Red Right Hand | Hellboy & Crimson Peak

Nick Cave and PJ Harvey

Nick Cave and PJ Harvey in the video for Henry Lee (1996)

Not quite a case of cover versions I prefer to the original, but the recent trailer for Guillermo Del Toro‘s upcoming Crimson Peak (yay!) showed us how Nick Cave’s haunting ditty Red Right Hand is etching itself into the Mexican director’s oeuvre as a musical placeholder, albeit as ventriloquised by different musicians.

A version by Pete Yorn was heard in the original Hellboy (2004), also directed by Del Toro. Something of a logical choice given the subject matter, even if the connection is a shallow one (i.e., limited to the song’s title). Yorn’s jauntier version certainly strips the song of its atmospheric sense of foreboding. Which is just as well in this case, because even though Hellboy – and Del Toro’s films in general – may have its creepy gothic touches, it remains a quirky superhero romp at the end of the day.

PJ Harvey’s version, originally commissioned for another audio visual project – this time the British gangster TV series Peaky Blinders – feels right for gothic melodrama Crimson Peak, at least insofar as the trailer suggests. Harvey’s pained vocals offer a nice contrast to Cave’s hard, stark imagery.

It’s a dynamic that matches my expectations of Crimson Peak itself. It appears to be a ghost story of the Victorian variety and as such, one that would by definition rely on subtle scares, rather than the outre, primary-coloured flourishes Del Toro is known for, and which he doesn’t appear to be shying away from here. I anxiously await to see how the twain will meet – if it does at all – come October.

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Better the tropes you know | Gotham, The Musketeers and Black Sails

The premiere of Better Call Saul got me thinking about how the shows I enjoy now, post Breaking Bad folding, tend to fit more easily into the mold of romance rather than realism, and that this probably has a lot to do with how the ruse has now been rumbled on the supposedly ‘bold’ grittiness of the shows that have been lauded with both praise and generous ratings over the past few years.

"Have you grounded yourself?" Better Call Saul is off to a strong start

“Have you grounded yourself?” Better Call Saul is off to a strong start

You know, shows like The Wire and, indeed, Breaking Bad itself, with the latter admittedly conceding to a few Tarantinoesque stylistic flourishes every now and then.

This article illustrates the point better than I ever could, but the point remains this: there’s very little actual innovation or subversion happening in these shows, and this kind of storytelling is always better when its embraces its ‘genre’ roots. Because straining to do otherwise often results in nothing but kitsch. I enjoyed Breaking Bad and The Wire as much as anyone, but shows like Boardwalk Empire felt like brittle attempts at the same: spread thin by the half-assed attempt at historically accurate drama, it felt neither here nor there.

Ben McKenzie as James Gordon and Robin Lord Taylor as Oswald 'Penguin' Cobblepot in Gotham

Ben McKenzie as James Gordon and Robin Lord Taylor as Oswald ‘Penguin’ Cobblepot in Gotham

These days I’m quaffing shows like Black Sails, The Musketeers and Gotham – they don’t bother to hide their roots in firmly trodden narrative ground, and any ‘grit’ is by-the-by, acknowledged as just another stylistic detail rather than a willful attempt at – ultimately hollow – innovation. Hell, they simply can’t hide their derivative nature: all three shows are explicitly sourced from clear antecedents. Black Sails is a very loose prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island with a liberal sprinkling of ‘historical’ pirates thrown into the mix, The Musketeers is yet another adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ enduring piece of swashbuckling proto-pulp fiction, and Gotham is a shamelessly opportunistic but also refreshingly goofy series about Gotham City 20-odd years before Batman arrived on the scene.

Santiago Cabrera as Aramis in The Musketeers

Santiago Cabrera as Aramis in The Musketeers

It’s particularly telling that the first two shows in are sourced from Stevenson and Dumas, writers historically associated with the aesthetic of ‘romance’. The BBC’s own Musketeers may not be the best iteration of that story – and it’s certainly the weakest show of this particular triad – but it’s telling that it reared its head just now, as if in direct opposition to the prevailing trend. Black Sails may have the same levels of sex and violence you’d expect from the likes of Game of Thrones*, but its main MO is adventure and intrigue, not some half-baked exploration of moral ambiguity. And while Gotham, being a prequel to an established comic book property, appears to play in the same sandbox as most of the reboot-and-remake happy mainstream, it resists the urge to ‘grimdark’, giving us a Gotham Cityscape that is less Nolan, more Burton.

John Hamm as Don Draper in Mad Men

Jon Hamm as Don Draper in Mad Men

This is of course not to say that I won’t be tuning into Breaking Bad spinoff Better Call Saul – the pilot of which I found terrific – nor that television can’t be anything except pulp. But I’m finding more pleasure in taking in this kind of genre fare at the moment. Mostly because the likes of Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Mad Men et al have proven themselves to ultimately be all about dissatisfied and/or stifled macho men eager to live out their machismo, and largely succeeding in doing so. There’s very little about that I find profound, and the fact that we’re treating it as something novel and worthy of our time all on its own is a bit disconcerting.

I would rather have my macho men as flat archetypes, to be taken with a pinch of salt. Better than than being lured into contemplating their aggressive contours as something to take in fully and even – the implication being – to be emulated.

*Game of Thrones is an interesting exception that proves the rule: by presenting us with a fantasy world that is directly informed by episodes from ‘real life’ medieval history, it blends both realism and romance.

READ RELATED: We Need to Talk About Genre

Greeking

Alexis Tsipras, leader of the Greek left-wing party Syriza, was elected Prime Minister of Greece on January 25 (Photo: AFP/Getty)

Alexis Tsipras, leader of the Greek left-wing party Syriza, was elected Prime Minister of Greece on January 25 (Photo: AFP/Getty)

“The light disdain of the Greeks, which I have never ceased to feel under their most ardent homage, did not offend me;  I found it natural. Whatever virtues may have distinguished me from them, I knew that I should always be less subtle than an Aegean sailor, less wise than an herb vendor of the Agora. I accepted without irritation the slightly haughty condescension of that proud race, according to an entire nation of privileges which I have always so readily conceded to those I loved. But to give the Greeks time to continue and perfect their work some centuries of peace were needed, with those calm leisures and discreet liberties which peace allows. Greece was depending upon us to be her protector, since after all we say that we are her master. I promised myself to stand watch over the defenceless god.” Marguerite Yourcenar

*

Read previous: SAILING

Nevermind the Oscars: Here’s Adam Wingard

Dan Stevens in The Guest

Dan Stevens in The Guest

The Oscar race is underway, with its depressing churn of predictable bland shoo-ins like The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything, coupled with the politically vile (not that the Academy cares) American Sniper and the scattershot and smug mess that is Birdman. I don’t hate all of the top contenders, exactly: Boyhood and The Grand Budapest Hotel are works of singular artistic vision – if they are nothing else, they’re that – and Whiplash is a fun monster thriller masquerading as a musical künstlerroman.

But out of all the films I’ve watched during the holiday season and just about beyond, it’s not decorated ‘art dramas’ – to use Noam Chomsky’s charming descriptor for middlebrow awards-bait – that made me stand to attention. That honour goes to the workmanlike talents of Adam Wingard, whose You’re Next (2011) and The Guest (2014) captured my imagination and made me feel like a kid again.

My good friend Krista Bonello Rutter Giappone described the former film as an adult version of Home Alone in a lot of ways, and taken on those terms, Wingard’s high-concept but low-budget home invasion thriller works a treat. Extra geek points for casting fellow indie directors Joe Swanberg and Ti West, along with a matronly role from the formerly oft-naked Barbara Crampton, who furnished many a young boy’s burgeoning sexual fantasies in the cult splatter fests envisioned by Stuart Gordon (and often based on the works of HP Lovecraft). But the film thankfully doesn’t waste too much screen time on geeky winking and nudging, instead getting on with the violent and inventive-prop-heavy job at hand with brutal gusto and a healthy dose of black humour. There’s no excuses made for the moral implausibility of its central premise (and twist), nor for the explained-away survival skills of its Australian protagonist, Erin (Sharni Vinson), and that’s fine. You’re Next belongs to neither of the flogged-horses of contemporary horror – torture porn and found footage – and it gets extra points for me on that basis alone.

The Guest is similarly un-trendy in its evocation of meaty genre thrills of yore: this time the action thrillers of the 70s and 80s, albeit with a Drive-like sonic wash courtesy of an evocative ear-worm of an electro soundtrack. Its narrative anatomy appears to suggest a military thriller brimming beneath the (suburban) surface. But as the John Carpenter-esque opening credits font suggests: we’re entering into Halloween territory, and if this weren’t clear enough already, the film is set during Halloween too. But again, the references don’t call attention to themselves, and Wingard commits to his material and his influences to craft something that’s a direct descendant of a lineage – pulpy as it may be – and not a threadbare imitation with references stapled on. What this means is that we look forward to every lurid twist and payoff, and that Wingard delivers it. Dan Stevens, formerly of Downton Abbey, also ‘gets’ what the project is all about: it’s a loving tribute, not a cynically knowing one.

Although it garnered a generous clutch of positive reviews, The Guest fared abysmally at the American box office. But that’s to be expected, really. Wingard’s films have been hatched into a cinematic atmosphere that favours either young-adult reboots and/or superhero epics on the one hand, and hyped-to-death awards bait on the other – the latter of which ends up being more about the viability of their stars than the story they occupy.

But I think Wingard’s films remain important aberrations in the scene. Freed from the insipid and facile ‘irony’ of most latter-day B-movies, but possessing a canny intelligence that helps them rise above morass, they are primordial and fully pleasurable experiences. Like the splatter-heavy but vivacious early short stories of Clive Barker, they eschew subtlety and good taste to tap into the childish – not childlike – anarchic side. Sure, Bunuel this ain’t – but at least it’s something akin to Gremlins.

And Hollywood needs a similar injection of crazy, stat. It needs wilder dreams. Sleep of reason produces monsters, and all that…