Tuesday, August 14, 2018

In short: The Hard Word (2002)

aka The Australian Job

Scott Roberts’s film is a highly peculiar, and pretty singular film. At first, the whole thing does give the impression of being an Australian version of one of those pseudo-Tarantino films of this era that seldom went anywhere interesting or worthwhile. However, the longer the whole thing goes, the clearer it becomes that this may be built out of the well-worn bits and pieces of any old film about smart-talking gangsters, a bit of noir, and the bones of heist and jailbreak films, yet it treats these elements in so individual a way they become things that belong to it alone.

The plot, at once episodic, straightforward and complicated concerns the brothers Twentyman. Dale (Guy Pearce) is the clever one with a big L love for his sometimes traitorous wife Carol (Rachel Griffiths), Shane (Joel Edgerton) the pretty and perhaps not terribly clever one with the mother complex. and Mal (Damien Richardson), the scruffy yet sensitive one. Right now, they are sitting in prison, but thanks to a financial arrangement between their lawyer Frank Malone (Robert Taylor), some cops and the warden of their prison, they are regularly snuck out to commit bloodless heists, brilliantly planned by Dale. Theoretically, they should get out any day now, but Frank really rather seems to like how they earn money he then “keeps secure” for them and can’t really do anything about it; he also has an affair with Carol that he takes rather seriously.

Various developments will eventually lead to a pretty bad heist and the brothers going on the run.

Because this is such an individual film, I am pretty sure The Hard Word isn’t a film everyone is going to enjoy. The immense tonal shifts happening not just between scenes but during them often are quite radical and certainly not always lead into directions everybody will be willing or able to follow. The film also packs about as much stuff (and plot) into a normal feature length as two seasons of your favourite Netflix show. It shouldn’t hold together at all, but to my eyes it is carried by both Roberts’s stylish direction that makes these shifts often feel much more consistent than they should, and an acting ensemble (Rachel Griffiths as Pearce’s complicated wife deserves a special mention besides the male main trio here) whose approach shifts right with the film while never giving the viewer the feeling she’s not watching the same people. I’d even argue these seeming shifts in the characters are closer to the way actual people are, and the film does indeed use them to emphasise the elements in its characters’ personalities that do not change with their situations, revealing their cores clearer than a more obvious and direct approach might.

The film’s humour, and its often playful approach to clichés is rather wonderful, too, often seemingly making a beeline towards the most cynical idea possible but then using various techniques to not necessarily soften but complicating this, finding moments of perfect sweetness in a film about sweary, sweaty men committing exciting crimes.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Nightworld (2017)

Former LA cop Brett (Jason London) has great difficulty working through the death of his Bulgarian wife Ana (Diana Lyubenova), spending his time at their Bulgarian country home in a deep depression. A concerned buddy has a plan to get him out and back into the world, to which end the proactive man has procured a security job in Sofia for Brett.

It’s a live-in position in an old villa whose upper levels have been converted into apartments, or so the owners of the place say. Not that Brett’s ever seeing anyone living there. It’s a cushy, if somewhat strange job: Brett’s only duties are locking and unlocking the main door and to descend into the very deep cellar twice a day to check some security monitors that are facing the darkness inside a large locked chamber (the film calls it a hangar, for some reason) that’s situated behind a large door with neat skulls and tentacles on it. Clearly, there’s nothing to worry about here, and at first, Brett actually seems to get better doing very little. He’s got a new environment to explore, he’s got at least something to occupy himself with, and the – very young and very very pretty – barista Zara (Lorina Kamburova) of the corner coffee shop clearly has an eye on him. Therea are certainly worse ways to live.

However, there’s something really strange going on in the villa. There are not just the expected peculiar noises, and that hell gate style door in the cellar, but Brett also begins to have nightmares that begin to turn into daytime visions. And once Brett has seen what looks a lot like footprints through one of his cameras and calls in the owners’ expert for this situation, an older blind man named Jacob (Robert Englund) events spiral downwards rather quickly.

For my tastes, Patricio Valladares’s Nightworld is a pleasant surprise, a horror film that feels very much beholden to the classic Weird Tales style of horror with a smidgen of Lucio Fulci I’m not going to spoil. It is, in other worlds, exactly the sort of film where I’m perfectly willing to overlook certain weaknesses as long as it understands and uses its strengths.

The obvious weakness here is the pacing; while this sort of mood based horror does need and deserve a thoughtful pace, Nightworld does meander a bit in the middle, with perhaps one dream sequence and ten minutes of running time that could productively have been excised. It’s not a deadly flaw, at least in my eyes, mind you, though it is something which will make the film not terribly interesting to watch for some viewers. The film’s not always all that believable, either: would a guy like Brett really take a job like this without at least explicitly asking if he’s guarding anything illegal and without any explanation for its strangeness? The May-October romance between Brett and Zara isn’t terribly easy to buy either.

However, while acknowledging these flaws, I can’t say they really did anything to my enjoyment of the film. Valladares – ably assisted by some cracking spooky locations and Pau Mirabet’s moody and shadowy camera work – creates a wonderful sense of creeping wrongness. And once the film has explained the rather wonderful backstory of the villa through some patented and effective Englund exposition, it also develops a neat and effective resonance with classical myths about the realms of the dead, all the while making good use of its budget (the way the film uses a large, dark empty room to full effect borders on brilliance) and evoking its lead’s pining for a lost love to thematically appropriate effect. In general, Valladares uses iconic horror images very well, with moments like the shots of the faces of the dead trapped in the villa pressed against its windows from the inside just resonating very well with me in their archetypal feel.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Three Films Make A Post: There is a cat in the brain

Elysium (2013): One shouldn't be surprised about the critical drubbing Neill Blomkamp's neo-cyberpunk movie received by mainstream critics. It's a film far too angry about the state of the world for the bourgeois set to stomach. Particularly since it's not at all graceful about its rage and would clearly love to punch you (and possibly me, too) in the face - for good reasons.
That feeling of well-grounded yet quite consuming rage the film shares with its protagonist Matt Damon (in one of his good outings) does of course also cause its final act to turn into a full-grown violent wish fulfilment fantasy with a dash of deus ex machina but then, how else could Elysium not end in absolute bitterness? Generally, even in the real world, power doesn't sit down with the people it crushes under its boots to build a better world, so I don't know how else the film could have ended. Unless you'd argue for bitter and pessimistic, in which case you could of course kiss the money Blomkamp needed for all the pretty SF stuff on screen goodbye.

Maneater (2007): Gary Yates's SyFy Channel movie is a perfectly entertaining little film about a tiger making its new home in the woods belonging to your typical US small town, eating hunters, joggers, and other undesirables. Thanks to a very entertaining performance of Gary Busey as one of the nicest and more competent sheriffs in this sort of movie, the inclusion of a tiger-telepathic little boy sub-plot, as well as of a great white British hunter with excellent facial hair (one supposes for the screenwriter British colonial India is still a thing) it's really rather pleasant to watch. Of course, originality, etc. etc.

Ritual (2013): Original isn’t what Mickey Keating’s Ritual is about either but this quite low budget piece about an estranged couple’s troubles with some Texan cultists highly recommends itself with as clever a use of seemingly low res footage as one could wish for, an idea of Americana bordering on David Lynch, and a highly effective approach to showing its doomed protagonists stumbling ever deeper into trouble. It’s a very simple story but Keating tells his tale so well and with such a fine hand for pacing only the most churlish would mind. In fact, the simplicity of the plot and the archetypal form the film’s threats take on only help make its best scenes (and there are many) all the more nightmarish.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Past Misdeeds: The Black Door (2001)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts presented with only  basic re-writes and improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

Steven (Sergio Gallinaro) is found covered with deep, peculiar lacerations all over his body after a nightly visit to an abandoned house. Following his wishes, his girlfriend Meg (Staci Tara Moore) calls in a friendly documentary crew to film what is happening to him. The doctors can find neither the cause of Steven's wounds nor can they prevent his health from further deteriorating (might have something to do with seemingly no attempts being made to close or dress those wounds but hey, what do I know about medicine?).

While Steven is on what is fastly becoming his death bed, the documentary crew and Meg are retracing the steps that led him into the old dark house. During his research into completely harmless economical history, Steven became fascinated by a man named Fuentes-Balsameda (Carlos Parra) who disappeared in 1932. His investigations finally led Steven to an old film reel that shows Balsameda's death (and short-time resurrection) during a satanic ritual. That's probably the point where most people would have stopped and dropped the film reel off at the next police station for them to sort it out, but Steven continued his investigation (and contacted the Vatican, of all things). He managed to get into contact with the only person connected to that ritual who did not die a violent death, a (as he will later turn out to be) creepy old man named Morgen (John Hainsworth). Morgen then lured Steven to the house where the young man was attacked by something.

Parallel to the documentary crew finding out about these occurrences, a perpetually pissed-off priest (Kevin Blatch) appears and tries to help Steven come through his paranormal encounter alive. Too bad he's as ineffectual as a puppy.

The Black Door (a HK/Canadian co-production - I think - with a director from Hong Kong, screenwriters from France who predominantly worked in Hong Kong, and filmed in British Columbia) belongs to the post-Blair Witch era of POV horror, but was made before the film law mandating all POV horror to be about people running through the woods went into effect.

The film's construction as a documentary generally makes sense, and - as the filmmakers seemingly are supposed to be professionals - allows director Kit Wong to use rather more elaborate camera set-ups and to shoot scenes from angles from which you're actually allowed to have a good view of what's happening. Thanks to a script that is rather clever in this regard, Wong can also dip into other shooting styles for a few scenes. There's the calm and mostly disturbingly unmoving camera in the 1932 ritual footage that gives the film's strongest horror sequence an especially realistic feel. Then there's Steven's traditionally difficult to parse shots from his doomed expedition into the old, dark (he's going in by night, just like the horror movie character he is) house that actually manage to make long minutes of a guy mumbling and filming stuff in a dark house look rather tense.

Some of the "normal" documentary footage is also very strong, going for that documentary style where the camera lingers so closely on people's most emotional moments the viewer - and of course the crew shooting - becomes something of a voyeur. In one of the small flashes of genius that make me love the film showing them, this aspect even becomes a plot point that is vaguely yet effectively connected with the way the film's initial ceremony was worked, the camera - and therefore the audience watching what it films - becoming accomplices in the perpetuation of something quite dark.

Wong is really good at distracting a viewer from the deficiencies of a script that is full of great ideas, yet also seems awfully disinterested in real world logic even in situations where real world logic should apply. Still, thanks to Wong's direction, it was no problem at all for me to believe in a world where people meet with someone they know to be involved in at least one ritual murder alone, in an empty house, by night, or where people learning about a ritual murder in the past contact the Vatican (probably their well-known ritual murder hotline 666-EXORCIST) instead of the police for most of the film's running time.

Wong is able to keep a mood of high tension up through large parts of a film where not much is happening the audience doesn't know will happen after its first thirty minutes or so are over, dropping little hints of further complexities and some quite horrifying details (if you don't overlook them) that kept me watching with more attention as I usually have for scenes of people getting melodramatic in front of a camera.

And melodramatic people get, there's no doubt about it, for the acting is of that slightly grating indie horror movie type where every line delivery seems slightly off, and where all outbreaks of larger emotions become scenery-chewing and mugging; especially Blatch and Hainsworth are guilty of the latter. Ironically, I feel that in The Black Door's particular case the slight to heavy wrongness of the acting actually enhances the film's effect. The artificiality of the acting and the perfectly believable documentary style of its filmic surroundings rub against each other and produce a friction that makes the film a more uncomfortable experience. I also can't help but notice that an acting style that emphasises the actors playing roles is a neat parallel to the fact that the characters they are playing are also unwillingly filling roles in the continuation of a decade old ceremony. Of course, I don't believe the actors are doing this on purpose for one second. As a rule, I don't think it's important if effective elements of a work of art are included on purpose or by accident; it's just important they are there.

The Black Door is one of those films where I can't say at all if anyone other than me will get as much out of watching it as I have, for the things I took to most about the film (that friction and that feeling of wrongness) are also the things most dependent on a given viewer's susceptibility to the very specific way a happy combination of creepy details and happy accidents creates a mood here. However, I can say it's worth trying to watch the film to find out.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

In short: Ruin Me (2017)

Warning: some spoilers included!

Despite being not into this sort of thing at all, Alex (Marcienne Dwyer) accompanies her boyfriend Nathan (Matt Dellapina) on something called Slasher Sleepout, an outdoors event in the spirit of extreme haunted houses and escape rooms, or those things where you pay people for getting stalked in your daily life. Personally, I’d avoid something like this like the plague, be my girlfriend perfection personified. But then, Alex’s and Nathan’s relationship seems rather special, seeing as they started when she was in a rehab clinic and he her therapist there, with more than just a hint of highly controlling behaviour coming from him.

I’m sure nothing of this is going to be important for the plot at all. Once the fun and games begin, the couple and the other victims/participants find themselves confronted with various shocks and freak-outs that will soon leave them in doubt if the horrors they are experiencing are quite as fake as they should be. Their numbers will dwindle in any case, and Alex just might have to confront some uncomfortable truths.

As regular visitors to this house of crap will have noticed, I’m not terribly fond of twisty thrillers and their ways, often finding their tendency to add twist upon twist to the state of absurdity detrimental to my ability to enjoy them. It’s gotten to the point where I have started to ask myself if it is me and not these films that is the problem. So Preston DeFrancis’s Ruin Me came both as a pleasant surprise in so far as I enjoyed this unassuming little film quite a bit, and as a suggestion that it’s not me, for I like most of the twists here just fine, and even found myself enjoying them.

There’s nothing about the film that’s exactly new: take physical isolation of characters, act flaws, some violence, a handful of doubts concerning the protagonist’s sanity, and one and a half Saw-style traps, and the script’s ready to go. However, DeFrancis (who also co-wrote the script with Trysta A. Bissett) executes these standards rather well, staging most of the well-worn tropes in play here with care and an excellent sense for timing. This does, obviously, stand the film in particularly good stead when it comes to the twists, for when you do something implausible or slightly contrived at the right time and with the right speed, it suddenly feels plausible enough to be fun. DeFrancis is sure-handed enough that I found myself at times not quite sure where exactly he was going with his plot, while the twists were still lacking the randomness that would make them annoying.

Similar goes for the characters: even though no single performance here is exactly memorable, and there’s certainly a reliance on the familiar in the characterisation, the performances are always good and on point, and the characters themselves have the second dimension they need to keep me interested.

All this may not sound like a huge recommendation, but Ruin Me ends up being exactly the twisty little thriller in the woods with a nasty ending it set out to be, and that’s more than enough to keep me happy.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Distorted (2018)

Warning: I’m going the way of the spoiler!

After losing their child in a bathtub incident - something which the film inexplicably will later play as a revelation even though having used many a shot of a sad rubber duck in an empty bathtub and having shown our heroine acting weirdly around children again and again – the marriage of Lauren (Christina Ricci) and Russell (Brendan Fletcher) is understandably strained. Lauren in particular has developed manic depression, with a sideline in paranoid delusions and hallucinations.

It seems best for the two to move out of the apartment where their kid died. As luck will have it, and because these two are stinking rich, there’s a free apartment in a highly secured, rich people only apartment tower quite a drive out of town (away from us icky plebs). Once installed there, Lauren’s mental issues are really exploding: she begins hearing strange sounds in the apartment, sees what she takes to be subliminal messages on TV and develops quite some ideas about mind control. She manages to make contact with conspiracy minded journalist (cough) Vernon Sarsfield (John Cusack) who has a whole spiel about THEM trying to mind control rich people, for what I can only assume to be reasons. While Vernon is totally trustworthy and helpful, Lauren begins to believe everyone else is out to get her, or rather, program her for murder as a proof of concept. Even her own husband is probably involved or already mind controlled.

I am usually not at all against paranoid thrillers about mind control and the evil plans of THEM, but Rob King’s Distorted just doesn’t do anything as well as many a mediocre paranoid thriller, not to speak of the number of films in the sub-genre that are actually good. At first, this looks like a not uninteresting attempt at mixing the cinema of political paranoia with the domestic thriller but once the film starts to proceed down all the expected genre lines, it becomes rather clear that the parallels to domestic thrillers are going nowhere of import. That’s thanks to the characters’ bland personalities, Lauren being the most boring person with massive psychological issues imaginable and Russell being such a non-entity I found myself actually hoping for him being not just mind-controlled but actually in on the evil plan because that would at least give him one personality trait. Alas, this is not to be, for Distorted goes for the Reagan era kind of ending where the magical power of love between married couples beats mind control. Too bad the film never actually put any work into establishing Lauren and Russell’s relationship as that strong or deep.

As for the political part of the paranoid thriller, King’s film doesn’t actually have any politics at all, lacks the anger, desperation or cynicism a film in this genre needs. THEY are just some guys whose goal seems to be to mind control people so they can mind control people.

The film’s writing is terribly weak in general, in the end shooting for a tacky “save the baby!” finale it doesn’t have earned the right to actually use.

None of these aspects are improved by King’s bland direction that can’t produce tension to save its life – or, for that matter, the film. To put insult to injury, this thing also features the lamest mind control footage reel I have ever seen, as generic and bland as everything else here. I didn’t expect The Parallax View, but I’ve seen TV shows in the 90s that handled this sort of thing much better.

To end on a half positive note: Ricci, Fletcher and Cusack are pretty okay, there’s just nothing in the script for them to actually sink their teeth in.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

In short: Dark Beacon (2017)

Warning: even though this is short, I still can’t avoid spoilers!

Amy (April Pearson) has been looking for her former lover Beth (Lynne Anne Rodgers) and Beth’s little daughter Maya (Kendra Mei) for some time, after they just packed up and left. Not that their sudden leaving is much of a surprise, for Beth was married when she and Amy were involved, and was dragged off a cliff and nearly drowned by her husband Christopher in a murder-suicide attempt based on his rather abstract notions of them not making good parents because she’s a self-involved alcoholic and he’s a coward. These mildly sordid details will only come out over the course of the movie.

For reasons, Amy finds Beth and Maya living in a lighthouse that is cut off from the mainland for much of the time. As it will turn out, the lighthouse is the house where hubby grew up. Something is very wrong there too. It is as if Christopher’s ghost is hanging around, planning to finish what he started. Or perhaps Beth is just going insane.

As liminal spaces neither belonging completely to the land or the sea, lighthouses are wonderful places to set all kinds of horror films in, be it the more philosophical version of supernatural horror, or, as in the case of Coz Greenop’s Dark Beacon, the psychological kind. The film is, alas, not a terribly successful example of its kind. To work as it should be, psychological horror does need a large degree of precision in characterisation and/or plotting. A film in the genre really needs to give its audience inroads into what goes on in its characters, otherwise we end up with something like this, where a ghost is simply the reason for a scenery-chewing performance of random movie madness instead of anything that feels like the product of actual psychological pressure.

I’m also not terribly fond of the way the film uses the supernatural, or rather, the vagueness in which it does, including scenes that only work if Christopher’s ghost is indeed real, but then letting things play out as if Beth were simply movie-crazy. It doesn’t exactly help the film’s case here that it is all too easy to read the madness as some sort of punishment for Beth’s “loose morals” – if it is indeed meant that way or not, I’m not going to guess.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Satanic Yuppies (1996)

aka Evil Ambitions

Slobby reporter Pete McGavin (Paul Morris) stumbles upon a grand conspiracy. Up and coming politician Gideon Jessup (David Levy) has good chances of becoming Governor despite wearing a porn actor pony tail because he has the help of Satan. Or rather, he is the pawn of PR firm boss and Satanic high priestess Brittany Drake (Amber Newman) in her bid for world domination. Right now, Brittany is planning on really sealing the deal with Mr Satan by giving him a virginal bride. Model Julie (Lucy Frashure) seems to be the perfect candidate, now it’s just a question of sacrificing a series of women as Satan’s bridesmaids. Will McGavin stop the fiendish plot despite Britanny’s mind whammy powers? Or will the film end in such a way that he could have spent the whole hundred minutes in bed?

Yes, of course it is the latter, for Mark Burchett’s and Michael D. Fox’s shot on video – or at least looking that way - horror comedy with mild cheesecake aspirations sure as hell isn’t interested in fine details like a protagonist doing what his name promises. Instead, Satan’s - Randy Rupp in godawful but pretty funny make-up that suggests not only the expected yuppie Satan but also a guy without a mirror - getting annoyed by his minions not bothering to check if his bride’s virginal state is actual or imaginary. Cue epilogue.

Speaking of the epilogue, it and the intro, as well as McGavin’s name and general demeanour are obviously meant to remind the viewer of a certain irascible reporter played by Darren McGavin, just that Paul Morris sure as shit ain’t no McGavin, and the writers are about as far from Richard Matheson as possible while still being human. It’s – generally speaking – not a terribly good idea to bring up actual genre classics when you can barely make a movie yourself, but at least the directors/writers to show good taste in one aspect of the film.

On a technical level, this is about as bad as you’d expect, edited with a pair of scissors, staged without thought, and too cheaply made to afford even much of the nudity you’d expect from a film this dire in other regards. That last bit is actually somewhat perplexing, for Satanic Yuppie’s  whole vibe is certainly that of a mid-90s softcore joint. It definitely is plotted like a film whose plot only exists to lead up to sex scenes and features mostly acting talent used in this area. Only most – there’s a bit of nudity but it’s really rather tepid - of the dry humping sex and women getting off their kits has been replaced by jokes that hit about ten percent of the time – I found Satan pretty funny – and little else. Note to filmmakers: you probably need something in a film to keep an audience engaged.

But hey, at least the plot setup of all rich people being in league with Satan is believable for once in a horror movie, there’s some nude dancing with a snake going on to lighten up the pretty dire Satanic ceremonies (note to directors: five people do not an impressive coven make, particularly when you can only get them into what looks like silk bath robes), and the Satanists’ one and only minion moonlights as a fire-swallower. Basically, these evil ceremonies are like really bad imitation Grateful Dead shows, with decidedly worse music.

Having said all that, I also have to admit that I somewhat enjoyed my time with Satanic Yuppies. It certainly isn’t ashamed of being goody and cheap, Amber Newman demonstrates enormous enthusiasm as the villainess, and it features at least ten funny minutes. While it’s hardly a film I’d outright recommend even to the fan of cheap crap like me, it’s pretty tolerable to sit through. What a recommendation!

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Three Films Make A Post: Every THING needs to eat.

Seven Keys to Baldpate (1947): Lew Landers’s version of the Earl Derr Biggers (of Charlie Chan fame) novel is a pleasant little Old Dark House movie, zipping merrily along through its semi-comedic tale of a writer coming to a very special writing retreat for a bet and encountering all sorts of Old Dark House nonsense (though no gorilla, I sadly have to report). I’m pretty sure this one was already pretty lightweight 70 years ago, and if you expect hidden depths to the film you’ll probably be sorely disappointed. However, old pro Landers certainly knew how to pace a film, and even how to involve comic relief characters without it becoming annoying. He also bothered to put in enough atmospheric shots and suspenseful – if old-fashioned – little moments to make this a pleasant and fun experience to watch, even today.

2 Guns (2013): If you’d tell me there are two directors named Baltasar Kormákur working right now, the good one and the one making boring action comedies with Mark Wahlberg, I’d probably believe you. This one pairs Marky Mark with poor old Denzel Washington to go through the old buddy cop/whatever routine. The result isn’t pretty, with the leading couple lacking in chemistry, a script that seemingly tries to be the first comedy without any jokes, action scenes that are competently shot yet totally uninvolving, and a cast that seems about as invested in their characters as I found myself to be – not at all. Only Bill Paxton as evil CIA man and Edward James Olmos as Mexican Cartel boss put any kind of effort and charm in but our supposed leading men work far below their capabilities. It’s hard to blame them, for the whole affair feels less like a film anyone involved actually wanted to make than a low effort pay check for anyone involved.

The Debutantes (2017): This Filipino horror movie by Prime Cruz about a teenage outsider (Sue Ramirez) with strange powers finding herself first pulled into, than degraded by her school’s queen bees and the ensuing deadly consequences isn’t any more original than 2 Guns but it sure as hell is more involving. That’s thanks to some more than decent acting by the whole of the young cast, spirited direction and a script that actually has a point and knows how to get there. Following my usual love for the local in horror cinema, I am also rather happy to report that the supernatural explanation for the minor mayhem that ensues is not quite as close to the Carrie model as I had at first expected but uses a creature of Filipino myth and legend to express thematic concerns about loneliness and alienation. All of which isn’t bad at all for a teen horror film.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Past Misdeeds: The Scarlet Blade (1964)

aka The Crimson Blade

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts presented with only  basic re-writes and improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

The English Civil War is in its last throes. The remaining Royalists, the Cavaliers - who are pure as angels I'll have you know - are fighting a guerrilla war trying to enable the former king Charles to escape from the - satanically evil wouldn't you know - Roundheads.

Despite the Royalists' best efforts the men of Colonel Judd (Lionel Jeffries) - officially a traitor to the royal cause himself - manage to capture the king. Now it's only a matter of holding on to the arsehis former royal majesty until he can be transported to the tower, which is supposed to happen in a few weeks time.

Fortunately or un, a group of especially potent Royalist guerrillas (among them an especially scenery-hungry Michael Ripper in embarrassing brownface as "the gypsy Pablo") led by Edward Beverley (Jack Hedley), calling himself "the Scarlet Blade" is operating in the area. These guerrillas are of course doing everything in their power to decimate the enemy troops in the area, and find a way to rescue the ex-king.

What Judd doesn't know is that his daughter Claire (June Thorburn) has been helping Royalist refugees for quite some time, even though she isn't exactly subtle about her loyalties; from there, it's only a small step to involve herself in the conspiracy meant to save the king. Ironically, Judd's right hand man, the deeply cynical Captain Sylvester (Oliver Reed) sees quite a bit more clearly what Claire is up to, but instead of denouncing her, blackmails himself into the Royalist conspiracy too. For Sylvester has fallen in love with Claire and has decided that the best way into a woman's heart is threatening her with exposure and then helping her out with the things she's afraid of being exposed for. He is a smooth ladies man, Sylvester is.

Alas for poor Sylvester, once Claire lays eyes on the prime middle-aged woodenness of Beverley, her heart is forever lost to him. Of course, being played be Oliver Reed in a very sneering mood, Beverley is not the kind of guy who takes these things on the chin, and again the cause of saving one mass-murdering asshole who is being replaced by another mass-murdering asshole is threatened by the vagaries of love.

The deeper I dive into the pool of non-horror movies Hammer Studios made parallel to their horror output, the more impressed I am by the non-horror movies' general quality.

John Gilling's The Scarlet Blade may not be the second coming of the historical adventure movie, seeing as it uses a period not often seen in this sort of film in a bit too shallow a manner, doing a bit more violence to actual history than seems necessary for the kind of film it is. It's one thing to decide on one side of the English Civil War to be the moustache-twirling bad guys, but it's quite another one to basically have the angels sing on the soundtrack whenever fucking Charles I., who deserves the word "tyrant" the film uses for Cromwell quite well too, appears on screen.

However, whenever the film decides to explore the more complex loyalties and motivations of its characters, and relegates actual history to the attractive background like most modern swashbucklers do for a reason (we're a long way from Weyman, for better or worse), it becomes less annoying, and more believably human. In fact, the strained loyalties all of the film's major characters except for its nominal hero Beverley have give the handful of scenes of actual physical violence much more poignancy than they otherwise would carry, and give the film's melodramatic scenes quite a bit of power. Beverley, on the other hand, is and stays the sort of boring, wooden romantic lead you've come to expect from this sort of film (the times of Errol Flynn alas being over, too), a man whose moral certainty is not based on an ability to work through his doubts and fears, but on a lack of imagination and personality, which makes him pretty difficult to cheer for, even when he puts love before duty.

It doesn't help our theoretical hero's case that Jack Hedley's performance is so neutral it sometimes becomes difficult to remember he's there, nor that his main rivals for screen time are Lionel Jeffries and Oliver Reed, both doing their best to outdo each other in intensity, nor does it improve matters that the script doesn't bother to give him much of interest to do.
June Thorburn's character is quite interesting for an adventure movie of this period (and especially one from Hammer, who weren't exactly front runners when it comes to active female leads) in that her character is actually allowed to have some agency as well as a backbone. In fact, Claire seems a much more heroic character than Beverley to me, because she actually understands the implications of what she is doing, and decides doing it despite of these implications because she thinks she is doing right. I just wish Thorburn were a little better at projecting the force of personality the script suggests her character to have; while she isn't as lacking in screen presence as Hedley is, she's never quite convincing enough, which is a bit of a shame.

Other reviews of The Scarlet Blade on the 'net tend to come down hard on the action scenes. However, I don't think that's particularly fair. It's true nothing Gilling presents here is truly spectacular, but the film's emphasis lies more on its character-based melodrama of loyalties, with the action only meant to provide the story with enough spice to keep it moving. This, I think, the action does quite well.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

In short: The Devil’s Doorway (2018)

Ireland in the early 60s. The Catholic Church sends Father Thomas (Lalor Roddy) and Father John (Ciaran Flynn) to one of the Magdalene Laundries for “fallen girls” to investigate the statements in a letter speaking of a statue of the Virgin Mary shedding tears of blood. Because this is for some reason a POV horror film, John is filming the course of their investigations on some state of the art camera equipment.

He’s got a lot to film, too, for there is indeed more than just a crying statue around. The openly cynical Mother Superior (Helena Bereen) of the place certainly is no help, neither to the young and somewhat naive John nor to doubting (at least humanity, sometimes his deity) Thomas. Thomas’s problem is that this time around, he can’t quite seem to be able to figure out how the supposed miracles are being faked, a state of affairs that is not going to improve once he and John discover the tortured young, pregnant woman chained up in the cellar, and the various atrocities committed there.

However, it isn’t just human evil awaiting the two but also the supernatural sort.

I found Aislinn Clarke’s The Devil’s Doorway a very frustrating experience. One seldom encounters a film this self-sabotaging; the worst is, it is one single decision that enables everything that drags the film down: filming it in POV horror style. It’s an absolutely puzzling decision, for there is nothing at all going on in the film that could be improved by the constraints of the style by any imagination. Indeed, the things POV horror is least good at – deep characterisation, the exploration of ideas through dialogue, climaxes that don’t consist of people running through woods or cave systems until they are killed by something off-screen – are exactly the elements The Devil’s Doorway should thrive on.

Instead, the film’s form permanently gets in the way of what should by rights a truly disquieting film about guilt, faith, and sin committed in the name of said faith. Despite more than decent acting, the characterisation is blunt and unfocused, obfuscated behind the conceits of POV horror, the lack of subtlety that comes with the form turning actual historical injustice into the usual lame shocks, and each and every scene that needs calm, space and visual as well as emotional development is made jittery and vague. The POV horror standard climax feels like the filmmakers throwing up their hands and just giving up, going for the most hackneyed ending possible.

The most frustrating thing about the whole affair is how clear the potential for thoughtful and philosophical horror film is, and how badly its treatment here fits it.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

The Lost Room (2006)

Police detective Joe Miller (Peter Krause) becomes involved with a very strange case of murder that sees the victims fused with their environment. The investigation leads him to a motel room key that is able to open every door, with said door then leading into a strange, very 60s motel room, and from there, through every door in existence. Miller soon learns this key is only one of a number of seemingly quotidian Objects (they really earn that capital letter), each of which carries its own, reality-bending power.

There’s a whole sub-culture surrounding these Objects, with a faction out to destroy them because they leave a trace of destruction and madness in their wake (mostly represented by a character played by Julianna Margulies), a cult that believes bringing all of the objects together will bring them into contact with the mind of God (that one wouldn’t be one I’d want to meet, personally), a millionaire (Kevin Pollak) trying to get certain objects together for a personal reason, as well as various criminals and sad and broken people fixating on the magical/cursed things. Miller has to get rather involved into these people’s business, and the mysteries of the Objects, for his little daughter Anna (Elle Fanning in her secret origin) disappears in the room; he’s also framed for murder.

This three part TV movie (that is actually structure like six regular episodes paired up) made for SyFy, written by Laura Harkcom, Christopher Leone and Paul Workman (a trio whose major achievement this has been until now) and directed by TV vets Craig R. Baxley and Michael Watkins, is a surprisingly wonderful little thing. Sure, its plotting, as well as the way our protagonist is written and motivated, is very much competent standard TV writing of the early Oughts, as is the direction, so in this regard, it doesn’t seem to be terribly special.

However, this relative blandness of some elements fits the series nicely, providing an effective contrast to the surprising number of Weird concepts it uses, and grounding the strangeness of the Objects and the Motel Room in the consensus reality of network-style television. And make no mistake: the show’s writer’s clearly understand they are telling the story of a rift (or rather, several little ones) in the world through which the numinous/terrible gets in, touching various people in ways only something truly outside of human comprehension and understanding can, and apply themselves accordingly. Which is a fine trick to pull off particularly since most of the Objects’ powers aren’t spectacular. The way their owners react to them sells the strangeness here more than anything, with most of them clearly at least slightly unstable, perhaps teetering on the edge of becoming unhinged completely, obsessing over the Objects – theirs and others. It’s particularly telling and effective how often the films have the Object owners saying these things are the only thing they have left, portraying them as unfit for the normal world once they have been touched by a different one. In a particularly clever move, the films never outright state or explain if the Objects seek out or draw people with bad lives and a tendency to obsess or if owning them and using them breaks people in ye olde cosmic horror style of corruption via insight into the true nature of the universe. Basically, it is never quite clear if it is the Objects or us that’s wrong.

In general, the films have a good idea of how much they can explain about the nature of the Room and the Objects without destroying the sense of true Weirdness, so we never learn what bit of the world broke and how it did, but we do learn where it is centred. The rest is a mystery, and it works better staying one.

The films have a lot of other cleverness in them too, as for example demonstrated in the imagination they show when it comes to the way Objects with minor powers might be used, or in a couple of really strange suspense scenes, like the one that is based on our hero’s ability to build a lock into a door faster than someone else can break through security glass and get to him.

The whole thing – Weird reality grounded in the quotidian, cabals that develop around the Weird, the pressures of unreality on human minds, the whole concept and execution suggesting the RPG “Unknown Armies” or mid-period Tim Powers – is pretty much catnip to me, turning a solidly made TV miniseries into something rather special.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

In short: How to Talk to Girls at Parties (2017)

As most of us know, the best way to adapt a tiny short story into a full length movie is to use a couple sentences and/or ideas and go one’s own way from there. At least it worked out for John Cameron Mitchell when adapting the titular Neil Gaiman story, taking place in 70s Croydon, after punk broke out.

At first, the whole thing feels and looks a bit like your local youth theatre group and their jazz dance friends trying to do “weird”, but the farther away the film gets from the titular party, the more would-be weird turns into high strangeness, ideas that shouldn’t work at all starting to feel like masterstrokes, or like that Doctor Who episode you once dreamed up after eating a cake of dubious provenance. There’s a musical number that will – depending on one’s temperament – either have one grinning with joy about its cleverness and the pointed way it is staged or throwing one’s hands up in disgust while mumbling something about pretentions, but I’d argue that if your reaction is the latter, it’s not the film’s fault, or rather that this is most definitely not a film made for you (which is perfectly alright, of course). I was grinning, obviously, somewhat enchanted by how the film uses the impetus of punk without aiming for historical correctness,  which would be very much not punk anyway, but having its own contemporary view on people and things. It’s also a much better film about male (and alien, I suppose) coming of age than most films of that particular genre, because it sees the territory of maleness as pleasantly broad and inclusive.

For a film directed by a guy born in Texas, How to Talk’s weirdness has a surprisingly – and absolutely appropriate - British vibe, lacking the tourist-y aspects one might fear, earning stuff like a “Doctor Who but as a fever dream” comparison.

Also, if you always assumed that Elle Fanning’s an alien, this will be another FACT to build your conspiracy theories on. Herein is also continuing proof that Nicole Kidman is willing to do just about everything if it is interesting, no matter if it’s a good career move, and will bring small moments of humanity to characters who wildly overact through their lives. And who doesn’t want to see house favourite Ruth Wilson be a weird alien?

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Island Zero (2017)

Warning: I’m going to spoil quite a bit of this nonsense!

A somewhat isolated – it’s a one ferry a day kind of place – island in Maine mostly populated by fisher folk gets in a spot of trouble. At first, the ocean wildlife around the place disappears. Quickly, all communication to the mainland cuts off, the ferry doesn’t arrive, and the place’s electricity goes down. The fishers attempting to go to the mainland for help by boat disappear, never to be heard from again. Then, people are starting to die, ending up bloody skeletons. Our protagonists – mostly a marine biologist (Adam Wade McLaughlin) with a tragic past and a theory about what’s going on,  and a former military doctor (Laila Robbins) with a trauma of her own – try to find out what’s going on and save the day, but an Evil Conspiracy™ by THEM wants to weaponize the invisible sea monsters that will turn out to be what’s killing off the populace and is up to Evil Conspiracy things.

As much as I like the idea of a successful novelist mother writing a script for her son’s debut as a director, I can’t help but wonder if an actual screenwriter wouldn’t have been a better choice for Josh Gerritsen’s movie. While screenwriting and the writing of crime novels certainly share quite a bit of common ground, the required skill sets, history has taught us, aren’t necessarily identical. Which is my polite way of saying that Gerritsen’s script is really not very good, copying the standard monster movie formula, adding a brain dead conspiracy subplot, a smidgen of Deeps Ones, and making quite a few SyFy Original movies look rather grand in comparison. Let’s talk about the conspiracy for a second: apparently, THEY have known about the perhaps sentient invisible sea monsters killing people for quite some time, and want to use the opportunity of the island attack to convince the creatures (of whose language THEY know half a dozen words) to become their military allies, offering the creatures what they would have eaten anyway before pointing them to the Middle East, one speculates, so THEY have stationed exactly one idiot on the island to pursue this genius plan. As you do.

Most of that crap is used to fill up the film’s final twenty minutes or so; most of its first hour does contain neither hide nor hair of any actual creature action, for the first two acts see (or rather don’t see) practically all of the action happening off-screen, testing the audience’s patience with many a scene of actors making their way through reams of stiff, awkward dialogue. Most of the actors involved do have quite a bit of experience – if mostly not in bigger roles – but there’s nary a believable note in any of the performances (Robins is closest to feeling like an actual human being). There are awkward line deliveries, grimacing standing in for the physical expression of emotions, awkward pauses, more awkward grimacing, and a script that clearly seems to think its passel of walking talking clichés is enough to keep an audience awake until it bothers to do something with the monsters. Which would be okay if the monster-less scenes were interesting, suspenseful or full of mystery, but alas, the best thing the first hour here gets up to is being awkward and unintentionally funny and inviting the patient viewer to a game of cliché bingo. Note to whom it may concern: not everyone can be Val Lewton.

To be fair, making a monster movie with invisible monsters that don’t interact with anything for a good hour or so is highly cost-effective filmmaking as well as genius in its simplicity. The (repeat it with me:) awkward and stilted moments of gore – let’s not even speak of the action sequences – late in the film also suggest it’s for the best the film doesn’t contain more of them. Directing this sort of thing is clearly not Gerritsen’s forte.

You have to compliment the film or its unwillingness to use a nailed-down camera, though. There’s hardly any scene where the direction doesn’t at least attempt to do something visually interesting; unfortunately, this doesn’t come off as a director with style creating a mood of dread but as someone randomly positioning his camera in non-standard ways. This results in a film that feels off in one way or the other for most of its running time, acting, direction and writing turning this monster movie into quite an example of how not to do it.

However, the whole awkward affair is very close to become something special, not so much so bad it is good (as frequent readers will know, I don’t really believe in that phrase) but something nearly using the rules of standard genre filmmaking badly enough to become interesting as an off-beat experience. It’s not quite there for my taste, but this halfway interesting state is certainly a better place for a movie to end up in than boring competence.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Three Films Make A Post: The Most Intensive Manhunt Ever Mounted!

Aladdin and the Death Lamp (2012): I usually have a particular weakness for the SyFy Channel’s attempts at low budget fantasy movies. Mario Azzopardi’s Aladdin vs the CGI Monster is too much of a failure to exploit that weakness, though. The acting – even from those among the cast you’d usually call dependable – is deplorable, the human villain lame, the CGI monster boring, the hero a wet blanket, and the SyFyisation of the Arabian Nights only makes all too visible that the film just doesn’t have the budget – and eternal TV bore Azzopardi not the imagination – to actually show anything as colourful and strange as you need to when you aim for this particular story continuum.

The Good Neighbor (2016): Well, to start out with the good, James Caan is great in this one, but then he is James Caan, an actor whose long career has contained quite a few films that were actually good (or better). Which gives little reason to watch Kasra Farahani’s moralizing, plodding, and generally ineffective thriller that suffers from a bad case of self-sabotage embodied in pointless scenes taking place during a court case after the fact cut into the plot at random, an inability to make its stupid teenage protagonists interesting, and grand gesture style moralizing that just doesn’t interest me.

If that’s your thing, you’ll also find half a dozen plot holes and a series of implausibilities (some of which the film even mentions but doesn’t manage to explain away during the court scenes – because pointing out that a part of one’s plot doesn’t work is always better than just fixing it), but I don’t think this thing is actually interesting enough to get into them further.

Tell Me When I Die (2016): Despite the mostly indifferent characters, D.J. Viola’s gimmick slasher whose gimmick is drug induced clairvoyance in the killer and some of its victims is a generally fun, usually competent and sometimes stylish example of the form that for once has a plot-logical explanation for the killer’s teleportation ability. Personally, I’d rather have liked if the film had replaced some of the slasher tropes with thriller tropes and perhaps tried to make more of the clairvoyance element but that’s really more a matter of my personal tastes than of the film doing something wrong or badly. The only element here that really doesn’t work at all is the terribly anticlimactic and disappointing ending that seems to bet on the audience for some reason the film never develops giving a crap about the fate of William Mapother’s character instead of a proper climax or final girl fight. But then, Virginia Gardner’s Anna isn’t bound to win any prizes as example of the type.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Past Misdeeds: Occult (2009)

Original title: Okurato

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts presented with only  basic re-writes and improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

Director Koji Shiraishi (in not the only moment of meta in the film played by Occult's very own director, writer, cinematographer and editor Koji Shiraishi; he actually has played himself now in so many of his movies we may see them as their own sub-genre) is shooting a documentary about a spree killing that happened a few years ago at a picturesque tourist spot. During the course of the project, Shiraishi and his small crew interview survivors and bereaved, and stumble upon strange events surrounding these people. More than one of the victims has heard voices enticing them to the place of the massacre, and the bereaved have strange dreams of their loved ones; one of them even has a new photo of his dead girlfriend looking very much alive to show.

Shiraishi's investigation into the matter soon centres on a man named Eno. The killer didn't use his knife on Eno to kill him like his other victims, but carved strange symbols into his body, telling him that "now it's your turn". Eno clearly hasn't been the same ever since. He's barely surviving through temp work, spends his nights sleeping in manga cafes, and just doesn't seem to be quite right in his head anymore. Eno insists that ever since the attack on his life, he's been witnessing "miracles": UFOs, objects in his surroundings moving on their own accord, that sort of thing. Oh, and he also hears a voice talking to him, though he doesn't understand what it's trying to tell him, or so he says. The only thing he is sure of is that the spree killing was some sort of ceremony to please a god, and - though he's not really clear about it - Eno does seem to have ideas about a ceremony of his own.

Once Shiraishi has witnessed one of the poltergeist phenomena that are a daily occurrence to Eno, he and his team start researching the symbol. Turns out Eno's attacker had the same symbol on his body as a birthmark. Shiraishi doesn't realize yet that he himself has a connection to these symbols, but that will come to him soon enough, as well as the truth about the "ceremony" Eno plans.

With Noroi and A Slit-Mouthed Woman (aka Carved), Koji Shiraishi made two of my favourite Japanese horror movies of the post-2000 era. Both are films mixing modern and more traditional Japanese mythology with the horrors of contemporary life. What I have been able to see of Shiraishi's last few films - which isn't always easy, for neither English nor German language DVD labels seem to be much enamoured of his films - has been a bit frustrating, culminating in the "girl group screeches forever" horror of Shirome, until now (I wrote this in 2012 –future me) the last film of the director.

Occult was made two years earlier, and it shows the director in much better form, again using the fake documentary format that served him so well in Noroi and would later serve him so badly when filming the exciting ghost adventures of a Momoide Clover. For its first half hour or so the film feels a bit disjointed and silly, with Shiraishi seemingly hell-bent to squeeze in every paranormal phenomenon he can think of, from UFOs, to telekinesis to blobs on the camera. But once the film begins to concentrate on Eno and the things happening around him, it begins to make more sense, developing focus and even the sort of narrative drive you don't usually get from the fake documentary format.

As already mentioned, Shiraishi is particularly good at mixing very Japanese feeling mythology (with hints of Lovecraft hanging in the background if you want to look at the film from a certain perspective) with very contemporary anxieties. The film does, after all, ask the question: "what if the cult-ish spree killers and suicide bombers were actually right and god is speaking to them?", only to then take the whole thing further and ask if the god speaking to the spree killers is actually telling the truth about its own nature or why it wants what it wants from its servants. What if their god is malevolent?

Occult also does some equally clever things with the meta elements it introduces, going far beyond the cameos of great director Kiyoshi Kurosawa and mangaka Peko Watanabe as themselves - or in Kurosawa's case as horror director and hobby archaeologist Kurosawa and in Watanabe's case as mangaka and automatic writer Watanabe. There's a really clever plot twist I don't have the heart to spoil based on Shiraishi's position as a character in his own film that demonstrates a clear eye for audience psychology, a sense of self-irony, and quite a degree of ruthlessness, and that really gave me the feeling of just having had the rug pulled from under my feet when it occurred. It also fits right in with the very quiet, and very dry sense of humour that's also running through the film.

The only element of Occult that just does not work at all are its special effects. These are just plain atrocious, looking as if the effects budget had consisted of the spare change Shiraishi found in his trouser pockets, and really ruin at least one final moment that should have been supremely creepy but turns out to be rather hilarious in just the wrong way. Fortunately, the film doesn't need the effects to be convincing for most of its running time - its effect on a given viewer is much more based on its own intelligence working with the viewer's imagination. Still, it would have been nice if someone had provided Shiraishi with the $500 he could have used to upgrade the effects from ridiculously bad to horrible.

The problem of its "special" effects notwithstanding, Occult is a film that should delight anyone interested in Japanese low budget horror with a brain. It's a film well worth ignoring its effects, and digging up the fansubs to understand what's going on in it.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

In short: Noctem (2017)

Some hacker guy – when your definition of a hacker is “someone who can plug a cell phone into a USB hub” – named Saúl (Diego Ingold) sits alone in a dark office examining the videos on the banged up cells of pretty actor Adrián (Adrián Lastra) and his pretty friend Basty (Esteban Piñero) who both disappeared a year ago while on vacation in Mexico. He has been asked to do so by Adrían’s pretty buddy Álex (Álex González), a mutual friend.

Turns out Adrián had taken to filming most of what was going on around him – there’s the POV horror mandated mumbling about a “documentary” – particularly since his apartment got rather poltergeist-y at night following his acquisition of a mysterious box. A mysterious box which will turn out to be connected to a fallen angel in need of a couple of sacrificial victims, no less. And if you’ve guessed that most of the material we get to see consists of Adrián’s and Basty’s lame cell phone camera footage, have a lollipop.

Even after Adrián has gotten rid of the box, the paranormal activity (sorry) doesn’t stop, so he and ever helpful Basty go on vacation in Mexico in the hopes that’ll calm things down. This will obviously turn out to be a pretty bad idea.

As my imaginary reader knows, I’m not at all a hater of the POV horror formula, but boy, do films like Marcos Cabotá’s Noctem make it difficult to give the form a fair shake. Turns out Paranormal Activity isn’t going to be a better film when you add a trip to Mexico at the end and mainly concentrate on male model type characters who are not gay, no sir, as the film can’t stop to emphasize – to its detriment, because these guys actually being gay would at least add some variation to their non-characters compared to other movies that are more or less the same as this one.

If you’ve seen other films of the style, you’ve seen this one too already: there are exactly the paranormal phenomena you’d expect, with a bit of cult stuff thrown in at the end, lots of running around screeching through woods as well as a dark house – the latter made even more annoying by one character going back into the house after he has already escaped. The characters exclusively act like horror film idiots, running towards every creepy noise even once they must know that’s a horrible idea, and avoiding no opportunity to get isolated from any potential help. I’m usually rather tolerant of this sort of thing, but there’s a difference between people confronted with the irrational acting irrationally and people acting idiotically because the writers couldn’t come up with a decent way to get them where they want them to be.

To be fair, among the bland been there, done that horror (and the “surprise development” that will surprise no one), there is one surprisingly effective sequence hidden away relatively early on that shows Adrián following noises through his – huge – apartment, noises he only slowly realizes come from above. Here, Cabotá makes excellent use of the claustrophobic point of view of the cell phone camera, and the basic fear of inexplicable noises in one’s own home. Too bad the rest of Noctem is so generic.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

The Midnight Man (2016)

Young Alex (Gabrielle Haugh) has returned to the old family home – the place where her mother hanged herself in front of her when she was a child, no less – to care for her grandmother Anna (Lin Shaye) who is suffering from dementia of increasing severity. One night, when she is visited by her best friend Miles (Grayson Daniel) – of course he’s secretly in love with her, this is a movie after all and the movie rule book says all male best friends of women are pining for them – she stumbles upon a very creepypasta little game/ritual hidden away in a box.

The “game” evokes an entity known as the Midnight Man (Kyle Strauts) who is allergic to salt, lit candles, and fair play, and who supposedly likes to kill people with their greatest fears. Of course, Alex and Miles start playing, and of course, the Midnight Man turns out to be very real indeed, so our heroes will have to fight for their lives – as well as listen to a Robert Englund shaped exposition dispenser – until the Midnight Man’s allotted time span in the real world is over.

Travis Z’s The Midnight Man has quite a few obvious flaws, mostly concerning its pacing and plot logic. Englund’s exposition dump for example brings the film to a screeching halt at the worst possible moment, the characters just shrugging off the plight of a trapped friend a few rooms off because they just need to listen to that sweet, sweet exposition. During this, Englund repeatedly emphasizes that time is of the essence – while standing around, talking at the characters. Then there is that whole business about the Midnight Man using a person’s greatest fears against them: apparently “I killed my pet rabbit as a child” counts as a fear in the Midnight Man rule book, as does disliking pain. On the other hand, the pet rabbit business enables the film to let its inner freak flag fly and put a very fake looking rabbit head on the Midnight Man, which sits nicely between the goofily absurd and the somewhat disturbing, a position where our antagonist’s usual outfit rests as well.

Generally, while the film’s story is sparse and its dramatic arc is not at all smooth, there’s a sometimes very effective mood of dread and the strange running through it, the director not only using his experience as a production designer – as well as a lot of clever lighting tricks - to create a wonderfully creepy house for the characters to stumble and creep through but also demonstrating a nicely developed sense for strange horror sequences that reminded me a little of a more down to Earth Nightmare on Elm Street. The film’s narrative may at times be rather rough in its attempts to mix classical gothic revival tropes like Alex’s family history with supernatural slasher tropes and creepypasta style horror but its attempt to do so is certainly imaginative and enjoyable to watch if one can just ignore silly things like plot logic. Fortunately, I can.

The film’s good side is further enhanced by Lin Shaye’s performance. What starts as a relatively realistic (and therefore rather sad) portrayal of dementia evolves into the craziness of your classic psycho-biddy, combining outright scenery-chewing with enough subtlety and actual evil for it to be entertaining as well as creepy. The young actors are solid enough, Englund does his expository duty with his usual professionalism, even provides his functional role with a bit of human warmth, and Strauts does the physical part of his Midnight Man duty (clearly enhanced, and I really mean enhanced, by CGI) with aplomb. I would have preferred the MM to not have been quite as talkative as he turned out to be but that might just be my general love for mute (well, moaning, weeping, gibbering and meeping are okay) supernatural evil and dislike for capital-E Evil that feels the need to add bad punning to its sins.

So, even though I have no problem at all seeing why The Midnight Man isn’t exactly well loved, I had rather a great time with it.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Some words concerning His Girl Friday (1940)

As you know, Jim, Howard Hawks’s classic comedy concerns a newspaper editor’s (Cary Grant) attempts – most of them immoral, illegal, or unethical in various combinations – to prevent his star reporter and ex-wife (Rosalind Russell) from leaving town and her job to marry the most boring man alive (Ralph Bellamy), whose main attraction probably is that unlike our editor, he isn’t a total prick. Or really, it nominally concerns this plot, for the narration spends as much time on – rather bitterly – satirizing the fourth estate (lying hyenas without conscience), politicians (lying, corrupt hyenas who haven’t even heard of a conscience), and generally pretending there are no cynical elements in here at all, no Mister Hays, sir.

The case Grant’s Walter Burns uses to drag Russell’s Hildy Johnson back into the fold is the sort of thing crime melodramas were (and still are) made of but the characters – even Hildy who comes closest to a person with an actual conscience here – treat the whole thing with bluff cynicism that only goes near compassion when it’s time to get the newspaper readers to weep or put one over on the competition. There’s a suicide in the film the characters at best shrug off, for Cthulhu’s sake. It’s not as if the film doesn’t know its main characters are pretty shitty people, either; in fact, this seems to be rather one of the points of the whole affair. There’s an interesting tension in the movie here. As everybody knows, Hawks was all about showing professionals at work doing said work well, generally presenting this with the true admiration of a fellow professional. So there are scenes in here, particularly when Hildy drifts off into writing trance or handles three problems at once, when Hawks can’t help himself but love her for it, even though he’s not blind to her considerable character flaws. Of course, say what you will about Hildy and Water, they do share one virtue: they very much prefer putting down the big guy than the little one, and are therefor earn Hawksian admiration as people who do their jobs in spite of their flaws.

This is very much Rosalind Russell’s show, by the way, making this also a film about a professional woman standing at the crossroads between a job (and a man) she’s oh so very good at but that brings out the worst in her and the sort of cloying conservative domesticity she couldn’t survive for year. What can we say about Bellamy’s character who apparently loves her, but can’t even understand this most obvious of things about her?

The film is incredibly good at distracting its audience from all this though – clearly it distracted the censors or otherwise nothing of this could have flown – by the sheer virtue of how incredibly funny its morally dubious protagonists are together. Especially Russell is throwing herself into the ever faster overlapping dialogue of Charles Lederer and Ben Hecht with abandon and precision. All the while, the film demonstrates her increasing departure from her future of boring domesticity through the decreasing state of her hat. Particularly the film’s final third uses its era’s love for overlapping dialogue to incredible effect, sometimes having discussions about three different things going on at once, winning comedic effect at once from this structure, the sharpness of the writing, and the sheer energy surrounding the characters.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

1921 (2018)

Surprisingly enough, It’s 1921. Young aspiring musician (or kitsch pianist, given some of the stuff he is mimicking to play) Ayush (Karan Kundra) has hit the jackpot: a rich Hindu gentleman is not only sponsoring his studies at the world-renowned music school of York, England but has also given him the run of his usually empty mansion there, as long as he’s watering the plants. But Ayush’s happiness is short-lived, for he is terrorized by a variety of supernatural occurrences that climax in an ugly black spot growing ever larger on his body.

Fortunately, destiny (as a matter of fact, Destiny with a capital D, it’s that sort of a movie), leads him to another student at the University of York, Rose (Zarine Khan). Rose is a typical movie or TV ghost seer, always helping out the dead people she sees so they can find rest, her own social life be damned. However, Rose is usually working with ghosts that want to be laid to rest, whereas Ayush’s problem really rather seems to ask for a big damn exorcism. Of course, Rose and Ayush fall in huge romantic love during the process of finding out what kind of spookery he suffers from, but will that be enough to solve some really rather intense ghost troubles?

For my tastes, Vikram Bhatt’s 1921 is the weakest in the not terribly connected series of horror movies about the misadventures of various pretty young Hindus in an absurd, yet also very pretty and atmospheric version of fantasy England in the early 1920s, a pleasant place full of ghosts but with only the tiniest smidgen of racism and colonialist spirit. This fantasy England is one of the elements of the 192x films I particularly enjoy. There’s nothing not to like about the film industry from a former colony making up a version of their old colonizer's home just as absurd as that of India you’ll find in many British films, turning England exotic. This approach is historically fair, usually lush to look at and just much more interesting than another attempt at realism.

Now, in 1921, Bhatt doesn’t do this romantic bizarro version of England populated by a couple of professional Hindi actors and actresses and two handful of absolutely terrible English language ones (how do films, wherever they are made, always find the least competent actors working in another language?) as much justice as the other films in the series do. The film is just not reaching the heights of Indian/British Gothic of particularly 1920: London, and weakening many a scene of horror by a tendency to overlight everything for no good reason whatsoever, banning shadows from a movie that really should contain a lot of them. While Khan makes a fine romantic heroine, I found Kundra a bit too one-note, using one puzzled facial expression for every emotion his character is supposed to feel. Even when he is possessed by a ghost, his non-expression doesn’t really change all that much.

The film’s plot isn’t exactly tight, with so many plot twists and flashbacks it borders on the absurd. Not all of them are terribly effective or necessary, either, the film seemingly taking a quantity over quality approach here. However, one central twist not atypical for films about seers of dead people is handled effectively, leading into a finale that is as crazy as one could wish for, with a couple of scenes of horror that may be staged in much too chipper a tone to frighten anyone but which are also so plain fun in conception and execution nobody with a sense of silly joy in their heart will ever complain about their flaws.

The horror scenes are generally neither frightening nor disturbing, yet they are – just as the film’s plot twist mania – enthusiastically realized and in the spirit of good fun. Particular favourites are the random (or is it?) poisoning by femme fatale, the ghostly inn full of bad gore CGI, and of course the axe business in the finale, a moment you, as they say, gotta see to believe.

What 1921 doesn’t achieve but what its predecessors managed is to actually sweep me up in its romantic horror tale and involve me emotionally, so the melodramatic moments tend to fall flat, more than bordering (as all intense emotion does) on involuntary humour. Still, the film’s crazy moment, its daredevil plotting and its general sense of fun are still more than enough to make for an enjoyable evening.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Three Films Make A Post: You done the man's time--now you gonna do ours!

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017): Four teenagers in detention are sucked into the video game version of the magical board game Jumanji, where they inhabit the bodies (Dwayne “Still The Rock” Johnson, Karen Gillan, Jack Black and Kevin Hart) of the videogame characters and learn valuable lessons about life while trying to escape. Actually, despite me not being the ideal audience this sort of big budget family adventure was made for, I enjoyed myself quite a bit with it, not just because I’m rather fond of the ole Rock and Karen Gillan but also appreciate Jack Black when he’s not just doing his Jack Black shtick – which he can’t, given that he’s playing a teenage girl trapped inside of Jack Black’s body. The film is also often indeed as funny as it is supposed to be, getting a lot of mileage out of playing with gender roles and self-image (seriously). Director Jake Kasdan does still have impeccable comic timing and does rather well with the CGI action, too, so there’s little not to like here. Well, apart from all those valuable lessons that are presented with all the subtlety of an 80s cartoon.

Smashed (2012): Coming to something completely different, how about James Ponsoldt’s sometimes darkly comic drama about young alcoholic Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) realizing her life of partying with her just as alcoholic husband Charlie (Aaron Paul) is leading her ever closer to a complete breakdown. She is able to begin to start to turn things around but that’s not necessarily good for her relationship, seeing that Charlie’s not at the point where he can even see a reason to begin drying out. Unlike a lot of alcoholic dramas I know, Ponsoldt’s film is particularly interested in the fact that Kate’s life without alcohol won’t magically get better, even suggesting that it’s not going to be happier at all, which gives this less the feel of a feel good movie about a woman conquering her issues, but the more real one of a woman trying to find a way to manoeuvre through life in a way that’s honest to herself and others. Apart from the funny, sad and sharp writing and direction the film recommends itself through a great performance by Winstead (who feels quite a bit more like the alcoholics I know than typical of the genre) and a handful of wonderful support actors.

The Cat Returns aka 猫の恩返し Neko no Ongaeshi (2003): What better way to end this on than with cats – some of them rather on the evil side, some not. Hiroyuki Morita’s Studio Ghibli anime is about quiet schoolgirl Haru (Chizuru Ikewaki) getting into quite a bit of trouble in the Kingdom of Cats after she’s saved the crown prince. Fortunately, The Baron (Yoshihiko Hakamada) – whom you’ll remember from Ghibli’s Whisper of the Heart – of the Cat Bureau is helping her out in a most dashing way. This is certainly one of the most whimsical Ghibli movies, still carrying one of the core themes of the studio’s output, the growing-up experiences of female teenagers, but mostly seeming to have a lot of fun with imagining the Kingdom of the Cats and all that belongs to it. I found the first act particularly lovely, the sure-handed way it characterises Haru and the true sense of wonder of her encounter with the magical in a very real world. This one’s also teaching a valuable lesson, by the way, but goes about it with quite a bit less fear an audience might not notice than Jumanji does.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Past Misdeeds: Gladiators 7 (1962)

Original title: I sette gladiatori

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts presented with only  basic re-writes and improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

After being let go from a Roman arena thanks to a very tenacious performance during a fight that was supposed to kill him for helping in the escape of five other gladiators, noble Spartan Darius (Richard Harrison) returns home, fully expecting a more pleasant rest of his life.

But things have changed in Darius's years of absence: his father - a very democratically minded leader beloved by all - has been murdered by the evil would-be tyrant Hiarba (Gérard Tichy) who made the whole thing look like a suicide committed because Dad was supposed to have ambitions on becoming a tyrant. Before Darius has even really arrived home, and has been warned off by his wet nurse, Hiarba sends some of his men to secretly assassinate the ex-gladiator. The blackguard, however, has not counted on his enemy's superior fighting abilities, nor on the fact that the son of Darius's wet nurse suddenly pops out to lend a sword.

Hiarba is a flexible guy, though, and, once he's realized Darius has the curious yet strangely plot-convenient habit of letting his sword - even if it's the only thing he inherited from his father - stick in the dead bodies of his enemies, changes his plans to frame Darius for murder, the sword standing as proof enough for the young upstart’s clear evil. While he's at it, Hiarba also uses said weapon to kill the father (also a co-conspirator in changing the murder of Darius's father into a suicide who now starts to develop a conscience) of Darius's childhood love and woman-Hiarba-would-like-to-marry-if-she-just-weren't-so-devoted-to-Darius Aglaia (Loredana Nusciak). Getting rid of a less than enthusiastic confidant, giving Aglaia reason to hate Darius, and framing his rival for murder all in one stroke is not a bad result of a failed assassination attempt, or so Hiarba smirks to himself while trying to woo the now Darius-averse Aglaia standing next to her father's corpse. In a surprise to sociopaths all over the world, that wooing attempt does not endear him to Aglaia very much.

Of course, the tyrant may be smirking too soon anyhow, for Darius escapes all attempts at arresting him, and spends the next half hour riding through the countryside, recruiting the five former gladiators (remember them?) who owe him their freedom as his own, private, tyrant-crushing fighting force. These five - the thief, the pretty one, the strong one, the alcoholic, and the bald one who doesn't like shirts - plus Darius and wet nurse Junior make up the seven gladiators of the title (even though wet nurse Junior technically never was a gladiator), and are all too capable of fighting through whatever Hiarba throws at them.

The title of Spanish director Pedro Lazaga's Gladiators 7 (an Italian-Spanish co-production that for once really seems to belong to both countries on a creative level, too) may suggest a peplum variation of the Seven Samurai/Magnificent Seven school of film, but it's not a tale that keeps so close to the structures and motives of its predecessors all of the time as to be called a rip-off. Sure, there's the number of heroes, and the ritual assemblage of the group by Darius well-known from other movies of this type. The rest of the plot, however, is more in a typical peplum vein than in that of a Whatever Seven film; there is, at least, no poor village that needs protecting.

And, unlike those other films, Gladiators 7 is strictly centred around its hero Darius, with the rest of the gang getting somewhat effective one-note character types and no character development whatsoever. Six of these seven are strictly there to have characteristic fighting styles that make the action sequences more interesting and let Darius seem like a more rounded character. Look, he even has friends!

While I prefer the slightly more egalitarian ways of those other Seven movies, as well as their interest in questions of personal morality (something the film at hand just waves away with a disinterested expression), I'm certainly not going to call Gladiators 7 a bad movie, for it is a film doing perfectly well what it actually sets out to do: using the story of one shirt-hating guy's personal vendetta against an evil tyrant to show off some quite exciting, diverse, and often shirtless action sequences in front of very photogenic sets and locations, spiced up with scenes of genre typical, competent melodrama. The film fulfils the action part of its agenda without much visible effort. There's an obvious influence of the fights from swashbuckling adventure movies on display, so there is none of the lame action choreography many peplums suffer from (alas also none of the pillar wrestling), and instead there's a lot of jumping, swashing, and buckling, all performed by actors who may not be the greatest thespians on Earth, yet sure know how to look as if they knew how to handle a sword. Which, of course, is something you expect from a film starring Richard Harrison, who has never been known to be much of an actor, but always was quite an action actor.

Gladiators 7 also features manly belly-laughs, jokes that aren't completely horrible, and an entertaining bad guy whose particularly evil brand of evilness I attribute to Bruno Corbucci, one of the Scriptwriters Five responsible here. If someone wanted to call Gladiators 7 the platonic ideal of the non-mythological peplum (for alas, gods, rubber monsters and destructible buildings have no place in it), I would not have it in me to disagree.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

In short: Big Legend (2018)

Former soldier and action hero name owner Tyler Laird (Kevin Makely) has the brilliant idea to propose to his long-suffering girlfriend Natalie (Summer Spiro) in a patch of the deep dark woods that’s completely off the grid. As it usually goes with such deep dark woods far from civilization in horror films, the place is home to a large shaggy hominid. It’ll come as no surprise to anyone but the characters in the film that the thing drags Natalie off, leaving Tyler to have a bit of a nervous breakdown.

A year later, Tyler is released from the mental institution he was apparently put in because he didn’t believe Natalie – whose corpse was never found – died in a bear attack. After a pep talk from his mum (Adrienne Barbeau), Tyler goes off to the woods again, trying to find out what really happened to Natalie.

Just because the SyFy Channel doesn’t pay for non-ironic monster movies anymore doesn’t mean people are going to stop making them. Case in point is Jason Lee’s Big Legend, a film that keeps perfectly in the spirit of SyFy by lacking any kind of originality, yet eventually shows enough of the right spirit to charm me at least a little.

The first half of the film is pretty rough, the plot taking its dear time to get to the fun stuff while not showing much aptitude for the serious parts of its plot on the way. I had a feeling of the film dragging its feet to get the Barbeau and Amanda Wyss cameos in instead of cutting from its hero’s trauma in the woods right to his return. Makely is neither terribly convincing as a man deeply in love nor as one traumatized by a horrible experience, but once the survivalist action starts, he turns into a fun presence, which is all I ask from the lead in this sort of thing.

Lee certainly makes good use of the patch of woods this was shot in, making our protagonist’s – and his sidekick’s played by Todd A. Robinson – isolation believable enough. The film is also rather convincing at presenting the survivalist aspects of the tale without feeling the need to detail every attempt at finding food, getting the feel of these sequences right instead of losing itself in details. Its treatment of its monster is fine too, showing just enough of the creature and what it gets up to, and certainly turning it into a very convincing threat to Tyler; their final fight – while limited in its dimension - certainly feels like a proper climax.

Being the kind of viewer that I am, perhaps a wee bit tired of sudden useless plot twists, I still found myself pleasantly surprised by the film’s very sudden decision to end on the set up for another movie (with more than a minute of Lance Henriksen, one hopes), doing the Marvel thing B-movie style.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Wildling (2018)

Little Anna (Aviva Winick) has a pretty disturbing childhood. Being kept under lock and key in a cellar room by her “Daddy” (Brad Dourif, starting out wonderfully complicated until the film has him do his usual villain shtick), who likes to tell her frightening tales about a “Wildling” threatening little children is bad already. Once she starts menstruating, though, “Daddy” adds regular injections meant to suppress her cycle, adding a big load of creepiness. But hey, at least he taught her to read and write and never did any of the other things men keeping little children in cellars are wont to do.

When Anna hits about the age of sixteen (and has grown up to be played by Bel Powley), she begins wilting away; “Daddy”, propelled by guilt, clearly wavering between killing her and killing himself. decides to go with himself – though, as we will later learn, is not terribly successful as a suicide. The shot does summon the authorities, though, and Anna is off on her way to learn a lot of things about the bigger world outside. She’s in luck, too, for the local Sheriff Ellen Cooper (Liv Tyler) takes an interest in her and takes her in – at least for a time – for an attempt at a normal teenagehood. Ellen also takes care of her teenage brother Ray (Collin Kelly-Sordelet), their parents being absent for reasons, I guess.

Of course, the obligatory love story between the teens develops, but there’s also the fact that Anna’s not a normal human girl, but someone, something a bit wilder.

On paper, Fritz Böhm’s Wildling has quite a bit going for it – the cast is good to decent, the pictures are pretty, and the whole thing looks and feels slick enough for a film with one foot in horror and the other in the dreaded realm of YA. Alas, the script Böhm and Florian Eder deliver is just not terribly good, suffering from a debilitating vagueness in many things. The problem isn’t only that the film doesn’t really manage to ever do much of interest or insight with Anna’s identity as a furry wood human – it certainly wastes many an opportunity to say something about the connection between Anna’s “wildness”, female teenage sexual awakening, and her identity as something defined as other – it can’t seem to find its way to ever being concrete about anything. And I’m talking vagueness here, not ambiguity or any mystical attempt at touching the numinous.

It’s not just that nothing here is ever explained, the film is usually not even hinting, so if you’d like to know why the massacre of Anna’s people happened in the past you’re completely on your own. One might guess it’s the clichéd “humans hate everything that’s different”, but none of the guys hunting her ever says anything pertinent to the question whatsoever. The closest thing you get is when “Daddy” tells her he swore an oath to kill all of her kin, but why he did that, and to whom he made the oath? Beats me. As does what the actual function of the lifecycle of Anna’s people is, or what’s the deal of the guy dressed in dead wolves (James Le Gros) helping Anna out beyond being a walking talking plot device is.
Characterisation is equally vague: why does “Daddy” change his mind about murder and suicide again? Why does the Sheriff think dead boy next to the ripped dress of a girl spells murder instead of self defence by girl being raped? And so on, and so forth.

It’s all very frustrating, even more so because you could use most of Wildling’s elements to make a damn good film – a horror film, a fantastical coming of age movie, one about not being “normal” – yet the actual film at hand seems to avoid meaning anything concrete in any way possible.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

In short: Truth or Dare (2018)

A group of pretty, diverse, yet bland mid-twenties teen friends (Lucy Hale, Hayden Szeto, Sophia Ali, Tyler Posey, Violett Beane and a couple of others) do the spring break debauchery thing the movies have convinced me all young Americans do whenever the sun comes up, which would certainly explain a lot. Lured into a ruined church by a dude with a hipster beard, they start a game of truth or dare.

Alas, hipster beard has involved them in a supernatural game that doesn’t stop once they have arrived back home. It will later turn out the game is possessed by a demon (imagine a sarcastic tone in my voice here), uses a special variant of the rules nobody has ever heard of before, and kills everyone off who doesn’t tell a truth or follow through with a dare. The truths are of course the film’s attempt at playing psychological games with the characters, while the dares and the kills look like desperate grasps at copying the Final Destination franchise, without the imagination and the black humour of the better films of that series.

This lack of imagination is the greatest problem of Jeff Wadlow’s teen horror flick. It feels very much like a film designed to grab elements of other, better films and somehow turn them into a movie of its own, without ever finding an actual reason why these elements should come together. There’s a dollop of It Waits but replacing that film’s actual insight into its teenage characters with, and turning its thoughtfulness about sexuality and friendship into particularly bland The C&W style melodrama. There’s the Final Destination influence, but without the sense of fun and mischief and without the imaginative side of the kills. There’s a grab bag of other influences – the pointless demonic possession angle, a badly stolen idea here, another there – but what there isn’t is a coherent film. There’s no insight, no thematic development, and characterisation that pretends to dive deep but never actually does.

Wadlow’s direction is certainly slick, and a couple of scenes are even creepy if taken as one-offs instead of parts of a narrative, but the director never manages to develop the flow that might at least have turned this into a fun rollercoaster ride. Because that’s not enough to annoy me, Truth or Dare is also another one of those films about supernatural games that changes its rules whenever its writers have written themselves into a corner, instead of constructing the narrative around the rules they establish.

To add insult to injury, Truth or Dare ends on a note that makes its surviving characters look like absolute egomaniac tossers and makes no sense whatsoever (see my complaint about rules above), while making absurd GIRL FRIENDSHIP! gestures.