According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, to describe a book or film or life situation as Kafkaesquerelates to:
“Franz Kafka (1883-1924) – a Czech-born German-language writer whose surreal fiction vividly expressed the anxiety, alienation, and powerlessness of the individual in the 20th century. Kafka’s work is characterized by nightmarish settings in which characters are crushed by nonsensical, blind authority. Thus, the word Kafkaesque is often applied to bizarre and impersonal administrative situations where the individual feels powerless to understand or control what is happening.”
Moreover, it especially relates to characters and events which could be described as:
“. . . relating to, or suggestive of Franz Kafka or his writings, especially having a nightmarishly complex, bizarre, or illogical quality.”
Such narratives are abundant throughout cinema history and in this occasional strand I would like to suggest six of the best films which could be described as ‘Kafkaesque.’ Interestingly, I have not selected the purer surrealist work of say David Lynch or Luis Bunuel, but concentrated on films dominated by characters utterly lost to a nightmarish fate, bureaucracy or a scenario entirely not of their making. I guess one could draw parallels with the world’s current situation in regard to COVID-19, as many of us have found ourselves powerless and at the mercy of bureaucracy, sickness and unknown external forces. However, I am not going to dwell on that; just keep going and hope we all get through safely to the other side of it.
Cast: Emma Booth, Ashleigh Cummings, Stephen Curry, Harris Gilbertson, Susie Porter, Damian De Montemas, etc.
Music by: Dan Luscombe
Cinematography: Michael McDermott
Edited by: Merlin Eden
*** MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ***
Where narratives relating to rape, abduction, and serial killers are concerned, a filmmaker can tread a fine line between lurid exploitation and absorbing suspense and drama. Low budget B-movies are replete with stories of death, sexual assault and crazed murderers. Some overstep the mark becoming notorious beacons of bad taste. Many horror fans love the exploitational nature of “video nasties”, seeking out films like: Cannibal Holocaust (1980), A Serbian Film (2010), I Spit on Your Grave (1978), Driller Killer (1979), Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and The Last House on the Left (1972), to name but a few. The latter two films directed by horror maestros Tobe Hooper and Wes Craven are arguably exceptional visions of terror which transcend their horror genre subject matter. Similarly, Ben Young’s The Hounds of Love (2016), in my view, represents the evil of human beings without exploiting the actors or audience.
While it may not be as gory on-screen as the films mentioned above, The Hounds of Love (2016), does offer a shattering and sickening set of images and sounds within these savage set of events. Set in Perth, Australia during 1987, this is a disturbing and all too realistic horror story. It opens with a majestic set of slow-motion shots from the point-of-view of suburban couple, Evelyn White (Emma Booth) and John White (Stephen Curry). They sit in their vehicle as the sun hazes and watch teenage girls playing netball in the school yard. They are stalking their next victim; patiently waiting to lure another unsuspecting soul into their nefariously sadistic crimes. Stylistically impressive, but at the same time incredibly unnerving, Ben Young skilfully establishes the canvas on which he will paint further horrors.
Having fed their violent and sexual lust with the opening victim, we are then introduced to their next. Vicki Moloney (Ashleigh Cummings) is a rebellious teenager who is smarting from her parents recent split. Acting with both charisma and defiance, Vicki is slightly annoying, yet empathetic. Obviously, she does not deserve the ordeal she is about to experience at the hands of the Whites. The sequence which finds them cajoling her into their clutches is so tense and had me screaming at the screen, “No!!!! Get out!!!” What follows then, as Vicki becomes a prisoner, is a series of heart-pounding and distressing scenes which raise the stakes to unbearable tension. Ashleigh Cummings performance is absolutely compelling as “final girl”, Vicki. She takes a potentially one-dimensional casualty and imbues her with fight, guile, pain, distress, intelligence and determination. No surprise therefore that she won a Best acting debut award at the Venice Film Festival.
Cummings performance is not the only one which impacts the story greatly. Emma Booth’s complex portrayal of Evelyn is quite startling. This is a character who is permanently on-the-edge and desperate to please her evil partner, John. Systematically controlled and bullied, there is no excuse for Evelyn’s part in the kidnappings and torture of these young girls. But, it is clear to see that toxic masculinity has, over the years contributed to her mental and emotional collapse. Booth’s persistently fraught acting is all bag-of-bones and shredded nerves. It is via Evelyn’s imploding emotional state that Vicki is able to attempt to turn her against John’s venal influence.
Ultimately, one could say this is an exploitation film in terms of theme and story. However, it feels different than the many B-movie serial killer films I have seen. I felt like I was in the hands of a filmmaker who was determined to explore the nature of sadistic relationships in a risky, but intelligent manner. The acting, cinematography, direction and haunting soundtrack all contribute to make this a highly effective psychological thriller. Of course, there are many which may feel differently and that the film has its cake and eats it in term of violence and sexual perversion. Yet, we never actually see much of the cake. Unlike many of the films I mention in the opening paragraph, the audience only see the build-up and aftermath of the crimes. Indeed, what we don’t see on screen is more frightening than what we do. That, overall, is what sets The Hounds of Love (2016) apart from many other films dealing with these unpalatable themes and subjects.
NETFLIX REVIEW – TIGER KING: MURDER, MAYHEM AND MADNESS (2020)
Directed by: Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin
Executive Producers: Chris Smith, Fisher Stevens, Eric Goode, Rebecca Chaiklin
Cinematography: Damien Drake
Edited by: Doug Abel, Nicholas Biagetti, Dylan Hansen-Fliedner, Daniel Koehler, Geoffrey Richmond
Original Network: Netflix
“Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.” Mark Twain
Personally, I love nothing more than to immerse myself in fictional worlds created by writers, showrunners and filmmakers, but sometimes it’s important to face the “truth” in storytelling. Thus, documentary filmmaking has always been a popular genre too. Having said that are documentaries actually reflecting the truth? Because the documentary genre over the years has become ultra-sophisticated and many “true” stories are not just simply filmed documents or events or interviews. Now, documentaries are often carefully constructed and mediated narratives with as much, if not more, drama and turns in their tales than fictional works. Conversely, some stories and characters are so incredible they are indeed stranger than fiction.
Netflix churns out a lot of quality and not-so high-quality content. There is an arguably scattergun approach with subscribers paying their money and taking their chances. They have of course had some big hits. The documentary Making a Murderer (2015), prestige Royalty drama, The Crown (2016 – ) and 1980’s sci-fi show Stranger Things (2016 – ) are three such shows that have become cultural phenomenon. The latest one is the docuseries Tiger King (2020); a true crime documentary centred around eccentric, to say the least, zookeeper, Joe Exotic (not his real name). Filmed in a “fly-on-the-wall” form it covers a six-year period from 2014 to 2020. The setting is a number of zoos and animal “sanctuaries” in Oklahoma, Florida and South Carolina respectively. These zoos contain some of the most dangerous animals in the world, namely humans. They also contain tigers, lions, leopards, panthers, chimpanzees, lemurs, snakes and all manner of other exotic animals. So, with larger than life people and animals on show, what could possibly go wrong?
This series presents the very worst examples of human madness, cruelty and behaviour. Firstly, I must say that there are some decent people in the show. Some of the zookeepers do display care for the animals and make it their living to protect them, however, the documentary illustrates powerfully the institutional cruelty of those individuals who breed and keep animals in cages for money. Even Carole Baskin, Joe’s bitter rival, who runs the Big Cat Rescue zoo in Tampa, Florida, and an advocate for saving these animals, did seem to make a lot of money out of it. I guess we’re all to blame in society though as we have all visited zoos and safari parks in our day. But this is not an advocate documentary for an organisation like PETA (People for Ethical Treatment of Animals), although they certainly were able to use the footage as evidence for their cause. This, ultimately, is a tabloid expose of a world containing some of the most narcissistic and insane people you could encounter. It’s car-crash-freak-show-television and I feel ashamed to say I was gripped by this zoological soap opera from start to finish.
The leading lunatic is aforementioned Joe Exotic. He is a gay, mullet-haired, gun-toting, self-promoting, country-and-western “singing”, rage-addicted polygamist. Even the greatest Hollywood screenwriter could not invent such a character. Over seven startling episodes the series charts his rise and fall from successful zookeeper to failed politician to eventually, well, I won’t give away the ending. The other characters of the series are just as dodgy. While she does seem to be doing some good, Carole Baskin, was presented as some weird ‘Mother Earth’ type who may or may not have killed her husband. Joe Exotic’s hatred of her drives the narrative and his words and actions toward her are pure malevolence. Other big cat owners such as, Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, and Joe’s former business partner, Jeff Lowe, feature prominently throughout. Doc Antle seemed the sanest of the lot and had provided animals for big Hollywood productions, however, even his lifestyle, according to the documentary, seemed to involve grooming younger women and examples of animal cruelty.
Overall, this short review merely skims the surface of what goes on in this explosive TV show. There are big cat attacks, lawsuits, deaths, murder plots, suspected suicides, drug abuse, arson, constant threats, political campaigns, federal investigations and court indictments. It is both an intense viewing spectacle and also a tragic one. The animals kept in cages are so beautiful and majestic, it is sad that their lives are one of incarceration. The crazy thing is that they were bred in captivity for profit by the likes of Joe Exotic and then sadly discarded when of no use. Tiger King (2020) presents a truth that people do not deserve this Earth and I’m ashamed to be part of the human race. On the other hand, this string of crazy characters and events make absolutely sensational television. The biggest tragedy is the animals will continue to be prisoners, while attention-seeking people profit from such cruelty.