French

Martyrs (2008)

Martyrs

Martyrs is essentially a film with three acts centred around two young women, Lucie and Anna, played by Mylène Jampanoï (Hereafter, The Chinese Botanist’s Daughters ) and Morjana Alaoui (Rock the Casbah, Special Forces) respectively. The film opens with a young Lucie’s  escape from an abandoned warehouse where she is being abused. Put into a children’s home, Lucie refuses to communicate with the authorities but forms a close an enduring friendship with her roommate, Anna. The film then skips forwards fifteen years where we see Lucie break into an ordinary family’s home and kill them all with a shot gun, however the pile of corpses are not Lucie’s only problem, she is plagued by an emaciated, scarred woman (think Gollum but way more scary) who attacks her repeatedly. Needing help, she calls her life-long friend Anna who rushes to her aid, cleaning her wounds and disposing of the bodies. It turns out that the family was not as ordinary as on first appearances and Lucie is sure the parents are the people who kidnapped and tortured her fifteen years previously. This is essentially the first act dealing with the ramifications of Lucie’s actions and the mysterious woman, ghost, monster or in Lucie’s psyche.

The catalyst of the second act is Anna’s discovery that the mother is still alive and the deterioration of Lucie’s behaviour and focusses more on the relationship between the two girls. Anna begins to doubt that the parents are those responsible for Lucie’s torture, after all it has been fifteen years and she only had a newspaper clipping to go on. Discovering Anna’s doubts, Lucie brutally kills the mother with a sledge hammer in graphic details, the most unnerving and effective part is the dull thuds as the hammer lands in the woman’s skull before killing herself. Anna is distraught but the next morning, thanks to large chunks taken out of the wall by Lucie’s sledge hammer, discovers an underground complex with the same chair-chains-bucket combination from Lucie’s past. What I didn’t understand was the size and professional look of this chamber, for example it went not just one but two storeys underground and featured poster-sized illuminated photos of people close to death in extreme circumstances. Surely anything of this size and quality would have cost a fortune and required a serious team of builders.

The third and final part of the film I’m not going to ruin the surprise here, but it is a cracker of an ending that I didn’t see coming. It takes the film from an average psychological thriller to the next level. Whilst at the start Martyrs reminded me strongly of another French film released at the same time, Switchblade Romance (released in the US as High Tension),writer and director Pascal Laugier (The Tall Man, House of Voices) pushes the idea to its limits, ramping the tension throughout the film. I think Martyrs is an excellent, if not necessarily enjoyable film that will stay with me for a long time.

Rating: 5/5 (although very different from the last film, The Bat, which also got full marks!)

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Vampyr (1932)

vampyr

The full title of the film is Vampyr: the Dream of Allan Grey and follows Allan Grey a young man with an obsession for the occult and supernatural. Portrayed by Julian West, Grey is twitchy and slightly gormless looking and finds himself in a riverside inn in the French countryside. In his first night he is awoken by an old man unlocking the door from the wrong side who talks to him about death. Things continue to get stranger for Grey who then sees shadows about the village moving as ghosts with nobody casting them. These include dancing couples, a running figure reflected in the river and a soldier with a wooden leg climbing a ladder who Grey then observes to return to its rightful owner.

It is soon revealed that the old man lives in a chateau nearby with his two teenage daughters, Gisèlle and Léone, along with a handful of servants. All is not well in the chateau with both girls appearing to be ill with a lack of blood, and it soon becomes clear that both are the victims of a vampire. The audience learn a lot about the vampire folklore present in this film from “The History of Vampires” by Paul Bonnard that Grey is reading, from which we find out that once bitten by a vampire, the victim then develops a lust for blood and becomes a vampire, thus wiping out whole villages. Alongside the unfortunate family is the village doctor played by Jan Hieronimko, who looks like Albert Einstein who has been left to shrivel in a low oven for ten hours. It is clear from the subject matter of the books Grey (and thus the audience) is reading that he doesn’t trust the doctor with references throughout to previous examples of doctors joining forces with vampires.

Vampyr holds with many of the traditional vampire myths, for example being unable to be in sunlight and the presence in one scene of a shadowy bat. However, it plays much more on the relationship between vampire and victim, the hold that the supernatural being has over the victim, compelling them to commit suicide, but also the addictive nature of the victim’s blood and the vampires need for it.

Vampyr was the first sound film created and directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer (The Passion of Joan of Arc, Day of Wrath) and as such relies heavily on the use of title cards used in silent films. Based loosely on In a Glass Darkly, a collection of short stories from the nineteenth century by Sheridan Le Fanu, Vampyr is more a series of scenes connected only by the fact Allan Grey is viewing than a fully-fledged storyline. The unconnected feeling however adds to the dreamlike and ethereal quality of the film but also makes it hard to follow. The disembodied shadows and random shots of skeletons seem unrelated to the rest of the film and the ending providing more questions than answers.

Fun Fact: Vampyr was originally filmed in three languages, German, French and English and released in both French and German. Only damaged copies of the film survived and it was restored from both the French and the German in the 1990s.

Rating: 2/5

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Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971)

Four Flies on Grey Velvet is the final in Dario Argento’s Animal trilogy, the previous two being The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and The Cat o’ Nine Tails. The film is named after the four flies imprinted in the retina of one of the victims. The film follows Roberto Tobias (Michael Brandon) a drummer in a rock band who, after being stalked by mysterious stranger accidently stabs and kills the man. Whilst this isn’t bad enough, the act is captured on camera by a second (masked) stranger. It soon becomes obvious that the masked man doesn’t want to take the incriminating photos to the police, rather torture and blackmail Roberto and his wife, Nina (Mimsy Farmer).

Roberto cannot turn to the police (after committing murder) and instead confides in God (short for Godfrey) played by Bud Spencer, a hermit-like figure who lives in a shack by the river with a parrot called Jerkoff and an eccentric  layabout referred to as ‘The Professor’ played by Oreste Lionello. On the recommendation of God, Roberto hires a private investigator, Gianni Arrosio (Jean Pierre Marielle) who has never yet solved a case. Unfortunately for Arrosio this case breaks his unlucky streak but the killer catches up with him before he can tell anyone. The film climaxes in Roberto confronting the killer after waiting for the killer in his darkened house, this scene is possibly the first instance of high-speed camera equipment being used to follow the trajectory of a bullet.

Everything in the film is used to increase the tension. There are long sequences where a camera follows a single character in silence, spinning and panning around them, disorientating the viewer. The film is full of disappearing crowds where one minute normal life is going on only to be deserted the next second creating an isolated and ominous feeling. Unlike many films when filming at night there is no extra ‘movie’ ambience light, leaving the viewer straining to see what is going on. In contrast to the dark night scenes are Roberto’s dream sequences which fill the screen with white light which gradually fades to reveal an execution.

Despite taking itself seriously there are a number of slightly bizarre scenes and touches, the aforementioned Jerkoff and a meeting between God, the Professor and Roberto in a funeral convention featuring a lot of very odd looking coffins. The lightness of these scenes serve to keep the film from becoming too bogged down.

Four Flies on Grey Velvet is a fine example of the Giallo genre, an Italian genre of suspense thriller/horror films from the 1960s and 70s. Despite the far-fetched science that lends the film its name, it is a blemish in a believable (if very 70s) film that keeps you on the edge of your seat and guessing until the very end. I would recommend this film to anyone and it has encouraged me to watch/re-watch more of both Argento’s films and films in the Giallo genre.

Maniac (2012)

Maniac

Elijah Wood (Lord of the Rings) stars as Frank Zito, the aforementioned maniac in this French-American remake of a 1980s film of the same name, directed by William Lustig. Frank is a disturbed mannequin shop owner whose troubled childhood relationship with his mother, a prostitute who frequently met with clients in front of a young Frank, has led to an obsession for scalping women. Indeed, at one point Frank refers to one of his victims as “mummy” before removing her scalp. He then goes on to attach the scalps of his victims to shop mannequins in order to possess the victims, negating some of the neglect felt as a child.

Frank then meets Anna, played by Nora Arnezeder (Safe House), a French photographer who seems oblivious to both the rash of murders going on and Zito’s deepening feeling towards her, uses Frank’s mannequins in an exhibition. At the start of their relationship (friendship on Anna’s part, love on Frank’s) Anna’s influence seems positive on Frank and he tries (but fails) to curb his impulses. However, on discovering that Anna has a boyfriend at the opening of Anna’s exhibition, Frank feels rejected and loses the small grip he had on reality, leading to the films destructive climax.

The film is directed by Franck Khalfoun (P2) and is mainly shot from the point of view of Frank Zito, leading to an insight into the warped mind of the killer and his relationship with both the women he kills and the mannequins that fill his house. Indeed, Frank Zito’s dirty and cut hands are the part most often seen on screen with his face only shown in reflections. The use of mannequins in the film serves to highlight the lack of empathy and the lack understanding of human relationships that Frank possesses in an effective, manner. As always, Elijah Wood plays the part of an unhinged loner well, his piercing blue eyes lending themselves perfectly to the intense staring of Frank Zito.

Unlike many serial killer films, Maniac is not blood heavy, concentrating on psychological fear and the insight into an unbalanced mind to generate scares rather than gore. What blood there is, is realistic, although the scalps seem very easy to remove (I don’t have any personal experience in how easy it is to scalp someone, so for all I know it’s accurate).

I found Maniac a good watch. Whilst the plot is monotonous and unoriginal (psychopath with mother issues) the way the film is shot is unusual, very rarely do you see serial killer films from the view of the killer. I found that there was overall a sad note to the film associated with the loneliness and fractured mind of Frank making it very hard to hate him despite the horrific crimes he commits.