Thursday, April 27, 2017

In short: The Return of Godzilla (1984)

Original title: ゴジラ (Gojira)

The write-up is based on the Japanese cut of the film that at least spares us the indignities of Raymond Burr and evil Soviets.

Only 1954’s original movie happened, so this 1984 Godzilla can have it easier to attempt to get back to the decidedly darker and less silly tone of the Ur-Godzilla. Somehow, Godzilla reawakens and attacks Japan, looking to suck that sweet, sweet nuclear energy out of nuclear reactors (suggesting to today’s eyes a very different film about an excellent way of cleaning up nuclear wastes). People in suits discuss stuff very earnestly, US and Soviet Ambassadors shout at the Japanese Prime Minister, a nuclear missile goes rogue, and Godzilla does some stuff too, sometimes. Until he is lured into a volcano, the end.

While it probably must have sounded like a good idea at the time to lead the premier kaiju back to its roots of allegorical monstrosity, Koji Hashimoto’s film – unlike Shin Godzilla that choses a comparable path but succeeds wildly but more on that movie at a later date - really doesn’t do much with the opportunities that new approach should have opened. This Godzilla could be too easily replaced with any kind of natural catastrophe, his living metaphor status being hammered home by the film again and again in the most graceless manner possible. Nuance and ambiguity are kept by the wayside at all times. The producers seem satisfied with leaving the film’s supposed central threat less than the portent of doom it was probably supposed to be, delivering something that’s metaphor first and foremost. And metaphors only seldom make good movie monsters - as much as some people might still fear metaphors since school days – when not tempered into something that actually works as a real thing in the imaginary world of the movie they inhabit.

Hashimoto, the script, and long time Godzilla producer Tomoyuki Tanaka (whose idea this whole mess was anyway), do quite obviously prefer the cold war subplot anyhow, but having Godzilla as a metaphor for nuclear destruction sharing space with the threat of actual nuclear destruction in the same film feels like a film with a crisis of identity more so than anything else.

The whole affair is further dragged down by Hashimoto’s leaden direction, lacking spark, character and drive, as well as by a plodding pace that manages to stretch out the events of a thirty minute movie to triple that length, by the deeply mediocre Tokyo-smashing, and by a human cast that is bland and boring to a degree unexpected even for the kaiju genre where human non-entities are just a fact of (movie) life.

So, even though The Return of Godzilla’s status as the particularly unloved stepchild of the Godzilla films has critically improved over the course of the last decade or so, I really can’t find much to like about it, even if I ignore that Godzilla’s facial expressions in it remind me a lot of grumpy cat.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

In short: WNUF Halloween Special (2013)

Welcome to a very special night of regional TV, recorded on grubby VHS tape some time in the 80s. After a mix of pretty brilliant fake commercials and news bits, the tape gets to the meat of the proceedings: a Halloween special reportage that sees WNUF’s intrepid reporter Frank Stewart (Paul Fahrenkopf) visit a supposedly haunted house where once some ouija board related murders took place. Frank is accompanied by famous parapsychological research husband and wife team Dr. Louis (Brian St. August) and Claire (Helenmary Ball) Berger, their mediumistic cat Shadow and Catholic exorcist Father Matheson (Robert Long II). Of course, really weird things begin to happen.

Mainly directed by Chris LaMartina, this is a pretty wondrous fake time capsule that apparently mimics the style of TV it portrays incredibly well – while adding jokes to it. Having grown up and living in Germany, I don’t really know how this kind of 80s regional US TV is supposed to look, but I can say that the film’s presentation does feel just right to me, so it’s certainly convincing to somebody who does not have any nostalgia for the sort of thing it portrays and lovingly sends up. In any case, the film feels like a pretty joyful project, clearly made with a lot of love and an eye for detail, starting with the fake commercials that are often as funny as they are straight-faced, and the news bits, and not beginning to slouch when it comes to the the misadventures in the haunted (or is it?) house which of course do not end well.

Well, the main special could probably have gone with a little less authenticity in form of fewer commercial breaks, but otherwise, WNUF Halloween Special is fun from beginning to end with acting performances that are cheesy in what feels just the right way and full of exactly the type of straight-faced humour that won’t destroy the feeling of really watching an old VHS tape of TV going quite a bit wrong while still being funny.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Poltergeist III (1988)

After their experiences in Poltergeist II (which I’m not going to write up because I just can’t cope with quite this much Magical Native American), the Freelings must have turned into assholes, for they have left their ghost magnet daughter Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) with her aunt Pat (Nancy Allen), her hubby, rich architect Bruce (Tom Skerritt) and Bruce’s daughter Donna (Lara Flynn Boyle) in a high rise building in Chicago that is apparently some kind of arcology. Carol Anne is going to a school for talented but weird kids, where the chief psychologist, one doctor Seaton (Richard Fire), holds regular hypnosis sessions with her to prove that what happened in the first two movies was “mass hypnosis” somehow induced by Carol Anne. Which sounds even more ridiculous than poltergeists, so he at least deserves credits for countering the bat-shit insane with the even crazier.

Of course, the whole thing somehow calls back ole Reverend Henry Kane (Nathan Davis) and his crew of ghosts, who have suddenly developed the habit of exclusively centring their hauntings around mirrors, reflections, cold and evil doppelgangers. That’s going to become a bit of a problem, for Bruce’s high rise is hyper-modern and built in the 80s, therefore it is full of mirrors.

Gary Sherman’s Poltergeist III generally has a rather bad reputation but I enjoy it quite a bit more than the second film in the series. It’s not at all on the level of the original, of course, but at least the new things it is trying are more interesting than embarrassing, unlike what happens in film number two.

Characterisations aren’t terribly inventive – apart from the fact that Bruce who isn’t a blood relation clearly loves Carol Anne much more than the sister of her mother does. Pat learning to love the girl despite Carol Anne’s intrinsic weirdness (which you can read as a metaphor for illness or disability, if you’re so minded) is actually pretty much what part of the film seem to want to be about but the final twenty minutes of Poltergeist III are such a chaos of bad writing, characters saying and doing things that make no sense whatsoever, and plain bullshit that there’s no real pay off to the theme.

What does pay off, and what makes the first hour of the film worth watching quite a bit, is how much of a master class on building a variety of supernatural phenomena out of a small number of things – reflections and cold – it is. While there’s more than enough diversity to the phenomena to avoid boring anyone through repetition, they clearly belong to the same supernatural theme where quite a few horror films would just randomly throw supposedly spooky stuff at the audience. The feel of connection between various weirdnesses here is quite effective, and some of them make for really trippy and original little shocks and twists.

Until the film suddenly goes to a bizarre encounter in a frozen parking garage, one of the most stupid fake happy ends in horror history in which I have no idea why the characters are suddenly supposed to believe that things are over, not to speak of the audience, and a series of final set pieces and dialogue sequences that seem to have little connection to what came before, and which are probably the fault of your usual “troubled production history”.

Which puts Poltergeist III into the rubric of interesting but annoyingly flawed films worth watching for the good in them.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Bye Bye Man (2017)

Elliot (Douglas Smith), his girlfriend and total non-entity – but don’t worry, the film will see her spending most of her time sick in bed and all of her time without any agency whatsoever despite it being directed by a woman - Sasha (Cressida Bonas) and their black jock buddy – yes, that’s his whole characterisation in three words but hey, it’s more than Elliot or Sasha have – John (Lucien Laviscount) move into a creepy-ass house in the woods, as students leaving home for the first time are wont to do in the peculiar parallel universe this film takes place in.

As it goes with creepy-ass houses, there’s something bad hidden away inside it. Hidden in a night stand is a spiral of scribbles saying “Don’t think it, don’t say it” over and over again. We can be sure about that too, for Elliot is the kind of guy who will read a whole spiral of crazy scribbling out loud, even when he’s at the fifth repetition. But under the note containing the scribbles, there are more…WORDS! “The Bye Bye Man”, it says, and after reading it, the creepy-ass student paradise in the woods turns very supernatural, for Elliot has inadvertently drawn in the titular entity, something that infects everyone reading or hearing its name with madness, hallucinations and murder, or in the case of the people trying to not become the thing’s victims, madness, hallucinations, murder and suicide. Yeah, I dunno if that’s much better.

Anyway, before we come to the murder (and the film’s only competent bit, special make-up effects by the Kurtzman people), the students are struck with all kinds of stupid shit – there are generic mainstream horror shocks, erectile dysfunction (seriously), a childish love triangle, a CGI monster dog, random and not so random hallucinations of various kinds of crap, and oh so very much bad acting.

Man, if you’re like me going into this afraid of another ultra-generic piece of mainstream horror, the sort of thing many horror fans decry as terrible but that to me are usually prime examples of aggressively boring competence, you are in for a surprise. For there’s nothing at all competent about Stacy Title’s (who also directed Snoop Dogg’s Hood of Horror, so you know we’re in good hands with her) film. It’s supposedly based on a piece by historian of the weird Robert Damon Schneck that is very close in tone to creepypasta but the film really takes very little of Schneck’s ideas (I mean, his “true story”, of course). There are train noises, coins, and a dog (well, a hilariously designed bad CGI effect that’ll mostly leave you wondering why the poor monster doggy doesn’t have any hair – too difficult to animate?), and the entity's name, of course, but that’s it. Thus are the strange and mysterious ways of the Hollywood licensing business.

What really makes the film the very special kind of train wreck it turns out to be is not just that it wastes the perfectly neat – if not exactly original anymore – idea of a supernatural menace that works as a malignant meme. It also attempts to be a psychologically based horror film without ever establishing anything much about its characters but the most basic clichés or, you know, making any psychological sense -really, any kind of sense – whatsoever. Because that’s not making the whole thing chaotic, tonally confused, and practically impossible to parse already, there are also more than just a couple of scenes that are clearly trying to be the mainstream horror thing I suspected it to be going in, just suffering from the wee problem that most of the things the film thinks are frightening are in fact hilarious, be it the monster dog, three hallucinated maggots (not enough money for more?), or good old Doug Jones dressed up like a Jedi Knight and pointing a finger (seriously). So, not only do three or four films that go off in very different directions collide here, it’s three or four terrible and misguided films.

Does all this mean I didn’t enjoy The Bye Bye Man quite a bit? Quite the opposite. While I was staring with disbelief at its ideas of what I’m supposed to be afraid of, giggling at the “daring” erectile dysfunction shenanigans that don’t actually dare to name that horrifying state of a young man’s penis, or plain failing at expecting the bizarre nonsense the film would come up with next, I had a whale of a time with the film. It’s not every day, after all, that a relatively mainstream horror production reaches the lunatic kind of badness we usually only can hope for from backstreet auteurs and enthusiastic crazy people shooting films in their parents’ gardens. This is one of those films you can’t imagine not coming from some sort of strange parallel world, where things are most probably much brighter than here, if clearly less logical.

I can’t end this happy screed without giving special shout-outs to Douglas Smith for doing all the bug-eyed grimacing the other cast members just can’t bring themselves to perform, and the script by actor (and Snoop Dogg’s Horror in the Hood veteran, what do you know?) Jonathan Penner for gifting us with choice dialogue lines like “Ah, ah, ah, ah, it’s not real!” (yes, the ah’s are just spoken like that), “the day my life went, turn, turn, turn”, or the immortal “Daddy! You know I can’t read in the dark! What do you think I am? A flashlight?”.

It is a very special film indeed.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

In short: Deadly Eyes (1982)

This City, Canada. After authorities, as represented by department of health agent Kelly Leonard (Sara Botsford) and Scatman Crothers, burn a steroid-infested ship-load of corn, the rats that have been living on said corn move into the city. This will turn out to be a dachshund-sized problem, for their special diet has turned them into rats as big as dachshunds and rather aggressive ones to boot. So soon, they begin eating children and the elderly.

Kelly rather quickly cops to what’s going on but the mayor (perhaps the place is called Amity?) and her boss just won’t believe her. But hey, at least she’ll acquire a new boyfriend, hunky teacher Paul Harris (Sam Groom) during the proceedings. Unless a) they are eaten by dachshundsrats or b) Paul just can’t resist the advances of his student Trudy (Lisa Langlois). Trudy thinks Paul’s so sophisticated because he has travelled and stuff and is apparently convinced that Paul being divorced means he understands women. Well, Trudy’s a cheerleader, not a budding intellectual, so what do you expect?

I’m not sure why you’d acquire the rights to James Herbert’s (at least in Europe) best-selling novel The Rats to then move its action from a grubby pulpy London to a nameless (unless it’s really called This City, which is the name its mayor likes to use) Canadian city? But then, I, unlike the makers of this very special movie, am also less than convinced that portraying one’s mildly giant rats by putting dachshunds in costumes (well, and by using pretty crappy puppets for close-ups) is a swell idea, so what do I know.

The dachshund thing is of course what Robert Clouse’s Deadly Eyes is most famous for, and it’s really fair too. There certainly is more than just a little charm to watching a horde of what is most obviously small dogs setting out to murder people. Oh, let’s be honest, it’s absolutely frigging hilarious, as are the script’s attempts at writing teenagers. Hearing Trudy speak and breaking into a fit of laughter are pretty much the same thing, while her attempts at seducing her teacher merrily skip over making one uncomfortable into even more hilarity. I’m also very fond of Sam Groom apparently being to This City, Canada what Tom Atkins is to the world of John Carpenter – the (inexplicably) sexiest man alive.

At the same time, there’s the heart of a really ruthless little horror film (and an actual adaptation of the Herbert novel) hidden away under the never-ending barrage of funny dialogue, the sort of film that has no trouble murdering children and the elderly. Of course, the comedic quality of the rat attacks and the even more comedic dialogue demolish any hopes of taking the film seriously.

However, the film’s just too funny complain about that.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Past Misdeeds: The Enchanted (1984)

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 without any re-writes or improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.


After years of rambling (okay, sailing) around the world, Royce Hagan (Will Sennett) returns to his now empty and unused paternal place (not very rural me has a hard time calling a place in the woods "a ranch" as the film does) way out in the backwoods of Florida to make a living raising cattle. Eccentric old family friend Booker T (Julius Harris) welcomes Royce back with open arms. Booker also warns his friend to get too close to the Perdrys, a family that one day just turned up and claimed an empty house as their own, and are now doing day work for anyone around who'd care to have them. According to Booker, they are friendly enough folk, but something the sage of the backwoods isn't allowing himself to go into isn't quite right with them.

As it goes in stories where these sorts of unhelpful warnings are uttered, Royce soon enough gets close to the Perdrys when they help him bring his farm in order, and falls in love with Twyla (Casey Blanton), one of the family's daughters. Twyla returns his feelings with a vengeance, and soon moves in with Royce. But Booker was right - something really isn't quite normal (whatever that means) about Twyla and her family. It's nothing too egregious, really. Twyla just can't cope with the more bloody parts of country life too well, and she has an unhealthy fear of cats, even when they come in the form of an adorable little kitten.

Also, an animal that might or might not be a wolf is preying on Royce's cattle until he can't think of a better way to help himself but to hunt the animal down with some of the locals. The hunt and what surrounds it acts as a catalyst for Twyla's fears and drives her to flight in a way only Booker - surely not Royce - could have expected.

(The impressively named) Carter Lord's The Enchanted is not the sort of film I think about when I hear the - sometimes frightening - phrase "cinema of the 80s". In fact, the film does fit much more neatly into my beloved non-genre of peculiar local film productions from the US that had its high watermark some time in the 70s and had already gone most of its way into oblivion to be replaced by the horrors produced for the SOV market by the time Lord made his film.

The only thing about The Enchanted truly of the 80s is a synth soundtrack made with pre-set sounds that no soundtrack before or after that decade ever dared use, but most films of it were contractually obliged to contain. That isn't to say the movie's music isn't fitting into its basic mood of slight weirdness. In fact, it does its job as well as one could ask for; it only does so using sounds that seem to scream the decade the film was produced in at the viewer, which - depending on one's disposition - might be either a thing of wonder or a distraction.

Mood is not unexpectedly The Enchanted's main virtue. As quite a few directors working locally on a low budget did, Lord bets much of his film's effect on the use of the one thing that doesn't cost him any money - landscape. In this particular case, "landscape" means some very fine backwoods just this side of turning from woods into swamps. Lord does his best to present his film's location as a place where the everyday can quite easily turn into the fantastic, a place where the weird does not look as strange as it would in different surroundings, and although he isn't a flashy or even an obviously artful director, he (and his friend the landscape) manages more than just fine to give his movie just the right folktale/fairy tale mood.

In the tradition of folktales in many times and places, The Enchanted is a simply structured affair, telling an at the surface very simple story that might or might not (depending on one's interpretatory proclivities) hide interesting depths. For the sort of viewer desperately in need of surface excitement beyond slowly measured dialogue scenes and one or two glimpses (and I mean glimpses) of the magical, the film's approach to storytelling as something that is done in a calm, unexcited way befitting the rhythm of the locality it takes place in, will only ever be a test of patience that just can't pay off in the way he'd hope for, so if you're one of those people, this is very definitely not a film for you. If, on the other hand, you are like me willing to just accept the way a film goes about telling a low-key story, and willing to live with the fact that not much actually happens in it, this might be just the thing you were looking for.

Another problem (apart from the film's problematic availability) a viewer will have to cope with is The Enchanted's acting. Although nobody on screen is really bad, or unconvincing enough to pull one out of the cone of the film's effect, there are are more than a few performances that seem to be just slightly off for or a moment or two, as if the respective actor and the director hadn't really agreed on a consistent tone for the role throughout the whole film, leading to a slight feeling of inconsistency from one scene to the next. Fortunately, this - at least when you're used to much larger acting problems - isn't too much of an annoyance and at times even seems to strengthen the folk tale mood of the whole piece. Folktales, after all, aren't usually known for their consistency beside the very basics of their characters.

The film's main actor - the Florida backwoods - doesn't suffer from these minor problems anyway. I know I'm saying this quite a lot about landscape in movies, but if The Enchanted had only consisted of minutes and minutes of nature performing its duty of looking quite astonishingly unreal, and hadn't even bothered with telling its clever folktale full of local colour, I'd still be madly excited about the whole affair. That's just what happens when my eyes and a patch of woods meet, I'm afraid.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Three Films Make A Post: It'll cost you an arm and a leg...

Ghostbusters (2016): Unlike some guys who really seem disturbed by the mere concept of a film with female protagonists, I really wanted to like this one. Unfortunately, I think it’s about as funny as a funeral (so typical for Paul Feig movies and me), with oh so many non-starter jokes without punch lines, scenes that go on endlessly for no particular reason, pacing problems, a total lack of the urgency the plot of the original Ghostbusters had while actually being funny, badly defined characters, boring ghosts, and an all-around lackluster air I find completely befuddling given how beloved the first original Ghostbusters movie was.

There’s really no good reason why this one isn’t better – the money’s there, the people involved seem actually enthusiastic about the project, yet still it’s on the same level of blandness as Legend of Tarzan.

Satanic (2016): There are two or perhaps three scenes in Jeffrey Hunt’s occult teen horror film that suggest potential for at least mild creepiness. Unfortunately, these scenes are in a movie that mostly plays out like a mediocre (cable) TV movie, only that most TV movies nowadays don’t waste half of their running time before the actual plot starts. This one, alas, leaves us with thirty minutes of actual narrative and nearly an hour of various kinds of feet-dragging – and not any interesting kind of feet dragging. The acting’s less than helpful, too, with most of the young pretty things seeming out of their depth even when asked to portray even the most basic of emotions.

I can’t imagine who the supposed audience for this thing is – teen horror fans can do so much better, TV movie horror fans too, and the trash and gore hounds will fall asleep early and not miss out on anything.

Worry Dolls aka The Devil’s Dolls (2016): That does make Padraig Reynolds’s Southern US set horror film something like the star of this post. Despite a rather clunky script – just take as an example how the way the film decides to use to get the titular dolls into the wrong hands also makes the cop hero look like the most incompetent man alive or the treacly clichéd way the film portrays the guy’s relation to his little daughter – the film is at least entertaining, from time to time even moody, and certainly acted competently enough. There are also some rather neat bloody sequences as well as some well-realized suspense sequences that suggests – as did the director’s Rites of Spring – that Reynolds is just a decent script away from turning out a truly good movie.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Some Thoughts About Poltergeist (1982)

Well, I think I can spare us any words about the plot here. After all, if you’re reading this, you’ve most certainly seen the film.

For quite some time, I’ve never really given Poltergeist much of a chance. Sure I’ve enjoyed it when I was a kid, but afterwards, a degree of dislike for its approach to horror as a carnivalesque special effects spectacular and a whole dollop of grumpy prejudice left me with a very cynical view of it, or of what it turned into in my mind. As is rather too often the case with me for comfort, I was wrong and unfair about Poltergeist. Fortunately, a recent rewatch of the painfully bland remake did make me curious about trying the original again, and watching it rather changed my mind.

Sure, I was right about Poltergeist in so far that it is indeed a film very much rooted in spooking its audience with its special effects – some of which still look brilliant to my eyes, some of which have dated as badly as CGI from the year 2001 – but it goes about it the honest way, certainly throwing something cool to look at on the screen every five minutes but also realizing special effects – even great ones – are not the only thing you need to catch an audience, and if you want to spook it for more than a few minutes, you’ll need to build an emotional connection.

The Hooper/Spielberg (how much of this is actually directed by Hooper and how much by the nominal producer Spielberg depends on whom you ask – at least some of the lighting and the sense of humour feel very much like a product of Hooper to me) film goes about creating this connection rather more subtly and rather less saccharine than Spielberg of this era is generally given credit for. The Freeling family is of course meant as an ideal identification foil for the film’s presumed white upper middle-class 80s audience, but the filmmakers are intelligent enough to realize that audiences might ask for representation but when it comes down to it, they’ll actually empathize with specific characters that are more than pure stand-ins for abstract notions quite a bit more. Consequently, the film puts a heavy emphasis on the way particularly the parents interact with one another, an - often quite funny – natural closeness that, together with fine and highly sympathetic performances by Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams, presents the couple as the proverbial Good Parents, but also as people with flaws and difficulties who bicker sometimes, roll up a joint (or read up on Ronald Reagan) or make bad jokes in front of a mirror. In other words, characters whose troubles an audience can be interested in not because they are exactly like them (whatever that’d look), but because they feel like actual people. Compare that to the remake that doesn’t even manage to get any kind of personality out of Sam Rockwell.

Thusly prepared, the horrors of losing a child, encountering the supernatural and losing quite a few of the outer determinants of the Freeling’s as members of the upper middle-class during the course of the film, take on a much more affecting face, what could be an empty special effects extravaganza turning into a film that can actually touch you emotionally. Poltergeist’s considerable impact is further strengthened by some fine supporting performances. The child actors are merely okay (but they’re not horrible, with is the only thing I really demand of acting children, because they are children), but Beatrice Straight as parapsychologist Dr. Lesh sells some of the more problematic exposition with a great impression of human warmth and dignity, and Zelda Rubinstein is just perfect as Tangina, a character that’s a genuine weirdo the film still – or even because of that - portrays with great warmth and without any irony, leaving sceptical me very okay with a character I should hate with all the energy of a hundred burning suns (compare with the insufferable holier than thou Warrens in the similar in approach but to me completely ineffective The Conjuring films).

That the film looks fantastic (the lighting often is just outright beautiful), and that Hooper/Spielberg (Hooperberg? Spieler?) know how to pace a movie perfectly hardly needs a mention.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

In short: Terror on Tour (1980)

Unlike the lying title suggests, shock rock outfit The Clowns isn’t exactly on tour – they seem to have a longer residence someplace. I’m pretty sure pretending to have one venue is difficult enough for this stinker, so a tour bus is really out of the question.

Someone using one of the band’s patented “Kiss with a big afro” outfits murders random women around the place the band is playing at, from time to time going off into victim killer exchanges like “Can I do something for you?” – “Die!”.

Who, oh who might the killer be? One of the band members? The roadie who likes to put on their make-up because he’s too shy to speak with girls otherwise? The other roadie with the drug problem? The mild-mannered manager? The judgmental cop? Wake me up when they know!

For truly, what strikes me most about Don Edmonds’s Terror on Tour is how sleep-inducing it is. I do have quite a bit of patience for films trying to get by despite the difficulties that come with working under the curse of the combination of a tiny budget, a wonky script and little of import happening, but this thing had me yawning early on, and I never felt myself getting any less sleepy. The best you get here is one line or two like the one I quoted earlier about every twenty minutes to keep you awake, otherwise it’s boring, one slash and they’re dead, murders, boring, badly lit sex scenes – actually, that’s unfair, all scenes are boring and badly lit here though you gotta look with horror at a film where even the nudity is this boring –, acting that’s bad in the least interesting and slowest manner, static direction that has a distinct vibe of early sound film surrounding it, and, well, that’s really it. The music’s pretty bad, too, but for a rock band based slasher, even it keeps to the undistinguished and boring style the rest of the films very slowly wallows in.

Did I mention this is really boring and slow?

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Dollman (1991)

After some (un)funny business concerning “fat ladies”, delightfully named space cop on the edge Brick Bardo (Tim Thomerson) gets into a space chase with his flying head nemesis – who is such a delightful thing because Brick shot off the rest of his body during various earlier encounters we alas do not witness – Sprug (Frank Collison). Spug threatens their home planet in general and Brick specifically with some kind of dimensional bomb that’ll turn out to not amount to much of an explosion much later on.

Both their ships end up crashing down on Earth, the South Bronx to be precise. It’s a movie and it’s 1991, so it’s gang violence central there. Which might be a bit of a problem, because Brick turns out to be only 12 inches tall. Fortunately, he has a very special gun that’ll kill giants dead as good as anyone his own size. Brick starts out early with using it too, for he saves idealistic community activist Debi Alejandro (Kamala Lopez-Dawson) from some gang violence right after he comes to again. Debi grabs Brick and his damaged spaceship, while Sprug and his bomb land in the loving arms of also delightfully named gang boss Braxton Red (Jackie Earle Haley). Things develop from there rather as you’d expect them to.

To my surprise, this is one Albert Pyun movie I actually like. I’m not sure what happened during the making of the film, but somehow it avoids both of the curses plaguing the director’s filmography: Dollman is neither an exercise in boredom mostly broken up by different kinds of boredom, nor does it mistreat a viewer’s eyes with the dregs of Pyun’s would-be artsy direction style that’ll usually make everything he does different to parse bordering on complete inexplicability. Instead, the film’s pace is lively, and the direction expert low budget craft. If this was the first or only Pyun film I’d seen, I’d actually seek out more. It’s rather confusing, I have to admit.

Adding to these virtues is a script by Chris Roghair (an only writing credit that to me suggests a pseudonym) that’s often actually as funny as it thinks it is – though I could have gladly gone without the “fat ladies” bit – when it joyfully wades into cop on the edge clichés and mixes them with plain weird crap. Because the weird stuff alone probably won’t carry a whole film, and because it’s certainly much more interesting this way, Dollman’s tone turns surprisingly serious whenever Debi begins to talk about gang violence. It’s not exactly social realism, but the way the more earnest bits and the full-on B-movie bullshit collide and intermingle is highly fascinating and entertaining. The film also turns Haley’s Braxton into something more than a pure action movie villain. He’s crazy, violent and vile, but he also gets the motives and even a bit of the ambiguity of a person. Which obviously turns his and Debi’s interactions with tiny space aliens just the decisive bit weirder still. Even better, everyone in the cast – Thomerson is Thomerson anyway, and young-ish Haley and Lopez-Dawson certainly are no slouches - can actually sell this tonal strangeness rather well, making the film at once funnier and just plain interesting.

These are not words I expected to write about an Albert Pyun film about a tiny space cop taking place right in producer Albert Band’s main obsession space, but who am I to complain about a film being much more awesome and inspired than I expected?

Saturday, April 15, 2017

In short: Jack the Giant Slayer (2013)

Unless he’s going the “Superman is Jesus” route, you can usually trust in Bryan Singer to turn out a good to great bit of mainstream Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking. Personally, I hold him responsible for the fact that most of Fox’s X-Men films are actually worth watching, and actually seem to get what the better parts of the comics are thematically about.

Jack isn’t really up there with Days of Future Past, though. It’s still a fun bit of spectacle, with quite a few mildly rousing scenes of anti-giant violence, a usually fun to watch cast and assured pacing. This isn’t one of those big loud Hollywood movies that take their dear time actually starting (I’m looking at you, Suicide Squad’s never ending character introductions), either. Singer knows the hoary adventure chestnut he wants to tell, he knows which elements he needs to tell it, and he’s not going to bore his audience with stuff that doesn’t belong in it.

Still, there are some puzzling directorial choices here: why is the short exposition in form of a fairy tale shown as a bit of ass-ugly digital animation that looks as if they’d hired a handful of interns to cook something up in a weekend? Why does semi-fairy tale Olde Englande seem to be more inspired by Monty Python than fairy tales (or old England, for that matter)? What’s up with the curious tonal shifts between all ages fantasy adventure and moments of what surely must be conscious grittiness, seeing as they don’t have any thematic meaning? This certainly isn’t a film that’s trying to compare the idealistic ideas of adventure of its two young main characters with an uglier truth, nor one that’s trying to argue something about the power of the imagination trumping brutal reality, so I can see much reason for these tonal problems beyond them being the dreaded artefacts of earlier script versions that nobody bothered to get rid of. Also, why hire Stanley Tucci (whom I usually adore) of all people as a villain instead of someone who can do a proper Basil Rathbone by virtue of being British and not having to spend so much of his acting energy on his fake accent?

Again, this doesn’t mean Jack the Giant Slayer isn’t big loud fun. I certainly enjoyed my two hours with it, and am certainly not averse to watching it again in a couple of years. It’s just that Singer usually can do more working in the space Jack belongs to.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Past Misdeeds: Adèle Blanc-Sec

aka The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec

Original title: Les Aventures Extraordinaires D'Adèle Blanc-Sec

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 without any re-writes or 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.

Journalist and adventurer Adèle Blanc-Sec (Louise Bourgoin) is adventuring in Egypt. The young woman is attempting to steal the mummy of Patmosis, the personal physician of Ramses II. Adèle's not in it for money or fame, though. In fact, it's quite the opposite. Adèle is trying to acquire Patmosis so that her friend, the elderly - and nutty - professor Esperandieu (Jacky Nercessian) can revive the dead guy with his enormous mind powers. The newly alive Patmosis, or so Adèle hopes, will then use the superior medical knowledge of the ancient Egyptians to cure her sister, who has been lying in a waking coma ever since a very unfortunate tennis/hatpin accident (for which Adèle feels guilty) five years ago. Acquiring the mummy needs all of Adèle's (also quite enormous) powers of sarcasm and adventuring, but evading a nasty French government agent and gaining possession of the dead doctor is only the beginning of what the young writer will have to do to save her sister.

While Adèle was away, Professor Esperandieu has decided that it's a good idea to make a test run of his revivification process, and has induced a pterodactyl to claw itself out of an egg in the Museum of Natural History. Unfortunately, the dinosaur is rather cross with the world at large, and causes the death of a state minister and his dancehall singer lover, a deed for which the police soon hold the old man responsible. Consequently, when Adèle returns to Paris, Esperandieu is soon to be executed.

Of course, little things like a prison break or a pterodactyl can't stand between a woman and the life of her sister.

Between producing and writing every action movie from Europe made in the last ten years, Luc Besson has somehow found the time to direct this adaptation of a series of critically well-loved comics by Jacques Tardi. Having mostly grown up on US comics, I have never read any of Tardi's Adèle Blanc-Sec stories (though I'll probably catch up on them through the new Fantagraphics translations), so you won't hear anything about the terrible things Besson might or might not have done to my childhood with his film. I suspect the director/writer took a lot of liberties with his source material - at least nothing I have read about the first two albums of the comic mentions anything about a sister in a coma (I know, I know, it's serious). This gives me the freedom to just shrug about the quality of the adaptation and watch the pretty, moving pictures in this case.

Tonally, Adèle is quite a comedic film, dominated by a sense of humour that vacillates between the silly, the stupid, and the delightfully whimsical, with the whimsical and the silly having a boxing match for domination into which the stupid blunders from time to time in form of "hilarious" policemen of the fat sheriff archetype and hunters as we know them from Monty Python sketches. But for every joke about a pterodactyl shitting on someone's head, there are three or four actually funny ones, so that's rather alright with me.

Mostly, Besson shows the right sort of comedic timing, seldom staying in one place too long for it to become annoying. Although, truth be told, I could have gone with one or two "funny" disguises less in Adèle's failed attempts at breaking Esperandieu out of prison, especially because the way she actually manages to get the Professor out is much funnier and much more fun than the disguises are.

Between the jokes, the film does feature some fine, entertaining moments of adventure, rather like what I'd imagine a fourth Indiana Jones movie made by people who still know the difference between good, entertaining randomness and doddering idiocy would have included. Speaking of the film that doesn't exist, Adele's CGI effects are also a lot better than those found there (though not perfect, as the conceptually best moment of pterodactyl adventuring will prove), even though I really don't know why you'd want to realize a walking mummy through CGI instead of make-up. But the effect is good enough, if you are willing to accept it for what it is, and who am I to stand between myself and my own entertainment through walking mummies?

I was also positively surprised by the easiness with which Besson - whose output in the last decade hasn't shown any interest in women in his movies beyond the "looking pretty" or "to be rescued" parts - concentrates on a female hero whose competence and heroism isn't treated as anything special "for a woman" (yet still as something pretty special "for a person"); all men in the movie are either mummies, or clowns, or just minor characters anyway.

It certainly helps Besson's case here that Louise Bourgoin is quite effortlessly capable to carry the movie with a performance that is at once energetic and charming, and holds herself against good jokes and bad, pterodactyls, mummies, and pantomime villains. Bourgoin is in fact so central to the film that the only scenes that don't work at all are those in which she isn't on screen. It's enough to make a boy infatuated.

As is, now that I think about it, the whole film she's starring in.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

In short: Demonic Toys (1992)

Police woman Judith Gray (Tracy Scoggins) has a very bad night. Her partner and fiancée is killed during an apparently completely unsupervised undercover operation. When she follows the two perpetrators into a nearby warehouse, things become really bad. Turns out the place is the home of a demon who prefers to show himself in the form of a little boy. Said demon has chosen Judith’s unborn child to become his new body. Towards that goal – and because this is a Full Moon feature – he possesses some toys, namely a potty-mouthed baby doll, a jack-in-the-box (including the box), a crappy silver robot that shoots lasers and the teddy bear from hell. They lock Judith, a chicken delivery guy, a random teenager, the surviving killer and a security guard in the warehouse and proceed to murder their way through the cast, while the demon taunts Judith with exposition, while various other supernatural crap occurs.

In retrospect, this relatively early phase of Charles Band’s and Full Moon’s obsession with evil dolls, puppets and whatnot is pretty fascinating. At this point, the company could still afford professional actors, and – while things certainly had to be done on the cheap – the company’s products still looked like real movies. Director Peter Manoogian had been working with Band since Empire times, and while nobody will probably get out the auteur label to pin on the man’s work, his direction generally shows craftsmanship and the ability to treat the weird stuff the script (in this case written by a young David S. Goyer) throws at him with the appropriate seriousness.

Which is a good thing in a film containing stuff like that talking murderous baby doll. Otherwise, all the entertainment value of the general craziness would be drained away by the film smugly winking at its audience. So yes, while Demonic Toys does have a clear idea of how silly it is, it clearly sees no reason not to treat its audience to as much entertainment as it can wring out of the nonsense. Goyer’s script also contains some genuinely good ideas that tend to be used rather bluntly – a problem his scripts still suffer under, just that the bluntness here is appropriate and often needed to make the film’s low production values work, Goyer today doesn’t really have that sort of excuse anymore.

Anyway, while one needs to keep one’s disbelief and probably one’s sense of being a very serious grown-up suspended quite heavily to enjoy Demonic Toys, the film really works hard for our enjoyment. It’s not a thrill-a-minute ride, but there’s something fun, something entertaining, something low-brow funny, something interesting, or something whacked out bizarre (did I mention how the teddy bear later transforms into a teddy bear werewolf costume thing?) happening at least every two minutes, the film putting all its money right on the screen. I, at least, couldn’t help enjoying myself quite a bit. There’s always something to be said for unapologetic yet enthusiastic genre nonsense, and I wouldn’t want to miss it and films like it for the world.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Visitor in the Eye (1977)

Original title: Hitomi no naka no houmonsha

Some weird tennis boarding school in Weird Japan™. Aspiring young tennis player Chiaki (Nagisa Katahira) sees her dreams of a tennis heroic future of doing her best shattered when her young teacher Imaoka (Shingo Yamamoto) hits one of her eyes very badly with a ball, blinding her in it. Chiaki does the full brave heroine who doesn’t mind having her dreams crushed routine but Imaoka feels so guilty – a feeling certainly heightened by him being maybe a wee bit inappropriately in love with his student – he’ll do anything to help her get her eyesight back, something your normal men of medicine just won’t be able to help with.

Which leads our teacher friend directly to the man we know and love as Black Jack (house favourite Jo Shishido), rogue surgeon, sometimes mad scientist, and all-around grump. Black Jack wants a lot of money for the operation but most of all, he needs Imaoka to provide a replacement cornea for Chiaki. And, no, he’s not going to take up Imaoka on his offer of one of his own corneas. That’d be stupid! Insert Jo Shishido hitting an innocent table with full force here. Anyway, Imaoka does what any young man in love would do and breaks into the nearest eye bank (that’s what the film calls it, and who are we to doubt its wisdom in things medical?).

The ensuing cornea transplant works out well, and soon Chiaki is playing tennis again, young love is blooming between student and teacher (who, shocked reader, is basically her age, so stay calm) and the film is all set for a treacly happy end after only thirty minutes. Alas, Chiaki starts seeing a goofily sinister guy in a cloak whenever she is close to water. She’s feeling rather drawn to her hallucination too, so when she encounters the man from her vision in real life she’s already more than halfway in love with him. The mysterious man with the dubious taste in clothing is Shiro Kazama (Toru Minegishi who manages to act even more melodramatically than his character is written), as melodramatic a pianist as his cloak wearing habit suggests, and feels as deeply drawn to Chiaki as she is to him. Does he have a rather gothic romance style secret that just might get Chiaki killed? Of course he does, he’s a melodramatic artistic soul wearing a cloak!

After and through some other business I’m not going to get into now, apart from telling you it’s weird, Imaoka and Chiaki’s best friend and tennis double partner Kyoko (played by another house favourite, the wonderful Etsuko Shihomi) try to find out what the heck is up with Chiaki now, and will perhaps learn a terrible secret in time to safe her life.

It might come as a bit of a disappointment that this weird concoction concerning Osamu Tezuka’s wild and wonderful manga character Black Jack in a live action adventure doesn’t actually feature too much of Black Jack himself, particularly since Shishido plays him with the charming and hilarious style of overacting that befits a character as exalted as everyone’s favourite rogue surgeon. It’s really more of a slightly long-ish cameo, but then, the sheer scenery-chewing of Shishido might have eaten up all the beautiful scenery as well as the consciously artificial sets director Nobuhiko Obayashi throws at his audience’s corneas.

Obayashi is well loved around these parts for his epochal – and epochally weird – female coming of age tale Hausu. The Visitor in the Eye is stylistically cut very much from the same cloth as the director’s master piece (not too surprising seeing as they were apparently shot during the course of the same 12 months). So expect the director to have an astonishing control over all the technical aspects of filmmaking, but also expect him to use none of these techniques in a sane – or at least common way – with tonal shifts between the broadest comedy and off-beat gothic romance being the least of the peculiarities a viewer will encounter. There are beautiful shots (Obayashi is a great fan of extremely artificial orange sun light) that are at once nearly painfully kitschy, inspired, and campily ironic, staging of scenes that revels in the artificial nature of everything in this movie, sudden switches in the score from the diegetic to the non-diegetic that might cause one whiplash once one begins noticing them, and so much visual information that seems coded in at least three ways at the same time, uniting conscious camp, absolute earnestness, and plain weirdness.

The script, very much in the spirit of some of Tezuka’s work, loves these shifts between high-brow, low-brow and what the hell just as much, going into short digressions of bizarre humour (even for a viewer by now somewhat accustomed to Japanese tastes in these things), inserting pretty insane cameos (personal favourite is Sonny Chiba rolling in wearing a cowboy outfit and grinning as a loon getting hit on the ass with a pan by Shihomi in a perfectly pointless yet wonderful scene), sudden genre shifts, and a heightened emotional intensity that is as silly as it is awesome.

As regular readers will know, I’m not generally a big fan of the camp approach but the way Obayashi handles it in his better films – a group to which this one most certainly belongs - always does manage to get me, perhaps because the director’s camp is often as beautiful as it is silly and usually seems very much to have an actual point beyond the power of posturing. Because, as Hausu is a film about a young girl growing into a young woman (while fighting off melons, woman-eating pianos and so on), The Visitor in the Eye appears to me very much to be a film about different kinds of love, comparing the oversized kind of ROMANCE(!) that can end in things like double suicide to the just as honest, just as intense, but more quotidian thing a guy like Imaoka has to offer. The former, of course, is rather attractive, but it is also less real than the latter. Sorry, Norah Ephron.

Now, while I think The Visitor in the Eye is a rather wonderful film (if you can cope with the sensory overload or even do as I do and rather relish it after a while), I still think Hausu is Obayashi’s masterpiece, because the latters weirdnesses are even greater yet also more on point with what the film is trying to say, and its tonal shifts feel more organic in its way. But then, this might come down to personal taste. Plus, saying a film is not quite as brilliant as Hausu, is not exactly a put-down in my house.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

In short: The Horde (2016)

Warning: there’ll be spoilers, but that’s not really important in this case, trust me

Teacher Selina (Tiffany Brouwer) takes some students of her photography class on a nice little weekend trip to the backwoods. Things would be all set for some hot photography action, if not for the titular horde of mutant backwoods cannibals looking for “Meat” and “Breeders”. In a semi-surprising turn of event the cannibals are led by one of a trio of escaped convicts (Costas Mandylor) and are part of said convicts’ meth cooking project.

Fortunately for Selina, she has brought her boyfriend John Crenshaw (John Logan) on the trip, and John’s not only an ultra tough retired Navy SEAL but also the writer and one of the producers of this thing, so things are looking bad for rapey mutant backwoods cannibals.

Mixing backwoods slasher and direct-to-video action film isn’t an idea that’s been used all too often - if at all - so Logan and his director Jared Cohn certainly deserve some credit for that one. The gory bits aren’t too badly done either but the rest of the film isn’t terribly effective.

The main problem is that Logan’s action hero belongs to the Steven Seagal/Steve Austin (what is it with actors called Steven?) school of action movie protagonist, the sort of guy the film he is in worships so much, your typical literary Mary Sue looks like a loser and an incompetent in comparison. Consequently, our hero never feels to be in any danger from his or her foes, which does turn the action scenes into pretty one-sided massacres for most of the time. In fact, John dispatches most of the mutants so easily, I found myself rooting for the rapey mutant inbred cannibal meth cookers, because John began to feel a lot like the big kid in school bullying some poor losers. That he repeatedly murders guys who have surrendered or are out of the fight for good doesn’t exactly help to improve that particular impression. Turns out wholesale slaughter isn’t very fun when the hero is never in any danger and even pretty unpleasant when the film seems to think the guy doing the killing is awesome. Not that the bad guys aren’t horrible, evil, and so on, and so forth, but they’re so easily overcome they’re most of all pitiful.

Unlike in many a horror film of related sub-genres, the film doesn’t use its female characters for anything beyond being objects for the menfolk to fight over, instead of using the genre mix to go for some sort of tag team between macho killer – I mean “hero” -  and final girl. But then, that would be clever, perhaps even somewhat subversive and The Horde is anything but.

The film’s execution is okay. Logan makes a decent enough screen fighter, Cohn is a generally competent director, and the script is dumb but doesn’t care and at least never starts apologizing for its flaws. The word “watchable” comes to mind, but then, what isn’t?

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Three Films Make A Post: For Howard, things are about to get R'lyeh crazy.

Thir13en Ghosts (2001): The title is program in this attempt by Steve Beck to remake one of William Castle’s weakest films. I don’t know why you’d want to remake that one, but here it is.

Becks’s film is not very good, featuring music video-style ghosts not doing terribly much beyond hunting the main characters through corridors. To be fair, these are rather better looking corridors than usual in corridor runners but the decision to keep the body count low in a film that features nothing else beyond the ghost effects to keep the audience awake seems rather dubious to me. There’s really not much else to say here: Academy Award winner F. Murray Abraham doesn’t put any effort into his villainous turn, the rest of the cast is okay, and there’s nothing memorable at all going on.

Goldstone (2016): Ivan Sen’s sequel to his Australian rural crime movie Mystery Road on the other hand is just brilliant, again telling much of its story through the landscape it takes place in (which is also part of its philosophical argument), letting Aaron Pedersen say very much through saying very little, and again talking about the way little corruptions turn into big ones, the price of looking away, and why one might want to despair at the world but perhaps shouldn’t. It also happens to get close to breaking my heart in the process. Sen displays a keen sense of the way people tell themselves stories about the world and their places in it to justify any petty, evil act they commit but also some hard-won hope.

There’s some great filmmaking, great writing, and great acting (besides Pedersen, there are fine turns by among others Jacki Weaver, Cheng Pei-Pei and Alex Russell) on display here, too.

Shadows of the Dead (2016): John Ross’s film about a bunch of teens and their struggle against a shadow demon thing, is the sort of undemanding streaming service queue/SyFy Channel fodder one can watch with a mild degree of enjoyment on a day when one feels very undemanding oneself. Thus one can feel very mildly entertained by it and then forget about it completely. With a bit of work, this could have been a more interesting film: sharper characterisation of the protagonists, or a monster with less random powers, or hallucinations of the characters’ greatest fear with a bit more heft and thought to them are all things that come to mind immediately that could have made the film less bland.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Past Misdeeds: Garo (2005-2006)

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 without any re-writes or 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 secret war is raging (at least in Japan). Creatures from the Underworld known as Horrors regularly creep through the cracks between dimensions to possess humans whose darkest impulses accommodate the character of the respective horror and use them to commit various atrocities. Fortunately, humankind is protected by the Makai Knights, warriors of mystical bloodlines who are able to use a magical metal known as soul metal. When need be, a Makai Knight can conjure up full body armour made from the material, but (because that's how it goes in tokusatsu shows) they can't stand being clad in the magical armour for long.

Garo follows the attempts of the perma-scowling Golden Knight Kouga Saezima aka Golden Fang aka Garo (Hiroki Konishi, now called Ryosei Konishi to confuse everyone as much as possible) to keep his territory (which might be the Eastern half of Japan or of Tokyo) save from the Horrors.

In the first episode, Kouga protects the artist Kaoru Mitsuki (Mika Hijii) from the attack of a horror, but can't prevent the dying beast's blood spattering all over her. Horror blood is quite insidious. It makes the person tainted by it a magnet for Horror attacks, and - as if that weren't bad enough - also kills the victim after exactly one hundred days in a gruesome and painful manner. By the laws of his order, Kouga is bound to kill everyone tainted thusly by the blood, but he decides to let Kaoru live and use her as bait for the various monsters of the week. Not that he's telling her anything of this, mind you.

Of course, Kouga's scowl and his absurdly abrupt manners hide a very soft core, and in truth he has a plan of trying to save Kaoru through an obscure ritual whose existence makes the whole "kill people who came in contact with Horror blood" rather problematic. Later on, Kaoru will turn out to be closer connected to the fight between the Makai Knights and the Horrors than anyone would suspect.

Apart from the secrets of Kouga's and Kaoru's pasts and family histories, and the monsters of the week, the show does (of course) also feature an equally scowl-prone rival with a chip even bigger than Kouga's on his shoulder, and a terrible conspiracy that might or might not have something to do with the three little weird girls working as Kouga's bosses.

Would you believe that everybody will learn something about showing one's feelings and stopping the damned scowling before the 25 episodes are over?

The Japanese TV show Garo is another project by master monster designer Keita Amemiya, who here is also credited as creator of the show and as its "chief director". I suspect that makes him something comparable to a very hands-on show runner for a US show.

Garo is the rare case of a tokusatsu superhero show that isn't made with a kid audience in my. Themes and tone of the show are comparatively mature (even if the emotional lives of the main characters aren't), there's even some thematically appropriate - dare I say "classy"? - nudity.

Amemiya's monster designs for the show are frequently quite brilliant, often mind-bogglingly bizarre and always completely in tune with the thing the respective monster is a metaphor for. The show's tone is often quite close to horror, with the hosts of the Horrors usually representing (and living out) the least pleasant impulses and feelings of humanity. In most episodes, Garo aims for a mood of the creepy and the bizarre, and hits its aim more often than not. Of course, there are a few other episodes. Two of them ("Doll" and "Game") have the sort of weird acid-dream quality only Japanese filmmakers still seem to want to achieve with their works from time to time, a few others are doing some rather interesting world building (that even comes together to build something like a coherent philosophy, though not exactly a deep one), and some others are doing their best to melodramatically explore the lead characters' inner demons.

The latter episodes are unfortunately the least successful ones. While the older and more experienced actors are as solid as can be, the young lead actors are ill-prepared for what the scripts ask of them here. Mika Hijii is probably the best of them; at least she's really getting into the melodramatics her character has to go through. Male lead Hiroki Konishi (and his "brooding rival" Ray Fujita, too) is often rather dreadful and at times doesn't even manage to scowl convincingly. I did have the impression that his acting improved a little over time, though. However, it is also quite possible that I just got used to him.

What Konishi and Fujita are quite good at, on the other hand, is physical acting and stunt work. Unlike many other contemporary tokusatsu shows, Garo has a lot of fighting going on when its heroes aren't wearing their stuntmen and digital effects enabling armour. At least half of the fights is actual screen fighting between the actual actors, and it is this aspect of the show where Konishi and Fujita shine. Both really seem to throw themselves into their fight scenes with enthusiasm, a certain verve, and even competence, and manage - with the help of Makoto Yokoyama's more than solid choreography and direction that knows the difference between intense and fast, and impenetrable - to make the non-suit fights memorable and exciting.

Once the suits are donned, the fighting becomes nearly all CGI all the time. Those CGI fights are an acquired taste. Where the choreography of the real life fights is oriented on martial arts cinema (with a dose of wuxia), once the armours are donned the fights begin to look very much as if they came out of a (good) hack and slash videogame (say Devil May Cry). After a few episodes of getting used to the show's very distinct two types of fights I started to enjoy the contrast between them.

Amemiya makes it quite easy to enjoy the CGI elements of the show. While everything in these scenes looks as artificial and unreal as it gets, the things it represents are frequently so imaginative and bizarre and would not be realistically achievable through practical means anybody could afford, that it would need someone much more curmudgeonly than me not to be charmed by them. How else could you witness a giant monster clown bleeding fireworks?

While a lot of Garo's basic elements are pretty generic, much of the show is pervaded by a palpable feeling of enthusiasm - for silly monsters, for metaphors, for melodrama, for the genre its working in, for the healing power of art, for fights and for batshit insanity - that makes it utterly impossible for me not to be excited about it. It's the type of genre work I like the most, working inside the clichés of a given style, but exploring how far a show can go while doing that.

The Japanese public was at least excited enough about the show to lead to a two part special/TV movie named Beast of the White Night or Beast of the Midnight Sun (that turned out to be a very silly, yet entertaining cheese-fest front-loading the show's fantasy elements and mostly eschewing the horror) and an honest to Cthulhu big screen movie, Garo: Red Requiem that came into Japanese cinemas just at the end of this October. You'll sooner or later hear from me about the latter, I'm sure.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

In short: Altitude (2017)

FBI hostage negotiator Gretchen (Denise Richards) has just been demoted to a desk job in Washington for preventing a bloodbath. Her flight to Washington isn’t going too great, either: her nice/slimy seat neighbour Terry (Kirk Barker) has stolen rather a lot of money from his backstabbing partners, said partners being his ex Sadie (Greer Grammar) and one Sharpe (Dolph Lundgren). And wouldn’t you believe it, these two are not only on the plane too, but have brought a couple of feckless henchmen and a pretty insane plan that’ll turn out to include mass murder.

I’d suggest retitling – if only in one’s head – to “Dolph on a Plane”, with Dolph Lundgren as (motherfucking) Dolph (on this motherfucking plane) and Denise Richards as Samuel L. Jackson to get into the right spirit for Alex Merkin’s very silly, pretty cheap, sometimes funny and generally entertaining action movie. For if you go into this one wanting to take it straightforwardly serious, you’ll not come out of it a happy person.

Despite quite a few dead bodies the film’s tone is light but not parodic or exactly comedic. It’s just very much in tune with its own silliness, unwilling to apologize for it, while on the other hand perfectly willing to wallow in it. So there’s a great amount of nonsense about the ways planes, hostage negotiation, parachutes, the FBI, guns, and gravity work, because how could you ever set an action film on a plane otherwise? As someone not going into cheap action movies hoping for realism (or even plain veracity), I’m perfectly fine with it. And once you’re willing to accept Denise Richards as FBI hostage negotiator and budding action heroine you’re all set to actually enjoy this thing.

Richards obviously isn’t exactly the ideal choice for the whole action business, but she’s certainly game for any stupid crap the script needs her to say or do, her stunt double’s game for the action, and while she still hasn’t been kissed by the Great Goddess of Thespians, she does deliver her lines convincing enough, as far as that goes with these particular lines. Which isn’t something I’d say about all action movie leads. Dolph, as is his wont these days, spends most of the film in the same (cockpit) set but Merkin did obviously have him for enough shooting days to actually have him interact with most of the main cast and place him inside the film’s actual plot, which isn’t a given with the big guy’s movies these says. And if you ever wanted to watch Dolph hum the “Ride of the Valkyries” while piloting an aircraft, this is the film for you. He seems to have fun with it, at least.

The rest of the cast is solid, too, while the special effects are cheap in a likeable manner. Merkin’s direction does lack a bit of clarity during some of the action, but he never gets the film bogged down in boring nonsense like characterisation or other filler, keeping things moving and going from one cheap-o nonsense set piece to the next. So Altitude’s a fun little piece of direct-to-video fodder.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Hell or High Water (2016)

Brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) Howard set out to rob the various branches of an exclusively Texan – and pretty small-time - bank in fine low key attempts where nobody will get hurt and they’ll just take in a bit of money from each bank instead of getting greedy and taking risks. Toby’s the straight one of the two, while Tanner has spent ten years in prison after shooting their abusive father in a “hunting accident”. Tanner hasn’t really gotten onto anything looking like the straight and narrow ever since. However, robbing those banks is Toby’s idea and he’s asked Tanner for help executing it.

The brothers’ mother has recently died, leaving the family farm to Toby’s sons in trust. A trust that would be worth quite a bit of money because there’s a nice fat oil deposit on the farm. Not accidentally, the bank owning the family’s mortgage has decided to foreclose on the farm, and now Toby needs money rather quickly to secure the thing nobody in his family ever knew before for his sons: the absence of poverty. The man has a healthy sense of irony too, for just guess which banks he’s hitting with his brother?

Texas rangers Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his long-suffering partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) are on their trail, Marcus using the case to prolong the time before his retirement as much as possible and to grumpily prove he’s still the cleverest bastard around.

Apparently, if you want to produce a really fantastic film set in Texas, hire a Scotsman to direct it. Well, at least if it is Hell or High Water’s director David Mackenzie, and your dream film is a combination of contemporary actor’s cinema, wry humour, and the portrayal of a quiet tragedy. While he’s at it, Mackenzie also adds a lot of consciously underplayed subtext about the plight of the white working (or very often non-working) class in rural areas to the mix.

In a sense, this is a film very much about people the USA as a whole have left to fend for themselves (to then wonder why they’d vote for Trump’s particular brand of lies, empty promises and blaming the Other), without safety nets (because those are apparently un-American). For most of the characters in the film, soul-crushing poverty is a near guarantee, a state lying before not only them but their children, and their children’s children and so on. It’s not quite as horrible a state as that of poor and lower middle-class blacks, obviously, for at least these people don’t need to be afraid to be shot for their skin colour, but eternal poverty does not look that much more attractive to the people suffering it when an early violent death is out of the picture. In any case, it’s not a state of affairs that’s bound to make one terribly law-abiding, specifically not when there’s a chance to give at least some of one’s loved ones an escape.

While all this is a permanent subtext – and sometimes text – of the film, Mackenzie doesn’t make an American kitchen sink drama out of the material. Instead, this is an often wry and humorous film that is interested in its characters as people and not just as didactic examples. Mackenzie gives the fantastic cast room to breathe, or in Bridges’s case to do his by now probably patented but often surprisingly subtle grumpy old man bit. It’s just that these good, bad, eccentric, tragic, pitiful and infuriating people all have the shadow of economics and of class hanging over them, catching them in a net that turns all their best intentions against them, and turning a film that might have been played exclusively as a funny Robin Hood sort of tale into a tragedy even in those moments when it is funny. Or really, into more than one tragedy. There’s an obvious one of lives wasted and lost but also one of personal ethics crushed under market forces one can’t control and barely comprehend.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

In short: Oblivion (2013)

Warning: at least structural spoilers are inevitable when talking about this one

For the first hour or so, this is a fun SF adventure flick with light elements of the mind-bender sub-genre, a plot twist that is so honestly prepared by the film it’s pretty easy to see where the film’s going for the genre savvy much earlier, and decidedly enhanced by some really beautiful digital work on the post-apocalyptic Earth. Unfortunately, neither director Joseph Kosinski (who also directed that dreadful Tron sequel, so is clearly rapidly improving by making a movie that doesn’t completely suck) nor his script are in the end prepared to go anywhere interesting with the melange of weaponized clones, drones, and mind-wiping on offer. Instead, we get the usual stuff with an over-complicated alien plan to steal something (water) they could acquire on a lot of planets where they didn’t need to wipe out the local population, Tom Cruise, superhero, and a heroic suicide bombing to dreadful poetry. Though it’s not much of a heroic sacrifice, really, seeing how the film then just puts all questions about the nature of identity it nearly asked aside to not only get its heroic sacrifice cake but eat a happy end, too.

Other problems are the film’s determination to keep its female characters deep in the 1950s (wasting perfectly good actresses Olga Kurylenko and Andrea Riseborough), Morgan Freeman’s usual lazy special effects movie performance (because there’s nothing better than an actor who doesn’t put any work in but still cashes the check), and Tom Cruise being Tom Cruise, which is to say, in turns blandly professional and vain. Well, there’s also the strict conventionality of a plot and structure that the film doesn’t manage to hide well enough behind the spectacle, which in itself is a bit too conventional.

It’s still a perfectly watchable big dumb Hollywood SF movie, mind you, and at least a particularly pretty one.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

The Trail (1983)

Warning: Spoilers ahead!

aka The Trial (which has as little to do with the movie as the other English language title)

Original title: 追鬼七雄

Revolutionary era China. A guy going by the nickname of Captain (Kent Cheng Jak-Si) and his cohorts are using a most excellent opium smuggling technique: Captain and his second Ying (Ricky Hui Koon-Ying) dress up as Buddhist monks while the rest of the gang pack the loot into belts, straps those on and dress up as jiang shi (also known as hopping vampires, or in the case of these subtitles, zombies, though they are not exactly either) the supposed monks are herding around. It’s a rather brilliant plan, truly.

However, one local evil potentate (Miao Tian) pays our heroes to take the corpse of what he tells them is his brother with them, for his brother, his main henchman explains, has died of leprosy, and getting his remains away as stealthily as possible is absolutely necessary to protect the village’s good reputation. It’s a lie, of course, and the old bastard is trying to cover up a murder. This lie and their own greed will cost our dubious heroes dearly after they have dumped the body in a sulphur pit.

For because the corpse has a score to the settle with the potentate, it returns to life right quick as a real jiang shi (not doing any hopping but all the more rotting) and starts killing animals and opium smugglers alike. Captain and his gang decide to destroy the thing (his whole-sale slaughter of the local population and one of their own is bad for business, or something), arming themselves with the urine of virgin boys and the traditional yellow charms. Things are not going to go well for them.

The style of Ronny Yu’s The Trail has much less to do with the later jiang shi classic Mr Vampire than I had expected, apart from this too being a horror comedy. The depiction of the monster is much more gruesome than the pale hopping gentlemen in traditional garb other films about its kind have made me accustomed to (and, as far as I know, it’s much closer to the depiction of the creatures in much Chinese folklore about them). It’s a rotting, shambling monstrosity that is pretty close to a zombie, just stronger, meaner, sometimes cleverer and definitely harder to kill – probably even when its enemies were more competent than our protagonists are.

As a comedy, this is a pretty dark one, with a group of morally suspect protagonists mostly doomed to die pretty horrible deaths and two survivors who will learn exactly nothing from what happened to them, the film’s epilogue showing them disguised as catholic priests selling fake possessions but of course stumbling into a pretty hilarious The Exorcist situation. The humour is Hong Kong standard, though pleasantly avoiding the greatest extremes of slapstick and random nonsense, keeping most of the jokes integrated into the actual plot. In a really surprising turn of events, I even found myself laughing about a lot of the funny business, certainly thanks to the chipper casts of guys we know and love from dozens of other Hong Kong films, but also because Yu as a director always was rather fantastic at the timing aspect of things, be it in comedy, action, or suspense.

The suspense scenes here in particular turn out very nicely, with many highly effective sequences of our hapless heroes trying to first catch, then avoid the jiang shi only to see things getting worse and worse with every well timed bad turn. Yu escalates their troubles with a rhythm one could probably dance to, sometimes building tension out of comedic elements (there’s some excellent business concerning the monster and frog voice imitations), at other times ending the tension with a laugh that actually does work as comic relief for once.

If that’s not enough for you, there’s also a nice underground tomb set, some adorable miniature work and the mandatory blue light to gawk at and enjoy, as well as a bit of decent kung fu and an absurdly unsubtle yet curiously effective synthesizer score.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Three Films Make Me Grumpy: One Day After A Million Years It Came Out Of Hiding To... Kill! Kill! Kill!

Big Bad (2016): So, some kids are locked into an abandoned jail for a fundraiser (don’t ask me, I didn’t write this nonsense), and are attacked by a hairy, scrawny monster. Supposed hilarity ensues, or as I call it, an unending series of jokes which turn out to be neither funny nor timed well. To be fair, Opie Cooper’s film also contains horror parts so mild they shouldn’t disturb a sensitive child, tedious plotting, and lots of feet dragging to get the thing to length, but that’s not exactly the sort of thing to make a film sound any better.

Turns out a horror comedy kind of needs to be funny. Who knew?

Ghost Team (2016): On the plus side, at least Big Bad doesn’t have a cloyingly corny moral like Oliver Irving’s film about a bunch of losers going on a ghost hunt and stumbling into a really crap Scooby Doo episode without even a talking dog in sight. The moral of the tale of course is that nobody’s a loser, except for the audience confronted with a bunch of jokes so obvious, my grandma is complaining they aren’t fresh enough – which actually is just as funny as ninety percent of the jokes in Ghost Team.

Shall I also complain about the boring and obvious characters and about the dearth of imagination on display? Done.

Bastard (2015): This is what you get when you randomly mash the visual style of one horror sub-genre with the soundtrack style of a different one, and include everything plus the cannibal/kitchen sink in your script, including the old ultra violence and some particularly random moments of “irony”. It’s a really pretty looking mess with fine practical special effects in search of a script that would either actually know how to connect all the different bits and pieces from a thousand horror sub-genres included here, had something interesting to say about them, or did anything else but demonstrate that directors Powell Robinson and Patrick Robert Young have seen a lot of horror movies. As it stands, it’s one of the best looking films that ever kept me quite this disinterested in anything going on in it.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Past Misdeeds: Rigor Mortis (2013)

Original title: 殭屍

A depressed, aging actor (Chin Siu-Ho) grieving for his lost family moves into a run-down apartment house somewhere in Hong Kong to hang himself in peace, but is first disturbed by a female ghost, then saved by Yau (Anthony Chan Yau), last in a long line of Taoist exorcists now working as a cook and secret soul of the building’s community.

It is a strange community indeed, for not only seems the world of spirits and ghosts particularly close here, all of the living seem to be lost souls too: there’s Yau and his lost calling, a mentally ill woman named Yeung Feng (Kara Hui) and her white-haired child protected by the building’s lone security guard Yin (Lo Hoi-Pang), an old, dying black magician (Chung Faat, I think), and the elderly couple of Mui (Pau Hei-Ching in a particularly impressive performance) and Tung (Richard Ng Yiu-Hon). All of the living are lost in one way or the other, cast aside by life or having cast their lives aside themselves, living in a sort of companionable stasis.

Things change at the time of the actor’s attempted suicide, though, when Tung dies in a ghost related accident. Mui realizes she can’t live without her husband and makes a gruesome pact with the magician that will bring her husband back to her, at least sort of, in form of a hopping vampire. From here on, the static but peaceful life in the building quickly deteriorates until Yau and the actor take it on themselves to stop what’s going on.

The only thing I had read about Juno Mak’s Takashi Shimizu-produced Rigor Mortis before going in was that it was supposed to be an homage to the classic joys of the Mr Vampire movies. This turns out to be about half true, depending on your definition of what an homage is supposed to be and do. While the film is dominated by actors who had their biggest time in Hong Kong cinemas of the 80s, and particularly in the Mr Vampire films, and Mak clearly loves these movies dearly (as he well should), this is not an exercise in nostalgia or imitation. Instead, the film takes a look at the older films it is inspired by, and proceeds to decide what it can do with some of their elements as well as with the in the last decade or so desperately underused talents of their actors thirty years later; respecting the past but also building its own thing on it. For my tastes, this is a much more productive and dignified approach to bygone eras of filmmaking than mere imitation, and certainly the one that should result in the more individual movies.

In Rigor Mortis’s case this means that this film paying homage to a series of comedy kung fu horror films isn’t a comedy at all, but rather aims for an arthouse approach to horror with a bit of CGI enhanced fighting thrown in at the end; fortunately, this doesn’t come over as an attempt of Mak to grim-and-grittify the hopping vampire movie but feels organic, like the logical place to take the characters the film spends a loving – and not humourless – half hour or so building before things begin to get truly threatening.

Despite some moments of ruthless and even to my jaded eyes rather shocking violence, Rigor Mortis’s horror is character based. The bad things happening here are the painfully logical results of the lives these people have led and of the wounds they took in the process. Even the black magician is a figure of pity or at least compassion to a degree. Evil – such as it is – in this film is the result of good intentions, bad decisions, loneliness and plain bad luck rather than of anyone twirling his or her moustache; consequently, the film’s good guys and the film’s bad guys (if you even want to use these terms) are equally flawed and human, and the film isn’t one to point any fingers of judgment at anyone involved. The true horror of the supernatural escalation is how much it is based on simple human sadness, makes it that much more disturbing than any kind of absolute or externalized evil ever could be.

As if this humanist approach to horror weren’t already enough to praise Mak’s film, there is also the brilliance of the performances. Particularly Pau Hei-Ching (there’s one scene between her and her dead, half-undead husband that’s just heart-breaking), Anthony Chan and Chin Siu-Ho are absolutely fantastic, and also demonstrate the impressive things middle-aged and elderly actresses and actors can do if a film just lets them. The way Mak integrates former roles the actors played into the characters without coasting on their reputations is also quite wonderful.

Mak’s visual approach to the film is atmospheric, moody, and claustrophobic, with many a gliding camera movement through the labyrinthine seeming building all of the film takes place in that provide the proceedings with the feeling of the not quite real, or the not quite unreal, turning the building into a locale on the border between the land of the living and that of the dead, as well as between the realm of logic and ill-logic. It’s the kind of place where the weird and the numinous is part of day to day life in more than one way. Even the film’s monochromatic, colour-drained look makes an aesthetic sense in this context: this building with its occupants whom time has left behind is not a place for colours.

Rigor Mortis also manages the impressive feat of making its hopping vampire (who really is more a unnaturally gliding one) seem horrific and threatening. The monster design very effectively puts emphasis on this creature being the most horrible of things – the corpse of an actual human being that has come to life. It’s particularly effective because the film’s script has shown us everything there is to know about the price that was paid for this thing’s creation, and makes clear what an abomination of the man it was in life it truly is. This is not something most vampire films, hopping or not, are any good at showing at all.

The only minor quibble I have with the film is with the at best mediocre quality of its CGI (the black ghost smoke being a particularly ineffective example), but then it never is so bad it gets in the way of the incredible number of things Rigor Mortis does well, so I’m not all that annoyed by it.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

The Hitlist (2011)

Corporate engineer Alan Campbell (Cole Hauser) has a very bad day: the gangster he has debts with is getting violently impatient; at his job, the promotion he thought was his is going to a guy who may or may not have stolen his ideas (and who most certainly is an asshat of the highest degree); and when he gets home, he finds his wife (Ginny Weirick) sleeping with his best friend. I’m happy he doesn’t have any pets, or that’d have been a dead doggie, too, I suppose.

Obviously, Alan’s next step after that particular day is to find the next bar and get dead drunk. Alas, at the bar he meets a guy calling himself Jonas (Cuba Gooding Jr.). After giving Alan the cold shoulder for a bit, Jonas offers himself up as just the guy to cry to, which is exactly what Alan does while getting even drunker. At one point in the conversation, Jonas starts berating Alan for being a wet blanket but also offering help. Well, a very particular kind of help.

Jonas explains to Alan he’s a professional killer, and because he’s such a nice guy, he’s going to kill the five people Alan wants to see die the most for free. Alan, drunk, stupid, and believing he’s just venting in a particularly original manner, makes the list. Shortly after that, Jonas disappears.

Alan does think nothing of it – you don’t meet professional killers who give freebies randomly in bars after all – until he goes to work the next day and finds out his boss, the first man on his hit list, has been murdered. And Jonas certainly isn’t going to stop there.

While I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the best time for the actor himself, I’ve turned into a bit of a fan of the phase in Cuba Gooding Jr.’s career when he couldn’t find proper Oscar winning actor roles anymore but just kept on working in direct-to-DVD, or so cheap they might as well have been, action films and thrillers. I’m especially fond of these phase because Gooding never seems to approach his work there as if he is doing the films he is in a favour with his presence or as if he is slumming (though he surely is). Instead his performances in these films generally have the dignity of true professionalism, and more often than not, it feels as if Gooding’s contributions push everyone else involve to do better work than they usually do.

The Hitlist’s director William Kaufman doesn’t really need a push. While he has to follow the rules of direct-to-DVD action and so can’t quite ever reach the heights of his fantastic debut feature The Prodigy, at the very least his body of work suggests another dedicated professional in a part of the movie realm that has a few too many guys operating in it who don’t exactly seem to care to make a decent movie as long as they can put the names of Lundgren or Van Damme on a DVD cover, even when these hardly feature in the respective films.

While the budget clearly can’t provide too much actual action in this action movie, the handful of sequences that are there have more than decent stunt work and demonstrate a certain dry flair without Kaufman falling back at whoosh cuts, jump cuts or wildly wavering camera; the stunt crew really doesn’t need this sort of distraction because they, too, are dedicated professionals. The action is generally short and punchy, with a nice climax during which Gooding gets to shoot up a police station, Terminator-style.

Which of course leaves many a minute of running time to fill. That’s the point where quite a few direct-to-DVD action films truly falter, for filling the space between acts of violence seems to overtax quite a few imaginations. The Hit List, fortunately, has an actual plot – even one that makes sense if you are willing to buy into the basic set-up - and while the characters’ psychology isn’t exactly deeply insightful, people here usually have a motivation for what they do, and tend to act in ways that’s appropriate to the situation. Now, this doesn’t exactly sound like a glowing compliment to make for any movie, but in direct-to-DVD action movie land, this demonstrates an uncommon degree of care. It’s also, dare I say it, entertaining to watch, often even thrilling. Additionally, having an actual script doesn’t just give Gooding the opportunity to elegantly underplay (at least for this sort of environment) what could be an annoying scenery chewing maniac but also brings out the best of Cole Hauser. The less semi-famous Hauser, it turns out, is really good at playing our sad sack protagonist, believably going from helpless anger at his life to a very specific kind of courage in the end.

This all adds up to a fine bit of low budget action filmmaking.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Doll From Hell (1996)

Original title: 生贄

A group of criminals under a female boss traipse through a wooded mountain area in search of a former partner carrying a case full of drugs. Some of their activities are witnessed by one of the twin daughters of a doll-maker living in the area. The only answer to that is obviously death. Unfortunately, the idiot thugs kill the wrong daughter, leaving the doll maker bereft. However, the murdered daughter was doomed to die of what I assume to be consumption anyway, so the doll maker has made a life-sized doll that looks kinda-sorta (or in the words of the film: “exactly”) like her. And wouldn’t you know it, he uses the forbidden soul transference spell that has been part of the family tradition for ages to transfer his dead daughter’s soul into the doll, so that she can live on in it, sacrificing his own life in the process.

There’s a little problem with the doll being mute, creepy, lacking in any sense of ethical behaviour and only kept alive by somehow sucking peoples’ blood through her fingertips, but fortunately, the thugs’ drugs (this rhyme was provided to you by a glass of wine) end up in the doll maker’s house, so there are somewhat proper blood-sucking targets available. The doll’s twin is hiding away there too, swearing bloody vengeance against the thugs and showing a real talent for causing eye trauma.

Shinobu Murata’s little horror film is not one of the truly brilliant gems of Japanese V-Cinema (that is, direct-to-video etc film). Too frayed and vague is its plot in its first third, too much time is needed for the 75 minute film to actually get going, and too broad is the acting by a lot of people whose faces but not names you’ll know when you’ve seen a few of these films.

Saying a film isn’t brilliant is not the same as saying there’s nothing worthwhile about it, though: it is impossible for me to not find at least a small spot in my heart for a film whose second half commits to lighting every single scene in the traditional colours of Mario Bava and Dario Argento: that red, this green, and yonder purple, turning somewhat bland sets (though at least they are full of manikins) a bit dream-like and a bit strange, though it’s a very cheap kind of dream. The doll sister is pretty creepy too, once she finally gets moving, that is, and while the effects certainly aren’t convincing, they are enthusiastic and presented with a degree of conviction.

The script, once the entertaining second half starts, isn’t completely lacking in interest either, and certainly not in ambition. An example: we learn that one of the yakuza (played by Kazuyoshi Ozawa, I think) was a sculptor in his former life, until he murdered another sculptor out of jealousy for his more beautiful art, and only escaped jail because the girl boss convinced her father (who must probably be a major yakuza boss, movie lore tells me) to safe him, leaving the sculptor now turned yakuza (it obviously works like vampirism) as her property and official (fuck) doll. In the end, he’ll confront the doll sister with his own doll-hood, somewhat convincing her that they both should die because they aren’t actual living human beings anymore. While the scene isn’t terribly well written or acted, it certainly leads to a more interesting and less generic finale for the sort of film this is, with shots of the doll slowly wandering into the nearby lake reaching a certain folkloric beauty. Which is then followed by a silly yet decently realized – and very classic – final shock that does of course fit everything else that has been going on not at all.

Still, the second half absolutely makes Doll From Hell a worthwhile watch if you have the patience to slog through its beginning. This certainly isn’t a film only going through the motions, and given that Murata certainly wasn’t expected by anyone to do more than just that, I mark this down as a win.