Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Here Comes the Devil

When I spotted Here Comes the Devil (AKA Ahí va el diablo) was showing as part of the Leeds International Film Festival's horror and genre film strand I was more than a little excited.  Earlier this year it screened to audiences in Austin's Fantastic Fest and to say that it had done well there is something of an understatement: Here Comes picked up awards for best actor, best actress, best screenplay, best director and best picture in the horror category.  There are only two explanations for this: either the other films in competition were hardly strong, or Here Comes is really something quite special.

So of course I had to go and see it. 

Some hours later, I'm still not quite sure what to make of it. It's a solid little film, it ticks a lot the boxes you'd expect and a few you might not, but it doesn't really offer much by way of surprises. I definitely came out grinning, but I don't think it made my jaw drop.

The premise is pretty familiar. Some children disappear and then turn up the next day. Only, when they re-appear they're... different. Cold, unemotional, quiet. I don't think I'm spoiling anything if I tell you there's some supernatural/possession stuff going on. Most of the rest of the film focuses on unravelling the changes that have taken place, whilst Sol and Felix (the parents) struggle to cope with what has happened.

Director Adrían García Bogliano (I'm definitely going to check out more of his films) has explained that he was keen to step away from the slasher/giallo genres that he was comfortable in and embrace the challenge of supernatural horror. It's an interesting challenge, one that wasn't entirely successful but is never dull.  Here Comes has the prints of giallo and slasher all over it: in often seems to reveal too much visually, keeping hold of the mystery but losing a lot of the horror atmosphere in shock scenes.  Similarly, it never quite escapes from the clichés of supernatural horror: the darkened eyes, the creepy man, the local legend, the levitating body - they're all here. At times, this all seems laid on a little too thick.

But these are minor gripes. Genre film is - by its very nature - bound to be somewhat generic. And the collision of giallo, slasher and supernatural is not really a bad thing (although perhaps some of the scenes are too implausible or too obviously gratuitous). It's a fun film. The real problem is that it suffers from what I have termed Stupid People in Horror Syndrome (SPiHP). Some of the characters are just way too dumb. None of them talk to each other, none of them just talk to the police, none of them think about what they're doing. There are only two things you should feel for the sufferers in horror movie: you should either identify with and feel sorry for them, or you should just look forward to them dying. Here Comes does work hard to make you care about its lead characters but my will to see Sol live, as she repeatedly went off alone to do stupid things, was crumbling. Which was a shame.

None of this should detract from the fact that Here Comes is a good fun film to watch. I'm not usually much of a fan of possession-type films but I thoroughly enjoyed this and would definitely call it one of the better modern horror's I've seen recently. A solid, exciting genre flick for sure, although I'm still not sure quite how it won so many awards...

Friday, November 2, 2012


Last night the Leeds International Film Festival kicked off with Argo, which Ben Affleck both directed and starred in.  Now, I don't really pay that much attention to Hollywood projects very often, so I'll admit that I knew almost nothing about it beforehand, even though it's apparently big news.

I was pleasantly surprised. Sort of.

Argo has at least two films in it, and at least one of them is quite good. It dithers a bit between whether it wants to be serious or comic, commits to neither and kind of crosses back and forth somewhat awkwardly.  The opening, in which the (real historical) Iranian hostage situation unfolds suggests the film was keen to take quite an interesting approach, treading quite carefully in what it did. There does seem to be a degree of sympathy towards both the American embassy staff and the rioting Iranians, neither side being explicitly vilified.  The behaviour of the embassy staff, whose first priority when the building is attacked is to shred all their documents, gently suggests that possibly they were doing work that went a little beyond their diplomatic roles.

All this nuance and subtly vanishes, however, almost immediately after the scene is set. From about 20 minutes into the film we revert into classic thriller mode: there are good guys and there are bad guys. The good guys are threatened by the bad guys. The good guys must try to escape. This, in itself isn't really a problem. Argo is billed as a thriller and absolutely delivers on its promise. The film is tense, exciting and well-paced, scenes of life-or-death suspense alternating with gently comic moments. As a thriller it ticks a lot of boxes.

Sadly, having set the scene very firmly in Iran and very explicitly as 'based-on-true-events' story, the humorous-thriller tone of the film is, to my mind, slightly at conflict with the political side of things.  There's no escaping or forgetting the fact that Iran and America are still far from good friends and that the West is decidedly prone to Islamophobia: in Argo it seems that pretty much anyone with a beard (or at least, a beard longer than Affleck's own) is an enemy. From about halfway through it has become very clear that anyone who approaches the heroes who looks even slightly a bit like a Muslim is absolutely bound to be a murderous, brutal agent of the state. Which is a bit of a shame.

Really, they ought to have pushed it one way or the other. This could have been a good, serious (though possibly rather weighty) look at relations between Iran and the US or it could have been a kick-ass entertaining thriller with no need to be grounded in the real East-West conflict that it patently doesn't really care about. Instead, it staggers between the two, reassuring audiences that America are the good guys, Iranians (real: anyone vaguely middle-eastern) are the bad guys and the US will surely triumph.

For all that, it is still quite a lot of fun.