Famed for the controversy it caused upon its original release, Nagisa Oshima's 'In the Realm of the Senses' was, for a long time, only spoken about in hushed voices, confined to a world of perpetual slicing and dicing by the censors and never truly available in its graphic entirety. It's been thirty-four years and the film has at long last received an unedited pass by the BBFC, allowing audiences to finally be subjected to something like which they have never seen before, and for many, may never want to see again. The film is based on the true story of Sada Abe (played here by Eiko Matsuda), a Japanese woman who acquired fame for killing her lover, Kichizo Ishida (Tatsuya Fuji) via erotic asphyxiation before cutting off his penis and testicles to carry around in her handbag.
Undoubtedly the most striking thing in ITROFTS is the graphic, increasingly obscene, real sex that the story centers around. Oshima has no boundaries when it comes to showing his actors entangled amongst one another, and this, for many will seem unnecessary and overly pornographic. For those able to view it objectively however, it will add another dimension of realism to both the narrative and performances that is scarcely found.
Despite its graphic nature and unrelentingly brutal sexuality there is also a sense of profound beauty throughout the film, brought upon it by the perfectly composed shots and melancholic traditional Japanese music that plays in the background. A sense of limbo accompanies said beauty and causes viewers to feel as if they are, much like Sada and Kichizo themselves, lost in the realm of the senses, victims of both visions of beauty and pain, yet unable to tell the two apart.
Although effective, this sense of limbo is also accountable for some of the film's issues with pacing and plot, which often feels as if it is lost amongst the overriding eroticism Oshima was clearly more focused on. Overall, In the Realm of the Senses is a love it or hate it film, which, even if you do love, is impossible to recommend without looking slightly odd.
Opening with the words "This film is dedicated to those who are disturbed by today's lax moral codes and who eagerly await the return of corporal and capital punishment", it would be easy to assume that Pete Walker's 'House of Whipcord' is another example of the morally astray British sexploitation of the 70s, such an assumption, however, would be wrong. What is presented here isn't another entry in the typically formulaic 'women in prison' sub-genre, but instead a politically back dropped criticism of punishment via pain.
We follow Anne-Marie (Penny Irving), a French model who falls in love with a mysterious man called (wait for it) Mark E. Desade and agrees one weekend to meet his mother. Upon arrival it becomes apparent to Anne-Marie that this isn't a regular visit, and soon she finds herself captured in the only prison left that utilises capital punishment.
It's needless to say that this film is grim, lacking the sense of good time excitement that usually accompanies films in the exploitation genre, and replacing it with a grim world full of sour-faced prison wardens and obnoxiously unlikable characters. Walker paints a dark picture both hypothetically and literally (annoyingly some shots are so dark you can't tell what is happening), and builds a bleak atmosphere impressively, relying on the film's overarching tone rather then visual thrills.
Where the film falls apart is in its plot, which is tedious in places and descends into an extravaganza of continuity and plot issues the longer it goes on. Also on the downside is the presented acting, which ranges from absolutely awful to pretty bad. Despite its problem though 'House of Whipcord' somehow remains watchable for the extent of its runtime.
Elizabeth Olsen makes her cinematic debut in Sean Durkin's 'Martha Marcy May Marlene', a psychological thriller about life after escaping (?) a cult and the paranoia that accompanies it.
MMMM is an accomplishment of atmospheric filmmaking, with first-time director Durkin managing to shroud every moment of regular life with a sense of unease and brooding tension that usually wouldn't be there. Some shots last for what feels like an eternity whilst others pass within seconds, some moments you think you see something whilst in others you feel it, you never know what is -or isn't- coming and its gripping.
The editing also adds to the sense of unease within the film, flitting between protagonist Martha's life at the cult and her current one without a moments notice. Everything within the way the film is made feels like it's out to get you, and, much like Martha, you don't know if it is or not.
As far as performances are concerned Olsen does an outstanding job, playing Martha with a sense of subtlety and fragility that is skill-wise unmatched by the rest of the cast. John Hawkes also does a great job as the cult's charismatic leader, blurring the line between kindness and cruelness in an always-interesting fashion. Perhaps the film's only flaw is the way some of its characters react, with Martha's sister and brother in-law in particular coming off occasionally as so plundering its silly.
Verdict: A great debut for both its star and director, Martha Marcy May Marlene is an intense ride.
Part of the 'New French Extremity' movement, Alexandre Aja's 'Haute Tension' (High Tension/Switchblade Romance) is a heart-pounding horror that will have you at the edge of your seat...before slapping across the face for caring. Cécile De France plays Marie, a young woman who is on a business trip with her friend Alexia (Maiwenn). Whilst on their journey the two stop off at Alexia's remote family home, only to find themselves as prey to a demented killer.
Haute Tension is very effective for it's first hour, managing to continually crank up the tension without ever stopping for a break or feeling drawn-out. In this respect, the film is masterfully paced, with Marie jumping from one set piece to another in a fashion that doesn't feel as forced as other films of the same genre. Music and sound is also used incredibly well throughout the film, with flourishes being added to moments of potential dread and heightening the sense of unease. Aesthetically the film feels as if it is a homage to the exploitation films of the late 70s, with realistic yet over the top Craven inspired violence being at the centre of the films narrative.
With everything being said it would seem as if Haute Tension was set up to be a classic, and it would be, that's if it didn't effectively ruin itself in the last 20 minutes with a twist that felt tacked on ridiculous, and rendered everything before it pointless.
Verdict: It's amazing if you pretend a quarter of it doesn't exist.
Released in 1987, Dario Argento's giallo thriller 'Terror at the Opera' perfectly blends the grandeur of the opera with his unmistakable brand of violence. Cristina Marsillach plays Betty, the beautiful understudy of a soprano who finds herself centre stage when the show's star is in an accident. With her newfound fame comes a cost, however, and Betty soon becomes entangled with a murderous stalker who forces her to watch him kill.
'Terror at the Opera' feels Shakespearian in essence, with ideas about love, obsession, and violence fuelling Argento's vision and immersing viewers in a world of tragedy and death. As well as this the film is very successful in building tension, utilising silence and unconventional camera-angles to great effect and keeping audience members on their toes, waiting for the patented violent Argento outbursts. When the violence comes its brutal and gripping, blood fills the screen and much like the film's protagonist, you'll find yourself unable to look away.
The soundtrack is used perfectly and the mix of Opera, heavy metal, and 80s progressive rock perfectly suits the film's unpredictable nature. Despite everything it has going however for it the film feels overlong in its final 2 scenes, becoming somewhat ridiculous and taking away from the experience that preceded them.
Verdict: an effective study of audience complicity and voyeurism, Terror at the Opera, despite being great, fails to live up to the high of Argento's earlier work 'Suspiria'.