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Hello again everyone, and this week I have another

splendid double-bill of cinematic controversy and

movie-going musings. And those of you who may be missing

the golden oldie reviews (unlikely, I know) will doubtless

be gladdened as a 'cult classic' from the early 1980s

slips in under the wire. But first, this...

Tap Gere

A few years ago I took me dear old dad to the pictures

for his birthday present. We went to see Gladiator,

watched it, enjoyed it, but in the end decided it was a

good and efficient film rather than a really great one.

The staggering success of the film both at the box office

and with the critics was thus a bit of a surprise to us

both. In the end I put it down to the fact that this was a

film from a genre Hollywood hadn't touched for nearly

forty years, but a genre people still had a great fondness

and nostalgia for - and it was a combination of novelty

and nostalgia that made it such a hit.

Well, another year, another family celebration and off

we went to see Rob Marshall's Chicago - which also

looks destined to do very well come Oscar night, and also

rake in a tidy sum. I had my suspicions that this film was

riding on a wave of affection for an older style of

film-making in just the same way Gladiator did -

but then again I'm really not a great fan of musicals.

Chicago is set in 1920s Chicago (do you see what

they've done there? Clever, isn't it?). Wannabe star Roxie

Hart (the eternally hamster-cheeked Renee Zellweger) is

outraged to learn that the man she's using to sleep her

way to the top is in fact only interested in her bottom

and has no intention of helping her succeed. So she

murders him. She ends up on the same prison wing as

bona fide star Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta Jones),

who's in the slammer for murdering her sister and her

husband. In order to secure her release Roxie retains the

services of brilliant but unscrupulous lawyer Billy Flynn

(Richard Gere), who impresses upon her the importance of

keeping the media on her side...

So, an all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza set in a

women's prison. The omens were not good. But put all

thoughts of Prisoner Cell Block H: The Musical from

your mind as Chicago is actually a fantastic night

out. Obviously a film like this lives or dies on the

strength of the musical numbers and one of the most

interesting things about Chicago is its approach to

this: rather than employing the standard, faintly

ridiculous technique of having characters simply burst

into song as they go about their daily lives, the film

presents Roxie as a delusional fantasist who sees

everything in terms of a musical number of some kind - so

most of the songs happen in her head. It's an interesting

conceit and to begin with I thought it was a rather craven

one, the film-makers wanting to have all the pizazz and

spectacle of a proper musical but without risking

employing all the much-derided conventions of one. But it

works, and what's more it allows the routines and

choreography from the stage show to be employed pretty

much unchanged in many places.

Now I don't know about you but I didn't have Renee

Zellweger, Catherine Zeta Jones and Richard Gere pegged as

singing and dancing types, but they all acquit themselves

pretty well. And when he's not razzle-dazzling Gere

delivers a fantastic performance as the shyster who fights

his cases more in the gossip columns than the courthouse.

The supporting cast is excellent - Queen Latifah as the

formidable warden delivers a showstopper, Lucy Liu has a

tiny, non-singing cameo, and John C Reilly - currently

making a bid for the title of

hardest-working-man-in-cinema - does his good-hearted

schmo turn again (but reveals he can sing a bit too).

I find it sickly amusing that the British 'quality

tabloids'1 are unstinting in their criticism of

certain films on moral grounds but have praised

Chicago to the skies - odd, seeing that the happy

ending consists of enormous success for a couple of

amoral, unrepentant murderers. I suppose it's another

demonstration of the power of cheap music. Slight ethical

queasiness aside, I did enjoy this film far more than I

expected to, and much to my surprise it's a film with

things to say for itself. Its cynical commentary on media

manipulation and the nature of celebrity are very much

relevent to 2003. A terrific piece of smart, sharp, glitzy

entertainment. My kinda town? Chicago is.

D'oh! Raimi

I was coming out of the local multiplex's regular

Tuesday night Director's Chair screening when I overheard

one of the lads in front of me complaining. 'That woman in

front of me was really winding me up,' he said. 'She was

laughing at it, but because she thought it was sh*t, not

because she was getting that it's supposed to be

like that.' Clearly a perceptive chap, being able to

distinguish between the sound of


tely-OTT and that of


And a rather fine distinction come to that, especially

when the film in question is Sam Raimi's legendary (not to

mention notorious) 1982 debut, The Evil


(Sitting in a theatre watching The Evil Dead

almost exactly a week after seeing Donnie Darko was

a vaguely unnerving experience, as fans of the latter film

will appreciate. Looking on the bright side, I wasn't

suddenly joined by a time-travelling revenant in a bunny

costume inciting me to arson, but then again neither was I

on a date with Jena Malone. A score draw, I think.)

The ancient print the multiplex had laid their hands on

did an uncannily good job of evoking the underground,

outlaw vibe a film like this gives off. It crackled, it

jumped, scratches riddled the screen... but thankfully not

enough to obscure the story, which goes a little something

like this: in true low-budget horror movie style, five

young people drive out to a house in the mountains for a

short break. Three of them are girls, two of them aren't.

One of the ones who isn't a girl is Ash, played - and not

underplayed, I assure you - by Bruce Campbell. Ash's best

friend is pleased because the rental on the house is so

cheap. But is this due to the fact that the previous

tenant carelessly left the house, its cellar, and the

woods around it crawling with vicious, bad tempered

entities who object to holidaymakers3? Could be...

Okay, cards on the table: The Evil Dead is one

of the most primitive films I've ever seen. The scantness

of the budget is obvious in every frame, whether it be in

the graininess of the film stock, the amateurish

performances of most of the cast, or the not-very-special

effects. Its shortcomings aren't simply financial either:

it has virtually no plot beyond a succession of set pieces

which nearly all revolve around people being stalked by

demons or the occurence of extremely violent carnage. It

has almost no characterisation. It has no subtext, no

hidden meaning. What horror it manages to evoke either

comes from basically either shouting 'boo!' at the

audience unexpectedly or trying to induce nausea by the

sheer extremity of the subject matter.

But I have to say, it's terribly entertaining.

What makes it work above all else is Sam Raimi's

supremely energised direction, which constantly involves

and surprises the viewer: whether it be with a relentless

demon's-eye-view tracking shot or an eccentric choice of

camera angle (from under the dashboard of a car, inside a

clock, through a half-open trapdoor - even at one point

treating us to a close-up of the interior of the heroine's

nostrils - Raimi keeps delivering the goods). And to be

fair to him the film swerves back and forth across the

border between genuine horror, and blatant self-parody,

with some deftness. The early sections, with a slow

build-up to the first demonic possession, are genuinely

creepy and disturbing - most obviously the infamous moment

when one character is sexually assaulted by a tree - as is

a sequence near the climax where reality seems to be

coming unravelled around lone survivor Ash.

But it's the rest of the film that earned The Evil

its reputation as a video nasty and it's a

reputation it sort of deserves. It is violent. It is

very violent. But it's so violent, the

quantities of fake gore so massive, the dismemberment and

carnage so ludicrously over the top, the special effects

so rudimentary, that rather than soul-crunching horror the

final effect is of a high-camp bloodbath. It's impossible

to take seriously, and certainly at the screening I went

to the theatre was filled with the sound of laughter.

Certainly Raimi's choice of the theme from 'Thoroughly

Modern Milly' as his closing music suggests he has his

tongue firmly in cheek (or more likely bursting gorily

through it).

Of course, as well as establishing Raimi as a director

to watch, The Evil Dead made a cult figure of star

and co-producer Bruce Campbell. (The subsequent disparity

between the career trajectories of the two can be simply

summed up - Raimi's last directorial gig was the

mega-blockbuster Spider-Man, while Campbell's most

recent starring role was in the slightly lower-profile

Bubba Ho-Tep.) As someone used to Campbell's rather

energetic style of performance I was surprised at how

restrained he was for the first two-thirds of this film.

But as the gore starts to flow in earnest the familiar

Campbellisms - the eye-rolling, the twitching, the frantic

mugging to camera - all appear. Bruce Campbell is a

one-of-a-kind performer but his style suits this film


Is The Evil Dead one of the greatest horror

movies ever made? Erm, I would venutre that it isn't. It's

too strange and funny and uneven for that. But it is a

sickly entertaining film, a terrifically directed one, and

one I suspect I'll remember for a long time. Cult?

Definitely. Classic? Hmmm...


06.02.03 Front Page

Back Issue Page

1Yes, it's an oxymoron, isn't

2Apparently 'the ultimate experience in

gruelling horror'.
3I should

point out that these are demons and not, as you may be

thinking, Welsh people.

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