Saturday, May 28, 2016

Some thoughts about Tale of Tales (2015)

Original title: Il racconto dei racconti

I’ve most often seen Matteo Garrone’s adaptation of three tales taken from the fairy tale collection of Giambattista Basile described as an attempt to get back to the roots of non-realist Italian art cinema, and while I certainly see more than just a bit of Fellini after his neo-realist phase in this the director that really comes to my mind here is Walerian Borowczyk. The way Garrone pictures sexuality, unhealthy obsessions and truly horrible things in here is generally not as explicit as Borowczyk could get, and certainly not quite as focussed on sexuality, yet his approach to his themes, as well as the way the film glides from the whimsical to the erotic to the outright horrifying seems quite in parallel to Borowczyk at the height of his powers to me.

I really admire how Garrone seems to zoom in on the weirdest parts of fairy tales presenting it all not with the gesture of somebody who is showing us something deeply grotesque but with the matter-of-factness of someone showing us the grotesque as the quotidian. There’s something incredibly beguiling about a film presenting a king (this one played by Toby Jones) secretly raising a flea in his bedroom as a pet until it’s about as big as a cow as if this sort of thing were just to be expected, not hindering anyone from reading this as a metaphor but certainly inviting us to just take the film at its word. It’s also quite typical for the film that it is exactly this tale that’ll turn out to have some of the more horrifying moments in a film that doesn’t shy away from truly horrifying things beside the poetic, and the sad and the joyful, suggesting that in this world (and every other, one imagines) comedy and tragedy grow from the same root.

The film never falls into the trap of being sumptuous for sumptuousness’s sake either – everything we see and hear has more than just one function, and the film doesn’t bother to explain itself (as neither do fairy tales, really), leaving it up to its audience to interpret intentions, choose one’s own understandings and inhabit the film in one way or the other.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Past Misdeeds: Trancers (1985)

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.

In what should be the 23rd Century (although the film also calls it the 25th, so who knows), the delightfully subtly named future cop Jack Deth (Tim Thomerson) spends all his time mopping up the remnants of the mind-controlled zombie slave troops (so-called "Trancers") of his dead arch-enemy Whistler (Michael Stefani). His obsession is quite understandable, because Whistler killed Deth's wife, but still costs the cop his job.

Deth spends his new-found free time diving in the submarine ruins of Lost Angeles, until the Future's ruling council has need of him again. That point in time comes sooner than expected. For some reason the film is unwilling to explain, Whistler is still alive and has somehow managed to find his way into the Los Angeles of 1985 to do the Terminator thing. Obviously, Deth is the best man for the job to protect the council's ancestors and bring Whistler back in.

It looks like (the film doesn't bother to explain this point either) you can send dead matter back through time as you wish, but can only transfer the consciousness of people into the bodies of their ancestors. As luck will have it, Deth's and Whistler's respective ancestors both look exactly like they do, so Deth can go on a merry hunt through Los Angeles without having to look at a strange face in the mirror.

Jack ropes his ancestor's one-night-stand Leena (future Academy Award winner Helen Hunt, not as completely annoying as she would soon become) into working as his native guide - and of course future love interest. To make life a bit more difficult for him, he is only a lowly reporter, while Whistler's new body is a Police Detective without rank but with considerable influence.

Once, before his unhealthy obsession with living dolls overwhelmed Charles Band's complete output as a producer and overrode even the small interest in making watchable movies he might have had, the producer/director/writer/etc was trying to be a small-time Roger Corman, just with less talent and imagination. At least, Band had enough clout to rope in promising talent (see Reanimator). Trancers was made in that still promising phase of Band's career and is probably his best work as a director.

Of course, keeping in mind that I am talking about the future director of The Gingerdead Man and Dangerous Worry Dolls here, one has to keep one's expectations at a realistic level, which is my long-winded way of saying that, while words like "style" or "intelligence" just don't belong into the man's vocabulary as a director or producer, Band's work here at least doesn't suck completely. He points, he shoots, he doesn't embarrass himself.

The movie's script by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo, the pair responsible for the rather delightful "Tim Thomerson is Sergeant Rock and meets aliens" film Zone Troopers, has more logical flaws than my attempts at doing arithmetic. From the wildly inconsistent way time paradoxa work (people whose ancestors are killed and their own children disappear, but everyone still remembers them?) to the fact that the film really should have ended after about 30 minutes - a point where Deth has ample time and opportunity to get rid of Whistler - there is not much that stands up to even the mildest of scrutiny. Worse, the film never explains any of its concepts that need explaining. My remarks about the way time travel works are based only on conjecture, for example. Still, I can't say that I cared much about logic or needed explanations while actually watching the film, because what the film lacks in artfulness, it makes up for in (sometimes consciously ironic) low budget film charm. Following Deth, we flit from one obvious and silly situation to the next.

This is the sort of film that doesn't need to spare the killing of a department store Santa Claus for the grand finale, because it also has a (terrible, of course) punk rock club, little girls with the souls of gruff police chiefs and our hero riding a motor scooter instead of a motorcycle to throw at us. Among other things. But most importantly, Trancers not only shows us those things but does its best to let them be fun, by not taking itself serious. Not taking yourself serious in the good and entertaining way must be a lot more difficult to achieve than it looks like or most films that try for the effect wouldn't be as bad. The difference between Trancers' version of this brand of fluffiness and the bad sort as incorporated in Troma films or Band's later Full Moon Productions lies in the fact that it still takes its audience serious. Where a Troma film winks at itself in a mirror, this is a film still winking at us sitting in front of it.

While I usually just can't stand Helen Hunt, I do approve of the fact that the film doesn't make her character completely useless and only be there to be rescued by Thomerson and wear troubling fashion. She's useful, she has moments of being sensible, she's as much as you can hope for in a cheap SF actioner.

And she's next to nothing compared to the film's true trump card, the utterly awesome Tim Thomerson doing the perfect square-jawed cynical hero with delightfully silly one-liners (personal favourite: "Dry hair is for squids") while having at least one toe in the territory of a parody of a perfect square-jawed cynical hero, which, let's be honest, is the only way those guys can ever be made sympathetic. Somehow, Thomerson even makes Deth kinda cool.

A few years later, Band would go on to turn Trancers into a confused franchise of films that have nothing to do with each other beyond Thomerson, but none of the later films is even vaguely watchable, so this is the one to watch if one wants to see Thomerson doing what Thomerson does best.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Nightmare at Noon (1988)

aka Death Street USA

The picturesque US small town of Canyonland (not to be confused with population centres like Deserttown or Dustcounty) has a bit of a problem: an evil foreign – this being the jingoistic 80s, after all and the CIA as the film informs us preferring Central America for mad science experiments – scientist the ending titles only call The Albino (Brion James, making up for the complete lack of dialogue of the bad guys by mugging as heavily as he can, which is pretty darn heavy) has poisoned the town’s water supply. For science, one supposes, though the film never makes us privy to why exactly any foreign power would want to make this sort of experiment on the home turf of an enemy country, nor what exactly it is supposed to achieve. Don’t they have rats in Not-The-Soviet-Union-stan?

Anyway, thanks to whatever it is dear Brion James has cooked up, some of the townspeople turn into raving, lunatic killers with increasingly green faces and green, acidic blood as well as mild super strength. The whole acid blood thing is in the film for no good reason, really, for it’s not as if this would be important to anything that’ll happen later. To be fair, what is happening is that the local sheriff (George Kennedy), a wandering would-be Dirty Harry named Reilly (Bo Hopkins), entertainment industry lawyer (boo-hiss) Ken Griffiths (Wings Hauser), and the Sheriff’s daughter and deputy Julia (Kimberly Ross) team up to shoot people and make stuff explode, so acid blood isn’t going to change anything.

If you’re into the more historical and sociological interpretation and critique of cinema, Nico Mastorakis’s film could be quite the mother load of deeply disturbing information about the US subconscious in the late 80s as seen by a Greek expat exploitation director. I’m not going to go into that here beyond mentioning that there’s a really Reagan/Bush (I and II)-America style disconnect between the acts seen as unethical when “the Enemy” is committing them and those seen as unethical when “our Boys” do that could make a boy despair of humanity.

Fortunately, Nightmare is just too dumb for me to go for a serious analysis of its political content, what with this being a film where the characters think it’s a good idea to let a doctor go into a cell with a not-restrained superhumanly strong crazy person on his own, cars basically already explode when you just look at them (unless the script demands otherwise, of course), and Wings Hauser has a law degree.

In other words, Mastorakis serves such a huge platter of bullet-riddled cheese I just can’t bring myself to go all clever on him. He’s just doing what everyone else is doing too, and there’s certainly no danger anything in the film is contaminated by thoughts or actual personal opinions and feelings. As an example of 80s low budget cheese, the film is pretty good at filling its quota of bullets, explosions, and general idiocy, with some truly absurd performances once it’s time to go green in the face as an added bonus. Mastorakis’s preferred acting approach is easily described as “Sunday morning cartoon but bloody”, and the actors are truly giving their all here.

At least for the first hour or so, I found myself rather taken with the all-around stupidity filtered through Mastorakis’s general technical competence (competence at least for the sort of thing this is, I’m not suggesting he’s Stanley Kubrick, or John McTiernan, for that matter). For my tastes, Nightmare’s final third or so, once we have lost George Kennedy to his old enemy, fire, and left Canyonland (a name that still causes me to giggle) for actual canyons, drags quite a bit. Mastorakis never has the same grip on his obvious ambitions to suggest the Western genre as on the simple action trash he did before. Plus, there’s a basically never-ending or at the very least pretty damn pointless – as we know nobody in any of the helicopters - helicopter chase right in the end, so that things go out on a somewhat sour note.

But hey, sixty minutes of fun is something.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Three Films Make A Post: Terror goes into over-time.

Home Invasion (2016): Despite being a direct-to-video production, director David Tennant’s Home Invasion looks and feels more like a TV movie, the sort of thing Lifetime gets up to from time to time, say. So the film doesn’t take the violence or the threat to its central characters very far and plays things rather safe and friendly for a home invasion movie, building up competent enough thrills but not exactly telling a riveting story. It also wastes Scott Adkins as the least interesting bad guy available, generally opting for stilted dialogue and little else whenever it can get away with it. Natasha Henstridge and child actor Liam Dickinson are okay, but the film plays the threat for their lives and limbs so conservatively, I found myself less than excited.

Mandrake (2010): Tripp Reed’s Mandrake for its part actually is a TV movie. Just another SyFy Original, this one’s concerned with an “expedition” (or as we in the biz call them, annoying people wandering through the jungles of Shreveport) that pulls out the wrong dagger from the wrong chest and has to contend with the resulting awakening of a very pissed-off ent (whose name probably would be Grumpyroot or something of that kind). For most of the time, this plays out like the adaptation of a second string Weird Tales story, with its same basic adventure tropes (including the usual bullshit about “natives”, though they aren’t exactly the bad guys here; in fact, punchier writing could have made something quite interesting out of the way they aren’t), the same somewhat cool monster, and the same pleasantly clichéd plot structure.

Additional selling point is that our heroes seem to be surprisingly okay with human sacrifice as long as they aren’t on the wrong end of the dagger. Obviously, I enjoyed the whole she-bang well enough, but who am I kidding?

Southbound (2015): Given how many of the people involved with this anthology horror piece concerning the misadventures of various soon-to-be-dead (or worse) characters travelling southbound on a nameless US desert highway have been part of the VHS films, I was rather expecting an unpleasant trip into the world of bro horror.
Instead, I got a pretty good horror anthology with some truly nasty bits, with rather simple yet very effectively realized short tales, and a sense of weirdness floating around the edges of the stories that to me is pretty much the opposite of bro´horror, like Twilight Zone episodes gone horribly wrong. It’s a delightful show case for all the directors – Roxanne Benjamin, David Bruckner, Patrick Horvath and collective Radio Silence – that also suggests they were rather held back by the VHS films’ paradigm to look really shitty.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Snake Woman (1961)

The moors of Northumberland, around 1900. Perhaps ever so slightly mad scientist Dr Adderson (John Cazabon) has healed his wife Martha (Dorothy Frere) with regular injections of snake venom from the madness (MADNESS!) she suffered from when they met and married. Now, though, in the very final stage of her pregnancy, Martha’s having second thoughts about her treatments. Adderson poo-poos the idea of stopping the injections now, of course, for after all, what is the health of his unborn to child compared to the knowledge they will gain? Plus, it really seems rather late to stop now, in the final hours of the pregnancy, if you ask me. Yes, this is going to be that kind of movie.

Because everyone around is crazily superstitious and looks with horror at Adderson’s keeping of snakes, the Adderson’s can’t get a proper midwife, so they have to make do with Old Aggie Harker (Elsie Wagstaff), a crazy old woman who thinks herself a witch. It’s not completely surprising when Aggie doesn’t take it too well that the Addersons’ child turns out to be so cold-blooded they at first think it is dead, has big staring eyes and a tendency to stay very still. One supposes the fact Martha doesn’t survive the birth doesn’t help there much either. After murdering the baby with a pair of scissors doesn’t work out for Aggie, she runs off to the local village tavern, where she assembles one of the more embarrassing torch wielding mobs I’ve seen in a film like this, comprising as it does about half a dozen people and not even enough torches for more than half of them. These good people beat up Adderson, murder his snakes, and torch his house while Adderson himself is in there unconscious. At least the baby is safe, though, for the local doctor (Arnold Marlé) has carried the child to a shepherd who isn’t as insane as the rest of the community, to take care of the child for a night until Adderson can safely come and get it. Alas, Adderson is dead, and the doctor will only learn of this twenty years later, for he is going to Africa, early the next morning, as he can’t help but tell everyone he meets.

When he returns twenty years later the first thing the Doctor does is visit the shepherd - for reasons only known to the film’s ridiculous script – who provides him and us with a nice little exposition dump. Turns out the shepherd took in the girl and called her Atheris. He never really seems to have warmed to her though, what with her having a character that sometimes turned snake-like (whatever the hell that’s even supposed to mean), and his animals’ fear of her. Consequently, he’s not terribly sad she has disappeared some years ago, the prick. Honestly, what is wrong with the people in this film? Murdering people because they keep snakes? Wanting to murder a baby? Not caring when one’s foster daughter disappears? If that’s the healthy country life, I’d rather stay home.

But lets continue with the plot’s convoluted ways. Turns out, ever since Atheris (who has grown up into the rather fetching Susan Travers) has disappeared into the moors or ever since the lab burned down - the film doesn’t seem to be able to make up its mind there – a surprising number of villagers walking the moors has been killed by snake bites, which, given their lab-burning, snake-killing, and baby-murdering ways, one might think serves them right and should not surprise anyone. While the Doctor is doing whatever he does, former imperial boot heel Colonel Wyborn (Geoffrey Denton) has recognized something strange about the bites on one of these dead baby killer corpses – they’re from a king cobra, not at all a species that could survive in the moors (a point the film puts extra emphasis on by usually not using a king cobra for Atheris’s were-snake form). Wyborn asks an old friend at Scotland Yard for help.

Instead of somebody competent, or a snake wrangler, his friend sends Wyborn one Charles Prentice (John McCarthy), supposedly the best scientific mind of the Yard, but in practice the wooden “romantic” lead in a cheapo horror film it takes me longer to write up than to actually watch. No wonder they never caught Jack the Ripper. Obviously, Prentice won’t believe any of the supernatural nonsense Aggie and the other villagers sprout, will develop a crush on Atheris, and will only believe in utter bullshit right at the end. Oh, and none of the villagers, or the evil old Aggie, the person actually responsible for all the bad stuff that has happened will ever be punished for their crimes, of course, because snakes are evil, and this film is even too thoughtless to realize who its bad guys are.

And anyway, seeing as Orville H. Hampton’s script doesn’t seem to know how snakes work, we can’t expect him to understand ethics. Hint from one non-herpetologist to the next: non-supernatural snakes just don’t attack out of malice, for Cthulhu’s sakes. But then, Hampton also doesn’t know how Scotland Yard works, or people, or logic, so what do I expect? Well, actually, I would expect a film to realize the dramatic chance that comes up when you have a “monster” that by all rights should be treated as a tragic figure taking vengeance on a bunch of horrible people who’d otherwise go unpunished. As the film tells the story, Aggie’s planned baby murder was just the right idea, making this one of the most reactionary horror films you could imagine, letting Hammer’s conservatism shine as humane and empathic in contrast. Just compare this with Hammer’s later The Reptile and find yourself suddenly struck by Hammer’s deep humanism.

So by all rights, I should have been really annoyed watching this. In truth, I found myself giggling like a loon for most of the film’s running time. You see, while this was made in the early 60s, everything about the film screams “Tod Slaughter vehicle from the mid-30s”, so the film never stops to bombard us with the silliest, corniest dialogue imaginable, spoken in performances that can’t be contained by mere words like “scenery-chewing”. I can’t imagine any human being not being in stitches about every single cackling bit of nonsense Aggie declaims about “EEEEVIL!” or the adventures of our good Doctor “AFRIKA!”. It’s a thing to behold.

Given how terrible the script is, it may come as a bit of a surprise how good the whole affair looks. Director Sidney J. Furie, early in his career as ultra-competent hired hand, sure makes the best of Stephen Dade’s cinematography. In fact, if the script were just a bit better, I could imagine calling this “Northumberland Gothic” or some such. As it stands, the photography just makes a bizarre contrast to the things it actually photographs.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

In short: Unfriended (2014)

aka Cybernatural

A bunch of teenagers (as is traditional played by a bunch of actors in their twenties) find themselves threatened with hilarious deaths when their Skype group chat is haunted by a ghost for whose suicide they may or may not be partially responsible. Quickly, mildly unpleasant secrets are revealed, the teens are screeching into the camera as is their duty, and the ghost murder-possesses them for increasingly silly “suicides”.

I really would have liked to have enjoyed Levan Gabriadze’s teen horror piece more than I actually did. After all, its basic idea of a ghost taking over a surprisingly soundly portrayed bit of contemporary technology, opening up the possibility to make POV horror even cheaper by having it take place on a laptop screen, is strong, and haunted technology has been a part of horror for a long, long time. However, while the technology here does at least make more sense than in the monumentally stupid (as well as deeply annoying) Open Windows, the actual execution of the concept dumbs things down until the second half of the film consists of little more than a handful of young, pretty actors screeching into the viewer’s face for forty minutes. It’s competent screeching, mind you, but this sort of thing isn’t exactly an effective away to creep anyone out.

Part of the film’s problem is how little frightening its ghost actually is, talking too much – if only in writing – and showing all the traits of a spiteful child. And it’s not as if the film is being self-conscious here and trying to milk some sort of ghostly single-mindedness for chills; it just doesn’t seem to know how to scare - or chill, or even mildly creep out.

Unfriended could still make up for its lack of ghostly goodness if the characters were more interesting, but the format really doesn’t allow anyone on screen to be introspective, and the film’s attempt to make up for it by having the ghost – moving from ineffective ghost to lamer Saw villain - force the characters’ dark secrets out with a childish game backfires by the sheer smallness of these secrets. Sure, character A will certainly be deeply hurt that his girlfriend character B slept with his best friend character C (and let me just say “ewww” to character B’s taste in men), but I found myself not caring all that much about that stuff, given how tedious and soap operatic it is. Even the theoretically heavier stuff falls flat thanks to the surface-level way in which we learn about it, as well as because of the film’s total inability to go even the slightest bit deeper into anything, leaving oh so very obscure things like motivations or the grey areas of human emotions completely alone. One might say that’s a rather clever indictment of the Facebook type of semi-public emotion; I don’t see anything else in the film that suggests it’s actually that clever. My money is on other things – stupidity and a complete lack of imagination.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Murphy’s Law (1986)

Cop Jack Murphy (Charles Bronson) has hit on hard times – his wife has left him and chosen “stripper in a crappy club” as her new career path, most of his colleagues clearly think he’s an embarrassment, and he’s at the time where a burgeoning alcohol problem turns into simple alcoholism, as his hip flask of booze amply demonstrates.

In a turn of affairs that does not come as much of a surprise given the film’s title and the fact that this is an 80s Charles Bronson movie, Murphy soon finds himself in deeper trouble than just an identity crisis when his wife and her new boyfriend are murdered – hint: never marry or even just kiss Bronson in the 80s - and he is framed for the deed. Because nobody believes him, and the judicial process is for losers, Murphy breaks out of custody while handcuffed to one Arabella McGee (Kathleen Wilhoite), the potty-mouthed girl he arrested for stealing and totalling his car a few hours (days?) ago. Together they fight crime.

Well, at least, they try to evade Murphy’s former colleagues, attempt to not get killed by the crazy lady (Carrie Snodgress) who actually killed the wife and who is not just making Murphy’s life unpleasant but murdering a bunch of other people in increasingly improbable ways. It takes our heroes a bit to find out said crazy lady is actually Murphy’s problem instead of the cranky mafia boss (Richard Romanus) Murphy and his flask think is his problem. While they are at it, they also turn said mafia boss into another problem thanks to Murphy’s oh so subtle style (and because of the boss’s mom, but let’s not speak of her lest she appear to curse us).

After the hilarity and wonder of Death Wish 3, Cannon let Bronson cool off a bit with a film that is a bit more of a traditional thriller before churning out the next sequel. Or rather, Murphy’s Law should be more of a traditional thriller, but because it’s an 80s Cannon film, the workmanlike script also adds a bit of the traditional Cannon bad taste and assorted nonsense. For the connoisseur of the unpleasant, there are some truly icky homophobe jibes made by a Bronson who looks to be rather amused by them, an attempted rape (attempted, because this is a J. Lee Thompson Bronson movie and not a Michael Winner one, I suspect), and other random nastiness, while the admirer of Cannon-style stupidity mostly has to survive on a diet of McGee’s bizarre swearing and Carrie Snodgress’s scenery-chewing crazy woman committing random weird murders when not trying to off good old Chuck.

Speaking of Chuck, the film does tend towards the more human side of Cannon Bronson. The man even shows actual human emotions (compare his reaction to the murders here to the way he reacts to his “girlfriend’s” death in Death Wish 3), and some actual vulnerability. He’s still a cruel and unusual asskicker, of course, he just gets there from a somewhat more human frame of mind.

The script tends to meander a bit too much for the film to work as an actual thriller, and we mostly get a series of vaguely related scenes that tell a story only in so far as you can pretend it does. Fortunately, most of these scenes are rather entertaining to watch, be it Snodgress bathtub-murdering a judge in a way physics only allow on planet Cannon, or the clever little three-party finale that does remind one that Thompson can still be pretty good at this sort of thing – and probably could be for a whole film if only the scripts he’s working on would give him the opportunity.

All in all this adds up to a film I wouldn’t exactly recommend to the uninitiated into the cult of Bronson, or that of Cannon. It’s certainly not the best Bronson/Thompson film, but if you can get anything out of this phase of Bronson’s career, you’ll certainly not be bored by this. Or, as a wise man (that would be me) once said, “Well, I was having fun.”

By the way, Jack Murphy’s version of the titular law is “You don’t fuck with Jack Murphy.”, so there’s that too.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Past Misdeeds: The Hereafter (1983)

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.

Neville Harmer (Steven Longhurst) has lived most of his life dominated by his rich, wheelchair-bound father, in whose old country mansion he still lives as a grown up. Lately, Neville has found someone else to tell him what to do, though. I suppose his girlfriend Vicky's (Catherine Rowlands) way to manipulate him is rather more pleasant. Still, having the bedroom of a grumpy old guy right next door to your own can put a strain on any relationship.

One day, Neville's father dies in a freak wheelchair accident, leaving Neville with quite an inheritance. Unfortunately, his dad's will contains a clause that forbids his son to sell the dreary old mansion and demands of him to keep living there. The family business has been conducted out of the house anyway.

Living alone in the house with Vicky, with their only regular human contact being the manly-man groundskeeper Patrick (David Slater) and Neville's secretary Dorothy (Wendy Young), seems to put Neville under quite some psychic strain. He is convinced that the house is haunted, and what do you know? Soon after he has told Vicky about his ideas he begins to see a strange, papier-mâché-masked figure creeping around. The séance Vicky arranges "just for fun" doesn't exactly soothe his mind either.

The strange happenings are of course all part of a mildly fiendish plot Vicky and Patrick have concocted to make Neville look disturbed enough to commit suicide. All seems to be going well with their plan, until a masked Patrick throws Neville out of a window without managing to kill his boss.

Their victim still doesn't realize what's really going on, though, so there's always a chance for a second try. It should be easier to murder Neville now anyway, seeing that his fall left him as paralyzed and wheelchair-bound as his father before him.

With this thought (and sex) on their mind, the would-be murderers are getting careless, and it does not take long until Neville finally understands what is really going on around him. This realization - and the possibly not unfounded idea that his ancestral home itself is trying to protect him - suddenly lets the up to now passive man grow a spine. Neville develops his own plan for a little revenge.

Finding any information about The Hereafter's director Michael J. Murphy (here working under the pseudonym of Michael Mersack) or his films online isn't exactly easy. The IMDB for example only lists two of his 25 movies, this one not among them. Fortunately there is at least this interview to be found, which makes Murphy sound like a British version of some of the budget-less yet driven filmmakers who are responsible for some of the most interesting genre films you'll be able to see. People like him and Norman J. Warren make me wish for a UK-oriented version of Stephen Thrower's wonderful book Nightmare USA. In Murphy's case, I'd even be satisfied with the simple availability of more of his movies.

The Hereafter itself isn't exactly a masterpiece, not even of the highly skewed and strange variation I usually get excited about. It is not weird enough of a film to be fascinating, and a little too dull to fully function as the thriller with slight supernatural undertones it is supposed to be. That does not mean The Hereafter is bad, rather, the whole film seems to be out to prove to later generations of backyard and low budget filmmakers that having no money need not be an excuse for having no ambition of making an actual movie instead of a shoddy succession of scenes you call a movie, but fails at the final hurdle of working as well as it would like to.

At the least this one has a real script, with not original yet at least consistent characters, and tries its hardest to make an unexciting premise into an exciting film by sheer force of will of its director.

Murphy didn't have money, but he had a creepy looking house, a lake, and woods, and he obviously tried his hardest to put them to as much and as good use to build a mood as possible.
You can really see the director straining in every shot to do something at least a little interesting, be it through the use of unconventional angles, more thoughtful than one can expect editing or some very cool use of handheld shots. Sometimes - to be honest a little too often - the film is only straining for that point where "interesting" becomes something more, but in its best moments like the scene of Neville using all his not exactly inexhaustible strength (very much reminding me of the movie itself in this point) to crawl up a flight of stairs, it actually finds it and becomes the sort of stubbornly individualistic film I'm looking for in my no-budget movies.

That stairs scenes is also one of the fine moments of Steven Longhurst in a film not exactly dominated by strong acting. I wouldn't call the film's acting bad, it just tends to be (perhaps in conscious avoidance of soap operatic scenery-chewing) a bit too disaffected for its own good. It's a bit of a shame when you look at the handful of scenes where Longhurst and Rowlands are allowed to show a bit more emotion. The unemotional effect is amplified by the fact that much if not all of the dialogue seems to have been dubbed in after the film was shot and everyone's line readings sound very much like readings.

However, what differentiates The Hereafter enough from many other ultra low budgets films that only sometimes achieve their artistic goals to make me pine for seeing more of Murphy's films is the raw talent underlying it all. It seems obvious to me that Murphy had the ability and the creativity to make a film that's special. If he has ever managed to actually make one is something I'd just love to find out.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

In short: Nattens engel (1998)

aka Angel of the Night

Rebecca (Maria Karlsen) has inherited the impressive mansion of her grandmother, including the dead vampire stashed away in the cellar. Where else would you put him? While poking around with her stupid boyfriend Mads (Tomas Villum Jensen) and her stupid sexually overactive best friend Charlotte (Mette Louise Holland), Rebecca relates the tale of the vampire – a former priest going by the embarrassing moniker of Rico Mortiz (mostly Erik Holmey) – and the various idiots encountering him in beautiful Copenhagen.

All this flashbacking does of course culminate in the expected reawakening of the vampire, his final death, and a scene where the part of him that was a priest is flown to heaven by an actual angel.

I don’t think I’m going out on a limb when I say Nattens engel’s director Shaky González rather liked Roberto Rodriguez’ From Dusk Till Dawn, and who could blame him? I certainly won’t. I do blame him for his film’s sad attempt at trying to imitate the surface elements of Rodriguez’ style without showing much feeling for the way they fit together in Rodriguez good (there’s no middle ground with Rodriguez – his films tend to be very good or very bad) films. It’s the kind of cargo cult filmmaking that takes all the signifiers of cool but then doesn’t use them in cool ways, and certainly doesn’t realize they are only cool when used properly. See also my entirely imaginary book, “The Zen of Coolness”.

It doesn’t help much that the script González is working from just isn’t good at all. The episodic nature of the narrative must be a godsend when shooting a low budget affair but the way it is applied here mostly makes the film feel unfocused and disjointed, robbing it of any way to build characters that are actually cool – or at least so memorable you’ll remember anything about them. The vampire lore mostly seems confused and incoherent, while the jokes are pretty darn unfunny.

The most memorable thing about the whole affair is the opportunity it provides for the star spotters among the audience. If you watch out, you’ll see Mads Mikkelsen, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Thomas Bo Larsen and Ulrich Thomsen in small to tiny roles. Bully for them.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Cry of the Banshee (1970)

Welcome to 17th Century England! And you know what that means by now. Right, it’s witch hunting time. Our witch hunter of the night is one Lord Edward Whitman (of course Vincent Price), sadistic maniac and father to a family that’s already seen as at least a bit cursed by everyone around before the plot even begins. Regular murder and torture of harmless pagans (because this is one of these movies where a witch cult did indeed exist but consisted of pretty damn lame ersatz hippies) is a bit of a family sport too, for Edward’s son Sean (Stephan Chase) is his dad’s main henchman and clearly just as unhinged as the elder Whitman.

Sean likes himself a bit of rape on the side too, and doesn’t even keep away from his stepmother, Lady Patricia (Ess Persson). After what we can suspect but don’t exactly know to be only the first rape of many, Patricia is heavily traumatized, with the house’s groom Roderick (Patrick Mower), a mysterious foundling with a strange power over animals, the only man she still feels safe with. Before she was destroyed in this way, Patricia was one of the few household members who didn’t approve of the regular dose of violence and torture for dinner (I’m not speaking metaphorically). Now it’s only Whitman’s daughter Maureen (Hilary Dwyer) who disapproves, though not too loudly, and she’s easily distracted by a love affair with Roderick.

However, just about at the time when Edward’s other son Harry (Carl Rigg) - who also doesn’t exactly approve of his family’s inherent violence – returns home, the witch hunter finally messes with the wrong witch. Breaking up a gathering (I think it’s supposed to be more like a harmless hippie orgy, but it’s just too harmless to even call it an orgy) of the followers of priestess Oona (Elizabeth Bergner), he lets his men murder about half of them, sparing the life of the rest for reasons the script never makes us privy to but that just might have to do with the plot really needing to get going any minute now.

And wouldn’t you know it, a few hours later, Oona and the rest of her people are suddenly all into Lord Satan and beg him to send them an avenger. Turns out Roderick is one of the Good Folk, or something, and only needs a bit of magical convincing to give that damn family what for.

If all this sounds rather convoluted and circumspect, with a lot of elements that don’t quite make sense, and many an idea that is never quite properly developed, then you’ve got the right picture of Cry of the Banshee. And oh, the titular banshee is of course more a sort-of werewolf, too. Everything’s very vague, very convoluted and never makes as much sense as it probably would like to. Parts of the film (whose end credits list the Whitman’s as “The Establishment”, I kid you not) are clearly meant to convey some sort of message about contemporary youth revolt, probably something like “don’t burn those harmless hippies, or they’ll turn evil” but it’s neither coherent in what it wants to say nor very imaginative in the way it does so. Parts of the film feel like a dry run for the following year’s brilliant Blood on Satan’s Claw but the only actual relation between those two is a historical and thematic parallel, because Cry of the Banshee never really seems to know what kind of film it actually wants to be, with the deeply unpleasant rape and torture scenes and Vincent Price probably the commercial reasons for its existence, thanks to the much more successful (in any sense of the word) The Conqueror Worm from a few years earlier.

Yes, it’s AIP trying to cash in on its own successes again, and like it was with the late Poe adaptations, they left the mess to Gordon Hessler to direct. As happened so often in that man’s career, the resulting film is a prettily (but not too prettily) shot mess with single scenes that belong in a much better film and which suggest Hessler could have made much more of himself than the hired gun he ended up being. Like most Hessler films I’ve seen, things start out promising, with the effective cruelty of the beginning, the actually horrifying rape scene, and Vincent Price giving a kind of greatest hits performance of Evil Vincent Price. The middle act however is a boring drag full of scenes that are re-establishing things the film already established before, and a plot that seems to be treading water in an attempt to somehow get this thing to full length, until the people involved seem to wake up again for a finale as cruel and bleak as only horror movie endings in the 70s were.

From time to time, there’s a good scene in the middle part too. Lady Patricia’s death is an obvious highlight, as is some throwaway business about weeping women that establishes more about the times the film takes place in and Edward’s character than half an hour of the rest of the film did. On the other hand, the film’s pagans/witches are probably the worst mixture of people who look like they don’t even have the guts to be proper hippies making whiny noises while throwing their hands up in the universal gesture for “whoosh, I am lame” imaginable, and don’t become any better or different when they turn vengeful, whining at poor Lord Satan for all they’re worth. It’s too bad, really, for there are two good horror movies – one about a family fucked up even for a horror movie family and one about the whole establishment versus hippies as told by witch hunt metaphors thing – lurking under the surface of Cry of the Banshee.

None of them does ever really come out, though.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

In short: Blue Ruin (2013)

Dwight (Macon Blair) has spent an indeterminate number of years homeless, camping by the side of his parents’ beat up old car many states from home. Dwight lost it when his parents were murdered (in exactly the car he’s living by) by a man called Wade Cleland (Sandy Barnett), and, as we’ll learn after a while, just fled everyone and everything that made up his former life.

When he learns that Wade has been released from prison thanks to a pledge deal, Dwight returns home to kill him, which he manages quickly, if in an awkward way that tells the rest of Wade’s family exactly who did the deed. So, as it goes with vengeance, there’ll be more violence ahead of Dwight.

Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin might sound like your run-of-the-mill revenge flick – and I’m pretty sure the writer/director/cinematographer knows the genre quite well – but is in fact everything but run-of-the-mill. It’s a quiet – there’s barely any dialogue here at all – and focussed film that seems to breathe sadness and compassion for all the broken lives acts of violence leave behind; the destruction the murder of his parents wrought in Dwight’s life and psyche is only the beginning. Violence and vengeance perpetuating themselves isn’t a new theme for this sort of thing, of course, but you’ll seldom encounter a film that is so careful in avoiding making its violence look cool on one hand, as well as in not just preaching at its audience.

Instead, Saulnier treats violence as awkward and horrible and perhaps even slightly absurd in its execution, though never in its consequences. The rest is stillness, the brittleness of everything and everyone in life and Macon Blair’s astonishing performance that shows so many things about his character with greatest precision without ever needing to tell.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Three Films Make A Post: It's coming from another world... TO STAY!

Youkai tengoku: Ghost Hero aka Monster Heaven: Ghost Hero (1990): The titular ghost hero might be the wettest blanket who ever won the reluctant hero contest, and the yokai costumes in this rather confused comedy/horror/fantasy thing are mostly godawful. Macoto Tezuka’s (Osamu Tezuka’s son, if the IMDB info is correct) film also suffers from a bad case of feet-dragging, with little of interest happening in the first forty minutes of this 73 minute film.

The crazy that then arrives is not really enough to turn things around but at least we get a demonic samurai, lots of talk about virginity and the really rather unforgettable scene of a (toy) skyscraper-sized woman crunching on (the toy version of) said samurai. Well, and the rather disturbing info that yokai are now in rock bands.

Rites of Spring (2011): This bit of indie horror by Padraig Reynolds looks rather good, is well paced, well enough acted and still isn’t all that interesting. Its attempt to pair up a well-worn type of crime film with a just as well-worn type of horror movie is probably an attempt at the next best thing to originality but the way the two plot lines connect in the end feels most of all contrived (with another, absolutely needless contrivance added for funsies). There’s just so little there here, except for enough technical ability in front of and behind the camera to make you go “’s okay, I guess” after watching it.

The Dead 2: India (2013): I’m not as happy with the second The Dead film as I was with the first one. The Ford Brothers are still very fine budget directors, and this is a perfectly watchable and entertaining film with half a dozen or so scenes that are more than just that, but as a whole, I found this one much less impressive. The zombies are less creepy, the plot’s attempts at Hinduism and melodrama are somewhat risible, and the acting’s through the bank not very good, with everyone being a bit shriller than necessary or helpful.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Pandemic (2016)

This week’s apocalypse is of the viral rage zombie type, though, to give the film its due, it is one that develops somewhat more like an actual pandemic in five increasingly horrifying stages. We’re in the larger Los Angeles area. After the fall of New York, things are getting rather desperate, with a few survivors holed up in a military base whose commander Greer (Paul Guilfoyle) is still trying to find a cure for or a vaccination against the infection causing what nobody in the movie calls zombie-ism.

We’ll be watching most of the film’s proceedings through the hazmat suit helmet cameras of Doctor Lauren Chase (Rachel Nichols) – for the last of the CDC and a survivor of what reads very much like the end of New York rather lacking in battle-hardedness as you’ll notice –, a traffic cop turned, well, gunner (Mekhi Phifer), con and driver Wheeler (Alfie Allen) and local guide – which seems to mean she’s able to operate a simple GPS device without it exploding or something – Denise (Missi Pyle). These guys are a freshly minted team sent out in an armoured school bus to try and pick up a bunch of survivors another team that’s missing in action has hopefully secured in a school. Obviously, things won’t go too well, and not just because Lauren has a wee little secret, Gunner’s a bit too battle-hardened, and their mission makes little sense.

Which really is par for the course in John Suits’s film, seeing as it features a pretty astonishing number of huge plot holes and thinly “it’s in the script!” reasons for much that happens in i. Or could anyone explain to me why Greer would risk his oh-so-precious final survivor of the CDC by sending her out only so that she can apply a simple test for the infection you could teach a monkey inside of five minutes? Or later on, how Wheeler finds Lauren and Denise again? Or how the film and the characters could forget a weapon Lauren and Wheeler will be threatened with is actually empty? Now, as my imaginary readers probably know by now, I’m not one of these people who are always nitpicking and spending their time watching a movie more interested in looking for mistakes instead of actually watching it, but some of these things are so egregious it’s impossible not to notice them. Most of them are completely unnecessary to boot. Would it have really killed the script to find a better reason for the doomed mission, for example?

Still, it’s not all bad. Particularly in the early stages, Pandemic promises a vigorous and depressing variation on the zombie apocalypse, with violence that actually feels unpleasant, and the proper feeling of futility. Unfortunately, for every scene of unpleasant violence, there’s another one where the film uses its helmet camera conceit to turn into a really crappy first person shooter for a scene or two, throwing believability and a consistent mood out of the window for a shitty action scene; and for every believable human moment given to the more than decent cast, there’s another one that is either undermined by the script’s laziness (or stupidity, depending on one’s tastes) or just a lack of imagination.

There are some good moments in here, but these are moments buried under way too much business as usual in zombie land and and a huge number of implausibilities and plain bad plotting, so I don’t think anyone should run out to see Pandemic.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Past Misdeeds: The Old Dark House (1932)

The married couple of Margaret (Gloria Stuart) and Philip (Raymond Massey) Waverton and their car guest Roger Penderel (Melvyn Douglas) whose connection with the two is never quite explained, are driving through the Welsh countryside during a spectacular rainstorm. As it is usual in cases like this, they have lost their way completely and the couple is bitching at each other with some aplomb, while Penderel proceeds to sing sarcastically.

Fortunately, this very special kind of revelry is broken by a landslide. The trio and their car barely manage to find their way to the titular old dark house, which is the only place where they can find shelter before they are all blown away by the forces of nature.

Rather less fortunate for them are the inhabitants they find inside. Head of the household seems to be Horace Femm (Ernest Thesiger), an older gentleman who acts terribly afraid of something or someone within the house, at least when he is not passive-aggressively bickering with his sister Rebecca (Eva Moore). Rebecca herself is half deaf (at least when she wants to be) and in the grip of some sort of religious mania caused by old wounds from the relationship with her long-dead sister that makes her rather nasty to young pretty women like Margaret. This assortment of weird characters is completed by the siblings' servant Morgan (Boris Karloff), a mute, bearded, less than friendly seeming sort of fellow (and since this is a film from 1932, he is in fact not friendly). The siblings inform their guests merrily that he tends to get quite violent when drunk.

While everyone's still getting acquainted and/or scaring the shit out of each other, another pair of weather refugees arrives to make the cast complete for now. It is the jolly seeming Sir William Porterhouse (Charles Laughton) and the woman whose sugar daddy without sexual benefits he plays, Gladys Perkins (Lilian Bond). Gladys and Penderel are really hitting it off, and after they have known each other for about ten minutes, he is all good and ready to propose marriage to her.

Their romance will have to wait a little, though, because the night will be filled with a drunk Boris Karloff doing Frankenstein's monster in drunk and mean, creepy giggling by the Femm's ancient father (for no clear reason and very obviously played by a woman, Elspeth Dudgeon in her film debut), and another, fire-loving surprise family member.

For some time, James Whale's The Old Dark House was thought to be lost, but after some adventures in film restoration the movie is now watchable on an excellent DVD by Kino. I must say that I find it quite disturbing that even a film like this - produced by a major studio like Universal and directed by someone as highly acclaimed as Whale - can come so close to being lost.

Having said that, I also have to add that I am not as completely enamoured of the film a some of my acquaintances are. This isn't to say that I don't find The Old Dark House worth watching, but it is far from perfect and far from being Whale's best film.

But let's talk about the film's good sides first. First and foremost, there is Whale's sure-handed direction, with the typical atmospheric and adventurous use of shadow and light you will find complimented in every single review of one of Whale's films ever written. Whale is also enthusiastically avoiding the stagey feel that drags down many of the films of his contemporaries. While there is quite obviously only a very small number of sets, the director is not satisfied with just letting stiffly arranged actors talk at each other (which is the typical way an old dark house movie would be set up). Instead, there is much more movement on display than usual. A feeling of liveliness pervades the film, making it very much the stylistic opposite of the Poverty Row films that define the Old Dark House genre.

Also quite excellent is the acting. While I wouldn't call any of the characters very original even for 1932, the script does its best to give most of them a little more depth than usual or strictly necessary. Laughton's Porterhouse for example is not just an obnoxious loudmouth with a talent for making money, but someone who hides the pain the loss of his wife brought him behind it. His relationship with Gladys is not based on sex, but rather on a mixture of blunt honesty and real affection, and a way for Porterhouse to cope with the loneliness he feels after the death of his wife. The film doesn't show Gladys as a gold digger, and therefore doesn't feel the need to punish her for living her life. This aspect of the film has a the sort of proper grown-up feel to it Hollywood would soon have to give up for the trite moralizing the censor expected of it.

I have to say that I have my problems with the Gladys/Penderel love aspect of the script. It is not that they fall in love (Lilian Bond and Melvyn Douglas do have a good bit of chemistry going on between them), but really the absurd tempo in which it happens that bugs me. It is unavoidable in a film that takes place in a single night, yet still manages to strain my suspension of disbelief more than mad relatives in the attic.

The film's second and larger problem is also the script's fault. It is the nearly complete absence of a plot for much of the running time, as well as the movie's near Italian exploitation-like avoidance of really putting the motivations and elements it contains together to make something like a whole, until everything culminates in a badly set up, hyperactive finale.

What would ruin another film completely only drags The Old Dark House down from the chance of being a great film to being a good one. Whale's visual mastership and the excellent acting ensemble are a joy to watch, and I'm more than willing to overlook sloppy plotting in favour of mood and character depth.

Some modern viewers will also have their problems with the way the film shows its age - women belong in cupboards when it is getting dangerous, mentally ill people roll their eyes and giggle before they are going to kill you, etc etc. Like most art, The Old Dark House is a product of its time, for better and for worse, and like with most art, we have to live with this, or will probably not be able to relate to it at all.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

In short: The Day They Robbed the Bank of England (1960)

It’s 1901, and the cause of Irish independence needs money. So what better plan could there be than to break into the nigh impregnable Bank of England and steal the King’s gold bullion? Because a bunch of people with dubious Irish accents won’t be able to plan this sort of heist on their own, the cause’s upper echelons import US-Irish criminal mastermind Charles Norgate (Aldo Ray).

Norgate does need a bit of time to come up with a good plan, but does some fine preparation work breaking into a museum, befriending alcoholic sewer experts as well as Monty Fitch (Peter O’Toole) the upper-class sportsman type Captain of the part (insert correct military jargon here) of the Royal Guards responsible for protecting the Bank. He also finds time for the important business of romancing widow and boss of the cause’s spy operations Iris Muldoon (Elizabeth Sellars). Once the plan’s ready, there certainly won’t be anything that could go wrong, right?

John Guillerman’s The Day They Robbed the Bank of England is a surprisingly entertaining film despite a rather dubious script that doesn’t bother to flesh its characters out properly and includes a painfully awkwardly realized romance. This good impression is particularly surprising in a film that additionally has to try and pretend Aldo Ray is any kind of mastermind as well as really rather attractive, both things even I can’t bring myself to suspend my disbelief for.

Characterisation beyond presenting someone as a slightly whimsical comic relief figure isn’t the script’s forte. In fact, the only character here with an actual, interesting arc is O’Toole’s Fitch. As the actor plays him, he’s a man hiding his disgust at himself for being really not more than a tin soldier without anything going for him except his upbringing and his uniform under much alcohol and bluster who finds a chance to prove himself and grows through it. I’m not even sure how much of this is thanks to the script – whose other characters you could sum up with names like Whiny O’Malley without being unfair – and how much to O’Toole; I very much suspect the latter, O’Toole making much out of the tiniest hints of an inner life the script provides.

The plot tends to digress into the wrong directions too – the romance between Norgate and Muldoon and Whiny’s jealousy really doesn’t add anything to the film, and the last act turn-around of the Cause against the robbery doesn’t do much but add a distraction to what was until that point a half hour of very tightly directed heist suspense with the film cutting between Norgate and his buddies digging (well, and Whiny whining) and avoiding discovery, and Fitch slowly realizing what’s going on right below his feet.

Apart from O’Toole, it is Guillermin’s often clever – and always good-looking – direction that turns this one from just a badly written film without much to say or do into an interesting little heist movie. The director grabs every opportunity to create little moments of suspense and our old paradoxical buddy, mild excitement, that very aptly distract from the various failings of script and casting; though even he doesn’t manage to convince me to think of Aldo Ray’s love life with anything but a shudder.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Voodoo Island (1957)

Hotel tycoon Howard Carlton (Owen Cunningham) has discovered he’s the owner of a bunch of islands in the South Pacific he never knew about. Obviously, the most obscure of them is the perfect spot for a very special hotel. Too bad only one of the men in the first expedition he sent out to the island has returned, and he (Glenn Dixon) has come back acting a bit like a, well, a zombie.

Carlton still keeps to his grand hotel in the dangerous middle of nowhere plans, of course, so off he sends professional debunker and TV personality Phillip Knight (Boris Karloff) and assistant Adams (Beverly Tyler), a couple of his own henchpeople, the zombie guy and a doctor. It’ll take them quite a bit of time to reach the island next to the island they actually want to reach, for very mildly mysterious things happen around them. Because we can’t have nice things, our team also picks up greedy Martin Schuyler (Elisha Cook Jr.) and sub-Charlton Heston-like manly man Gunn (Rhodes Reason, three time winner of the “Best Name in the Biz” award), the latter of course so that Adams can lose her professional demeanour and BECOME A REAL WOMAN in his hairy arms. Screw you, the 50s.

After forty minutes, our protagonists finally do arrive on the mysterious island where they are beset by a bunch of particularly lame man-eating plants and a hilariously mixed-race tribe of Islanders whom nobody ever told they don’t actually practice voodoo in the South Pacific. After some time, things finally wrap up.

As a long-suffering victim of 50s low budget genre cinema, I’ve learned that one of the foremost abilities a viewer needs to get anything more out of many of these films than a nice little nap is to bring up the will to ignore one’s own yawns, try to identify anything of mild interest as fast as possible and cling to it through most of the film. After all, you don’t expect a director like Reginald Le Borg to keep you entertained without your help, right? If you do, you’ll be happy to hear this is a typical Le Borg joint, full of static shots that remind me of nothing so much as of the early days of sound film, and awkward editing that’ll at least teach you to appreciate the editing in Cannon films in the 80s.

On the scripting side, this suffers from the usual 50s obsessions with getting women back behind the cooking stove, rude assholes as the pinnacle of manhood, and not giving a shit about the little stuff like the fact that voodoo happens on rather different islands, or that there probably should something of interest happen in a movie from time to time. The dialogue’s, well, the dialogue is of the sort that leads to a wrily funny Karloff performance in which the great man has obviously decided the only way he can get through this is by delivering every single one of his lines as if he were talking to small, somewhat slow child. Which, given the performances of everyone here not named Karloff, Tyler or Cook, and what these poor people have to say, seems like a perfectly appropriate approach.

So in this case, making one’s own fun as a viewer mostly consists of giggling at Karloff’s and Cook’s performance, admiring how good the chemistry between Karloff and Tyler is, and developing respect for the dignity Tyler tries to give her character arc, such as it is, even though it’s a whole load of 50s bull crap. Later on, there are also the rubber plant monsters – whose best type seems to kill people by mildly bumping into them – and the South Sea tribe whose leader is played by a former Austrian cavalry officer to admire. It’s not much, but I honestly do take my enjoyment where I can find it in this sort of thing.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

In short: Death Wish 4: The Crackdown (1987)

After his very impressive killing spree in New York, serial vigilante Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) has retired from the business and is working as an architect in Los Angeles again. He has already acquired a new family in form of girlfriend and journalist Karen Sheldon (Kay Lenz) and her daughter Erica (Dana Barron). But don’t worry, Kersey will soon enough find a reason to murder again, for Erica dies of a cocaine overdose. After Kersey kills the dealer responsible, he is contacted by a mysterious millionaire (John P. Ryan) who convinces him to think bigger and stop the drug problem once and for all. To that goal he provides Kersey with arms and information about the two major LA drug operations.

Kersey’s soon in his serial killing groove again, despite the usual incompetent (George Dickerson) and corrupt (Soon-Tek Oh) cops on his trail. He even has a plan he must have read in a Punisher comic: provoke the two drug groups into a gang war, because that sort of thing has never cost innocent lives, right?

After the sheer insanity of Death Wish 3, J. Lee Thompson’s The Crackdown is a bit of a let-down in its insistence on being only general action movie dumb instead of completely out of its mind, and of being mildly tasteless instead of a Michael Winner film. There’s just no way a competent little action film without all too much that’s memorable can look exciting compared to the force of nature that came before.

Of course, I don’t really see how the sequel ever could have topped what was going on in part 3, particularly that film’s final half hour. This goes even more so with someone like Thompson in the director’s chair who seems somewhat lost in the kind of explosion fest this tries to be, coming more from a classical thriller background as he does, and sometimes looking as if he struggles to get quite as unsubtle as the material needs him to be. Consequently, the best directed scenes here aren’t the large shoot-outs or the roller rink massacre in the end, but the smaller skirmishes when Bronson fights only a handful of guys, because then the rules of the thriller apply instead of those of the 80s action film, Cannon style.

The Crackdown is still decent entertainment, mind you, for while Thompson isn’t putting his best foot forward, there’s enough basic competence here to keep the film moving, and such a mass of explosions, dead bodies and general carnage (if you just pretend you haven’t seen the true meaning of these words in Death Wish 3), the worst thing I have to say about it is that it doesn’t feature particularly memorable explosions or carnage.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

The Evil That Men Do (1984)

The ever so subtly named Doctor Molloch (Joseph Maher) has been working for quite a few dictatorships of one stripe or another - the film doesn’t seem to care which kind and just hates ‘em all, of which I approve. He’s the man to go to when you need a lecture on torturing somebody to death with a demonstration on a live subject, and everything else you might find particularly disgusting. Curiously, he doesn’t speak with the expected fake German accent but does British upperclass.

Anyway, one of Molloch’s latest victims is the journalist George. George’s death is the last straw for Hector Lomelin (José Ferrer), a psychologist heading a clinic for the victims of people like Molloch. Because he’s protected by many powerful men from many different countries, there’s no hope of the law of any country ever being any use against him, so Molloch has to die. Hector goes to a friend of George, the retired killer Holland (Charles Bronson) to hire him to kill Molloch. Holland is a bit reluctant at first, but a little session with a bunch of video tapes of Molloch’s – generally only called “The Doctor”, so he’s a trademark infringer too - surviving victims telling of their experiences changes his mind.

Holland has to act fast, too, for the country Molloch has been employed in for some time now tries to pretend it holds itself to the usual standards of human rights and wants the Doctor to disappear from their soil as quickly as possible.

Holland starts his investigation disguised as a tourist. To be less suspicious he needs a woman and a child for a bit of pretend family life. Because the script gods demand it, the family of choice are George’s widow Rhiana (Theresa Saldana) and her daughter, so nothing at all can go wrong here, and there certainly won’t be any kidnapping of daughters going on, no sir.

But seriously, while taking Rhiana being Holland’s own idea sounds utterly preposterous, J. Lee Thompson’s film does make rather good use of her, giving her the job to react like an actual human being to Holland’s cold acts of violence, with all the messy emotions at work you’d expect. For the people Rhiana sees Holland kill have murdered (or are at least co-responsible for this) her husband in the most cruel way, after all. While Rhiana certainly is coming to trust Holland, the expected somewhat icky love story between the two doesn’t really happen, and she’s certainly never coming round to seeing violence Holland’s way.

Of course, this not being a Deathwish movie, and it being directed by the good one of Bronson’s two core directors of this era, J. Lee Thompson (imagine a long rant about the misguided rediscovery of sleazoid hack Michael Winner here), Holland is never actually explaining how he sells his violence to himself via a self-righteous monologue or three; the closest the film ever gets is him telling Rhiana that he doesn’t see killing as she does, which doesn’t sound very satisfying, but does suggest he’s a man who never tried to look at himself from outside much. In fact, if anyone here is influenced by anyone else’s view, it’s probably Holland starting to see himself a little through Rhiana’s eyes.

The film does never clearly resolve this issue. This might come as a disappointment to some but I think it’s refreshing to find a film looking at a messy mix of differing morals and ideas of what is right and wrong and not feeling the need to have one character or the other come on over to the other’s side completely as a way to tell the audience what it is supposed to think.

Apart from that, this is a typical, calm Thompson film, lacking the showiness and the sleazy nastiness of a Michael Winner movie and putting actual competence and some moments of shocking violence that are indeed meant to be shocking in their place. Thompson’s probably one of the least flashy directors I know, but the man did know how to go from moments of calmness to short and sharp outbreaks of violence and action, and back to calmness in an organic matter like few others, never showing many a thriller and action director’s fear of the moment when nothing explodes.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Three Films Make A Post: So deadly, it may be the last movie you ever see.

The Veil (2016): Despite some very decent acting and a fine enough basic idea, director Phil Joanou quickly falls into the usual traps and trappings of modern mainstream horror: there’s the script that needs to isolate its characters but can only find the most stupid way to do it, a colour palette so muted the film’s greyish brown and boring to look at, and of course an idea of horror that loves jump scares so much more than anything else it can’t live without at least one every five minutes. And there’s obviously the lame twist ending too.

Witchville (2010): This SyFy movie was for some reason and to good effect shot in China, giving the affair some local visual influences on the production design. There are also Chinese actors in smaller roles. It’s basically a cheap sword and sorcery movie with Luke Goss enriched with mild wuxia elements, and as such Pearry Reginald Teo’s film pushes a lot of my buttons quite adeptly. It’s merrily paced, has a lot of perfectly decent Sword and Sorcery ideas about witches and the way people fight, adorably small armies, and is good, stupid fun all around.

The Mystery of Mr. X (1934): Edgar Selwyn’s film about a cracksman (Robert Montgomery) hunting a serial killer of policemen because he’s under suspicion himself (without much actual evidence, mind you) on the other hand is very slow going. It seems to have the reputation of being a hidden gem in classic Hollywood lover circles but I does very little for me. I’m a sucker for the “charming thief hunts worse criminals” kind of tale, but I could do little with Montgomery’s performance here, that for my tastes was more smug and self-satisfied than roguishly charming.

The romance angle doesn’t work for me either, the romantic plot moments and the mystery always getting in each other’s way while they’re only competent looked at separately. So we’re safely in the area of “boring competence” here again, and that’s something I have no love for in films made now or in 1934.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Past Misdeeds: California (1977)

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.

The US Civil War is over. The former Confederate Army is being dissolved, which leads to an army of men without money or food trying to get home passing through areas where they aren't exactly welcome anymore.

A man (Giuliano Gemma) who has given himself the pseudonym of Michael Random - after a brand of tobacco, the film informs us, not the plotting proclivities of Italian scriptwriters - is one of those men. While he is not a bad guy at heart (as proven by his heroic efforts in protecting a helpless kitten from being eaten), Michael is rather cynical about the war and his shadowy past in which (as we will learn much later) he was a gunman known as "California", so he would really rather keep to himself and cultivate his aloof pose. That's easier said than done when a very young, very much not cynical former soldier named Willy Preston (Miguel Bose) starts to follow Michael around like a loveable little puppy.

At first, the older man is annoyed by his new companion, but Willy's excessively kind nature and the vagaries of travelling together let the men grow close.

At the same time, a group of fur-coated bounty hunters lead by a certain Whittaker (Raimund Harmstorf) is prowling the ex-Confederate refugees as the easiest prey imaginable. Whittaker is in league with some Union generals who are just too eager to produce new victims for him.

Somehow Michael and Willy are always able to just barely avoid direct run-ins with Whittaker's group, but those guys are not the only danger awaiting them.

After some strokes of bad luck, Willy ends up dead with a bullet in his back for a horse he had to steal to keep alive. Michael decides to do the decent thing for once, and travels to the Preston farm, telling Willy's family that their son died as a hero in the war.

Willy's parents (William Berger and Dana Ghia) are just too willing to take Michael in as a kind of adoptive son, while Willy's cute sister Helen (Paola Bose) takes quite a shine to the man. It seems as if Michael could make a peaceful life for himself on the farm, but one day, when visiting the nearby town, more bad luck leads to Helen's abduction by Whittaker and his gang, who have just fallen out with their former friends in the military.
Michael swears to bring Helen back, whatever the cost might be.

Before director Michele Lupo ended his career with a string of shitty Bud Spencer vehicles, he made this excellent late-period Spaghetti Western.

It's a slow film mostly built on two of the most important fundaments of Spaghetti Western filmmaking - mood and mud. A large part of the film trades in a silent mood of melancholia. To produce that effect, Lupo drenches his film in muted autumn colours, fog and the aforementioned mud. It is quite a beautiful film to look at if you are a friend of the colder seasons, and definitely a visually well-composed one.

The film keeps the Spaghetti-typical nasty violence a bit more low-key than usual. This doesn't mean that there is no violence on display, rather Lupo uses violence and the undercurrents of violence as silently waiting below much of human interaction instead of throwing it into our faces all the time. Unlike many American western directors, he doesn't shy away from random death and the suffering of innocents, he just doesn't wallow in it more than is strictly necessary to get his points across.

The film's subtext isn't much friendlier than those of other Spaghetti Westerns, though. Lupo's film isn't as hopeless as some other films of the sub genre, but calling California's ending a happy one would be quite a stretch, unless every ending that leaves people still standing is to be called a happy one.

I was pleasantly surprised by the acting here. Gemma has never been one of my genre favourites (which mostly says that he isn't a Franco Nero or Lee Van Cleef) does an excellent job of keeping his character sympathetic despite his flaws and past and still makes you believe in both, while Harmstorf actually manages something you don't get to see too often, namely making it plausible why people would want to follow the main bad guy. He's quite a charismatic man in his own, selling-women-into-prostitution way.

You could now add the usual paragraph criticizing the treatment of Bose's female main character as an object used to keep the plot running, but I'm afraid this just comes with the Spaghetti Western territory. At least, Lupo is showing restraint when it comes to showing the indignities heaped upon her on screen. Although I am not sure that this really is the better way to go about it. Not showing the worst often just seems a bit cowardly to me, as if a film wouldn't trust its audience enough not to enjoy a rape sequence.

The film's screenplay isn't without its flaws anyway. While I approve of its preference for randomness in place of classic plot logic when building the film (and here it really feels like a writerly decision to keep closer to reality than the orderliness of tight plotting and not like incompetence), there are moments when the film just drags its heels a little too much for my tastes.

Of course, nobody in her right mind watches Italian films for the quality of plotting. Thankfully, the rest of the script isn't half bad.

California is one of the better late period Spaghettis I have seen, well worth watching for anyone interested in seeing a film of the genre that shows restraint without being defanged.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Some Scattered Thoughts About Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015)

It is somewhat ironic that you have to drag the Star Wars universe out of the hands of its original creator to actually get a watchable film taking place in it again, but then, creating something doesn’t necessarily mean understanding what’s best about it.

Sure, you could argue that a lot of the impact of J.J. Abrams’s film lies in the way it harnesses its audience’s nostalgia and general love for Star Wars and I couldn’t exactly call you wrong. However, you could just as well argue that doing this is actually what this particular film should do, respecting what the audience loved about the original trilogy and using it as the stepping off point for its variation of the original tale, instead of pretending to make everything new. And, while the film does perhaps repeat one plot beat of the originals too many, it gives most of its repeats little twists that to me feel very important. I don’t really need to explain why there’s more than just one difference between the scene between Kylo Ren and Han Solo and the parallel scene in the original trilogy nor why that’s important, do I? And while we’re talking about changes, to my eyes, it’s rather important and special too (in a good way) that Abrams also gives us a new entry in a beloved nerd mega-franchise whose heroes are a young woman and a young guy of colour, building on what came before and reaching towards inclusivity not as something to be prescribed in a dogmatic manner but as something that’s just normal (in all the good meanings of that word).

I also found myself decidedly happy with the film’s look which brings the Star Wars aesthetic back to its 70s SF paperback cover roots (that’s a compliment), its expectedly exciting action sequences (seriously, if you’re operating in the blockbuster world, good action sequences really should be a given by now, though it doesn’t seem to hurt Michael Bay his films only have crap ones), and the general air of the film very much caring about the tradition it stands in.

The Mark of Zorro (1940)

When young Diego Vega (Tyrone Power) is called back by his father from a life of duelling, making merry and a bit of soldiering in Spain to Spanish California, he finds out his Dad Don Alejandro (Montagu Love) isn’t the governor of the province around beautiful Los Angeles anymore. The just, fair and incredibly law abiding Don Alejandro has been replaced by the cruel, greedy, snivelling and all-around unpleasant Don Luis Quintero (J. Edward Bromberg) who shares the spoils of oppressing the peasantry with his not exactly beloved partner in crime and captain of the local soldiery, Esteban Pasquale (Basil Rathbone).

Diego is not at all happy with this sort of thing but he knows his father won’t approve of any extra-legal attempts to get rid of Quintero, Pasquale and their minions, so he decides to pretend to be the wimpiest fop ever to have spent time in Spain and secretly fight them under the guise of the masked rider Zorro in a campaign of finely placed needle pricks. If all goes to plan Zorro’s activities should bring Quintero to resignation, and get him to name Don Alejandro as his replacement to avoid having one bad apple replaced by another one. While he’s at it, Diego also finds the time to romance Quintero’s niece, the extremely virginal Lolita Quintero (Linda Darnell) out of love, as well as Quintero’s wife Inez (Gale Sondergaard) as part of his plans.

Rouben Mamoulian’s movie version of Johnston McCulley’s pulp character Zorro is pretty much the epitome of a great old-style Hollywood swashbuckling film. It’s crisply paced – having already established its characters and situation and started its hero on his mission by minute twenty-one – going from sharp, genuinely funny dialogue scenes to still exciting action to a cute romance and back again with aplomb and a generous spirit that should put a smile on everyone’s face.

Power is the perfect Zorro as well as the perfect Don Diego, diving in the pretend-foppishness with the same verve he shows when he (well, or his fencing double) is donning his costume, milking every fun little barb the script gives him for the best effect and – obviously, giving the sort of film this is and the time it comes from – cutting the appropriately dashing figure. I also find him genuinely likeable because he gets the rather difficult balancing act between charming and rogue just right and therefore never comes over as a self-loving prick. And we all know how Basil Rathbone excelled at being the villain in this kind of piece, as well as at the fencing.

Mamoulian is a director I really more connected with musicals, and wouldn’t have expected to be quite this good at letting the swash buckle. Though swashbucklers and musicals do of course share an emphasis on elegant movement, so perhaps I shouldn’t have been too surprised by how perfectly Mamoulian handles the material here. There’s a joyfulness of movement (and therefore physicality) not only to the action scenes but also to much of the dialogue sequences, with little in Mamoulian’s direction that seems routine or in the least bit willing to ever look boring or bland. The director’s hand is so strong, he even gets away with a central fencing match between Diego and Pasquale that doesn’t take place in an open space or very large room but in what amounts to a somewhat larger office room. The strong choreography by Fred Cavens - responsible for a lot of the more impressive looking fencing you’ll see in classic Hollywood films – for that decisive duel is pretty remarkable, too, using the cramped space brilliantly and inventively.

The whole thing’s also beautiful to look at, with sets that are certainly not authentic to the time and place they are supposed to belong to but which feel like the proper environments for the story taking place in them.  Arthur C. Miller’s photography is shadow-rich and atmospheric, never looking anything less than perfect for any given moment.

If all this sounds as if I enjoyed The Mark of Zorro a lot, and think it’s one of the best swashbucklers and adventure movies ever to have come out of classic sound film Hollywood, then I’ve done my job here exactly right.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

In short: The Silencers (1996)

Or, PM Entertainment has watched the X-Files and liked it so much Richard Pepin is directing this one himself. So this time around, it’s an alien would-be invasion responsible for car chases, random and not so random explosions, shoot-outs and general carnage. Jack Scalia is a luckless secret service agent who teams up with the lusciously haired Pleiadian (so PM entertainment has also read some David Icke or stuff in that vein?) space agent played by a lusciously haired Dennis Christopher he was supposed to cart to vivisection to fight the clone army of Lekin (Carlos Lauchu), a part-time Man in Black with an unbecoming ponytail (one supposes his hair isn’t as great as that of Christopher) and a love for hats bigger than his head. Will our heroes and a couple of submachine gun toting UFO journalists stop Lekin before his army of about ten people can walk through a dimensional portal it took the US government fifty years to build for them?

I don’t know about you, but I always wanted a best of series of alien conspiracy theory bits in my cheap yet loud action movies, so this is a bit like a dream come true, at least as long as the buddy cop movie elements don’t interfere too much, which they really don’t for most of the film’s running time.

Plus, how often does one have the opportunity to watch Jack Scalia shout “Noooooooo!!!” while shooting a humungous handgun that makes one wonder about his character’s penis nearly as much as the one Charles Bronson lugs around in Death Wish 3, while later on the female UFO journalist included for the mandatory romance (Lucinda Weist) actually shows a photo of him making his “Nooooooo!!!” face to her editor - to introduce the concept of action movie Scalia, I suppose.

And you really can’t complain about the action either. It comes fast, it comes furious, and it’s obvious that Pepin takes his responsibility of showing his audience as many stunts, explosions, and crashes as possible on his budget very seriously indeed, a dedication to the truly important things in filmmaking I wish more of today’s direct-to-video action directors would show.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

In short: Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943)

Boy, do Universal horror films from the monster mash era make me cranky. I’m not even going to get into my usual synopsis here, seeing as the film’s plot is a pretty strained exercise in pointlessness despite the script being written by Curt Siodmak, who really could do better. Not only are character motives utterly incoherent, they’re illogical actions are not even setting up anything that’s all that interesting to watch. It’s one thing to use “It’s in the script!” as a motivation when it at least gets a film somewhere interesting or exciting, but you don’t really need to go into any contortions of this sort when your film isn’t planning on going anywhere of note anyhow.

I suspect it’s that legendary disinterest of the Universal higher ups in using their horror franchises as anything more than an unloved money making machine that’s responsible for how little of interest or dramatic impact is actually happening in Roy William Neill’s – who also could do so much better - film. This certainly is not a film made by people giving much of a crap about making a good movie; to my annoyance, though not to my surprise, it’s not even one terribly interested in at least giving its audience what its title promises. Sure, Frankenstein’s monster (Frankenstein himself being dead and all, and his daughter Elsa alas isn’t a mad scientist because that might have been entertaining) and the Wolf Man do meet, and even have a thirty second fight without any reason the script actually bothers to set up for it in the end, but that leaves us with a film mostly dragging its feet for seventy minutes, particularly once Lon Chaney Jr.’s Larry Talbot leaves beautiful Wales and goes on an odyssey of very little interest.

To add insult to injury, Bela Lugosi’s (whom I love dearly) performance as the Monster that somehow – for a reason the film of course doesn’t bother to explain but just treats as a given – has lost much of its strength is absolutely dreadful, lacking the physical presence as well as the pathos Karloff gave the role. He’s a good aggressive grunter, though.

And you know what? That’s really the kindest thing I have to say about this thing.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Death Wish 3 (1985)

After various acts of vigilantism in other cities, mass-murdering vigilante Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) returns to his native New York (in large parts represented by London, England, because of course it is) to visit his old friend Charlie. Alas, Charlie is murdered by a the multi-racial (hey, we’re for equal opportunity slaughter, one can’t help but might imagine the film saying) gang dominating the poor area he’s living in right before Kelsey arrives.

The police finds Kersey gun in hand over the dead body, and so decide he’s clearly the killer, arrest him, and torture him a bit. This is the most enthusiastic law enforcement in this film will ever get about fighting crime before the grand finale rolls around, so cherish the moment. This approach to police work naturally causes our mass-murdering vigilante hero to complain about the police ignoring his constitutional rights. Lucky for him, police Lieutenant Shriker (Ed Lauter) is one of his biggest fans (when he doesn’t punch him in the face), so our hero only has to spend a night or so behind bars where he makes the acquaintance of what will become the movie’s main bad guy. What are the odds! Afterwards, Shriker presses Kersey to go out and do his vigilante thing, otherwise he’ll rot in jail – as if our hero wouldn’t go on a killing spree in any case.

Which he does, helping out various elderly tenants, getting them killed while he’s at it, putting in five minutes for the most perfunctory romance plot ever written into a film just to get the woman killed too (as if Kersey would need that as a motivation for a bit of a rampage), and so on, and so forth, until the whole thing culminates in twenty minutes of mind-bogglingly bizarre carnage.

I’ve repeatedly gone on record about how much I loathe the first two Death Wish films, their ethics, their tone, and their shitty direction by crap artist Michael Winner. Death Wish 3 on the other hand is one of the greatest gifts the silver screen ever made to humanity, a conglomeration of stupidity, inanity and full-out insanity that just barely resembles anything you’d call a movie but that tickles every damn fancy I might even imagine having, reaching the kind of insanity you’ll otherwise only find in a very select group of Italian action movies made in the 80s.

It is often very difficult to discern which parts of Death Wish 3 are actually meant to be funny, and which just are. Because frankly, everything except the rape scenes (which the film really could have gone without, but Winner never seems to have been able to pass up on a rape or three in his movies) here is funny in one way or the other – be it Bronson’s “just a day in the office” facial expression when he shoots down a whole horde of “creeps” (as everyone in the film calls the gang members) with a large machine gun, or the way chief bad guy Fraker (Gavan O’Herlihy) calls in more bodies for the grand finale via a phone call to what I can only imagine to be “1-800-Dial-A-Henchhorde”. Said bodies, by the way, arrive in form of a motorcycle gang that must be rather conflicted, seeing that a lot of them are wearing Nazi paraphernalia while other members are black.

No matter, though, for Charles and various characters we have never seen before but who are clearly inspired by all the violence he has inflicted on the creeps – who complain about Bronson’s harsh “justice” with statements like “They killed the Giggler, man. They killed the Giggler!” – blow away all comers. Cue scenes of elderly people cheering while a whole bunch of people (the Internet suggests a body count of 78, 52 of which are Bronson’s responsibility, and I don’t think the Internet is exaggerating this time) are mowed down, and buildings catch fire. It’s a thing you really needs to see to believe, and even then you just might not be sure you’re not hallucinating.

I’m very fond of Bronson’s decision to attempt to go for a performance even more deadpan than his usual style, making Kersey the kind of guy whose reaction to the death of his grand-daughter-aged new girlfriend (who basically throws herself at him after they’ve exchanged two sentences, perhaps three) is just the same he shows when he shoots a guy (the Giggler) in the back during an absurd trap involving a camera bag and ice cream – none whatsoever. Of course, that’s probably the only way anyone involved in this thing could be expected to keep a straight face.

What else is there to say? So much, for there’s really no minute going by here that does not contain a new helping of insane action movie nonsense of the highest order. It’s beautiful, ridiculous and enough to justify the existence of all five Death Wish films.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Past Misdeeds: The Screen at Kamchanod (2007)

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.

In 1987, two movie projectionists running one of the mobile movie screens typical of rural Thailand of the time were hired to screen a film in an empty field lying right in the middle of the jungle.

At first, there didn't seem to be an audience, but sometime in the middle of the film, people suddenly appeared in the field only to disappear again without a trace a little later. The projectionists returned to Bangkok and have themselves seemingly disappeared.

Now, twenty years later, the physician Dr. Yuth (Achita Pramoj Na Ayudhya) has become obsessed with the story. Yuth is convinced that the occurrences at Kamchanod are the proof for the existence of the paranormal, namely ghosts, and that if he could only repeat the screening of the same film in the same place, he could gather this proof for all the world to see and admire him.

With the help of a former journalist and his wife the Doctor manages to discover the whereabouts of the missing projectionists - one of them is now a mentally disturbed old man deathly afraid of something an amulet he holds onto for dear life is supposed to protect him from, spending his life seemingly permanently chained to a hospital bed. The other died shortly after the original screening in a fire in his own Bangkok cinema.

Nonetheless, the mysterious film has somehow survived the fire. Yuth decides that a pre-screening is in order and watches the film together with his bruised and battered girlfriend Orn (Pakkaramai Potranan), his research assistant and his wife and the young homeless junkie Roj (Namo Tongkumnerd) who has been quite helpful in the search for the film with his knack for opening locks. The film itself isn't in the best of states and doesn't make much sense anyhow, but watching it seems to open a door.

The small group finds itself no longer alone in the cinema. They are beleaguered by apparitions always keeping just outside of view, until something seems to break through the ceiling, and everyone finds themselves in their beds, without a clue of what truly happened to them or how they even left the cinema.

After that experience, things quickly deteriorate. Everyone in the small group is again and again frightened and attacked by ghosts, until people crack and begin to die. The only hope for survival and sanity seems to be the repeat screening at Komchanod.

The supernatural however, isn't the largest problem the characters have to cope with. There is something terribly wrong in the relationship between Yuth and Orn, so wrong that the young woman tries to seek Roj's help - with less than pleasant results for her.

The Screen at Komchanod is only the directorial debut of Songsak Mongkolthong, but it is quite an achievement. For the first part of its runtime, the film disguises itself as pure, scare-oriented horror cinema without much interest in commenting on the human condition (or the weather). I certainly wouldn't have held it against the film if it had stayed that way, because Mongkolthong is very adept at timing the scary ghost stuff just right, and this type of horror is mostly about the timing. Also on the plus side when it comes to the scares is Mongkolthong's scarce use of the dreaded jump and whoosh cuts. There are some of them in the film, but not enough to get annoying.

The ghosts themselves are very well done too, keeping well inside the traditions of Thai horror cinema, but tending to the more grotesque side of that tradition, granting the film more than one moment of finely disturbing visuals. It is certainly interesting to add that Mongkolthong isn't shy at all about showing us a lot of the ghosts, often even in good light, something that could have gone terribly wrong with cheap or unintentionally ridiculous looking creatures. Fortunately, the special effects crew is more than up to the task and delivers some very memorable creatures (personal favourites: the ghost with the hand problem and the fat white guy).

During the course of the film, it turns out that just scaring and disturbing his viewer isn't all Mongkolthong is interested in - the farther the plot comes along, the more emphasis is put on the complete emotional and moral brokenness of its characters who are all abusers and abused of one type or the other, with special interest on the thinness of the line that can divide the abused from the abuser.

This theme isn't exactly uncommon in Thai horror cinema, but the other genre films interested in it I have seen believe in things like hope and redemption. The Screen isn't that optimistic - the only character who can be called innocent dies after going through an even more terrible ordeal than the rest of them, while the plot's only survivor certainly doesn't deserve his survival in the sense that he has learned something from what has happened to him or tries to better himself, but only survives to perpetuate the supernatural cycle anyway.

The Screen at Kamchanod's take on horror as a combination of ghosts, the grotesque and subtle misanthropy is one I'd like to see more of from Thai film in the future, although the disquieting effect this style of film can have is certainly not for everyone.
Right now, I feel a strong need to watch something fluffy, with unicorns.