Wednesday, 5 October 2016

REVIEW REVISITED: The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)


This is a reprint of my review which was first published on this blog about 4 years ago, with a number of minor revisions. My original review, from 2010, can be found here. Also be sure to check out the Movie Hour podcast on the film from December 2010 here. 

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (UK/ USA, 1975) 
Directed by Jim Sharman 
Starring Barry Bostwick, Susan Sarandon, Tim Curry, Charles Gray

Whenever anyone has the nerve to remake a modern classic, one of the arguments which is often dredged up is that a remake could fix some of the problems of the original. Films from the past, such people argue, didn't have access to the kind of special effects which we now enjoy, or they regard it as an opportunity to address plot or character issues, such as a demeaning view of women or different races.
Fox's decision to remake The Rocky Horror Picture Show - albeit with Tim Curry on board - has naturally incurred the wrath of the fanbase, of which I count myself as a member. But notwithstanding the cynical commercial motivations of the remake, the trailers would lead us to believe that it has misunderstood something crucial about the original. The original wasn't perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but like so many great cult films its flaws and shortcomings are part and parcel of what makes it so compelling and distinctive.
The creakiness of Rocky Horror is rooted as much in its limited budget as in its deep-rooted desire to have fun by impersonating or parodying old B-movies. You don't have to get all the references buried in the film to appreciate it, but you're more likely to enjoy it if you cotton on to the fact that little if any of it is designed to be taken seriously. Film critics spend a great deal of their time trying to persuade the public to pick and judge films on deeper grounds than whether or not they are entertaining, but this is one film which only works if you "give yourself over to absolute pleasure".
It's no surprise at all that the film underperformed when first released. Much like its cult contemporaries (Night of the Living Dead, Pink Flamingos, El Topo and Eraserhead), it is very hard to sit through Rocky Horror in complete comfort the first time round. Part of this is intentional: several scenes are scary and the visuals are striking enough to send the uninitiated reeling. But part of it is an acknowledgement of the film's limitations, which have been present from the beginning.
Richard O'Brien conceived the original stage show as a love letter to old sci-fi and horror B-movies; he described it as a means to relive childhood memories of Frankenstein and Nosferatu, and to escape from the reality of being out of work. True to form, the opening song pays lip service to a host of such films, from the original versions of Flash Gordon and The Day The Earth Stood Still through to Universal horror (The Invisible Man), British supernatural horror (Night of the Demon) and more campy American fare (It Came From Outer Space).
The plot of Rocky Horror plays out like a jumble-sale of B-movie plots, restaged with maximum camp value and more than a little affection. The creation of Rocky is a witty riff on Frankenstein; the monster remains largely mute and afraid of fire, but the master designs him as a source of pleasure rather than a means to make mankind immortal. There are clear hints of King Kong in the final third, as Frank N. Furter wonders "Whatever happened to Fay Wray?" and Rocky dies from falling off the RKO Tower. The film also tips its hat lovingly to Hammer in the casting of Charles Gray, in what is by far his best performance since The Devil Rides Out.
But by far the biggest influence on Rocky Horror is The Wizard of Oz, something which O'Brien readily acknowledges. The film was originally intended to be filmed in black-and-white right up until Frank N. Furter's entrance, to mimic Dorothy's journey from Kansas via the tornado. Moreover, the central story of Brad and Janet is one of innocent, pure individuals being whisked off against their will to a world they don't understand - and like Dorothy, they have to deal with many evils in their desperate bid to get home.
While it retains many aspects of the L. Frank Baum story, Rocky Horror subverts or departs from key elements in a way which reveals its deeper message (if it has such a thing). While Oz has a cop-out ending where everything returns to normal, the lives of Brad and Janet are shattered forever; there is no going back to their previous lives of whitewashed churches and pastel dresses. Likewise Dorothy retains her purity or innocence throughout, while both Brad and Janet give in to temptation and find out that they actually quite enjoy it. The final song is a duet between the conflicting desires of Barry Bostwick's 'bleeding' heart and Susan Sarandon's promiscuity. One could almost liken the final scene to a sexualised restaging of the Fall, with Charles Gray looking on as a jealous God who is criminally disappointed in his "insects".
Rocky Horror has been hailed as many things in its lifetime, from a call for sexual liberation to some sort of Brechtian challenge to the role of an audience. Most of these accolades have an ounce of credibility but were not the intention of the filmmakers; no-one ever planned that audiences would start dressing up as the characters or talking back to the screen. Its sexual politics are incredibly liberal, with the message being one of accepting each other's identities and preferences rather than encouraging the 1970s equivalent of 'free love'. To suggest that Rocky Horror is a non-ironic advert for sexual promiscuity is to foolishly ignore the film's more sophisticated side.
If Rocky Horror were simply a vehicle to convince people to dress up in fishnets and give in to lust, far less effort would have been expended on the dialogue and the characters. O'Brien's script is witty and in-your-face, and Tim Curry chews his way through every line with relish and panache. The character of Frank N. Furter is much more complex and unpredictable than one might assume; he is not just a mad scientist posing as a drag queen, or indeed vice versa. Like the story he inhabits, he flits from one aspect to another - he is equal parts bawling child, narcissistic drama queen, sexual sadist and English gentleman, and it remains Tim Curry's finest performance.
It's very hard to pin down exactly what makes Rocky Horror such a hoot to watch. Some of it is in the songs, which are brilliantly written with syllable-stretching humour. Some of it is in the action scenes, from Meatloaf riding indoors on his motorbike to Dr. Scott's wheelchair becoming magnetised. But most of it comes from the knowledge that the film doesn't really care what you think, and that the cast were obviously having a ball.
Inevitably, there are things about Rocky Horror which don't work, at least not anymore. In the final third the songs become more medley-based and the plot steadily peters out. Though the ending itself is befitting, there is a lot of filler in the floor show before we get there. This may be intentional, since cabaret shows are not known for being speedy affairs, but there is a still a sense of the film dragging and getting caught up in its own indulgences, particularly in the lengthy dance sequences.
Because the plot is so much of a jumble, the film is incredibly uneven with regard to its tone. Janet's encounter with the monster ('Touch Me') is rather toe-curling, and the increasingly campy tone can become tiresome for the uninitiated. Because everything is so full-on and over-the-top, there will always be some people who won't put up with all the non-sequiturs, and in its darker moments the film wobbles as the desire to laugh begins to falter, and no amount of singing is going to bring that back.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show is trashy cinema at its most deliriously enjoyable. The story is silly beyond belief and assembled in a thoroughly ramshackle way, but the music is great and the film is so cheerfully full-on that you can't help falling in love with it just a bit. It isn't by any stretch a masterpiece, or a particularly rounded work, but it remains a milestone of American popular culture which no remake can ever hope to match.


You can check out my thoughts on other renowed cult classics, including Night of the Living Dead, Eraserhead and Flash Gordon, by checking The Movie Hour podcast from Lionheart Radio.

NEXT REVIEW: Die Hard (1988)

Thursday, 29 September 2016

COMEDY: Legally Blonde (2001)


Legally Blonde (USA, 2001)
Directed by Robert Luketic
Starring Reese Witherspoon, Luke Wilson, Selma Blair, Matthew Davis

Hollywood has always had a problem with films built around positive roles for women. Long before 'chick flicks' began to dominate the landscape of romantic filmmaking in the 1980s and 1990s, female film fans hankering after a leading lady of substance were all too often served up stereotypes and conventions instead, whether the woman in question was a submissive, victimised housewife or a dominant femme fatale. There were always exceptions, particularly in the so-called 'golden age' (Now, Voyager and All About Eve being very good examples), but women have too often been given the short shrift even whenn they also received top billing.
As the click flick has become dominant and its formulas all the more ingrained, so it has become the norm for men to feel embarrassed about liking either the genre as a whole or any particular offering it produces. While not all chick flicks may be as grotesquely terrible as Just Friends or Sex and the City, it can seem tiresomely tricky to find such a film which will appease or satisfy both genders. Fortunately, both men and women can enjoy Legally Blonde with no shame whatsoever, since it is a surprisingly thoughtful and well-written piece which flatters its audience's intellect as much as pulling on its heartstrings.
An understandable response at this juncture, given that the film is 15 years old, is to say "they don't make 'em like that anymore" and attempt to dismiss any praise as mere nostalgia. That statement is a half-truth; Hollywood rarely makes pictures costing a paltry $18m anymore, and its approach to filmmaking is far more conservative now than in an era which also gave us The First Wives Club and Death Becomes Her. But the subsequent success of Bridesmaids and The Heat (whatever one's views on their actual quality) shows that Hollywood still takes at least some kind of interest in female-led productions. If nothing else, the fact that this film spawned a sequel, a straight-to-video spin-off and a Broadway musical is evidence that they had something good on their hands.
The first and biggest strength of Legally Blonde is its screenplay. Karen McCullah and Kirsten Smith had worked together on 10 Things I Hate About You (a reasonable attempt to update Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew) and would later go on to adapt Ella Enchanted. While their later work outside of adaptations has been declining in quality (The House Bunny and The Ugly Truth being equally embarrassing), on this occasion they get it spot on, putting a female character at the forefront and writing her like a believable, three-dimensional human being. Even before we warm to Reese Witherspoon in what was arguably a career-making role, we want the best for Elle and are interested in what happens to her.
The main reason the screenplay works, compared to many other films of its kind, is that it doesn't fall into the trap of defining its female character by her relationship to a man. Elle may start the film just wanting to chase after her oh-so-clever boyfriend, but she eventually grows out of that after that particular bubble has been burst. What we end up with is an independent, intelligent, entirely credible woman who manages to get where she is without compromising her femininity or completely losing herself in a male-dominated workplace. Elle is a fantastic example of women defying the pigeonholes which society has created for them, and doing so in a manner which is neither preachy nor vindictive.
Within this character dynamic, there is an interesting (albeit brief) class analysis which runs alongside the discussion of gender. In my review of National Lampoon's Animal House, I spoke about the film's counter-cultural subtext, with the boringly pro-establishment adult characters coming up against the free-thinking rebellion epitomised by Bluto and his Delta cohorts. Legally Blonde attempts the same kind of conflict between Elle's easygoing, borderline vapid Southern California lifestyle and the uptight snootiness of East Coast academia. Selma Blair - who is dealt a far better hand here than in Cruel Intentions - is very good at epitomising the absurdly rigid (and frigid) attitudes of that particular social and academic caste.
But rather than simply confine itself to the ins and outs of academia, Legally Blonde elects to step outside of this bubble and apply the same thesis to less bookish characters. It's very difficult to look at Jennifer Coolidge without expecting an iritatingly larger-than-life performance, along the lines of her work on American Pie, Austenland or 2 Broke Girls. But here she's largely well-behaved, being given a character who, like our leading lady, has been written off and shamed by all the men to whom she previously gave power or prominence. Her "bend and snap" exploits is one of the comedic highlights of the film; it's not just good slapstick, it's slapstick with a hint of pathos behind it.
While the writing talents are generally reliable, the choice of director for Legally Blonde was more a stroke of luck. Robert Luketic hasn't exactly covered himself in glory after this film, going on to film Win a Date with Tod Hamilton!, Monster-in-Law and The Ugly Truth - but here he manages to provide a steady hand which allows the script to speak for itself. He doesn't depart too far from the standard visual lexicon of chick flicks; his cinematographer, Anthony B. Richmond, also lensed Just Friends and does very little that is adventurous. But he does crucially avoid milking the emotional moments for the sake of schmaltz, allowing Elle to come across as surprisingly formidable in her stronger moments without becoming mawkish when she's down.
The combination of very good writing and surprisingly solid direction means that many of the developments in Legally Blonde play out much more naturally than they otherwise might. The relevation about Salvatore's sexuality in the courtroom would be handled by the musical in a way that was entertainingly camp, with the accompanying song 'There! Right There!' being the highlight of the soundtrack. Here, we still have to contend with a certain amount of gay stereotyping (we'll get to that), but the overall reveal is more understated and satisfying.
Courtroom dramas have always had an air of the ridiculous about them, with filmmakers attempting to generate tension and intrigue from what it usually a fairly mundane and solemn set of proceedings. This is not a modern Hollywood trend; long before the histrionics of A Few Good Men, we had to put up with the boat-smashing melodrama in A Place in the Sun or the unusual camera angles of The Paradine Case. The final case scene may be a touch over-the-top, with Luketic spending a lot more time shooting gasping women than he needs to. But Witherspoon's believably nervous disposition keeps this more awkwardly natural than we have come to expect.
Outside of Witherspoon, Blair and Coolidge, the cast of Legally Blonde is rounded out by a number of solid male performances. Luke Wilson, who is more talented and underrated than his brother Owen, is a very good balance for Witherspoon, turning in a performance as deft as his work with Wes Anderson on The Royal Tenenbaums. Matthew Davis does a decent job as Elle's former boyfriend, resisting the urge to play Warner Huntington III as nothing more than a lip-curling villain. And Victor Garber, who also appeared in The First Wives Club, is very good as the long-suffering and ultimately predatory Professor Carnahan.
For all its obvious assets, there are a couple of flaws with Legally Blonde which prevent it from being a complete home run. For all its skill with character development, the story is still rather predictable; while Elle's narrative arc is inspiring, it's also pretty easy to see it coming. It's tempting to excuse this by seeing the film as some kind of fairy tale, with Elle as a somewhat subverted Ugly Duckling; the line goes that it's following the course of a well-known story and does it justice. But it's still frustrating for those of us trying to hold this film up as an example of how romantic films don't have be as predictable as days of the week.
The other issue with Legally Blonde is its attitude towards its gay characters. It's not homophobic in the slightest, but it has the same problem as a lot of 1990s comedies in the way that its gay characters are portrayed. In an effort to demonstrate that being gay was acceptable, shows like South Park, The Simpsons and Will and Grace would often have gay characters who would constantly talk about their sexuality and flaunt it in a way that many gay people typically would not. The film isn't as forward in this regard as, say, the remake of The Haunting [shudders], but it does look dated compared to more subtle offerings from the same period.
Legally Blonde is a funny, warm and uplifting romantic comedy which will manage to satisfy both women and men. Its inspirational message will appeal to those crying out for substance in this frothiest of genres, and it is assembled with enough technical professionalism and care to lift it above many of the cheaper knock-offs that would follow it. It isn't perfect, settling for conventional narrative choices all too often, but even ardent opponents of the rom-com genre will have a hard time resisting it.


NEXT REVIEW: The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

Friday, 16 September 2016

GREAT FILMS: The Italian Job (1969)


The Italian Job (UK, 1969)
Directed by Peter Collinson
Starring Michael Caine, Noel Coward, Benny Hill, Raf Vallone 

BFI Top 100: #36 (1999)

The recent Brexit debacle has provided us with an ideal opportunity to address an interesting question: is it possible to be proud of one's own country without simply viewing others as inferior? Long before Edward Said's Orientalism codified the concept of 'self' and 'other' in Western discourse, there was a suspicion that patriotism - and more specifically Britons' pride in their empire and achievements - were rooted in xenophobia backed up by a very impressive army, rather than a more constructive form of self-love (if such a thing exists).
The Italian Job is occasionally held up as an example of said vainglorious culture, sticking a middle finger up to the continent by having the Brits get one over on people with crazy mannerisms and silly accents who drive on the wrong side of the road. Coming from a time before Britain joined what was then the EEC, it can be viewed as either a straightforward, somewhat dated caper film or an ironic comment on Britain's  decline within the wider world. Whichever viewpoint you drift towards, there can be little denying its appeal as one of the most entertaining and technically accomplished films that Britain produced in the late-1960s.
When I first saw The Italian Job, as a teenager with a passion for history, I gravitated towards the revisionist school of thought, seeing it as an interesting commentary on the passing of an age, and the death of an empire on which the sun had all but set. I was too young to have any genuine nostalgia for 1960s culture, with the memories of England's accomplishments of that time being overshadowed by our subsequent failures in both the World Cup and the Middle East. The literal cliffhanger ending (which I will explore in more depth later) felt like a bittersweet twist for the audience, setting us up for the clichéd, feel-good ending and then reminding us that the good times (if indeed they were good times) were over and never coming back.
Elements of this interpretation still hold water in abstract, but you would have a hard time defending it on the basis of the original intentions of the filmmakers, and the audience for whom the film was intended. That being said, it would be wrong to assume that the film is therefore an out-and-out celebration of jingoism, along the lines of The Wild Geese or The Deer Hunter. Unlike those reactionary offerings, which wore out their welcome with some decidedly unsavoury politics, The Italian Job is a more subtle, well-crafted affair which reflects the talent involved.
With the crew of The Italian Job, its reputation is so great that it has come to define them in a way which eclipses their other achievements. Troy Kennedy Martin, who wrote the screenplay, later went on to create the gripping Edge of Darkness and the underrated Reilly: Ace of Spies, featuring one of Sam Neill's best performances. Notwithstanding his reputation for being a slavedriver, Peter Collinson was a very capable director, who later did a very good job on And Then There Were None. And while Michael Deeley later blotted his copybook with The Deer Hunter, he also produced such cult classics as Blade Runner and The Man Who Fell To Earth.
Whichever way you look at it, The Italian Job is one of the most technically impressive films of its genre and period. However far CG technology has come since its inception, there is still no real substitute for organic, physical effects and stunt work. The Rémy Julienne stunt team, who drove the Minis and planned everything from the rooftop jumps to the sewer sequence (shot in Coventry), combines fantastic technical precision with welcome visual humour. It's little wonder Julienne ended up designing the driving stunts on every James Bond film from Octopussy to Goldeneye.
Not only are the individual stunts extremely impressive, the wider spectacle of The Italian Job is equally arresting. Bringing a small number of streets to a standstill when shooting a modern-day blockbuster is tricky, never mind bringing a whole city to a halt. The film was one of the very first to be shot in Turin, and the police and officials co-operated willingly to close entire quarters, thanks in no small part to the influence of Fiat which was based there. Fiat's assistance was so great that the production team - partially motivated by the indifference of Mini manufacturer BMC - briefly contemplated replacing the Minis with Fiats (which was thanfully vetoed).
One of the major criticisms of The Italian Job when it was first released was that it focussed too much on the car chases and too little on the characters. The acclaimed American film critic Vincent Canby went so far as to describe it as "emotionally retarded" (an unfortunate turn of phrase). But for all Canby's credibility, on this occasion he was dead wrong, since the main characters of The Italian Job are arguably the aspect which has endured the best.
Much of the initial spark of The Italian Job, before the heist plot gets properly underway, comes from the relationship between Charlie Croker and Mr Bridger. The pair represent a clash of class and attitude akin to Sleuth, with Noel Coward's aloof, gentleman-thief monarchist having very different ideas and priorities to Michael Caine's cunning, working-class upstart. Charlie's efforts to get Beckerman's scheme funded is like watching someone from outside the old boys' network trying to get into one of their exclusive clubs. When Croker demonstrates the worth of his scheme (and to a lesser extent himself), he's admitted, but the old attitudes remain in place.
Allied to Caine and Coward's glittering chemistry, there is a cavalcade of talented British character actors whose screen time is short but energy is great. Tony Beckley, who would later appear in the Doctor Who serial The Seeds of Doom, provides some welcome comic relief as the stuffy yet immaculately dressed 'Camp' Freddie. Benny Hill is as disciplined and focussed here as he was in Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang, showing how well his talent should be applied with a decent director. Add in John Le Mesurier's cameo (filmed just as Dad's Army was taking off) and a fine villainous turn from Raf Vallone, and you have a very well-rounded, believable and endearing cast.
The ending of The Italian Job has become one of its most defining features. As well as avoiding the pat, predictable ending that would have resulted had the gang made it to Geneva, it also brings a symmetry to the film. The driving through the Alps in the opening credits, followed by the destruction of Beckerman's Lambourghini Miura, is reflected with the tumbling of the Minis and then the bus hanging over the precipice. Filming it was fraught with danger - downdraft from the helicopter getting the aerial shots almost sent the coach over the cliff, with a lot of the crew inside. But the risk paid off, creating a memorable capping for the caper, as well as providing a welcome brainteaser for maths and physics students for decades afterwards.
Inevitably with a film of this period, there are aspects of The Italian Job which haven't dated very well. Besides the fact that nearly all Italians in the film are caricatured as hand-waving, passionate divas who can't drive or calm down, its biggest issue is its attitude to women. Even by the standards of the day, they have very little to do other than walk around in next to nothing (Charlie's "coming-out present") or being the butt of people's jokes (literally, in one instance). It's not as toe-curlingly constant as in something like No Sex Please, We're British, but it's still pretty hard to overlook.
The Italian Job is a great British caper which has largely stood the test of time. Despite its dated politics - whether racial, gender or otherwise - it is still capable of leaving an audience gleefully entertained. Its physical effects and stunt work still stand up to more modern offerings, and the central performances from Caine and Coward are top-draw. If you've never seen it, then 'get a bloody move on' and fix that.


For more of my thoughts on Blade Runner and The Man Who Fell to Earth, check out The Movie Hour podcast from my days on Lionheart Radio.

NEXT REVIEW: Legally Blonde (2001)

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

RIP Gene Wilder


In case it wasn't abundantly clear by now, 2016 is becoming a bumper year for the Grim Reaper, at least as far as film stars and celebrities are concerned. Having already deprived us of David Bowie, Alan RickmanHarper Lee and Douglas Slocombe, the black-cloaked figure has now claimed Gene Wilder, who has died aged 83 after a three-year battle with Alzheimer's disease.
Image result for gene wilder 
Most of the tributes towards Wilder - real name Jerome Silberman - have focussed on his iconic performance as Willy Wonka in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, based on Roald Dahl's novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. But while I've always been a fan of Wilder's work, I've mostly been a fan of him in spite of that film, which I have generally considered to be enormously overrated. I won't go into detail here at the risk of sounding churlish or disrespectful - I'll be revisiting the superior Tim Burton version in due course - but the kindest thing I can say about it is that Wilder's performance has endured far better than the rest of the film.
Instead, my fondness for Wilder is firmly rooted in his work with Mel Brooks. The pair collaborated on three films between 1968 and 1974, all of which remain classics of both their period and the comedy genre. The Producers remains a sparkling satire of musical theatre and politics, with Wilder playing off Zero Mostel and Kenneth Mars with perfect timing. In Blazing Saddles, he provides the perfect foil for Cleavon Little - an actor who deserved a much stronger career in light of that performance. And in Young Frankenstein - arguably his finest hour - he balanced intensity with clowning to masterfully lead one of the best horror parodies of all time.
Wilder may have grown increasingly disinterested towards Hollywood in recent years, last acting on the big screen in 1991 and saying that he was "tired of watching the bombing, shooting, killing, swearing and 3-D". But even outside of Brooks' back catalogue, his influence looms large on the history of comedy. He's one of the best things about Woody Allen's Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask), and his writing and direction on The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother  is very admirable. He was, by all accounts, a deeply decent man and is a great loss to the world of film.
If you want to pay tribute to Wilder without resorting to Willy Wonka (sorry), I recommend a double bill of Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. If you want something more dramatic, try Bonnie and Clyde, in which he has a small but noticeable role. Failing all that, check out this half-hour interview with him in 2013, in what turned out to be one of his final public appearances. RIP.


Saturday, 13 August 2016

GREAT FILMS: Hard Candy (2005)


Hard Candy (USA, 2005)
Directed by David Slade
Starring Ellen Page, Patrick Wilson, Sandra Oh, Odessa Rae 

In 21st-century society, there are few subjects which can produce such guaranteed levels of hysteria as paedophilia and child sexual abuse. Technological progress, particularly the development of the internet and social media, has made sex scandals more immediate and more sensational, at least in the way in which they are reported. It has also resulted in a feeling that our culture is collectively under attack whenever such a scandal breaks; the public response to Operation Yewtree and the revelations about the Paedophile Information Exchange has been as chastened and ashen-faced as the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings or any other recent terror attack.
But just as erotic thrillers like Fifty Shades of Grey often oversell their rauchiness to disguise how tame they really are, so films about sexual abuse (at least in the English-speaking world) have been decidedly hands-off for some time. Not every piece of media about such a difficult and delicate subject matter has to be as contentious and uncomfortable as BrassEye, but the likes of Catfish and Trust are ultimately very sensitive, well-behaved affairs, which approach their subject in a manner which avoids causing offence but often at the expense of saying anything significant. It takes a great deal of bravery and intelligence to make a film which tackles this extremely tough subject in a manner which is both nuanced and brutally honest - and that is where Hard Candy comes in.
When Hard Candy first came out, a lot of the analysis focussed on the visual imagery of the characters, which had been played up in the marketing. The posters for the film made it out to be a modern-day retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, with Ellen Page's Red Riding Hood going after Patrick Wilson's Big Bad Wolf. The Japanese website for the film even used the tagline: "Red Hood traps the Wolf in his own game".
It's been widely documented since then that the allusion to the fairy tale was largely a coincidence; Hayley's red hooded sweatshirt was not premeditated symbolism, and the creative team merely seized upon the opportunity. It's also arguable that trying to reduce Hard Candy down to 'merely' being a fairy tale belies the psychological depth which it exhibits. But it should still be said that horror films and crime thrillers often incorporate elements of the story, or ones similar to it, to create empathy with a diminutive protagonist. The ne plus ultra of this technique is The Silence of the Lambs, in which Red Riding Hood (Clarice) has to use one Big Bad Wolf (Lector) to catch a bigger, badder one (Buffalo Bill). 
In the great pantheon of horror-thrillers with fairy tale elements, Hard Candy is in some respects a close cousin of Freeway, an under-seen mid-1990s effort which gave an early break to Reese Witherspoon. As well as the arguments about the shared Little Red Riding Hood heritage, both Matthew Bright and David Slade make use of the low-budget, independent aesthetic to bring out the edgy qualities of their respective stories. The washed-out colour palettes and handheld camerawork with tight close-ups put us uncomfortably close to the characters, forcing us to confront their every flaw and spot their every tell.
The visuals of Hard Candy are very carefully orchestrated to reflect the subtle shifts in the character dynamic, something which prevents this intimate two-hander from ever becoming stagey. Jo Willems, who later shot The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, does a very fine job, but the real credit should go to his digital colourist, Jean-Clement Sorret. The film was shot with the characters being slightly over-lit, and after shooting was completed, Sorret went through the film frame-by-frame, turning down the frequencies in scenes where Hayley felt threatened or angry. Aside from Roger Deakins' painstaking colour correction on O Brother, Where Art Thou?, such a meticulous approach was unprecedented, and it pays off, creating a startling, creeping claustrophobia which leaves us gasping for breath. 
The single biggest strength of Hard Candy is that it constantly forces us to question the moral authority of both parties, particularly Ellen Page's character. Had the script been any weaker, or the direction any less steadfast, the film would have quickly descended into a nasty little revenge thriller - I Spit On Your Grave by proxy, as it were. Given the evidence which is stacked against Jeff, we're not exactly rooting for him, but we don't support Hayley unconditionally, particularly as more details about her methods and motivation come to light. The film wants to explore how each party justifies or defends their actions, how morally warped the whole situation is, and what we would do if put in the same situation.
In doing so, the film manages to tackle both the horrible crime of child sexual abuse and address the hysteria and culture of vigilantism which has sprung up as a result of it. Slade does a great job with Jeff of showing us a banal, normal exterior with something deeply sinister buried just beneath. Jeff's initial scenes are similar to those with the villain in The Vanishing: they both seem normal to the point of boring, even though what they are doing is increasingly unspeakable. Jeff's pictures are shot in an almost Kubrickian manner, with the sheer whites, subtle reds and smooth camera angles being a possible reference to the long, slow corridor shots in The Shining. 
Hard Candy pulls an equally good deception on us with Hayley. Page's first few scenes are very naturalistic; you don't get the sense, either in the online conversations or the first encounter in the cafe, of someone consciously pretending or repressing something to hide their true intentions. It's only once the screwdrivers have been downed and the screen goes blurry that the visage starts to crack, and we understand with horror what kind of driven, ruthless monster lies beneath. Page has always had a gift for managing to play distant characters while still making us care about them; here we are simultaneouly perturbed by her matter-of-fact moments and drawn to her impulsive, moralistic outbursts.
Many horror films which accrue the kind of reputation that Hard Candy enjoys often do so because of the reputation of a given sequence. Sometimes, as with the chest-burster in Alien, the sequence in question is burned so strongly into the public's consciousness that it feels unwittedly like a set-piece; critical reaction can turn just another line of dialogue into a patch of purple prose, often against the writer or director's intentions. It's therefore gratifying that Slade manages to avoid that trap here, cooking up a sequence which is truly horrifying yet part of a continuous whole.
The castration scene in Hard Candy is at turns gruesome, nerve-jangling, chilling and a brilliant piece of misdirection. Despite appearing to just exploit some base, simple fear (i.e. the loss of one's genitals), it also brings out the metaphor behind this action, just as any decent horror film should. If you want to see this scene on the simplest level - a paedophile getting what many may feel he deserves - you can do so, but the film shoots it so slowly and clinically that it produces no joy or feeling of vindication. This slow pace lets the implications come to the fore - the symbolic loss of male power and agency, the consequences of the vigilante following through on their dark desires, and what it says about the human condition in general. If nothing else, it's handled more assuredly and with clearer artistic intentions than the scissors sequence in Lars von Trier's Antichrist. 
Much of the plaudits for the performances have rightly focussed on Ellen Page. Two years before her mainstream breakthrough in Juno, this was the role which announced her as one of the most promising acting talents of her generation. But for all her convincing and frightening intensity, it would all be for very little without the support of Patrick Wilson, whose collapse into blind fear, panic and despair is utterly gripping. It's a pity in hindsight that Wilson's career hasn't achieved the same level of success, discounting the heavily flawed Watchmen and the perplexingly overpraised The Conjuring. 
Hard Candy is a gripping, thrilling and chilling calling card for both its major stars and its director on debut. Despite a slightly shaky ending, in terms of both content and pacing, it manages to serve up both shocks and substance to do justice to its tricky subject matter. It is testament to the notion that an issue can be graphically explored without exploiting it, and even the most taboo of notions can be approached if great care is taken. If nothing else, it's a great benchmark for modern horror and thriller filmakers which will stand the test of time. 


NEXT REVIEW: The Italian Job (1969)