Whatever happened to traditional ghost stories set in creepy old houses? Modern horror has become a competition between filmmakers to outdo each other’s gore or to find the latest and cheapest gimmicky trick (think Paranormal Activity). Rarely do we get creaky doors teasingly opening wide into dusty rooms frozen in troubled times. Rarely are the scares psychological, preying on childhood fears of monsters under the bed and the empty house that sighs forlornly from somewhere in its darkened depths at the end of the street. Rarely do bold, genius storytellers emerge from the ranks of horror directors these days.
Director Gustavo Hernandez is certainly brave. His chiller, The Silent House, is based upon an unsolved murder case in 1940s Uruguay. It is set within a seemingly picturesque, isolated and derelict house in secluded woodland. It is also filmed in one continuous take.
The effects of this are engrossing. The ambitious and meticulous technique works especially well for horror and has a surprising versatility. The camera essentially becomes a character. At first we feel like main character Laura’s imaginary friend, bobbing along behind her as she looks round the outside of the pretty house and listening in absentmindedly on the conversation between her father and the owner of the house, Nestor. Then later on, whilst still feeling tethered to Laura’s experience, we take up different positions and hiding places. Consequently we see things she cannot. And she sees, and does, things that we miss altogether.
Laura and her father are supposed to be clearing up the messy house filled with accumulated junk. They decide to sleep in the living room on armchairs and make a start in the morning. The owner Nestor has promised to return with food at some point. Laura does not drift off however. She is too distracted by the pounding noises from upstairs. She eventually convinces her father to investigate and then the nightmare begins.
Light and sound are always integral to successful horror. Here the atmospheric lighting is achieved through candles and electric lanterns mostly. One scene however, in which Laura picks up a camera when the lights go out, is comprised of glimpses of the horror via the flashes of the Polaroid. This was impressive, immersive and shocking. The sound effects are vital to the endless suspense, with the score also eerily winding up the tension to unbearable levels.
The Silent House is an amalgamation of old fashioned scares and modern frights. The setting is full of strange objects, antiques and family heirlooms cluttering the rooms. Multiple doorways leave hiding places everywhere. Later in the story though the scares become nastier, more brutal and unsettling, resembling the darker trend of recent horror flicks. The dialogue is minimal, so we never learn much about Laura. We simply share some of her experience. The shocks and surprises catch you off guard and the twist at the end comes out of the blue.
For cynical viewers, there are of course the usual annoyances of the genre. Why does Laura choose the moments after a vicious attack to become fascinated by bits of junk? Why does she minutely examine paintings and photos when she knows someone is lurking beyond the door? Why does she return to the house after escaping in a wave of fear? Why does no one contact the authorities?
The incredible suspense and the plots holes in this film really got me thinking about the ordeal of the psychopath perpetrating the horror, as well as the victims. At one point (minor spoiler) a body is moved to be propped up in a chair with a doll. How embarrassing would it be to be caught moving the body? The attackers in these films, who are determined to taunt their victims, must be as nervous and jumpy as the audience as they set up their disturbing scenarios in the shadows.
The genuine ambush of the twist at the end explains a lot of these holes and weaknesses, which would be left glaringly and irritatingly untouched by your average horror. The Silent House is far from average though. It is rightly hailed as a “technical tour de force” by The Guardian and its trailers can justifiably claim to offer “real fear in real time”. By avoiding the sometimes messy and often over the top cuts of most modern fright fests, and adopting a refreshing perspective on events, this film really drops you right into the action.
The Silent House is out on DVD and Blu-Ray on the 1st of August. Go for the Blu-Ray version if you really want to appreciate the achievements of the filmmakers, in particular the lighting effects. Also keep an eye out for the Hollywood remake, as the rights have already been snapped up.
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And so we’ve followed The Shadow Line all the way to its vanishing point. But did all the pieces of Hugo Blick’s puzzle fit together into a satisfying big picture? Or was all the build up ultimately a disappointment?
Well depending on where you stand, the big reveal that the whole mess was about pensions might be a letdown. There are few less exciting words in the English language. If pensions were a colour they would be grey. They are grey pounds collected from grey post offices in dreary grey villages by grey haired foot soldiers of the drab and grey retirement brigade. All the talk of far reaching Cold War and government conspiracies on internet forums seems rather laughable now. But wouldn’t it have been more interesting and satisfying to find out that it was all more significant than a pension fund? Doesn’t all that killing seem rather OTT for a secure retirement?
A part of me was certainly a little underwhelmed by the explanation of it all, delivered by the retired Commander Penney on his yacht before he blew his own brains out. He explains to Gabriel, who refuses to let the case drop even after the really bad copper at the top has been found out and given the boot because Petra was hired by him to take out Gatehouse, that Counterpoint was official at first. But then after amassing £70 million through drug deals the authorities ordered it to stop, as its activities were entrapment and therefore useless to prosecutors in the courts. Counterpoint carried on, below the radar and unofficially. It laundered money through its deals in order to fund the pensions for the entire police force.
My initial reaction was; seriously? But by the end of the episode I liked the idea and I was sold on it as a good explanation. The way Blick ties things up again emphasises what this series was about; the lives of both sides of the line, cops and crims, and the overlap in between. Police corruption was vital to the entire series and it was fitting that the solution to most of the questions raised throughout was one of complete self interest on behalf of the boys in blue. More than anything though I liked the Britishness of the pensions answer, in keeping with earlier lines like “typical fucking British car chase”. Blick could have tried too hard for a grand an all important finale. But right until the end this series remained original despite emulating the production standards and story arcs of popular American shows.
So what about Gatehouse? Were the shadows around him illuminated with a little light? Yes, a little. We find out that he’s a MI5 agent and in charge of the operations of Counterpoint in the field. He set up Glickman and Harvey Wratten long ago, and by the end of this episode he’s found replacements for them in Jay Wratten and rent boy Rattalack.
Incidentally Jay, who was completely absent last week, has been cunningly manoeuvring behind the scenes. He put the cops onto his uncle in the first place. As Gatehouse says, he has “hidden depths”. Jay gets some of his best lines in a climactic scene with Babur; “It’s never nice to watch an old man refuse to leave a disco…someone had to bundle him off the dance floor”. For all his camp menace, I think most of us who followed The Shadow Line to the end came to love Jay as a character, slimy pantomime villainy and all.
For Gatehouse the whole thing was about control, as Glickman hinted in previous weeks. The head honchos of Counterpoint thought he might have gone rouge to pocket the money for himself, hence the UV tags, but he was only ever trying to restore the stability of the system. With replacements in place, by the end it’s like he’s hit the reset button on the whole series.
Our two principal characters on either side of The Shadow Line, Christopher Eccleston’s Joseph Bede and Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Jonah Gabriel, are both extinguished. Bede is shot in a car in exactly the same way Harvey Wratten was and then officers examine the carnage as they did in the very first scene of the series. Bede knew he was going to his death, he’d been warned and had his own suspicions about Jay, but in a powerful piece of understated acting from Eccleston, he leaves his gun on the kitchen table. His plan to save his wife had failed; she attempted suicide twice and was put into care.
As for Gabriel, it seemed like he could do no more. He might just have to accept the promotion that his corrupt superior Patterson, but perhaps slightly less corrupt in that he only follows Counterpoint rather than pocketing the cash for himself, had given him. But then Gatehouse phoned him. They arrange a meet and Honey accompanies him, after repeatedly assuring him throughout the episode of her loyalty to him.
Yeah it was fairly obvious. Honey has her gun trained on Gatehouse but after some final tying off of loose ends and some chit chat about shadows, Gatehouse flicks his lighter and Honey shoots Gabriel dead. So Gatehouse always wins, Counterpoint is back to normal. Honey seems to feel a bit remorseful but Gatehouse assures her she’ll get over it, presumably in retirement with a nice fat pension.
At times The Shadow Line was atrociously bad, usually in a funny way. At times it tried far too hard to be stylish, with one example of this being a fetish during the last two episodes in particular for a close up of cigarette tips as they were lit. However overall it was ambitious and absorbing TV. I haven’t seen anything like this on the BBC or anywhere else. Hugo Blick should be applauded and I hope he gets the chance to make more things in the mould of The Shadow Line. I shall miss both watching and blogging about such twisty, exciting and quality television.
What were your thoughts on the answers, the pensions and the series as a whole? Did you want more? Would you welcome a second series or a spin-off for a particular character?
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This penultimate episode started to bring things closer to the big reveal and end of series climax. However rather than my usual attempt to sort out the threads of the plot, I am driven by a minor detail to starting this week’s summary with a rant about realism and the suspension of disbelief.
Gatehouse, played with quiet menace by Stephen Rea, has been the most mysterious figure in a story arc stuffed full of secrets and deceit. In this episode he finally appeared to meet his match. Anthony Sher’s Glickman, who had that thrilling standoff with Gatehouse last week, uses Chiwetel Ejiofor’s confused Detective Jonah Gabriel, the one with the bullet in his brain, to set the perfect trap for Gatehouse. Both men lie in wait for Gatehouse in the home of Gabriel’s secret family.
After a tense conversation between Gatehouse and Gabriel, Glickman pounces from the little boy’s room (the son’s bedroom not the toilet). He fires several times with his silenced weapon, hitting Gatehouse decisively at least twice. The action slides into dramatic slow-mo as Gabriel’s son runs from his room, getting caught in the crossfire. Glickman shoots Gatehouse to make sure before stumbling from the horrific and tragic scene his trap has inadvertently created. Even in death Gatehouse finds and hurts the weak points of those in his way.
Except Gatehouse isn’t dead. He’ s taken to hospital and Gabriel says the doctors insist he has the heart rate of a twenty year old. I said last week that Glickman seemed to be far more human than Gatehouse despite his similar efficiency, and I was right. Distraught after accidentally killing an innocent boy, Glickman rings Petra, his jilted girlfriend. She meets him in an alleyway to console him. And then she stabs him several times, leaving him to die in a heap.
That was certainly a surprise I didn’t see coming. I had assumed Glickman’s abandoned love was simply to give his character weight and also give Christopher Eccleston’s Joseph Bede a forbidden love interest to spice up his inner battle with his wife’s dementia. But no, it turns out she’s an assassin. Who is she working for? With Gatehouse taken out, we assume he has powerful friends or subordinates seeking swift revenge.
However then she turns up, right at the end of the episode, at Gatehouse’s private hospital room. His only security is a nurse with a fondness for Dairy Milk and an unfortunate knack of dropping her precious snack to the floor as killers lurk outside looking to sneak past. Petra is clearly a cunning and formidable opponent to deceive so easily and completely someone as wary and careful as Glickman. Here she unzips her top to reveal an ample cleavage and a mass of wires clinging to her chest. She proceeds to hook herself up to the immobile Gatehouse, seemingly doing something complicated to swap heart beat readings. She has a lethal injection ready and waiting. As she says aloud “bleep bleep” to make sure she gets the timing of the switch right, Gatehouse rolls over, says “bleep” and kills her like he was just having a power nap.
And so, finally, to my big gripe. Gatehouse has not a single sign of being shot on his body. Blood could be seen spreading around his head and trademark black coat after Glickman fired. He must have been substantially wounded, taking bullets somewhere on the torso. I am quite willing to accept that Gatehouse turns out to be the unbeatable top dog, as he has been all along. I wouldn’t have minded Gatehouse summoning the strength to kill his would be killer, if there had simply been a bandage or stitch or something to indicate the earlier ordeal. We get that Gatehouse is stronger than normal men. But such inconsistency and laziness of detail when shooting a pivotal scene, severely limits the audience’s ability to inhabit the increasingly sensational story.
Most of you are probably thinking I’ve blown such a tiny detail out of proportion. I may have done. But for me things like that have always been important. It is often a trait of men to pick fault in the believability of a story. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the excitement of the scene and all that went before it. And it’s not that I wish everything to be so plausible that it becomes mundane.
Such mistakes leave me with a feeling of annoyance though. This is a huge shame because The Shadow Line has been largely consistent and quality in terms of such details. And all I really wanted to do was commend this episode. Of course, it might be revealed next week that Gatehouse knew Glickman was planning a trap and had taken precautions. In which case this was an even more pointless rant.
What about the rest of the episode then? Well finally we got some satisfying focus on Gabriel’s character. For most of the episode he was the narrative focal point, right up until Glickman’s trap was sprung, adding to the drama, emotion and awfulness of the death of his son. We start by watching him get a brain scan; it seems he’s getting his memory back. His wife nearly loses the baby but then things turn out to be fine. Glickman tells him to follow the money, not the drugs as he said last time. Would have helped if he hadn’t mucked us about wouldn’t it? He tells Gabriel to harass the retired police commander about Counterpoint, which will bring Gatehouse out of the shadows to hunt down his weak point. We learn that the journalist, otherwise known as M’s assistant in Casino Royale, met his maker because he pestered the commander too much.
The police corruption goes higher and deeper than anyone could have imagined. A senior civil servant seems to be pulling the strings as he issues instructions to our crooked inspector at a funeral. He orders the convincing suicide and murder of Gabriel and his family. Does this mean Gatehouse is working for people within the law and government (as he killed Andy Dixon in the same way)? Meanwhile Gabriel finds out he’s a good cop. He didn’t log the operation the night he was shot because he knew there were rotten elements on the police side. And the police were buying the drugs as well as selling them. Baffling.
Other asides: rent boy Rattalack is getting his money from Gatehouse to buy Bede’s drugs. But with Gatehouse almost dead, everyone gets panicky when the money doesn’t turn up. And Bede’s right hand man is going to sell details of the deal. We still don’t know what Counterpoint is or who Glickman’s ex was working for, seeking to tidy up the situation with some slick murders. Gabriel’s wife gets a lecture from his ex, the mother of his dead child, at the boy’s funeral. She basically tells her to get Gabriel out of the mess and that the truth isn’t always worth it. Will he be able to keep a family together even if all the mysteries are solved?
Next week, light will illuminate the shadows. Will everything fit together? Supposedly Hugo Blick plotted the whole series with massive interconnecting mind maps, so it should. And will Jay Wratten, absent this week, go out with a whimper or a bang?
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Sperm donation is an ethical and emotional minefield. It’s one of those sensitive issues with equally passionate and valid views on both sides of the debate. Even bystanders not directly involved or affected will have a strong opinion on its morality. The consequences and motivations of such anonymous, industrial giving of life can be dissected and analysed again and again, for positives and negatives. Endless reams could be written on the subject without resolving the issue one way or another.
It’s also one of those topics that often only interests people when looked at from monstrous and extreme angles. For example a few years ago a documentary called “The Sperminator” about a man running a clinic who provided all the samples himself, when he told prospective parents that there was an extensive bank to meet their specific requests and requirements, caused a lot of controversy and generated a lot of interest. People enjoy being shocked by grotesque scandals such as this, simultaneously intrigued and repulsed by the potential for ignorant incest. The human side of this relatively new phenomenon is usually overlooked.
Donor Unknown is almost exclusively about the very human effects of sperm donation. It’s an extremely admirable and accomplished piece of filmmaking. Over the course of its engaging and economical 78 minute runtime, this film gradually and thoroughly explores the sperm trade by maintaining a tight human focus. Hollywood blockbusters lack both the heart and surprising plot twists of Donor Unknown and it deserves a grander home than TV screens. With its editing and pacing and diverse locations across America, this is a film that shows off the art of documentary storytelling at its best.
Much of the film is seen through the lens of JoEllen, a girl on the cusp of pretty womanhood, who has come to terms with her lack of a father throughout childhood. Her mother has always been honest about the way in which she was conceived, with a little help from “donor 150”. But although she’s grown up with the affection of a loving family and lived a privileged, seemingly happy existence, there is always something missing. A great big “what if” is constantly nagging at JoEllen’s wellbeing and sense of identity.
Meanwhile on Venice Beach in LA, Jeffrey lives with his four dogs and the occasional pigeon. He’s quite clearly a hippy, living a simple life in a RV, loving his dogs and being kind to those he meets. With his long hair and tanned, excess wearied face, it’s difficult to imagine he was once a muscular model in Playgirl who once made a living from stripping. He explains that he was asked by a woman he met at the hairdresser’s during those years of his prime, whether or not he’d like to donate sperm so she could have a baby. Obviously he was taken aback but after speaking to a close friend who was a loving mother, he decided to give this relative stranger the opportunity of motherhood and hope that fate rewarded him for his good deed.
Donor Unknown also talks to the staff at the Californian Cryogenic Centre, that aims to have the largest collection of sperm donors in the world. We see the specimens stored in huge vats and we have numbers like 200 billion fired at us. We’re assured that this centre alone could repopulate the world in the event of some disaster making such measures necessary. We’re shown the “masturbatory emporiums” with walls colourfully adorned to aid the donation process, with the more sample provided the better. The chambers increase in eroticism along the corridor, we’re told.
And so we are eased gently into sperm donation, with a balance of real human effects and the technology involved. JoEllen’s hole in her existence is contrasted with the motivation of mothers to turn to donors like Jeffrey, along with his reasons for helping out.
Then we’re hit with the bombshell of JoEllen finding a sibling. Her half sister lives in New York and they meet after discovering each other via an online register, where you simply register your donor number. Her identity issues are even deeper than JoEllen’s because she has been lied to until the age of about 14. She resents her parents for the deception and feels immensely confused and hurt. As a teenager it’s a lot to take onboard and extremely destabilising. Desperate for a link to a missing 50% of her, she finds JoEllen and then gets a story onto the front of the New York Times, without her parents’ knowledge.
At this point Donor Unknown becomes extremely uplifting, as more and more siblings come forward who were fathered by “donor 150”. Via the internet an unconventional patchwork family forms across America’s very different states, bringing absent intimacy, connection and love into the lives of more than a dozen children. JoEllen methodically keeps track of all her lost brothers and sisters, meeting most of them and forming attachments, filling in the missing side of her family tree slightly. The genetic quirks and likenesses are touching and fascinating to behold, as the screen flits rapidly through the faces and mannerisms of all the “150” siblings.
But then Donor Unknown changes gear to look at yet another aspect of the trade. After gently gaining your attention and emotional investment, we finally come to the really dark side of sperm donation. One of the siblings, Rachelle, expresses her constant doubts and worries about dating. She has specifically stuck to foreign guys or people that for other reasons definitely could not be related. An interview with the founder of the online register, a mother of a donor child herself, reveals that there are no limits on the number of children a donor can father, despite the claims of clinics.
The Californian Cryogenic Centre is also at pains to point out their range of choice and the extensive information they offer. But the answers of donor questions can be as misleading as they are informative. Jeffrey for example, said he was a dancer when he was a stripper and said he studied philosophy when he spent little time in college. His spiritual waffle won over scores of prospective parents but he is in reality something of a waster, an idealistic hippy and eccentric weirdo. He believes in worrying conspiracy theories and has an unnatural attachment to animals after a troubled childhood.
Beneath it all though he is a kind man and the ending to Donor Unknown is unquestionably back in the uplifting zone. Whatever the dangers and wrongs of the sperm industry, it has the power to create the amazing gift of life. Without the fakery of actors to bring it down, Donor Unknown soars to interesting and touching heights, telling the modern, interconnecting tales of real people.
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Nazi Germany is a historical setting we are all familiar with. Films set within the Third Reich often have similarities; good natured people trying to help persecuted Jewish neighbours, informers, political intimidation, concentration camps and the striking red background of the swastika. Equally there are areas often overlooked. The boxing rings for example.
Max Schmeling is a German film directed by Uwe Boll which tells the story of one of the 20th century’s greatest boxers. He became world champion in the early 1930s, getting his big break by beating the title holder by default after an illegal “low blow” from his opponent. The film begins by following Max as a paratrooper for the German army in Crete, where everyone seems to know his name. During a conversation with a British prisoner he recalls how his fame started, flashing back to his regret at being denied the world championship outright. The rest of his career became a struggle to prove he deserved that title.
Schmeling wanted to prove himself outside of Germany as well as within it. He wanted to be the best in the world. He was already a national hero but he wanted to win other countries over with his ability. He frequently flew to America for huge matches at iconic venues such as Madison Square Garden. He was beginning to win admiration around the globe until his task became a lot harder with the rise of the Nazi party. As Germany’s image was soured so was Schmeling’s. One of the interesting themes in this film is that Schmeling saw himself as a boxer first and a German second. And that Nazism would simply pass as though it were an adolescent phase.
Hitler wanted Schmeling to be a symbol of the Aryan race and Germany’s might. As Schmeling sought to arrange fights with the formidable black American boxer Joe Louis, an opponent with an unbeaten record and extraordinary number of KOs that would enhance his boxing credentials should he somehow beat him, the Nazis tried to portray the clash as a battle between races and ideologies. Schmeling was naive in one sense but extremely brave in another, to carry on regardless of this manipulation and insist it was just a boxing match. Through his honour he simultaneously became a political pawn by refusing to recognise the wider significance, and rose above the Nazis by continuing with his dream.
So this film is an epic historical drama, encompassing wide areas of German life before and after the Nazis took power. We see both the glitz of the Weimar era and the race riots of Kristallnacht on the streets of Berlin, when Jewish shops and residents were viciously attacked. The period detail, particularly the costumes, and the variety of locations, are impressive. It is also a story of the rise of a sporting great, with Rocky style montages as Schmeling trains for his big fights and moments of tactical deliberation. And there is a love story, when Schmeling meets his soul mate in actress Anny Ondra and manages to marry her.
The love story gives this film something extra. There are, as I said, a lot of stories set in Nazi Germany, often with romances, sometimes with sporting heroes trying to avoid the control of the regime. But this romance is particularly convincing. Henry Maske gives an Arnie-esque performance, as a simple man falling for a beautiful woman. And Susanne Wuest is believable as first a teasing woman suspicious of a brute pursuing her affections and finally an actress frightened by what the Nazis are doing to her profession.
A short but enlightening “Making of” feature on the DVD reveals the reason for the authenticity of this relationship on screen; Maske is not an actor but a boxer. Therefore, as Wuest puts it in an interview, we have a boxer playing a boxer and an actress playing an actress. Director Boll was impressed with Maske’s performance and put it down to his ability to effectively play himself, identifying with Schmeling to inhabit the character.
Overall this might not be the most original film experience but it is immensely enjoyable. All of its various elements are superbly executed, from the production standards to the acting, from the music to the exciting and raw boxing matches themselves. This feels like an incredibly real snapshot of history and it’s a story that deserves to be well told about a remarkable man.
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