As part of our 2018 Round-Up, Gary Couzens takes a look at some screen highlights.
As with last year, this isn’t meant to be a comprehensive review of the SF and fantasy films of 2018, but a highlighting of some titles worth seeking out, leaving out the obvious ones. Everything here, however, received a commercial release or a festival premiere in the the UK in 2018.
Every Day is an adaptation of David Levithan’s young-adult novel. It features an entity known only as A. I’ll use the they pronoun, as each morning they wake up in a different body, of any gender, but roughly the same age (that is, a high-schooler) and in roughly the same location. Then the next morning they wake up as someone else again. However, the film centres on Rhiannon (Angourie Rice) who spends an afternoon with her boyfriend only to find the next day that his behaviour has changed and he barely remembers the day before. And A has fallen for Rhiannon. Every Day is well done, logically developing its premise, not avoiding some dark areas, and admirably inclusive in its gender and identity themes. It’s not a spoiler (see online credits lists, for example) to say that one day A wakes up as Rhiannon, and complications that ensue. The film is held together by a delightful performance from Angourie Rice, still only eighteen as I write this, and graduating to leads after several fine supporting roles in the last few years. Every Day is in somewhat of a minor key, but it lingers in the mind afterwards. It had a cinema release in the UK but, in no doubt a sign of the times, bypassed DVD and Blu-ray and is currently available to stream only. (Discs can be obtained from other countries, if you’d prefer to see this film that way.)
If Every Day, with its teen leads, is the cinematic equivalent of a young-adult novel – and has an entirely appropriate 12 certificate – Lifechanger takes a not-dissimilar premise in a more gruesome direction. A shapeshifter going by the name of Drew (voiceover narration from Bill Oberst Jr) takes over the bodies and memories of those he meets, again male and female both, leaving behind shrivelled remains. Drew is searching for the woman he loves, but is slowly losing control over his abilities, with shapechanging happening more and more frequently. Meanwhile, the police think the trail of bodies he leaves behind are the work of a serial killer. Canadian writer/director Justin McConnell develops his premise well, with the multiple actors playing the central role ably managing to suggest that they are continuations of the same person. And at just over eighty minutes, the film doesn’t outstay its welcome. Lifechanger had its UK and European premiere at the annual Frightfest horror-film festival in London over August Bank Holiday weekend. It is one of a batch of titles from the festival forthcoming on DVD and on demand under the Frightfest Presents banner.
There’s been more than a little talk that we’re in the twilight days of physical media for our entertainment. This is not the place to discuss this in depth, but over the last few years we’ve seen audiences moving away from disc purchase or rental and towards streaming and on-demand services, or at least certainly being encouraged to do so. 4K UHD discs are very much a niche, and almost all of the releases so far have been from major studios. Dedicated DVD players are being discontinued, though you can still play your discs in Blu-ray players, games consoles and computer drives. 8K television has been launched in Japan, with the 2020 Tokyo Olympics intended to be a showcase for the service, but I suspect that will also remain a niche for many years to come. However, the UK has a thriving distribution sector specialising in releasing films from the past, often restored and with extensive well-chosen extras, and that is very much centred on Blu-ray release. That audience may be a niche (but it’s my niche) but it’s still one which can sell out a 10,000-strong limited edition of a black and white film from 1957, namely Night of the Demon, or Curse of the Demon as it is also known. This, the only big-screen version of a M.R. James story (television has more often been the home for adaptations of James’s work), was made in England by director Jacques Tourneur. It still works considerably well, genuinely scary in places, with a career-high performance as the villain from Niall McGinnis balancing out the rather bland leads, Dana Andrews and Peggy Cummins. Indicator’s two-disc edition is one of the releases of the year, with four versions of the film (both titles, and full-length and originally-shortened cuts) and a plethora of extras.
It’s not just the cinema of old which is getting the Blu-ray treatment. Television is as well, even though much of it was made on 625-line standard-definition video, or even the older standard of 405 lines. The BBC has started reissuing Doctor Who in Blu-ray box sets, with so far Tom Baker’s and Peter Davison’s first seasons having been released. Quite what they will do with earlier seasons, with episodes not surviving on their original videotapes or, in the case of ninety-seven 1960s episodes, missing altogether, remains to be seen. Visually, these stories look no different as they did before, because they were shot on standard-definition video, though film-shot location material would certainly benefit from the greater resolution of Blu-ray, if the negatives still exist to be scanned from.
That’s also the case with Quatermass and the Pit, now released on Blu-ray by the BBC. Sixty years ago, in six weekly episodes, this story, written by Nigel Kneale and produced (i.e. directed) by Rudolph Cartier, cleared streets so that people would not miss the next instalment, with no means to record or otherwise timeshift. Like the two previous Quatermass serials, Quatermass and the Pit was broadcast live, telerecorded from the 405-line cameras onto 35mm film. There was a greater budget for prefilmed scenes, location scenes and those involving special effects too complex to achieve live. That material was shot in 35mm, and on Blu-ray the jump in resolution is very obvious. Quatermass and the Pit was very influential on later television and film in both the SF and horror genres, and it’s more sophisticated in its concepts than many other examples in the six decades since. It’s a masterpiece of small-screen drama, and in André Morell it has the definitive take on Kneale’s Professor.
Gary Couzens is a long-time contributor, reviewing films and television for The Digital Fix. Since 2016 he has written the Blood Spectrum film review column for Black Static, which was shortlisted for the 2017 BFA Non-Fiction Award.