Sunday, June 3, 2018

Finally, a break!

I'm taking a little blogging break. Normal service will return on Monday, the 18th of June.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Past Misdeeds: The Pirates of Blood River (1962)

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.


At the end of the 17th century, a group of Huguenots fled France and settled on the tropical, piranha-infested Isle of Devon somewhere in the tropics. Now, two generations later, what once was supposed to be a colony providing freedom from persecution has become the tyranny of a handful of older men with impressive facial hair under the leadership of Jason Standing (Andrew Keir, as intense as always, even though the script doesn't provide him with much to work with here). The bible-wielding elders sentence people to death or life in their own little penal colony for breaking that obscure set of religious laws known as "the ten commandments" (or something of that sort). The less bearded classes aren't too happy with the political state of affairs, yet they're still too respectful of their elders and their elders' leather-vested henchmen to openly rebel.

Standing's own son Jonathon (Kerwin Mathews, one of the better romantic leads for this sort of film) is especially dissatisfied with life on the island, thinking his father lets himself be manipulated into a cruelty that is quite against his nature by his colleagues. Rather lacking in holiness himself, Jonathon's also in love with a married woman who is mistreated by her husband, and plans on fleeing the place together with her. Alas, before the couple can realize their plans, the elders are catching them in the act of rubbing their cheeks together, provoking the poor woman into running into a river full of piranhas.

Graciously, the elders don't sentence Jonathon to death for his unbiblical behaviour, but rather to spend some time in the colony's penal colony, which, as it turns out, is just as much of a death sentence, just a slower one.

Things at the colony are rough, and Jonathon's background makes him not exactly well-liked by the warden, but eventually, the young man escapes. Only to run right into the arms of the pirate band of Captain LaRoche (Christopher "I'm French, no, really" Lee) which counts among its members some beloved Hammer mainstays like young Oliver Reed and Michael Ripper. For a pirate, the Captain seems civilized enough, and claims to be willing to help Jonathon out with peacefully getting rid of the rule of the elders if the younger man only agrees to let the pirates stay in the Huguenot village for rest and recuperation whenever they need it.

In a turn of events that only surprises Jonathon, the pirates are really in it for the raping and the pillaging. LaRoche is convinced that the founders of the colony have hidden away a treasure of gold somewhere (he might even be right), and he's willing to do absolutely anything to get it. Of course, hoping for gold and actually finding it are two things, especially when some of the Huguenots turn out to be quite competent guerrilla fighters.

John Gilling's The Pirates of Blood River is the least among Hammer Film's handful of seafaring averse pirate movies, slightly hampered by a script that sets up conflicts for its first thirty minutes it will then not bother to resolve later on by anything else but hand-waving.

The whole religious oppression angle is very much side-lined - except for two or three wavering dialogue scenes - once the pirates arrive at the colony, and is only ever resolved by the fact that LaRoche kills off the elders one by one, which sure is a solution, but not one that's thematically satisfying. On the positive side, pirates.

Said pirates are a bit sillier than in the other Hammer pirate movies, too, for some genius (Gilling? Anthony Keys? Jimmy Sangster?) decided it would be a bright idea not just to camp up their appearance, but also to let them all - except for Michael Ripper, whose dialogue instead tests out how often a man can use the pirate-appropriate word "matey" without giggling - speak with painfully fake accents. Reed - in an unfortunately minor role - and Lee - doing his evil glowering shtick with some enthusiasm and thanks to that to very good effect - seem to be trying to outdo each other in the badness of their "French" accents. Though this aspect of the movie clearly has camp value (too bad for me I abhor the concept), it's standing in stark opposition to the film's earnest dramatic tone and makes it quite a bit more difficult to take certain scenes seriously.

This isn't to suggest there's nothing enjoyable at all about the movie if you're not into pointing at especially silly pirates; this is, after all a Hammer production made in the early 60s, a time when the high professional standards of the studio and the people working for it made it quite impossible for them to produce a bad movie. Gilling - who directed two of my favourites among the studio's non-series horror movies with The Reptile and Revolt of the Zombies - may have his problems with the film's pacing in the early scenes, but once the final half hour arrives, he milks a lot of excitement out of the guerrilla warfare between the Huguenots and the pirates trying to get away with their ill gotten gains. At that point, there's little left of the silliness of the film's earlier scenes. High camp is replaced by a certain grimness that makes up for a lot of what came before.


My true disappointment isn't so much with the film's problems at the beginning anyway but rather with the idea how fantastic the film could have been if it had been quite as good as those last scenes right from the start. As it stands, the sympathetic viewer needs a bit of patience and the ability to ignore a problematic set-up to enjoy The Pirates of Blood River, but with that patience, the film is still very much worth seeing.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

In short: Lady Bird (2017)

Unlike I, Tonya the other film concerned with class that was nominated for all the large film prices last year, and about which I can only speak through clenched teeth, Greta Gerwig’s coming of age story about a young woman (Saoirse Ronan, as genuinely fantastic as she always is) growing up in Sacramento actually understands things about class. Specifically about how being part of a family of the lowest rung of the middle-class (only a catastrophe away from becoming the working poor) can feel, not just about how large parts of one’s future are determined by the class and place into which one is born but how that knowledge grinds one down, one way or the other. The film’s not exactly about that, though, or rather, the class element is just a piece of a film that talks about how it feels to be a somewhat strange young woman in a place nobody will confuse with the centre of the world, about the complications of the love of family and home, growing up, sexual awakening, and half a dozen other things.

In a highly impressive balancing act, Gerwig manages to let riotously funny scenes follow moments of great sadness, moments of the absurd those of great veracity, as well as the other way round, without that ever feeling like grating shifts in tone but as logical consequences of the characters and the town the film takes place in. The film often feels light as a feather; it comes about these moments of lightness not by ignoring depths and the abyss but by facing them, un-dramatically and dramatically.


Honestly, I didn’t think Gerwig had a film I’d find quite this moving (my heart and brain in many directions) in her, for quite a bit of her other work as a writer I’ve seen (Frances Ha and its circling of comparable themes being an obvious exception) tends to keep a wall of irony between her and her characters, distancing the audience from too much emotional involvement with them as well. In Lady Bird, the writer/director still uses irony and distance, but now it’s the distance of someone taking a step or two back to be able to watch more closely and understand more precisely.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Twilight (1998)

After having accidentally been shot in the leg by Mel (Reese Witherspoon), the wayward daughter of his clients, former Hollywood stars Jack (Gene Hackman) and Catherine Ames (Susan Sarandon), ex-cop turned private eye Harry Ross (Paul Newman) ended up moving into the couple’s mansion, living above their garage as an all-round hanger-on. Among the things that keep him there are a rather big crush on Catherine, who is playing up to it like the Hollywood pro she is, the loneliness of a man whose only child died years earlier and who doesn’t seem to have much in the way of actual friends, and a sense of being needed, even if it’s only in his mind. It certainly isn’t money keeping him there – Jack isn’t paying Harry anything.

Things begin to take a more interesting (in the probably made-up Chinese curse kind of way) turn for Harry when Jack asks him to deliver a package that looks rather a lot like the kind of blackmail money envelope you always see in detective movies to a woman. Soon, Harry’s wading through rather a lot of dead bodes, encounters shady people, reacquaints himself with old police partners (Stockard Channing and James Garner, mostly), and stumbles circles around a dark secret someone is very obviously willing to kill for.

Robert Benton’s film about elderly private eye Harry Ross taking on one last case, is a bit of a quiet joy, strolling through quite a few standard detective tropes, myths about Hollywood (this is a very LA-centric movie), and so on, while having thoughts about class, aging, guilt and responsibility. The film never presents its consciousness of older detective movies with ironic air quotation marks, but does use the structure of the genre to talk about the things that interest Benson, carefully shifting and twisting an element here or there without attempting to make any grand gestures of deconstructions. Which fits my tastes rather nicely, for I don’t believe this genre actually needs to be deconstructed or ironicized any further than it already has been in the past.

Benton is not a viscerally exciting director – even those scenes where bad stuff happens to people seem calm and subdued – and the film’s tempo is of a slowness appropriate to the age of its stars. Instead, he’s trusting in his wonderful cast of veterans, character actors and extremely competent young blood to understand and carry the ideas of his film, which they do clearly, calmly and to great emotional effect. Paul Newman has of course never been a terribly great actor, most of his better moments were based on presence and face, but he can rise to the occasion in the right movie under the right director, and Benson’s sensibilities seem to be just the right fit. Newman certainly has a couple of highly regarded detective roles on his CV, too, fitting into Benton’s work with genre history here very well.


I am sure this isn’t a film for everyone – I’ve seen critics complaining about the film being too slow (it certainly isn’t fast, but I don’t see why it would have to be), the plot being preposterously constructed (as if that weren’t exactly the kind of plotting you’d expect of a hard-boiled detective movie), and so on and so forth – but if you’re like me, Twilight might be just the right paean to the private detective as moral arbiter (or knight in shining armour, Mr Chandler, if you insist), Dark Los Angeles, and shadows of the past that certainly do not become lighter the older you get.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

In short: Die Hard 2 (1990)

Clearly, the only way to top an instant classic like the first Die Hard is to make a film that is basically the same but just a little different than the original, and definitely louder and bigger. However, Renny Harlin’s sequel still features a relatively constrained place for John McClane (who else but Bruce Willis again?) to get increasingly beat up in.

If you squint a little, you can see hints about the wrong direction the series will head towards in the future, but even though this one softens the class politics of the first film quite a bit – not so much discerning between working class and bosses anymore but more aiming for people willing to do their actual jobs versus those there only to play politics – and doesn’t really feature any of the random moments of veracity I loved particularly in the first one, there’s still quite a bit of humanity in here to ground the action. After all, how many other big loud US action movies are there whose hero breaks down crying after not managing to save an airplane full of people? Or how many of them realize that, if you want to make a guy’s wife (a returning Bonnie Bedelia with slightly less frightening hair than in the first film) a part of the film’s emotional and very real stake, you really need to show her coping with her own duress, too, which also turns her from a price to be won into a person an audience wants to see saved?

While it is completely outrageous and far-fetched, the sequel’s plot is still also well-constructed in its unfolding, playing fair with its plot twists, and not so much aiming to provide an excuse for the action sequences but making them an organic part of a flow. Things need to move in an action movie, is what I’m saying (alas too late for the writers of the next Die Hard film to hear), and it’s even better when they move in interesting and fun directions even when nothing explodes.


Speaking of explosions, I believe Harlin was at the time the second best director of big US action movies (after Die Hard’s John McTiernan, obviously), and it shows here. There’s an appropriate heft to many of the action sequences but also a sense of good fun that turns the potentially annoying smart-ass moments of the film into something enjoyable, like a corny joke told by a good friend.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Pyewacket (2017)

Leah (Nicole Muñoz) is a sad as well as classically angsty teenager. She is plagued by a bit more than your usual teenage malaise, though. After the death of her father, her mother (Laurie Holden) has fallen into a deep depression, and is teetering on the edge of alcoholism. In her state, she has certainly no emotional capacity left to help her daughter through her grief; instead, it’s anger and resentment from both sides, Leah spending much of her spare time escaping into her fascination with the occult.

Mom’s trying to drag herself up again, but her best plan for that – or really her decision, it’s not as if she’d involve her daughter in the planning – is to sell the house they lived in with the father and move to some lone house in the woods a two hours drive away from their old home. This does of course also mean that Leah will have to change schools soon, potentially losing the bit of stability and help her small group of friends – all outsiders like her – provide her with. Inevitably, the move does happen – the mother’s best offer being to move the change of schools six months or so further into the future.

When the mother and Leah have another argument, and mom says the sort of thing to her that’s so hurtful it usually marks either the complete destruction of a mother-child relationship or the parental unit realizing what she’s doing and turning things around, Leah storms into the woods and performs a ritual supposed to conjure up a spirit known as Pyewacket, tasking it to kill her mother.

In a classic case of cosmic irony, Leah’s mother does indeed begin to turn herself around and act like the grown-up in the relationship in the following days, so Leah tries to just forget about her ritual and learning to trust her mother again. Unfortunately, she did indeed open the door to Pyewacket and soon a series of increasingly disturbing manifestations haunts the house. If Leah doesn’t find a way to un-summon what she has called up, her mother might indeed die.

There have been a couple of excellent horror movies about teenage girls, their mothers, their dead fathers and trouble brought about by occult rituals in the last year or so. Adam MacDonald’s Pyewacket is certainly one of them. This particular example of the potential new sub-genre recommends itself at first through the calm and truthful feeling manner MacDonald introduces the audience into Leah’s world. This isn’t a film in the style of 50s teenage rebellion movies that’s raising eyebrows and wagging fingers at Leah and her problems, but a film that does its utmost to portray her pain and her emotional troubles seriously, with compassion and understanding. And while the film is painfully honest and believable about the arguments between Leah and her mother, it isn’t judging the mother either as simply as you at first might believe. As a portrayal of grief causing dysfunction between exactly the people who should help one another through it, the film is excellent, with the big argument that’s the turning point of the plot and the relationship between mother and daughter particularly truthful.

While MacDonald is taking great care with this aspect of the movie, Pyewacket is also very much an actual horror film that climaxes in a series of very well-weighed and pretty damn horrific in your face scenes that gain particular force by following a series of scenes which gain their disquieting power by the things they are not showing. The whole sequence with the visit of Leah’s friend is a particularly effective example here, the audience never seeing or learning what exactly leads to her completely breaking down. After that, the explicitness of the actual climax feels even more shocking than should befit its content.


Pyewacket is very much in tune with the classic weird, using thematically highly appropriate elements like the Doppelgänger motive in elegant and deeply disquieting ways, clearly making the dark sides of Leah and her mother even more visible than the more naturalistic scenes already did, but also adding an inhuman dimension to them that makes them more than mere metaphor.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Three Films Make A Post: Stephen King took you to the edge with The Shining and Pet Sematary. This time......he pushes you over

Matchstick Men (2003): A film about con men seems to be a really weird proposition for Ridley Scott, for this particular genre thrives on the proper sense of timing and pacing, both not elements of storytelling many of Scott’s film suggest much understanding of. Consequently, the – terribly obvious if you’ve seen a couple of films from the genre – con part of the movie sputters and stops awkwardly, not exactly helped along by how bland the whole con is. Of course, this is the sort of film that thinks itself rather above the concerns of a proper genre film because IT HAS SOMETHING TO SAY! Alas, what it actually does say is neither terribly interesting nor insightful, so this bit does fall pretty flat too.

I’m also not terribly happy with the film trying to get most of its humour out of making fun of the mentally ill, as excited as Nicolas Cage seems to be to play this sort of thing. Doesn’t help much here that the jokes often just aren’t terribly funny.

El bar (2017): Which is also something that troubled me about Álex de la Iglesia’s comedic thriller about a group of people stranded in a bar with a deadly virus, all Man being the greatest monster of them all tropes imaginable locked with them inside, and a really stupid government conspiracy outside. The mix between comedy and thriller never quite worked out for me not just because the jokes aren’t funny (there’s only so many times you can laugh about a hipster beard), but because the characters are comedy characters – too broadly drawn to make the thriller and psychological side of the film convincing, a decent cast notwithstanding.
As an old pro, de la Iglesia does know how to stage this sort of thing competently and somewhat excitingly, but to my eyes, this is the plot of a forty minute short film stretched out to feature length by adding random clichés about how horrible people under pressure are.


Sisters of the Plague (2015): Jorge Torres-Torres’s New Orleans set mumblecore arthouse horror film (seriously) about ghosts, possession, and relationship troubles certainly isn’t generic, on the other hand. Given the mumblecore aspirations, its slowness (though unlike with Matchstick Men this seems at least the consequence of an actual directorial decision) and the film’s general air of conscious spurning of many filmic conventions, this one’s going to be hard going for many a viewer. I got something out of it – Josephine Decker, Isolde Chae-Lawrence and Thomas Francis Murphy certainly play their behinds off, and while I found the heavily metaphorical use of the supernatural and quite a few of its moments of purposeful sloppiness (it’s the mumblecore influence, I’m sure) not much to my taste, there’s a sense of place and an air of the Weird about parts of the film that I found at least fascinating, sometimes even riveting.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Past Misdeeds: Der Würger von Schloß Blackmoor (1963)

aka The Strangler of Blackmoor Castle

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.


Former colonial bureaucrat Lucius Clark (Rudolf Fernau) has found a pretty sweet set-up for himself. He's soon to be knighted for his crimes against humanity/deeds for the British Empire, and spends his life sponging off the money belonging to his niece Claridge Dorsett (the inevitable Karin Dor) which he is uses to rent most of the castle of a certain Lord Blackmoor (Walter Giller). Oh, and he also has an oven full of stolen raw diamonds he's slowly selling off to the - of course - shady bar owner Tavish (Hans Nielsen). Because Clark's lazy, he has hired on ex-con diamond cutter Anthony (Dieter Eppler as Klaus Kinski) as pretend butler, so that everything needed for the illegal diamond trade is happening in house, or rather in castle.

Alas, all good things have to come to an end, and so Clark soon enough finds himself confronted with various problems, most of them connected to his dark past (so it's all his own fault). First and foremost, a masked man who knows quite a lot about Clark's past wants him to hand over the diamonds, and kills whoever gets in his way. That guy, let's call him "The Strangler", strangles his victims and then cuts an "M" into their foreheads before he decapitates them for extra fun and games. Then there's the fact that Tavish, the shady lawyer Tromby (Richard Häussler) and barmaid Judy (Ingmar Zeisberg) - in varying configurations - would very much like to acquire some of Clark's diamonds without having to pay for them. Oh, and did I mention Claridge's colleague Mike (Hans Reiser) and Lord Blackwood are also acting quite suspiciously? Or that Anthony's raving mad, wants to make sweet sweet love to the diamonds, and would prefer to make Clark rich by killing Claridge instead of seeing his boss sell his precioussss?

Fortunately for the blandly innocent Claridge, Scotland Yard sends its most wooden inspector, Jeff Mitchell (Harry "I'm so emotionless, I'm two pieces of wood" Riebauer) to romance her painfully somehow solve the strangler cases.

Der Würger is yet another of those non-Edgar Wallace krimis that are doing their best to emulate the successful formula of the Rialto movies; that's certainly easier to do when you have, like krimi veteran director Harald Reinl does here, a Bryan Edgar Wallace novel to adapt. Edgar Wallace's son did, after all, make a career out of emulating his father and selling his surname to the highest bidder (that frequently being German producer impresario Artur "Atze" Brauner, who is as close to one of the eccentric producer impresarios of the US and the UK as we Germans ever got), so the shoe fits perfectly well.

Of course, with the sort of movies I generally champion, keeping as close to a successful formula as possible is not necessarily a bad thing as long as one knows what to do with it. Reinl (and scriptwriters Ladislas Fodor and Gustav Kampendonk, both men of excellent names, interesting filmographies, and a talent for writing absurdly confusing scripts) is as good at producing excellent, low budgeted entertainment out of a formula as one can be. Whenever I praise one of Reinl's krimis, I mention his highly mobile camera, his talent for serial-like action sequences and the noir-like mood of the slower scenes (often also thanks to cinematographer Ernst W. Kalinke), and these three elements are again what turn Der Würger into a pretty great time.

Sure, the action isn't quite as good and frequent as in some of Reinl's higher budgeted Rialto productions, but what is there of it is as exciting as action in German movies of this period (or, frankly, any period, for German director almost always just suck at this sort of thing) gets, showing off some nicely creative touches.

The art direction also isn't quite up to the Rialto standards; fake Britain is not as playfully fake as it sometimes gets, nor does the film show quite the absurd imagination of its big predecessors. There's your standard castle, there's fog, there's a boring bar, and for most of the film's running time, that's perfectly enough to put me in the not-Britain of the krimis.

The film's other big flaw is clearly the acting. While German movies of this period always tend to the stiff and slightly melodramatic, most of the performances here are just the decided bit stiffer than usual (that might vary with the dubbed versions, of course); the performances aren't horrible, they're just not as good as the could be. There are two exceptions to that in the cast: Riebauer who plays exactly the same character Heinz Drache or Joachim Fuchsberger usually played lacks so heavily in charisma I have a hard time understanding why anybody would want to cast him as anything, not to speak of as the male lead, while Dietler Eppler may not be a Klaus Kinski, but sure as hell does his utmost to channel the great actor's spirit by ranting, raving and making bug eyes at Karin Dor, something I do heartily approve of.

I also do approve of the production's peculiar choice of soundtrack. The krimis always had a tendency to involve some of the better German film composers like Martin Böttcher and the godly Peter Thomas, but Der Würger goes one step further by (like a few other films did) employing the pioneer of electronic music Oskar Sala, co-inventor of the Trautonium and all-around eccentric musical genius. His weird, abstract electronic score probably isn't what one would expect to hear in a piece of pulpy entertainment like this (some of Sala's musical decisions seem somewhat perverse) but it's often exactly what the film needs to feel more unique than it actually is. Sala's music even turns what may be the most boring bar in the krimi genre into a place of weirdness and (slight) wonder.


Now, even though I've been pretty critical about nearly every part of the movie, I do like Der Würger von Schloß Blackmoor quite a bit, even ignoring Sala's and Eppler's contributions. The film may not be quite up to the standards of the best of the Rialto Wallace krimis, but those films are as good as this genre gets; Der Würger may not be quite as excellent, yet it's still an all-around fun film despite all of its flaws.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

In short: Black Eye (1974)

Ex-cop of course turned private eye - as well as beater of drug dealers and protector of prostitutes - Shep Stone (Fred Williamson) stumbles into quite the case. When looking in on prostitute Vera (Nancy FIsher), he only finds her corpse, as well as her murderer. The guy is armed with a knife but also swinging a cane with a special silver handle. We the audience already know that cane belonged to a silent movie star, and Vera stole it from the top of his coffin. After a pretty intense fight, the killer escapes with his cane and most of his bones intact. Shep’s not the kind of guy to let this sort of thing slip, so he convinces his ex-partner in the police to hire him to work the case, instead of the people actually responsible for investigating murders.

Because our hero’s a bit of a multitasker, he also agrees to a second case a couple of hours later. He is to find runaway daughter Amy (Susan Arnold) for a guy named Dole (Richard Anderson). Working the cases – if indeed these are separate cases – will lead Shep through all sorts of very 1974 situations, as seen through the eyes of nearly 60 years old director Jack Arnold.

The late 60s and the 70s didn’t exactly treat low budget movie pro Arnold too well, or perhaps he just never really managed to adapt his sensibilities to the new era of filmmaking. In any case, the non-TV work of late period Arnold always feels to me a bit like the work of a man who is trying his best to follow the contemporary exploitation angles but doesn’t quite have the vocabulary needed to do it convincingly. In Black Eye’s case, all attempts to depict the early 70s life and mores of younger people seem to come from a position of raised eyebrows, the director nearly audibly tutting at homosexuals, lesbians, late hippies, religious zealots, and letting his lead tut right with him. It’s often rather awkward, and could indeed be pretty unpleasant at times if not for the joy it is to watch Fred Williamson at work. Williamson spends much of his time using his nearly proverbial (at least if you’re moving in my circles) laidback swagger to stroll from slightly off kilter scene to slightly off scene as a character you might imagine to be played by James Garner in case of Wiliamson’s unavailability, flirting, pretending to be shocked by stuff my grandmother wouldn’t have been shocked by at the time – and how I love him for so clearly only pretending – and from time to time hitting deserving people in the face.


Every couple of scenes – when the film isn’t suddenly turning into a Sunday afterschool special or spends its time on a slow motion romance montage you gotta see to believe and which incorporates a nearly naked Williamson and later a tandem  – Arnold gets up to more timeless things. The handful of action scenes are mostly spirited and fun, and demonstrate that Arnold still had his old directing chops and just didn’t really warm to his material. Still, if you’re interested in the bodies of work of Arnold and/or Williamson, or want to see a 70s private eye film with a black lead that isn’t really a blaxploitation film, this one has enough good moments to be worth your while.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The Wailing (2016)

Warning: there are most certainly spoilers ahead!

Original title: 곡성 (gok-seong)

Jong-goo (Kwak Do-won) is a small-time copper in a village in the countryside in South Korea. He’s a bit lazy, and a bit ridiculous, but probably a generally decent human being, a combination quite a few of us might encounter when looking in the mirror.

His peaceful life, as well as that of everyone else in the village, will take a disturbing turn when a series of murders strikes the town. Always, a family member seems to go crazy and kill everyone they love, themselves ending up like a surviving character in a Lovecraft story. Nobody knows why this is happening. Could it be an illness? The result of a psychotropic mushroom tonic? Or is it, as some of the village men with lynch mob ambitions believe, some kind of curse brought by the Japanese – we all know how well-hated they are in Korea – man (Jun Kunimura) living in a cabin in the woods?

Even the naturally passive Jong-goo will have to take sides and make decisions once his little daughter Hyo-jin (Kim Hwan-hee) shows some of the symptoms the killers tend to start with, and there is really no guarantee whatsoever his decisions will be good ones.

After my third viewing of the film, I’m still not quite sure if I really understand what’s going on in Na Hong-jin’s masterful The Wailing. There are two main interpretations of what’s happening in the film, but there’s also a conscious ambiguity to some of the film’s facts that makes neither of these interpretations a hundred percent convincing, leaving a disquieting gap in a viewer’s understanding. While it certainly has elements that can be described as plot twists, this is not at all a film about plot twists.

This is all too befitting a movie among whose thematic main concerns stands the encounter of day-to-day people with a series of events that always seem to slip out of their grasps, full of hints and explanations that suggest solutions that in turn only open up new questions and disturbing ideas; it doesn’t help here that our protagonist and the people surrounding him – like a lot of us - are not at all comfortable with looking at their own preconceptions and prejudices. In the end, everyone in the film falls back first on violence, then on evoking an authority that can have no power at all over the things going on in the film, a broken Jong-goo ending the film mumbling about his power of fixing everything by being a cop (with the added irony that he never was a respected or good policeman anyway) being the obvious example.

Some of The Wailing’s ambiguities are certainly made greater for a Western viewer like me through a simple lack of cultural knowledge. While I have by now (movies are educational, son) developed a working understanding of certain details of South Korean cultural mores and ghostly lore, the film does contain some elements a Korean audience will pick up on much clearer, with at least two folkloric monsters (three cock crows as a plot element are generally an obvious hint towards folklore) about whom I had to do some exciting internet research before the penny dropped. The thing is, even once you’ve read up on things, the film’s ambiguities are never completely solved, things never quite making sense in a way that felt truly disquieting to me (and curiously close to the pretty Western idea of the Weird). The film seems to argue that there is simply a limit to human understanding of the basic rules of the world he’s living in, and that attempts to bridge these gaps between the human and the other are doomed to end in horrible consequences.

At the same time, there’s also a rather explicit sort of Christian theological explanation to what is going on, though this explanation might only exist because we experience an important scene through the eyes of a Catholic priest-in-training who will tend to read what he experiences through this specific filter. In this reading, The Wailing is a film about characters punished for their sins, Old Testament style. However, their punishment for these sins starts before they have even committed them, and at least some of their sins are indeed caused by their pre-punishment. This too is a pretty disquieting world view that tonally fits the more cosmicist interpretation curiously well. They do at least have the unknowable nature of things and their deep inhumanity (or should that be anti-humanity) in common.

This probably makes The Wailing sound like a very heady film that reaches most of its disquieting power through ideas, a film that’ll bore everyone going into a horror film for more visceral thrills. However, there’s rather a lot of the more explicit stuff in the film too. The movie, at nearly two and a half hours of length, does take a little time to get there, but the build-up is absolutely necessary to give later scenes the heft they need, until the film’s last forty-five minutes or so turn into the stuff of nightmares. Nightmares realized by Na just as well as the film’s humorous, even a little whacky, and certainly strange beginning.


The atmosphere of dread and horror Na builds is incredibly dense, even before the most horrible scenes of the film come to pass. There are a couple of scenes staged so well, and with so much off-handed style, I found myself thinking about them for weeks after watching; I also found myself thinking about the film’s ideas and the disquieting ideas about the nature of our world it suggests. I don’t know many films that touch both on the visceral and the cerebral quite as well as The Wailing does. It’s the sort of film that reminds me of everything I love about horror, weird fiction and philosophy and makes me think about the world it describes – what better compliment could I make a movie?

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

In short: Molly’s Game (2017)

Failed freestyle ski Olympic skier Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) finds her true profession when she first helps a vile Hollywood producer run a high-stakes poker game just this side of being illegal gambling, and then turns it into her own. Apparently, the FBI has some problems with this sort of thing, particular when organized crime sits at the table.

The directorial debut of – much beloved though not necessarily by me – screenwriter Aaron Sorkin is an interesting example of the dangers of basing your film not just on “a true story” but on an actual memoir about said “true story”. So if that memoir/”true story” has an incredibly obnoxious Frank Capra ending, your film is going to get one too, even if it tonally doesn’t fit what came before at all. Though, to be fair, I can’t imagine many films this particular ending would fit with.

Other problems are that Jessica Chastain’s Molly Bloom is just a bit too perfect, too nice for what she’s actually doing and a bit too likeable for the film ever to sell her tale as anything but a cinematic fairy-tale about a woman who is done wrong despite her being super-awesome. Even when she steals the producer’s game she’s in the right, the way the film tells it. I could have gone without the Freudian bullshit between her and her psychoanalyst Dad (Kevin Costner!), and the film’s dubious general ideas about psychology too.

There’s quite a bit to like here, though. More often than not, Sorkin does a pretty decent visual Scorsese – circa Goodfellas – imitation. The film’s certainly not boring to look at, and keeps moving along at a merry pace, despite a two hour plus running time.

The dialogue is fun and clever - if, in typical Sorkin style, bereft of any concept of different people having different patterns of speech - while the cast doesn’t just include the always excellent Chastain (who by the way off-screen-monologues with the best of ‘em) and Costner in a good mood, but also Idris Elba (getting some quality expressive shouting time in), Michael Cera (finding his inner creep), and a horde of other good people doing good work.


All this adds up to a film that’s neither as good in the mildly horrifying “quality cinema” kind of way it is clearly aiming for, nor actually saying terribly much about the state of America as it seems to think it does, but that is certainly worth spending an evening with, even if it is only to enjoy the actors strutting their stuff and looking at the pretty pictures.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Baskin (2015)

Warning: spoilers are an inevitable fact of life!

A group of Turkish policemen (Görkem Kasal, Ergun Kuyucu, Muharrem Baryrak, Fatih Dokgöz and Sabahattin Yakut), most of whom are thugs or at least the sort of cop letting their colleagues work out their inner thugs without protest, receive a call that sends them out to a house in very curious rural area. They are confronted with a terrible ritual in a place and time where the borders between our world and one much worse have grown rather thin. But even before they have arrived at the house, the world seems to shift around them, time and place twisting and turning into nightmares that may not offer escape for any of them.

Turkish director Can Evrenol’s Baskin – based on an earlier short film – is quite the film, as close to the recreation of a nightmare (inside of a nightmare inside of a nightmare, and so on) as possible. Even right at the start, when the plot hasn’t arrived at the point where it will actually show anything supernatural or simply horrifying, the director puts quite a bit of effort into creating a feeling of wrongness and weirdness. Some characters show frays at their edges the situation – or simple digestion problems – don’t quite seem to justify. Colour schemes, camera angles, music, and the disquieting way the camera doesn’t show the faces of certain characters seems to suggest doom, dread and create distrust in the reality of anything we see, until the simple act of meat cutting to appropriately sinister music takes on a sinister undertone, a suggestion of one isn’t quite sure what, only that it can be nothing good, healthy, or sane.

The sense of disquiet Evrenol creates is only further increased by strange jumps in time and place that leave the viewer asking if it is the film as one first assumes or the characters jumping around; the way the talk between one of the cops and his foster son seems to concern dreams, omens and the supernatural quite a bit more than fits the tough guy postures of their colleagues. The film keeps this sense of the high Weird even once the policemen have descended into cellar of a lonely house and have become the unwilling participants of a ritual that contains rather more – inventive and excellently unpleasant - gore and torture than films this heavy on an atmosphere of dread (when they’re not made by Fulci and the other typical Italian suspects at least) usually show, keeping the feeling of the ritual as disquieting as it is brutal. Not a little feat once you’ve realized that most of this latter part in actuality only consists of a bunch of people out of a 90s metal video doing metal video stuff to one another in some ruined cellar. The thing is – Baskin never feels that way at all, but really comes very, very close to the feeling of the never-ending living nightmare its content is supposed to be.

Even the slowness of Baskin’s early phases – about the only element of the film I can see anyone reasonably criticizing – fits the idea of a nightmare perfectly, leaving the audience without the crutches of a more conventionally thrilling first half while still building (and building) a feeling of wrongness. And while I can’t say I was terribly surprised by the film’s ending, I don’t think feeling surprised by it is really the point here; rather, the film seems to delight in confirming the audience’s worst fears.


All in all, Baskin is a fantastic achievement that anyone who likes their horror on the atmospheric yet gory side needs to see.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Three Films Make A Post: From his French maid, he got Private Lessons. Now his English professor is giving him a REAL education.

Croupier (2008): Despite making the British gangster movie early on in his career with Get Carter, director Mike Hodges’s career has had a strange stop and start structure – with more stops than starts – with a small number of films which tend to range wildly in quality. Croupier is fantastic, though, shot by Hodges in seemingly simple pictures, very much focussed on Clive Owen (in a fantastic performance) as a man who is nearly devoid of all actual humanity and ends up losing the bit of it he has. All the  while, the films is pretending it is a happy (or at least light) end. The film is based on a script by Paul Mayersberg that is a study of absences – the protagonist’s lack of actual human connection, the lack of scruples of the characters he interacts with, and much more philosophical voids that seem to be embodied in the roulette wheel.

Blame! (2017): Going by the productions they buy and co-produce, the Japanese arm of Netflix is on pretty good terms with Tsutomu Nihei, so this neat one-shot anime based on one of Nihei’s early manga doesn’t come as a surprise, exactly. The budget’s probably only on the level of an OVA, but the Nihei-based designs of a weird, techno-biological future city out of control are as wonderful to look at as in Nihei’s manga, and while the plot isn’t exactly deeply memorable (which fits well with the original too), it does bring standard anime and weird far future SF elements together effectively. Certainly well enough to carry ninety minutes of Nihei’s designs, action, and melancholia for a lost future.

The Hidden (1987): This is a veritable classic that crosses SF horror, action movie and cop buddy movie in what I believe to be director Jack Sholder’s finest hour. The script (by Jim Kouf) is deceptively clever in building up the tale of the body hopping sociopathic alien with the loud taste in music, hiding a surprising amount of thought about the nature of civilisation and humanity under a wonderful escalation of violence and craziness, sardonic – violent - humour and an (actually very controlled) anarchic surface.

Sholder always was at least an ultra-competent craftsman, and when a script gave him the opportunity – as this one did – to really dig into crazy action movie stuff, weirdness, and hidden cleverness, things can turn out rather special, with nary a boring or stupid second on screen, particularly not in the moments when the film pretends to be stupid. It’s what the professional blurb writer would call a rollercoaster ride of excitement, and for once, blurbese is just the right language to use.


As a bonus, we get  Michael Nouri, Kyle MacLachlan at the peak of his curious, pretty, alienness (always feeling a bit like a Lynch character, if Lynch was involved in a project or not), and a cast of strong character actors, often playing the alien.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Past Misdeeds: With Death On Your Back (1967)

Original title: Con la muerte a la espalda

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.


A gang of international evil-doers has invented a drug that can be used to provoke completely innocent members of the military into pushing the Big Red Button that would loose the Big One. Does it show I'm so old I even remember the Cold War?

Anyway, that drug may not sound all that useful to you or me (for what good is destroying the world, really, unless you're an insane cultist of some eldritch god?), but "the third power" we will certainly not call China (oops) is very interested in acquiring it.

Fortunately, our international evil-doers make a very public test run of their drug, giving one of those professors of every discipline you often find in these films enough data to develop an antidote against it. For once, the Americans and the Russians (as represented by agents called - I kid you not - Bill and Ivan) are of one mind, and are even willing to share the antidote with each other, if with gnashing teeth.

For some reason, the good guys ship the Professor and his assistant Monica (Vivi Bach) off to Hamburg, where he is supposed to give a suitcase containing the antidote and/or the formula for the antidote to the proper authorities during some rich woman's party. Of course, the international evil-doers get wind of this particularly useless plan – unless this takes place in a world without any telecommunications - and gun down the Professor. If not for the intervention of suave/smarmy thief Gary (George Martin) who just happens to be a sucker for beautiful women and suitcases containing valuables, they'd be able to kill Monica and steal the suitcase too.

Having acquired Monica and the suitcase, Gary isn't quite sure what to do with them - sell them on to the Chinese? The Russians? The Americans? Be a gentleman thief and protect Monica? Treat her like an actual human being? It would be nice if our hero (or not) had some time for further deliberation, but each and every faction who knows about Monica and the suitcase wants to capture, kill or buy him, leaving the poor jerk hardly a second to breathe or put the (horrible) moves on women. What's a thief to do?

It has always been one of the pleasures of the Eurospy genre for me to encounter unexpectedly fun films like With Death On Your Back. Its director Alfredo Balcázar is one of those workhorses who spent much of their career during the 60s and 70s churning out films in the popular genres of the day, trying their best to craft fun movies out of clichés, pieces taken from other movies, and actual talent. In Balcázar's case, a lot of his work took place in the Spaghetti (or is it Paella in this case?) Western, but I have to admit I don't remember having seen a single one of them, which may either speak against their quality, my memory, or my knowledge of European genre films of the 60s and 70s.

Be that as it may, With Death On Your Back seems to be the director's only Eurospy film, which is a bit of a disappointment given how entertaining the film is. Sure, much of what happens on screen is the usual mixture of a suave/jerk-y (why do these words seem to be synonymous to me by now?) hero charming the ladies in improbable ways, punching goons in the face (or whatever other body parts look most punchable), and going through various chase sequences to acquire and keep a McGuffin, but Balcázar just as surely knows how to make the generic just pretty darn fun.

For me, the light variant of the Eurospy movie to which With Death certainly belongs has a lot in common with the comedy genre. Both don't thrive as much on originality as on an ability to make the well-known and expected feel new and exciting, and both genres often survive problematic plotting through the timing of their delivery. Balcázar's movie is nothing if not good at timing and pacing, letting hardly a second go by that doesn't have something exciting happen in it, never stopping for longer than a joke or a kiss until its hero stumbles into the next punch-up or the next chase, keeping the audience hooked through breathlessness and - always an important factor in a genre movie - a willingness to entertain that makes it easy to just overlook minor flaws like the fact that the scriptwriters don't always seem to realize Hamburg is situated in Northern Germany and not in Bavaria or the silliness of most everything going on.

Balcázar is helped in his endeavour of keeping the audience away from thinking about plots, plot holes and other dumb stuff like that by an ultra-generic - or archetypal - soundtrack by Claude Bolling that's just bound to swing things along, a cast - also featuring Rosalba Neri and a very unexpected Klausjürgen Wussow as mid-level baddies - that has no problems at all to go with the silliness instead of against it (there is, as you probably know, not much worse than an actor trying to be all thespian-like in what is basically an adventurous romp), and some very decent stunt work.


Plus, there's a scene documenting the eternal struggle between earthbound human and small plane (hello, Mister Hitchcock), guest starring machine pistols, so what's not to like?

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Verónica (2017)

Warning: I am going to spoil parts of the ending!

Madrid 1991. When fifteen year old Verónica (Sandra Escacena doing a pretty perfect job with the role) isn’t going to Catholic school, she’s the replacement mom for her three younger siblings. It’s not that their mother is completely absent or neglecting her kids on purpose, but after the death of her husband, she has had to take on dire hours running a bar, leaving little mental and physical capacity for the other fulltime job of running her family. Which of course doesn’t change the fact that Verónica’s clearly missing out on space and time for not being a grown-up herself.

Verónica’s not the kind of girl who’ll let her little kid brother and sisters down, so her only tiny rebellion consists in an interest in the occult – or really, the bit of the occult you can learn about by buying one of these cheap weekly magazine “encyclopaedias” about them (personally, I remember buying similar stuff about the blues and classical music). When a solar eclipse is coming around, Verónica, her best friend and a girl who is clearly Verónica’s competition for the best friend role sneak down into the cellar of their school for a bit of a ouija séance to contact Verónica’s father. Something goes very wrong indeed during the séance, though Verónica doesn’t seem to be able to remember what exactly happened. In any case, her friends – such as they are – shun her afterwards.

Worse still, the séance seems to have opened a door to something very malevolent that is now following Verónica and threatening her and her siblings. The kid doesn’t have much of a support network to help her either. Her mother’s pretty much useless, so there’s only a strange, blind nun (Consuela Trujillo) and the cheap occult encyclopaedia to help her out. That just might not be enough.

As a guy who was fifteen in 1991, with a dead father and a single mum, I can relate to Paco Plaza’s Verónica rather well, even though I didn’t have to care for any siblings, and my part of Germany is more laid back protestant than Catholic. Also, there has been a decisive lack of non-metaphorical ghosts and hauntings in my life. There’s a great feeling of veracity to the film, its portrayal of the period shaped by what feels very much like lived experience; not a product of nostalgia so much as an attempt to show how environments shape experience. This is supposedly based on a true story, but as the narrative unfolds, the supernatural threat is really an embodiment of all of Verónica’s fears, the feeling of grief for her father, an outsider’s desperate clinging to the only real friend she has, as well as the usual teenage malaise even those teens suffer under who don’t have to carry the weight of a whole family.

If a viewer wants, she can even explain most of the supernatural occurrences as products of Verónica’s mind, but some of Plaza’s directorial decision late in the film consciously block this reading from being completely correct. The supernatural isn’t a metaphor, but all of Verónica’s fears and problems externalised and made real in the world of the film, all the nagging big and little things turning nasty. So when the interior rot she feels suddenly presents itself outside of her, under her family’s mattresses, it’s an example of one of the oldest and best moves in the horror playbook: fears turning into something tangible and deadly.

Speaking of deadly, Verónica is an excellent example of horror filmmaking that manages to be ruthless without having much of a body count, winning its tension by making the lone death that happens desperately important as well as terribly unfair. For while one could read the movie as Verónica being punished for transgressing through her use of the ouija board, Plaza plays it very much as Verónica being punished for nothing that’s at all the fault of a teenage girl, the things she has no control over whatsoever: her loneliness and having to carry the load of a grown-up.

All this is packaged as a highly effective horror film that uses a lot of the elements you find in most mainstream horror productions right now. However, Plaza uses the style in very careful ways, timing jump scares and figures lingering in the background exceedingly well. The director always keeps in sight what the louder moments of the film actually mean for the characters, finding a thoughtful middle between some very creepy moments – Plaza makes a lot out of the supernatural invading intimate spaces and actions - and those that are more disquieting through their implications about the inner life of our protagonist.


Plaza also keeps in mind the age of his characters, so Verónica’s final fight against what threatens her and her siblings is done via crap found in that magazine encyclopaedia, drawings made by a four year old, and no help by any theoretically responsible adults. That the film ends how it ends seems practically inevitable, but because of the way Verónica tells its tale, I also felt much sadder about it than most horror films make me.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

In short: Contraband (2012)

Once, Chris Farraday (Mark Wahlberg), was the best smuggler there was. By now, he has retired to the more bourgeois wife (Kate Beckinsale) and kids stuff, working as the owner of a security tech firm. Unfortunately, his wife’s little brother Andy (Caleb Landry Jones) is attempting to step into his old comfy smuggling shoes, which works well enough until he has to drop a load of drugs into the sea to avoid it and him falling into the hands of the coast guard. Not surprisingly, Tim Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi), the guy whose drugs these were, isn’t at all happy. Why, he’s giving Andy only a couple of days to come up with quite a bit of money. Otherwise, Andy’s dead, and going by Briggs’s logic, his debts will fall on his wife and her family.

Because he can’t find any other way to come up with the money, and because he’s certainly not going to let his brother in law get killed by a raving lunatic, Chris decides to make one last big smuggling run. It’s the sort of smuggling run where whatever could go wrong does indeed go wrong, so he has to fight the vagaries of a really rude ship’s captain (J.K. Simmons doing his thing), work with unreliable contacts, take part in an impromptu armoured car assault, and so on and so forth. That’s all before we come to various betrayals on the home front, mind you.

Baltasar Kormákur’s Contraband is the sort of everything and the kitchen sink thriller that you’ll either loathe with a passion for its various crimes against plausibility and coherent writing or sort of enjoy because it is decently entertaining for what it is. It is certainly a film absolutely disinterested in emphasizing the more interesting parts of its narrative - which could turn this into a gut-wrenching film about betrayals, people falling back to their worst selves in case of danger, and the inability to ever escape the past – in favour of spending most of its time adding one bizarre complication after the other, with a side-line in a particularly yawn-inducing version of ye olde family under threat subplot.

As a member of the order of forgettable popcorn cinema, thriller division, the film isn’t without merit, though, for while only very few of the complications in the path of Marky Mark (who makes all the facial expressions a serious actors makes when tasked with a silly thriller, don’t you worry, and only half phones his performance in) make much sense, there’s something to be said to the film’s repeated shrugging of its shoulders, mumbling “whatever”, and throwing a quick security van heist or whatever other nonsense just came to mind in. It is certainly never boring, though not quite coherent enough in tone, style and pacing to be as fun as it could be. The regular popping in with the indignities Beckinsale’s character has to go through doesn’t help with the latter much, particularly since the film never gives her anything more to actually do than be the helpless wife. And I’ve seen more interesting examples of those too.


Ribisi and Ben Foster as Wahlberg’s traitorous best friend put some enthusiastic efforts in, at least, and the action is competent and fun enough to watch. Just don’t expect to remember anything about Contraband a couple of weeks after you have seen it.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

In short: Crooked House (2017)

On paper, Gilles Paquet-Brenner’s Agatha Christie adaptation of one of her more interesting books even for a Christie-sceptic like myself should be right up my alley. It does, after all consist of pretty yet excellent actors like Max Irons, Stefanie Martini, Glenn Close and Christina Hendricks broadly strutting their stuff in front of sets so stylized to be of the 50s your eyeballs might melt and you might just feel they have nothing at all to do with the actual feel of the era the director looks at here. It also features show-off camera tricks that’d make young Brian De Palma blush or (gasp) request moderation. But in practice, I had little joy with the thing, for this isn’t a case of style as substance but a film akin to watching a director you’re really not terribly into masturbate to his own image for two hours straight. There’s little emotional or thematic point to anything going on here, apart from the usual suggestion that the rich are vile, pretty, and spend all their time getting their outfits in photogenic shapes. Instead of having much at all to say, the film is just a parade of loud but empty gestures that never add up to much, and while it is pretty to look at, it’s the prettiness of a particularly empty head. While there’s a surfeit at excellent actors on screen, there’s only so much anyone can do when asked to inhabit an empty shell.

The mystery is probably well-constructed (though the “shocking twist” is neither well realized by the film nor terribly shocking for anyone who has seen a horror movie or three), but at about half of the film’s running time, I found myself encountering a very typical feeling when it comes to me and traditional manor house mysteries: the realization that I not only didn’t care which of these high-strung arseholes killed their arsehole pater familias, but was hoping for the rest of them to be killed off too right quick (spoilers: not much joy there). Which probably isn’t the kind of emotional involvement the thing is going for, but a boy must distract himself somehow when a film’s aesthetics are quite this pointlessly tacky, and there’s no intellectual stimulation to be had by it either.


So this turns out to be pretty much the film I unfairly expected Brannagh’s Murder on the Orient Express to be.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Body Bags (1993)

The Showtime TV movie Body Bags is a horror anthology in the classic style, featuring three independent stories, the first two directed by the great John Carpenter, the other one by the sometimes great Tobe Hooper, connected by a framing device in which Carpenter himself gives a somewhat dead looking guy the film credits as The Coroner and presents the tales cracking jokes that’ll make the Crypt Keeper look funny.

Tale number one, “The Gas Station”, concerns the misadventures of psych student Anne (Alex Datcher) working the night shift at the titular establishment. She has to cope with bad luck, strange customers, and a serial killer. It is the simplest story of the three, the sort of thing Carpenter could probably direct in his sleep, but it’s made with the slick hand of an old pro, and while it certainly isn’t Halloween, it is a fun way to get the audience in the right mood for the rest of the film.

The second segment, “Hair”, is the mandatory comedy bit, but unlike most comedy segments of horror anthologies, it is indeed funny. It tells the sad and tragic tale of one Richard Coberts (Stacy Keach), whose once copious mane of hair has begun to thin considerably – so much so that the word “bald” is beginning to rear its ugly head. Desperation and ridiculous attempts at solving his problem culminate in Richard following a TV advert into the hands of the conspicuously named Dr. Lock (David Warner) and his lovely assistant (Debbie Harry) whose treatment does indeed work wonders on Richard’s head. Unfortunately, it might not exactly be hair he now has to cope with.

“Hair” is probably the high point in Carpenter’s career as a comedy director, at least in so far as it is indeed funny (though how funny for those of you who aren’t middle-aged guys losing their hair like Richard and I, I’m not sure), has a friendly satirical edge and features a wonderful turn by Keach that gets the desperate ridiculousness of getting upset over hair, and the way this stands in for the fear of mortality absolutely right, while being very funny indeed.

Tobe Hooper’s segment “Eye” tells the tale of minor league baseball pro Brent Matthews (Mark Hamill). Mark’s always just on the verge of breaking into the majors (with probably his latest and last chance coming up soon), but things never quite go his way. At least, he’s happily married to Cathy (Twiggy), and seems a pleasantly down to earth guy. When he loses an eye in an accident, he agrees to undergo an experimental full eye transplant. As we all know, that sort of thing always leads to the new eye owner either seeing dead people or terrible visions from the life of the former eye bearer. It’s the latter in Brent’s case, with the added complication that he’s also increasingly being infected by quite a bit of the former owner’s mental state. That’s particularly unfortunate since the man in question was a serial killer and necrophiliac. Even worse, Cathy looks rather a lot like the killer’s type.

This last story is a properly nasty bit of short horror, with terrible things happening to perfectly nice people for no good reason whatsoever. Hooper uses his penchant for the grotesque particularly well in a handful of daytime visions that show the worst of the killer’s exploits, while Hamill portrays Brent’s shift from good man and husband to insane monster with just the right amount of scenery chewing. There’s also a truly upsetting scene in which Brent sexually assaults his wife while fantasizing about her being a corpse that makes this final episode an escalation from the EC fun of the Carpenter stories and the framing device into the realms of horror that hits a bit closer to home, and a bit deeper. That’s not a bad thing, mind you, it’s just not the typical way horror anthologies work.


As a whole, Body Bags is a fine example of its form, with Carpenter and Hooper showing themselves from their good sides, featuring a bunch of great performances, more gore and violence than you’d probably expect after hearing of its provenance as a cable TV movie, and a cornucopia of horror actors and directors in roles minor and somewhat larger.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Three Films Make A Post: Rest in Beast!

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (2016): As a package, I enjoy this second outing of Tom Cruise as murderous serial “hero” Jack Reacher as at least nominally directed by Edward Zwick, a bit more than the first one. Cruise is still a pretty bad choice as an actor for the title role, his macho posturing looking routine rather than convincing, and the suggestion of anything more than that going on with his character clearly beyond his abilities to portray, but at least he’s working as an actor more than as a star, so he’s actually watchable instead of annoying the hell out of me.

Otherwise, this is a perfectly competent big budget action movie. As a surprising bonus, it gives female lead Cobie Smulders some agency and most of the time even portrays her as Reacher’s equal in inhuman competence (atypical for the genre as well as the Cruise). Clearly, it was a good idea to shove off the whole getting threatened/kidnapped shtick on (gasp!) another female main character, as played by Danika Yarosh.

Urban Legend (1998): Because I have a bad memory, I revisit this entry in the 90s post-Scream teen slasher wave every couple of years, always sucked in by the seductive set-up of a slasher operating by imitating urban legends, and forgetting the sad fact of the film’s execution. The leads are pretty dreadful: Alicia Witt clearly attempts to portray every possible human emotion by pouting and/or widening her eyes, future Exxxtreme Joker Jared Leto doesn’t actually seem to do more than to just show up, and only Rebecca Gayheart is at least willing to entertain by chewing a bit of scenery. The script is dumb, obvious, and has no idea what to do with the great set-up, while Jamie Blanks’s direction is as slick as it is uninvolving. Please, future me, read this before you watch this thing again.


Pokot aka Spoor (2017): Jacqueline-of-all-trades Agnieszka Holland’s return to making films in Poland – with her daughter Kasia Adamik co-directing (collaboration being her forte seems to be the main throughline in Holland’s extremely interesting and surprising career as a filmmaker), and comes up with an arthouse sort-of crime movie that works as an eccentric character portray of an aging woman (Agnieszka Mandat), an angry rebuttal to a way of life, a rant about animal rights, and about half a dozen other things. Holland and Adamik manage to bind all of these threads together in a somewhat leisurely, sometimes highly peculiar (in the best way, because this peculiarity feels absolutely individual and personal) manner that unearths thematic and emotional connections between things you wouldn’t expect to make any sense together at all.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Past Misdeeds: Death Falls Lightly (1972)

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.


Warning: it's impossible not to talk about the film's ending when talking about its strengths and weaknesses, so the following will enter spoiler territory.

After returning home from a business trip Giorgio Darica (Stelio Candelli) finds his wife dead in her bedroom with a slit throat. Giorgio does not report the murder to the police, for his business trip was of a type one just can't use as an alibi, unless one is a big fan of spending time in prison. Instead, Giorgio goes to a judge (or lawyer, the fansubs aren't quite sure about that one, though I'd go with judge) he is working with. Giorgio's business, you see, is to smuggle drugs for a conspiracy of corrupt judges, cops and politicians who buy position and influence with the money they make from the drug trade (and clearly, any form of corruption that's profitable). Even though that's not something you want to say aloud in a murder trial, it is very much something a man like Giorgio would be willing to say in a murder trial if his rather well-positioned "friends" don't help him out of his problematic situation.

Because nobody wants to risk to have Giorgio arrested or questioned, and even just killing him is deemed too risky, his partners hide Giorgio and his girlfriend Liz (Patrizia Viotti) in a big, empty hotel building, while they put their influence in action and make further plans that may or may not be meant to exonerate Giorgio.

The couple's stay at the hotel isn't too pleasant. Giorgio's new position in life as a murder suspect does not make Liz happy, especially since she isn't quite sure her lover didn't actually kill his wife, so there's a lot of squabbling and hysterics going on between the two. That, however, is before the hotel turns strange. Music plays in rooms where there shouldn't be any music playing, and noises hint at other people staying where there shouldn't be any. It's as if the hotel were haunted by ghosts peculiarly in tune with Giorgio's troubles. Things turn even stranger when a group of people appear who claim to be the hotel's owners. It doesn't take long until Giorgio isn't sure what's dream, what's reality and what's delusion.

Leopoldo Savona's Death Falls Lightly is a more interesting example of the giallo than it at first seems to be. The film's first half is more than a bit slow going, and even though its rather sardonic comments on the state of Italian judicial and political culture are not completely without relevance for anyone curious about the political climate surrounding early 70s Italian genre cinema, it's also not exactly riveting. Especially the whole "lovers flip out on each other after spending about one day alone together" angle is just not very convincing, and while the secrets and lies which these scenes disclose as the basis of Giorgio's and Liz's relationship will be important later on, I could think of less artificial ways to expose them.

However, once that (expository) hurdle is taken, Death takes a turn for the weird I can only describe as delightful; at least if your definition of "delightful" fits a series of scenes that turn a character's inner workings into simply yet effectively realized metaphors and nearly drive him insane in the process. I find especially lovely how organic the film's turn from the semi-realistic tone of its beginning to the weird and possibly supernatural is, Savona using the empty hotel as a place that - even when we are nominally still in the "realist" part of the movie - does more belong to the realm of dreams than to that of reality as we usually understand it. Savona emphasises this by lighting and blocking everything that takes place in the hotel quite differently from the rest of the film, suggesting the claustrophobia and spacial and temporal disjointedness of a dream.

Of course, and somewhat disappointingly, all the supernatural occurrences will later turn out to be no such things at all in a last act twist that is not exactly to my taste - as I prefer the supernatural in my narratives to stay supernatural, or at least ambiguous -, but that works too well to ruin what came before. Mostly, this part of the movie works well enough for me because Death - quite surprisingly for a giallo - does play fair with its audience by featuring a killer whose motivations you can discern from the clues the film delivers, as well as by using a device for its plot twist whose cause you have actually witnessed and (hopefully) just forgotten as one of these random flourishes giallos tend to include. Of course, even though the twist's set-up makes sense seen from that perspective, it's still quite difficult to buy it as anything any police force, even one as corrupt as the one shown in the movie, would actually be involved in; on the other hand, it's thematically and atmospherically so fitting to the film at hand, I can't find it in me to see that fact as a problem for anyone who doesn't insist on absolute realism - and therefore boredom - in her movies.


I, for one, am happy to have found another giallo that succeeds at wedding rather sardonic politics with moments of dream-like beauty.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

In short: Women Who Kill (2017)

Morgan (director/writer Ingrid Jungermann) and her ex-girlfriend Jean (Ann Carr) may not have worked out as a couple, what with Morgan’s closed-off emotional life and Jean’s tendency to put everything out in the open, but they are working very well together with the podcast about female serial killers – “Women Who Kill” - they are continuing to make. They aren’t just talking about the serial killers, they are actually visiting the women in prison to interview them.

Things could go on this way forever, but when Morgan meets the mysterious Simone (Sheila Vand) at her local co-op (full disclosure: as a German living in a small town, I had to look up what the hell that is about) and falls for her instantly. Quickly, the two become a couple, Simone’s general air of mystery enabling Morgan for once in a relationship to relax. For a time, that is, for there might be something too mysterious going on with Simone. What’s a gal making a podcast about female serial killers with a bunch of rather enabling friends to think?

If you’re like me, you probably think that a lesbian comedy about podcasts and serial murder sounds rather too twee or too produced for the hipster set. However, Ingrid Jungermann’s film isn’t any of that, and it’s too good a film for me to care what hipsters are thinking about it one way or the other. This is a clever, compassionate but never cowardly film about commitment phobia (why doesn’t English have a decent compound noun for this?), loneliness, and love that is as funny as it is sad, grounding its more outrageous moments (don’t worry, there’s no splatstick in this one) in surroundings built at least in emotional veracity, and never looks down on its characters.

It is the sort of comedy that has to be funny because otherwise, it would be a tearjerker of the highest degree. Instead of allowing its audience to wallow in misery, its humour actually helps us to look closer at the reasons for that prospective wallowing. The film also teaches the valuable lesson that taking relationship advice from a serial killer just might not be the best idea. Irony aside, the ending does pack quite an emotional wallop, one the film has worked hard to achieve and that resonates with quite a bit of metaphorical and thematic work it had introduced before without becoming loud about it.

The cast as a whole is rather on the brilliant side, with Jungermann finding great foils in Sagher and Carr and vice versa. After A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Vand is apparently now typecast as the Mysterious One, but she’s really rather good at it. Plus, Simone may be mysterious but feels like a very different character from the Girl.


I suspect in two decades time, this will not only be a great, intelligent little comedy about not so little things, but also a time capsule. Which mostly seems to happen to films that come about their naturalistic elements from a side angle, and not so much those where realism is the only reason for their existence. This is only an aside, though, for Women Who Kill is a brilliant independent film all around.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Under Suspicion (1991)

Warning: structural spoilers on the way!

Brighton, 1959. A couple of years ago, Tony Aaron (Liam Neeson) was a perhaps promising policeman. His stint in the police was cut short when his having an on-the-job affair with the wife (Maggie O’Neill) of a criminal he and a couple of other officers are supposed to watch leads to one of his colleagues getting killed by a shot that was meant for him. The scene is set up a bit more complicated than that, actually, but then, making things unnecessarily complicated is a bit of a trademark of this one.

Anyhow, civilian Tony is working as a shady, nearly penniless private eye mostly involved in helping people get a divorce, something that by the laws of the time is apparently only possible in cases of dire marital misconduct, like adultery. So Tony helps set men up with a fake girlfriend – the criminal’s wife of affair fame now married to Tony – photographs them, and secures enough witnesses for the whole thing. Let’s not ask why the courts aren’t becoming suspicious about the wife of the same private detective who comes up with the photos of the adultery regularly ending up publicly cheating on him with married men.

Tony’s newest “case” goes very wrong when he finds his wife and their newest client shot dead instead of in a compromising situation. The client, it turns out, was a famous painter, so there might be monetary reasons for the murders. Despite still being friends with Frank (Kenneth Cranham), the cop leading the following investigation, there are hints pointing to Tony’s involvement that can’t be overlooked. Consequently, Tony is starting an investigation of his own, soon getting into an affair with the dead guy’s possibly femme fatale mistress Angeline (Laura San Giacomo) as well as other trouble.

Simon Moore’s Under Suspicion is more an interesting effort than a truly effective and successful film.

In theory, there’s a lot to say for the film: the film’s first half makes some nice attempts at using an audience’s knowledge of noir and thriller tropes as well as clever casting to mislead the viewer. It also generally looks slick, from time to time even in a way that enhances what it is trying to do in a given scene quite nicely. The cast is certainly well put together, though the way the actors are used isn’t always convincing, particularly because the film – perhaps in a misguided attempt at aping classic noir – really wants them to go a degree bigger and more melodramatic than actually works for them or the story they are involved in. Particularly the film’s final third is a sheer endless sequence of Neeson and the rest hamming it up mercilessly while dramatic music never stops swelling and the script goes through great convulsions to come up with melodramatic twists.

The problem with this is that it reveals a film that at first feels like an interesting play on classic noir in a British setting with perhaps a bit of a Patricia Highsmith influence added for good measure to really not have much of anything to say about the tropes it plays with, or the word it takes place in. There are all the elements to make an interesting movie about a male femme fatale, but Moore buries them under too much needless melodrama, only ever showing interest in the surface level of things, which isn’t exactly a good choice in a film supposedly about depths.

I can’t say the melodrama ever worked for me either. There’s something emotionally abstract about it that keeps a viewer at arm’s length – and when it comes to melodrama, a film needs its audience to get emotionally involved. Otherwise, it’s just a lot of scenes of people shouting and making faces at the camera.


If you can live with its general emptiness, the film is an okay enough time. As I said, it certainly looks pretty, and at first indeed promises to do something interesting. There’s just no substance to Under Suspicion.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Jack Reacher (2012)

On paper, making a decent to great big screen thriller out of one of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels about everyone’s favourite serial killer vigilante/justice-dispensing hero (depending on your interpretation and personal taste) is a no-brainer. Child’s plots generally roll like freight trains – if you imagine freight trains to have a lot of cars, be sexy, absurdly violent and able to look much less absurd than they actually are. And Reacher is a surprisingly interesting character for a thriller series this long.

In fact, director/writer Christopher McQuarrie’s script does make good use of the Child novel this is based on. Even though he changes a lot about it, most of these changes seem perfectly sensible for a big budget Hollywood action vehicle. With his director hat on, McQuarrie isn’t the most sexy or stylish director of this kind of stuff, but the action sequences are generally shot with vigour and flow quite nicely.

Unfortunately, what really drags the film down is the fact that this is not a Jack Reacher movie, but a Tom Cruise™ vehicle, produced by Cruise, directed by someone who has worked under (to be realistic about the power in this star/director combination) him before. Otherwise, they’d probably have found an actor who is a better fit for the role of Reacher, someone with less of a lukewarm presence, for Reacher as a character really needs someone who does hot (the guy may be a murder machine but he’s also supposed to be charming and able to project warmth when he wants it) and cold both exceedingly well. Or really, a lead willing to subsume his star personality under the character they are supposed to be playing. An “actor”, I believe it is called, rather than a star. To make this more Cruise-like, there are regular opportunities for the guy to throw himself into heroic poses (I suspect one every fifteen minutes as mandated in the contract). Worst, where the book Reacher’s absurd competence in investigating, killing and sexing is presented matter-of-factly, Jack Reacher the movie and the characters in it regularly break down to swoon about Creachers awesomeness. Which is funny enough the first five times or so, but does become pretty tiresome after a while.

To get back to the film’s good bits, Rosamund Pike is allowed to do two or three things between her bouts of being overwhelmed by that elderly sex pot she’s paired up with, and Robert Duvall pops in for a pointless but entertaining role. Then there’s the bizarre decision of casting Werner Herzog as the Big Bad; Werner, it turns out, is best when he’s talking about his time in Siberia and trying to convince an unlucky henchman to bite off his own fingers (they didn’t have knives in Siberia, you know). Okay, perhaps not best, but pretty damn funny.


So, how much any given viewer will enjoy this one will most certainly depend on their stance on The Cruise. If you like the guy, most of the film’s flaws will turn into virtues, and the film into a really great cartoonish action thriller; if you’re like me and don’t, you’ll probably find moments of well-done entertainment fighting against a lead too vain to realize that the movie as a whole is supposed to be more important than he is. In any case, this is leagues better than The Mummy (Cruise version), but then, what isn’t?

Sunday, May 6, 2018

The Commuter (2018)

Cop turned insurance salesman Michael MacCauley (Liam Neeson) is having a very interesting day. He’s fired from his job, leaving him and his family apparently one step from losing their house and the ability to pay their son’s college tuition. Capitalism without a social net sucks, it turns out. This will only be a minor problem on this very special day our protagonist is having, though, for a mysterious woman (Vera Farmiga) chats him up on his final commuter train journey home and makes him a proposition, a perfectly theoretical one, she says. What if she’d offer him a hundred thousand dollar to find someone one the train going by the codename of “Prinn” (disappointingly not named after Ludwig, it turns out). The only thing to go on is that he or she is not a regular commuter, is planning to get out at a certain station, and is carrying some type of bag apparently containing something they stole. Why the woman would be looking for Prinn and what she wants to do with them stays open. Oh, and by the way, the proposal might not be theoretical at all.

When Michael picks up a twenty-five thousand down payment hidden in one of the train’s toilets, he is shortly tempted to actually do what is asked of him, but he changes his mind back to sanity quickly enough. Unfortunately, the woman and her associates are not at all willing to take no for an answer, so, this being a post-Taken Liam Neeson joint, they are threatening his family if he doesn’t comply. Now Michael has to hustle back and forth through (and sometimes down) the train, trying to identify Prinn, all the while attempting to come up with a way to save his family as well as Prinn and himself.

Yes, this is another highly (some might say too highly) constructed thriller starring Liam Neeson as an aging tough guy stumbling into a thriller plot and having to protect his family and his moral center through violence, and his moral centre in whatever way he can come up with. There’s nothing at all wrong with that for my taste, for while there’s certainly nothing original about The Commuter’s plot, and I could certainly could do with seeing Neeson playing a very different type of character from time to time, this is also a very typical Jaume Collet-Serra film. If you’ve read my opinions on most of his other films, you will know where the next paragraph is going. I like his work so much, I’ll even watch something based on a Disney theme park directed by him.

That is to say, The Commuter was made by a director who can usually (let’s pretend Non-Stop doesn’t exist) take a very standard, overly twisty script and turn it into something very much worth watching by filming even the most clichéd plot in a way that suggests he actually cares about it. So while there are moments of too convenient plotting, a bit of action movie physics (we all know that action scenes don’t care about how trains work, yet neither do I in this context), and a copious amount of clichés on display, they are presented with absolute willingness by the filmmaker to suck his audience in and entertain it in any way possible. There is nothing lazy about Collet-Serra’s treatment of any of the film’s copious suspense scenes, the staging is tight when it should be tight and loose when it needs to be loose, the whole affair doing whatever it can never to be boring for a second, without ever making the impression of trying to pressgang the audience (or, for that matter, of thinking it is stupid).

When it comes to this sort of action-y thriller, getting an audience to suspend its disbelief can be as important as in a film concerning the supernatural if a film wants its audience to care. Collet-Serra achieves this goal through moments of veracity. Michael’s money problems are of course ripped from the headlines but also ground the film in a believable reality, making it easy for an audience that knows this kind of problem well enough to care for him, yet also pulling extra work by making the film’s world more believable. The same goes for the other characters in the train. While all of them are certainly shorthand characters, they stand as shorthand for contemporary types one might actually encounter in real life, again suggesting the film inhabiting a believable world. Collet-Serra’s job here is made easier by the cast. While the bigger names in the cast - Farmiga, Patrick Wilson and his lone facial expression, Elizabeth McGovern and Sam Neill - apart from frequent Collet-Serra collaborator Neeson (who has this kind of role down pat without projecting bored routine) - are only in the film in what amounts to cameo role, the merry cast of character actors in the train does much to sell the story through small but important gestures, keeping the shorthand alive and lively.


As an added bonus, I found myself rather happy with the lack of cynicism in the film. In the end, this turns out to be a tale singing the praises of the decency of random people, even though it tells a tale of twists and betrayals, not exactly something you often find in thrillers about Liam Neeson protecting his family.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Three Films Make A Post: NO SEA MONSTER OF MYTH OR LEGEND IS HALF SO DEADLY AS ONE THAT ACTUALLY EXISTS!

Demon Possessed aka The Chill Factor (1993): Christopher Webster’s spam in a cabin movie could be a perfectly okay genre entry, with somewhat okay acting, a degree of visual competence, and some snow, but until fifty minutes in or so there’s little of interest happening in it at all. Too much time is spent on letting characters you couldn’t care less about interact, and once the mandatory murders start, it’s all pretty tame and generally indifferent stuff, leaving this one with little going for it.

La bambola di Satana aka The Doll of Satan (1969): I’m not exactly expecting every Italian sort of Gothic, sort of mystery to be terribly great, but Ferruccio Casapinta’s film not only suffers from the usual troubles of Italian genre cinema of its time but really loses out on everything that usually works well even in the lesser of these films. So the score is bad and so bland it’s barely worth mentioning, the acting’s bland instead of weird, the direction is bland instead of stylish and/or weird, and the script is pretty awkward when it comes to mystical techniques of filmmaking like transitions or constructing a mystery but in the blandest possible manner. I could cope with the whole affair not being exactly good but there’s no reason for it to be quite this, well, bland.

The Museum Project (2016): To the rescue of this rather dispirited post comes a short item from Australia directed by Dion Cavallero and Paul Evans Thomas. It’s your typical POV movie set-up about the usual trio of film students doing a project about some haunted place and getting quite a bit more than they bargained for. However, said haunted place is highly atypical, for it takes the form of a railway museum haunted by a dead serial killer, which certainly provides the film with a more interesting setting than the forest usually expected in this style. The directors put the museum to good use, too, with some nice moody shots of empty train cars at night, and a thematically appropriate and nicely timed haunting.


Thanks to a running time of just 44 minutes, the film doesn’t overstay its welcome and loses nothing by it but potential filler, ending up as a nice little ghost story told effectively.