THE RITUAL



            Adam Nevill is a horror writer; he’s British, he didn’t die decades ago, his books aren’t about posh people in the past, and he isn’t Stephen King ... So the chances of one of his books being made into a film are, let’s be frank, virtually zero.  Yet still it has happened.
            Given how vanishingly rare British films are (that’s films which are financed in Britain - not like your Harry Potters and James Bonds which are American films that are made here), it’s a tragedy when a Brit film actually gets a nationwide cinema release, then turns out to be ... disappointing.  I mean, nobody really minds when a Hollywood movie is a flop, cos there’ll be another one along next week ... But British films are far rarer and more precious.
            I really didn’t want to have to report back that The Ritual was a letdown.  I really didn’t.
            Thankfully, I don’t have to - ’cos it’s excellent.  

It's to the script's credit that, when someone says "What the fuck is that?", the audience might be thinking "a wicker man" but no-one in the film actually says it!
            There is a sub-genre within horror fiction which is very on trend at the moment - called ‘Weird’.  It’s not a new sub-genre, far from it; it includes works by M.R. James, Arthur Machen and, most conspicuously, H.P. Lovecraft.  ‘Weird’ fiction tends to be supernatural, featuring an often-unseen thing that preys on the protagonists’ fears.  What sets these stories apart, for me, is the inference that the ‘unseen thing’ in the dark is often unfathomably ancient, leading some people to see it as god, while others see it as the devil.  One of the flat-out weirdest of the weird stories I’ve read, was written over a hundred years ago by one Algernon Blackwood.  It’s called The Willows, and concerns a canoeing expedition, where two friends are terrorised in the wilderness by evil spirits that live in the willow trees.
            You can listen to a free talking book version of it here, if you’re interested:
            Nevill has mentioned that he was influenced by that story.  And by a hiking expedition he and a few friends actually went on.  I trust they all made it back, safe.  I think he was also inspired, at least in part, by those cabin-in-the-woods movies, where a group of American teenagers are picked-off one by one by an axe-wielding maniac who, rather perversely, we’re supposed to root for.  Tonally, I'd say the book (and the resultant film), also owe something to survival-in-the-wilderness movies like Deliverance (1972) and Southern Comfort (1981) as well, of course, to The Blair Witch Project (1999), rather than to something like Friday the 13th (1980); because the thing doing the slashing here, is a mysterious amorphous presence, hidden in the dense forest.
            You can’t see the weird for the trees.
            Inevitably, the film makers have made some key changes, when adapting the written word into the film.  The book begins with a shock - what, in TV circles, they call a ‘cold open’, the thing that is going to grab the viewer’s attention and stop them wandering during the adverts.  It’s a technique that has spilled over into film and, to an extent, into publishing - as a way of ensuring readers will buy the book so they can keep reading.
            Surprisingly, the film goes a different way.  It has created a whole new cold open - with the scene featured prominently in the trailer - where Rafe Spall’s Luke hides while his friend, Rob, is murdered in a convenience store.  This moment of cowardice adds a whole new emotional layer to the character, and serves as a wedge that gradually drives apart the group of surviving friends who, six months later, all hike into the wilderness in memoriam of Rob, whose last wish it was.  

Spall makes a good job of being the sympathetic everyman.  He's not a hero, he's not a villain, he's just conflicted and confused, like the rest of us. If he keeps this up, we might have to forgive him for being in Prometheus!
            None of this is in the book, but it does serve to create, very swiftly, an understanding of the dynamic between the friends, and explain why four woefully underprepared city boys are trudging through the Swedish woodlands.
            Often, when changes are made in the adaptation process, this can alter the tone or the nature of a book; but not here.  The feel of oppressive, mounting dread and sudden explosive violence, is maintained faithfully from page to screen.
            Director Bruckner worked on both The Signal (2007) and Southbound (2015) - two portmanteau films where different short stories are loosely connected to create one long story.  Both films were very imaginative, very effective and very unusual.  But they weren’t terribly subtle.  Here, he has allowed himself to be very subtle, giving much of the film’s first half hour over to simple character-building.  He has, essentially, stepped back to just watch his actors act.
            All four of his leads - Phil (played by TV regular, Arsher Ali), Dom (played by Sam Troughton, the latest generation of the Troughton dynasty), Luke (Rafe Spall, ditto the Spall dynasty) and Hutch (Robert James-Collier) - give great, humorous, believable performances.  They aren’t stereotypes (as one might expect from a cabin-in-the-woods film) and they all get their moment to shine during the surprisingly long first act, where they just get to bicker and whinge and make jokes at each other’s expense, as they wander further and further from the path.
            Although he’s been a busy boy, this is the first time I’ve seen Robert James-Collier on screen.  Apparently he was in Downton Abbey and, therefore, he can pretty-much name his price over in the States.  Yet he chose to make this.  An ensemble piece.  With, admittedly, a small ensemble.  Presumably because it allowed him to show some range.  I can certainly see him doing a nice line of English badguys in big budget American movies.
            His flat no-nonsense Manc delivery makes him the natural leader of the group, the clear alpha male; then, when the weirdness suddenly strikes at the end of that first act, the alpha male goes and pees his pants with fright.  That’s the moment when the observant viewer will realise that all the bets are off, this isn’t your standard issue stalk-and-slash and things are not going to proceed in the expected manner.
If you go down in the woods today ... left to right, we have: Robert James-Collier, Rafe Spall, Arsher Ali and Sam Troughton ... all camping it up.
           The cinematography makes the best use of the forests, stressing the uniformity of the verticals, the claustrophobia, the gloom and the lack of anything familiar, even sky.  The chills inherent in the scenario are there to be exploited.  They’re lost, they’re frightened and they can hear something crashing through the undergrowth, tracking them.  At times like that, the thin layer of nylon from which your tent is made, can feel pretty bloody thin.
            There are jump scares in here, to be sure, but they aren't cheap and obvious (there are no black cats jumping out of wardrobes, so fear not).  The jumps (cattle-prods as John Carpenter calls them) are earned, and they are used sparingly.  Instead, this film is mostly about building a mood of mounting dread, through silences and the impenetrable darkness around torch light.  They make good use of those torches, to create both tension, and some starkly beautiful visuals.
            One major alteration from the book, which I don’t necessarily think is an improvement, comes when the hikers encounter the locals.  Here, these are a tribal commune, like something out of the middle ages or, more tellingly, like something out of The Hills Have Eyes or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  In the book, the commune was very different, and something I have never seen in a film.  Still haven’t!
            So, at the very least, the book will retain some creepy surprises for you, if you read it after seeing the film.  Which you should.

If you can hear a ghostly banjo and someone saying "You ain't from these parts, are ya, stranger?" ... Don't worry, that just proves that you're still sane.
             Yes, you do eventually get to see the ‘unseen thing’ that’s been hunting them, and the FX which bring it together are particularly effective.  There are a couple of images, towards the end, which will live with you.  They’re certainly living with me.  And I am delighted to report that they have designed a completely new monster which owes nothing whatsoever to H.R. Giger.  Giger’s Alien has cast a long shadow over movie monsters for nearly forty years but, thankfully, this beastie is very different ... very disturbing ... very weird!


Dir: David Bruckner
Script: Joe Barton
Dur: 94 mins
Cert: 15

KINGSMAN: THE GOLDEN CIRCLE




            Kingsman: The Golden Circle is the film every Bond movie wishes it were, but never will be.
            It begins as it means to go on, with a fist fight in a car chase.  Unlike Quantum of Solace (2008), which began the same way, you can see exactly what’s happening and actually become engaged in the action.  And, furthermore, it’s all set to a Prince song.  So, win-win.
            And this sets the tone for the film we are about to see.  Scribes Goldman and Vaughn have worked the ideas, so each scene gives more than is strictly necessary.  It’s like they decided what they needed to have happen, then sat down and thought about how to also make it clever.  Or funny.  Or both.  That’s good film-making.  Do the creative work when it’s just lines on paper ... The cheapest and most fundamental stage of any film’s production.  Re-writes and re-shoots are so much more expensive!
            Anyway, back at the plot, when Eggsy gets home, after his fight, we find that he has settled down with his anal-loving princess, Tilde, from the end of The Secret Service.  When did Bond ever hang on to a woman for more than one movie?  Indeed, Eggsy is properly romantic with her.  So, we even have a bit of a love story woven into this already busy movie tapestry.

Julianne Moore's Poppy produces all of the world's narcotics from her 50s-style drug store.
            Then we meet our super-villain, Poppy (played by Julianne Moore, who is clearly having as much fun as Sam Jackson did in the last film).  In her introduction, she explains that she is obsessed with the 50s, back when life was simpler; and her evil lair looks like nothing so much as the town square from Back to the Future, complete with drug store, burger bar and live theatre (in which a kidnapped Elton John has a permanent residency).
            Here, she serves up a burger made of human meat (there goes the McDonald’s sponsorship deal) and smiles far too widely, in that way that tells you a person is completely bug-nuts.  Interestingly, when we learn what her plan is, it actually makes sense and she becomes a genuinely interesting and engaging character.  Who is also completely bug-nuts.  Take that Ernst Stavro Blohard!
            As you’ll know, if you’ve seen any of the posters or trailers, we are also introduced to the Kingsmen’s American counterparts, the Statesmen.  They spread their brand all over the world through sales of whisky.  Interesting that a quintessentially American drinks-based organisation doesn’t sell cola.  (But, maybe that would have been one lost sponsorship deal too many).
            These new characters blend in and the dialogue is shot through with spirited exposition which doesn’t leave a sour taste.  It’s a neat trick and the proof of good writing from Goldman, who has had the bottle to, once again, set herself a high bar; and it’s all distilled into a film which just barrels along.
            (Okay, I’ll stop now.)
            There is a lot of swearing, here.  Having a film that looks and sounds like a Bond movie, but with down-to-earth English swearing is fun, at first, but we get so much of it that the typical English response of laughing ’cos it’s embarrassing, actually wears off.Hh  There's also some outrageous humour which, I imagine, will get some voices raised in anger at the film, as happened about the Tilde gag last time.  So, they could have shown a bit more restraint with all that, and displayed a bit more of their obvious wit, but these films are not really about restraint. 
            Director Matthew Vaughn layers his film with glorious detail; there are so many clever ideas, so many moments when they indulge in a pun or just have fun.  Okay, so the golden circle of the title is, actually, irrelevant; that’s okay.  It’s a maguffin, nowt wrong with that.  Everything in the film is presented in a heightened way, with vivid colours, polished surfaces, snappy dialogue and delightfully clever lap-dissolves from scene-to-scene.  No one has had quite so much fun transitioning from one scene to another since Ang Lee made his version of  Hulk in 2003.

Missiles maketh man.  Taking a leaf from the Robert Rodriquez' Desperado playbook - Taron Egerton's Eggsy is on the case and dressed to kill.
            Mark Strong (as Merlin) is even better than he was last time, and gets to sing.  Meanwhile, Taron Egerton, (who, I notice, even though it’s his film, still only gets third billing) ably holds his own amongst a growing cast of actors with way more experience than he has, not least Jeff Bridges and Julianne Moore, who are two of the best actors of their respective generations!
            Channing Tatum is in on the gag (in case you hadn’t noticed, he doesn’t take himself at all serious), but is criminally underused in the film (they’re saving him for the next one, no doubt).  This does, however, give an opening for Pedro Pascal to step into the limelight.  You know Pedro from Game of Thrones, but here he looks like he’s auditioning for the remake of The Cannonball Run.  Fortunately, he’s also in on the joke.  Indeed, all of the Americans look like they can barely deliver their dialogue from giggling too much. 
            Thankfully, the viewer is having fun too.

Any chance we can get Ned Beatty in on the action ... Or Sally Field?
            Like a Bond film, Kingsman does a bit of globe-trotting.  There’s no reason, at all, for example, to go to Italy, but they do, for a clever and thrilling stunt-scene involving a cable car which, presumably, couldn’t have been done in America.
            I don’t like sequels which simply repeat the first film (that’s why you won’t find me writing about Fast and Furious or Transformers, for example); I like a film to push its concepts and its characters along a bit, like Guardians of the Galaxy did, earlier this year.  So, yes, we get some of the signature ingredients of the first film faithfully reproduced:  the henchman with a fake limb, the punch-up in a pub, the protracted fight-scene with no edits; but we also get a lot of new ingredients thrown into the mix.
            There is an infection being spread, which has three stages; the first is a warning, the second is a mad craziness and the third is suddenly more serious.  The film has similar sections, with the scene setting of the first act giving way to fun and games with the new characters, before the serious bit which shows, through merciless satire, that the real super-villains of the world aren’t the ones with the secret lairs.  The really evil people are the politicians.
            Just take a glance at the real leaders of the world, if you want some context.
            Speaking of which, Victor Von Trump’s use, just this week, of the phrase ‘rocket man’ may be the most audacious piece of marketing any motion picture has had the fortune to receive - because this film features the Rocket Man himself, Elton John, in a delightful role (much more than just a cameo) where he too demonstrates and real willingness to parody himself.

Man of the match: Elton John!  Now there’s a phrase I never thought I’d type.
            It isn't just the presence of Elton John which put me in mind of a Ken Russell film, when I was watching Kingsman The Golden Circle, no, it the bravura performances, the riotous colours, the restless creativity and the great music cues (it's up there with Guardians and Baby Driver as soundtrack of the year, for me) It’s also the way the film refuses to shy aware from bad taste, and the characters you enjoy spending time with, no-matter how monstrous they are.  It is fun from beginning to end, with a few serious satirical points to make along the way.
            Part of me is hoping that Eon Productions have the wisdom to tap Vaughn on the shoulder for the next Bond film (he did give Danny Craig his big break with Layer Cake back in 2004, after all), but a bigger part of me is hoping he stays right where he is and keeps showing the flaccid, self-important Bond franchise how it should be done.


Dir: Matthew Vaughn.
Script: Jane Goldman & Matthew Vaughn.
Dur: 141 mins
Cert 15

'IT' FLOATS



            It all began in 2011, when something that had lain dormant for 21 years was reawakened and stumbled blearily back into the light.  That monstrous entity was ... ‘The 1980s’.  Be afraid, kids; be very afraid.  This nostalgia, at least in movies, was resurrected by J.J. Abrams’ film Super 8.  That was a love-letter to Steven Spielberg’s films of the early 80s, those that he made himself, like E.T. and Poltergeist (both 1982) and those he produced, like The Goonies, and Back to the Future (both 1985).  These films had an inner sweetness at their core, a belief in family values, a suburban American setting, and (usually) a gang of kids getting into scrapes whilst being ignored by adults.

The gang's all here ... There's Fred and Daphne and ... no, wait, my bad: There's Xander and Willow and ... ehm ...
            The TV show Stranger Things did the same thing in the summer of 2016, and threw just as much of the other Steve into the mix.  So, this featured obvious influences from Spielberg’s films of the period, as well as Stephen King’s books (most obviously 1980’s The Mist and 1986’s It); not to mention a healthy dose of H.P. Lovecraft.  The show proved to be a phenomenon.  Audiences are clearly ready for this nostalgia, especially audiences who weren’t actually there in the 80s.  I’ve discussed Stranger Things with a lot of people and the ones who are really enthusiastic about it, are the ones who weren’t born then.
            I feel that this is important because this isn’t nostalgia for the actual 80s nor, even, for the films and books themselves but, rather, for the simplified image of the world they project.  Spielberg, like his buddy George Lucas, was inspired by his own nostalgia for his childhood, back in the 50s.  So, nostalgia for the films of the 80s is, by extension, nostalgia for the world of the 50s.  A time when people knew their place, when the war had been won, the new enemy was a long way away and, so far as kids were concerned, the world could be encircled with a white picket fence.        
            Given the chaos we see in the world every day, pining for simpler, more ignorant times is perfectly understandable.  Of course, in a Stephen King book, those white picket fences don’t keep the monster out, because the monster is, like as not, already in.

Steve and Steve, the two men whose imaginations have come to define a particular view of the 80s.  One seen through rose-tinted specs, the other through beer goggles.   Not surprising, then, that they haven't worked together. But never say never ... stranger things have happened.
            Although I have read most of King’s books of the 70s and 80s, I haven’t read It.  I know, I know, it’s a phenomenon, it’s his masterpiece; people have been telling me that for thirty years; but it never excited me.  Can’t explain why, unless it was just the sheer intimidating size of the damn thing.  I am a notoriously slow reader and a 1,200 page book would likely take me three months.
            And I’ve never seen the 1990 mini-series.  Or, if I have, it made so little impression that I’ve already forgotten it.  I know, I know, it has Tim Curry chewing up the furniture,cos his photo has been everywhere on the internet for months.  I remember, too, that it had John-Boy Walton in it.  Beyond that, nothing.
            So, I could approach the film cold, with no pre-conceived notions.  Unfortunately, what I couldn’t do, was wipe from my memory all the other horror films I’ve ever seen.  Even though I hadn’t read the source material or seen the previous adaptation, It suffers from over-familiarity. 
            They have followed the template of the Nightmare on Elm Street films, those immensely successful horror comedies of the 1980s, which are referenced deliberately and obviously here.  The problem with this, though, is that the Freddie Krueger films weren’t scary.  They were wacky and funny and sometimes a bit gross, but never actually scary. 
            It isn’t scary, either.

Creepy?  Yes.  Intriguing?  Certainly.  Actually scary?  No, not even close.
            This really is a horror film for beginners.  The twenty-or-so-year cycle of media fashion has turned and it’s time, once again, to roll out all those tried and trusted horror tropes that some of us remember from Halloween (1978), and the next generation got from Scream (1996).  The Milennials this film is targeted at have likely never seen this sort of Scooby-Doo caper before and, judging from the film’s astounding box office, they love it.  But I have been watching films since, it feels like, the beginning of time and, for me, a parade of empty jump-scares doesn’t work.
            It isn’t scary.
            The film has no sense of dread; nothing that was unknown or unexpected, which undermines the few potentially unnerving scenes in here, and waters down the few disturbing images.  The script relies far too heavily on the gang members going off on their own and, when they’re alone, doing something stupid like following a creepy figure into a dark room.
            The gang of kids feel so familiar that they are virtually stereotypes.  There’s the token fat kids, the token black kid, the ill kid, the funny kid and the token girl kid.  There’s a few others too but, frankly, that’s just too many kids to keep in one’s mind.  Then, when they find themselves in a dangerous position, there is a lot of screaming.  Really painful high-pitched childish screaming that seemingly never ends.

And then there was this creepy clown and he, like, possessed the slide projector and ... Zoiks!
            There’s nothing conspicuously wrong with the film, all of the set-pieces are well handled, the special effects work, the performances are generally good (a couple of the kids are trying too hard, but the others are spot on) and the new improved Pennywise the Clown is an excellent creation.  His squeaky, childish voice is properly unnerving in the opening storm-drain scene. 
            But it isn’t scary.
            And I can feel the scaffolding of the book propping up parts of the script.  Pennywise hints at his motivation but doesn’t really get any significant dialogue with which he can explain himself, until the end so, for the first two-thirds of the film, you don’t really know what he’s up to nor why.   Which makes it difficult to care.
              Structurally, the film is a mess, with too much time being spent on unconnected haunting scenes (each kid has to have his/her own hallucination, his/her own haunting) then, when they decide on some action and attack the monster where it lives; they take some casualties, so promptly give up.  They go away and the gang breaks up; simply so the film can get them all back together again five minutes later, then they go back into the creature’s lair and finish the job.  Over several hundred pages of sprawling, epic novel, this probably works; but in a lean, linear movie, it really doesn’t.

They really needed to sit down and squeeze the source novel - to flush away some of the extraneous characters and subplots.
            We get hints at some of the characters’ back stories - particularly in relation to their parents - but these whip past too fast to make much impression.  I’m sure that King will have filled all this in, in far more detail in the book.  But, for the film script, I’m thinking they should have either given these elements enough screen-time for them to develop some relevance, or cut them out completely.  It wouldn’t have hurt to cut the size of the gang down, either.  The novel will have had time to make a football team of characters distinct and interesting (that is one of king’s great strengths) but movies are best when they are precise and concise.  If there had been fewer children, but they had been better developed, I feel I would have cared more about them.
            One ingredient I recognise from other King books, is the depiction of the parents.  Their only function in this film is to fuck up their kids.  That’s it.  One way or another, all of the parents are weak or venal or violent and, yet, the kids are (with the exception of the one-dimensional school bully) reasonably well-balanced healthy kids.  For most of the film, however, the parents are an absence.  Platoons of kids are being taken from the town by Pennywise, and yet we are barely told about it, nor do we see any of the pain this is causing, except to our little gang.  It's there, in the background, fleetingly.  But, again, this either needed more screentime, or no screentime at all.
            It’s long been understood (well, it has by me) that short stories and novellas work best as film adaptations, because they tend to be narrower in focus with more economical stories and more manageable cast-lists.  For a Stephen King book the size of a telephone directory (and with a similar number of characters) this adaptation really could have done with being an ongoing TV series rather than a couple of two-hour movies (oh, yes, things aren’t done yet ... this is just Chapter One).
            Still, the film has been a sudden and resounding success, so expect it to be followed by a plethora of films featuring supernatural adversaries which have their devilish schemes foiled by gangs of meddling kids.  Scooby-dooby-doo!

Dir:  Andy Muschetti
Writers: Chase Palmer, Cary Fukanaga, Gary Dauberman
Dur: 135 mins
Cert: 15