Autodidact: self-taught


American Mary

by V. L. Craven

American Mary

Brilliant surgical student Mary Mason (Katharine Isabelle) has some not not-so-brilliant bills that must be paid. After looking into some less-than-savoury options, she’s invited to practice her fledgling medical skills for cash. This leads to some very dark places, which leads to more cash and a more extravagant lifestyle.

Eventually she becomes involved in the extreme body modification community where she’s something of a celebrity. Unfortunately, not everyone has been completely happy with her work. In her new life she’s made powerful friends, but equally powerful enemies.

Isabelle will be familiar to fans of the Ginger Snaps films and Margot Verger on Hannibal. She’s excellent at playing creepy people, is what I’m getting at and does another fantastic job here.

Less gory than I was expecting–it certainly wasn’t in the realm of the currently popular gore-porn films–it also went in unexpected directions. It’s the first film written and directed by the Soska Sisters , Jen and Sylvia, who have cameos, as well.

Their production company is called Twisted Twins Productions  and the script is of the theme I like to call ‘Men underestimating women.’ It’s one of my favourite genres.

Trigger warning for a pretty brutal rape scene, though the rapist gets his just desserts.



The Babadook

by V. L. Craven


Six-years-old Sam (Noah Wiseman) has become increasingly erratic. He can’t sleep. He frightens the other children at school. He’s obsessed with a monster and builds machines and traps to defeat it. His mother, Amelia, (Essie Davis) is doing everything she can, but she’s been alone since the day he was born–her husband died in a car accident whilst taking her to hospital to deliver their son.

Not long before his seventh birthday, Sam spies a book he’s never seen before and requests it as his bedtime story. It’s a pop-up book called Mister Babadook.

And they lived happily ever after

And they lived happily ever after

After reading the story the figure of the Babadook begins to appear to Sam whose behaviour becomes even more disturbing and dangerous. (Writer/director Jennifer Kent gets an incredible performance out of this child.)

Amelia, her own sanity reaching a breaking point, tears the book to pieces and throws it away. But, as all possessed items do, it returns of its own accord.

Hello, Clarice.

Hello, Clarice.

After setting it alight, she goes to the police station to ask for help, but they don’t have an X-Files department in Australia, I suppose, so things just go from bad to worse.

This is the worse.

This is the worse.

At first watch, The Babadook appears to be a re-hash of several horror films. A little The Omen here, a smidgen Poltergeist there with a dash of The Exorcist. Then there’s an almost Home Alone bit. Just because.

My friends were raving about it and, in general, my friends have pretty good taste in films so I was perplexed. Then I read  this (very spoilery) article and suddenly it made sense. It was really well-done. My friends weren’t having me on my metaphor sensors were just off.

As mentioned, the child actor was incredible, but Essie Davis as the widowed mother trying to deal with her own grief and the grief of her child was mind-blowing. The creepiness factor was through the roof. Kudos to everyone involved. This is a good one, folks. 5/5

If you’re already a fan, they’re making a copy of the book , which is being produced by Insight Editions. I have their pop up book for the world of Harry Potter and it’s impressive. And the information on the Babadook book is hilarious–even if you don’t plan on ordering it I recommend reading the page in the link above.


Concussion (film)

by V. L. Craven


Abby Ableman (Robin Weigert) is in a solid but boring relationship with Kate Ableman (Julie Fain Lawrence), with whom she has two children. After receiving a mild concussion–when her son hits her with a baseball–she begins to reevaluate her life and realises her life of domestic bliss may not be as blissful as she originally thought.

Kate is happy with their life and seemingly gives Abby permission to ‘go breathe’ and Abby does so in the form of hiring a lesbian prostitute. She meets this person through her business partner, Justin (Johnathan Tchaikovsky), whose ex-girlfriend runs an escort ring. Said prostitute says Abby could make her own money with women ‘who want an older experience.’

And she’s off and running. In a lying down and naked sort of way.

Some experiences are good, some are…not. And then one of her appointments is with a woman from her town (she’s been meeting people in Manhattan). The woman is straight and Abby has found her attractive for some time. Complications arise and clothes come off.

The Red Band trailer which is entirely NSFW:

There are some problems with this film. More than a few, yes. The trailer isn’t accurate. Well, yes, there’s quite a bit of sexy lady time, which is really well handled. That probably had something to do with Rose Troche’s involvement, who co-wrote and directed Go Fish and was a writer and director of three seasons of The L Word.

Weigert does an outstanding job, as do all of the actresses. Janel Moloney (who played Donna on The West Wing) is a secondary character and does a great job as pseudo-therapist, but that couple needed a real therapist. And Emily Kinney did what she could with what she was given in her role as The Girl (the runner of the prostitution ring). Apropos of nothing–she looked so much like Luna Lovegood it was distracting. Or as a friend said Luna LoveREALgood.

Tchaikovsky is particularly excellent as Justin, Abby’s business partner–they buy ‘shitholes’, fix them up and flip them.

The problems are with the script. While there are some excellent moments and laugh out loud lines (that are intentionally amusing) there are plot points that don’t hang together. It’s never clear how the titular concussion affects Ableman’s decision to become a prostitute–I was extrapolating earlier–which is something of an issue.

Then there’s the ending, which will depend on how the viewer feels about unresolved endings . It’s unclear where the plot is going and it certainly doesn’t go where the average cinema-goer will expect. In a way it’s realistic, which isn’t typical of American-made films. But nothing about Concussion is typical of American-made films, so that’s par for the course.

If you’re interested in dramas about the emotional lives of women that doesn’t treat females over forty like sexless eunuchs then this one is for you. But for god sake, don’t watch it with your parents. 4/5



by V. L. Craven


It’s 2008 and the financial crisis has just kicked off. Brokers and others involved in the industry are committing suicide, similar to the previous market fall in the Depression. One such person is Jeffrey D’Asange (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) who kills his business partners and his wife before taking his two very young daughters and fleeing.

Distraught and driving far too fast on an icy mountain road, he loses control of the car, which goes down a hill and crashes. He finds an abandoned cabin and the three-year-old, Victoria, tells him there’s someone in there, but he dismisses her (never dismiss the children). They go in.

Victoria is extremely near-sighted and her father takes her glasses away so she can’t see the gun in his hand. She also can’t see what picks him up and breaks his neck.

Five years later, the girls are discovered in the cabin–the search has been on-going thanks to Jeffery’s identical twin brother, Lucas. They are feral, but healthy. Someone, or some thing has been taking care of them.

Victoria and her younger sister Lilly (Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nelisse) are assigned to a psychiatrist and eventually given to Lucas and his girlfriend, Annabel, (Jessica Chastain) whilst still being under the doctor’s supervision.

The elder sister, now eight, adapts to the civilized world well, but Lilly, who was one at the time of their disappearance, remains feral, sleeping under Victoria’s bed and behaving more like an animal than a human. When asked who took care of them they just say, ‘Mama.’

Mama did not remain in the cabin. And mama is jealous of Annabel’s relationship with ‘her’ children.

Mama wasn't a stickler for hygiene...

Mama wasn’t a stickler for hygiene…

Mama is a fairy story in the vein of original fairy stories in that horrible things happen to small children and there’s not necessarily going to be a happy ending. This isn’t surprising, given that one of the producers is Guillermo del Toro.

The acting is solid all round but the child actors are particularly impressive. Andres Muschietti did an outstanding job and this was his directorial debut so it will be interesting to see how he develops.

The visual effects are excellent and understated for the majority of the piece leading to some truly creepy moments. Muschietti doesn’t rely on jump scares, which automatically earns points in my book–he relies on story-telling and atmosphere to do most of the scaring.

There’s nothing particularly new about anything in the film but it’s still worth the watch. I definitely recommend it for people who like their horror on a slow burn and minus the gore. 4/5


Clash of the Titans Comparative Review

by V. L. Craven

Clash of the Titans 1981

Growing up I probably watching The Clash of the Titans a dozen times, if not more. I loved Greek mythology. I loved Athena’s owl and the witches and Medusa and Caliban. I loved the entire thing. Then, in 2010, they decided to remake the film because Hollywood simply cannot leave well-enough alone. Out of loyalty (and the knowledge they would screw it up) I avoided it. But after recent assurances that it wasn’t ‘as bad as you’d think’ I decided to give it a go. Yes, years after the remake, but still.

The original Clash of the Titans had what now seems like the entire cast of the Royal Shakespeare Company. It was written by Beverly Cross (Dame Maggie Smith’s late husband), which explains her involvement. Perhaps she brought everyone else with her. Whatever, I hope they all got second homes out of standing around in togas for five days of filming.

Speaking of togas–in the remake, the gods and goddesses are arrayed in clothes befitting their station. Which means Zeus (Liam Neeson) is wearing blindingly bright battle armour. If a toga was good enough for Sir Laurence Olivier I dare say it’s good enough for Mister I’ll-Kill-You-With-My-Fists. Gods and goddesses were generally depicted in togas carrying their assigned prop, but the costume designers weren’t having any of that. So we also get Voldemort playing Hades (perfect) but looking like Dracula.

Liberace would be jealous of this man's entrance-making skills, though.

Liberace would be jealous of this man’s entrance-making skills, though.

He even does a sort of Dementor’s kiss evil-power-transfer with Calibos at one point.

Which brings me to the characters. In the original I loved Calibos/Caliban. Here is a comparison between the two:

1981 (L); 2010 (R)

1981 (L); 2010 (R)

Not to be snide, but the original one looks like someone cursed by the gods (which is what happened). The second one just looks like he’s had a run in with a flaming machete. Or a first-semester special effects make-up student.

Then there was Medusa. Medusa was fantastic! I avoided the remake because I thought they’d CG Athena’s owl and I would have to burn the cinema down, but I wanted to see it to see the wonders they could accomplish with Medusa’s hair.

There she iiiiiis, Miss Americaaaaa... Anciiieeent Greeeeece

There she iiiiiis, Miss Americaaaaa… Anciiieeent Greeeeece

All of the characters had the builder’s in between the original and the remake–in the original our lady of the serpent-hair was living in the Chamber of Secrets–but in the interim she had apparently been playing loads of video games and asked to have her rooms in the Underworld made to look like those. There are fallen columns and lava and the whole deal.

Don't mess with a woman whose very *hair* has attitude.

Don’t mess with a woman whose very *hair* has attitude.

After Medusa, my favourite characters were the Stygian witches. Their eyes were clearly just sort of prostheticed down. I felt badly for the actresses, as they couldn’t see.



Whereas the remake make-up just…



I felt badly for my stomach, as it had nowhere to run to, nowhere to hide.

So, this epic adventure, which involves lots of English people ordering around (or being rescued by) one buff American, culminates in the infamous ‘Release the Kraken!’ line, which is supposed to be a fearsome Titan. A Kraken is supposed to look like a giant squid.

I don't think the Kraken was related to the Creature from the Black Lagoon.

I don’t think the Kraken was related to the Creature from the Black Lagoon.

I don’t know how many squids you’ve  seen…

This is closer. Though I'm not sure where the legs came from.

This is more like it. Though I’m not sure where the legs came from.

Story-wise it is what it is. Neither film is true to the original myth of Perseus , though the first one is closer in that Hades isn’t involved. But, seriously, Hades’ ridiculous entrances (really, the man CANNOT just walk into a room) are worth watching the film.

As expected the effects are larger, though the claymation of the first one will always hold a special place in my heart if only because I saw them when I was young. The scorpion-fighting scene… nope. Nope nope nope.

Aaaaaaand nope.

Aaaaaaand nope.

And now we need to have a conversation about something. See that person in the foreground in the above photo? That’s a Djinn. Djinn have exactly nothing to do with Greek mythology. They’re from Middle Eastern mythology. And this Djinn not only doesn’t speak the same language of our heroes, but it turns out he’s a suicide bomber . But in a good way! So that makes it all right! What? No. Did someone think, ‘Well, they’re in the desert and the Middle East has lots of sand so…’ and then the obvious connections were made.

But in a good way! So that makes it all right!

I honestly have no idea how to segue out of that, so I’ll just say one of the other characters is played by Mads Mikkelsen, who plays Hannibal. But they gave him long hair, which makes him look like The Rock.

I could show you a picture of his face, but this one is better. You're welcome.

I could show you a picture of his face, but this one is better. You’re welcome.

It’s changed the way I watch Hannibal, that’s for certain.

Now that I’ve recovered from the Djinn debacle I can say that for the remake the filmmakers did bother to find some darkER people to play the Greeks than the first film, though I’ve been to Greece and… well, they might have tried harder.

If you’re younger and haven’t seen the first one already you should definitely see it, but it’s going to come off as very campy and the effects will be laughable. Just go with it. It’s a classic. I admit my prejudice when I say that one is 5/5

I know I’ve given the remake a difficult time, but I would recommend it–it was fun enough if you turn off your brain and don’t get too distracted by the disregard for the myth. 4/5

There’s a sequel to the remake entitled Wrath of the Titans, but this review has gone on long enough. I’ll give it a 4/5 and say that after you’ve fought the embodiment of a volcano you really should be a bit dirtier.

ps. I needn’t have worried about Athena’s owl; they way they handled it was my favourite part aside from Ralph Fiennes’ entrances.

Bubo is sceptical, but I promise it's true.

Bubo is sceptical, but I promise it’s true.


The Cabin in the Woods

by V. L. Craven

The Cabin in the Woods


The title The Cabin in the Woods says to me, ‘Bunch of nubile youngsters go to a wooded area and somehow end up in a cabin–by choice or misfortune–and something picks them off one my one. Could be a malevolent force or it could be homicidal hillbillies.’ Or just unfortunate hillbillies a la Tucker and Dale vs Evil .

But Joss Whedon is a man who knows what he’s doing. Why did I doubt you, Whedon?

What really happens is:

Several nubile university students go to a wooded area to stay at a cabin owned by the cousin of one of their number (Curt, played by Chris Hemsworth) where they are picked off one-by-one by cannibalistic hillbillies who are also zombies. So, you know, there’s a twist.

But then we learn something about all horror films that should have been obvious. Something that explains why everyone makes the same mistakes–people split up, the girls who take off their tops die first, etc. It’s all being manipulated by a corporation in deference to higher powers. (This is not a spoiler, we learn this at the start.)

Watching the people behind the scenes (Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins) is both hilarious and eye-opening. It will certainly make viewing subsequent horror films less infuriating knowing there’s an entire team of people manipulating teens into making poor decisions for the greater good.

There’s a great, split-second moment where we see the monsters at the disposal of the corporation. Thanks to pausing and screen-capping capabilities, though:

Cabin in the woods Whiteboard

If you want to know about everything on the board, there’s an unofficial, but excellent, fan-made wiki for the film that catalogs all of the monsters . That site is home to all of the spoilers. It lists the monsters available to torment whatever kids are up for grabs this time around, as well as what summons them. It includes monsters mentioned in the book but only glimpsed in the film. (Kevin is my favourite. Oh, Kevin.)

This is the part of the review where I tell you if the acting and writing was any good. It’s Whedon, people. The casting was excellent, the writing was hilarious and smart and didn’t go where expected (except when it had to, but then only so it could tweak the tropes of the genre). I wanted to make out with this film.

This is definitely one to own , as there are so many details that beg for further explanation and the physical versions have loads of extras.

If you (or someone you love) is already a fan, there’s an Official Visual Companion , which has the screenplay, interviews with Whedon and the special effects crew, lots of conceptual art and photos of monsters and sets, etc. I haven’t looked at this one myself so check the reviews before you order.

There’s also the official novelization by Tim Lebbon, which I’ll be reviewing on Friday. I wanted to read it after seeing some of the notes on the previously mentioned wiki.

The film is a 5/5 for definite. I watched it two days in a row because I had to show it to a friend posthaste.


A Fantastic Fear of Everything

by V. L. Craven

Fantastic Fear of Everything


Jack (Simon Pegg) is an author who has been researching Victorian serial killers. His research is starting to get to him, though, causing the fantastic fear of everything from the title. His agent gets him a dinner meeting with someone interested in publishing his book, but that requires Jack to a) leave the house and b) go to the launderette to clean what appear to be his only set of clothing.

Jack has an absolute terror of launderettes for reasons that become clear later and have nothing to do with his research on Victorian psychopaths.

Meanwhile, there’s a very modern-day psychopath killing people and cutting off their fingers in the area of London in which he lives. This all ties together, sort of.

It does. On paper. All of the elements connect with one another and there is a beginning, middle and end. But I watched this with two other people and when it was over the collective response was: ‘What just happened?’

It wasn’t confusing–everything is very straightforward–the film just seemed to have no focus. I’ve never seen anything like it. There were a few laugh-out-loud moments and the viewer never knows what’s going to happen next, but then whatever  does happen next and then another thing happens and another and then it’s the end.

According to Wikipedia , Slate called it a ‘semicomedy’, which is correct, but I’m not sure what the other part of the film is supposed to be. It’s based on a novella (Paranoia in the Launderette) by the writer and director of Withnail and I, which I love, so one wonders how it would have turned out if Bruce Robinson (said author/writer/director) had handled the screenplay and direction.

There was one particularly clever sight gag that was … clever. There’s quite a bit of physical comedy and Pegg is as reliable as ever. But I would really only recommend it to fans of his work. That said, I’ll probably watch it again, as it has a certain dark tone that’s enjoyable and the music (90s rap) is great.

Sadly, I have to give this one 2/5 stars.


We Are What We Are

by V. L. Craven

We Are What We Are

A woman goes grocery shopping in a downpour and suddenly begins bleeding from the mouth. She collapses into a ditch where she drowns, leaving her two daughters to carry out the religious duties for their father and younger brother. Due to the mysterious nature of her death, an autopsy is ordered and it’s discovered she had Parkinson’s. A teenage girl goes missing then the local doctor finds a human bone fragment in the creek, which leads to finding more bones. Things are not going well in the small town, is what I’m saying.

The daughters of the woman, Iris and Rose, have a difficult time taking over for their mother. Though they know the ritual has been carried out the same way for generations they have some objections and they discuss escaping their suffocating lives or upholding the tradition. Meanwhile, it’s discovered that Parkinson’s shares symptoms with a rare disorder called Kuru, which is only contracted one way and it’s not a good way. And it looks like the woman had Kuru.

As a commentary on extreme religious observance, it’s pretty much bashing you over the head and then gnawing on your arm. As a creepy horror film with nicely built atmosphere, it’s definitely one to watch.

The colour palette is particularly fine–it’s just lovely to look at–and the translucence of the girls’ skin and hair combined with them nearly always wearing white added to the effect. The younger daughter, Rose (Julia Garner) was especially good, though Bill Sage hit all the right notes as the stern patriarch of an extreme religious sect. (Though I’m not sure one family of five constitutes a sect.)

There’s relatively little blood or violence for a horror film (excepting one scene that was shocking in its violence if only because the rest of the film was so restrained). In this day of torture porn it’s refreshing to see films that rely more on story-telling than viscera to get the audience’s attention.

There is a sequel and a prequel planned and if they don’t turn both of those into gore-fests and retain the same level of plot and character development as the original, they could be interesting. Keep an eye out for those. Or pull an eye out for them. (Sorry. I’m so sorry.)

Overall I’d give We Are What We Are 5/5 because I like cannibals and I’d watch this one again. It’s definitely a step above most horror films. If you want fast-pacing or nudity or gore galore then this one isn’t for you, though.


Tucker and Dale vs Evil

by V. L. Craven

Tucker and Dale vs Evil

Tucker and Dale are a couple of good ol’ boys who’ve bought a house out in the boonies of West Virginia as a ‘vacation home’  and they go out to start fixing it up. On their way there they stop to pick up some beer and other supplies and run into a group of nubile university students. Dale (Tyler Labine) takes a shine to a particular blonde, Allison (Katrina Bowden), and tries to talk to her. Self-awareness not being his strong-suit, he happens to be holding a scythe at the time and follows his buddy’s advice to laugh and smile a lot, as that puts women at ease. She does not swoon into his arms.

The two groups go their separate ways–Tucker and Dale to their cabin and the students to their camping area. That evening the men decide to do some fishing and the kids go swimming. They happen to be doing these activities at the same lake. When Allison slips and hits her head, rendering herself unconscious, our hapless heroes come to her rescue, pulling her into their boat and shouting to the others, ‘We have your friend!’ For some reason the students find this terrifying and run away to regroup.

The men take her back to their ramshackle cabin for the night, figuring her friends will come looking for her tomorrow. But that isn’t exactly how things go. Because, to their minds, they have to save their friend from a couple of insane hillbillies.

Tucker and Dale vs Evil is about miscommunication on a large scale. It plays with all the tropes of the killer hillbillies genre, as well as serial killer films like the Friday the 13th series. Labine’s ‘dumb as a stump’ Dale is endearing and genuine and Alan Tudyk’s Tucker, the brains of the operation, has some of the funniest lines and moments. He just wants to help his friend gain some self-confidence, but it will be at the cost of much physical pain and confusion.

Eminently rewatchable, it’s on par with Shaun of the Dead for laugh out loud hilarity both in terms of dialogue and physical humour. And don’t worry, nothing happens to the dog. 5/5


Wonder Boys

by V. L. Craven

Wonder Boys

Based on the novel of the same name by Michael Chabon, Wonder Boys is one of my all-time favourite films. I’ve seen it close to a dozen times and it makes me laugh every time. The screenplay captures the feel of the book, I think, and that’s something, because I really loved the book.

And how could I not? It’s about a professor, it’s about writing. It’s about a writing prodigy. And many mad-cap adventures of a rag-tag bunch that’s throw together of a weekend. The book is profound and lovely and funny and human and the film handles all of that beautifully.

Wonder Boys is about middle-aged professor Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas) whose wife has left him, again, though this time it looks like it’s going to take. His previous novel was a smashing success, but that was several years ago, and his editor, Crabtree, (Robert Downey Jr fresh out of rehab, this was 2000) really wants his follow-up novel. Luckily, it’s the weekend of Word Fest, where visiting authors and literary types descend on the Pittsburgh university, giving him all the reason he needs to show up. It’s also the weekend that Tripp’s most gifted but morose student, James Leer, (Tobey Maguire) decides he’d rather hang around his professor than go home. Crabtree is all right with this, as he takes rather a shine to Mr Leer.

During all of this Tripp is trying to deal with his crumbling marriage, as well as the fact that the student who rents a room from him (Katie Holmes) has a bit of a thing for him, all the while fending off his editor’s questions about the next book. And then Tripp gets some news from his girlfriend that probably isn’t going to go over so well with her husband… And the weekend just keeps on getting better.

And, as if going for some sort of trifecta–the film also has one of my all-time favourite soundtracks . Including two of my favourite songs by Dylan.

When I was doing research for this review I came across this review that compares Wonder Boys to another professor-has-midlife-crisis-in-Pittsburgh film Smart People. It’s a good review–give it a look.



Russian Ark

by V. L. Craven

Russian Ark

At the beginning of Russian Ark , you wake up, somehow transported to … someplace unfamiliar. You discover you can speak Russian, though you’ve never spoken it before. Before you, you see a group of boisterous people alighting from horse-drawn carriages. They’re in elaborate dress on their way to some sort of party. And they cannot see or hear you. Perhaps you’ve died.

Then you are joined by someone else, visible only to you and dressed in clothes from a different century. ‘The European’ guides you through the rooms of this grand palace, commenting on various pieces of art. The palace, though never named, is the Hermitage Museum  and the European is meant to be the Marquis de Custine , who was quite the critic of Russian culture.

Each room or section of the film depicts a different era of Russian history, though not in chronological order. Catherine the Great, Peter the Great, Nicholas II and his children all make appearances. It has the feel of a European dream-state novel–I often felt as though metaphors were sailing past my head, but then another piece of art would come into view and it wouldn’t matter.

The film itself is sumptuous. The art is beautiful, obviously, (there’s a wonderful 360 close up shot of The Three Graces by Canova) and the hundreds of costumes are breathtaking. Shot in a continuous 96 minute take and featuring over 2,000 actors and three orchestras, with an opera and an elaborate dance sequence it was no small technical feat, either. The documentary about the making of Russian Ark is called In One Breath (it’s available on the DVD, the first part of five is here  on You Tube) and it’s worth the watch to see how they did it.

The more you know about Russian history the more you’ll get out of the film (which I admittedly know very little) but it’s still gorgeous to look at and is probably the closest I’ll get to visiting the Hermitage. So I highly recommend it. 5/5.


Carl Panzram: The Spirit of Hatred and Vengeance

by V. L. Craven

Carl Panzram documentary


Carl Panzram  was arrested for murder and confessed to an impressive number of crimes including thousands of robberies, larcenies, arson, 22 murders and over 1,000 instances of sodomy on males. This was in 1928, when that level of depravity was simply unheard of. How could anyone be that evil?

This documentary is partially about Panzram himself, but it’s largely about the penal system, and its failings. Panzram got his start with the U.S. justice system very early on when he was sent to the Minnesota State Training School when he was twelve, where beatings to the point of bruises and blood were the rule of the day. He ran away on more than one occasion and was always punished with much vigour upon being caught.

Several experts weighed in–one of whom was Katherine Ramsland , a professor of forensics psychology. She pointed out that often serial killers will blame their behaviour on other people–Panzram blamed his poor treatment by his parents. Ramsland points out Panzram had several siblings who all turned out all right, intimating that their childhood could not have been so bad. Perhaps she wasn’t taking into account his brain trauma, which is a key part of the triumvirate of causes of sociopathy. (The other two being extreme abuse and mental illness.) Or that he was severely beaten and humiliated at school, which his siblings weren’t? Or that the siblings of serial killers don’t generally turn out to be serial killers themselves.

One of the other people consulted was artist  Joe Coleman , who is something of an expert on the man, having done an intricate painting about his life. Coleman’s pieces are always painted with a paintbrush with one hair. His contribution to the film was a highlight.

Panzram by Joe Coleman

A large portion of the documentary is about Panzram’s memoirs, which were written with the help of a guard in one particular prison. The guard brought pencils and paper and would take them away again once he had filled the pages. If either had been found out they both would had been in trouble. One more than the other, though, obviously.

One of the most striking (and disheartening) features is how little the penal system has changed in the decades since his imprisonment and death. People are put into a dehumanizing system and are then expected to behave like model citizens. Panzram’s thoughts on this are particularly eloquent.

Carl Panzram: The Spirit of Hatred and Vengeance was an interesting enough documentary about one of the U.S.’s first well-known and most brutal serial killers and the way the criminal justice system has (not) changed. I’d rate it 7/10.


The Act of Killing

by V. L. Craven

Act of Killing


Werner Hertzog said, ‘I have not seen a film as powerful, frightening and surreal in at least a decade.’ Well. I had to see this.

In Indonesia in 1965 over 1 million communists were murdered. Today the people who ordered and did the murdering are happily living their lives–talking openly about their acts on television, heroes to their fellow Indonesians. The Act of Killing is about a few of those men. Joshua Oppenheimer and Christine Cynn asked the men to dramatise–in any way they wish–their involvement in the extermination (a word the men use  a lot of the Communists. The documentary consists of interviews with the men interspersed with scenes from the films the men write, direct and act in.

Much of the film revolves around Anwar Congo from the paramilitary–and a self-described gangster. He’s obsessed with the idea of gangsters being ‘free men’–free to do whatever they want, whether it’s good or bad. He was heavily influenced by Marlon Brando, Robert Deniro and Al Pacino.

When we first meet Congo, he happily tells us about how beating people to death left too much blood so they came up with a better–less messy–way that involved garroting. He demonstrated using the garrote on someone and later when watching the footage of this he only commented on his clothes and wondered if he should dye his hair black.

Though he doesn’t outwardly show guilt over it he says he takes drugs and drinks not to think about some of the things he’s done, but it’s in the same matter-of-fact, nearly cheerful tone.  And after playing one of the tortured victims in a scene and realising the people he killed were actual people, he becomes physically ill. He’s not a sociopath.

His fellow executioner, Adi Zulkadry takes a more pragmatic approach. He’s aware that morality is subjective. When asked about war crimes and the Hague he points out that you only get called up on war crimes if you lose. His viewpoint was the most complex–he was the only person in the documentary who’d moved out of Indonesia and was no longer in contact with Congo or the others. He was aware that showing people what they’d done would show them in a bad light, but he still thought he hadn’t done anything wrong. And, from a certain point of view, he hadn’t. If people are giving you money and weapons to kill loads of people and telling you those people are worthless, then clearly, those people deserve to be killed, right?

One of the most interesting aspects was the way democracy worked. If you think the government of the United States is corrupt have a look at the Indonesian government. It’s incredible. It’s not about whether or not you’re going to be extorted, it’s who you’re going to be extorted by. And all votes are bought–openly. Democracy! It’s fortunate they got rid of those pesky Communists, though.

In Adam Nayman’s interview with Joshua Oppenheimer (one of the directors) he calls the subjects ‘certifiably insane’. But these men are not insane. Exterminating things you’ve been told are less-than-human in order to protect your country makes you a hero–it doesn’t make you insane–which is what these men thought they were doing.

Later on in the article, Nayman talks about psychic distancing. He’s referring to the way the men compare themselves to the film stars they admire–therefore distancing themselves from the horror of their actions–but calling the men certifiably insane is also a form of psychic distancing. Anyone familiar with Milgram’s study or the Stanford Prison Experiment should know how easy it is to turn people against one another.

If a person was raised in an environment where they were told that Communists were the epitome of evil and were then given the support of Western democracies in overthrowing those Communists of course they would think they’d done something admirable. Also, people don’t want to think badly of themselves–they will justify their actions at all costs. The worse the action the more vehement the justification.

And let’s not forget: If you win, you’re right. You’re right because you get to write the histories that say you’re right.

The white man came to the new world and slaughtered ‘savages’, then enslaved more ‘savages’ and then wrote stories and made films about how they were the superior race.  How they ‘tamed’ the land.

If Hitler had remained in Germany rather than invading other countries he could have probably ‘purified’ the German race and the rest of the world would have left him alone. And then Nazis would now view themselves as having done the country a favour, having eradicated all of the undesirable elements. They could make films about it. But Hitler invaded other countries and the Allied countries intervened, the Nazis lost and thus, they committed crimes against humanity. And rightly so.

If some factions of China asked for our help to crush the Communist regime would we give it? Would the average Westerned support the idea? Absolutely. What’s worse than Communism? And what would happen to the Communists? In fifty years would you be comfortable watching a documentary about who did what to those Communists? But they would be heroes.

I thought The Act of Killing was going to be about what happens when the bad guys win and are venerated, but it turned out to be about what happens when a group of people are dehumanised, allowing them to be murdered and then those murderers to be dehumanised. As though anyone else wouldn’t be capable of doing the same thing given the correct circumstances.


Erzsebet Bathory: A Life in Two Films

by V. L. Craven

Countess Erzsebet Bathory  (1560-1614) is remembered by popular culture as the female version of Vlad the Impaler–a feminine Dracula. She’s thought to have tortured and bled servant girls and maidens from her lands in order to bathe in their blood in order to remain young and beautiful. Apparently it’s not as straightforward as all that.

In 2008 and 2009 there were films made about the Countess that take slightly different views on the matter.


Bathory was the first of the two films–released in 2008 and starred Anna Friel. The Countess was released in 2009 and starred Julie Delphy (who also directed), as well as William Hurt.

Both are narrated by men. Bathory is narrated by someone who titles himself a ‘fool’ and The Countess by her lover, Istvan Thurzo, and the son of her greatest enemy, Gygory Thurzo (Hurt). They both admit that history is written by the winners, in this case, the people who sealed Erzsebet’s fate.

Bathory begins with Erzsebet’s betrothal to Ferenc Nadasdy,  the son of another family for political reasons at 8 or 9 [Wikipedia says this happened when she was 12] . She is portrayed as knowing nothing about sex–asking her new husband how it was supposed to work.

Likewise, The Countess begins at the very start of Erzsebet’s life and betrothal to Ferenc, but it is at her christening, when Nadasdy is a young boy that this is shown as happening. In this film she is knowledgeable about sex–sleeping with a peasant and bearing a child before her marriage at 15, which is taken away from her.

The Countess

In Bathory, Erzsebet takes a lover–an artist–while she’s still married. In The Countess, she doesn’t take a lover (the aforementioned Istvan Thurzo, played by Daniel Bruhl) until after her husband has died. Thurzo is much younger than she is and this is when she begins to obsess about her looks.

In Bathory, after Erzsebet is accidentally poisoned she is saved by a woman who is said to be a witch, Darvulia (Deana Horváthová). In The Countess the character is portrayed as much younger and as a much dearer friend and companion, where she’s played by Anamaria Marinca. In the former film the character doesn’t come into Erzsebet’s life until later on, but in the latter film, she’s been in her life from very early on. They also meet drastically different ends.

Both films agree that there was a great deal of political motivation behind the accusations levelled at Erzsebet–the King owed her a great deal of money for one–but we’ll probably never know just how many peasant girls were tortured and killed.

Bathory painted Erzsebet in a much more sympathetic light. It felt like more of a historical drama than anything else. There wasn’t much blood shown but our woman was certainly not portrayed as a kind and loving saint either. It was a bit slow-moving. I’d recommend it for people interested in Erzsebet Bathory or Hungary during the 17th century, but it would probably bore people who were looking for something titillating. There is a rape scene near the beginning of the film, as a trigger warning. It’s brief and not graphic, but it’s there.

The Countess was closer to what most people have heard about Countess Bathory. There is definitely more blood and torture shown (but not even up to standard horror film levels though there is one bit that’s wince-worthy). Delphy’s interpretation is interesting because though this version is much more sadistic she still has a human side. She could have played the character as a two-dimensional, cold-blooded lunatic, but she didn’t. This one I would recommend for people interested in non-stereotypical psychopaths, along with those who like period dramas, Bathory herself, etc.


Vampires in the Cold

by V. L. Craven

Vampire films, as a genre, don’t particularly hold my interest. Immortality seems boring–humans would whine about the same problems every century–and having sex with a room-temperature body (vampires are corpses) is stomach-churning, so their sex appeal is similarly lost on me. I’m not against watching a film about vampires, but there has to be some other draw.

In this case, it’s cold climates–the beauty of a frozen landscape will get me to watch a lot of things. So this week’s film review is a comparison of two films about vampires in cold climates: Let the Right One In and 30 Days of Night.

Let the Right One In

Let the Right One in is based on the Swedish novel of the same name by John Ajvide Lindqvist and is about a boy who befriends his unusual new neighbour–a girl of twelve. The girl advises him to fight back against his bullies and even offers to help. Much of the story is about the budding friendship between the two young people and the boy learning to stand up for himself.

The backdrop to all of this are the horrific killings that have been happening–one man was found upside down, drained of blood; and another was attacked and murdered in front of a witness, who swore it looked like the attacker was a child.

This film is much more atmospheric and subdued than most vampire films, which was refreshing. There was also very little blood and onscreen violence, considering the trend of horror films in general. Several tropes common to vampires were handled cleverly–trusting the intelligence of the audience rather than relying on special effects. I would recommend this to fans of vamp flicks who were looking for something a bit out of the ordinary, as well as to people who simply liked a good story. I’ll definitely watch it again.

30 Days of Night Film poster

The premise is that the town farthest north in the U.S. experiences thirty days of darkness once a year and someone (or something) has cut them off from civilisation even further by stealing and destroying all the mobiles amongst other things. Once no one can get in or out or can contact the outside world, things start picking off the humans. Yummy, yummy humans. 

I’m going to admit that I wasn’t expecting much from this one. It looked like pretty standard fare so I just came for the pretty scenery. However, some genius in casting had Danny Huston as the lead vampire. And he had a sidekick who rather looked like Marilyn Manson, which amused me greatly.

30 Days Huston and the Goth

‘Why do people keep asking me to sing Beautiful People?’

This one was better than I was expecting, but I’d only recommend it to people who like vampire films. It had plenty of blood and action and one very cool shot of the town that (along with Huston) made it worth the watch.

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