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Horror Gore-lore in our XVth TV movie round-up

JOHN GORE, founder of StokeScreen Film Club, with his pick of the great movies coming to TV in the week ahead (starting on 18 July).

I would like to talk to you about horror; what is and what is not. But first, I shall profile some bigger titles from this week’s free-to-air schedule. Firstly, StokeScreen favourite, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Channel 4, 21.15, Sat, 18 July) is a modern classic that won Frances McDormand an Oscar in 2017. This is a dark tale of a young woman raped and murdered and her indomitable mother (McDormand) battling corruption and prejudice so that justice might prevail.

It sounds very earnest and austere but it is a rich character piece written and directed by Martin McDonnagh (In Bruges) which treats very flawed characters with a generosity and hope of redemption. It also benefits from McDormand’s capacity to deliver menacing and acridly sarcastic lines with a power that would peel paint. Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell (also an Oscar winner here) provide strong support. Saturday is a busy night. In addition to 3 Billboards, there is another Best Actress Oscar winner in the shape of Jackie (Channel 4, 23.30, Sat, 18 July) in which Natalie Portman gives an uncanny rendition of Jackie Kennedy on the day that her husband and US President JFK, was shot. It is a sombre, moving portrait of grief directed by the Chilean, Pablo Larraín, one of the most consistently interesting directors around. It was only after seeing newsreel footage at the time of the film’s release that I realised that you never hear this mould-breaking First Lady speak. When you do, you realise how accurately Portman captured her. Blade Runner 2049 (ITV2, 21.00, Sat, 18 July) re-emerges. It is a more than adequate sequel to the 1982 original. Like its predecessor, it looks relatively insignificant on the small screen, so I am afraid you will have to use lots of imagination. Maps to the Stars (BBC2, 22.55, Sat, 18 July) is a curious exposé of Hollywood life through the eyes of the idiosyncratic and sometimes downright perverse director, David Cronenberg. The various plotlines interweave but most engaging is that of Julianne Moore as a fading actress working on the remake of one of her mother’s classic roles. I need to revisit this but it has stayed with me over several years as unsettling rather than graphically shocking. Two treasures for Sunday: Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (Sony Movies, 18.15, Sun, 19 July) and Hell or High Water (Film 4, 21.00, Sun, 19 July). The former is an adaptation of a nautical adventure by Patrick O’Brien set during the Napoleonic War: A British Man o’ War plays cat and mouse with French ships off the coast of South America. It is made by the Australian, Peter Weir (Witness, The Year of Living Dangerously), who is fascinated by the dynamics of a group of people (often outsiders) gathered together in a confined space or an extreme situation.

What pleased me about this was seeing young officers and ranks played by 15-year-old kids, authentic to the era - barely needing to shave, and as vulnerable as they were brave.

Hell and High Water is, on the face of it, run-of-the-mill cops and robbers in West Texas. Chris Pine (Star Trek) and Ben Foster (Leave No Trace) are desperados robbing banks, pursued by old and wily sheriff, Jeff Bridges, in radiant form. It may be orthodox but it is majestically realised by Scottish director, David MacKenzie. For those of you needing to be reminded of the glory that was Ennio Morricone, For a Few Dollars More (Per qualche dollari in piú) (BBC2, 23.20, Fri, 24 July) will reintroduce you to the good, the bad and the ill-tailored with his phenomenal sonic imagination, combining instruments that should never be seen out together in polite company. Meanwhile, elsewhere in Italy, The Tale of Tales (Channel 4, 01.55, Thu, 23 July) returns us to the Renaissance and the birth of some time-worn fairy tales, dark and fantastical creations of obsessed kings and jealous sisters, monsters to be fought and chivalric deeds to be performed. The stellar cast is headed by Selma Hayek, Toby Jones, Vincent Cassell and Shirley Henderson. It recalls films by Borowczyk and Pasolini, for the Euronerds among you. Sweet Country (Film 4, 21.00, Thu, 23 July) is a western set in the outback of the Northern Territory of Australia in the 1920s. An Aboriginal farmhand shoots a white man in self-defence and goes on the run to escape his pursuers. Directed by Warwick Thornton, who also made Mystery Road, it looks wonderful and tells the tale from the native Australian perspective. There are no great surprises but it is a good story well told. There is also an outing for The Others (5Star, 22.00, Thu, 23 July), Alejandro Amenábar’s ghost story/psychological thriller. A mother (Nicole Kidman) and her children are confined to a house they believe to be haunted. It is eerie and atmospheric. Which brings me on to the subject of horror; what is and what isn’t. It is a blanket label which many people reject out of hand. Some insightful psychology is lost in underrated movies. The baby goes out with the bathwater (or was that the plot of one of these movies!) Much of the horror served up on the screens of your local Odium is of the twisted, tortured gorefest variety. The ingenuity is in forms of trauma-inducing cruelty or disaster. However, as we all know, what is shown is nowhere near as terrifying as what you can’t quite see, or what is left to your imagination. Yes, yours, in particular! Somehow the Alien in the film of the same name is less terrifying once it is revealed to the viewer, making its dramatic entrance from John Hurt’s chest, than the one you had imagined. The label "horror" tends to embrace ghost stories and other supernatural yarns, which, I feel, is unfair and inaccurate. These belong to a long history of fireside storytelling, fairy tales and cautionary fables or the Gothic stories of Daphne du Maurier et al (eg Don’t Look Now). Horror requires a monster; the deranged killer, the beast with two heads and a bad attitude, the psychologically unhinged, for example, (pictured above), The Shining (BBC1, 22.50, Fri, 24 July). But what if the monster is us (Avatar), or corrupt administration in denial (Jaws)? The outcomes are horrific but the context makes it seem somehow more in keeping with contemporary drama. Although, I concede that a great white shark is probably monster enough for most people’s taste. Ginger Snaps (Horror, 00.35, Sun, 19 July) is unquestionably horror: Werewolves in suburban Canada but played more like a teen movie. This has some fresh ideas in a rather well worn genre. Peeping Tom (Talking Pictures TV, 22.00, Fri, 24 July) is the real deal. Probably, still, one of the most disturbing films made by a British director (and there has been no shortage of competition), this account of a seriously disturbed young photographer who murders women and films them, in close up, to record their panic, is shocking now.

Back in 1960, its impact was traumatic, to the degree that investment ceased and it was the last movie this eminent director, Michael Powell (A Matter of Life and Death) made for eight years. This in the same year as Les Yeux Sans Visage and Psycho, it was quite bonanza for the twisted and unsettling. Hmm. No comedies. Again. Sorry.

The Mouse that Roared (Sony Movie Classics, 19.15, Fri, 24 July) is an option. Peter Sellers as premier of a small country that declares war on the USA so that they can be invaded and recoup their fortune through foreign aid. Thin gruel, I fear.

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