meet director Richard Stanley in Montségur, France, at his secluded home.  Known for his cult classics Dust Devil and Hardware, he lobbied for and finally won the spot of directing one of his favourite stories, The Island of Dr. Moreau.  Glitch after glitch could not dampen his determination, and along with beautiful concept art by Graham Humphreys, landing Marlon Brando as Dr. Moreau, and a beautiful remote location for filming in Cairns, Australia, his is an intriguing story of how a film production filled with grand ideas and talent became a cursed burden that he would ultimately lose due to Movieland mishandling and total loss of control.

I was completely fascinated by the accounts that came from cast and crew, as well as Stanley himself who struck me as a true eccentric with his occult practices to keep good mojo during the production, his extensive knowledge of the feud between H.G. Wells and Joseph Conrad, and the general weirdness that seemed to follow him. I especially enjoyed Fairuza Balk (Aissa), Fiona Mahl (Sow Lady #2), and Marco Hofschneider’s (M’ling) anecdotal stories about life on the set and dealing with Brando, and Kilmer, who was described as a “prep-school bully”.  And speaking of those headliners, my opinion of Brando and Kilmer changed.  I now think Brando’s notorious behaviour, that could be interpreted as disrespectful and rightfully so in some instances, was not such a surprise after dealing with his daughter’s suicide and the fiasco of the Dr. Moreau production.  Gregory mentioned after the film via Skype that he thought Brando’s performance was one of the more entertaining aspects of the film, and that he reportedly behaved that way to amuse himself.  I think he just didn’t care, and seemed to take the piss instead of what was deemed as crazy antics.  Kilmer on the other hand, even though he was going through a divorce, was just a jerk who even Brando apparently couldn’t tolerate.

Gregory told the audience that he made the film because after working with Stanley on The Theatre Bizarre anthology, he asked the elusive director about the rumors associated with Dr. Moreau, and the documentary grew from there.  Stanley was sick of the questions and wanted to say his piece once and for all.  Gregory was surprised at how many cast, crew and executives agreed to participate for the documentary.  Ron Perlman and David Thewlis were among those who declined involvement; Thewlis reportedly not wanting to add to the gossip surrounding the film fiasco.  Val Kilmer was also approached, but Gregory’s inquiries were met with no response, which is no big surprise!

Lost Souls is an interesting journey of how Richard Stanley lost his dream; how the irate, old-school director John Frankenheimer took over just to get the film finished while Brando and Kilmer were constantly at odds with each other, and a stalled production that was barely salvaged.  Gregory announced that the DVD and Blue-ray of the doc will be available in June, and the film is currently making the festival circuit.  For fans of Stanley or those curious about the back story of one of the worst films ever, it’s worth seeing this entertaining and informative documentary.

As for Richard Stanley?  Aside from him directing Mother of Toads in The Theatre of Bizarre, he has a film adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s The Colour Out of Space in the works, and a graphic novel adaptation of his Dr. Moreau script.  Hope he comes out with something that he can be proud of!

Check out Rue Morgue’s site for more fascinating horror info, David Gregory’s company Severin Films for updates and VOD of the documentary, and The Royal’s schedule for the next cool flick!

http://www.severin-films.com/

http://www.rue-morgue.com/

http://www.theroyal.to/

 

 

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