Sunday, September 25, 2016

Three Films Make A Post: In the cruel, ruthless world of country music, she made it the hard way!

Most Likely to Die (2015): Even though the presence of Perez Hilton as an “actor” and Jake Busey as the star power in the cast and a deeply generic sounding set-up don’t exactly promise a world of excitement, I did expect this to be quite a bit better than it actually was because its director Anthony DiBlasi has a track record of making not terribly original but very decent to very good low budget horror films. Well, at least the not terribly original bit still holds, for this is as generic a slasher as you could (not) ask for, with basically nothing happening on screen I’m still going to remember a day after watching it.

DiBlasi’s direction is disinterested, the script yawn-inducing, and the acting goes from pretty damn bad (Hilton) to kinda okay (Heather Morris and Tess Christiansen) to painfully neutral (everyone else). There are some okay effects somewhere in there but honestly, who cares?

There’s Nothing Out There (1991): Of course, it can always be worse. Case in point is Rolfe Kanefsky’s spam in a cabin horror “comedy”. It’s self aware horror of the kind that thinks stating how awful and dumb it is somehow makes it less awful and dumb, and that being crap on purpose will somehow magically transform it into something not crap. After all, it worked for some other films, right? Alas, the bad movie fairy didn’t kiss this one, so we get lots and lots of nudity (Kanefsky looking into the future of his career as softcore director?) – this being a film where a short skinny dipping sequence is directly followed by a shower scene –, a really crap (on purpose yet still CRAP) monster, “funny” dialogue that’ll make your ears bleed, and lots of self-conscious shittiness that lacks the charm that would make it entertaining or the cleverness that’d make it bearable.

The Devil Complex (2016): Rounding out this trio of films I never need to see again is this POV horror outing shot in Romania with Romanian actors directed by a Brit. I do hope everyone planning on watching this likes shots of the backs of people wandering through snowy woods, because that’s what half of this is. As the “woods” parts suggests, this is the traditional would-be Blair Witch Project style of first person horror, just without any focus, mediocre acting, writing that does seem to try to get away from the original a little by going the “the supernatural reveals dark secrets” route but is just too crudely realized to manage anything with it, and disappointing sound design. It drags, it has about 0.5 interesting scenes, and there’s just nothing else to say about this thing.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

In short: Eaters (2015)

A bunch of friends are on a road trip. Somewhere in the loneliest part of New Mexico, they pause at the wrong rest stop. One of the female members of the group doesn’t return form her personal toilet stop. Her friends, particularly her boyfriend, are quick to assume she has been kidnapped by the only other people who were at the rest stop, a quartet of bikers.

So off they go in hot pursuit of the bikers which turns into a Mexican stand-off. Unfortunately, apart from making some armed hairy (or rather adorably bewigged) men really angry, the whole thing comes to nothing for our protagonists, for their friend isn’t loaded into the bikers’ drug transporter.

Further investigation – and an empty gas tank – lead them to a ghost town, which will turn out to be the place their friend was taken to. Unfortunately, it’s populated by a bunch of mute, pillowcase mask-wearing cannibals. To make matters mildly more complicated, the little altercation earlier wasn’t the last our heroes will hear of the bikers either.

The Internet really seems to hate Johnny Tabor’s micro-budget Eaters quite a bit (with the usual bunch of people who clearly don’t watch many movies declaring it to be the worst horror film evah, or something of the sort); me, I found myself enjoying the film more than I expected.

Now, Eaters has some obvious problems: the acting is rough around the edges at best, and often just not terribly good, and its plot certainly is the sort of thing I’ve seen a couple of dozen times before. However, Tabor is a pretty effective director. At the very least, Eaters is better paced than this sort of thing on this sort of budget generally turns out to be, clearly made by someone who realizes that scenes need to have a function in a narrative and should end once that function is fulfilled (unless you’re Jess Franco or somebody else who just doesn’t care about traditional structure at all and turn this into your personal style).

The pacing’s reasonably effective, and the film generally gets a bit of mileage out of feeling like one of the lesser, locally produced grindhouse movies of the 70s, with the desert and the ghost town providing some instant atmosphere, as do the pillowhead-style of the main baddies, the lack of explanation for their existence (or really, of what they actually are apart from cannibals), and direction that usually aims not to be boring.

It’s not the great lost horror masterpiece of 2015 but I think it’s a perfectly decent film.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Past Misdeeds: Wolfguy: Enraged Lycanthrope (1975)

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.

Hard-nosed reporter who never does any reporting Inugami (Sonny Chiba) just happens to be the last of a tribe of werewolves, making him not a ravening beast at the night (and day) of the full moon, but giving him an old-school Wolverine-like self-healing ability as well as superhuman strength and agility on these nights. One non-full moon night, Inugami stumbles over a panicked man running through the city streets screaming something about a tiger and a girl named Miki. Before you can say "Very peculiar, Watson", an invisible force rips the guy to shreds.

That - and the vision of a tiger - is certainly bizarre enough to get Inugami interested. With the help of his journalist colleague and friend Arai, the reporter soon discovers that the victim was once part of a rock band known as the Mobs, four charming guys who raped a singer named Miki Ogata (Nami Etsuko?). They didn't only do the deed for kicks, but also because their yakuza-controlled management asked them to, to "teach Miki a lesson".

Now, Miki is a syphilitic junkie singing in strip bars. She's also not completely sane anymore.

Although he has already had some violent encounters with the yakuza, Inugami feels driven to save Miki, an idea that will cost his friend Arai's life. It looks like there's a connection between what has been done to Miki and the highest strata of Japanese politics, but that turns out to be not very important for the rest of the movie. Unexpectedly, Miki and Inugami are kidnapped by a shady government agency that would very much like to build themselves some super soldiers out of them. Miki is easily controlled through her hatred, but Inugami isn't even to be convinced by a little vivisection.

When the full moon appears in the sky, he's getting rather cross with his captors.

For once, a cult film is nearly as awesome as its title promises. Wolfguy: ER (sorry) is as typical of mid-70s Japanese action cinema as possible, with all the absurdity and sleaze that promises. The film's archetypal Japanese action-cinemaness is not much of a surprise when you realize that it was directed by Kazuhiko Yamaguchi, who had started his career by making a few girl boss movies in some of Toei's various series of the genre, and then gone on to become one of the studio's go-to directors for absurd action films with the Chiba-associated Sister Streetfighter movies, and the Karate Bullfighter etc series with Chiba.

Now, Yamaguchi was never the most stylish or most controlled of directors. His films are often more than a little sloppy and are usually held together through the power of the pure outrageousness of the proceedings in them instead of strong plotting or narrative. Whenever his films get serious, Yamaguchi falters. Fortunately, there is not much that is sane or serious about Wolfguy. Here, Yamaguchi's hectic editing, his rather random love for inappropriate camera angles and his sudden bursts of cleverness come together to form a feverish and slightly hallucinatory feeling whole.

This strange, loudly unreal quality of the film is amplified even further by the randomness of a script that is built in the usual "one scene of dialogue is followed by one scene of action is followed by one scene of nakedness" style and does not at all care about how to connect these scenes sensibly. It is a non-structure that would only lead to tears in a more normal movie, but "normal" just isn't in the cards for this one. As the oh so wonderful, repetitive Japan funk that makes up the score will agree.

Wolfguy is the sort of film where the first sex scene contains blood-licking and verbal approval of Chiba's animalness, the next (nearly)sex with a syphilitic to prove how trustworthy Chiba is, and the last finds our hero explaining how sex with his last-minute love-interest reminds him of his mother and being born. No wonder, with the girl being named after Chiba's mother and all. Of course, the film plays all this as if it were the most obvious and banal love scenes, producing additional friction in the audience's (well, my) brains.

The action scenes are set up in a comparable way, and have an equal love for the bizarre and unexplained. Why does our hero throw coins with lethal precision? And, coming to that, why is the government werewolf (who will die of an allergy to his new werewolf blood) so much hairier than Chiba (who never transforms into anything)? So many questions, and of course most of them are never answered at all. How could they when it is quite clear that the film just makes everything up as it goes along?

That's not a criticism in this particular case, mind you. When a film is so perfectly fixated on the bizarre, there's just no need for it to try and explain too much or to try and make sense. If it did, it would just sabotage its mind-blowing effect, throwing away the purity of its strangeness for something as boring as plot logic. I certainly wouldn't want that.

Then there's Sonny. Chiba is in his prime here, yet not doing much of the more subtle acting he always has been capable of when needed, nor going for his beloved grimacing scenery-chewing and heavy breathing. Instead, Chiba coasts on his particular brand of charisma and cool. It shouldn't work, or should at least come over as rather lazy, yet somehow feels like the appropriate way to handle this particular role, as if the wolfman were a centre of sanity in the insane world of humanity.

The whole affair is based on a manga I'd just love to read, and possibly the sequel to 1973's Okami no Monsho aka Crest of the Beast, but information about both films is difficult to come by and does generally not seem trustworthy to me. It's a shame, really, because I could use more of this particular brand of insanity in my life.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

In short: The Stewardess (2002)

Original title: 非常凶姐

Ken Ma (Sam Lee Chan-Sam) spends his working time as a small time screenwriter and his free time as an improbable pick-up artist. His life becomes rather more interesting when he opts for what he thinks is only a one night stand with air hostess Apple (Lee San-San).

Before he can even blink, he’s Apple’s official boyfriend – and Apple’s not the kind of girl who’ll let her boyfriend run around trying to sleep with other women, or indeed one who’ll stop at anything to control him. In fact, first order of business for her is introducing Ken to her father, triad boss Dragon (Michael Chan Wai-Man), for photos and fingerprinting, so it’s easier to find Ken if he leaves the straight and narrow, and needs a corrective loss of a certain sexual organ ending with “ick”. So clearly, nothing could go wrong with the romance between our sleazy protagonist and his horrid new girlfriend.

Yet things do become even worse than expected when a Japanese woman (Seina Kasugai) who always dresses in red and generally introduces herself ominously as “Yurei, air hostess” steps into Ken’s life and sexes him up right quick (not that there’s any resistance from his side, mind you). Soon, Ken isn’t just in trouble with a violent girlfriend and her penis-cutting dad, but also has to cope with the little fact that “Yurei” is batshit, murderously insane even for a character in this movie.

If Sam Leong Tak-Sam’s horror comedy The Stewardess is anything, it certainly is pretty darn weird. I’m not just talking the sort of comedic weirdness born from a disconnect between Hong Kong concepts of what’s funny and mine that inevitably leads to stuff flying right over my head. Nor do I just talk about the eyebrow-raising more common and garden weirdness of a film that comments on its Chinese protagonist sleeping with a Japanese woman with a fantasy scene that shows him wearing a military uniform and breaking a Japanese World War II style battle flag in two over his knee. Rather, I’m talking about the sort of freeform insanity that can’t help but add some perfectly bizarre flourish to even the most pedestrian of scenes and concepts, of course – this being a Hong Kong film – often leaving all sorts of good and proper taste behind to offend whoever is available – the Japanese, the triads, the mentally ill, Takashi Miike, its own lead actor and everyone else are all fair game for whatever dumb idea Leong and co-writer Rikako Suzuki have in any given moment.

More often than not, Leong presents the general and specific weirdness in a stylish and slick – yet still batshit - manner that makes parts of the film look like the love child of a pretty screwy giallo and young Takashi Miike on one of his milder days. Add to this the outrageous performance by Seina Kasugi, Lam Suet doing his standard triad guy named Fatty thing, and certainly nobody will get bored watching The Stewardess.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

House of Black Wings (2010)

Because her music career and her private life have hit rock bottom because of violent tragedy, bad luck, and bad decisions, rock musician Nicky Tarot (Leah Myette) returns to her home city, where she renames herself into Kate Stone and tries to put the past behind her wholesale. Kate is lent a helping hand by her artist friend Robyn (Katherine Herrera), the only one of her old buddies who still wants anything to do with her.

Robyn has inherited a curious apartment building named Blackwood whose handful of tenants are students and artists, so she provides Kate with an apartment of her own and a job as the place’s super. Robyn lives in the building too, so Kate even has a friendly face around.

Unfortunately, Blackwood is not a good home to nurse one’s grief and one’s guilt in. As soon as she has moved in, Kate is plagued by nightmares, the noise of wings in the walls, and everything else to keep a woman off balance. Worse still, the nightmares soon intersect with Kate’s waking world in various disturbing ways; and Kate might not be the only one living in Blackwood touched in this way. It is as if the house pushes its tenants to create art – art that seems to function as a doorway to drag the artist into the cosmic void.

David Schmidt’s House of Black Wings is as fine an example of micro-budget indie horror, a film that not only feels like a labour of love but also avoids many of the pitfalls this sort of film can so easily stumble into - not necessarily because the people involved are lacking in passion or talent but because they are lacking in experience and funds which very often means a film only has limited opportunities to correct problems and mistakes.

The only typical indie horror problem House of Black Wings shows is a certain slowness in the middle, where it might have lost ten minutes or so, but that’s not a terrible problem for a film to have. It’s also not to be confused with that micro budget thing where scenes go on and on and on for no good reason whatsoever – Schmidt knows when to end scenes, and it is clear he also has a clear picture of why any given scene is part of the narrative. This may sound like a curious thing to praise but just putting scenes into a film without any narrative (or atmospheric) reason for them to be there is a problem you’ll encounter in mainstream horror right now nearly as often as in micro budget films (whose makers at least have better excuses for this particular failing), so Schmidt is actually doing a lot better than many of the rich kids do.

The film’s heart, concerning earnest thoughts about art, guilt and life and their collision with cosmic horror, isn’t anything you’d find in a more mainstream film either. It’s the sort of thing that could become rather pretentious pretty fast, but the way Schmidt film’s plays it, it feels organic and right, the cosmic horror and the inner struggle of the characters working as reflections of each other.

And the cosmic horror is fine indeed. There are of course more than just hints of Lovecraft and other greats of weird fiction running through the movie but this is not a film in the business of putting the correct nerdy mythos reference at the forefront, so there’s a decided lack of Cthulhu cults and Iäs on display. Instead of the most superficial bits and pieces of the weird, House of Black WIngs opts for its spirit, made visible through some very original effects work. Well, and quite a few maggots and worms. The film uses stop motion as well as digital and practical effects, and even includes some shadow puppet work when Kate reads a wonderful expository children’s book, most of it shown in short bursts and flashes and demonstrating a degree of thematic coherence that I wish more films would aim for when presenting the supernatural.

The acting is on the mark too, with Myette (and Herrera to a degree) carrying the film quite capably. The film aims for naturalness in most character interactions, so despite content that would lend itself to stiffness, melodrama, or just all-around gothiness, things never feel that way. These women are portrayed as actual believable women, so their run-in with the Outside gains more weight once it turns their world unnatural.

House of Black Wings really is a wonderful film, full of lovingly created detail like the shadow puppet bit or Robyn’s doll house from hell, and even some expertly realized suspense sequences that make great use out of people crawling between the house’s walls (and what they find there), with some moody locations and a script that’s thoughtful, never confusing the weird with the random.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

In short: Carnosaur 2 (1995)

Communications to a military uranium mine somewhere in the middle of one of the US deserts has broken down. For reasons, time is pressing, so Major Tom McQuade (Cliff DeYoung) can’t wait for appropriate military operatives and decides to go in with what will be our main protagonists. The film is keeping things pretty vague there, but our heroes seem to be some sort of repair crew for hire, wearing black dusters with a little lightning symbol on them. Though nobody in the costume department could decide if the lightning’s supposed to be horizontal or vertical. So yes, this is the first film I’ve seen concerning the adventures of mercenary electricians.

Once our heroes arrive at the mine, scenes from Aliens happen to them, just with dinosaurs replacing the aliens.

As regular readers know (hi, Mum!), I’m rather fond of low budget specialist Louis Morneau’s films. However, this doesn’t mean his Corman production belatedly answering the masses screaming for a sequel to the painful Carnosaur finds my approval, seeing as I’m not quite stupid enough to be part of its core audience. Morneau’s direction isn’t really the problem: he tries his best to make the usual sets look exciting, merrily films around the problems of the special effects until they look downright solid, and does tend to film okay monster attacks, making the whole affair mysteriously look like an actual movie. The true problem is Michael Palmer’s script. It doesn’t so much crib a bit from Cameron’s Aliens but just reproduces complete scenes. Which probably must have sounded like a genius idea given that Aliens is rather good; unfortunately, Carmosaur 2 rips stuff off without any rhyme or reason, without even the tiniest thought given to questions like if a scene makes any sense in the somewhat different context it takes place in. The stuff Palmer comes up with himself neither fits the parts he has ripped off, nor does it make much sense. Just look at the nature of our heroes, the bizarre contortions the film goes through to explain why there’s nobody competent around, and so on, and so forth.

It doesn’t help the film’s case that John Savage just might be the worst Ripley ever, and that its version of Aliens clearly has no use for female characters at all. Even the Italian rip-off industry knew better than this! This – of course – doesn’t mean a boy can’t have a bit of fun with the film but it’s not the good and clean kind of fun to be sure.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Black Mountain Side (2014)

An archaeological camp in the Great White North of Canada has made a discovery that could be much more important than anyone could have expected. Not only do the archaeologists find pottery that looks rather Mesoamerican in style in the completely wrong part of the continent, predating anything culturally probable, but also what might be only the upper part of a mysterious stone structure - a mysterious stone structure dating from a time before humans actually had a settled lifestyle.

Things start to be going off the rails at about the same time when (one supposes eminent) archaeologist Professor Piers Olsen (Michael Dickson) arrives to corroborate the findings up this point. Things start, as they so often do, with a sacrificed cat, see the local helpers of the dig not leave for home but instead wander northwards into an arctic frost they’ll most probably not be able to survive, find all radio contact impossible (it’d be a rather short film otherwise) and deteriorate further until there’s self-mutilation, suicide, murder, and visions of a deep-voiced godhood with a deer head.

As anyone who even vaguely knows me will realize, Nick Szostakiwskyj’s Black Mountain Side pushes a lot of my narrative and thematic buttons, what with it being a film about a bunch of people isolated in a cold place, the cosmicist as well as folkloric bent to its horror, the archaeology angle, and so on, and so forth. Yet still I didn’t really warm to the film (sorry), never really felt much dread or horror watching it. I didn’t end up actively disliking the film but rather with the feeling that it misses a chance or two too many.

Among the film’s main failings is the nearly complete lack of characterisation, with characters so completely interchangeable, I really couldn’t find any reason to remember their names. There are very few discernible character traits on display from anyone apart from stuff like “is the doctor”, making the characters’ increasing mental dislocation feel rather weightless. It’s also difficult to see if someone starts acting particularly strange (apart from visions of deer gods, obviously) when a film doesn’t establish a base line regarding what’s normal for him. And yes, it’s “him”, for there’s not a single female character in the film, which is Lovecraftian in all the wrong ways, and just completely perplexing in a film made in this century.

Szostakiwskyj’s direction style is a bit problematic to my eyes too. Nearly every scene consists of long, static shots by a mostly immobile camera, from time to time – if we’re lucky – perhaps one cut-away to another static shot and then back again. While this sort of thing can add to the tension by giving the impression of the camera throwing a clinically distanced eye on the characters, it does also make a tale slowly told like this one feel even slower. In interior scenes often involving quite a few characters at once, it’s not very interesting to look at either, and rather than increase the tension, it helps deflate it. This effect is made worse in more than a few scenes by a tendency to awkwardly stuff the actors into the frame, positioning them in deeply unnatural ways that’ll really remind everyone watching this is indeed an indie horror movie.

On the other hand, this too distanced direction style does reap some fruits from time to time because most of Black Mountain Side’s violence and strangeness is filmed in the same flat manner, providing it at times with an unexpectedly disquieting effect, and once the camera starts moving, it feels rather surprising and exciting. I’d still argue that making eighty percent of your film look bland so that the remaining twenty of it can be more effective is not a terribly economical way to go.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

In short: The Dead Room (2015)

After paranormal phenomena have driven a family to panicked flight from their house situated in some so rural it looks like wilderness to this German part of New Zealand, three paranormal investigators are sent there to find out what’s what. On first look sceptical – though not so sceptical that it borders on insanity as many a horror film seems to like a sceptic - scientist Scott (Jeffrey Thomas), less sceptical scientist Liam (Jed Brophy) and young medium Holly (Laura Petersen) don’t find too much, but quickly there’s a lot of bumping going on ever night around every 3am. Holly also sees a very tall and very threatening man producing these effects.

To make things even more curious, there is one room inside the house that seems ghost-proof, immune against the tall presence and whatever it brings.

There’s quite a bit to like about Jason Stutter’s ghost house movie The Dead Room. Obviously, originality is not very big among these things, but the film does use some interesting variations on standard haunted house narrative devices. The house this takes place in, for example, is much smaller than is typical in the genre, clearly not too old either, going against many a gothic surface trope while still having the same kinds of hauntings you’d expect going on. Horrors, it turns out, are not exclusively a thing of the most distant past.

The presentation of the haunting is interesting too. The audience, as do Liam and Scott, only ever get to see things moving, hear knocks, feel the house shaking, while only Holly ever is able see the tall man. Stutter’s clearly following the old adage that the things you can’t see are much more frightening than those you can, and it works out well for the most part, giving what is on paper a series of very conventional and tired scares some life. It’s also something I haven’t seen a film use quite the way The Dead Room does in a very long time.

In general the film is appropriately moody, using the small location and the three person main cast expertly, and while there are certainly no particularly deep characters on display, they are lively and real enough to evoke a degree of empathy when they get the crap scared out of them; plus, they’re definitely not annoying, so I never felt myself wishing for anyone’s early death.

Unfortunately, the film pisses away a lot of the goodwill it has produced when its final ten minutes turn into carnival barker style horror nonsense of the worst and most well-worn type. It’s probably meant to be the kind of tonal shift that surprises and shocks the viewer with its audacity, but in practice, the whole thing feels as tacked on as it is tacky, as if the film’s proper ending had been replaced with footage from a different, and pretty damn bad, film.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Past Misdeeds: The Alien Factor (1978)

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 small town in Maryland is hit by a series of gruesome and inexplicable murders. Sheriff Cinder (Tom Griffith) is clueless what to do about the problem, and even if he had an idea, it would probably be difficult for him to set a plan into action, given that he seems to be fused to his desk and also possibly one of the walking, moustachioed dead. In a sense, I'm quite glad he loves his desk so much, because another sex scene featuring him rubbing his moustache about some poor woman like that nightmarish episode in the later Nightbeast would probably shatter my sanity for good.

Anyway, the Sheriff knows well that he has no clue and no talent for police work and would very much like to call the state police on the mass slaughter. The town's mayor (Richard Dyszel) however, won't hear of it. You see, there's a large "entertainment complex" (I imagine a very pink bordello) going to be built on the edge of town, and the mayor doesn't want the investors to get nervous. I'm sure they prefer a series of unsolved murders to a solved one.

Fortunately, Ben Zachary (Don Leifert) arrives in town, with a moustache as excellent as that of Cinder and carrying a bag full of gadgets. Zachary purports to work for a nearby observatory and also to be something of an expert in strange things, following a fallen meteorite into town. He'd just love to solve the murders for the mayor while he's at it.

Zachary quickly finds out that the killings are carried out by a trio of malevolent aliens who have escaped from a crashed interplanetary zoo transport, and he knows astonishingly well what to do against them. One could begin to think the observatory worker has a completely surprising secret of his own.

But can one exceedingly hairy man stand alone against the power of Lame Insect Guy, the Abominable Stiltman and Coloured Spot That Moonlights As A See-Through Lizard Monster?

The Alien Factor is the first film directed by the singular Don Dohler, Baltimore's king of dubious yet charming monster movies. Not surprisingly, his debut film presents itself with all the flaws Dohler's later movies would continue to show.

Throughout, The Alien Factor tests its audience's patience with the slowest imaginable pacing, created by Dohler's tendency to fill out his movies' running time with long and pointless sequences of boring and rather ugly people doing nothing of interest or relevance, and doing it very very slowly.

The film isn't exactly getting more thrilling through the peculiar way acting is practiced on planet Dohler. Nobody on screen seems to have a clue how human beings speak, move or look, and so each and every one of the actors has decided to imitate a different object or animal. Dyszel, for example, reminds me of nothing so much as of an excitable dog in a suit, while Griffith prefers the immobility of his beloved desk. The latter is quite understandable, because one can't help but notice in Griffith's regular downward looks that his dialogue is lying on the desk before him. That thing is a regular life saver, if Griffith does in fact possess a life to be saved. Of course, acting this singularly peculiar might not make a film more believable, yet it can't help but amuse.

The only exception from the rule of bad acting is Don Leifert, who always was one of the more talented participants in Dohler's films. I'm not talking about great acting here, but Leifert does possess at least a little charisma and screen presence and does not talk like a broken robot.

Dohler's direction is not exactly masterful either, but for something that was made by a group of people in Baltimore, on an absurd budget and with little experience in commercial filmmaking, The Alien Factor is quite nice to look at. Dohler is obviously a point and shoot guy at heart, he does however usually manage to keep his camera pointed in the right direction. From time to time, scenes are even filmed from more than one camera angle, which might not sound exciting if you're not acquainted with many products of regional filmmaking, but is far from a matter of course in films like this, usually for budgetary reasons.

Dohler might not be visually ambitious (I suspect his ideal SF movie was made in the 50s, in the US), yet he genuinely seems to care about making a watchable movie. While a lot of what we see on screen is pretty boring, Dohler achieves some moody or effective shots from time to time, probably through pure bloody-mindedness more than anything else.

Bloody-mindedness is also what comes to mind when looking at the monsters - three creatures designed with obvious care and enthusiasm and utterly ridiculous, yet ridiculous in a way that speaks of love and the willingness to do stupid things when those stupid things help to get a movie made.

Later Dohler epics would go on to feature a lot of local colour, granting a look into a provincial life that is five to ten years behind what is going on in the cities and imbuing the films with a peculiar charm that is the saving grace of many a local film production of its time. The Alien Factor isn't quite there yet - there's a bit of frightening fashion and ugly living rooms to gawk at, but not as many of the bizarre local characters doing things that might be edgy or funny when you're living in the less exciting parts of the country. Where the later films are set in bizarro Maryland, this one takes place in a more generic small town USA, the fact that Sheriff Cinder and some of the other characters would return in the very Maryland Nighbeast notwithstanding.

Dohler's later films would also feature a bit more gore and (if you want to call it that) sex, the former quite helpful in keeping the viewer awake, the latter the thing nightmares are made off. The Alien Factor for its part seems largely satisfied with displaying the amount of violence and sexuality of your typical 50s monster film.

All this might sound like The Alien Factor should be a rather dreary and boring experience hardly even fit to laugh at, but I find the film much too enthusiastic in its imitation of the structures of its models from the 50s and too determined to be an actual movie like those old ones were - even if neither the money nor the experience are there - to do anything else but love it a little bit.

It's true, I found myself laughing while watching the poor guy in the stilt suit trying to keep his balance while threatening the most wooden actors on the planet, or seeing Leifert wrestle with the See-Through Lizard, but I wasn't laughing about them, or Dohler, I was laughing with them about the strange roads to which this moviemaking lark can lead the people making them.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

In short: Scare Campaign (2016)

Warning: spoilers for obvious plot twists ahead!

Their network side producer presses the boys and girls of Scare Campaign, an Australian network TV horror-themed prank show that has already gone one step too far during their last production if you rightly believe actress and obvious horror film heroine Emma (Meegan Warner), into making an even more sensational and “real” final episode for their fifth season. The kids today, we are informed, are all into an Internet snuff show named Chekhov’s GunMasked Freaks, where people wearing 2010s horror movie masks murder victims with the hardware store stock they’ve strapped to their cameras, and while real murder is (alas, the producer clearly thinks) still off the table, things in Scare Campaign need to become rather different if the show wants to stay on air.

To nobody’s surprise, this season finale might just turn out to be the series finale for lack of warm bodies in the next one.

While Scare Campaigns certainly isn’t a bad way to waste eighty minutes of one’s life, watching it mostly provoked some thoughts about plot twists, or rather, about how difficult getting them right truly is. On one hand, if you don’t play fair with the audience and drop some random crap at them that doesn’t fit into what they’ve seen before, your plot will feel arbitrary and pointless. If, on the other hand you play as fair as Cameron and Colin Cairnes’s film does, you risk becoming too obvious, annoying an even just mildly genre-savvy viewer because they’ll know exactly what will happen. Scare Campaign certainly falls too far into the second camp, not so much playing fair with its audience than pointing it quite openly at what’s going on.

Which can still work in a film that has much else going on beyond its plot, but Scare Campaign is a very straightforward horror thriller whose only claim to subtext is some clichéd rambling by the chief “Masked Freak” about The New Media that really isn’t leading anywhere. Targets, this is not.

Still, the film is technically competent, and perfectly watchable. It’s just nothing more than that.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

A Knife for the Ladies (1974)

The decaying town of Mescal in the Old West has a problem. This time, it’s not a conflict between ranchers and farmers. Instead, a series of murders has the place in its grip. First, someone knifed the son of the town-founding, ambiguously-named Mescal family, and now, probably the same killer spends his valuable free time murdering the local prostitutes. The town’s bourgeoisie calls in independent (none of that Pinkerton business for this town, and good on them) investigator Edward Burns (Jeff Cooper) from the Big City.

Once he’s on the case, Burns will not just have to solve a difficult and somewhat bizarre series of murders, he’ll also have to come to some kind of understanding with the local sheriff Jarod (Jack Elam, described in an early dialogue line as “a two-fisted bear of a man”, on which I couldn’t possible comment). Jarod’s not well-loved by his community: he’s old, his style of policing is a relic of supposedly simpler times, he’s frankly on the ugly side, probably doesn’t wash too regularly, and certainly doesn’t know how to conduct a police investigation. He’s also understandably angry about the changing times and the big-haired know-it-all detective romping through his town.

Even if one does not have anything good to say about Larry G. Spangler’s A Knife for the Ladies, beyond congratulating it for the bad pun in its title, one can’t help but admire the uncommon genre mix it is aiming for. Mystery western aren’t exactly common, especially not on screen, and one taking the cues for its mystery (and style of title, if we ignore the pun) from the giallo is even more unique. Of course, having a clever saleable idea for mixing genres and actually being able to actually mix them are somewhat different things.

At the very least, Spangler does give it an honest try, in an ambitious move turning the genre mix via the conflict between Burns and Jarrod into an actual part of the narrative (that’ll of course be resolved by the guys having a fistfight, the only kind of bodily contact these manly men are allowed to have), and he’s also clearly making an effort constructing an actual mystery that somewhat fits into the last breath of the Old West. The film’s not as clever about it all as I’d have wished – the dialogue is clunky and often more so thanks to clearly overextended actors in the smaller roles, and while the plot’s mix of Western, mystery and giallo generally stays interesting, it is not terribly exciting, and doesn’t lead too far into unexplored territory.

Spangler’s direction is perfectly okay for this sort of local production. Again, you can see the guy makes a very earnest effort that’s definitely good enough to be called solid, with editing, transitions, and camera work that are perfectly functional but which never really become quite as convincing a whole as I’d have wished for.

Jack Elam, character actor in more Western as one should care to count, seems to have a lot of fun with for once not playing the drunk deputy or something on that level but actually being the lead, playing the very typical Western role of the sheriff whose own aging and the changes of the world around him lead him into existential troubles he can only cope with by drinking too much and punching people. It’s certainly not the most subtle portrayal of this sort of thing I’ve seen (but then, neither is the way it is written), but I found it quite a joy to see Elam getting his well-deserved due in this way. He’s certainly acting circles around Cooper, who has very interesting hair and is quite the glowerer but is rather on the stiff side. Which is too bad, for some kind of intense, Old West Sherlock Holmes battling it out with Elam would certainly have been something to see.

If all this doesn’t sound like a very good movie, that impression is certainly not wrong. However, A Knife for the Ladies is a film with quite a few interesting ideas, made with earnestness and a degree of competence that certainly never left me bored. Add to that the joy of seeing Jack Elam stretching his legs a little, and I wouldn’t have missed seeing Spangler’s film for the world.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

In short: The Condemned (2007)

At times, Scott Wiper’s film is as tight as a WWE production featuring a meathead wrestler in a Battle Royale/Hunger Games variation can possible be.

It suffers from a handful of things, though: First, there’s the fact that said meathead wrestler is Steve Austin, a guy who is slightly more likeable than Vinnie Jones, the least likeable guy in cheap action movies alive, who is consequently one of the main bad guys here, can’t act to save his life, and is generally to slow and immobile to be all that great in his action scenes. At least, Austin doesn’t get on of his patented “America, fuck yeah” speeches in here, so that’s a plus.

The film makes up for that supposed lack with hilariously hypocritical scenes telling us that cheering on violence is bad while making us cheer on violence, which a cleverer film would probably have broken with a bit of irony, and an even more clever film doubled down on via actual characterisation instead of speechifying. That “show, don’t tell” thing one might have heard about when one writes screenplays, and all that.

Speaking of the violence, it’s generally more on the brutal and nasty side (avoiding the problem of having to make guys like Austin and Jones look elegant or fast), a bit too rapey for my tastes, and often still actually pretty exciting. Unless Wiper suddenly starts to let the camera wobble in vague circles, letting it pop off for a shot of the in-film camera looking down on the characters, pretending shaking the camera gives the action weight and showing a camera gives it meaning. Now that I think about it, it is rather adorable…

If someone would cut about half an hour of footage, this would be a pretty great action film, if a rather nasty one. Alas, as it stands, it wildly fluctuates in tone and tempo, spends too much time one subplots without a payoff (like the FBI guy whose influence on the actual plot is exactly zero), and is dreadful as often as it is fun.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Bastille Day (2016)

American pickpocket in Paris Michael Mason (Richard Madden) steals the wrong bag when he takes one belonging to Zoe Naville (Charlotte Le Bon), for Zoe’s bag contained a time bomb she was just about to wander off with and throw into the Seine. Initially, she was supposed to deposit it in the office of a racist French nationalist party the film is too polite to name but when she realized said office wouldn’t be empty as promised by the boyfriend who convinced her of the whole thing, she changed her plans.

Michael’s inadvertent intervention ends with four dead bodies, an anonymous message that promises more violence of this sort to come on Bastille Day, and him hunted as the responsible party. Before the French can identify him, the CIA does. And because this is the CIA, they don’t give this rather important information to their allies  – because then they’d have to explain why they have access to surveillance cameras all over Paris – but send out reckless, violent, and nearly disgraced agent Briar (Idris Elba) to illegally detain Michael for a day to torture as much information out of him as possible. Briar might be a bit of a thug, but he’s also not stupid, and he quickly realizes that Michael isn’t responsible for any bombings. In fact, the whole thing will start to look to him like something quite different from terrorism and  only the beginning of a series of provocations set to use the fissures in French society to throw Paris into chaos for rather more petty reasons. Briar, once he’s got a whiff of what’s really going on, will stop at little to get to the truth and the people responsible, even if it means teaming up with a pickpocket and a woman who nearly did something deeply stupid and most certainly highly illegal.

I found James Watkins’s Bastille Day a surprisingly fun film. I’m generally quite sceptical about the slow but steady trickle of international productions seemingly following the lead of Luc Besson’s Europacorp in style and content. However unlike quite a few of these films as well as much of the actual Europacorp output, this one’s actually a neat little addition to the action and thriller genres.

It is even not completely stupid. Sure, the film’s attempt to include the influence of social media and the spread of information as parts of its plot is an interesting idea not very intelligently realized, and the bad guys’ plan has certain shades of the first Die Hard movie with Paris as the skyscraper, and obviously never reads as something that would actually work this way exactly the way they want it, given its dependence of large masses of people acting exactly like they want thanks to the magical power of hashtags, a mysterious Internet thing I’m not terribly sure the scriptwriters have actually encountered in the wild. However, as action movie background guff needed to get the violence and the chases rolling goes, this passes muster quite decently. And hey, while this isn’t a meditation about the worst sides of online culture trickling into the real world, or a film that has something clever to say about mass manipulation, the film’s background is rather more interesting than the usual “Idris Elba shoots the evil terrorists”, and at least tries to use elements of the real world. There’s also the little fact that the film uses its implausible plot with an impeccable sense for the kind of rhythm – which is what the thriller genre, with an emphasis on action like this one has or not, is all about - this sort of thing is supposed to have.

Watkins again turns in a not terribly charismatic but effective direction job, generally following the philosophy that action films are supposed to be edited in a way that enables the audience to follow what’s going on in them and doing a good job with that. The action isn’t exactly realistic in feel but also not terribly over the top, aiming for a middle of the road approach that works quite well for the film.

Idris Elba is an actor you could actually imagine to be physically capable of the stuff he’s doing here. Elba doesn’t, of course and alas, need to strain his considerable acting talents here much, for Briar is a pretty empty vessel; the film doesn’t even make much use of the mistake that brought him to Paris nor does it ever show any interest in explaining who its protagonist actually is apart from slightly insane and exceedingly violent. So all Elba has to go on is his physical presence, which is fortunately also considerable.

All in all, this is bread and butter action thriller stuff done right, even though it’s certainly not a classic of the genre.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

In short: Observance (2015)

Parker (Lindsay Farris) has lost his young son to illness, ending up not only with a dead child but also a marriage in its last throes and a six figure hospital debt. So he takes on a surveillance job that looks even more shady than this sort of thing generally is.

Parker is to move into the run down building across from his surveillance subject, a woman whom he initially only knows as Subject 1 (Stephanie King), and observe her from there for a few days. He has no idea why he is supposed to watch the woman, nor what he can expect to happen. Some research shows her name is Tennneal, that she works in some kind of research institute she never seems to actually visit, and that her potentially abusive boyfriend (Tom O’Sullivan) is the youngest member of a once politically influential family whose star dimmed after the mysterious death of one of their employees.

Something doesn’t feel right about the whole affair, and the longer Parker stays on his post, the more peculiar his surroundings become: there are strange noises, disturbing dreams, small wounds that won’t heal, and worse things to come. Of course, given his personal situation, Parker might just have a bit of a breakdown; or something very different indeed might be going on.

Given the consciously obscure way Joseph Sims-Dennett’s Observance operates for most of its running time, with symbols and scenes that usually lend themselves to more than just one interpretation, it will come as no surprise that the answer what really is going on here is an ambiguous one. Watching the film, I did at times feel rather lost, as Parker does, never quite grasping everything that was going on, nor exactly what it might all mean. To me, that’s not a bad thing but rather one of the film’s attractions; I can see a different type of viewer becoming quite annoyed by this approach, even though a change of perspective late on in the film does suggest a direction where the “truth” of the film’s fiction can probably be found.

Whatever the exact meaning of the film is – and even the question if it is psychological or supernatural horror is a question of interpretation – there’s quite a bit else going on here that’s exciting. With simple methods Sims-Dennett creates a disquieting mood that isn’t based on shock effects – though there are some of these too – but on small shifts in environments and sounds, purposefully confusing edits, and visual symbols that have something at once archetypal and ambiguous. The film creates a sense of claustrophobia and increasing wrongness I found pretty hypnotic, all the more so thanks to an appropriately disturbing performance by Farris who has to carry about eighty-five minutes of the film and does so wonderfully.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Past Misdeeds: Mr. Sardonicus (1961)

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 some carnival impresario-like mugging of our host (and director and producer) William Castle, the film introduces its hero. Sir Robert Cargrave (Ronald Lewis) is a successful Victorian physician and specialist in the treatment of paralysis.

Unexpectedly, Cargrave receives a letter written by the love of his youth, Maude (Audrey Dalton), who would have become his wife if not for a greedy father without the proper faith in Cargrave's future career. Maude is now married to a certain Baron Sardonicus and lives in one of those imaginary Central European countries full of people with utterly incongruous accents I know and love from dozens of other movies.

In her letter, Maude invites Cargrave to her husband's estate, but gives the invitation an urgent undertone that convinces the physician to close his practice at once and run off to the continent. Why, one could think he is still in love with Maud.

In Europe, the good doctor soon notices some peculiarities. The local citizenry fears his host as if he were Dracula himself, and it doesn't take too long of an acquaintance with the Baron's lifestyle to understand why. It's the usual combination of gothic ghastliness - a sinister servant, Krall, (Oskar Homolka), a permanently locked door, the total absence of mirrors in the house, experiments with leeches on the house maid. And those are the things Cargrave experiences before he finally meets Sardonicus himself (Guy Rolfe). Sardonicus is a very unpleasant man with the peculiar habit of hiding his face behind a waxen mask and with more than a whiff of the sadist about him, as the screeching town girls he likes to secretly entertain will agree.

There's a good reason for the Baron wearing a mask, though. His face is disfigured, paralysed in a permanent deathly grin he acquired when he robbed his father's grave of the lottery ticket that bought him his title. Obviously, Sardonicus needs Cargrave's help, and he is willing to threaten his own wife to get it.

Given that Mr. Sardonicus is a William Castle production, it is self-evident that it has a gimmick every carnie barker would be proud of. When the movie made its initial matinee run, cards picturing a hand showing thumbs up or down were distributed in the audience. At a certain point shortly before the end, Castle appears on screen again, asking the audience to vote if poor old Sardonicus is in need of further punishment by presenting the appropriately positioned thumb to him. After a gleeful pretence at counting the votes, the audience then is presented with the film's only existing ending, which is of course the "more punishment" one. There are rumours that a more redemptive ending does actually exist but is now lost, but the way Castle's counting scene is set up alone should make clear that there's just no chance for that; if you think otherwise after having watched the film, I have a nice bridge to sell you.

It's not my favourite Castle gimmick - that would be the ones in The Tingler - it does however give the film a gleeful charm that helps loosen up its sometimes a bit talky proceedings.

That doesn't mean the gimmick is the movie's only virtue. Probably inspired by the success of that other great cheapskate director/producer Roger Corman's House of Usher, Castle makes a trip into gothic horror, a field he usually didn't work in. There are a few differences between the two films' approaches to their sub-genre, though, and certainly one in quality and artistic vision, the latter just not a thing very close to Castle's heart. The most important difference, however, is that Corman uses colour - or rather COLOUR! - where Castle makes a black and white film (although I doubt this was anything other than a budgetary decision). Corman's film is very much screaming "new Gothic" through this alone, while Sardonicus looks much more like Castle is going for a continuation of the visual language of the classic Universal horror film, although with the addition of open sadism and relatively daring content most of its old brethren just couldn't get away with. There's an emphasis on stylish but cheap artificiality in the sets that looks to me very much like the Universal style without the verticality of the sets the older films could afford. I'm a firm believer in artificiality as a stylistic element in films as long as the artificiality serves the building of mood, as it does here, so I found this part of Sardonicus quite satisfying.

The film's photography is equally moody and satisfying and at times unexpectedly beautiful, again showing the influence of early Universal and the cheap semi-noirs Castle started his career with, albeit with less emphasis on shadows, and more on sharp contrasts and interesting framing.

Not as satisfying are the more sensationalist moments, not because I have any ethical problems with them (which would come as a surprise, wouldn't it?), but because they don't really agree with the film's more subtle aspects. The more of Castle's films I have seen, the more I come to the conviction that the man should have trusted in his own ability to be subtle from time to time, even if he (probably rightfully so) believed his kid audience to be averse to subtlety. On the plus side, Castle's lack of restraint grants the viewer moments of silliness like the beloved flying head dream sequences you'd usually connect with cartoons.

As is often the case with Castle's films, there are also some quite memorable dialogue scenes that present a sharpness and a cynical view of humanity you don't usually expect to find in exploitation films aimed at teenagers. Ray Russell's script (based on his own novella) is particularly interesting, building a castle made of classical Gothic tropes, cheap Freudianism, extreme but thematically fitting psychology and dialogue that is a bit stiff but deeper than it strictly needs to be. One could criticise that there isn't much happening in the film, but gothic horror is all about mood and theme, with little need for plot or action beyond having everything go to pieces in the end.

The acting is also pretty good, with Ronald Lewis giving (and that might very well be a first) a sympathetic and even vaguely charismatic hero in a sub-genre that usually has no time or interest for making its heroes memorable, Guy Rolfe granting his Sardonicus just the right mixture of sadism, sarcasm, desperation and even a bit of humanity and Oskar Homolka relishing the opportunity to lay it on really thick as the sinister factotum.

Audrey Dalton on the other hand seems to struggle with most of her dialogue and is never able to make Maude an actual human being.

All in all, Mr. Sardonicus is one of the better films in Castle's filmography, especially for people with an interest in Gothic horror beyond the initial Universal wave, Corman and Bava.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Three Films Make A Post: Quick on the Draw - And He Always 'Gets' His Man!

Soldiers of Fortune (2012): Despite a perfectly great idiotic action movie plot idea about rich people getting their kicks in a warzone, and an absurdly overqualified cast including Christian Slater, Sean Bean, Ving Rhames, Dominic Monaghan, James Cromwell and Colm Meaney, this is not the joyful return of Cannon-size action cinema dumbness. Instead, this is one of those action films that thinks it is a good idea to keep all its better action sequences for the final twenty minutes or so, instead trusting on bad characterisation and boring back and forth to keep its audience awake. Director Maxim Korostyshevsky does at least make the film look slick but he never really goes all out on the kind of crazy a film needs if it wants to sell Slater as a former special forces operative or Meaney as his evil nemesis. It’s all much too blandly realized for how stupid it is, making neither that part of its audience happy that might have gone in expecting a serious action film, nor those (like me) expecting entertaining crap.

The Bishop Murder Case (1930): The only Philo Vance adaptation starring Basil Rathbone (quite a few years before he became the iconic Holmes with the worst of all possible Watsons) falls into the difficult time period when most Hollywood filmmaking was still very much transitioning into sound film. Consequently, half of the actors involved mug like your worst idea of silent movie acting, others shout as if everyone around them were deaf, while only one third of the cast – thankfully including most of the major players – has already assumed the more workable idea of screenacting that would dominate screens for the next fifteen, twenty years. That’s a liveable enough quota, but unfortunately, directors David Burton and Nick Grinde fall into that early – and quite avoidable – talkie style of stiff, unimaginative visuals full of characters set up into stiff, unnatural tableaus, declaiming much of what they have to say visibly into the direction of the camera. The mystery at the film’s core is actually pretty okay if you like this sort of thing but thanks to the visual blandness and the general sluggishness of the affair, using the word “entertaining” to describe the film would be rather too much unless you are a much more patient soul than I am.

I’d say it might still be interesting for historical reasons, but then there are early talkies in the genre that are actually fun too watch, so why not watch one of them instead?

The Legend of Barney Thomson (2015): Robert Carlyle’s debut as a feature film director – he does take on the title role too – is rather fun if you like Douglas Lindsay’s source novel (and sequels), like our humour on the macabre side, or just want to hear people say all those dulcet sounding curses the Scottish are known and loved for. It also happens to be rather funny, showing off Emma Thompson and Carlyle himself in particularly good form. The film does a lot of clever stuff with the quotidian grotesque (Scottish gothic?) and uses stereotypes in a way that’s actually funny instead of lazy.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Push (2009)

In Push’s world, there exists an international underground of people with various psychic powers, reaching from telekinetics to people who can scream really unpleasantly, from people with mind control powers to various types of clairvoyants. Many of them are controlled – willingly or not – by various government agencies, though the film is a little ambiguous regarding how much control these agencies actually employ about the powered.

We do learn quickly enough that the American organization concerned with this – led by one Henry Carver (Djimon Hounsou) – is rather evil, what with them doing human experiments and murdering the father of what will be our protagonist. And that just after Dad has given him what very much sounds like the beginning of a chosen one prophecy it’s not really turning out to be!

At the start of the film’s main plot, said protagonist Nick Gant has all grown up to be played by Chris Evans, and is trying to keep something of a low profile in Hong Kong. Unfortunately, it’s not quite as low as he imagined it to be, for the Division knows exactly where he lives and which triad he’s owing money to - they clearly just don’t see him as much of a potential threat. So when a suitcase containing a rather important substance makes its way to Hong Kong carried by a woman we will later learn is Nick’s ex-girlfriend Kira (Camilla Belle), a couple of Division agents come sniffing around his apartment, threaten him a bit, and leave. Nick’s just about to go on the run when another visitor comes in. This time it’s teenage pre-cog (“watcher” in the film’s terminology) Cassie (Dakota Fanning). Cassie is – for various and complicated reasons – after the same thing as the Division agents and really wants Nick’s help.

Eventually, they team-up and become involved in various plots and counter-plots that also involve some Chinese operatives with a much better watcher than Cassie is (Li Xia-Lu). At least, they’ll be able to team up with a handful of other independents with middling super powers (Ming-Na Wen, Cliff Curtis and Nate Mooney).

Paul McGuigan’s Push seems to be what happens when someone imagines the X-Men by way of the European post-Bourne spy film with visible influences reaching from classic heist flicks to – appropriately enough - Hong Kong cinema. That might sound a bit like a high concept mess, but in fact, the resulting movie is pretty great. Push is surprisingly excellent at finding the point where the genres and influences it is working from coalesce, making it all feel much more organic than I would have expected.

I’m particularly fond of the way David Bourla’s script plays with genre expectations, often diverting from the tropes of one genre to that of the next one to surprise the audience and even subvert the usual plot beats a bit. An example is the way the prologue and the first act suggest that this is going to be a Chosen One tale with Nick as its Chosen, when the film instead turns out to be about a handful of characters who are all down on their luck one way or the other trying to do some good in a world that has stacked all cards against them, with Nick honestly not being particularly special.

Even our heroes’ super powers aren’t terribly impressive: Nick loses practically every fight he gets in, Cassie is a much less precise and clear pre-cog than her Chinese counterpart - not to speak of the things her mother could do - and their friends have powers of very limited applicability. Only Kira’s actually dangerous in that regard, though she’s a rather ambiguous character, and not just because the film is pretty good at showing how horrible the things her mind control powers do to her victims actually are.

Push does particularly well with the surreal and strange parts of its world, really making its audience feel the strangeness of a place where characters try to find a way through to a half-knowable yet always shifting future, where what you think who you are might not be true because someone might just have literally put your past in your head. There’s often something appropriately hallucinatory to McGuigan’s direction, his characters moving through a world that feels just ever so slightly off yet at the same time hyper-real.

In this regard, the director makes perfect use of Hong Kong locations that look and feel like strange, neon and candy-coloured pieces of a slightly mad near future, at once absolutely real and knowable yet ever so slightly disquieting and off. Which might sound like exoticism but seems to speak to the nature of actual Hong Kong as the dream of a very peculiar futurist, something it seems to share with Tokyos, real and imagined.

There’s quite a bit of interesting thematic work going on in the background here, too, with more than just one character having to carry the burdens as well as the hopes of their parents generation, with some of these burdens rather cruel, some inevitable, some very much imagined and some kinder as they seem. The film doesn’t really fall into the trap of simplifying this either, with what we can glean of the motivations of the absent parents mostly as complex as that of actual parents. Like it is with the future in Push’s world, things are complicated, ambiguous, and generally not as clear and easy they seem.

Which of course all fits neatly into the superpowered spy/heist film tale the film tells, suggesting a surprising amount of care and thought having gone into the writing. Why, the film even largely manages to keep this up throughout its final act, even though there’s a bit of angling for a sequel that will never come. The film’s action is rather on the excellent side, too – varied, inspired by Hong Kong cinema yet not aping it, and taking place in diverse and interesting environments.

There are quite a few other small touches I love about the film: there’s the number of character actors from Hong Kong popping up everywhere (the film’s thanking Johnnie To’s Milkyway as their local co-operator for a reason), the imaginative and telling way even the same power works differently here for different people, the film’s love for people who aren’t born to be heroes and still do their best, the various wry nods at pop-cultural touchstones, the general quality of the cast, and quite a bit more.

Clearly, I have a bit of a crush on Push, and why not? It certainly deserves it.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

In short: Pirates of the Coast (1960)

Original title: I pirati della costa

On the Spanish Main, when the pirates of the Tortugas ruled the waves. Poor Spanish Commander Luis Monterrey (Lex Barker)! Commissioned by the crown to finally get a load of silver from Santa Cruz back to Spain – none of the other deliveries ever reached their goal – he finds himself outwitted and outgunned by the Tortuga-based pirates of evil Captain Olonese (Livio Lorenzon) who for some reason knows quite well the cotton the good commander has supposedly loaded is actually silver. Also add to our hero’s trouble his puzzling infatuation with Isabela (Estalla Blain), the unpleasant, classist and generally unkind niece of Santa Cruz’s governor who’d never get together with a peasant like him anyway.

During a hilarious process, Monterrey is sentenced for losing the gold as a traitor to a life of hard labour. While on the way to the penal colony, Monterrey and a few of his fellow prisoners manage to take control of their prison ship. What’s a man to do than to grab himself an eye patch, dub himself Captain Nobody, and sail off to Tortuga to become a pirate too?

Domenico Paolella’s Pirates of the Coast isn’t one of the treasures of Italian pirate films, for it is a bit lacking in charisma to be truly riveting. Lex Barker is a bit too wooden to make for a proper swashbuckling hero, and Luis’s character lacks any of the larger than life elements a good swashbuckling hero needs. Well, he’s certainly honourable enough but that’s it as far as his character traits go. The rest of the characters suffer from the same problem too, with nary anything distinctive between them. I’m not necessarily talking about character depth, mind you – what the film really needs is more character colour. Only Olonese is appropriately slimy and evil, Lorenzon consequently having a hard time to liven things up a bit when the rest of the cast isn’t playing.

On the plus side, this one seems to have had a bit more of a budget than usual in Italian swashbucklers, so we get some mildly exciting sea battles, mass battles that have more then three participants and some okay fencing duels (though I’ve seen much better, and not just in US movies). At least, the film’s certainly not shirking its duty of providing the audience with most of the mandatory types of action one can expect from a pirate movie.

Which, all in all, makes Pirates of the Coast a perfectly serviceable quick fix for your pirate movie needs, if, unfortunately, nothing more.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

The Priests (2015)

aka Black Priests

Original title: 검은 사제들

Father Kim (Kim Yoon-seok), has been the Catholic Church’s exorcist in South Korea and the local man of a vague Rosicrucian cabal inside the Vatican that seems to concern itself with particularly evil demons or something ever since the priest he assisted fell into a coma. Not that Kim’s Korean superiors actually want to have much to do with him, mind you: they loathe him, and all the help they might give him is strictly unofficial and certainly happening under duress. For the last six months or so, Kim has attempted to exorcise teenager Yeong-sin (Park So-dam) who has something particularly bad dwelling inside of her. After the girl survived a suicide attempt, Kim’s work has come under a degree of public scrutiny too, with his superiors denying everything.

The man and the work are also chewing up assistants left and right. The newest candidate is young Deacon Choi (Kang Dong-won), our viewpoint character, who just might turn out to be a born exorcist, though he doesn’t exactly seem to be the ideal priest. Kim will dearly need Choi in the battle to come.

If you’re like me and have grown bored of US exorcism films at about the time of The Exorcist, Jang Jae-hyeon’s debut film just might make you a happier and less bored person. Not because it is a terribly effective horror film: in fact, there’s little horrific happening until about the halfway mark, and what happens then really isn’t terribly effective. In fact, the film spends more time on Choi finding out the plot’s basics and getting involved with a lot of things that won’t be of much import later – be it the Rosicrucian stuff or the distrust his superiors have of Kim – than get on with exorcism business. Indeed, speaking of the film having much of a plot beyond “exorcism” and “young priest pretty randomly finding his calling” would be saying too much to a nearly absurd degree.

However, the film’s treatment of the Catholic faith, exorcism and all things theological, wildly mixing up western and Korean spiritual, theological and imaginary concepts in a way that becomes increasingly and delightfully bonkers makes up for pretty much all of its failings – and it’s not just the Rosicrucian catholic exorcists watching out for demons they call “the twelve manifestations” that’ll delight and astonish. For example, there’s that wonderful moment when our priestly heroes spray themselves with what the subtitles call “female secretions”, because apparently, demons don’t really work with the females of the species. Consequently, Yeong-sin’s possession is some kind of accident, and the demon inhabiting her would really rather like to hop into a much more useful male; we don’t know the demon’s position regarding trans people. We also learn that exorcists needs to be born in the year of the tiger – which is certainly a little known part of Catholic doctrine. But then, our heroes will make up for that little lapse in doctrine by getting the Vatican to mail them The Holy Bell of Saint Francis of Assisi, which quite obviously gives them +5 on spiritual attack rolls against demons.

Demons, by the way, are easiest detected by putting a horde of kittens into the potentially possessed’s bedroom and watching what happens; the best exorcism soundtrack is Bach. All this is the little stuff, though – as you know, the goal of every decent exorcism is to transfer the demon into a piglet, which will then turn black and make demon noises, while some hapless priest has exactly one hour to drown it in a river at least 15 metres wide.

Yes, Virginia, this does indeed mean that The Priests' dramatic –and played in a tone of utmost seriousness for this is certainly not meant as a comedy - finale sees Choi hunted by the police, running around with a devil piglet in his arms, and trying to reach the nearest river while said devil piglet causes absurd traffic accidents, blocks taxi doors, and looks absolutely adorable while making demon piglet noises. If one of cinema’s noblest goals is to show an audience things it hasn’t seen before, the film certainly is a triumph. I, for one, found myself stunned, awed, confused and highly amused watching it.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

In short: The Mind’s Eye (2015)

It’s 1990, and Scanners-style psychokinetic powers are a thing in the population. Rambling psychokinetic Zack (Graham Skipper) is lured into the private, secret, and deeply dubious psi research program of Dr. Slovak (John Speredakos, increasingly – and rather wonderfully - chewing the scenery) with the promise of seeing his old flame Rachel (Lauren Ashley Carter) – also a psychokinetic and in the research program – again. Turns out Slovak is a bit of a liar, for while Rachel is indeed in the program – and is now motivated with an opportunity for seeing Zack again as he is the other way around – Slovak clearly (and for only vague reasons) does not plan on reuniting the lovers ever again.

The research program isn’t quite as interested in helping its subjects control or suppress their powers as promised either. In fact, while Slovak has developed an intermittently working drug to suppress psychic powers for a time, his research goal is to give himself psychokinetic powers. This he does by extracting some of his victims’ spinal fluid, extracting the magical psi juice, and injecting that into his own neck. Which, as it turns out, has rather severe side effects.

So things will get bloody once Zack realizes he has developed a tolerance against the psi-suppressants he is shot up with, and he and Rachel go on the run.

Obviously, Joe Begos’s The Mind’s Eye is – aesthetically and in its content – deeply inspired by early 80s psi thrillers and horror movies, and plays out like the entertaining dumb fun brother of Cronenberg’s Scanners, a role all of that film’s actual sequels aspired to but never managed to reach. The closeness to the Cronenberg film (and comparable movies) is very much one of general aesthetics, exploding heads, people making ultra-constipated faces during psychic battles (best in show in that regard is the inevitable – yet lovely - Larry Fessenden who should be in even more movies to make psychic battle faces), and the basic plot. What The Mind’s Eye lacks in comparison is any depth whatsoever. This is strictly what you see is what you get surface spectacle cinema.

However, I don’t think that’s a bad thing in this case, for Begos’s movie never pretends to be anything else, nor does it try to be anything more than a movie about people with psychic powers bloodily battling one another. Begos is rather good at what he’s doing here, too, achieving a unified and highly effective aesthetic on a very low budget, and making up for what he lacks in the opportunity to shoot large action set pieces with a mostly fantastic eye for more intimate as well as doubly bloody action, the sort of thing that should embarrass quite a few people shooting direct-to-DVD action movies that never manage to look as good nor feel as exciting.

In its own way, The Mind’s Eye is pretty much a perfect film, achieving what it sets out to do flawlessly, while looking good and splattering a lot of bodily fluids across the screen (some of it pleasantly chocolate-coloured).

Friday, September 2, 2016

Past Misdeeds: Robowar (1988)

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 merry mercenary group working under the delightful moniker of BAM (as the film explains, this is an acronym for "Bad-ass motherfuckers"), is hired by shady government types to go on The Mission for them. Now you might ask yourself: "What's this mission about?". The film isn't going to tell you. It is in fact withholding this information for its audience's own good, or at least to spare you wasting too many brain cells, as The Mission will turn out to be not what our heroes believe it to be, so there surely is no need to bother your pretty little heads with it.

All members of BAM have manly codenames like Killzone, Blood, or Diddy Bopper, alas they very seldom use them when talking to each other. The only thing that's important about them is that their leader is played by Reb Brown and that the rest of them might just as well be wearing red shirts instead of army fatigues. Reb ain't too happy when he learns that the team is going to be accompanied by a man of the Man who just might be called Asshole or Fuck You (Mel Davison). But what can a Reb do when he's already somewhere in Central America and on The Mission with his guys?

After the BAMsters have played around with some random guerrillas and picked up a gal named Virgin (Catherine Hickland), they finally meet the problem they were brought in to solve without having been told that they are supposed to solve it - a big bad government cyborg who is running amuck. And IMDB tells me it's played by Claudio Fragasso! Kill that monster, people of BAM!

Of course, it won't be that easy for the mercenaries, and in the end, only Virgin's superior chemistry skills and the fact that Robocop was nearly as successful a film as Predator will conquer the big bad.

And lo! It came to pass that Bruno Mattei and Claudio Fragasso watched Predator. And they saw that it was good. So obviously, they needed to make a terrible, yet glorious version of the material all their own. Dear Fragasso is only taking the responsibility for the story this time, whatever that might mean in a film patently without one, while the writing credit goes to Rossella Drudi, who has certainly fine qualifications in her future work on Troll 2, her past work on Hell of the Living Dead and being married to Fragasso. It's quite the script the couple produced, never giving an explanation when one would probably be a good idea, never having an idea of its own when it can manhandle someone else's, and never satisfied stealing from just one source. Why only rip off Predator, when Robocop is also there, rife for the picking? It's what you expect from real masters of their art.

I'd love to go deeply into the principles of Mattei's direction, his meaningful use of the colour green, the way he uses the adventures of the BAMsters as a metaphor for all human struggle, but unfortunately I'd just be making it all up. If you have seen any Mattei film, you know how it looks; if you haven't, words cannot prepare you for the experience, at least not words I feel comfortable using.

I'd also love to tell you about the acting performances, alas, there aren't any. There certainly are people on screen who are speaking some perfectly bizarre dialogue, and they certainly are actors by trade, but that's all I can tell you about them, at least not without using words I don't feel comfortable using when talking about people I have never met and who could probably still kick my ass in a fight.

Furthermore, I'd love to tell you about the action. Let us just say that there's a lot of shooting and punching on screen, often executed by BAMsters standing in a single line, shooting and screaming and avoiding cover like their Civil War ancestors before them, at other times performed while running and screaming wildly. And yes, of course there are exploding huts.

Finally, I'd love to tell you about the film's awe-inspiring effects, how the cyborg dude is dressed in an Ultraman Halloween costume someone has painted black and makes the same chittering noises a toy robot I once owned makes, but I don't think I'm fit to do it justice.

I'm afraid I can only leave you with questions about Robowar where I should be giving answers, but that is part of the nature of the films of Mattei and Fragasso. I am full of questions about their works myself, starting with the natural - if very unspecific - ones, like "who gave these people money to make movies?" and "can I meet him?".

There are, however, more pertinent questions to ask about Robowar. Why did the script only have five pages? Where did the promised appearance of Alan Collins/Luciano Pigozzi disappear to? Did the authorities of the Philippines (where the film was shot) know whom they let into their country and what terrible consequences their lenience would have for the sanity of mankind? Why is it that Reb Brown screams whenever he shoots his gun? How does the Cyborg manage to hit anyone with his pew-pew laser gun when his point of view shots show clearly that he sees the world as a random conglomerate of orange pixels? What exactly was the government's idea in sending the mercenaries there? Did I really need to see Reb Brown in a belly top?

So many questions, yet so little answers. And that, my friends, is the point of the works of Mattei and Fragasso. They help us understand the importance of asking questions we never even knew we had, and show us that answers about the world that permitted the insane duo to make more than one movie can only be found in the tears of laughter rolling down our cheeks while we are watching them.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

In short: Synchronicity (2015)

Warning: there are timey-whimey spoilers ahead!

Jim Beale (Chad McKnight) and his buddies Chuck (AJ Bowen) and Matty (Scott Poythress) have invented a time machine. Unfortunately, the thing needs a rare radioactive substance named MRD to work, so they have to rely on money provided by devil investor Klaus Meisner (Michael Ironside), who is basically twirling an invisible moustache in every scene he’s in. So no worries there.

On the night of their first practical experiment with the receiving part of the machine (the sender is obviously to be built in the future), something actually comes through from the future. It’s a rare orchid, though Jim sees a shadow that looks very much like a person too. He can’t do much about that, though, for curiously enough Jim has some sort of seizure right then. Afterwards, when he races out of the lab to investigate if the shadow he saw was indeed a person, he encounters the mildly mysterious Abby (Brianne Davis).

It’s love at first sight, so the rest of the film consists of a love story between complete strangers, a thriller part based on the fact that Abby just might be in cahoots with Meisner, so that soon enough exactly the obvious happens: Jim goes back in time, has indeed been the shadow from the start of the film, and mostly goes about changing the past by not changing the past and having as much sex with Abby as possible.

Well, let’s start with the positive, shall we? Jacob Gentry’s Synchronicity sure is pretty to look at, taking its cues from 80’s neon noir and neon noir science fiction, with the expected synthie noodling as the score. The film’s really good at using the aesthetic too, feeling very slick and accomplished in that regard.

Unfortunately, there’s the rest of the movie. The acting isn’t actually too bad -  McKnight and Davis just do not have the chemistry for me to buy them as quite as doomed and moonstruck as they are supposed to be even though McKnight does like to throw moon calf-like looks around like nobody’s business. It certainly doesn’t help the performances that there are way too many 80s style meaningful looks to be thrown by everyone and that the dialogue tends to the pretentious when it’s not downright stupid – if you make the mistake of watching this, hold onto your hats for the “Are you a shaman?” line. Of course, there’s also some would-be philosophical rambling about fate that’ll make philosophers cry.

Then there’s a plot which has characters act randomly based on emotions and reactions which are always shifting in the manner most convenient to the plot, driven by motivations that are anyone’s guess, mixing a dead-on-arrival romance with badly thought through – and worse, just not very interesting or fun - timey-whimey (and parallel universe) stuff and some feet-dragging ideas that may have once belonged to a thriller or a neo noir film but never cohere into a narrative that makes sense on any level.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Amityville Terror (2016)

Warning: spoilers, because they opened a gate to hell, or something.

Car mechanic Todd (Kaiwi Lyman), his wife Jessica (Kim Nielsen) and their grumpy teenage daughter – as well as this evening’s designated heroine – Hailey (Nicole Tompkins) move into a house in charming Amityville together with Todd’s recovering alcoholic sister Shae (Amanda Barton). It seems the family moves from the Big City mostly to keep Shae on the straight and narrow, but that’s what family’s for, right?

Alas, the house is not a good place for anyone to straighten anything out in, and soon its malignant influence increases the number of family shouting matches, makes Todd pretty darn horny, gives Jessica an obsession with her new rose garden and turns Shae completely crazy. Also, incest. Only Hailey is more or less immune – one supposes because you can’t actually make a mopey teenager any worse – so it falls on her to find out that she and her family not only live in a haunted house, but are in fact the town’s chosen sacrifices to the cursed building, to keep the evil spirits dwelling therein contained. Turns out, Hailey is rather good at research, as well as a budding badass (or a hitherto undiscovered Slayer).

To no one’s surprise, if you come to Michael Angelo’s Amityville Terror expecting some deep, thoughtful or riveting exploration of very important themes through the looking glass of the ghost story, you’ll be sorely disappointed (though one really shouldn’t blame a film for that which never tried to be anything but what it is). If, on the other hand, you’re in for a cheap yet fun horror flick that uses the word “Amityville” mostly because it is available and has potential monetary value when slapped onto a cover - and a bit to be able to quote other films of the non-franchise in a vague way that holds the copyright police at bay - you’ll feel right at home.

In fact, I’d argue that Terror is one of the better Amityville movies in general – not as if that’s terribly difficult to achieve – a film that promises you cheap thrills and indeed works hard to deliver them like the low budget horror movies of old. Sure, the plot – and the town conspiracy – don’t hold up to any logical scrutiny, but as a provider of a series of increasingly weird, and sometimes inadvertently funny, horror scenes, the story holds up well enough, with the added bonus of not skimping on things actually happening in it – not something you can always hope for in today’s direct to video/streaming service/etc market.

As mentioned, there are some – of course –  budget conscious variations on scenes from other Amityville films, as well as other haunted house movies, usually done effectively enough by Angelo – whose filmography contains quite a few watchable films that really shouldn’t be – and certainly enough to scratch my horror itch for the day. From time to time, the film even hits on something more potent. I liked, for example, the tiny scene with the little girl who insists on her friend still living in the house even though a new family moved in and who won’t cross the imaginary line on the boardwalk to the house quite a bit, the film clearly having fun with a moment that borders on being actually disquieting. And how could I resists the absurd yet pretty awesome finale including quite a bit of crossbow-shooting by our heroine, a head gift, a (Lamberto) Bava style possessed and other sweet, sweet nonsense?

Mind you, I’m not saying Amityville Terror is a new genre classic or anything even close to it, but to me, a film that genuinely (and cheaply) tries to entertain like this does is worthy of a few words of praise.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

In short: Shopping Tour (2012)

Original title: Shopin-tur

A month or so after the death of the family father, a mother (Tatyana Kolganova) – let’s call her Mom – and her son Stas (Timofey Yeletskiy, I assume) participate in a bus shopping tour from their native Russia to strange, exotic Finland, where people are much friendlier, laid back and civilized. Mom also gifts Stas a brand-new camera phone with what appears to be a magical battery, and we all know what that means: the footage we are about to see is of course shot on it.

There’s a bit of time for Mom and Stas to bicker and argue (and not just about the fact that Stas didn’t know they were going on a shopping tour instead of a real bus tour to Finland) but soon, they have more serious troubles to cope with: turns out the bus operation screwed up and brought its busload of shoppers to Finland on the one day in the year when everybody there turns into a foreigner-eating cannibal. Oops.

When it comes to ultra low budget POV horror movies about Finnish cannibals, Mikhail Brashinskiy’s Shopping Tour is certainly the cream of the crop. It might be the only entry in this rather specific little sub-sub-genre, but that’s neither here nor there.

Even if you take a slightly broader view of it, the film’s still a cheap and fun little thing, often staging its shots rather cleverly, moving at just the right pace, and including interesting facts about Finland. There is, obviously, not terribly much depth to the whole affair but there’s such a nice flow to the film, and none of the annoyances that mar quite a few POV horror films it’s really worth watching, particularly if you partake of a more sardonic sense of humour. And really, didn’t we all suspect there’s something unhealthy about shopping tours?

Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Dead Lands (2014)

New Zealand before the invasion from the West. Megalomaniac chieftain’s son Wirepa (Te Kohe Tuhaka) attempts to convince his tribe of his glorious warrior spirit and assuage the spirits of his unburied ancestors by slaying a tribe his people were once at war with in their sleeps. The only (male, for women don’t really seem to count when it comes to tribal business of this sort, it alas seems) survivor of the massacre is teenage chieftain’s son Hongi (James Rolleston). Despite not being much of a warrior himself Hongi decides to follow Wirepa and his men and slay them in vengeance.

This plan would most probably end quite badly for Hongi, but Wirepa thinks he still hasn’t proved his worth quite enough, and so decides to make his way back home via the titular Dead Lands, a place once inhabited by another tribe that vanished over night in some sort of catastrophe. The place is supposedly home to a man-eating demon now who kills anyone who dares enter. After a helpful little chat with the spirit of his grandmother (Rena Owen) – or an ancestral spirit he calls grandmother - Hongi decides to try and win the demon’s help for his cause. The demon turns out to be rather human. He is a mighty, embittered Warrior (Lawrence Makoare) who does indeed kill and eat everyone entering his territory; Hongi’s quest sounds like just the thing to him to redeem himself in the eyes of his ancestors (and probably himself, though the Warrior is clearly too much in pain to be able to see it that way). Of course, even together with his new, rather frightening, partner, the odds aren’t terribly in Hongi’s favour, for it’s still two people against a whole war band.

For The Dead Lands, director Toa Fraser opts for a full immersion approach to pre-colonisation Maori culture, shooting the film in Maori, with Maori actors, and trying to look at the culture and its perks and flaws from inside instead of outside, eschewing the eye of the distant observer and with it any attempts to exoticize the culture. This matter of fact treatment of things even like ritualized cannibalism (or in the Warrior’s case, not ritualized cannibalism) works rather well too and makes it easy to get into the right mind set for the film; one might tut at it for not making a stand against cannibalism or the culture’s gender biases but then I don’t really need a film to tell me that cannibalism’s not okay and gender inequality is a very bad thing, or berating people and places long gone for not following our contemporary ideas of what’s appropriate. That’s just not what the film’s about. Instead Fraser does his best to let a past culture come to life on sympathetic terms. How correct the film’s interpretation of Maori culture of that time actually is, I honestly can’t say. What I can say is that the culture – or rather the slice of culture - it presents seems coherent and of a piece, which is all I ask of a film not presenting itself as a documentary or providing the whole historical truth.

Of course, to hook a contemporary audience, a film has to look for the potentially universal among the specific. Unlike a film with arthouse sensibilities would, Fraser (and writer Glenn Standring) seek the relatable by presenting a tale of vengeance as you can find it anywhere from the western through martial arts cinema through the bible, violence unfortunately being one of the big threads running through all of human history and humanity’s stories about ourselves. There are of course some differences in emphasis and presentation depending on the time and place any given tale of vengeance was made in or for but the core of these stories stays basically the same, and should be relatable enough even in film that otherwise doesn’t explain the culture it takes place in to its audience beyond showing it.

This expectation towards its audience to look at and understand Maori warrior culture as it presents it without giving awkward explanations, to be able to see parallels and differences without having them pointed out explicitly is to my eyes one of the greatest strengths of the film. The filmmakers trust in their audience getting it.

The Dead Lands’ other strengths are quite obvious. There’s the visual heft of the proceedings it draws from the beauty of a landscape it sometimes imbues with a haunted quality; strong – if shouty but that seems to be a Maori warrior thing as is expressive grimacing as part of their martial arts – performances throughout; the willingness to take the characters’ spiritual concepts as seriously as everything else about them.

The action scenes are very strong too, with a bloody brutality not really hidden beneath the physical elegance of the fighting that reminded me most of (martial arts film master) Cheng Cheh’s approach to this sort of thing -  in spirit, if not exactly in style. The film’s ending, on the other hand, does not feel like something by Cheng Cheh at all. Where the Hong Kong director bought into bloody vengeance and its results completely, and couldn’t imagine an out from an endless cycle of violence other than death, Fraser’s film finds its now seasoned in the shortest of time Hongi using the same sort of logic and context that births the cycle of vengeance to end it, as much as it is in his power, with cleverness and compassion that doesn’t feel like the film putting its modern values on him but seems like an inherent possibility in everything we’ve seen before.