Killer Jobs: Photographer.
For most of us, our jobs are a means to an end, providing us with money to buy a whole load of horror-related stuff. Our enjoyment of the job varies from loving it to tolerating it to flat-out hating it. But how much better off would you be if you did your job in a horror film? Are you a survivor, a victim, or maybe the killer? I will look at a few films and see how we would fare. The first job is as a photographer.
The Asphyx is an exciting film, made in England in 1972 and was not trying to copy what Hammer was doing simultaneously. Hammer was using nudity and swinging London to tap into the youth culture. Their desperate attempt to revive British horror was losing to Hollywood blockbusters. This film stuck to a more tried and tested formula of great actors in Robert Stephens and Robert Powell and exquisite cinematography. The Asphyx takes the ghost story and gives it a steampunk overcoat, sometimes falling into a morality play and not consistently scientifically accurate.
The Asphyx takes place in 1875, illustrating what happens to the family unit when the patriarch plays God. Sir Hugo Cunningham (Stephens), a wealthy man and an inventor, has been photographing the dying and notices a blur that he tells the “Society for Psychical Research” is the soul leaving the body and, therefore, positive proof of the afterlife. He is also a campaigner against capital punishment. While filming his son Clive and his fiancee Anna they are accidentally killed, and the film also shows the blur. Although the invention of the film camera by Sir Hugo was twenty years early, complete with zoom technology. However, the film shows that the blur is not from the person but towards them. This cause Hugo to change his theory of him capturing the soul, but the Asphyx, a mythological spirit from Greek tradition that appears to claim the living just before they die, and his interest increases.
Instead of dealing with his sorrow, Sir Hugo turns to his experiments. The Asphyx is seen by all at a public hanging, as the bright blue beam from water dripping on some crystals captures the man’s Asphyx, a shrieking spirit, stopping it from reaching its target. This means the hanged man is left horribly shaking as he awaits death until Sir Hugo turns off the blue beam. The Asphyx came to perform its role, and the man finally died. This also indicates that each person has their own Asphyx. But the light bulb moment comes when Sir Hugo realises that he could become immortal if he captures his Asphyx. Using the talent of Giles (Powell), his ward, and his daughter’s Christina (Jane Lapotaire) suitor, Hugo becomes obsessed with his research, capturing as many images as possible.
But the Asphyx will only appear when the individual is about to die. Unfortunately, Sir Hugo can not predict what he will lose to gain immortality. While I said this film was not 70s Hammer, director Peter Newbrook gives us the same gothic horror as earlier subtle Hammer films. I could easily see Sir Hugo rubbing shoulders with Baron Frankenstein. As well as easily mistake this as a Hammer film, you could think that the plot started life as Edgar Allen Poe’s work, but it did not. Bill McGuffie’s exquisite, passionate score adds to the Victorian ambience. The setting of Sir Hugo’s lab is terrific, with sarcophagi, enclosures and torture devices.
I could not help but connect the way Sir Hugo captures the Asphyx and Ghostbusters capture ghosts. The mysterious and dark ambience is styled masterfully by Freddie Young, and this visually impressive film is an integral part of the film’s narrative. The Asphyx is disturbing with a rather unique, strange central plot. Interestingly, there is no villain, which is a rarity. The Cunninghams are a liberal family with a sense of confident naivety, and their goal leads the patriarch to hell. Stephens perfectly portrays the enthusiasm and obsession of a scientist who dabbles with life and death. Stephen gives the role some seriousness by never going full “mad scientist” he is emotional but quickly returns to normal. However, throughout the film, the changes in Stephen’s physical appearance show how his obsession is taking its toll on him.
Powell’s role as the cynic with growing concern about his father’s obsession suspecting it will ultimately corrupt him. Both Powell and Stephen put the film on another level. Lapotaire plays her part with candour. All actors make us root for the characters, even if they are reckless, as we watch them endanger themselves in their attempts to achieve immortality. The Asphyx is an emotional film about a family’s destruction, which feels like a morality play. The filmis well-acted, carefully scripted and entertaining to watch. While Newbrook will have an extensive career, this is his only British contribution. Maybe he just arrived too late for the Hammer vibe. The Asphyx is a throwback to the gothic feel of Hammer films, filled with excitement and an incredible and growing sense of stress as the film heads to a dramatic conclusion. The cinematography is spirited and vigorous. The Asphyx feels like a film created in its timeframe of 1875. The horrific concept that an individual could be denied their death isn’t logical but works with this film’s parameters. As long as you don’t think too hard about it. At the end of the film (which is set in modern times), Sir Hugo resembles a corpse but still functions normally. If his body is deteriorating, then why aren’t his brain cells? Ultimately The Asphyx is an entertaining British horror film.
For Shutter, I will look at the superior Thai version, not the American remake. However, while it is better than the American one, it is not a perfect film. The film does suffer from cliches of Asian horror and does not have many effective scares, although some cheap jump scares are scattered. The film is about a couple, Tun (Ananda Everingham) and Jane (Natthaweeranuch Thongmee), who had spent the evening drinking with college friends at a restaurant. On the way home, they fled from the scene of an accident (thanks to Tun’s persuasion) that killed a woman, Natre (Achita Sikamana), only to be haunted by her ghost through Tun’s photography and Jane’s dreams. In Tun’s photos of graduation the next day, there is a strange shadow, and the two soon realise that they can not evade what they have done.
And not just their lives begin to untangle, but so do their college friends as the spirit takes its vicious vengeance. I was unsure if I liked this the first time I saw it. It seemed too similar to many of the other J-Horror at the time. But watching it again recently, I realised that this is a humble film and created something scary but playing to tropes that we were already aware of within this subgenre. It is often argued that the plot is too simple to carry an entire film, but I think there are enough ingenious twists and strangeness to make it a strong story, enough to stop it from being a film that just follows the rules.
Shutter was unfortunate to be caught in the deluge of J-horror that was flooding the market at the time. Each decade has its own trademark villain. In the early 2000s, the villain was a “white lady”, a female ghost dressed in white, bloody with long dark hair, often covering his faces, such as Grudge, Ringu and Shutter. It is also clear that Shutter is Banjong Pisanthanakun and Parkpoom Wongpoom‘s first film. Three years later, they would go to direct Alone, which seems higher than Shutter, but I have not seen it, so I can not comment on it. Shutter has many unnecessary jumps scares in the first half and does not give the audience a scary moment.
However, the second half is a more masterly and an unsettling experience than the first half. One of the film’s strengths is the splendid and stellar portrayal of Natre by Sikamana. She has a strange beauty about her, helped by her superb makeup. I especially like the makeup change, as her wrath made her seem less human. However, Natre ends up being a likeable villain. You understand why she seeking vengeance (she had been hit, raped and dumped), and she even helps Jane later in the film. Natre’s pain is sincere and might be intimidating, but she is focused on what she is doing. However, we, the audience, expect revenge to lead elsewhere.
There is some emotion about watching the revenge take place. Everingham also gives the role of Tun some empathy. However, Thongmee does appear as strong as the other two, giving Jane an irritating presence. Shutter’s scare does not always come from Natre but from the viciousness of others. Natre is the lynchpin of the film. The pacing does increase the strength leading to a dreadful conclusion. Shutter understands that good horror films wait until the end before giving the audience unrelenting shocks. One of the things I can never accuse the film of being is uninteresting, with many of the scenarios being shocking to watch. The concept of capturing the spirit in the photos is excellent; it is more than a stunt as it is an essential part of the characters, story and the surprise ending.
In fact, the film subtly gives us foreshadowing through information about photography in general. Of course, this makes re-watching more interesting. Unfortunately, the special effects are not good quality. However, revealing why Tun is suffering from back pain is an ingenious use of photography. And that ending raises the film about some of the others in its genre. Some twist ends screw up what has gone before (see the next film), but this gives us a fitting but paradoxical conclusion. It makes it more than the “white lady” haunting people, even with the use of the camera. While the J-horror “white lady” feels cliched, we still get a shocking ghost tale. It teases us with bits of information, and when we realise the connection between all the characters is shocking. Niramon Ross gives Shutter a professional and atmospheric feel. There is a graininess that adds to the appearance and mood of the film.
The film also cleverly adds moments of humour, so you are more scared when the next jump scare comes along, which you don’t often get in J-horror. The music improves the anxiety that you are feeling. Pisanthanakun and Wongpoom understood the concept that they were portraying. Shutter is not a bad film but it does not reach its potential. The story is a little “paint by numbers”, so some are predictable, not counting the ending. It could have been a fantastic film. However, it is not a film where you need to understand the mythos of the “white lady” to enjoy the incredible storytelling of this film.
Natre is one of the strangest ghouls, and its original ending is the film’s strength. If you have only seen the American version, you should still check out the original; I would avoid watching it in bed.
The Midnight Meat Train
Like Stephen King, Clive Barker’s work did not always translate well to films. The Midnight Meat Train is not Rawhead Rex “bad” (although I have a soft spot for its campiness), but it is undoubtedly not Hellraiser excellent. The Midnight Meat Train started life as a short story in the first volume of Barker’s Books of Blood collection. The Books of Blood are six volumes, four or five narratives in each part, released in the mid-80s. King hailed Barker as “the future of horror”. Unfortunately, the film’s release in 2008 quickly went straight to DVD after a limited cinema release. Yes, the film is about violence, but its overreliance on extreme gore and jump scare dilutes some of the story’s intelligence.
With a screenplay by Jeff Buhler and directed by Ryuhei Kitamura, the central plot revolves around the disappearance of people while travelling on the subway. Leon Kauffman (Bradley Cooper) is a struggling photographer. Leon has a job in his desired field; he is just not getting the recognition he feels he deserves. However, Leon believes that a meeting with a professional artist Susan Hoff (Brooke Shields), will change his life, and in a way, Leon is correct but not how Leon expected. Susan rejects Leon’s work and tells Leon only to return once he has found what he is looking for in the city. Taking this questionable advice, Leon wanders around the New York subway system at night, taking photos of the disreputable characters he encounters. Here Leon meets Mahogany (Vinnie Jones), a vast silent killer who slaughtered people with butchery tools.
Leon soon becomes infatuated with why he is killing and getting away with it. This journey only gets creepier the deeper he delves. The concept is interesting; the amount of awful CGI, horrible writing, and absurd ending does not match what happened before. The conclusion comes from the left field without a complete explanation, leaving you asking more questions if you have not read the short story it is based on.
The film has many plot holes, irregularities, and some plot lines appear to be forgotten entirely. The twist that Leon was going to become the “new butcher” is not much of a surprise; it is the reason for the murders that is harder to swallow. And I am taking this as someone that had read the story before watching the film. When you read the ending in the story, it works; I don’t believe it translated well in the film. But it does keep the same conclusion from the tale. I have read a large percentage of Barker’s work, but not all of them. Barker’s work is filled with terrifying world-building, inhabited by manic characters, giving his works a mysterious atmosphere. As an admirer of his career, but finding that most of the adaptions were average at worst, I was not expecting too much for The Midnight Meat Train, so with the bar set low, it did surpass what I was expecting.
This was Ryuhei Kitamura’s first English-speaking film. But Jonathan Sela’s camera work is striking under his direction, with the lead-up to the kills feeling balletic. One such scene involves the decapitation of a woman by Mahogany with a mallet, but we see the whole thing from her perspective, including a room spin as she is struck. Then, finally, we saw her dying images, Mahogany and her own headless corpse where he lowers his weapon, and the camera changes focus so we see the separated head.
All the victims seemed to have spidery senses, and no one got a surprise attack. But the cinematography does not give the film enough ambience. The blues and greens used in the train scenes are compelling. In addition, the subway has a sense of impersonality, with sharp lines, giving the audience a sense of being off-kilter. I don’t like being that person, but CGI works best sparingly, but that is not the case here, and that leaves the death scenes looking fake. This is a shame because some practical kills are more impactful than CGI. The Midnight Meat Train is not a horror film filled with scares but more of a thriller with blood and gore, but it is watchable. Strangely the star of the film is Jones, who gives the part a vast and compelling performance and makes Mahogany an exceptional and hostile villain.
Possibly because he does not have much to do but be a threatening presence. However, I don’t believe Leon’s speed going from the middle-of-the-road vegan to an obsessive, hanging his disturbing photos around his home, not maintaining personal hygiene and even eating raw steak. The change from Jimmy Olsen to Mark Lewis is explained in those final silly scenes as we discover why the people are being slaughtered on the subway. Part of it stems from him finally seeing the sleazier side of New York through photography, unlocking his unprincipled nature. I am not saying Cooper does a poor job with his role, but he is not a good character.
Kitamura does attempt to give the character some pathos, so we are invested when Leon finally confronts Mahogany. As the girlfriend, even Leslie Bibb does a solid job. Unfortunately, The Midnight Meat Train has the cliches of the torture porn sub-genre and a dubious plot; apart from Mahogany, the rest of the characters are dull. Speaking of torture porn, the film is a bit of an abnormality; while most of the film seemed nothing more than mindless violence, the ending does elevate above that.
However, what did not help the film at the time was the poor way that it was handled to the point that Barker accused Joe Drake (then president of Lionsgate, who dealt with the film) of going out his way to make sure that films he did not receive a producing credit did not do well. The Midnight Meat Train is a disturbing violent film that remains true to the story. Any Barker fans will undoubtedly enjoy the film.
So do you have a better life if you are a photographer in a horror film? Define better. You are alive, so that’s something. But you might be immortal. Unfortunately, you are not a “sexy vampire” immortal or a sparkly immortal. Nope, you are a fully conscious decomposing corpse. Or you might be immortal if you keep brutally murdering people on the subway until the next person with some curious darkness in their soul kills you. But you do get to wear a lovely suit. But if immortality does not sound like your thing, you could continue with life as you become crippled by guilt. So just normality, then. Suddenly photographing some snotty children does not feel so bad.
Beverley Price is a writer from a small town in Carmarthenshire, Wales, a three-time winner of the title “Chief Poet Skald of Suffolk”, a local eisteddfod.
She has had a poem published in an E-book called “Poems from Beyond the Grave” and “Serial Killers – A Pizza Eaters book”. Beverley has her poetry books, “The Flowering of the Black Petal” and “By Ink, By Pen, by Paper: A Tribute to Black Petal” under the alias Stormy and two novels “Blood Bound” and “Blood Brother”.
Beverley is a feature writer for the London Horror Society, looking at “so bad, they’re good” films, Hammer Horror and banned films in the UK.
Beverley is always open for conversations about horror, and the weirder, the better @stormywriter2. Also, check out my website at The-Poet | Vampire Novel (blackpetal82.wixsite.com)