London Film Festival 2016: PHANTASM REMASTERED

There's a Kafka short story called 'Blumfeld, an Elderly Batchelor' in which the protagonist is inexplicably followed around by a couple of floating balls:

He quickly unlocks the door and switches on the light.
He is not prepared for what he sees. For this is magic – two small white celluloid balls with blue stripes jumping up and down side by side on the parquet; when one of them touches the floor the other is in the air, a game they continue ceaselessly to play. . . .
Blumfeld bends down to get a good look at them. They are undoubtedly ordinary balls, they probably contain several smaller balls, and it is these that produce the rattling sound. Blumfeld gropes in the air to find out whether they are hanging from some threads-no, they are moving entirely on their own. [Full text online here]

Phantasm (USA, 1979, dir. Don Coscarelli) also features strange floating balls and they have fascinated me ever since I saw them in the late 1980s. The balls in Phantasm, however, are made of highy polished chrome and they zoom around the chill marble corridors of the mausoleum in a small Oregon town, hunting down inquisitive intruders. When a sphere catched such an intruder, it attaches itself to his forehead with tiny metal forks and then bores a hole through his skull with a purpose-built drill bit. The contents of the skull are energetically, even joyously, sprayed out of the back of the sphere, through a small aperture, all over the walls and floors. It's a spectacular and rather messy form of deterrent.

As I write this, I have a chuckle in my throat at the memory of this outrageous conception, which is never explained or contextualised: it just is. It's just dream logic. Phantasm.

The flying spheres are in the service of the town's mortician, known only as 'The Tall Man' and played by the recently deceased 'gentle giant', Angus Scrimm. He's a walking Giacometti sculpture who can heft fully laden coffins onto his shoulder like they were bags of oranges. He oversees an elaborate export business whereby the town's dead are converted into cowled dwarves and shipped in barrels (naturally) to another dimension to be used as slaves 'because of the gravity'.

This heinous plot is slowly uncovered by young Mike, our teenage hero whose parents have recently died, his elder brother Jody and their unlikely sidekick Reggie Banister (a balding, pony-tailed ice-cream vendor who dresses in white, plays pretty good blues guitar and proves to be – over the series of five films in the Phantasm stable – quite the Lothario).

Of such bizarre elements are instant classics made and the London Film Festival was presenting the brand-new 4K restoration (courtesy of super-fan J.J. Abrams and his team). Of all the films I saw this year, Phanasm was the best attended and had the warmest, most excited audience. The elegant Picturehouse Central cinema was packed with new fans and old, keen to chuckle and scream along with the glorious new print and regale the Q&A session with stores of how they had all (seemingly) seen Phantasm when they were 12 years old.

I actually thought I'd seen it when I was 12 but piecing things together, I don't think that was possible. The VHS wasn't available in the UK till the mid-80s, so I probably saw it around then. I may even have seen it after the rather fine (and much more inventively gory) Phantasm II, which was released in 1988 when I was living in Brighton, doing an MA in Critical Theory. Yes! This is when I put Kafka and Coscarelli together.

Talking of Don Coscarelli: he introduced the film and followed up with a sparkling, generous Q&A session. He made Phantasm when he was 25 and he only looks about 40 now, even though I worked out that he must be 61. There's a boyish eagerness and warmth to his personality which is present throughout Phantasm. If the plot and some of the events I've described sound grim and bloody, the film is actually rather benign. It's frequently merciful to its protagonists and secondary characters and indulgent of their flaws and weaknesses. While terrible things are clearly afoot, there's no sense of sadism or malice from the side of the filmmakers. There's a kind of pure adventure story going on. A fairy tale as well as a phantasm.

Like a lot of horror films, it's trying to come to terms with the mystery of death, the fear of the afterlife (whether there is one or not), what to do with your feelings when you've lost someone you love, and how exploitative some export businesses can be!

My favourite moments from the Q&A were hearing about how, through the 4K restoration, they were finally able to remove annoying things like yellow buckets accidentally left around, marring otherwise perfect compositions; how they digitally erased the fishing lines that supported the killer spheres back in 1979; and how Don's mother Kate Coscarelli agreed to write the novelisation of the film, adding lots of background detail and complex psychology. She went on to have a successful career as a novelist.

The other great piece of news is that there's a fifth and final film on its way to the UK: Phantasm: Ravager, which looks as mad as ever and with a decent budget. See also, because it's hilarious and features the sublime Bruce Campbell, Coscarelli's Bubba Ho-Tep. 

Next up: no more. That's all my London Film Festival blogs for this year. 

London Film Festival 2016: DEAREST SISTER

A friend once told me that Laos is the most bombed country on Earth. For a country one doesn't hear that much about in the UK, that fact astonished me. There were nearly 600,000 bombing runs between 1965 and 1973, apparently, to cut off supply lines to North Vietnam. Have a look at this:

I've read (here) that there are 80 million unexploded bomblets scattered across the land and they're killing about 100 people every year to this day. As sobering thoughts go, that's like being waterboarded with liquid nitrogen. Do wars ever 'end'?

Given a recent history like this, you might expect daily life, education, commerce, and culture to face unusual difficulties and it is true that the Lao film industry is very small. But apparently it's going from strength to strength and Dearest Sister (Laos, 2016, dir. Mattie Do) is certainly an impressive release.

Mattie Do is described as 'the first female Lao filmmaker' on the festival site and this article by Christopher Ratcliff suggests that she is personally responsible for 15% of Lao cinema at the moment (there are lots of interesting facts in this article and an informative comment too; yes, an informative 'BLT' comment!) Anyway, as a fan of spooky international films, I was attracted by the premise:

A village girl heads to the city to live as her rich cousin’s companion. On her arrival, she finds the servants giving her evil looks and the Estonian man of the house engaging in shady business deals. Worst of all, her cousin’s encroaching blindness is exhibiting disturbing supernatural side effects. As our morally ambivalent heroine becomes increasingly swayed by the material wealth around her, how far is she willing to go to sate her desires and what spirits will she unleash in the process?—BFI/LFF website

The week before, I'd seen the fabulous Tehran-set Under the Shadow and was expecting a similar experience but, while both films are deliberately and suggestively rooted in recent political and historical reality, Dearest Sister doesn't fit as neatly into the 'ghost' or 'horror' genre as its Iranian cousin.

To slosh around with broad strokes, Dearest Sister seems to be to The Eye (Japan, 2002, dirs Pang Brothers) as Under the Shadow is to Dark Water (Japan, 2002, dir. Hideo Nakata). Wishbone-thin, hungry-eyed village girl Nok embarks on a new life helping her wealthy cousin Ana, who is married to an energetically corrupt Estonian businessman (the film is partly financed by Estonian money, if I remember correctly from the opening titles). She is duty-bound to send her earnings home to her family but things take a strange turn, psychically, spiritually, and economically.

Nok doesn't do housework (there is a watchful, put-upon, envious live-in couple who handle all that) but provides companionship and a kind of pastoral care. Nok accompanies Ana to expensive lunches where she is routinely belittled by her cousin's social-climbing friends. The film is riven with class consciousness, suspicion, materialism, and an obsession with status, which brings a tincture of comedy to the spookiness. I was reminded of time I spent in Sri Lanka in a similarly constituted household and the tensions rang very true. 

The spookiness comes courtesy of Ana's deteriorating eyesight (a tempting trope for filmmakers), which strands her in a world of vague shadows, shapes, presences and, it turns out, dissociative episodes where those passing from this world to the next after accidents or trauma creep up on Ana and whisper messages to her. These creepy scenes are very reminiscent of The Eye but when we learn that the soon-to-be-dead are whispering winning lottery numbers to Ana (which Nok overhears) the film swerves back towards social comedy.

Ana wins the lottery several times, amassing a small fortune (along with suspicion and malice from her fellow 'staff') and is able to buy a new smartphone, nice clothes, to afford a risky night on the town among predatory western businessmen, and so on. The continuation of her cousin's terrifying blackouts becomes essential for her continued prosperity. Money is won, hidden and stolen; blame is apportioned and relationships deteriorate.

What I found particularly interesting about Dearest Sister was the brilliant balancing of sympathy and dislike between the main players. It is unusual for having nobody you particularly want to support or condemn. In this way it becomes a subtle meditation on how underlying currents of economics and class form and deform human relationships. Its apparent allegiance to a certain genre of ghost story makes this all the more effective.

In fact, it got me thinking about the material concerns of supernatural films: what's at stake? what mortal treasure is being contested by the troubled or lingering spirits? Hamlet and Macbeth immediately sprang to mind but it's a discussion for another time. Suffice to say, I don't think I know a ghost story so obsessed with cold hard currency and gadgetry. Another recent, if very different, film that explores the economic pressures that affect family and friendship is Ira Sachs's Little Men, which is currently on release in the UK.

The performances are superb, especially from the versatile Amphaiphun Phommapunya as Nok, and I look forward to seeing more films by Mattie Do and more Lao films in general. I liked this note from the end titles: 'No animals were harmed in the making of this motion picture. The whippet was, however, quite often annoyed by the filmmakers while he was trying to sleep.'—Thanks to 

Next up: Phantasm Remastered

London Film Festival 2016: SOUVENIR

I can't recall what triggered it, but I've been having an Isabelle Huppert season at home and in the cinema (she seems to be busier than ever). In quick succession I've recently watched Merci Pour Le ChocolatThings to ComeMa Mère La CérémonieRien Ne Va Plus (wow, that's three Chabrols; I love Chabrol also) and, at the London Film Festival the other night, Souvenir (Belgium-Luxembourg-France, 2016, dir. Bavo Defurne). 

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Sunspots: Bournemouth Arts by the Sea Festival, October 13th

From the north to the south and an intriguing new venue: Bournemouth's Natural Science Society. This beautiful Italianate Victorian building is crammed with cabinets full of shells, skulls, skeletons and all manner of natural wonders: the kind of things my Sun likes to take credit for: "I made the cats./I make the snow."

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Sunspots: Manchester Martin Harris Centre for Music & Drama, October 9th

Room 101 was my hotel room in Manchester, nothing to do with the wonderful Martin Harris Centre with its back-screen projection, remote controlled lighting rig and helpful technical staff. And we were in the John Thaw Studio Theatre! I've loved John Thaw since the 70s when my parents would let me stay up late to watch The Sweeney on school nights. But the next day, I couldn't get Inspector Morse's voice out of my head: "There's been a performance of Sunspots, Lewis..."

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Sunspots: Reading South Street Arts Centre, October 8th 2015

After London, Reading was another 'home fixture'. I lived here from 1989 to 1997, having side-stepped academia to work at Our Price Records for a couple of years. The second 'Summer of Love', which I'd spent in Brighton and which did its best to distract me from my MA, was soon clouded o'er by Britpop and the seeping mist of shoegazing.

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