Thursday, October 23, 2014

Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (1989)

To nobody’s surprise, Michael Myers (this time around Don Shanks) has survived the events of the last movie and – that part is rather surprising - has spent the year until the next Halloween cohabiting with a hermit or something. His niece Jamie Lloyd (Danielle Harris), on the other hand, following her attack on her adoptive mother at the end of the last movie, is now mute, and has spent the same time in a mental health facility for kids, in part guarded, in part observed as a Michael seismograph by an increasingly crazed Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence) who wavers between genuinely nice and caring and ruthless bastard depending on what the script needs in any given scene.

Jamie is useful as a seismograph because her implied mental connection to her uncle from the last film is now a genuine thing that will see her writhing and mumbling a lot until someone puzzles out where the attack she describes happens, and nobody gets saved by it. In theory, Michael is out to kill Jamie but unlike the slasher mastermind he was in the last outing, he’s now drifting pointlessly through town, from time to time killing people connected to Jamie, without actually getting any closer to her through it. Then there’s a mysterious guy who dresses like the Exorcist sneaking through town who is only there to set up the thoroughly stupid ending, and really, nothing much that adds up to a plot happening at all. Loomis has a “plan” to catch Michael, but said plan makes even less sense then the rest of the film.

So yeah, all the goodwill the series won through the very decent fourth entry quickly evaporated in Halloween 5 once it became clear to me that Swiss director Dominique Othenin-Girard really didn’t know what story he wanted to tell, or how to tell it, or even just what the point of any given scene was, with characters changing traits from scene to scene for reasons of plot convenience, and many scenes that look as if they were setting up something that never get any follow-through.

I can’t even gush about Donald Pleasence this time around, even though he and a Danielle Harris who has seriously improved in the short time between the last film and this one, are clearly the best thing Halloween 5 has to offer. Unfortunately, like with anything else in the film, it doesn’t really seem to know what it wants to do with Pleasence, so it’s just wavering, dragging its feet and wasting him.

This is also another slasher sequel that contains a lot of elements that, if treated by talented scriptwriters, or writers who cared, could have made a wonderful movie – the psychic connection between Jamie and Michael, the fear she will turn into him or something very much like him, the toll the eternal hunt for an indestructible enemy has taken on Loomis are all elements that scream for a script that explores concepts like evil or innocence (or the price of trauma) via the nastiness of horror. Unfortunately, Halloween 5 isn’t that film. In fact, I find it difficult to pretend this is much of a film at all. Apart from lacking niceties like plot and character. the film doesn’t even succeed as a delivery machine for killing scenes, mostly because it prefers dragging its feet and boring its audience to anything else, blowing forty minutes of plot up to a hundred.

This is particularly frustrating because the final fifteen minutes or so suggest that Othenin-Girard would well have been able to at least make an effective conventional slasher, for the final confrontation with Michael may make little sense on a logical level but is an excellent example of tense suspense that works a bit like a nightmare.

Too bad there’s the rest of the film to get through before it.

 

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988)

It’s ten years after the occurrences of Halloween and its sequel, and Doctor Loomis (Donald Pleasence) and Michel Myers (given shape by George P. Wilbur who isn’t one of the great silent slasher bodies but serviceable enough) have both survived film number two.

Michael has spent the time in a coma, but of course wakes up while being moved to a different facility behind Loomis’s back, and starts killing his way to Haddonfield, with a bent but not broken Loomis quickly following on his trail. For Michael is still attempting to do what film number two has established as his modus operandi – killing off his relatives. Poor Laurie Strode has died in a car accident in the meantime – together with whoever her husband was – leaving behind her daughter Jamie Lloyd (Danielle Harris already practicing for her future in horror movies). Loomis knows that Jamie will be Michael’s main victim of choice.

Jamie has found a rather good home with the Carruthers, including a teenage step sister named Rachel (Ellie Cornell) who will turn out to be willing and able to step between Jamie and someone like Michael. However it’s questionable if Rachel, a damaged psychiatrist and the reasonably competent yet completely outgunned police force of Sheriff Meeker (Beau Starr) will be enough to stop Michael.

After the last few Friday the 13th films, Halloween 4 is classing up the joint here, featuring a script that is generally sensibly building on what came in the first two movies, hitting some of the first two films’ favourite beats yet not feeling slavishly beholden to just repeating what came before. The film is at its best when it makes clear the first two movies actually happened to the people in its world, leaving Loomis half-broken and obsessed, and having had an influence on the society of Haddonfield as a whole. Sure, the latter is mostly in the movie to provide a plot relevant lynch mob (no torches, alas) once Michael has taken out the police force, but it’s more thought than ninety percent of slasher sequels ever put into this sort of thing. It does at least give a decent explanation for things like spontaneous lynch mobs in a contemporary small town, or cops willing to trust a crazy old man like Loomis.

Even though I’ve never been a fan of the second film’s revelation of Michael having an actual motive for his deeds, turning him into something much less frightening than the boogieman of the first film because he becomes understandable to a degree, I do like how Halloween 4 runs with these now established facts, and makes Michael not just frightening and dangerous but also conniving in the way he effectively destroys the parts of Haddonfield’s infrastructure most dangerous to him. If you can’t make your monster irrationally frightening anymore, it’s a good idea to make it threatening by having it act intelligently, even if won’t keep for further sequels (which it doesn’t).

Because I’m a sensible guy, I am of course wildly in love with Pleasence’s performance as Loomis here, the way he manages to squeeze real pathos out of at times stupid dialogue (“evil on two legs!”), creating a tragic figure whose whole life has been spent in a fight he just doesn’t seem to be able to win, a fight that has cost him a lot physically, mentally and in his chosen career, and that has left him determined and afraid and painfully human. Most of this isn’t as much in the script as a result of Pleasence being an actor who only very seldom let his audience see when the material he was working with was below him, adding a veneer of truth to the silly and the dubious. If Pleasence can believe in this Loomis, so can the audience.

Consequently, one of the film’s main weak spots are the various contrivances the script makes for his frequent absences from the plot, even at moments when Loomis’s absence really doesn’t make a lick of sense, with Harris just not the kind of child actor who can carry a scene on her shoulders alone, and nobody else involved quite interesting or good enough to step into Pleasence’s shoes.

However, even when Pleasence isn’t on screen, Halloween 4 is never less than an entertaining, often atmospheric slasher movie, with director Dwight H. Little surely no John Carpenter yet at the very least someone who knows how to build a mood before the killing starts as well as able to make the traditional stalking and slashing suspenseful beyond the (nice enough) bloody effects. It helps Little’s case that Halloween 4 isn’t very interested in the killing of teenagers (we already had the in the first film and dozens of epigones, after all) and does its best to set up some variety in the victims of its violence. Why, this is even a slasher sure enough of itself it doesn’t feel the need to show the audience every single kill.

On the negative side, the film’s pace drags a little in the twenty minutes or so before the climactic confrontation with Michael, there are one or two really stupid moments of false scares present and annoying, and the final twist has little – if anything at all – to do with what came before. But hey, for the kind of film Halloween 4 is, it really is as good as anyone could reasonably have expected.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

In short: Jason X (2001)

In the near future – and an undisclosed number of teen-murdering adventures after the last film - the authorities have caught up with good old Jason Voorhees (Kane Hodder), yet still can’t manage to kill him. Their final resort is to have a team of scientists around one Rowan (Lexa Doig) freeze him cryogenically. Thanks to the usual super weapon shenanigans things don’t quite go as planned, and Rowan ends up badly wounded and just as frozen as Jason.

450 years later, the archaeological expedition of Professor Lowe (Jonathan Potts) finds the two and brings them on board  their space ship. Thanks to awesome plot-relevant characters only nanobot technology nobody will use on most of Jason’s other victims, Rowan is on her feet again soon after. Of course, Jason quickly follows suite – though he doesn’t need the nanobots - and has his work cut out for him. The spaceship, after all, contains a bunch of horny students, and only the crap space marines of Sergeant Brodski (Peter Mensah), and one android (Lisa Ryder) in a very anime-inspired relationship with her maker are standing between him and his favourite hobby. The future looks bright.

I’m the first one to admit that Jason V.’s detour into the realm of crap SF horror as directed by James Isaac is an outing of dubious quality, but unlike the last two films in the series it is at once thoroughly entertaining in its own brain-dead manner and does actually contain Jason Voorhees, which clearly gives it a leg up on its predecessors.

While this won’t be everybody’s thing, I really enjoy how Todd Farmer’s script seems to grow increasingly desperate to actually get up to length the longer the film goes on. So, after going through the expected Aliens motions (and truly, is there something more joyous than films ripping off the Cameron movie without ever getting even to a fraction of the impact of the film they’re trying to rip off?), if ones broken up by moments of idiotic comedy (the whole business about comic relief guy and his arm, or the sexual proclivities of Lowe is particularly embarrassing and so unfunny I found myself laughing at it quite a bit), Jason X soon arrives at androids reprogrammed to fight in latex and leather, Jason turning into a last minute cyborg the film’s titles honestly dub “Uber Jason”, and last but not least Jason’s adventures with holodeck technology.

It’s probably not a script that’ll get much praise in film studies courses, but watching this, I found myself giggling and cringing at every idiotic one-liner, nodding happily at various gory deaths, shaking my head at the film’s attempts to get another plot twist out of what we can only call SPACE SCIENCE(!), marvelling at an honest to gosh David Cronenberg cameo, and having what I believe is called a good time among earthlings. Or I have watched so many Friday the 13th films in so short a time I’ve now arrived at Slasher Sequel Stockholm Syndrome, but hey, it’s the last Jason outing for me for now (unless I’ll do Jason’s meet-up with Freddy Krueger, a film I’ve grown to love over the years later in this act of cinematic masochism).

Next up on my journey into slasher hell, Halloween IV.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (1993)

Warning: spoilers are inevitable with this one

Clearly, new Friday the 13th owners New Line Cinema did want to forget about the eighth film as much as anyone else who watched it; this film’s beginning doesn’t fit the ending of any of the other movies either, though, so make of Friday the 13th continuity what you want. I for my part will try not to have too many sleepless nights about it. So Jason (Kane Hodder) is undead and well, and killing people around Crystal Lake, at least until, right in the film’s very first sequence, a minor army of FBI people sets an oh so clever trap and blasts our hero into quite a lot of pieces.

This time, that should truly be that, yet the script writing gods – or rather Dean Lorey and Jay Huguely whom nobody will actually mistake for the gods of scriptwriting – decide that the coroner responsible for the autopsy develops a sudden and intense taste for Jason’s hypnotically beating heart, and begins killing people while making his way to Crystal Lake, at least until his body is worn out and the parasite thingy that seems to be the real Jason takes over the next host.

Jason the worm is out to catch, kill and take over either his sister Diana (Erin Gray), Diana’s daughter Jessica (Kari Keegan), or Jessica’s baby, for only the body of a Voorhees can be a long-time host for the thing. Why? I have not the faintest idea, and I don’t think the script knows. On the plus side, another Voorhees will also be able to destroy Jason forever with the help of – of course – a random instant magical dagger. Diana’s getting offed by Jason rather quickly, but Jessica – with the help of her ex-boyfriend Steve (John D. LeMay) and crazy expositional bounty hunter Creighton Duke (Steven Williams) – just might be able to put up a fight against her uncle.

First things first, after the horrors of Jason Takes Manhattan, (of course not the) Final Friday can only be an improvement but then, so would the Star Wars Christmas Special. Adam Marcus’s movie is a curious thing, really. I understand the new producers’ impulse to want to “fix” the Friday franchise, to find a viable way to not have to tell exactly the same story at best in a slightly different place (though I’m still holding out for Jason Heats up Antarctica) but the actual thing they want to replace the core of the series with seems even less useful in the long term as what they had at the beginning, particular in the random and under-explained way the script introduces and uses it (instant magical dagger!). Or how exactly is a cheap rip-off of the Terminator just with demonic/alien (the Antarctica expedition crate in the Voorhees cellar suggests the latter, the whole getting dragged to hell business and the magic dagger the former) body snatchers any better than the very basic slasher set-up of the series thus far?

Then there’s the little fact that this whole retcon approach to Friday the 13th as a series leads to another entry that lacks the actual iconic element of the whole franchise, Jason the hockey-masked killer, replacing him with a series of possessed people that just don’t have an ounce of the big guy’s menace and are just as desperately lacking in originality as he is. I suppose a more clever script, that is, one that either really went for broke with the moments of comic book grand guignol a few of the film’s better scenes aim for, or one that had thought through the whole parasite possession angle (I can’t believe I’m asking for more exposition here, but I kind of do, don’t I?) a little better, could have gotten away with it. As it stands, however, a random series of possessed people involved in a long series of chases that are only broken up by sub-plots that are prematurely ended via character deaths (see Jessica’s evil TV personality boyfriend) does not a new, improved Friday the 13th film make.

If I’m trying to look at it as a series independent film – change the names and take away the hockey mask and you’re already there, and I wouldn’t be too surprised if the script wasn’t initially meant to be a Friday film – Jason Goes to Hell is a bit more palatable, the kind of early 90s low budget horror that has competent direction, some icky and fun special effects but not enough brains to be either dumber or cleverer, the sort of thing you can spend ninety minutes on without railing against the universe afterwards and that is decent enough entertainment if you manage not to think about it.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

In short: Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (1989)

This, the last Friday film under the auspices of Paramount, is generally treated as the worst among a bunch that’s all over the place in quality and disliked on general principle by most anyhow. And the general horror public’s right on the money here, because honestly, I have a hard time imagining how any of the following films could be worse than Jason Takes Manhattan.

Plot-wise, we see Jason revived by an anchor that doesn’t act like anchors actually work hitting an underwater electricity cable that also doesn’t work as these things do that electrocutes Jason’s body which has been hanging around down in Crystal Lake after the end of the last movie, and revives him. Because getting our slasher back to the surface via the local officials finally wanting to drag all those dead bodies out of the lake (can’t be good for the water quality) would have been too clever, I guess. Anyway, for reasons only known to the script, Jason sneaks onto a cruise ship/ferry/whatever – commanded by an Admiral, no less – full of late teens going on a school field trip to New York, which is a thing US small town classes do, I’m sure. Just as obviously, he begins doing what he always does, this time around imbued with slasher teleportation powers so heavy they are actually happening on-screen, and making snoring noises from time to time. Can’t blame him for the latter.

A few survivors actually manage to escape and land in the promised Manhattan for the final thirty minutes of the movie or so, so Jason can continue his thing on some damp New York street sets probably located in Vancouver where most of this was shot.

Yes, this Friday really is so crummy, even its title is more or less a lie, probably because “Jason burns down a cruise ship and wanders around Manhattan a bit” wouldn’t have had quite the right commercial ring to it. Now, I’d be perfectly alright with a lying title, if anything of the stuff that happens on the cruise ship had any kind of impact on any level, but nothing that happens there – or in New York, for that matter – is in any way, shape or form scary, or horrific, or exciting, or even very funny. Well, if you’re really straining for inadvertent comedy, you might get a kick and a half out of Jason dying by drowning in the toxic sludge that is nightly flooding the New York Sewer system at midnight (because that’s how sewers work on the planet this mess takes place on, hooray) and turning into little Jason again when dead.

Because yes, writer/director Rob Hedden wasn’t even competent enough to understand the really very simple mythology of the Friday the 13th films; you can’t even call it a retcon, because retcons generally are supposed to have a point beyond putting in hallucinations of young Jason drowning, and are generally made by people with a working knowledge of the stuff they are re-jigging. Speaking of Hedden, he does at least manage to produce a pretty slick looking film, but when that’s combined with a script too dumb for even a Friday movie, something so dire it makes me sorry to have criticized the writing of Part five, and no visible talent at all for making an actual horror movie, it still results in a film very much worth avoiding with utmost care.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (1988)

Her psychiatrist Dr. Crews (Terry Kiser) and her mother Amanda (Susan Blu) bring Tina Shepard (Lar Park-Lincoln) to Crystal Lake (now called Crystal Lake again after the unfortunate Pleasant Green episode, it seems) help her get over the psychological consequences of a tragic event of ten years ago. When she was a girl, Tina killed her father with her uncontrolled telekinetic powers; his body must still be down under the lake somewhere. It is pretty obvious to anyone but Tina’s mum though that Crews isn’t all that interested in helping Tina as much as he is in invoking her telekinetic powers again and again and again. And since her telekinetic powers mostly work when she’s under strong emotional pressure, Crews is more or less concerned with the exact opposite of helping his charge.

When Crews provokes a particularly big telekinetic sulk, Tina goes to the lake and mentally drags a body to the surface she believes to be her dead father. It is – surprise? - instead Jason (now embodied by fan favourite – and for once the fans are right, because he really gives Jason a personality, not just a body - Kane Hodder), who must have been gnawed at by fishes for a few years since last we saw him, and looks a bit over-ripe by now. Obviously, Jason is quickly back to his old ways again, and in an incredible stroke of luck, there’s a cabin full of teenagers right next to Tina’s!

Not surprisingly, neither Crews nor her mother believe Tina when she tells them what happened, and they don’t exactly become less sceptic once the young woman begins having visions of Jason’s murders. It is only a matter of time until our telekinetic heroine and Jason will face off, and this time, being an undead killing machine might actually make one the underdog in a fight.

The New Blood continues the attempts to provide the increasingly rotten corpse of the Friday series with some fresh new meat, or ideas if you’re less food obsessed, and not making the same damn movie again and again. For my tastes, John Carl Buechler’s entry into the series is one of the strongest and most enjoyable ones, seemingly born out of the idea that, seeing as how the Friday the 13th films take place in a horror comic book version of reality, you might just add other pieces from comic books too, so what about a mutant? “Jason versus Carrie” has a certain ring to it, too, doesn’t it?

Well, at least that’s how I imagine the thought process behind the film’s main concept to have gone. There might also have been something about the sweet, sweet scent of money involved, but no matter, because Buechler’s film is – and that’s the first time I would say that about a Friday movie since part 2 – not just good for a Friday the 13th film but actually a good horror film. A film with an actual plot that mostly (as long as you don’t think about Dr Crews’s motivations and behaviour for too long, or at all) makes sense if you buy into its basic concepts of undead serial killers and emotional telekinetic. Also a film graced with a director who actually knows how to stage a stalk and slash sequence in a suspenseful, though not necessarily a logical, manner, and who actually manages the melodramatics surrounding Tina quite well too. As I’ve said before, melodrama and horror, like melodrama and action, are genres that work very well together if the right people are involved in front of and behind the camera, the genres of heightened emotional and physical states being so obvious siblings I’m always surprised when films don’t use the opportunity to cross these genres.

I’m a big admirer of Park-Lincoln’s performance here too, the way she just throws herself into the sulking, the screeching hysterics and the determined braveness of the final girl sequence. It’s probably not great acting from a perspective more interested in technique than mine, but it is one that turns Tina into the first Final Girl of the Friday films since Part II’s Chris I found myself really rooting for. Turns out, rooting for a slasher film’s actual heroine instead of the killer makes a film much more effective and suspenseful. Who’d have thunk? (Not the directors and writers of many other slashers, that’s for sure).

And again, like with the – inferior yet still fun – Part VI, New Blood can really delight through a lot of minor details, like Hodder’s initial “what the fuck!?” body language when Tina first attacks him telekinetically, or the way Jason becomes increasingly angry the more often Tina thwarts him, or the inspired final dispatch of our beloved killer that doesn’t make much logical sense but really closes the story in its melodramatic guise nicely, and pretty much comes out of nowhere too. But then, I’m a sucker for a happy ending.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Jason Lives: Friday the 13th Part VI (1986)

Tommy Jarvis (now Thom Mathews), one of the unluckiest surviving characters in slasher movie history, still hasn’t gotten over his Jason Voorhees fixation, so he decides to do the obvious thing to solve his mental health issues once and for all. He breaks into the graveyard where Jason is buried, digs him out and plans to burn his body. Alas, our hero decides to stake Jason with a nice pointy graveyard accoutrement before that, which obviously results in said pointy accoutrement being hit by lighting bolts which in their turn do of course revive Jason as a now finally officially undead creature.

Tommy escapes Jason, but the hockey fan is quite content with continuing his work, that is, he proceeds to kill whoever crosses his path in ridiculous and violent ways. Tommy for his part continues along the path of his own very special logic that has worked out so well for him, and goes to the local sheriff (David Kagen) to tell him all about how he accidentally revived a dead spree killer with lightning. Needless to say, the sheriff believes Tommy is nuts, and once he encounters the first of many dead bodies to follow, also believes that Tommy is the one going around slaughtering people, which, hey, does sound vaguely more reasonable than Tommy’s story.

Fortunately for Tommy, the sheriff’s daughter Megan (Jennifer Cooke) has fallen in instant lust with him and is willing to do just about anything to help him, including arranging jail breaks and committing acts of traffic endangerment. Quite economically, Megan is also a camp counsellor, so she’s perfectly positioned to know a lot of the people Jason is surely going to kill while Tommy applies all the knowledge he gained from an occultist how to book to stop the now even more dangerous killer.

Even though it continues with the shoddy production values of part five, Jason Lives has clear – and not completely unfulfilled – ambitions at being an actual movie again. It still suffers from an over-inflated body count, with early impact-less and generally not very interesting scenes of random people getting killed off in the least empty woods ever encountered that reminded me of Don’t Go In the Woods…Alone, which is not a good thing for a film that wants to be taken seriously.

However, particularly once the plot has gotten rolling and the film seems to have gotten the need to kill somebody off every two minutes out of its system a little, director Tom McLoughlin also manages to produce some rather effective scenes, based on actual suspense, with the kills actually a comparatively sensible part of what’s going on around them (at least sensible for a world where people act like the characters here do and where the method of Jason’s revival seems perfectly reasonable), and staged not only with an interest in getting characters killed but also with an eye for a bit of mood and style.

I also really enjoyed McLoughlin’s attempts at varying at least a few of the eternal rules of the slasher movie – and especially of this franchise – a bit, with the film not culminating in a classic final girl sequence but first with Tommy repeatedly trying and failing to be heroic and Megan then jumping into the breach and surviving despite lacking all of the shy virginity all Final Girls are supposed to have. The latter is a particularly pleasant development after Megan has already descended into hysterics (for understandable reasons), usually the point where the Male Hero™ takes things into his own hands, and suggests that McLoughlin has put a bit more thought into this than many of his predecessors.

There are some other aspects of the film that suggest a degree of thoughtfulness, like the nice flourish that sees the local populace renaming Crystal Lake into “Forest Green” because they don’t want to be connected with the Voorhees murders anymore. This sort of thing doesn’t sound like much, but in the long and sometimes painful run of the Friday the 13th series, it makes the difference between another tired piece of crap and an entertaining and not completely stupid (yet generally dumb) slasher movie.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

In short: Friday the 13th: A New Beginning (1985)

Little Tommy Jarvis (in a cameo again played by Corey Feldman who already was to up-market for this, and grows up into John Shepherd) hasn’t coped too well with his horrible experiences fighting slasher Jason Voorhees in the last film, and has grown into his late teens in various institutions. Despite clear signs he’s still suffering heavily under his trauma, things must be going up for him, though, for right at the beginning of the film Tommy is transferred to a much more open (and frankly absolutely ridiculous) place where young people like him might even get a chance for a hopeful future.

The film follows Tommy’s experiences and his slow return to mental health in quite a moving way, and… Nope, just kidding. Soon enough a series of murders after the modus operandi of good old Jason starts in the vicinity, dropping dead bodies left and right. Has the dead Jason truly returned, is Tommy much less well than anyone thinks, or has the film decided to just use a killer imitating Jason to be able to kill a mostly random assortment of victims he has no beef with at all?

As history, a cruel mistress on her best days, teaches us, part four aka The Final Chapter wasn’t the final chapter of the venerable long-running slasher series for long, because there was just too much money streaming into Paramount’s cash registers, despite the quality – or rather lack of quality - of number four. Because nobody involved cared about making an actual movie as part of their dubious money making scheme (all those Fangoria readers were only ever screaming for gore and tits, after all), this one’s possibly even more dire and lacking in entertainment value than number four, if you can imagine that.

Sure, body and breast count rise again, but there’s a singular lack of creativity when it comes to the kills and their staging, suspense in any form is absent, and even in 1985, there were easier ways for desperate male and lesbian teens to see nude women. Am I repeating myself? Why, I’m just like these movies.

Even worse, director Danny Steinmann uses those scenes not involved with killing characters nobody cares about off in not very interesting ways mostly for heavy and painful winking at the audience, in a sort of irony attack that has the effect of at least making my least favourite slasher franchise, the Scream films, look as clever and funny as they think they are. It’s certainly an achievement.

Again, like the last one, the film does have some elements that could have provided the basis for a decent film, something of a US giallo that actually shows a bit of imagination when it comes to the nature of its killer, but for that either one of the film’s horde of writers or director Danny Steinmann would have had to put some effort into the movie they were making, actually construct the plot, kill off less people but in more interesting ways, and actually think about questions like “what will the life of the survivor of a slasher spree actually look like afterwards?”. Surely, nobody could have expected that from them?

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

In short: Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984)

It seems as if this Halloween season, I’m going to slog through the less popular sequels of some of everyone’s favourite slasher franchises, just in case other blogs’ ways of keeping Halloween classy by concerning themselves with good horror movies is getting too much for you. Don’t be afraid, gentle reader, things will get better around here again once the great day has come and gone. Or before, depending on time, sanity, and the quality of slasher sequels.

Jason (this time embodied by one Ted White), wakes up in the morgue, kills a couple of people, and returns to his wood home to start a new cycle of slashing teenagers. You’d think the police would start to get how this thing works by now, particularly since Jason’s last two killing sprees were just a day or so past, but of course they’ll only appear to mop up the bodies.

Anyway, the fourth and not so very final Friday the 13th film is pretty much the same as the last ones, only where the first film codified a lot of elements of the slasher Halloween actually didn’t codify (and which Halloween 2 would later ape with little success), where the second one was really rather good and, and where the third one was entertainingly stupid, this one’s just boring. Sure, it’s less aggressively dumb than number three, but replaces that film’s high level stupidity with nothing remarkable at all, resulting in too many scenes of nothing happening until Jason finally kills someone.

However, the kills look and feel curiously perfunctory, with little on screen that seems actually transgressive, the oh-so-shocking on-screen violence feeling boring and not a little tepid, robbed of any context surrounding them as they are. Not one of the stalking scenes is actually suspenseful, and the film’s final girl sequence is lacking in imagination and punch, which has a lot to do with the fact that the film spent by far not enough time with our final girl of the night, Trish (Kimberly Beck), leaving her as the film’s final girl just because she’s the last one standing.

You might imagine that adding her special effects make-up loving kid brother Tommy (young Corey Feldman) to the mix would change things up a little, but Barney Cohen’s script only uses him for a – limp – rehash of an iconic scene from the second part.

The script is generally quite adept at wasting opportunities – there’s also a guy sneaking around hunting Jason, which again amounts to little of interest in the end. Really, the only opportunity the film doesn’t waste is showing us Crispin Glover’s dance moves.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Zwart water (2010)

aka Two Eyes Staring

After the death of her grandmother, whom she never met, her parents Christine (Hadewych Minis) and Paul (Barry Atsma) move with their daughter Lisa (Isabelle Stokkel) from Holland to the mansion Christine inherited in neighbouring Belgium.

Christine herself isn’t completely happy with the move, not just because she had been estranged from her mother since she was a child but on account of some terrible secret in her past concerning a twin sister she never even mentioned to Paul. On the other hand, the move enables her to finally make the career step she always wanted to take (though it means pretending she doesn’t have a daughter). Nott having to pay rent anymore sure is quite attractive too, so facing old wounds perhaps just might be worth it.

For Lisa, through whose eyes we see most of what occurs during the film, the move is the worst possible thing that could have happened. Not only is she losing the only friend she had and bounces off painfully off the expected cruelty of her new peers, but she also becomes convinced there’s something/someone living in the house with them: a little, talking dead girl inhabiting the cellar that just might have something to do with her mother’s sister. A talking dead girl that becomes rather interested in Lisa.

Historically the Netherlands (at least after World War II, I don’t know about the silent era) have had an even less exciting output when it comes to horror movies than my native Germany, resulting in such a tiny number of horror films, you could probably count them on your fingers. So it is already a praiseworthy achievement of Zwart water’s director Elbert van Strien to actually have made one at all. Seen from this angle it’s just a bonus achievement van Strien managed to make a film this accomplished on many levels.

Not surprisingly in this context, there’s a degree of derivativeness in the film’s approach to horror, following in the footsteps of Spanish ghostly horror movies made after 2000, with The Orphanage and del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone obvious stepping stones in tone and perspective. It’s also no surprise that the film at hand isn’t quite as good at what it does as these two films are, lacking a certain freshness, or the feeling it is putting the elements of the Spanish (language) films in a truly different perspective.

However, a certain lack in originality does not necessarily kill a horror movie. At the very least, Zwart water is derivative of films whose techniques seem very much worth copying and learning from, slow burn horror films that draw large parts of their effect from a basis in human psychology, their ghosts not so much beside the point as tools to tell stories about human beings while still being atmospheric and – sometimes – frightening.

The frightening part is Zwart water’s other problem, in so far that none of the directly scary scenes are all that effective. Fortunately, the film doesn’t really put a lot of emphasis on them, with van Strien preferring to effectively create a dark and threatening mood that sometimes – particular in light of the plot twists and ambiguities of the film – even reaches the level of creeping dread.

The script is a rather fine one, treating the complexities of a seemingly happy family under pressure of the past with subtlety and the needed ambiguity and generally not falling into the trap of making anyone the bad guy of the piece. Consequently, there’s the feeling of witnessing a terrible tragedy taking its course, the sort of thing that nobody involved seems to “deserve” and that still happens to them. In this regard I do particularly like how matter of factly and without judgement the film treats certain elements of Christine’s past once we learn about them, without raising the pointy finger of a moral message too highly nor opting for sleazy wallowing. Sometimes guilt, it turns out, is a rather difficult to pin down thing, even in cases where the responsibilities are quite clear.

In this sense, Zwart water has learned the right lessons from the 2000+ wave of Spanish horror, things these films themselves of course learned from Japanese films, ending up as maybe not a perfect horror film yet as one very much worth watching and thinking about.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

In short: Friday the 13th Part III (1982)

Okay, it’s plot time: Everyone’s third favourite slasher Jason Voorhees (this time around played by Richard Brooker whose performance makes the big guy look rather cuddly and a bit lazy, to be honest) acquires his trademark hockey mask. Oh right, and kills off the friends of Final Girl Chris (Dana Kimmell) in increasingly silly ways that try and fail to set up impressive 3D effects, instead ending up with mostly very silly ones.

I know, I know, this one is supposed to be one of the lesser enjoyable outings in a slasher franchise not generally known for its class but either its the wine, my taste has deteriorated quite horribly, or this one’s actually a pretty enjoyable movie. For some reason, I prefer to go with the last explanation. And really, if you ignore the humungous number of continuity errors, writing that includes desperate signs of laziness or stupidity like giving Chris a backstory with an earlier encounter with Jason and then using this for exactly nothing whatsoever, or the random mini biker gang that’s only in there to provide a few more bodies to slaughter, and so on and so forth, the film’s a goofy and bloody bit of shoddy fun that might not have two brain cells to rub together but that’s basic fun if you like basic slashers.

Turns out I sometimes do. Therefore I found myself in the surprising position of discovering things to enjoy about Friday the 13th Part III beyond the gore and the all-around dumbness of the affair. For example, while the characterisation is genre-traditionally one-note (if that), the characters are at least not as vile and hateful as your usual slasher victims, so while I didn’t exactly cry when they got cut in half, stabbed, maimed, eye-mutilated, etc., I did find myself enjoying even the scenes not concerned with them being killed off, the 80s teen comedy idiocy of their movie lives, and all the chances of following through with anything it brings up about them the film utterly wastes.

Plus, there’s a ridiculous disco version of the classic (cough) Friday theme in the opening credits, the crazy warning hobo of the day brandishes an eyeball and speaks faux-Elizabethan (can’t imagine why nobody listens to him), a guy is bisected while walking on his hands (it’s as inexplicable as it sounds), and there are so many set ups for gory kills that just don’t make any sense at all, not just rubbing up against the laws of physics but also against the characters possessing eyes. It’s all, as you Americans say, pretty awesome.

Friday, October 10, 2014

On ExB: The Killings at Outpost Zeta (1980)

Ah, cardboard SF, one of the greatest inventions of the godhood of your choice. This one, made by the dynamic duo of Robert Emenegger and Allan Sandler is a particularly fine example of the form.

Click on through to my column at ExB and watch me ramble on about the film’s spectacular beauties.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Devil’s Business (2011)

Their boss Bruno (Harry Miller) has sent experienced contract killer Pinner (Billy Clarke) and young and foolish would-be tough Cully (Jack Gordon) to the home of one Mister Kist (Jonathan Hansler) for a hit, for Kist has something in his possession that belongs to Bruno. The killers just need to wait in Kist’s empty house until he gets back from the opera, and then do their deed.

However, something is very wrong about Kist’s house. It’s not just a certain mood of dread that provokes even someone as distanced as Pinner to start telling spooky stories from his past. There are noises an empty house shouldn’t make, and when checking the garage, Pinner and Cully discover some bloody occult conjuration paraphernalia and a dead baby. On the latter discovery, Cully freaks out completely, but even the unflappable seeming Pinner is shaken. Still, the job is the job – and Bruno certainly not a very understanding boss – so Pinner quickly does what he has come to do when Kist finally arrives.

That, you’d think, would be that, but Kist’s dead body disappears, leaving a couple of killers in a rather different kind of trouble than they are prepared for when increasingly less natural things start happening.

Sean Hogan’s The Devil’s Business is a wonderful example of the quality some independent horror directors from the British Isles achieve in their films, films generally without the love for cheap irony and mumblecore gestures that – for my tastes – mar too many – fortunately not all - comparable productions from the USA.

Hogan’s film in particular is in possession of a sense of irony, of course, but it’s of the dramatic kind, not the smug know-it-all type that can’t bother to take itself seriously one. This isn’t a film about other movies but a clever and decidedly creepy character piece about two men getting increasingly out of their depth (though you could argue Cully never was in it), only realizing too late they aren’t actually cut out for the killing business, or that their hypocritical idea of duty and the sins of their pasts will lead them to their doom, respectively.

Hogan films this tale with an easy hand for building a creepy mood out of darkened rooms and strong acting performances, leaving the arrival of the more overt supernatural stuff for quite some while, instead focusing on his two main characters, their increasing realization they aren’t having a normal day on the job elegantly pulling the audience along with them. Once the obvious supernatural arrives, it’s already too late for Cully and Pinner, the former trapped by his inexperience, the latter by a combination of guilt he can’t admit to himself and a perverse sense of duty.

The Devil’s Business clearly was shot on a low budget, so a viewer shouldn’t expect many spectacular special effects, but what’s there is convincing and a believable part of the particular occult world the film suggests, with nothing that seems out of place. Or should I say nothing that seems out of place in the wrong way? The acting is really fine, Clarke in particular turns out to be close to perfect in his role, embodying the distance Pinner attempts to keep to any signs of his own humanity, as well as his slow rediscovery of the same (that won’t save him, of course) with just the right amount of subtlety.

There’s a sense of focus on display by everyone involved that makes The Devil’s Business particularly effective – there’s no wasted scene, no wasted gesture, everything in this pleasantly short (which is to say, just the right length for its plot) film has meaning and import, every moment is either used to suggest the inevitable doom hanging over the characters, or to show in short, sharp brush strokes the traits that make these two men as doomed as they are. That the film also does a very neat and clever job to connect very British (at least to my eyes and ears) gangster culture and a just as British concept of occult horror nearly seems beside the point here but certainly isn’t something I’m going to complain about.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Honeymoon (2014)

Newlyweds Bea (Rose Leslie) and Paul (Harry Treadaway) are going on their honeymoon in the cabin in the woods of her family in Canady. Usually, you wouldn’t call the place isolated but outside the main season as the couple is going they might as well be in the real middle of nowhere.

Things start out well enough, but soon, a curious encounter with Bea’s local childhood love Will (Ben Huber) and his wife Annie (Hanna Brown) that might suggest anything from an abusive man to mental illness disturbs the happiness and the sex. The very next night, Bea disappears from the bedroom, and Paul finds her naked and in shock just standing in the woods.

Bea says she was just sleepwalking but Paul is increasingly disturbed by changes in her behaviour, peculiar holes in her memory, and a feeling of distance where once there was intense closeness. Paul isn’t exactly calmed by the fact Bea seems to have strange markings on her upper thighs she makes out to be insect bites nor by the way she very suddenly doesn’t want to have sex with him anymore. To say Paul reacts badly to the situation would be putting it mildly but then the situation will turn out to be one to which there isn’t any sane or healthy reaction in the handbook.

Leigh Janiak’s Honeymoon is quite an outstanding film, starting out with the so traditional it can induce eye-rolling set-up of two young pretty people in the proverbial cabin in the woods threatened by something mysterious but going into directions with it that are often as unexpected as they are clever.

There are a number of things Janiak does particularly well here. For most of the film’s running time, there’s a real sense of intimacy to the movie, an emphasis on this being a picture that gets as close as it possible can to its two protagonists who share an intimacy of their own that might even be too close, and that is then threatened by the strange thing actually going on I don’t want to spoil. There is, of course, an obvious metaphorical level to what happens, the film making a complex comment on togetherness and division in traditional couple structures, about intimacy and its borders. The threat our protagonists encounter is quite subtly and cleverly applied to make this comment. So cleverly applied, in fact, I don’t think you need to see understand this level of the film to enjoy it at all.

Because if you just ignore that level of meaning, you still have a fantastic and tense horror film that puts some very old ideas to new and subtle use, using various things I still don’t want to spoil from a perspective that makes them new and exciting again. Well, or new and disturbing, really, for the way into doom for Bea and Paul is quite painful to watch, seeing as it doesn’t hit your typical horror movie clichés but people so well-written, I don’t even know the jobs they have when they are not on honeymoon and still have the sort of sympathy for them you have for people more than for characters.

It’s quite painful to watch Paul’s and Bea’s deterioration, for – at least – two reasons: one, there’s really nothing at all insinuated about these two being punished for any transgressions, unless it’s for being genuinely happy; two, the performances of Leslie and Treadaway are excellent, selling the point when both of their characters act nothing at all like sane people anymore as well as they do the sweetness and light at the beginning – and in both cases, without overselling any of it.

Janiak’s direction is pretty fantastic too, eschewing all your standard “look I’m directing!” tricks, instead making a film that feels as focused and determined as it feels intimate, presenting even the slightly more outrageous final scenes of the film with a calm that gives them a true emotional effect. This subtle yet never squeamish approach to horror reminded me of the stories of Dennis Etchison more than of many other films, and is particularly beautiful to watch right now, when more films than not concentrate on jump scares, jump scares, and more jump scares.

I am really very excited about Janiak’s film, and I’m just as excited to see whatever she’ll do next.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

In short: Necronomicon (1993)

Every couple of years, I re-watch the Brian Yuzna-produced Necronomicon, asking myself – making a ridiculous and puzzled face, I suppose - why I don’t remember anything at all about it beyond the fact that Jeffrey Combs plays Lovecraft in the film’s wrap-around segments. Then, having watched the film, I realize I don’t remember anything about it because it’s far from a memorable movie, which in turn will of course lead to another round with it in five years time, unless I take a look at this useful post right here.

Because I’m a rather relaxed person when it comes to that sort of thing, I can’t even get angry about a film supposedly based on three Lovecraft tales generally having fuck all to do with the stories. I’m really rather more interested if the segments in themselves are any good. Alas…

Yuzna’s wrap-around tale is a good bit of fun, with Combs being Combs, Lovecraft being a rather two-fisted version of himself that is as much Indiana Jones as the old gent from Providence (pretend I’m now blathering on for ages about the man’s racism, because clearly that’s relevant and worthy of burning hatred when talking about a man who died in 1937), and the plot being silly, short, and with neat monster designs.

Christophe Gans’s highly gothic tale of a man (Bruce Payne) mourning the death of his wife, and nearly repeating the mistake of an ancestor (Richard Lynch), is probably the high point of the film. Sure, it has nothing whatsoever to do with The Rats in the Walls which it is supposedly based on, but the motives – if not its emotional base in love, one of Lovecraft’s least favourite emotions – it uses are very much Lovecraftian, and Gans is pretty great at building a mood that does resemble Corman’s Poe adaptations to a pleasant degree, until everything is wrapped up with fine monster designs and a shift towards nearly swashbuckling action that is the sort of thing the later director of Le Pacte des loups did already so very well at the time this was made.

I am a big admirer of Shusuke Kaneko’s 90s Gamera, perhaps the best kaiju eiga made after the original Gojira but his segment here is just a mess, finding neither a visual, nor a thematic nor even just a plot focus, with little happening in it that isn’t obvious, and nothing at all that’s interesting, unless you were always dreaming of watching David Warner in an awkward sex scene. On the more positive side, this segment does actually use plot elements of Lovecraft’s Cool Air, just not sensibly or to any effect.

Last but not least, we have Brian Yuzna’s segment, which is a very typical series of ever more grotesque effect scenes, the kind of thing I find entertaining enough as long as I’m in the process of watching it – particular with creature and, well, stuff design like it is here – but that not really makes for a satisfying climax when the grotesque isn’t in service of anything. Again, it’s no surprise I won’t remember any of this in a few years.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Three Films Make A Post: SEE WHAT HAPPENS WHEN HIS MINDS "BLACKS OUT"!

All Cheerleaders Die (2013): I’m honestly not sure what to make of Lucky McKee’s and Chris Sivertson’s horror comedy about undead cheerleaders. The film is in turns funny, subversive, sleazy, weird, clever, dumb as a rock and the good as well as the bad kind of unpleasant, never managing to focus on any of these things, and more often than not emphasizing its worst elements.

A first watch suggests this to be an interesting mess, but then there are also quite a few moments when the film pats itself on the back for only it knows what that don’t make a second watch all that probable for me.

Lawman (1971): I’m pretty sure there’s an awesome Western about violence and the damage it causes in its victims as well as its perpetrators to be made from Gerald Wilson’s script, but Michael Winner sure wasn’t the man to make it. I know, Winner has had a minor critical resurgence in the last decade or so, with scattered writers here and there praising his films for their luridness, but to my eyes, said luridness was usually the result of the films’ subject matter, while Winner’s direction nearly always combined the blunt and the bland to me, robbing most of his films of any effect except annoying me.

Winner is a barely competent Western director, with little happening on the visual front that didn’t happen better in dozens of psychological westerns from the 50s. The director’s sledgehammer bluntness then proceeds to paste over all the subtleties the script seems to contain, until everything crashes down in an ending that is probably meant to be heavy and shocking but that really comes done more on the side of the ridiculous because Winner didn’t prepare what’s going to happen in it properly; there’s that lack of subtlety again. On the positive side, Lawman is held on a barely watchable level by a fine cast that only starts with Burt Lancaster and Robert Ryan, with every single actor on screen doing his or her best to act through Winner’s lack of inspiration.

Murder by the Clock (1931): Edward Sloman’s pre-code mystery with elements of the old dark house film is a bit creaky around the edges with a lot of the flaws I by now expect from early talkies – the stiff acting, the needs to shoot dialogue scenes in static ways, that sort of thing – but it is not without its charms. There’s some fun efforts at establishing the fake supernatural, a tough-minded cop in form of William “Stage” Boyd’s (I dunno about the name) Lt. Valcour I wouldn’t mind seeing more of, and a hysterical (in at least three meanings of the word) femme fatale performance by Lilyan Tashman that clearly only misses out on moustache-twirling because facial hair on women is frowned upon in many cultures.

It’s not much, but it’s enough to distract one from the slowly approaching heat death of the universe for seventy-four minutes, which is really all one can ask of a film from this time and place.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Some thoughts about Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957)

It’s among the mild ironies of film history that this film, a movie I don’t hesitate to call a masterpiece, is actually the lesser of director John Sturges’s Westerns about the (wait for it) gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Fortunately, despite being about the same historical moment, and concerning the same people, both films are also so different their existence as separate entities actually makes sense, particularly since the two films have quite different views of these people and these events. The later Hour of the Gun is most probably the slightly more historically accurate one (at the very least with a more realistically morally grey Wyatt Earp, where Lancaster’s Wyatt really does seem to go for the halo, though without ever being able to reconcile it with being a human being like we all are), though both films really aren’t about attempts to recreate history.

I don’t think it is necessary for me to go over Sturges’s virtues as a Western director, nor the particularly inspired quality of his efforts here, for that would be stating the very, very obvious. Instead, let me spend this sentence salivating about Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster (two of the very finest of their generation in Hollywood) doing what they do best, the fine rest of the ensemble, the often awe-inspiring photography, as well as Sturges’s artful sense of staging.

Beside being a film about a certain legendary shoot-out, Gunfight to me really seems to be a film about poisonous relationships, the way people tend to wallow in them, and the generally horrible consequences that come with them. Why, if you look at what’s happening in the film from a certain angle, you might even begin to think somebody involved in the film might have been of the opinion all human relationships in the end become poisonous and destructive, family ties strangling people in the end, and friendships not leaving people happier or less lonely and self-destructive (or would anyone want to argue that Holliday and Earp are good for each other any more than Holliday and Kate are?), at best giving them one thing more to die for.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Rover (2014)

Australia, ten years after an economical apocalypse that leaves the country looking quite close to the first Mad Max film.

Henry (Scoot McNairy) and two associates have stolen something valuable, leaving behind Henry’s developmentally challenged brother Rey (Robert Pattinson) for dead. Thanks to the distracting powers of bickering they crash their truck during their flight. They’re lucky in basically crashing – and it’s not much of a crash, as they’d realize if they weren’t bickering and in panic – the truck right next to a fresh ride, which they proceed to steal.

The nameless owner of the car (Guy Pearce), a man with trauma and violence written on his face, doesn’t take the loss of his ride well, and begins to chase after the car thieves in their own car, proceeding in a manner that suggests he has left sanity and reason somewhere behind in the world before the Collapse. Leaving a trail of bodies – both real and metaphorical – behind, the man encounters Rey and – after getting him patched up - decides to press him into service finding Henry.

David Michôd’s The Rover is quite an astonishing film in the way it uses elements of the post-apocalyptic films that came before it – with the first Mad Max a particularly close relation in the shape of its apocalypse and in what I can only describe as Australian-ness (australity?) – to make a meditative film about lives that don’t stop just because the world has decided to stop, finally making all the tenets of nihilism true for its characters in a world where nothing they do is of any import anymore, and where violence isn’t even morally important enough to cause much reaction from anyone anymore. To the people roaming the wastelands here, there’s not even enough reason to life anymore that concepts like sadism or transgression matter much in their violence.

Consequently, most of the film’s unpleasant acts are pictured with an emotional apathy, suggesting most everyone we see in the film (and wouldn’t that be the whole world) to be suffering from some form of PTSD. In a move as clever as it is disturbing, Michôd always gestures towards some of the things an audience would expect in this sort of film and world, some suggestions of healing, or redemption, or even just a clear explanation of why the characters here do what they do, yet never lets the characters go through with these gestures in any meaningful way, everything not just ending in blood but feeling as empty and dried out as people’s lives have become.

The Australian desert landscapes are a perfect fit for this sort of tale, both through their suggestion of other Australian desert landscapes in other post-apocalyptic films, as well as in their mirroring of the characters’ loss of humanity (or is it the other way round?).

Watching the film, I found myself particularly impressed with the way Michôd suggests much of its world, as well as of the inner lives of the people living in it, through minor throw-away details he trusts the audience to notice. Which, after reading some of the reviews of The Rover that can only see Pearce’s character as a cipher because the film only discloses in its last scene why his car is so important to him despite the fact that he can – and already has – easily acquired another one, is clearly too much trust for the sort of viewer who wants everything to be “relatable”, which is to say, without herself having to do any of that pesky thinking or relating. How you can watch a performance like Pearce’s grand, subtle, portrayal of a man who really has lost any concept of meaning in his life stumbling through a world utterly incapable of even suggesting one to him, going through the motions of violence and survival not because of any true will to survive but just because that’s what you do, and still feel the need for a detailed explanation (one supposes with many a flashback with dramatic violins on the soundtrack), I honestly don’t understand. But then I’m usually pretty annoyed by the tendency of parts of the movie and TV watching world to need every piddling detail of a film explained to them in excruciating detail. as if using one’s own imagination from time to time were unthinkable.

But speaking of acting for another moment (instead of ranting further), despite laying it on a bit thick for my tastes from time to time, Robert Pattinson actually delivers a performance that not just doesn’t embarrass him beside Pearce but really provides the film with an easier emotional anchor (and hey, relatability-needing people, that’s the character in the movie for you), if one that suggests a disquieting irony – namely, that you need to be as intellectually and emotionally challenged as Rey is to even countenance the idea of hope in a world such as the one he lives in (“innocence” doesn’t come into play here at all, by the way, because Rey is utterly immoral).

The Rover does a lot of thoughtful things with the clichés of post-apocalyptic cinema without feeling the need to get on its soap box and moralize yet also without condoning – or enjoying – its characters often horrible deeds.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

In short: Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

By now, I’m actually going into Marvel productions banking on them being at least entertaining and generally non-stupid, but I think I’m going to adjust my attitude and will from now on bank on them being really good, and can still be positively surprised when they turn out like The Winter Soldier, which is to say pretty darn great.

Of course, seeing that it’s highly influenced by Ed Brubaker’s excellent run on the comics, the last decade or so of mainstream-yet-intelligent spy movies like the first three Bourne films and the Daniel Craig James Bonds, 70s conspiracy thrillers, and – quite obviously if you look at the fights – martial arts and action cinema from all around the world (The Raid quite heavily comes to mind), and does all the right things with a character that should by all rights be a horrible jingoistic mess but nearly never becomes one, Winter Soldier seems a bit made for me. Particularly because it uses the synergy of the already established Marvel movie universe very well without running into the trap of thinking this synergy replaces the actual plotting, and knows that Captain America in this century is very much a character belonging into an ensemble. By all rights, this should be called “Captain America, Black Widow & The Falcon: The Winter Soldier”, but then, that’d be a really unwieldy title. The film really does a lot of cool and interesting things with Natasha and Sam, thanks to a script that knows how to write the personal stuff into the explosions, and actors in Scarlett Johansson and Anthony Mackie who have proven themselves highly adept at the particular acting style you need to apply in blockbuster cinema.

As a pinko commie, I’m also quite happy with the film’s politics, not because I perfectly agree with them (I’m not the kind of pinko commie who needs that to appreciate a film, fortunately), but because they are as coherent as can be expected in a film genre that can do subtlety only to a degree, and are a perfect fit for a Captain America film in 2014 that wants to stay true to the character’s origins of Hitler-punching and taking the promise of America by its word.

All these elements, as well as Chris Evans’s still note-perfect performance and many a nice nod to established comic characters, I mostly expected (or at least would have bet minor amounts of money on). What I didn’t expect is that Anthony and Joe Russo, both directors with mainly experience in sitcoms (even though one of them is the sainted and seemingly indestructible Community), were this great as action directors, with so many propulsive action sequences that also just happen to be often really cleverly and beautifully choreographed there should by all rights be not enough breath in anyone watching left to complain about them as “empty spectacle”. Which of course they aren’t – as in all good action movies, these action scenes are actually saying a lot of things about the characters the dialogue scenes don’t, all the time not just working to drive the film forward, but working as a physical connection between theme, characters and plot.

Needless to say, I’m very, very happy with the resulting movie.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

In short: Danger Route (1967)

Jonas Wilde (Richard Johnson) is working as a killer for one of the British secret services; as it goes with jobs like this, he’s gotten sick and tired of it, particularly since he’s acquired Jocelyn (Carol Lynley) as the kind of girlfriend that makes a man think of retiring. Also, not killing people for money anymore.

However, shortly after his latest job and before he can do anything about his retirement plans, Wilde is called in for an emergency assassination on British soil. The Americans have gotten hold of an Eastern defector, but Wilde’s superiors are convinced the man is in fact a double agent who will do incalculable damage if he’s not “gotten rid of”. The job doesn’t sit quite right with Wilde, particularly when curious things start to happen around the new job. His contact Ravenspur (Maurice Denham) suddenly grows a niece (Barbara Bouchet) who just happens to be in the game too, and Wilde can’t shake the idea the defector isn’t the only one who is to be gotten rid of.

He’s quite right, too, and that’s not even the worst thing Wilde will learn in the next few days. Well, at least he’s tough and unpleasant enough to have a chance for survival.

Most of us know Amicus as purveyors of horror anthology pictures, but of course the company did work in other genres too, like the mid-level realist spy movie Danger Route. The film is neither as kooky as your typical Eurospy movie or James Bond film nor as complex and dark as Le Carré style espionage films but moves on that middle ground where the spy work is relatively down to Earth yet not quite enough so to be believable as naturalistic.

On a philosophical level, the film prefers a somewhat tired bitterness and a very general feeling of disgust, a disgust that is in large part shared by its hero, who is disgusted by the things he does for a living (and once for Queen and Country), disgusted by how good he is at them, clearly disgusted too at the way he uses people like Diana Dors’s (fittingly sadly played) lonely alcoholic housekeeper, and certainly disgusted by the duplicity of everyone around him. Johnson expresses this disgust with deeply tired look and the facial expression of a man who really can’t smile at himself in the mirror anymore. The way Johnson plays him, it’s quite clear that Wilde expects the betrayals he is going to suffer during the course of the movie as the logical consequence of all the betrayals he has committed – and continues to commit - himself. In what feels like a twist of bitter irony, the only times Wilde really seems to be without doubts is when he commits the violent acts he has begun to abhor.

Seth Holt (a director with a bit of spy experience via the TV show Danger Man) films this bitter little piece without any grand gestures, concentrating on the performances of his lead and a bunch of fine supporting actors, giving everything the appropriate leanness as well as providing moments of effectively unpleasant violence that turn Danger Route into something of a lost gem of the espionage genre.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

In short: Crawl or Die (2014)

aka Crawl Bitch Crawl

In some not closer defined, clearly rather unpleasant future. A team of soldiers is tasked to get “the last fertile non-infected woman” (Torey Byrne) to a secure place on another planet.

Things don’t go well at all, for once they’ve arrived at their destination, the soldiers and what they call their Package are attacked by a creature that looks like a cross between Giger’s xenomorph and a spider. The creature drives the soldiers into a system of underground tunnels, crawlspaces, and holes. The thing seems practically indestructible, so the group is quickly whittled down until there are only the Package and the frighteningly determined Tank (Nicole Alonso) still left standing. Or rather left crawling through ever tighter spaces, all the while followed by a horrible thing that just won’t die and seems to be as determined to kill and eat Tank and the Package as Tank is to not let herself get eaten.

If you’re interested in film as a physical experience, or as a way to evoke very specific bodily feelings in an audience without them having to actually live through them, Oklahoma Ward’s Crawl or Die just might make you as happy as it made me. Well, “happy” might not be the most appropriate expression here, for the feelings Ward’s film evokes so well are claustrophobia, physical and mental exhaustion, desperation, and insane determination, all generally not parts of happiness. Consequently, I should probably say the film might just make you feel pretty horrible in all the right ways, particularly if you’re even the least bit claustrophobic. As someone with a propensity for it, Crawl or Die hit me pretty hard, particularly because Ward is so very good at making the enclosed spaces the film takes place in palpable as physical spaces (or lacks of physical space?), still escalating the enclosure of his characters even at a point when that seems hardly possible anymore.

What I find particularly admirable here is Crawl or Die’s absolute focus on what it’s trying to – and managing to - achieve, with everything else – plot, characterization, etc – pared down to achieve the physical effect and an exhausting forward momentum. What there is of characterization the actors provide through looks and body language, with Alonso focus and high point of the film through a performance that sells the film’s physicality even further, adding a battered humanity to the film I even found unexpectedly touching.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Godzilla (2014)

I was rather hopeful about this second Hollywood attempt to make a Godzilla movie given how much I enjoyed director Gareth Edwards’s fantastic Monsters. But then, Edwards wouldn’t have been the first director who had a hard time going from low budget cinema to mainstream blockbusters, and that’s before all the inevitable troubles of making a studio movie are taken into account.

Fortunately, this US Godzilla is at least as good as optimism could could convince one to hope for, doing very little wrong in the difficult job of making a blockbuster kaiju film. Because I am like that, let’s start off with the film’s downsides, namely the script’s – understandable – insistence on keeping its protagonist Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) close to nearly every central development in the plot, going through quite a few contrivances to get him there. I know, it’s meant to provide dramatic unity and give that part of the audience always in need of having somebody to “identify” with their due, but I honestly think you could have achieved the same goal with half a dozen characters taking on smaller individual roles in the tapestry of what’s going on; perhaps even characters of different gender and skin colour? It doesn’t exactly help that Taylor-Johnson seems to be another one of these extremely bland young male actors the last few years have brought up in Hollywood, all pretty indistinguishable from one another, serviceable actors, yet rather vacuous presences; which to me seems particularly ironic in a generation that has so many extremely talented actresses yet still too often finds little for them to do. Which neatly fits into the film’s next problem, namely that Godzilla has fuck all for Ford’s wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) to do.

Still, having said all this, it’s surprising how well Godzilla works in practice, its heavy emphasis on the human side of the story not feeling distracting – or as artificial and Hollywood-like – at all, and while I’m not really happy with concentrating all the humanity on one bland guy who just happens to be the son of the not-so crazy Bryan Cranston character, as well as a military bomb disarming expert, as well as the father of a family that just happens to live exactly in the monsters’ way, the film executes this problematic idea as good as humanly possible. Mostly, I think, because a lot of the reaction to the monsters we see from Brody (very much standing in for the way the film sees its monsters) is awe, a mixture of wonder and fear Edwards already managed to evoke – for much less money and on a more private level – quite wonderfully in Monsters. Awe seems to me the only proper feeling towards the sort of forces of Nature the monsters here are, accepting the beauty and the horror as different sides of the same coin.

I think it is this sense of awe in its treatment of its kaiju that grants this Godzilla its sense of gravitas, its characters witnessing occurrences they are barely able to comprehend, the attempts to resolve the situation through the rules and regulations that already don’t help in normal human existence (when in doubt, nuke it) bound to fail and possibly to make the situation worse. The film would be nearly Lovecraftian if you look at it from that angle, if not for the moments when the film insists – and that’s Hollywood to you – that human actions do matter, at least when it comes to inadvertently helping out Godzilla with a distraction. Of course, there’s a degree of irony in the fact that what’s a distraction to the film’s monsters is not done to distract them by the film’s characters, and that a desperate heroic deed by a human is only ever a short distraction for a monster/nature/whatever you want it to stand for.

Another thing Godzilla does that works out as a plus for it against what you’d expect (or well, against what I would have expected) is how coy it is about showing its monsters at work before the final grand – which it truly is - throw-down, the film only ever showing bits and pieces of what’s going on literally above characters’ heads, yet never looking away from the destruction caused, nor its aftermath. Edwards uses this technique not to deny his audience the big destruction set-pieces it came to see but rather to put the monster action in the right perspective, which is to say, put the audience in the perspective of ants staring at a mountain, an effect not even Shusuke Kaneko in his classic Gamera trilogy strove for quite this hard.

So, despite my misgivings, I found myself quite riveted by Godzilla, enjoying – if you can call it that – its moments of awe and carnage, appreciating its philosophical level (there’s also some obvious political allegory here, if you prefer that sort of thing), and ending up convinced this is not just a US Godzilla better than the last attempt but one that can see eye to eye with many of the better kaiju eiga.