Film: Also Showing

Funny Games Michael Haneke (18) n I Want You Michael Winterbottom (18) Still Crazy Brian Gibson (15) n East Side Story Dana Ranga (U) n The Exorcist William Friedkin (18) n Razor Blade Smile Jake West (18)
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The Independent Culture
MICHAEL HANEKE'S Funny Games boasts a strange and conflicted pedigree. A stalk-and-slash chiller with an anti-violence message, a horror film about horror films, it comes complete with archetypal characters and a cookie-cutter plotline. Its pacing is as deliberately structured as a waltz.

Funny Games runs something like this. A likeable middle-class unit (mum, dad, pre-teen son) are on vacation at a lakeside retreat where they are set upon by a pair of deferential young psychopaths. Peter (Frank Giering) is a fleshy Billy Bunter with effete gestures and bulbous eyes; Paul (Arno Frisch) his smoother, more aquiline cohort. Together, these killers take a golf-club to the family dog, hobble the husband and come up with a grisly wager: in nine hours all three of their captors will be dead.

Funny Games grabs this stock genre template and proceeds to use it as a battering-ram against the whole management of movie violence.There is scarcely any explicit on-screen carnage. Instead Haneke focuses on its results (the wordless, agonising aftermath of one killing) and the way in which violence implicates its voyeur. His lead villain winks at the camera, addresses the viewer directly ("you're on their side, aren't you?") and even leaps up to "rewind" the film when his schemes go awry.

Such self-referentialism is nothing new, of course. The horror genre has grown so cliche-ridden that, from Scream downwards, the knowing, post-modern approach has become the only way to shoot horror these days. The difference is that Funny Games never plays it for laughs, nor provides any escape hatch for the more squeamish viewer. Its stranglehold atmosphere has you fighting for breath.

I Want You finds director Michael Winterbottom downshifting from the weighty canvas of last year's Welcome to Sarajevo and relocating to shabby seaside Britain. The result is an overwrought noir romance which tilts at a kind of torrid intensity that the script and performances are glaringly unable to sustain. As Helen, the jittery hairdresser preyed on by her parolee ex-boyfriend, Rachel Weisz is all flesh and nothing fleshed-out. Luka Petrusic fares better as a mute, beach-bum refugee, yet the picture soon stagnates in a stew of moody stylistics.

At least Still Crazy knows precisely where it's headed. Rollickingly feel-good, shamelessly second-hand, this genial yarn of a bunch of old- lag Seventies rockers reforming for a comeback tour milks its retro appeal for all that it's worth. A funny and well-carpentered script provides a solid base for crowd-pleasing routines from the likes of Timothy Spall, Bill Nighy and Billy Connolly. It's a small-scale TV-thing at heart, is Still Crazy, but within such confines it works just fine.

East Side Story, meantime, spotlights the propagandist musicals that flourished behind the Iron Curtain. Part cultural archaeology, part salute to the directors forced to navigate faulty equipment and strict government censorship, Dana Ranga's documentary is full to bursting with queer sights and sounds. "This is our harvest, our rich harvest," sing the cheery workers of Cossacks of the Kuban River. "The quota has been attained." The trouble is that East Side Story's makers lean a bit too heavily on their archives at the expense of structure or analysis. But sloppiness aside, this remains fascinating: a weird, flip-side, fairground-mirror reflection of Western entertainments; Hollywood frivolities re-tailored in strict Soviet style.

Like the beast under the bed, The Exorcist has become a creature conditioned by invisibility. It's now 25 years since it debuted at cinemas, 14 since you could catch it on video, and its reputation has warped and swollen down the decades. Pull it into the light, then, and Friedkin's essay in demonic possession can't help but look diminished. William Peter Blatty's plotting is a trifle flat, while the most name-checked scenes (like the live bed show) teeter on the verge of the comic.

Where The Exorcist still chills is in its more subtle, secondary elements. For while Max Von Sydow and Ellen Burstyn cope well with their top-billed roles (as Father Merrin and the demon-child's mother, respectively) the film's real unsung hero proves to be Jason Miller's anguished church psychiatrist; tussling with a crisis of faith after the death of his mother. Full credit, too, to Friedkin's stealthy, elegant handling; his dreamy framing of Georgetown's gothic architecture and ominous, evocative use of sound (humming insects, snarling dogs), all suggestive of a world bred in tooth and claw. A quarter of a century on, that icy, ambient piano score still raises goosebumps.

Need more proof of The Exorcist's contemporary appeal? Then simply check out Razor Blade Smile, a camp, clanking genre piece about a vampire assassin (Eileen Daly) at large in present-day London. Cobbled together on a skid- row budget, Jake West's debut feature juggles a roster of cod-Goth staples (black rubber catsuits, Bauhaus tunes) with some of the most archly awkward dialogue this side of Falcon Crest. Frequent freeze-frames mirror a general rigor-mortis in the film's inhabitants. The whole thing is as dead as a doornail.

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