30th September, 1955: The Death of James Dean

On the evening of September 30th 1955, driving his Porsche Spyder along Route 466 to a racing meet in Salinas, James Dean’s star was on the rise. He had just completed filming on George Stevens’ adaptation of the Edna Ferber story Giant (1956) – his third leading role – and had signed a multi-picture deal with Warner Bros. But when his car collided with another vehicle at an intersection, killing him almost instantly, James Dean was immortalised as a cult figure whose image still fascinates to this day. Here is a look back at his short, but memorable, life in film.

East of Eden (Elia Kazan, 1955)


In this adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel, the opening shots which introduce Dean as Cal Trask are telling. He sits on a sidewalk, brooding, watching a woman we eventually learn is his estranged mother. He is alone and the embodiment of the disaffected youth Dean would go on to make iconic.

Cal is a loner, dislocated from his own existence, struggling to find an identity which he perceives as the ‘bad’ son. He is constantly fighting with his brother Aron for the affections of their father, Adam. Rejected, Cal goes in search of his mother who he learns runs a disreputable business in the neighbouring town. A decidedly Oedipal drama, events are further complicated when Cal falls for Abra, his brother’s girlfriend.

What becomes apparent is that, while not the most classically gifted actor (he learned the ‘Method’ approach from the Actor’s Studio in New York), Dean has unrivalled presence. As Cal Trask he is restless, animalistic (referred to as ‘The Prowler’ by Abra) and jittery. His is an inner emotional torment bubbling to the physical surface.

This was the only one of his three films which Dean saw in its entirety and he would become the first actor to receive a posthumous Oscar nomination.

Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955)


If East of Eden laid the template for James Dean’s star image, it was realised with this film, a paean for the young and disenfranchised in 50s America.

Dean plays Jim Stark, the eponymous malcontent with a troubled past, who has recently moved to the suburbs of Los Angeles with his ineffectual father and overbearing mother and grandmother. His home-life is a constant source of frustration (the famous refrain “You’re tearing me apart!”) and he doesn’t fit in at his new school. Eventually Jim forms friendships with two other social misfits: Judy (Natalie Wood) who hangs around with the ‘wrong sort’ in and out of school yet still craves love and approval from her father at home; and Plato (Sal Mineo), a virtual orphan being brought up by his kindly housemaid, who harbours gay feelings for Jim.

The introduction of Dean in the film is again significant as it serves as an ingenious visual shorthand for his character. This time, as the opening titles roll, we see Jim drunk in the street and playing with a wind up monkey. He covers it up with a newspaper and lays down next to it. This short prologue, which was apparently improvised by Dean following a long night of shooting, depicts Jim as at once rebellious, but also infantile.

Supposedly, as a result of Dean’s burgeoning star status following the release of East of Eden, Warner Bros ‘upgraded’ the film from B-movie flick to a prestige picture changing it from black and white to colour cinematography and giving it a bigger budget.

Giant (George Stevens, 1956)


Dean’s final film sees him playing Jett Rink, an opportunistic cowboy who works on the land belonging to Bick Benedict (Rock Hudson) and his new wife Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor). The wealthy Texan landowner looks down on Rink and when Bick’s sister Luz (Mercedes McCambridge), his only friend, dies suddenly he promptly leaves the ranch to make it on his own with the small plot Luz left him in her will. Rink soon discovers that under his land flows the future lifeblood to capitalist America: oil. The one-time cowboy transforms into a successful businessman after he exploits the financial promise of the fuel which leads to a generation of conflict with the Benedicts.

It is a testament to Dean’s performance (which would earn him a second consecutive posthumous Oscar nomination) that when the film’s main story of the marriage of Bick and Leslie plays out, Giant comes alive when the unpredictable Rink appears. Dean provides two of the film’s highlights; a violent confrontation with Bick after discovering the oil on his plot and his final appearance, blind drunk, addressing a huge, empty hall after opening his own airport and hotel.

Certainly, Dean’s intense acting method didn’t sit well with everyone. Director George Stevens had numerous run-ins with the actor on set and Hudson apparently disapproved of his ‘unprofessional’ conduct. However, one might wonder whether James Dean would have achieved such success without these unconventional techniques, especially over such a short career.
The actor’s personal and professional life continues to intrigue us, with the numerous film, television and musical representations attempting to ‘fill in the gaps’ of a life which was all too brief.

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23rd September: New Film Releases

Here are some of the films released in selected countries from today:
The Magnificent Seven (Antoine Fuqua, 2016)


This remake of a remake (with John Sturges’s 1960 ‘original’ itself a western[ised] adaptation of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai) promises action aplenty from its international cast.
Denzel Washington steps into the Yul Bryner (and Takashi Shimura) role as the leader of the ragtag septet in the defense of a frontier town from Peter Sarsgaard’s band of thieving bandits. Chris Pratt provides the wisecracks as the comic foil to Washington’s laconic gunslinger.

It’s Only the End of the World (Xavier Dolan, 2016)


The sixth film by Québécois prodigy Xavier Dolan (he’s still only 27) and his first to feature only French actors. And it’s some cast at that. It features Marion Cotillard, Vincent Cassel, Léa Seydoux, Nathalie Baye as well as Gaspard Ulliel as a dying writer, who has been estranged from his family for twelve years. The plot involves his decision to reconnect with them over dinner. Needless to say, if the director’s previous films are anything to go by (I Killed My Mother, Mommy), fireworks should ensue.
The film was roundly booed when it played at Cannes earlier this year, but then went on to clinch the Grand Jury prize. Clearly Dolan’s latest is polarising audiences.

Storks (Nicholas Stoller & Doug Sweetland, 2016)


‘From the studio that delivered The Lego Movie‘ reads the poster to Storks, the latest animation from Warners, which sees feathered hero Junior teaming up with orphan Tulip to find a home for a baby he ordered by accident. The conceit here is that the eponymous birds have moved on from delivering babies down chimneys to transporting goods sold by an omnipotent internet shopping site.
Storks looks to capture the same zany energy and oddball comedy as The Lego Movie and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (Phil Lord and Christopher Miller are executive producers) with the trailer culminating in a funny gag involving birds and their inability to see glass.

De Palma (Noah Baumbach & Jake Paltrow, 2015)


Directors Baumbach and Paltrow sit down with respected, yet controversial, filmmaker Brian De Palma (Carrie, Scarface, The Untouchables) as he talks about his directorial style as well as the challenges he has faced making films in Hollywood.
This looks to be a documentary both for fans and cinephiles alike who enjoyed Hitchcock/Truffaut released earlier this year as an insight into the filmmaking process.

Little Men (Ira Sachs, 2016)


From Ira Sachs, director of Keep the Lights On and Love is Strange, his latest Little Men arrives in cinemas. Sachs deals in deeply human stories and this seems no different. The film centres on two best friends (newcomers Michael Barbieri and Theo Taplitz) whose bond is tested when their parents clash over a dress shop lease. 
Already an indie hit with critics when it played at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, we shall see if it can find an audience.

Imperium (Daniel Ragussis, 2016)


Daniel Radcliffe continues his move away from Harry Potter in this thriller inspired by the story of FBI agent Michael German (who co-writes the script). 
Radcliffe plays agent Nate Foster, tasked with infiltrating a white supremacist group. He must take them down from within before they launch a deadly terrorist attack. The supporting cast includes Toni Collette, Tracy Letts, Sam Trammell and Chris Sullivan.

16th June: Before Sunrise (Richard Linklater, 1995)

This post contains spoilers.

On this date in film, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy) spend the night in Vienna together in Before Sunrise.

The pair are travelling on a train from Budapest to the Austrian capital. Jesse plans to catch a flight to America and Céline is stopping off to visit her grandmother before returning to university in Paris. Jesse takes an immediate interest in Céline and convinces her to spend time with him in Vienna. 

He can’t afford a hotel for the night before his return flight the next morning, so they wander the city streets sightseeing and chat about love and life. They grow increasingly comfortable with each other and an attraction forms. The next morning at the train station they admit their feelings for one another and, conscious that they may never see each other again, arrange to meet in this spot six months from now.

Linklater took inspiration from James Joyce’s opus, Ulysses, whose events take place on the same date. His script and direction allow us to observe these characters – their interests, passions, foibles – in a pseudo-verité fashion. And we genuinely root for them. The film’s critical and commercial success spawned two follow-ups, Before Sunset (2004) and Before Midnight (2013), demonstrating that audiences craved to follow Jesse and Céline’s love story through to the end. The trilogy also makes an intriguing companion piece to Linklater’s recent film Boyhood (2014) where characters mature, age and develop before our eyes.

5th June: Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005)

WARNING: This post contains spoilers.

This date in film will see Ennis Del Mar’s (Heath Ledger) daughter, Alma Jr. (Kate Mara), get married in Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005).

Ennis is seen living in a downtrodden trailer, alone and heartbroken. His wife Alma (Michelle Williams) has divorced him and he rarely sees his two daughters. This is a result of his love affair with Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal). The pair met twenty years earlier as sheepherders in charge of a flock on Brokeback Mountain. Battling the elements, harsh winters and the loneliness that comes with the job, Ennis and Jack grow intimate. The seasons change, and with summer’s end, they part ways to live their separate lives but make a pact to revisit the place where their relationship began.

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They each pretend to live ordinary, ‘normal’ lives. Ennis marries Alma and Jack weds renowned rodeo star Lureen Newsome (Anne Hathaway), daughter of a wealthy farmer. They start families but are unable to forget their feelings for one another. One day Ennis sends a postcard to Jack, organising one of their frequent ‘fishing trips’ (a cover story). However, it is returned with ‘deceased’ written across its front. Ennis contacts Lureen who confirms that Jack was accidentally killed by a tyre iron while changing a flat. Her cold explanation of the events and Ennis’s visualisation of Jack being beaten to death by a homophobic mob (as he had previously described happened to a neighbour during his childhood) implies that she is hiding the embarrassment the reason behind Jack’s death has caused her family.

Ennis’s world is shattered and he becomes cut off. Alma Jr.’s visit and happy news of her engagement both visibly reinvigorates him and serves as a tragic reminder of the life he will never be able to have with Jack. Ennis waves goodbye to his daughter and returns to his trailer to find she has left her jacket behind. He picks it up, tenderly folds it and opens his wardrobe to place it inside. Hung inside the door are two shirts and a postcard of Brokeback Mountain. In an earlier scene, while visiting Jack’s parents to pay his condolences, Ennis takes them from Jack’s bedroom. He had kept them as a reminder of their times on the mountain. Back in the trailer Ennis strokes the shirts and, crying, whispers, “Jack, I swear…”as a final gesture of his love and commitment.

3rd June: Citizenfour (Laura Poitras, 2014)

On this date in film, in 2013, documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras begins a week of filming in a Hong Kong hotel room with Edward Snowden.

It was five months earlier that Poitras began receiving anonymous encrypted emails. The sender claimed to have evidence of the National Security Agency (NSA) running illegal covert surveillance operations, unchecked, and in collaboration with numerous other intelligence agencies around the world. Each message was signed “CITIZENFOUR”. Sniffing the seeds of a ground-shaking story, Poitras – accompanied by reporters Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill – travels to Hong Kong to meet the whistle-blower who is hiding out in a hotel.

Citizenfour is compulsive, tense viewing. This despite a lack of what one would ordinarily call ‘action’. The film’s marketing and the stylistic flourishes Poitras allows herself (noirish lighting in a highway tunnel, data scrawls onscreen, throbbing atonal score) set the scene for an action thriller akin to Jason Bourne or a John Le Carré spy yarn – it’s aptly executive-produced by Steven Soderbergh. But Snowden isn’t your typical hero.

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He is an unassuming man. Quiet, serious and, at least on the surface, oblivious to the controversy he is about to cause. And that’s just it. The dramatic core of Poitras’s documentary lies in the fact that her camera captures history as it is being made. Surely there are few other recent films that demonstrate the immediacy of the nonfiction form in such a powerful fashion.

There are moments of relief, such as seeing Snowden hunched over his laptop under a cloth to conceal his typing from any hidden cameras. And later, when the group are deep in conversation about the scope of the governmental spying, a hotel fire alarm sounds. They laugh, but when Snowden phones down to the front desk to confirm that it is just a drill they (and we, the audience) can’t help but think, ‘what if it isn’t?’

 

28th May: Made in Dagenham (Nigel Cole, 2010)

On this date in film, factory overseer Albert Passingham (Bob Hoskins) informs the female workers at the Ford Dagenham car plant that the board has downgraded their jobs to ‘unskilled’. They unanimously vote to take industrial action, which sets in motion the events leading to equal pay for women in Made in Dagenham (Nigel Cole, 2010).

Cole’s film, a dramatization of events from 1968, adroitly explores the sentiments and, at times, conflicting responses people had to the strike. And William Ivory’s script succeeds at making union disputes, picket lines and Ford’s crisis-talks with the women surprisingly gripping. We are positioned to feel just how much is at stake. These moments are surely aided by the cast of characters who are each clearly defined, regardless of how major or minor their roles.

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It would seem straightforward to say that the film belongs to Sally Hawkins as Rita, the spokesperson for the protesters. The viewer follows her from timid, everyday seamstress to equality activist with an inner steel. Husband Eddie (Daniel Mays) later describes her as ‘a force’ when she addresses the assorted unions. However, Hawkins is ably supported by Geraldine James as the conflicted factory steward caring for her war-traumatised husband, Rosamund Pike’s stifled dutiful wife, the free-wheeling, promiscuous Brenda played by Andrea Riseborough and Miranda Richardson as Secretary of State Barbara Castle, self-proclaimed ‘fiery red-head’ whose slightest gaze sends her two assistants scurrying for cover.

It is an uplifting, jubilant film that stands alongside the likes of The Full Monty (Peter Cattaneo, 1997) and Pride (Matthew Warchus, 2014) as home-grown comedies with political bite. However, as ‘feel-good’ as it is, Made in Dagenham also serves as a reminder that the work the machinist’s began continues.

 

26th May: The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (Werner Herzog, 1974)

On this date in film, Kasper Hauser (Bruno S.) – a feral child who has been locked away for some twenty years – is discovered walking the streets of Nuremberg, in Werner Herzog’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974).

The film is based on a true life account from 1828 which, to this day, is an unresolved mystery. As a result of his captivity, Hauser is barely able to walk, talk, read or write. At the beginning of the film, we see Kaspar chained in a cellar, playing with a wooden horse. His captor encourages him to practice his writing and, having taken Kaspar from his prison, teaches him to walk by standing behind him, kicking his heels. The man leaves Kaspar in the centre of town holding a letter in one hand and a bible in the other; for reasons unknown.

The townspeople take Kaspar in and teach him to speak and read. Soon, however, he becomes a strain to the town’s coffers, so the council decides to cash in on Kaspar’s notoriety by having him appear in the local circus freak show. Even when, under the tutelage of kindly Professor Daumer (Walter Ladengast), he is briefly adopted by a foppish English Lord, Kaspar is unable to escape the pointing fingers and gawping expressions of the local gentry. The circus show continues, albeit as part of a different social strata.

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Herzog’s extensive canon reveals his affections for the weird and wonderful underdogs who are not accepted by society. From his earliest features, such as Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970), through to Fitzcarraldo (1982), and more recent films like his ‘non-remake’ of Bad Lieutenant (2009), Herzog is fascinated by the eccentricities of those whose vision of the world is warped in some way. Of course, this theme continues into his documentary features – Land of Silence and Darkness (1971), My Best Fiend (1999), Grizzly Man (2005) – and there has always been a ‘cross-pollination’, a fluidity, between his approaches to both.

As such, Bruno S. does not give a performance as such. Rather Herzog observes him ‘becoming’ Kaspar Hauser, embodying the character through bug-eyed stares and his distinctive, deliberate delivery of lines. The fact/fiction divide is further blurred due to Bruno’s own incarceration in numerous mental institutions for two decades. It is a mesmerising routine, full of pathos and humour as he repeatedly confounds and frustrates the religious, educational and medical experts who come to ‘fix’ him. Indeed it is unsurprising, given Herzog’s own philosophy, that by the end of the film we can’t help but think Kaspar would have been better off in his cell and away from the cruelty, cynicism and exploitation of the ‘real world’.

 

24TH MAY: LILTING (HONG KHAOU, 2014)

This date in film can be glimpsed on a Teenagersintokyo poster in Richard (Ben Whishaw) and Kai’s (Andrew Leung) bedroom, in Hong Khaou’s understated, impressive debut feature Lilting (2014).

After Kai’s death, his mother, Junn (Pei-Pei Cheng) has been invited round for supper by Richard. She is Cambodian-Chinese and doesn’t speak any English. Prior to his death, Kai had arranged for Junn to live in a retirement home as a temporary measure to prepare for her living with him and Richard permanently. However, Junn is apparently unaware that they were a couple. She comes to resent Richard for taking up so much of her son’s time.

Her only family gone, Richard now feels it is his responsibility to care for Junn. On hearing that she has grown close to Alan (Peter Bowles), another resident at the home, Richard contacts translator Vann (Naomi Christie) to help them all to communicate, whilst taking care not to reveal his and Kai’s relationship. Richard’s efforts seem to be failing, each gesture met with cold indifference from Junn.

However, while looking around her son’s room, Junn seems to change. Does she already know that he was gay? Has seeing the room confirmed her suspicions? Richard is seen removing any ‘evidence’ before she arrives, but Junn says she can still smell Kai in the room. Khaou leaves these questions unanswered. However, it is a beautifully observed, ambiguous scene. And a turning point in Richard and Junn’s relationship as, when returning downstairs seeing Richard frying bacon with chopsticks, she seems to become more accepting of him.

Acceptance, communication, as well as memory (it is implied that Junn might have early onset Alzheimer’s disease), are important themes in the film. The translation metaphor, and strategic use of subtitling, relates to the role communication plays in ‘coming out’ and as a way of preserving treasured memories. The rhythmic, lyrical visuals (complementing the film’s title) and the associations of sexuality with guilt – albeit from different cultural contexts – recall the work of Terence Davies, making Hong Khaou a filmmaker to watch in the future.

 

13th May: The Devils (Ken Russell, 1971)

WARNING: This post contains spoilers

On this date in film Catholic priest, Father Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed) is alleged to have raped a nun in a fabricated written statement which is used to prove his guilt in The Devils (Ken Russell, 1971).

As part of Cardinal Richelieu’s (Christopher Logue) scheme to suppress the influence of feudal nobility in French towns, and to bring the fortified town of Loudun into the centralised fold, his representative Baron De Laubardemont (Dudley Sutton) seeks to undermine the authority of its new governor, Grandier.

Father Grandier is a conflicted man who is both devout in his attempts to protect Loudun from outside interference and a serial philanderer who is the object of nearly every woman’s desire in the town; when he is seen walking through the streets, one onlooker is heard saying, “There’s a man I wouldn’t mind going to hell for”. Grandier is well aware of his reputation as a vain, proud womaniser. However, when he encounters the beautiful and innocent Madeleine (Gemma Jones) he immediately falls in love with her, they marry, and he sees an opportunity at redemption.

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notcoming.com

The news reaches reverend Mother, Sister Jeanne (a deliciously deranged performance by Vanessa Redgrave), who is sexually obsessed with the priest. The hunchbacked nun is prone to psycho-sexual fantasies where she imagines Grandier as Christ, a potent expression of her spiritual and carnal longing. On hearing of the marriage Jeanne, either as a calculated act of revenge or an involuntary hysteria-induced slip, accuses Grandier of witchcraft and of possessing her. The Baron seizes upon this which plants the seeds of Grandier’s ruin.

De Laubardemont summons an inquisitor (a wonderful, scenery-chewing turn by Michael Gothard) whose questionable ‘witch-hunting’ methods of forced enemas are put to use during Sister Jeanne’s show-exorcism. The brutality of the mock ritual awakens a madness in the other nuns. They strip off their garbs and run amok in the town’s cathedral in the throes of a religious frenzy, which is encouraged and exploited by the Baron and his conspirators, and culminates with the notorious ‘Rape of Christ’.

When Grandier and Madeleine return to the town, after visiting King Louis XIII beseeching him to protect Loudun, the priest is immediately arrested for heresy. The Baron gathers evidence for the trumped-up charges to condemn Grandier. He reads the forged statement, “And this said priest, Urbain Grandier, did debauch and defile my person six times between midnight and dawn on the night of May 13th in the year of our Lord, 1634.” He threatens a nun to sign it which seals Grandier’s fiery fate.

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“Derek Jarman’s deliberately anachronistic set designs” via cageyfilms.com

The Devils is Russell’s masterpiece. Based on John Whiting’s play and inspired by real events documented in Aldous Huxley’s ‘The Devils of Loudun’, it is a fever dream of hot political and religious commentary that fell foul of the British Board of Film Classification’s regulations when it was released (‘Hell on Earth’, a 2002 television documentary presented by Mark Kermode, provides fascinating insights into how the film was received by censors, critics, cast and crew). The film’s striking visual and audio style is aided by Derek Jarman’s deliberately anachronistic set designs and Peter Maxwell Davies’s affecting atonal score. Russell’s intention for the viewing of the film to be like standing in “a public toilet” – somewhere you don’t want to stay for very long – seems to have been realised. However, while you’re watching The Devils, such is the sheer demented brio of its visualisation, it’s equally difficult to look away.

Adam Vaughan

12th May: The Terminator (James Cameron, 1984)

On this date in film, the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) arrives back in time to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton).

It has been sent from the year 2029. Los Angeles has been flattened into a nuclear wasteland following the rise of the machines when Skynet, the security system designed to protect humanity from such a war, turned the tables on its makers. What remains of the human race skirmish with ‘HKs’ (‘Hunter Killer’ machines) and eke out a life in subterranean tunnels. They appear to be fighting a losing battle.

However, a figure of hope arises in the form of resistance leader, John Connor. He unites the ragtag fighters into an outfit that could overthrow their cybernetic overlords. Hearing of the machines’ plan to find and kill Sarah, Connor sends his second-in-command, Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) back to 1984 to protect his mother, and hence, his future existence.

After the Terminator materialises in a storm of electricity and smoke, terrorising a nearby group of 80s punks (which includes long-time Cameron collaborator, Bill Paxton), Reese arrives in a dingy alleyway much to the surprise of a sleeping hobo and a passing police officer. After a brief chase, Reese corners the cop and demands, “What day is it?” The officer replies, “12th…May…Thursday.” Back-up arrives and Reese flees the scene to find Sarah and keep her from the T-unit’s clutches.

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Despite spawning a couple of disappointing sequels (although, in my mind, Terminator 2: Judgment Day [Cameron, 1991] remains the franchise pinnacle) this first outing for Arnie’s futuristic Frankenstein’s monster packs punch, with economical (and some downright ludicrous) plotting and innovative effects, all orchestrated with verve by Cameron. Indeed, it was the success of this film which would propel him to notoriety, landing directing duties on SF sequel Aliens (1986).

Just like the best SF films, The Terminator lends itself to a variety of thematic readings. Reese’s description of the killing unit as a ‘cybernetic organism; part man, part machine’ and its objective to infiltrate human society belies both a Cold War paranoia and, in its frequent representation of the naked male form (the time travel process apparently strips away any dead material), AIDS hysteria. Not to mention the film’s political commentary on governments and their uses of technology which, in a post-Snowden society, is still chillingly relevant.

Other highlights include Schwarzenegger’s necessarily deadpan performance – including the now ubiquitous “I’ll be back” – the concluding chase (or crawl) sequence through an automated production factory and a viscerally choreographed shootout in a nightclub. The club’s name, ‘Technoir’ is an apt description for the film’s style itself. It combines the trashy trappings of cyberpunk with the chiaroscuro aesthetics and thriller elements of film noir. What results is a heady mixture of breakneck-speed editing and body horror which still retains a cultural currency today.

Adam Vaughan