Category Archives: Psychological

Pontypool (2008) – Shut up or die…


I’ve never found zombies scary, especially in the traditional slow-and-stupid incarnations. Sure, there’s a sense of repulsion, largely generated by our anxiety about what happens to our bodies after we’re dead – many people agonise between burial and cremation, so the idea of rising from the grave as brain-eating cannibals is pretty repugnant.

Then there is the sense of creeping nihilistic dread, particularly in the Romero movies. While zombies are usually pretty easy to avoid or kill individually, you know they will always reach critical mass, ready to tear apart the survivors just as internal conflicts tear the group apart figuratively. But still, as terrifying as zombies are on paper or the imagination, to me there’s always the nagging doubt that they’re pretty naff on film – one bullshit metaphor away from a last-minute, unimaginative Halloween costume.

Pontypool, a low-budget Canadian curio, largely avoids the traditional pitfalls of the zombie pic by barely showing any zombies at all. By withholding the usual limb ripping and gut munching, it engages something usually reserved for the supernatural horror genre – our imaginations.

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Fight Club (1999) – Pop Anarchy & Designer Nihilism…

Fight Club pic 1

“Mildred: Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?

Johnny: Whaddya got?

– The Wild One (1953)

Urinating on its own birthday candles this year, David Fincher’s argumentative, narcissistic, hypocritical Fight Club will be sixteen years old. It already feels like a period piece, a slice of premillennial angst full of smug slogans and speeches that can’t decide what it is fighting against.

It is the last “poor me” grumble of the 20th century from Generation X, almost exactly two years before Osama bin Laden weaponised some passenger jets and gave the Western world something to really worry about…” Click here to read the rest of this article (opens in a new tab.)

The Duke of Burgundy (2014) – A baroque S&M dreamworld…

burgundy 1

Like his characters in The Duke of Burgundy, writer-director Peter Strickland is a man with very specific tastes. Inspired by European exploitation flicks of the 60s and 70s, Strickland uses sleazy genre tropes as a jumping off point, creating his own peculiar world of heightened reality. Unlike Tarantino, who mashes all his influences together into a primary-coloured pop culture collage, Strickland’s vision is exactingly beautiful, highly strung, and very, very niche.

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The Exorcist (1973) – The Ultimate White Hats vs Black Hats Movie…


There are few films with the diabolical aura of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist.  The story of demonic possession built its fearsome reputation during the long years of exile from videotape – while it was not included in the BBFC’s list of banned films via the Video Recordings Act 1984, it became an unofficial member of the “Video Nasty” club. BBFC censor refused to issue a home video certificate, thus depriving a generation of latchkey kids with access to their dad’s video card the joys of a head-spinning, pea-soup-puking, spider-walking little girl, and the brave priests who try to save her.

Nowadays, the special effects sequences look a bit creaky and rather tame compared to what our torture porn era has to offer, but what is left is a film of undeniable power.

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Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould (1993) – “Infinity and Eternity seem to take a liking to the likes of me…”


We open with a long shot of a frozen wilderness.  A man is walking towards us, in a daringly long take that recalls Omar Sharif’s famous entrance in Lawrence of Arabia.  The man is Glenn Gould (Colm Feore), legendary concert pianist.  Thirty two short films later, the man walks away again across the snowy wastes.  By this time, we have learnt that his music has now traveled beyond the edge of our Solar System, as part of mankind’s Desert Island Discs on the Voyager probe, and we are left with a sense of wonder at the boundless universe beyond, and the boundless universe that exists inside every one of us.

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Kubrick vs King: The Shining (1980) vs The Shining (1997)

[This article contains major spoilers for both films.]

I worked in a hotel once, and I sometimes felt like running when I was walking down its corridors.  I always felt claustrophobic, and I didn’t like all those doors.  Was there anybody behind them?  If so, why was it so quiet?  What were they doing in there which was so quiet?  I didn’t like it, and on a couple of occasions broke into a little jog for no other reason than I got a bit scared.

I attribute this to three things: One, I’m a scaredy cat, and also do a little involuntary running sometimes when walking down country lanes or across fields by myself.  Two, hotels are creepy places.  Three, The Shining.

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Deep Water (2006) – One Middle Aged Chancer Against the Sea…

“God and his Son played at the heart of the Cosmos.. they played a lovely game that consisted of transforming apes into gods. It was a fun game, and all the while they played, they followed a simple rule: the apes were not allowed to know about the existence of the gods…”Donald Crowhurst

The old one about truth being stranger than fiction is rarely more applicable than in the story of Donald Crowhurst, a bumbling English businessman who decided to enter a non-stop round the world boat race, only to find disaster, disgrace and insanity.

It is the Sixties, and sailor Francis Chichester has just completed the first single-handed journey around the world, and returns to a hero’s welcome. The Sunday Times, who had sponsored Chichester’s endeavour, decide the next step is to organise a non-stop race, offering a 5000 pound reward.

The prestigious event and tidy prize fund attracted a number of experienced adventurers and sailors – and Donald Crowhurst. We are introduced to Crowhurst early as he makes his preparations to depart on the journey from Teignmouth, Devon.

The film makes excellent use of documentary footage, and although these early moments are in black and white, vividly capture the slipshod and comically disorganised nature of Crowhurst’s departure. He is clearly a worried man – he gambled everything he had on building his boat, a trimiran called “Teignmouth Electron”, and time was running out. Contestants needed to leave between June 1st and 31st October, in order to pass the dangerous Southern Ocean in summer.

Crowhurst left on last day, in a boat he’d never sailed before, packed with gadgets designed to make his journey safer, but weren’t hooked up properly because of his rushed preparations. A weekend sailor at best, his journey would take him through the Atlantic, around the Cape of Africa, across the Southern Ocean, rounding the horn of South America, before heading back up the Atlantic and home.

Interviews with Crowhurst’s widow and son are eerily intercut with footage of them watching him making his last minute preparations and his departure; she tells of her misgivings about the adventure, and that concern is all too evident in her eyes on the old news reel.

Crowhurst and his Teignmouth Electron got into trouble almost as soon as he left the harbour; the reported positions of the other competitors were way ahead of him, and he soon realised that his options were dire – he could return home to disgrace and financial ruin, or press on and probably drown in the fierce Southern Ocean in a boat that was barely seaworthy.

However, Crowhurst was an inventive man, and soon came up with third option – I won’t go into too much detail, because it turns into one of the most unusual stories I’ve heard – but suffice to say it starts with a decision to keep a second fake log book, and by the end, it is not surprising that Crowhurst felt the cosmos was conspiring against him.

There was also a camera onboard Crowhurst’s trimiran, and with some of the other competitors, and the images captured are beautiful, haunting echoes from the past, showing men in complete isolation against heavy seas. The documentary as a whole successfully distills an atmosphere of high adventure, in an era where man had visited the moon, and there was little else to explore – yet these men at sea were virtually untraceable apart from their radio signals, long before satellites and GPS.

The film spends some time telling the stories of the other competitors, in particular Bernard Moitessier, an enigmatic frenchman who finds himself out on the ocean. The main focus of the documentary is Crowhurst, and delves into his dwindling psychological state, assisted by his own despairing diary entries and spooky film footage of a man clearly losing his mind.

“Deep Water” moves at the narrative pace of a feature film, and the real-life twists will be best appreciated by those with little or no knowledge of the story; however, it seems as though it suffered the same fate as Crowhurst’s real life adventure – up until I saw it on Channel 4, I’d never heard about it, and thought it the strangest tale never told, and this film seems to have disappeared from people’s radar amid more celebrated feature length docs such as “Touching the Void” and “Grizzly Man”.

Fully decked out for a re-discovery, then – just be warned, it’s probably best not to watch it late at night by yourself, because the film is strange, creepy and rather unsettling.

Black Swan (2010) – Aronofsky’s Creepy Lesbo Shriekfest…

I have some friends who would rate Black Swan five stars simply because it features a scene where Natalie Portman gets licked out by her evil twin.  Perhaps if I was in Fox Searchlight’s marketing department and targeting a certain demographic, I might even get that in the tag line somehow.

Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky’s much-hyped companion piece to The Wrestler, was one of the most eagerly awaited, talked about and critically acclaimed films of 2010.

Despite all the award nominations, Black Swan rides on the back of The Wrestler‘s almost unanimous goodwill, and is an inferior film.  Black Swan is an entertaining, atmospheric psychological thriller, but starts off in the realms of Polanski‘s Repulsion, and ends up more like Dario Argento’s Suspiria. In other words, it’s an intense, hysterical, bonkers piece of schlock dressed up as a serious Oscar-contending character study.

Natalie Portman’s award winning turn sees her as Nina Sayers, a brittle and beautiful young dancer for an illustrious New York ballet company.  The company is gearing up for a modern take on Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, and the arrogant and charismatic Director, Thomas LeRoy (Vincent Cassel) is looking for a new Swan Queen.

Nina is devoted to her craft and practices incessantly at home in front of the mirror.  She lives in an apartment with her mum, Erica (Barbara Hershey) who was a ballet dancer before she fell pregnant with Nina.  The mother and daughter have a suffocating, touchy-feely relationship that feels a bit unhealthy, particularly with Erica’s extra edge, pushing Nina to succeed where she didn’t.  She’s like an ultra competitive “Soccer Mom” crossed with Norman Bates’s Old Dear.

Nina is a contender for the Swan Queen role she craves, although has a problem – Thomas acknowledges she is perfect for the part of the pristine, virginal White Swan, but lacks the sensuality in her dancing to convince as the passionate Black Swan.

That side of the role seems more suited to a rival dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis) – a carefree, promiscuous wildcat, who is not afraid to invest her innate eroticism into her dancing.

The ballet company is portrayed as a tense, bitchy, ambitious group of young women.  As Nina is seduced by Thomas and works her way into the role, she also draws venom from the company’s previous principle dancer, Beth (Winona Ryder), an over the hill ballerina forced into retirement by the enigmatic director.

As the pressure of attaining the prestigious role takes it’s toll on Nina’s already fragile state of mind, she begins to suffer hallucinations, as she starts to catch glimpses of a dark doppleganger dogging her footsteps.

Aronofksy uses the same technique here as in The Wrestler.  He sticks a handheld camera behind the central character, and follows them around through their daily lives.  This technique puts the viewer right in the character’s personal bubble – with Randy the Ram, we were so close to the aging wrestler we could hear his grunts and labored breathing, smell the peroxide in his hair and the jockstrap stench of the crowded locker rooms, and  feel the creak of his protesting muscles.

Here, the technique is far more uncomfortable.  It’s one thing following around a well-pumped man, not adverse to getting slammed through a table covered in drawing pins to entertain the crowd, but another breathing over the shoulder of a petite, frail young woman.

It’s voyeuristic, which means during the sex scenes, the viewer is also right in on the act. In the context of a psychological thriller, the technique is great for building a sense of dread – we’re so close to Nina that we can’t see anything that might jump out on her.

This quiet, insistent feeling of menace it beautifully sustained for the first two acts of the film, with a few jolts thrown in for good measure – Aronofsky embraces the use of mirrors for cheap scares, as well as hammering home the theme of evil double images.

Unlike The Wrestler, Black Swan betrays it’s super-confident, ice cool exterior and feels more like an amalgam of previous films.  Aronofsky pays homage to Powell-Pressburger masterpiece The Red Shoes with a 360 POV whip-pan; there’s a shock cut to Nina’s mum at an unexpected moment that recalls Hitchcock’s reveal of Mrs Bates in Psycho; and a bathtub scene that simultaneously echoes A Nightmare on Elm Street and the under-rated What Lies Beneath.

The performances are mostly excellent.  Natalie Portman brings her usual intelligence and frosty sexuality to the role of Nina.  Portman is one of the most fearless contemporary actresses in Hollywood these days, unafraid to tackle adult roles, be it in the inconsequential sex comedy No Strings Attachedor as a stripper in Mike NicholsCloser.

She’s thoroughly believable as the ambitious, feeble-minded Nina, although the role feels rather linear and two dimensional – Nina goes from focused, to frustrated, to turned on, to shrill, shrill, shriller.

Cassel is typically intense as the egotistic and charismatic LeRoy.  It’s hard to believe is over fifteen years since he seared his image on the screen in 1995’s La Haine.  LeRoy is a man of passionate perfection, big ideas and flashy concepts, and is an unapologetic predator of the beautiful young women in his control.  Cassel believably makes LeRoy the type of arrogant, romantic rogue of an older man young girls fall for.

Kunis makes the most of a limited role as the fun-loving, uninhibited Lily, endowing the character with an undercurrent of vulnerability and hard knocks wisdom that naive Nina is drawn to and envies.

Hershey has the unforgiving nutty mum role, which means she acts like a woman dangerously in love with her child, cloying and controlling, and probably drinks too much when she’s by herself.  I’ve already mentioned Mrs Bates – the other movie mum she resembles when she’s onscreen is Sissy Spacek’s mother in Carrie.

There’s very little room to breath in Black Swan, as it builds and builds towards it’s frantic, hysterical, schizophrenic final third.  In the meantime, we can also draw further comparisons to the superior Wrestler, and ballet and wrestling generally.  The punishment placed on the body to acquire the physical and aesthetic perfection each profession demands; the artifice and performance of both dramas; the desire to feel wanted and please the audience, the  pathological yearning for the crowd’s approval.

Black Swan is not a perfect film, but has substance and confidence as well as visceral thrills, which makes it a must watch.


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